Wolff/Resnick v. Baran/Sweezy

needle_in_the_haystack Reader Justin asked about the work of Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick, who make some arguments that “run directly counter to the arguments about monopoly that you have advanced in your book. So my question is, what do you make of Resnick and Wolff’s thesis?”

As Justin notes, Wolff and Resnick argue that:

Monopoly power, when achieved, does not necessarily contribute to an expanding economy, nor to a stagnating one. Our value examples show the many ways that monopolies can and do contribute to a variety of different economic conditions: more competition and less competition; more and less technical innovation; inflationary spirals; depressed real wages and consumption spending; unevenly developing depart¬ments; simultaneously falling real wage and rising subsumed class incomes; and so on.

By way of background, Wolff and Resnick are living economics professors.  Baran and Sweezy are deceased economists and authors of Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order, which I judge to have been the single most powerful (though extremely outdated in a few spots) work of social science in the 20th century.

Before saying a few things about this comparison, I would mention that Richard Wolff is close to Monthly Review, the magazine founded by Paul M. Sweezy in 1949, so the conflict here isn’t huge.

Nonetheless, Wolff and Resnick do claim to be correcting and improving upon Monopoly Capital.

I don’t buy it.

First of all, Wolff and Resnick begin by making a false distinction.  “Monopoly power, when achieved, does not necessarily contribute to an expanding economy, nor to a stagnating one,” they write, implying that Baran and Sweezy thought that monopoly power does have automatic and necessary results.  That, of course, is untrue.  Baran and Sweezy repeatedly argue in Monopoly Capital that monopoly capitalism tends toward economic stagnation.  But they also explain in detail how various things like military spending, the expansion of “the sales effort” (i.e., marketing), and new, epoch-making inventions can and do arise and lead to boom periods.  In other words, Baran and Sweezy don’t disagree with Wolff and Resnick’s observation that monopoly power can lead to a variety of contingent outcomes.

None of that, of course, means that the tendency toward economic stagnation isn’t real.  It’s quite real, as we know all too well at the present moment.  It just isn’t automatic.  So, Wolff and Resnick’s first premise is an error, and that’s usually a rather poor way to start a supposedly new and important social science analysis.

To my eye, Wolff and Resnick also do something that Baran and Sweezy rejected:  Wolff and Resnick think that “Marxian value theory,” if perfected, could explain how the whole world works via a series of mathematical “economic” equations.

Baran and Sweezy held no such illusions.  They saw what Marx said about the theory of economic value as an important and realistic way of tracking relationships between workers and business owners.  But they took what Marx said about value as neither a means of calculating the whole of reality nor even the last word on the topic of economic categories.  In fact, one of their prime arguments was that the triumph of corporate capitalism rendered much of what Marx had done with value formulas (most of which lies in the unfinished second and third volumes of Das Kapital) outdated.  Wolff and Resnick, in contrast, seem to take “what Marx said” about value theory as somehow the innermost core of Marxism.

What is and isn’t essential to Marxism is, of course, a topic we could study for months.  Suffice it for now to say that I find Baran and Sweezy’s emphasis on power and history and institutional structures rather than Marx’s cryptic (and unpublished-by-Marx) value formulas to be not only far more effective as a framework for understanding how the world works, but also far closer than Wolff and Resnick’s jumbled neo-orthodoxy to the essential core of Marx’s way of thinking.

And certainly neither Wolff nor Resnick, nor the both of them together, have ever produced a piece of work that comes within a country mile of matching the realism and revelatory power of Monopoly Capital.

By the way, if you’re interested, I think Chapter 8 of this book provides the single best explanation of what’s central and what’s peripheral in the work of Karl Marx.

I also don’t think Baran and Sweezy are perfect, either.  For one thing, I believe they adopted the concept of “monopoly capitalism” out of an irrational desire to boost Lenin, who used the term, as a social theorist.  But Baran and Sweezy then have to turn around and devote pages of their book to explaining that “monopoly” (rule by one) isn’t really the norm of the corporate capitalist order.  Oligopoly, rule by a few, is.

