Capitalism

15
Jun


By Xuan Tan
People’s Daily
June 07, 2021

General Secretary Xi Jinping profoundly pointed out at the Party History Study and Education Mobilization Conference that the belief in communism and the belief in socialism with Chinese characteristics is the political soul of the Communists and the spiritual pillar for the Communists to withstand any test. He emphasized the centuries of the party. The course of struggle and great achievements are the most solid foundation for us to strengthen our confidence in road, theory, system, and culture. The words of the general secretary are loud, firm and heroic, deeply revealing the inner relationship between socialism and communism, and a century of struggle and struggle, and demonstrates the perseverance and perseverance of the Chinese Communists to advance along the only correct path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Over the course of a hundred years, many people and things are still vivid, and many shouts and singing are still in my ears. After going through the wind, frost, snow and rain, and creating miracles on earth, we have the obligation to comfort the martyrs with victory: Socialism has not failed China! We have the responsibility to let history tell the future: socialism will not fail China!

One

The accidents of history often carry certainty. In the 1840s, ancient China was opened by the powerful ships and guns of the great powers, and China’s destiny has since entered an unprecedentedly miserable situation. In almost the same era, in Europe where capitalism was in the ascendant, Marx and Engels began their great explorations of scientific socialism and the cause of human liberation and progress.

After the Opium War, China was poor, weak, and at the mercy of others. “Forty million people shed tears, where is China in the End of the World”. This poem by Tan Sitong is full of blood and tears and hesitation. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, the Reform Movement of 1898, the Boxer Movement, the Revolution of 1911… the Chinese struggled in the dark to find a way to save the nation and survive; reformism, liberalism, social Darwinism, anarchism, pragmatism… all kinds of Western theories and doctrines have been Introduce as a prescription to strengthen the country and enrich the people. I have tried every plan, but they have repeatedly come to nothing. Every road was explored, but he was battered. “Countless heads and blood, poorly bought fake republics.” Great powers were rampant, warlords fought, and the people were in dire straits. The First World War pierced the seemingly beautiful illusion of capitalist civilization. Countless people with lofty ideals use their lives and souls to ask questions again and again: Where is the way out for China? Where is the hope of the nation?

The blast of the October Revolution brought Marxism-Leninism to China. This is a great historical agreement, this is a solemn historical promise! The shackles of feudal society for thousands of years are too tight, and the old cannot be replaced without a thorough social transformation. The oppression imposed by imperialism on the Chinese is too heavy, and it cannot be resisted without the mighty power of mobilizing tens of thousands of toiling people.

Li Dazhao praised: “The alarm bell of humanity is ringing! The dawn of freedom is here! Try to see the future of the world, it must be the world of red flag!” Chen Duxiu declared: “The political revolution in France in the eighteenth century, and the social revolution in Russia in the twentieth century. People are all swearing at them; but later historians will regard them as the key to the change and evolution of human society.” The young Mao Zedong exclaimed: “The time has come! The tide of the world is getting more urgent! Dongting The gate of the lake moved and opened! The mighty new thoughts have surged on both sides of the Xiangjiang River!”

In 1920, when it was warm and cold, the 29-year-old Chen Wangdao spent two months in the firewood room in his hometown of Yiwu, Zhejiang, and forgot to eat and sleep for two months. For the first time, he translated the “Communist Manifesto” completely, and the first 1,000 copies were sold out immediately. By 1926, it was reprinted and republished 17 times. The advanced and unyielding Chinese have chosen Marxism as the way to save the country and the people after repeated comparisons and repetitions, as their unswerving ambition.

In July 1921, the Communist Party of China, a political party with Marxism as its guiding ideology and communism as its goal, was born, with faith, entrustment and dreams in mind, resolutely in the rising sun of Shanghai Shikumen and the blue waves of Nanhu Lake in Jiaxing set sail. Since then, the fire of socialism has been ignited in the East, and China, once troubled and hopeless, has a direction!

Two

After the failure of the Great Revolution, the Communist Party member Xia Minghan was arrested in Hankou and wrote a farewell to his wife before his heroic death: “Tossing his head and shed blood, Minghan has long been taken care of. Everyone needs what he needs, and the revolutionary cause will be passed on from generation to generation. Hong Zhu Keep the thoughts of each other, and the red cloud hopes for perfection. Persevere in the revolution and follow my will and vowed to pass on the truth to the world.” In those stormy years, like Xia Minghan, he did not regret nine deaths for his communist belief and firmly believed in the revolutionary ideals. There are more than tens of thousands of martyrs who have realized it. Once they recognized their beliefs and doctrines, they never hesitated or wavered, and did not hesitate to water the “communist blossoms” with youth and blood. continue

Category : Capitalism | China | Socialism | Blog
24
Mar

Comic on “The Opium Ban in China” from the weekly De Amsterdammer, December 2 1906

Toward an Understanding of China’s Historical Political Economy and Its Relationship to Contemporary China

By Ken Hammond
MROnline

March 3, 2021 – The contemporary political economy of the People’s Republic of China, the nature of the Chinese system, has been the subject of much discussion and debate in mainstream academic, media, and political circles, as well as on the left.1 Since the end of the 1970s, China has pursued policies of “reform and opening” (gaige kaifang,) to develop its economy, a process that has resulted in the massive growth of production, China’s emergence as a major player in global trade, and the lifting of around 800 million people out of poverty, while at the same time generating serious problems of inequality, corruption, and environmental stress. At the heart of this project has been the decision by the Communist Party, originally under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping, then carrying on through successive changes of leadership, to use the mechanisms of the marketplace to develop the productive economy. How should this situation be characterized? Is it capitalism, state capitalism, market socialism?2

One can only make sense of contemporary China with a clear understanding of the country’s economic history.3 A historical materialist analysis of the nature of China’s political economic order over the course of history, especially the last thousand years, can illuminate critical aspects of the present. A serious engagement with the complexities of China’s historical economic systems must take into account knowledge about the Chinese past that was not available to Karl Marx, allowing us to go beyond the vagaries of the Asiatic mode of production and transcend the limitations of earlier theorizations of the “sprouts of capitalism” (ziben zhuyi de mengya) by historians in China in the 1950s and ’60s.4 Applying categories and modes of analysis derived from Marx’s Capital and other writings to the understanding of China’s early modern history and exploring the relevance of that history to contemporary China are the main tasks of this essay.

From the period of the Tang-Song transition, roughly the ninth and tenth centuries, China developed a commercial capitalist economy that encompassed a largely urban manufacturing sector and also reshaped agricultural production in much of the empire. A ruling class evolved that was a hybrid of the long-established landowning elite and the early modern commercial stratum, which managed the economic affairs of the country through a blend of private agency and the operations of the imperial state. Through much of China’s imperial past, the state maintained a complex, not always consistent, role in economic affairs, seeking both to support the livelihood of the people, promote prosperity, constrain the pursuit of private profit, and regulate the functions of markets. This historical relationship has inflected the developmental itinerary of the country and is reflected in the deployment of the theory and practice of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and the “socialist market economy.”