Personally, I much prefer the term “corporate capitalism” to “monopoly capitalism.”  It’s more descriptive of the core of the problem, requires no special pleading, and is quickly understood by people who encounter it.  And I also see no point in trying to keep V.I. Lenin at the core of what the left is trying to do.  Fuck that guy, in fact.  He probably wasn’t as bad as Stalin, but neither was he anything like a democrat.  He also loved and imposed Taylorism.

If we’ve learned anything from the failure of Socialism 1.0, it is that democracy is neither a toy nor a mere bourgeois trick.  In fact, its extension and improvement is the whole idea of Socialism 2.0.  If we are to have any chance at using that to save our sacred, sorry asses from onrushing capitalist eco-tastrophe, we can’t afford any more “vanguard” jive and Stalinist dead-ends.  As Gandhi and MLK showed, the means are not separable from the ends.

16 Replies to “Wolff/Resnick v. Baran/Sweezy”

  1. Nice to see a post on your take on Marxist theory. A new and interesting twist. I agree with you on “Leninism” but what is to be done?! 🙂

  2. Heh, I’ve always preferred Rosa Luxembourg to Lenin anyway. After her death, Lenin (ungraciously) included in his praise of Rosa Luxemburg a list of all the issues he thought she was “wrong” in. Ironically, on at least two of those issues (the national question and the bureaucratic undemocratic tendencies of the Bolshevik party) subsequent events in the 20th century showed that Rosa was right after all and Lenin was wrong! And probably this current economic crisis increases that number to three (the accumulation of capital).

    Even Paul Sweezy’s own earlier book, The Theory of Capitalist Development, states that Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital was wrong because it would mean that capitalism is impossible if it does not expand to another new market each and every single year to find new consumers for its surplus production or else it would collapse immediately. But of course she didn’t mean such a simplistic exaggeration as that! But capitalism does indeed have that tendency and will (and has?) collapse sooner or later if it cannot keep temporarily postponing its contradictions by expanding to new markets. It’s like saying Rosa was wrong in saying that an independent Poland was impossible because one was created after World War I. But of course she didn’t mean that it was impossible for there to ever be a piece of paper like the Treaty of Verseilles that had written on it that Poland was an independent country! But Poland was and is indeed not truly independent of the interests and dictates of the great powers, and the tendency of petty nationalisms to insist on forming small breakaway “independent” nations (like the one of Luxembourg itself!) instead of uniting all workers to fight for their common interests is indeed a divisive and reactionary one.

    (The Theory of Capitalist Development also cites and quotes Stalin. OK, it’s understandable, it was 1941 and the USSR was “our” ally in the war, but still.)

    Most of the more recent socialistic economic analysis I have seen seems pretty good but completely ignores Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital, implying by omission that the idea that capitalism needs to expand into and exploit noncapitalistic consumers or else it will be brought down in a crisis has been thoroughly refuted and so need not be mentioned.

    Most criticisms of Rosa Luxemburg seem to be what I call “I went to school one day last week”-type objections. When I was a teenager I overheard my mother arguing with my teenage sister. At one point my mother stated that my sister never went to school anymore and always skipped school. My sister bellowed indignantly, “I went to school one day last week!” Hence conclusively refuting that she “never” went to school!

  3. Thanks, Michael

    What I like about the Monthly Review tradition is that it is real-world and readable. I look around me and I see that the tendency towards monopoly is real. That it might go some other way and on occasions does, is kind of academic. Having said that, I think that Wolff has made a great contribution with his Capitalism Hits the Fan presentation.

    As for the whole Lenin Stalin legacy, I think that Michael Parenti makes a valid distinction between “pure socialism” and the “siege socialism” that actually developed in Eastern Europe.

    Democratic socialism is always preferable but what if your socialist territory contains a substantial anti-socialist element and is surrounded by, or even invaded by hostile forces? Should siege socialists simply surrender the fight?

    On the other hand, from what I’ve read, the Soviet Union collapsed in part because the absence of participatory democracy allowed an oligarchy committed to lining its own pockets to take over the party and eventually buy up state enterprises cheap. Meanwhile, non-party people, fed propaganda for decades, were more disposed to believe shining myths about consumer capitalism than the hollowed-out myths of a corrupt party apparatus. In my view this was a historical tragedy.

  4. Justin, I have sympathy for people trying something for the first time. And democracy was still rather new for everybody back in the Socialism 1.0 days.

    But it seems clear to me that socialists must wait until we have a movement of the majority of the population, even if that involves pain and suffering along the way. Look at Chavez and Morales, who are doing things the right way. “Siege socialism” is a bit of a cop-out, IMHO. The Leninists were no longer willing to lose, once they took over. That’s a recipe for disaster. And socialists can’t afford disasters. As Daniel Singer said, Stalinism turned Eastern Europe against socialism for generations, if not forever.

    And, whatever the nuances of history, our job now is to learn the necessary lessons from it. The USSR was an epic fail, by design.

    I wasn’t trying to say Wolff hasn’t done anything valuable, by the way. I hope that was clear. But he hasn’t improved on Baran and Sweezy, either. Not even close.

  5. P.S. I think another factor with Wolff and Resnick is that they were both trained as “Marxist economists.” That usually means transferring the abstract logic and technocratic methodology of mainstream economics training onto the “value theories” that Marx wrote about in his unfinished manuscripts.

    Baran and Sweezy not only held a different, more historicist, institutionalist view of economics (one closer to Veblen and Schumpeter and, yes, Marx), but also were pretty deeply involved in actually running the wartime planned economy in the early 1940s. Both of those things allowed them to figure out what parts of Marx mattered and what parts were dated.

    I’m not sure many later “Marxist economists” ever absorbed that lesson.

  6. Regarding “siege socialism” Lets not forget there will always be counter-revolution and reaction to any progress towards socialism. So its not like “siege socialism” is some special condition. Popular socialism will have to fight back against this reaction. Somebody once said socialism must be democratic or it won’t be socialism. Of which I agree.

  7. Justin,

    I appreciate the engagement and your politics, but your opinion is that of someone who has not read enough literature to make what are more than simplistic, virtually ad hominem critiques of someone’s work that you are not familiar with. Wolff and Resnick are founders of an influential journal called Rethinking Marxism read widely around the world. They have been two of about seven key faculty at the University of Massachusetts Department of Economics Ph. D. program, that has trained hundreds of radical and Marxist economists since 1973. They are well published and widely read.

    One of their students, Bruce Norton wrote a 250 page dissertation about 30 years ago that carefully examined and took apart Baran and Sweezy’s weaknesses. Monopoly Capital is a great work, but it is a contribution to history of thought and not a book that Marxian political economy scholars consider to be any kind of standard for theory. On value theory, you frankly don’t know what you are talking about. Look up and read, for example, a paper in History of Political Economy (the leading journal in history of economic thought) from 1982 or 1983, co-authored by Wolff, Antonio Callari, and Bruce Roberts. They address the long standing technical flaw in Marx’s value theory (one of several varying solutions that emerged around that time). Read the many works of Bruce Roberts, a Resnick WOllf student, who has artfully addressed a number of conceptual issues in Marxian value theory.

    In sum, you need to read more before you draw sweeping conclusions. You are weighing into territory where the best minds have spent decades working on the conceptual issues that you wield glibly. For the record, Monopoly Capital does contain a tendentious macroeconomic theory, caveats that you cite aside. It makes inexorable a series of claims about the need for inherently profligate deux ex machinas (e.g. military spending, advertising, etc.) that, for them, would never in the end succeed. Nothing in their book anticipated the scope and dynamics of the neoliberal era, with its bubbles and de-embedding of the state structures B and S contended were essential to avoid crisis.