II
China’s recorded history goes back more than 3,200 years and can be usefully divided into four major periods: (1) antiquity, from the beginning to the end of the third century BCE; (2) the middle period, from the second century BCE to the tenth century CE; (3) the early modern period, from the tenth through the eighteenth centuries; and (4) modern China, from the end of the eighteenth century to the present.5 Throughout antiquity, China was ruled by an elite of warriors who controlled the land, collecting tribute from their subjects. Economic activity was largely locally self-sufficient, with a small layer of high-value elite trade centered on the royal court(s). Over time, a professional administrative elite developed, often referred to as the literati because of their mastery of the written records of history and their shared literary culture. These administrative officials were often rewarded with grants of land, and over time these became hereditary property, though the sovereign always retained ultimate ownership.6

The middle period began with the unification of the empire and the consolidation of the imperial system under the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). During this period, private ownership of land became a practical reality, while in theory the empire continued to belong to the ruler, now the emperor. Many officials in government service built up significant land holdings, while other great families emerged based on their local acquisition of agricultural assets. This was a complex, long-term process, with large landed estates forming by the later Han, which became the underpinning for the political influence of the landowning class. Over the centuries of the middle period, China developed an aristocratic elite, with quasi-official status and a strong transmission of wealth across generations. China went through periods of internal division after the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220, and then renewed imperial unification under the Sui and Tang dynasties (589–618 and 618–907, respectively). Recruitment for service in the imperial government, which was largely pursued through a process of recommendation by serving officials, allowed established families to place their sons in careers in official life and perpetuate the power of the elite. This aristocratic class effectively dominated the state, which served to promote and protect its interests.7

Alongside the estates of the great families there was a sector of agricultural production organized around small holders, managed through a system of land tenure maintained by the imperial state, which regularly redistributed land to male heads of village households who, in turn, were taxed in grain and cloth products. The system varied in its specifics in different parts of the empire but was a clear example of state oversight and management of economic activity. This oversight also extended to urban centers and markets. Imperial law restricted the number and location of markets and established strict controls over their operations. This blend of aristocratic estates, state-managed distribution of small holdings, and tightly regulated urban markets was not in any sense feudal in its economic or political organization and functioning.8

By the ninth century, changes began to emerge in China’s cities and countryside. The Tang dynasty had been deeply shaken by the An Lushan Rebellion in 755–63, and the long-established aristocracy began to decline. But even before this, the very success of the imperial system of economic management had given rise to contradictions within the economy. Its potential for growth and development exceeded the parameters of state oversight, and new forces began to push beyond the regulations of the government. The power of the dominant elite and the control of urban space by official overseers weakened. Markets began to spread outside areas that had been designated and monitored by the state and to become more integrated into residential areas. Private ownership of farmland expanded beyond the great estates and the land subject to government distribution. The imperial court maintained a role in the production and distribution of certain key commodities through government monopolies, a practice that had its roots centuries earlier in the Han dynasty. But the overall role of the state in economic affairs declined, just as the class basis of imperial rule was itself dramatically altered.

In the later ninth century, further rebellions destroyed much of the elite’s wealth and the institutional infrastructure that had legitimized and maintained its power and prestige. Rebellious peasants attacked the estates of the wealthy, killed many members of the elite, and burned the documents that validated their status and power. The fall of the Tang in 907 led to the chaos of the Five Dynasties and Sixteen Kingdoms, with small regional states contending for power through chronic warfare and further destruction, until the Zhao brothers established the Song dynasty in 960 and reunified the empire over the ensuing decade. The warfare of this age of transition cleared the way for the further transformation of China’s economic and political order. The old aristocracy was gone, but the ownership of land and the control of agricultural production was still the primary mode of wealth accumulation.9

As the Song dynasty (960–1279) consolidated its power, a new elite emerged, formally based on the attainment of merit through education, but practically grounded in the riches produced on their estates. These provided the resources to support the education of sons in the Confucian classical traditions that formed the basis of the imperial civil examination system, which became the main vector for entry into service in the bureaucratic administration of the empire. Not all landowning families produced examination graduates or government officials. The class of landed wealth was more extensive than the group of literati who staffed the imperial state, and relations between members of this class in their capacity as local elites or as representatives of imperial power could be complex. This larger class is often referred to as the gentry, and the overall landowning class may be designated, perhaps somewhat awkwardly, the literati/gentry.10

This reconfiguration of the landholding elite took place in tandem with the further development of a commercial economy in China. Markets proliferated, woven together by networks of long-distance trade spanning the empire and linking up with larger global systems. New forms of capital valorization and accumulation took shape within an increasingly monetized economy. Division of labor both within productive enterprises and on a regional geographic basis, as well as ongoing technological innovation, drove enhancements in productivity. New developments in banking and financial operations facilitated the mobilization and allocation of capital.11 This is the key to understanding the early modern period that began in the ninth and tenth centuries and continued, with dramatic advances and retreats, throughout the following eight hundred years, across several dynastic transitions, down to the beginning of the modern era at the turn of the nineteenth century. It is the emergence of China’s early modern capitalist commercial economy and its development over the following years that must be understood to enable a better comprehension of China’s recent pursuit of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” continue

Category : Capitalism | China | Blog
20
Apr

Fromm was famous for this critique of consumer capitalism as well as for his penetrating studies of authoritarianism. He was a significantly influential figure on U.S. radical thought during the second half of the 20th Century.

 

By Kieran Durkin
Marxist Sociology Blog

April 15, 2020 – Erich Fromm (1900-1980), who passed forty years ago March of this year, was a leading Marxian sociologist who made considerable contributions to U.S. sociology and to U.S. Marxism. Best known for books such as Escape from Freedom, The Sane Society, and The Art of Loving, Fromm’s account of authoritarianism and critique of mid-twentieth century “consumer capitalism” influenced millions both inside and outside of academia.

Prior to arriving in the U.S. in the early 1930s, amidst the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fromm, who was raised in an orthodox Jewish family, was a central member of the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. There he worked alongside Max Horkheimer on an interdisciplinary project that sought to mix social philosophy with the empirical social sciences. Having studied sociology under Alfred Weber (Max Weber’s less famous brother) at Ruprecht-Karls-University in Heidelberg, followed by training at the famous Berlin Psychoanalytical Institute, Fromm was given central responsibility for the Frankfurt institute’s attempts at synthesizing sociology and psychoanalysis.

One of the first manifestations of this synthesis was an innovative study of manual and white-collar German workers, which was led by Fromm along with Hilde Weiss. Through use of an interpretative questionnaire, Fromm and Weiss were able to reveal that while the majority of respondents identified with the left-wing slogans of their party their radicalism was considerably reduced in more subtle and seemingly unpolitical questions – pointing to what Fromm argued was evidence of an “authoritarian” character.

Although the study itself wasn’t published until the 1980s, under the title The Working Class in Weimar Germany – this was at least partly due to the breakdown in Fromm’s relationship with Horkheimer – it is clear that it shed considerable light on what transpired in Nazi Germany, as well as telling us something about the nature of the left-wing authoritarianism.

Escape from Freedom, Fromm’s most famous work, was published in 1941, after he had left the Institute (Fromm was effectively pushed out to make way for Theodor Adorno in 1939). The central theme of Escape from Freedom was that Europe, which had hitherto been marching towards greater and greater forms of political freedom, and even towards socialism, over the course of the preceding centuries, had capitulated to fascism. Fromm wanted to try to understand this process in order to explain how and why it was that Nazism had taken hold in Germany, and why so many individuals came to support Hitler.