    If you want to go to two sources, there is a book of essays in honor of Sweezy and Magdoff – edited by Resnick and Wolff – published in 1985, with the title of Rethinking Marxism: Struggles in Marxian Theory. Also, a new book edited by Goldstein and Hillard, Heterodox Macroeconomics: Keynes, Marx and Globalization, reviews some of the theoretical ground that has evolved on left macro theory since the days of Monopoly Capital.

    Don’t get me wrong, Monopoly Capital was a brilliant book for its time, one that mobilized and helped create the 40 year generation of radical economists in the U.S. who all grew up on that. I still assign it to undergraduates, in the same way the The New Industrial State is a book that you can learn from. But it is what it is, and shouldn’t be put on a false pedastal.

  8. Just so you’ll know, Justin, this Michael, who writes in about the glories of being “well published and [ahem] widely read” is not me, Michael Dawson.

    Judging from the email tags I see, I think it is a character named Michael Hillard, from the mighty University of Southern Maine.

    I consider this last reply to be excellent proof of Russell Jacoby’s main argument in _The Last Intellectuals_.

    I also consider it to be close to dishonest at the intellectual level. Nobody here made any kind of ad hominem attacks on anybody. And as to what _Monopoly Capital_ says and predicts, let’s just say one wonders if Professor Hillard has actually read the book in question. He certainly offers no direct evidence to support his dismissive claims about its flaws and the supposed improvements upon it.

    I’ll say it again: In my estimation, academic Marxist economics of the last 3 or 4 decades has been a nearly complete waste of energy. With some important exceptions, this weird sub-discipline remains stuck on “value theory,” as the world churns madly and momentously on. Talk about missing the boat on real events! I’ll put what Sweezy has written since MonoCap up against the whole raft of technical “refinements” put out by the “rethinkers,” any day and all day. If half these people had adopted the way of thinking of Baran and Sweezy, Marxists might actually have produced a few more decent contributions to public knowledge.

    Don’t let academic bullies like this guy shout you down. Go take a look at the academicians’ work, then compare it to the essays Sweezy and others published in Monthly Review after 1966. Which approach has had its finger on the system’s pulse and which has whiffed completely (and unreadably)? It won’t take you long to decide…

    While you’re looking, you might make some notes on what and when Sweezy and Magdoff and Foster actually predicted, versus what the academicians predicted. The former have always said an over-accumulation of capital/stagnant investment outlets would be the system’s core problem. Along the way, in the late 1970s, Sweezy and Magdoff predicted that this core problem would lead to a financial explosion that would shift the system’s workings. Round about 1988, Sweezy also predicted that ecological problems might prove to be the system’s Achilles’ Heel.

    What were the “rethinkers” arguing right up through the 1980s? That an UNDERSUPPLY OF CAPITAL was the main problem, due to “the falling rate of profit,” an outdated and irrelevant concept thoroughly skewered by Sweezy, Magdoff, Foster and others over the years.

    To the extent they have produced anything worth reading, the “rethinkers” have done so by abandoning their own models and predictions.

  9. Mr. Dawson,

    I don’t know how anything I said counts as bullying. Your attack is indeed ad hominem, because you claim that all Marxists academics in the who do political economy have been participating in 40 years of a pointless project. That is just, frankly, bull shit. I wasn’t engaging in bullying, I was just pointing out what Justin ought to read before making claims about Resnick and Wolff based on a what appears to be a passing glance at an extensive body of work.