Like most Marxist analyses at the time, Fromm focused on the role of the lower-middle classes. He argued that the decline of their socio-economic status in the face of monopoly capitalism and hyperinflation alongside the defeat Germany suffered in the First World War and ensuing Treaty of Versailles had a deep psychological effect, removing traditional psychological supports and mechanisms of self-esteem.

In an expanded Marxian account, in which ideas and emotions played an important mediating role, Fromm identified deep feelings of anxiety and powerlessness in this class, which Hitler was able to capitalize on, with his sadomasochistic messages of love for the strong and hate for the weak (not to mention a racial program that raises “true-born” Germans to the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder), which provided the means of escape from intolerable psychological burdens experienced on a mass basis.

Fromm’s next engagement with Marxism came in the form of his The Sane Society (1955). The book is notable for its criticism of Marx, particularly of his account of revolution. Fromm argued that the famous statement that concludes The Communist Manifesto, that the workers “have nothing to lose but their chains,” contains a profound psychological error. With their chains they have also to lose all those irrational needs and satisfactions which developed because these chains were worn. Because of this, Fromm argued that we need a concept of “revolutionary humanism,” of revolution not only in terms of external barriers, but internal ones too, one that deals with the roots of sadomasochistic passions, sexism, racism, and other forms of character that aren’t necessarily going disappear immediately in a new society.

The Sane Society also contained an extended critique of mid-twentieth century U.S. capitalism, which for Fromm was an essentially bureaucratic form of mass-consumer capitalism. As part of this critique, Fromm put forward the notion of the “marketing orientation” to describe what he saw as the newly dominant form of personality that was associated with this stage of capitalism. A social psychological refraction of the Marxian notion of alienation, the marketing orientation for Fromm was one in which people experience themselves and others as commodities, literally as something to be marketed.

Fromm’s critique of contemporary capitalism continued a year later in The Art of Loving, perhaps his best-known work. Not the most obviously socialist or Marxist book (in fact, Herbert Marcuse criticized Fromm for supposedly betraying radical thought, and becoming a “sermonistic social worker”) Fromm was nevertheless adamant that “[t]he principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible,” and thus that the criticism of love (which, as he understood it, referred to the antithesis of narcissistic, racist, sexist and other forms of interpersonal relations) was also a criticism of capitalism and the ways in which it mitigated against genuine forms of love that would manifest in a more human society. Fromm believed that we must analyze the conditions for the possibility of realizing love and integrity in the present society and seek to strengthen them.

It is also during the 1950s that Fromm joins American Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation and seeks to rewrite its program. The resulting document, although rejected for this purpose, was published as Let Man Prevail (1958). It marks out Fromm’s distinctive form of Marxism, which he here calls “radical humanism” and characterizes as a democratic, humanist form of socialism. This analysis is deepened in 1960, in May Man Prevail?, an analysis of Soviet Communism that was intended to influence the move to unilateral disarmament during the Cold War.

Fromm’s most significant contribution to U.S. Marxism, however, was Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Containing the first full English translation of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, prefaced by a few short essays by Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man helped to popularize Marx in the U.S., as well as counteract some of the more common misinterpretations of Marx.

Fromm’s contribution to Marxism continued during the 1960s, with the publication of Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962), in which Fromm developed his Freudo-Marxism social psychological theory of social character. Fromm was also responsible for the publication of Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium (1965), an impressive global collection of humanist Marxists and socialists, largely from Eastern Europe (including many from the Yugoslav Praxis school) but also from Africa and India.

In the years that followed, Fromm was a prominent figure in the anti-War left, influencing Martin Luther King Jr. and writing The Revolution of Hope, an attempt to influence the 1968 Presidential election. Aware of criticisms of such apparent social democratic reformism, Fromm protested that “if one is not concerned with the steps between the present and the future, one does not deal with politics, radical or otherwise.” He also wrote, Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970), The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and To Have or To Be? (1976), all of which further developed his distinctive Freudo-Marxian inspired humanist sociology.

Looking back on Fromm’s legacy today, at a point where sociologists and Marxists are increasingly returning to his work, it is clear that what Fromm left us is a nuanced form of Marxian sociology that can help account for the relations between economic life, political movements, and inner emotional dynamism that underpin many of the changes that we are witness to in the current world situation. In a situation that is rapidly moving into dangerous territory, in what promises to be a recession as deep as 1929, we could do worse today than to look to Fromm for assistance.

Kieran Durkin is Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellow at University of York, and Visiting Scholar at University of California Santa Barbara, where he is conducting the first dedicated study of the Humanist Marxist tradition. He is author of The Radical Humanism of Erich Fromm, and editor with Joan Braune of Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future.

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Philosophy | Theory | Blog
4
Apr

Women bang pots and pans to show their support for the emergency services dealing with the coronavirus outbreak © Atul Loke/Panos Pictures

 

The novelist on how coronavirus threatens India — and what the country, and the world, should do next

By Arundhati Roy
Financial Times

April 3, 2020 – Who can use the term “gone viral” now without shuddering a little? Who can look at anything any more — a door handle, a cardboard carton, a bag of vegetables — without imagining it swarming with those unseeable, undead, unliving blobs dotted with suction pads waiting to fasten themselves on to our lungs?

Who can think of kissing a stranger, jumping on to a bus or sending their child to school without feeling real fear? Who can think of ordinary pleasure and not assess its risk? Who among us is not a quack epidemiologist, virologist, statistician and prophet? Which scientist or doctor is not secretly praying for a miracle? Which priest is not — secretly, at least — submitting to science?

And even while the virus proliferates, who could not be thrilled by the swell of birdsong in cities, peacocks dancing at traffic crossings and the silence in the skies?

The number of cases worldwide this week crept over a million. More than 50,000 people have died already. Projections suggest that number will swell to hundreds of thousands, perhaps more. The virus has moved freely along the pathways of trade and international capital, and the terrible illness it has brought in its wake has locked humans down in their countries, their cities and their homes.

But unlike the flow of capital, this virus seeks proliferation, not profit, and has, therefore, inadvertently, to some extent, reversed the direction of the flow. It has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and struck hardest — thus far — in the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.

The mandarins who are managing this pandemic are fond of speaking of war. They don’t even use war as a metaphor, they use it literally. But if it really were a war, then who would be better prepared than the US? If it were not masks and gloves that its frontline soldiers needed, but guns, smart bombs, bunker busters, submarines, fighter jets and nuclear bombs, would there be a shortage?

Night after night, from halfway across the world, some of us watch the New York governor’s press briefings with a fascination that is hard to explain. We follow the statistics, and hear the stories of overwhelmed hospitals in the US, of underpaid, overworked nurses having to make masks out of garbage bin liners and old raincoats, risking everything to bring succour to the sick. About states being forced to bid against each other for ventilators, about doctors’ dilemmas over which patient should get one and which left to die. And we think to ourselves, “My God! This is America!”