    And you reveal your own lack of knowledge in your implication that (1) that all Marxian political economy is a homogeneous project. There are probably three or four camps on Marxian value theory, their is the neo-Ricardian school sparked by Sraffa, their are post-Modern Marxists of the Negri and Hardt genre, and others. I mean, are you lumping the French Regulation school, Wolff and Resnick, the Bowles, Gordon, Weisskopf “Harvard” school, Sheikh and Mandel, Analytical Marxists, World Systems theorists, James Crotty, Itoh, David Harvey, Hard and Negri together? Most of these folks don’t subscribe to a falling rate of profit theory. If you read Steve Cullenberg’s early work, you’d see a thorough critique of the falling rate of profit theory.
    (2) My main point is that if you want to criticize someone, read them carefully first. If you want to characterize them in a sweeping statement, you ought to read the appropriate literature. I appreciate blogs like this create a forum for folks to discuss and debate Marxian ideas. I think it is appropriate for someone familiar with a body of work to point out that another’s claims lack grounding in the texts they purport to make claims about. If that makes me a bully, so be it. I will leave you folks to it.

    All of this back and forth aside, I think leftists attacking each other over differences in value theory is besides the point of our times: to build again a left that can speak to the masses at a time of great popular disappointment with capitalism as a system, with the way in which corporate power is threatening the world, and how we can build social movements that put alternatives to capitalism at the center of our imagination. I think that is something that all posting on this blog can agree on.

  10. Well, Mike, just so you’ll know, I am a political economist trained by John Bellamy Foster. I have a Ph.D. It’s in sociology, but I assure you I’ve read all the stuff you mention in depth.

    I stand by what I’ve said, and I’ll leave it to Justin to go see what’s weak and what’s powerful.

    And as an additional comment, excluding Itoh (a Sweezian) and world systems theory (which you and I both know is at least as close to Baran and Sweezy as it is to the “value theory” fetish), yes, I would dismiss all those thinkers, except as useful examples of what not to do. Add together all those people and they don’t come close to the explanatory power of Baran and Sweezy’s way of working.

    But again, that’s just my own conclusion. It’s up to each person to look and decide for themselves, however anybody defines “well published,” “widely read,” and other such academic malarkeyisms/threats to outsiders.

    And I do agree with your closing sentiment. To the extent you mean it and are jettisoning the value theory gambit, welcome to the party…Better late than never, as Baran and Sweezy might have said.

  11. I have read this exchange and find it both stimulating and somewhat confounding. Michael Dawson, I am a bit surprised at your pronouncements. You say you are a sociologist trained by John Bellamy Foster (who is happy to be identified with Monthly Review) who would, I believe, no be willing to reduce all Marxian economics (as you say, practiced by academics) to simply a pursuit of or guided by value theory. Nor, would I say it is accurate, to reduce all academic arguments by implying they are produced by thinkers confined to the academy. I can safely say that the best and worst analysis I have read have been written by sociologists. And so we are clear I am both a sociologist and economist, receiving advanced degrees in both disciplines. I began as an economist, and as an undergraduate trained by a young Rick Wolff, went to graduate school, abandoned economics after several years teaching because I felt it was too constraining a discipline and became a sociologist. And my email tag would reveal, I now edit a journal in which the likes of Foster as well as Wolff/Resnick and others have published and debated.

    The point made, and still valid, by Michael Hillard is that your persistent juxtaposition of writers as “academic” versus “real thinkers”, for example when you say something like one should compare what “Sweezy and Magdoff and Foster actually predicted, versus what the academicians predicted” is as if in some fantasy world the former are not academics in the true sense of the word. This is laughable if it were not more than a bit misleading. Of course Justin should continue to struggle with the texts, but all the texts, read over and over before pronouncing one way or another.

    I am confident that in his “training” of you John Foster would have expected you to understand that Marx is both an analyst of his time and in that role he taught us a way of exploring our material conditions and considering our circumstances in the face of our histories. And he would have taught you that Marx was also a theoretical writer who tried to understand the way the system worked in order to anticipate both how it will progress and if possible how to change it.

    As Hillard has made clear, Monopoly Capital (and it is a cheap shot to question whether Hillard read the book–I can assure you he has, as have I many times) was the book of its time to chart a way to understand the circumstances of the day, much as Marx had. And much as one can easily dismiss those doctrinaire Marxists who insist that only if it is in Marx is it valid, we must take a critical look at what Baran and Sweezy wrote. Monopoly Capital does not describe advanced capitalism today much as the form of industrial capitalism in the period of Marx’s writings do not accurately describe our current realities.

    There is much to be learned by considering the debates and disagreements among like-minded scholars who disagree over both small and large principles. It does no good to slavishly endorse one over the other, and it will only impede and not promote the intellectual and political agenda informing all of these writings. To set up this false requirement that only when one is “jettisoning the value theory gambit” can one “join the party” is to undermine the larger social change agenda we all pursue. Unless, of course, your only interest is in promoting a very narrow perspective as a self-appointed gatekeeper.

  12. David, I am stating my view, which is that the debate over value theory was a waste of time and was won by Sweezy, who argued that it was a distraction from the categories that reflected reality, rather than “what Marx said.”

    And I am not arguing that Monopoly Capital is perfect and timeless. But I am arguing that it’s basic analysis is what allowed Sweezy and Magdoff to predict the financial explosion before anybody else did. IMHO, I also think that history has ended the over- versus under-accumulation argument quite convincingly in Baran and Sweezy’s favor.

    Much of this has to do with the value of Veblen, which Baran and Sweezy embraced, contrary to almost all other Marxist economists.

    In any event, as I originally said, all this could go on for as long as one cares to go on. I find Baran and Sweezy quite vindicated, and would hope that others, including those who fancied themselves their correctors, might admit as much. But that’s their choice.

    Meanwhile, not only did I mention that there are important exceptions to what I was saying, I’m also not the one who came on here talking about being “well published” and “widely read,” all while thinking that means a technical paper in the RRPE.

    And I am uninterested in attacking the value-theorist Marxist economists, such as they are. They are free to pursue their perpetual rethinking. Maybe one day one of them will write a book that contains as much as Baran and Sweezy’s did and does, or start another Monthly Review, something that provides vital analyses of burning isues that my mom enjoys reading.

    Until then, solidarity!

    As to John Foster, he would indeed agree with your sentiments about reading everything and tracking the nuances, if one were studying for a Ph.D. or writing a thesis. This is a blog, and its business is providing provocative views and access to important information trails, briefly.

    I stand, once again, by what I’ve said. And I do wonder how much of the emphasis on technical value-theory equations stemmed from the constant pressure against doing straightforward, publicly comprehensible, large-issue Marxian work within our educational institutions. Jacoby had a major point, IMHO.

  13. Michael and others: I’m glad to see everyone come out from behind the rocks and reveal themselves a bit. I still see the other Michael painting those who do Marxian political economy with an un-fair broad brush so as to dismiss it. My own take on value theory has been that of an applied Marxian historian. Can you say capital exploits sellers of labor power, or not? If you want the analysis of the labor process, crisis and macro-instability, ideological delusions that start with commodity fetishism, or insightful analysis of unproductive labor and capital, all themes elaborated across the three volumes of Capital, then you are a little silly if you reject Marx’s value theory. The lingering problem was the transformation problem, and I am glad that a variety of folks solved it effectively. I don’t give value theory any more thought; since graduate school 25 years ago, I haven’t published and only rarely read anything on the topic.

    That take on Marx has guided my practical and theoretical work for many decades. So, Michael wants to keep having a fight about one’s legitimacy to speak on this blog, and his premise is one pays fealty to Baran and Sweezy. My taste as a Marxist is to like what Wolff and Resnick does, but it is smart and clear on its own terms, and can and is used. If this means my time spent doing detailed class labor histories or critiques of radical economists whose understanding of labor history is out of date are wastes of time, again, so be it. For the record, in my own career and that of many if not most radical economists, we do popular teaching and writing. For instance, this year I devoted a month to reading all the scholarship on the Employee Free Choice Act, wrote a lengthy policy brief, two op eds, and spent a lot of time speaking and lobbying our senate and congressional delegation.