The tragedy is immediate, real, epic and unfolding before our eyes. But it isn’t new. It is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years. Who doesn’t remember the videos of “patient dumping” — sick people, still in their hospital gowns, butt naked, being surreptitiously dumped on street corners? Hospital doors have too often been closed to the less fortunate citizens of the US. It hasn’t mattered how sick they’ve been, or how much they’ve suffered. continue

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | India | Blog
24
Mar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Members of the Wayuu ethnic group watch as a U.S. army helicopter arrives for a joint exercise in the “Tres Bocas” area in northern Colombia on March 13, 2020. JUAN BARRETO / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

By William I. Robinson
Truthout

March 23, 2020 – What does a virus have to do with war and repression? The coronavirus has disrupted global supply networks and spread panic throughout the world’s stock markets. The pandemic will pass, not without a heavy toll. But in the larger picture, the fallout from the virus exposes the fragility of a global economy that never fully recovered from the 2008 financial collapse and has been teetering on the brink of renewed crisis for years.

The crisis of global capitalism is as much structural as it is political. Politically, the system faces a crisis of capitalist hegemony and state legitimacy. As is now well-known, the level of global social polarization and inequality is unprecedented. In 2018, the richest 1 percent of humanity controlled more than half of the world’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent had to make do with just 4.5 percent of this wealth. Such stark global inequalities are politically explosive, and to the extent that the system is simply unable to reverse them, it turns to ever more violent forms of containment to manage immiserated populations.

Structurally, the system faces a crisis of what is known as overaccumulation. As inequalities escalate, the system churns out more and more wealth that the mass of working people cannot actually consume. As a result, the global market cannot absorb the output of the global economy. Overaccumulation refers to a situation in which enormous amounts of capital (profits) are accumulated, yet this capital cannot be reinvested profitably and becomes stagnant.

Indeed, corporations enjoyed record profits during the 2010s at the same time that corporate investment declined. Worldwide corporate cash reserves topped $12 trillion in 2017, more than the foreign exchange reserves of the world’s central governments, yet transnational corporations cannot find enough opportunities to profitably reinvest their profits. As this uninvested capital accumulates, enormous pressures build up to find outlets for unloading the surplus. By the 21st century, the transnational capitalist class turned to several mechanisms in order to sustain global accumulation in the face of overaccumulation, above all, financial speculation in the global casino, along with the plunder of public finances, debt-driven growth and state-organized militarized accumulation.

Militarized Accumulation

It is the last of these mechanisms, what I have termed militarized accumulation, that I want to focus on here. The crisis is pushing us toward a veritable global police state. The global economy is becoming ever more dependent on the development and deployment of systems of warfare, social control and repression, apart from political considerations, simply as a means of making profit and continuing to accumulate capital in the face of stagnation. The so-called wars on drugs and terrorism; the undeclared wars on immigrants, refugees, gangs, and poor, dark-skinned and working-class youth more generally; the construction of border walls, immigrant jails, prison-industrial complexes, systems of mass surveillance, and the spread of private security guard and mercenary companies, have all become major sources of profit-making.

The events of September 11, 2001, marked the start of an era of a permanent global war in which logistics, warfare, intelligence, repression, surveillance, and even military personnel are more and more the privatized domain of transnational capital. Criminalization of surplus humanity activates state-sanctioned repression that opens up new profit-making opportunities for the transnational capitalist class. Permanent war involves endless cycles of destruction and reconstruction, each phase in the cycle fueling new rounds and accumulation, and also results in the ongoing enclosure of resources that become available to the capitalist class.

Criminalization of surplus humanity activates state-sanctioned repression that opens up new profit-making opportunities for the transnational capitalist class.

 
The Pentagon budget increased 91 percent in real terms between 1998 and 2011, while worldwide, total defense outlays grew by 50 percent from 2006 to 2015, from $1.4 trillion to $2.03 trillion, although this figure does not take into account secret budgets, contingency operations and “homeland security” spending. The global market in homeland security reached $431 billion in 2018 and was expected to climb to $606 billion by 2024. In the decade from 2001 to 2011, military industry profits nearly quadrupled. In total, the United States spent a mind-boggling nearly $6 trillion from 2001 to 2018 on its Middle East wars alone.

Led by the United States as the predominant world power, military expansion in different countries has taken place through parallel (and often conflictive) processes, yet all show the same relationship between state militarization and global capital accumulation. In 2015, for instance, the Chinese government announced that it was setting out to develop its own military-industrial complex modeled after the United States, in which private capital would assume the leading role. Worldwide, official state military outlays in 2015 represented about 3 percent of the gross world product of $75 trillion (this does not include state military spending not made public).

But militarized accumulation involves vastly more than activities generated by state military budgets. There are immense sums involved in state spending and private corporate accumulation through militarization and other forms of generating profit through repressive social control that do not involve militarization per se, such as structural controls over the poor through debt collection enforcement mechanisms or accumulation opportunities opened up by criminalization.

The Privatization of War and Repression
The various wars, conflicts, and campaigns of social control and repression around the world involve the fusion of private accumulation with state militarization. In this relationship, the state facilitates the expansion of opportunities for private capital to accumulate through militarization. The most obvious way that the state opens up these opportunities is to facilitate global weapons sales by military-industrial-security firms, the amounts of which have reached unprecedented levels. Between 2003 and 2010 alone, the Global South bought nearly half a trillion dollars in weapons from global arms dealers. Global weapons sales by the top 100 weapons manufacturers and military service companies increased by 38 percent between 2002 and 2016.

Global weapons sales by the top 100 weapons manufacturers and military service companies increased by 38 percent between 2002 and 2016.

 
The U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan precipitated the explosion in private military and security contractors around the world deployed to protect the transnational capitalist class. Private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of those wars exceeded the number of U.S. combat troops in both countries, and outnumbered U.S. troops in Afghanistan by a three-to-one margin. Beyond the United States, private military and security firms have proliferated worldwide and their deployment is not limited to the major conflict zones in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. In his study, Corporate Warriors, P.W. Singer documents how privatized military forces (PMFs) have come to play an ever more central role in military conflicts and wars. “A new global industry has emerged,” he noted. “It is outsourcing and privatization of a twenty-first century variety, and it changes many of the old rules of international politics and warfare. It has become global in both its scope and activity.” Beyond the many based in the United States, PMFs come from numerous countries around the world, including Russia, South Africa, Colombia, Mexico, India, the EU countries and Israel, among others.

Beyond wars, PMFs open up access to economic resources and corporate investment opportunities — deployed, for instance, to mining areas and oil fields — leading Singer to term PMFs “investment enablers.” PMF clients include states, corporations, landowners, nongovernmental organizations, even the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. From 2005 to 2010, the Pentagon contracted some 150 firms from around the world for support and security operations in Iraq alone. By 2018, private military companies employed some 15 million people around the world, deploying forces to guard corporate property; provide personal security for corporate executives and their families; collect data; conduct police, paramilitary, counterinsurgency and surveillance operations; carry out mass crowd control and repression of protesters; manage prisons; run private detention and interrogation facilities; and participate in outright warfare.

Meanwhile, the private security (policing) business is one of the fastest growing economic sectors in many countries and has come to overshadow public security around the world. According to Singer, the amount spent on private security in 2003, the year of the invasion of Iraq, was 73 percent higher than that spent in the public sphere, and three times as many persons were employed in private forces as in official law enforcement agencies. In parts of Asia, the private security industry grew at 20 percent to 30 percent per year. Perhaps the biggest explosion of private security was the near complete breakdown of public agencies in post-Soviet Russia, with over 10,000 new security firms opening since 1989. There were an outstanding 20 million private security workers worldwide in 2017, and the industry was expected to be worth over $240 billion by 2020. In half of the world’s countries, private security agents outnumber police officers.