    So, I stand by my reading and interpretation of Marxian theory as much as my namesake does. I leave you folks on this blog to do more interesting things.

    If you guys are interested in the crisis, spend real time reading the work of James Crotty, of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at UMass. He has detailed analytical (but practical and readable) critiques and assessments of the origins, characteristics, and required radical policies. Crotty has forged a synthesis of Marx, Keynes, and Minksy and his recent applications are profound, and useful politically.

    Rick Wolff’s Capitalism Hits the Fan film is a great overview of the crisis, widely seen and accessible to a non academic audience.

  14. I am getting over the flu and yesterday was the first day I could write in a week, so I apologize for the perhaps excessive fervor. I don’t retract the argument, but we are certainly all on the same side here, of course.

    But here’s a positive question for Michael Hillard:

    What in Baran and Sweezy has been improved upon or corrected by any of the thinkers you’ve mentioned? I would be genuinely glad to know, believe me. please tell us.

    And not to be too snarky again, but “a synthesis of Marx, Keynes, and Minksy” — throw in Veblen, and that sounds like Sweezy to me!


  15. Michael, you make an interesting but I fear false juxtaposition between “scholarship” and comments on a blog. Here is my dilemma: unless contributors feel compelled to be informed any blog or list (I moderated one for many years) degenerates into all sorts of statements that generate noise and crowd out more knowledgeable contributors.

    As I recall, one thing that started all this was a request by Michael Hillard that contributors be more informed before they make grand statements. That you and he don’t agree on how to view Baran/Sweezy versus Wolff/Resnick is fine, and an informed discussion helps us all. But if you (or anyone) wants to be dismissive of a position I would hope at least it is based on substance and not assertion.

    You are correct in bringing Veblen into the discussion, just as I view many who claim to be Marxists as really left Weberians. As you must know, it is as much a disservice to what Baran and Sweezy together and separately have written to reduce them to “Marx, Keynes, and Minksy? ? throw in Veblen” when what is important both for Baran/Sweezy and Wolff/Resnick is how they move the analsys forward.

    This sort of blog has value when it engages its readers and when it engages the works which inform our common and disparate interests. You don’t need to be working towards a PhD to justify that effort.

    Some can and do ask for help understanding ideas–and that is great. But when the discussion crowds out the possibility of debate and disagreement by fiat then it becomes noise or demagoguery and increasingly uninteresting.

  16. I certainly don’t mean to crowd out anybody. Especially not comrades and allies.

    But I think the notion that somebody is working on going beyond Baran and Sweezy because Baran and Sweezy are (in some un-named way) fundamentally off track is itself something that’s quite cavalier and dangerously out-crowding. That’s why I have expressed my views, which I’ve spent years developing and questioning, so strongly.

    I’m not at all somebody who wants to enshrine Monopoly Capital as the new centerpiece in the old “what Marx said” religion. But, really, I do stand by my assertion that MonoCap was the #1 social science book of the century, Marxist or not.

    The core argument is that corporate capitalism is a refinement and strengthening of classical capitalism, and , therefore, a heightening of the power of capital at the point of production and everywhere else. The giant firm is a more rational and institutionally potent capitalist. Hence, surplus-value tends to expand too fast for its own good, as judged by the standard of perpetual accumulation.

    The results of this core process include an ever-expanding marketing race, constant growth of government spending even as government spending is demonized and conflicted and restricted in form, unending need for foreign enemies, progressive impoverishment of true public sector needs, progressive degradation of culture, and a very strong tendency toward economic stagnation and recession/depression.