As all of global society becomes a highly surveilled and controlled and wildly profitable battlespace, we must not forget that the technologies of the global police state are driven as much, or more, by the campaign to open up new outlets for accumulation as they are by strategic or political considerations. The rise of the digital economy and the blurring of the boundaries between military and civilian sectors fuse several fractions of capital — especially finance, military-industrial and tech companies — around a combined process of financial speculation and militarized accumulation. The market for new social control systems made possible by digital technology runs into the hundreds of billions. The global biometrics market, for instance, was expected to jump from its $15 billion value in 2015 to $35 billion by 2020.

Criminalization of the poor, racially oppressed, immigrants, refugees and other vulnerable communities is the most clear-cut method of accumulation by repression.

 
As the tech industry emerged in the 1990s, it was from its inception tied to the military-industrial-security complex and the global police state. Over the years, for instance, Google has supplied mapping technology used by the U.S. Army in Iraq, hosted data for the Central Intelligence Agency, indexed the National Security Agency’s vast intelligence databases, built military robots, co-launched a spy satellite with the Pentagon, and leased its cloud computing platform to help police departments predict crime. Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and the other tech giants are thoroughly intertwined with the military-industrial and security complex.

Criminalization and the War on Immigrants and Refugees

Criminalization of the poor, racially oppressed, immigrants, refugees and other vulnerable communities is the most clear-cut method of accumulation by repression. This type of criminalization activates “legitimate” state repression to enforce the accumulation of capital, whereby the state turns to private capital to carry out repression against those criminalized.

There has been a rapid increase in imprisonment in countries around the world, led by the United States, which has been exporting its own system of mass incarceration. In 2019, it was involved in the prison systems of at least 33 different countries, while the global prison population grew by 24 percent from 2000 to 2018. This carceral state opens up enormous opportunities at multiple levels for militarized accumulation. Worldwide, there were in the early 21st century some 200 privately operated prisons on all continents and many more “public-private partnerships” that involved privatized prison services and other forms of for-profit custodial services such as privatized electronic monitoring programs. The countries that were developing private prisons ranged from most member states of the European Union, to Israel, Russia, Thailand, Hong Kong, South Africa, New Zealand, Ecuador, Australia, Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, Brazil and Canada.

Those criminalized include millions of migrants and refugees around the world. Repressive state controls over the migrant and refugee population and criminalization of non-citizen workers makes this sector of the global working class vulnerable to super-exploitation and hyper-surveillance. In turn, this self-same repression in and of itself becomes an ever more important source of accumulation for transnational capital. Every phase in the war on migrants and refugees has become a wellspring of profit making, from private, for-profit migrant jails and the provision of services inside them such as health care, food, phone systems, to other ancillary activities of the deportation regime, such as government contracting of private charter flights to ferry deportees back home, and the equipping of armies of border agents.

Undocumented immigrants constitute the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. prison population and are detained in private migrant jails and deported by private companies contracted out by the U.S. state. As of 2010, there were 270 immigration jails in the U.S. that caged on any given day over 30,000 immigrants and annually locked up some 400,000 individuals, compared to just a few dozen people in immigrant detention each day prior to the 1980s. From 2010 to 2018, federal spending on these detentions jumped from $1.8 billion to $3.1 billion. Given that such for-profit prison companies as CoreCivic and GEO Group are traded on the Wall Street stock exchange, investors from anywhere around the world may buy and sell their stock, and in this way, develop a stake in immigrant repression quite removed from, if not entirely independent, of the more pointed political and ideological objectives of this repression.

Every phase in the war on migrants and refugees has become a wellspring of profit making.

 
In the United States, the border security industry was set to double in value from $305 billion in 2011 to some $740 billion in 2023. Mexican researcher Juan Manuel Sandoval traces how the U.S.-Mexico border region has been reconfigured into a “global space for the expansion of transnational capital.” This “global space” is centered on the U.S. side around high-tech military and aerospace related industries, military bases, and the deploying of other civilian and military forces for combating “immigration, drug trafficking, and terrorism through a strategy of low-intensity warfare.” On the Mexican side, it involves the expansion of maquiladoras (sweatshops), mining and industry in the framework of capitalist globalization and North American integration.

The tech sector in the United States has become heavily involved in the war on immigrants as Silicon Valley plays an increasingly central role in the expansion and acceleration of arrests, detentions and deportations. As their profits rise from participation in this war, leading tech companies have in turn pushed for an expansion of incarceration and deportation of immigrants, and lobbied the state to use their innovative social control and surveillance technologies in anti-immigrant campaigns.

In Europe, the refugee crisis and EU’s program to “secure borders” has provided a bonanza to military and security companies providing equipment to border military forces, surveillance systems and information technology infrastructure. The budget for the EU public-private border security agency, Frontex, increased a whopping 3,688 percent between 2005 and 2016, while the European border security market was expected to nearly double, from some $18 billion in 2015 to approximately $34 billion in 2022.

The Coronavirus Is Not to Blame

When the pandemic comes to an end, we will be left with a global economy even more dependent on militarized accumulation than before the virus hit.
As stock markets around the world began to plummet starting in late February, mainstream commentators blamed the coronavirus for the mounting crisis. But the virus was only the spark that ignited the financial implosion. The plunge in stock markets suggests that for some time to come, financial speculation will be less able to serve as an outlet for over-accumulated capital. When the pandemic comes to an end, we will be left with a global economy even more dependent on militarized accumulation than before the virus hit.

We must remember that accumulation by war, social control and repression is driven by a dual logic of providing outlets for over-accumulated capital in the face of stagnation, and of social control and repression as capitalist hegemony breaks down. The more the global economy comes to depend on militarization and conflict, the greater the drive to war and the higher the stakes for humanity. There is a built-in war drive to the current course of capitalist globalization. Historically, wars have pulled the capitalist system out of crisis while they have also served to deflect attention from political tensions and problems of legitimacy. Whether or not a global police state driven by the twin imperatives of social control and militarized accumulation becomes entrenched is contingent on the outcome of the struggles raging around the world among social and class forces and their competing political projects.

William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global studies and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His most recent book is Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity. This article draws on the author’s forthcoming book, The Global Police State, which will be released by Pluto Press in July 2020.

Category : Capitalism | Ecology | Fascism | Globalization | Marxism | Neoliberalism | Blog
29
Dec

‘State Capitalism’? Or Socialist Market Economy? Which Shoe Fits Whom?

Qiushi Magazine
CCP Central Committee Fall 2018

The United States equates China’s economy with “state capitalism”, saying socialist market economy is not real market economy but state-led protectionist and mercantilist economy, which, it claims justifies the imposition of high tariffs on Chinese goods.

This is not the first time a Western country has labeled China’s economic model as “state capitalism”. Some people are re-circulating the term in the West now to hide the real reason why the US has resorted to trade protectionism and imposed high tariffs on Chinese imports, namely, their concern over China’s development road and economic system.

The US is a self-proclaimed representative of free market economy and free market capitalism, but the government’s role has been particularly important in its economic development. Let us not forget, the US has resorted to protectionism from its founding to the end of World War II.