    A decade after MonoCap, in the work that every thinking expert admits was utterly seminal, Braverman explained how the same core process described by Baran and Sweezyt affects the division of labor, the character of jobs, and the geographic and social distribution of employment, all with the explicit acknowledgment by Sweezy that Braverman’s analysis was 100 percent part of the MonoCap argument, and that it was a mistake to leave it out of the 1966 book.

    Five more years later, Magdoff and Sweezy were perhaps the first observers of the coming of the financial explosion, which they explained as a direct consequence of the core problem of the over-accumulation of capital/under-supply of new productive investment opportunities.

    So, excuse me, but I take umbrage when somebody says they are “rethinking” (meaning preparing to transcend) this remarkable and radically under-appreciated legacy. How long have Wolff and Resnick been in this “rethinking” mode? A long time. What’s their result? Not much.

    In my opinion, the Baran and Sweezy legacy needs embracing and extending and refining, not belittling “rethinking,” however well-intended. Personally, I find it very hard to imagine that the model is somehow going to be improved upon by ruminating on technical considerations about the rate of profit, which, as Sweezy always said, is a mere statistical artifact that nobody in the real world pays any attention to, and which does not encompass the actual trends and problems in the allocation of money and assets by capitalists. The system runs on gross profit margins, gross profits, cash flow, managerial and marketing expenses (the latter now recognized as just another form of investment), and ROI. ROI is judged against money spent this period, not total firm assets. Property incomes are profit plus interest income plus elite “salaries,” plus rent, plus a slew of new kinds of fees and fines and derivative flows, etc. So profit is only one part (and a diminishing one at that) of what the overclass seeks and receives, and the Marxist rate of profit (profits divided by the value of fixed assets) is not only a partial diagnostic, but also one that plays basically no role in the way the world actual works. In the business process, the overall value of past capital investments is treated as a sunk cost, and its overall value is in any event a matter of mere speculation, due to the difficulty of valuing assets in an age of stagnation, mega-mergers, and wild financial shenanigans. What matters in practice is extracting maximum ROI, in whatever form, out of existing cash flows. Increasingly, doing that means playing Wall Street games, for the very reason Magdoff and Sweezy diagnosed in c. 1979. It’s all best tracked by thinking in the Marxian-Veblenian (and generally powerful and historically sensitive anthropological) terms of economic surplus, not “rates of profit” or any other profit category from the RRPE arcanery.

    OK, that’s my view of things. It’s my opinion, and it is merely one person’s conclusion, albeit one I’ve worked very hard to reach.

    Again, I’m not trying to shout down anybody. I’m just trying to make readers aware that what many academic Marxists say about Baran and Sweezy may be very highly questionable, and that Baran and Sweezy might be rather seriously under-valued by many of their own friends, not to mention their enemies.

    And [WARNING] I’m not trying to make this next point personally: I certainly appreciate the difficulties of finding any kind of toehold for any kind of radical work in academia. Yet, I also remain quite convinced of a point Noam Chomsky often makes: Sometimes, you can tell how close to the truth a particular type of work is by how anathema it is within the existing institutions. I submit that, had any mainstream Harvard economist produced a body of work with half the diagnostic and predictive power that resides in Paul M. Sweezy’s thought, that person would have her or his own department at Harvard, and would be famous. As we all know, Baran and Sweezy’s work was hardly mentionable in academia, let alone the object of a competitive bidding war for incorporation there. Certainly, most of that is because of its unabashed Marxian nature. But neither was MonoCap ever the basis for even a miniature academic niche industry. To my eye, that’s because clear, direct, accurate, generally comprehensible Marxian economics that explains the big picture is, was, and until we have a new new left, remains, verboten in our universities. MonoCap is too on-target and too effective to be allowed in the door, even in the hinterlands. I would wager there’s not another school of thought that suffers from such a huge gulf between its inherent utility and its degree of access to the teaching system.

    That’s my view. Meanwhile, as somebody once said, let a hundred flowers bloom…

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