Using free market as a ploy to make profits

In the postwar period, too, the US administration has intervened in the economy to fulfill its self-interests even while promoting trade liberalization, as Keynesianism came to play the dominant role in US economic policymaking. For example, the US’ total government spending increased from 26.8 percent of GDP in 1960 to 41.3 percent in 2010, and the number of its government employees increased from more than 4 million in 1940 to more than 22 million in 2010.

Some experts on innovation say, despite advocating “small government” and “free market”, the US has been running massive public investment programs in technology and innovation for decades, which have brought the US great economic benefits. In fact, the US government has always been a central driver of innovation-led growth, from internet to biotechnology and even shale gas development. After the outbreak of the 2008 global financial crisis, the US once again resorted to state interventionism, and introduced huge financial rescue and fiscal stimulus packages to stabilize its economy. continue

Category : Capitalism | China | Keynes | Marxism | Socialism | Theory | Blog
10
Dec

 

Stacy Czyzewski checks a machine that can manufacture complex aerospace components at Pioneer Service Inc. in Addison, Ill. Photographs by David Kasnic for The Wall Street Journal

THE NEW LEFT’S ‘NEW WORKING CLASS THEORY’ FROM 1968 HAS FINALLY SHOWN UP. Within three years, U.S. manufacturing workers with college degrees will outnumber those without

By Austen Hufford
Wall Street Journal

Dec. 9, 2019 – College-educated workers are taking over the American factory floor.

New manufacturing jobs that require more advanced skills are driving up the education level of factory workers who in past generations could get by without higher education, an analysis of federal data by The Wall Street Journal found.

Within the next three years, American manufacturers are, for the first time, on track to employ more college graduates than workers with a high-school education or less, part of a shift toward automation that has increased factory output, opened the door to more women and reduced prospects for lower-skilled workers.

“You used to do stuff by hand,” said Erik Hurst, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. “Now, we need workers who can manage the machines.”

U.S. manufacturers have added more than a million jobs since the recession, with the growth going to men and women with degrees, the Journal analysis found. Over the same time, manufacturers employed fewer people with at most a high-school diploma.

Employment in manufacturing jobs that require the most complex problem-solving skills, such as industrial engineers, grew 10% between 2012 and 2018; jobs requiring the least declined 3%, the Journal analysis found.

At Pioneer Service Inc., a machine shop in the Chicago suburb of Addison, Ill., employees in polo shirts and jeans, some with advanced degrees, code commands for robots making complex aerospace components on a hushed factory floor.

The Factory floor at Pioneer Service Inc.

That is a far cry from work at Pioneer in the 1990s, when employees had to wear company uniforms to shield their clothes from the grease flying off the 1960s-era manual machines used to make parts for heating-and-cooling systems. Pioneer employs 40 people, the same number in 2012. Only a handful of them are from the time when simple metal parts were machined by hand.

“Now, it’s more tech,” said Aneesa Muthana, Pioneer’s president and co-owner. “There has to be more skill.”

How can U.S. manufacturing workers be saved from the spread of robots? Join the conversation below.

Pioneer, which makes parts for Tesla vehicles and other luxury cars, had its highest revenue last year, Ms. Muthana said. The company’s success mirrors that of other manufacturers that survived the financial crisis. continue

Category : Capitalism | Technology | Theory | Working Class | Youth | Blog
29
Aug

The challenge of Amin’s call for an Internationale of workers and peoples

By William I. Robinson
Globalizations

Samir Amin, a leading scholar and co-founder of the world-systems tradition, died on August 12, 2018. Just before his death, he published, along with close allies, a call for ‘workers and the people’ to establish a ‘fifth international’ [https://www.pambazuka.org/global-south/letter-intent-inaugural-meeting-international-workers-and-peoples] to coordinate support to progressive movements. To honor Samir Amin’s invaluable contribution to world-systems scholarship, we are pleased to present readers with a selection of essays responding to Amin’s final message for today’s anti-systemic movements. This forum is being co-published between Globalizations [https://www.tandfonline.com/rglo], the Journal of World-Systems Research [http://jwsr.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/jwsr/issue/view/75] and Pambazuka News [https://www.pambazuka.org/]. Additional essays and commentary can be found in these outlets.

Aug 27, 2019 – Samir Amin’s call for an ‘Internationale of workers and peoples’ could not be timelier. If we are to face the onslaught of the neo-fascist right, the left worldwide must urgently renovate a revolutionary project and a plan for refounding the state. It must do so across borders under an umbrella organization that puts forth a minimum program around which popular and working-class forces can unite, and that establishes mechanisms for transnational struggle. While I concur with much of Amin’s call I also have some significant differences as well as specifications with respect to the call that I will attempt to explicate below.

Global capitalism is facing a spiraling crisis of hegemony that appears to be approaching a general crisis of capitalist rule. In the face of this crisis there has been a sharp polarization in global society between insurgent left and popular forces, on the one hand, and an insurgent far right, on the other, at whose fringe are openly fascist tendencies (Robinson, 2019 Robinson, W. I. (2019). Global capitalist crisis and twenty-first century fascism: Beyond the Trump hype.). Yet the far-right has been more effective in the past few years than the left in mobilizing disaffected populations around the world and has made significant political and institutional inroads. It would seem that Rosa Luxemburg’s dire warning at the start of the World War I that we face ‘socialism or barbarism’ is as or even more relevant today than when she issued it, given the magnitude of the means of violence worldwide and the threat of ecological holocaust. If left, popular, and working-class forces are to regain the initiative and beat back barbarism they need a transnational umbrella organization with a minimum program against global capitalism around which they can coordinate national and regional struggles and transnationalize the fightback.

The international of capital and the specter of 21st century fascism

The theme of transnational struggles from below has been discussed at great length for several decades now. Capital has achieved a newfound transnational mobility yet labor remains territorially bound by the nation-state. In the wake of the structural crisis of the 1970s, emergent transnational capital went global as a strategy to reconstitute its social power by breaking free of nation-state constraints to accumulation, to do away with Fordist-Keynesian redistributive arrangements, and to beat back the tide of revolution in the Third World. continue

Category : Capitalism | Fascism | Globalization | Hegemony | Blog
16
Jul

The Systems We Depend On Are Upside Down

By Ian Angus
Climate & Capitalism

June 25, 2019 – A frequent C&C contributor, Martin Empson regularly reviews new and old books on his blog, Resolute Reader. Recently, he reviewed Barry Commoner’s 1971 classic The Closing Circle, calling it “an important contribution to our understanding of the struggle we need.” He says he wishes he had read it years ago.

My only disagreement is with his statement that Commoner was not a Marxist. True, he did not use the label, but I can’t find much in his work that a serious Marxist could disagree with.

Commoner was a remarkably good writer, a scientist and political activist who had a gift for explaining complex ideas clearly and concisely. The Closing Circle is a classic that every ecosocialist should read. Click here to read Martin Empson’s review.

Reading that review spurred me to re-read another of Commoner’s books, The Poverty of Power, published in 1976 when the capitalist world was being shaken by a recession and soaring oil prices. While much of the data and analysis is specific to that period, it did a wonderful job of presenting a radical critique, in terms that would be accessible to any reader. As the excerpts below show, what Commoner wrote is still very relevant today.

Commoner opened The Poverty of Power (which was a mass market paperback, by the way) with this fine account of a social order that puts first things last.

“In the last ten years, the United States — the most powerful and technically advanced society in human history — has been confronted by a series of ominous, seemingly intractable crises. First there was the threat to environmental survival; then there was the apparent shortage of energy; and now there is the unexpected decline of the economy. These are usually regarded as separate afflictions, each to be solved in its own terms: environmental degradation by pollution controls; the energy crisis by finding new sources of energy and new ways of conserving it; the economic crisis by manipulating prices, taxes, and interest rates.

“But each effort to solve one crisis seems to clash with the solution of the others — pollution control reduces energy supplies; energy conservation costs jobs. Inevitably, proponents of one solution become opponents of the others. Policy stagnates and remedial action is paralyzed, adding to the confusion and gloom that beset the country.

“The uncertainty and inaction are not surprising, for this tangled knot of problems is poorly understood, not only by citizens generally, but also by legislators, administrators, and even by the separate specialists. It involves complex interactions among the three basic systems — the ecosystem, the production system, and the economic system — that, together with the social or political order, govern all human activity.

“The ecosystem — the great natural, interwoven, ecological cycles that comprise the planet’s skin, and the minerals that lie beneath it — provides all the resources that support human life and activity.

“The production system — the man-made network of agricultural and industrial processes — converts these resources into goods and services, the real wealth that sustains society: food, manufactured goods, transportation, and communication.

“The economic system — the recipient of the real wealth created by the production system — transforms that wealth into earnings, profit, credit, savings, investment, taxes; and governs how that wealth is distributed, and what is done with it.

“Given these dependencies — the economic system on the wealth yielded by the production system and the production system on the resources provided by the ecosystem — logically the economic system ought to conform to the requirements of the production system, and the production system to the requirements of the ecosystem. The governing influence should flow from the ecosystem through the production system to the economic system.

“This is the rational ideal. In actual fact the relations among the three systems are the other way around. The . environmental crisis tells us that the ecosystem has been disastrously affected by the design of the modem production system, which has been developed with almost no regard for compatibility with the environment or for the efficient use of energy: Gas-gulping cars pollute the environment with smog; petrochemical factories convert an unrenewable store of petroleum into undegradable or toxic agents. In turn, the faulty design of the production system has been imposed upon it by the economic system, which invests in factories that promise increased profits rather than environmental compatibility or efficient use of resources. The relationships. among the great systems on which society depends are upside down.

“Thus, what confronts us is not a series of separate crises, but a single basic defect — a fault that lies deep in be design of modern society.”

Throughout The Poverty of Power, Commoner brilliantly expanded on those ideas, showing that “our current crisis is a symptom of a deep and dangerous fault in the economic system.” He concluded with these words.

“Here we come to the end of the blind, mindless chain of events that transformed the technologies of agricultural and industrial production and reorganized transportation; that increased the output of the production system, but increased even more its appetite for capital, energy, and other resources; that eliminated jobs and degraded the environment; that concentrated the physical power of energy and the social power of the resultant wealth into ever fewer, larger corporations; that has fed this power on a diet of unemployment and poverty. Here is the basic fault that has spawned the environmental crisis and the energy crisis, and 1 that threatens — if no remedy is found — to engulf us in the wreckage of a crumbling economic system.

“Now all this has culminated in the ignominious confession of those who hold the power: That the capitalist economic system which has loudly proclaimed itself the best means of assuring a rising standard of living for the people of the United States, can now survive, if at all, only by reducing that standard. The powerful have confessed to the poverty of their power.

“No one can escape the momentous consequences of this confession. No one can escape the duty to understand the origin of this historic default and to transform it from a threat to social progress into a signal for a new advance.”

Every socialist with an interest in environmental issues (and that ought to be every socialist!) can benefit from reading Barry Commoner. Although his books are out of print, they can be found in libraries, and used copies are readily available online at reasonable prices.

For more about Commoner’s idea, and an overview of his major works, see Barry Commoner and the Great Acceleration.

 

Category : Capitalism | Climate | Ecology | Blog
6
Jul

Slavery and the Racialization of Capital, from Bottom to Top

The Lehman Durr & Co. offices in Montgomery, Alabama, 1874

New York Review of Books

 

In 2013, the Italian playwright Stefano Massini turned this exemplum into The Lehman Trilogy, an epic five-hour play that was adapted and condensed last year by the director Sam Mendes and playwright Ben Power for the National Theatre in London. The play received rapturous reviews, and further plaudits after a limited run this spring in New York; it has just returned to London’s West End, where its continued success seems assured. The story begins in 1844, when Hayum Lehman emigrated from Bavaria to Mobile, Alabama. He changed his name to Henry and worked as an itinerant peddler before opening a small dry-goods store upriver, in Montgomery. Soon, two of his younger brothers, Mendel (Emanuel) and Mayer, joined him, and the dry goods store gradually evolved, first into a brokerage, and then into a bank. The play presents this arc as a parable of moral decline, from selling “goods,” to selling financial abstractions. “We are merchants of money,” second-generation Philip Lehman declares in Power’s translation: “our flour is money.”

The drama built around this story is an impressive theatrical experience, but also a deeply partial one, as some critics have noted—for the simple reason that some of the “goods” originally traded by the Lehman brothers, before their spiritual decline into mere merchants of money, were human beings. The play acknowledges, briefly, the company’s origins in the cotton markets of the antebellum South—profoundly underplaying not only the firm’s deep entanglement in the slave economy, but also that of the brothers themselves, who held slaves for at least twenty years. When I was invited by the National Theatre to write for its playbill an essay about the Lehman brothers as exemplars of the American Dream, my original draft mentioned the brothers’ connection to slavery, but this was cut from the final edit. When New York’s Park Avenue Armory asked if they could reuse the essay, I inquired if we could restore the issue of slavery, and offered an expanded draft with more detail. They preferred the National Theatre’s version, citing length.

The elision is not sinister, but it is symptomatic. No one involved in editing the playbills is defending or apologizing for slavery; they were doing their jobs, putting together a program of necessarily brief essays about the play as it has been produced, which does not address slavery. But the erasure of slavery from the play matters: it distorts the history of Lehman Brothers’ beginnings in the antebellum South, allowing the play to evade the question of whether making money out of money is really more reprehensible than making money out of slaves. That erasure is, ironically enough, perhaps the most allegorical aspect of the entire story: a history of American capitalism that disavows the central role slavery played in that history.

It was a problem several American reviewers noted, at least in part. The New York Times observed: “By completely omitting something terribly obvious—that the original fortune was made on the backs of slaves—the play suggests that the real evildoers were not the kindly young men from Bavaria who sold cloth,” but the wizards of Wall Street several generations later. For The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, it was an astonishing flaw that the play “fails to mention that Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer Lehman were slave-owners.” No American writer today would make such an excision, Cohen argued: “it would be tantamount to writing a play about Germany in 1933 and not even mentioning what was happening to the Jews.” But The Lehman Trilogy is not merely tantamount to a play about Germany in 1933 that never mentions the Jews; it is a play about a dynasty founded in the Nazi era that thinks the family’s role in the Holocaust doesn’t matter.

For a century and more, the conventional wisdom about the evolution of the financial systems embodied in institutions like Lehman Brothers was that modern American capitalism was built not on the slave economy, but on its collapse. That story retains its cultural grip. “The great rise of Northern industry took place after the Southern slave economy was destroyed,” Jonathan Leaf insisted in an April “Dispatch” for the New Criterion defending The Lehman Trilogy against criticisms of its treatment of slavery, “and after the Confederacy’s wealth was obliterated” (his emphasis). But for half a century and more, historians have shown that this neither accurately describes the cotton economy of antebellum Alabama generally, nor the Lehman brothers’ particular role in it.

Since at least as long ago as 1944, with Eric Williams’s groundbreaking Capitalism and Slavery, historians have debated the complex intermingling of slavery and capitalism, while a wave of recent scholarship has argued for the centrality of slavery to the history of American economic development. Edward Baptist, Robin Blackburn, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, Calvin Schermerhorn, Michael R. Cohen, and others have contended that mid-century Southern slavery was far from the pre-industrial, agrarian economy of popular wisdom, inevitably defeated by the industrial power and modern financial systems of the North. The two systems were considerably more interdependent and mutually advantageous than that simplistic picture allows. Nor was the Civil War the product of a simple conflict between modern and premodern economies, although it was a conflict between wage labor and slave labor. Rather, between 1830 and 1860, the slave economy itself became increasingly modernized, its growing profits leveraged by the economies of scale afforded by new financial systems.

The cotton economy of the nineteenth century, accounting by most measures for more than half of the total goods exported from the US between 1820 and 1860, helped form many of America’s current economic and social institutions: the carceral system, property laws, insurance industry, modern finance systems—all have roots in the Southern slave economy. The profits created by the cotton business helped fund vast empires of trade and industry, including shipping and railroads. They also enriched middlemen: insurers, brokers, investors, and speculators, which is where the Lehmans enter the story.

Henry Lehman came from a farming family, perhaps one reason he chose to settle in the agrarian South; but he also grew up near the city of Mainz, a center of the German textile trade. He knew the value of cotton, and went straight to Mobile, Alabama, then second only to New Orleans as a cotton trading port. Jews settled less frequently in the antebellum South, and those who did tended to assimilate as fast as they could—indeed, the stark racial hierarchy of the South, divided into its ruthless binary of “black” and “white,” made it easier for Jewish immigrants to assimilate as “white.” (That said, antebellum anti-Semitism is another question that The Lehman Trilogy sidesteps.)

The American economy of the 1820s and 1830s was undergoing a transformation thanks to the development of new debt instruments secured by the use of slaves as collateral. The value of chattel slaves could be transferred into mortgages, securities, and bonds, like any other financial asset that could then be sold to investors nationally and internationally. The financialization of slave-assets thus allowed profiting from slavery even in places that had formally outlawed the slave trade—as had the United States, in 1808. The complex, sophisticated commercial systems that had developed along with colonial slave economies did not die when the slave trade was abolished; they merely operated from a greater distance.

All this easy credit helped fuel an American slave-asset and land bubble in the 1830s, driving an economic boom backed by Southern state governments that collapsed in the panic of 1837, the country’s worst financial crisis of the nineteenth century. Between 1837 and 1842, banks failed, credit disappeared, and the economy stagnated. The Lehmans arrived in the 1840s, just in time to capitalize on the cotton economy’s desperate need for investment and credit, quickly establishing themselves as cotton factors, a factotum role that combined brokerage with financial and marketing advice, insurance, transportation, logistics, and sometimes the supply of enslaved laborers. Cotton factors sold to farmers on credit, often accepting cotton as payment, which they could sell directly to Northern manufacturers. Some cotton factors, in turn, acquired financing from Northern banks, recycling profits from the Southern slave system back to those Northern and international financiers. Every link in the financial chain profited.

Between 1840 and 1860, the American cotton crop expanded hugely for several reasons, including improvements in seeds, while the industrial revolution, powered by immigrant labor, was taking hold in the North. By the middle of the nineteenth century, much of the American economy was entangled in networks of capital that were profiting from enslaved people. The prosperity created by enslavement extended far beyond cotton, as world capital markets leveraged the collateral held by enslavers; but so did the financial and commercial structures those markets helped develop and perfect. Slave-traders, for example, as Calvin Schermerhorn has shown, created integrated systems of supply and credit that anticipate concepts like vertical integration and supply-chain management a century later. Small merchants like Lehman Brothers repackaged credit and debt, selling it on to other investors; like plantation owners, they also borrowed against human collateral, thus profiting not only from the slaves they personally owned, but from the system’s shared mortgaging of human property.

The Lehman brothers’ own possession of slaves has long been part of the historical record, though not as central to critiques about the firm’s cultural symbolism after its collapse as it should have been. When, in 2003, descendants of slaves sued Lehman Brothers (and other firms, including R.J. Reynolds) for reparations, Lehmans was “forced to admit,” it was reported at the time, that the founding brothers “bought a slave in the 1850s” named Martha. A further affidavit acknowledged, though only provisionally, that the Lehman brothers “may have personally owned other slaves,” making the firm reportedly the first American bank to admit, however grudgingly, a role in institutional slavery. (Two years later, J.P. Morgan acknowledged that it had accepted some 13,000 slaves as collateral, and taken possession of 1,250 more as capital.) A year before Lehmans’ collapse, the House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing on the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, noting some of the historic companies that had benefitted from that trade, including Lehman Brothers, among others such as Aetna Casualty insurance, New York Life Insurance, Brooks Brothers, and J.P. Morgan Chase.

As far back as 1996, Roland Flade’s study The Lehmans noted that the 1860 census identified Mayer Lehman, the youngest of the brothers, as the owner of seven slaves in Montgomery. In partial mitigation, Flade remarked that people living in antebellum Alabama could not easily oppose slavery, which is quite true. But failing to combat, or even merely censure, slavery is one thing; purchasing one’s own enslaved humans, or trading in their enslavement, is another. The Lehman brothers did both. Two of their former slaves traveled with Mayer’s family when they moved to New York in 1868, a fact sometimes offered by the family’s defenders on the grounds that it would suggest the Lehmans treated their slaves with comparative decency. Not only a low bar for moral exculpation, this also avoids any account of the complex reasons freed slaves sometimes chose to stay with families that had formerly held them in bondage.

The question of how to include slaves in the American record has plagued the nation since its founding. The Constitution’s notorious “three-fifths clause” was a function of the agreed provision for a decennial census, for purposes of political apportionment. Representatives in Congress would reflect “the whole number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons” in each state, excluding natives (who were treated as separate nations). This construction does not, in fact, grant slaves any humanity, even fractionally; it merely counts a proportion of them as bodies for the census. As the size of both slave and immigrant populations grew, so did problems in census-taking. For the 1850 and 1860 decennial censuses, the government decided for the first time to count all slaves held in the United States in separate “slave schedules.” Following the Constitution’s logic, slaves were enumerated—by age, sex, and color (black or mulatto)—but only slave-holders were named.

According to the 1850 slave schedule, “H. Lehman” had already purchased two slaves within six years of arriving in Alabama: a fifty-year-old black man, and a forty-five-year-old black woman. In his 2006 history of the Lehmans, Peter Chapman noted that family archives show the Lehman family also bought a fourteen-year-old slave in 1854 (the one named Martha); the deed of sale, for $900, bound her as a “slave for life.” Six years later, the 1860 slave schedule identifies Mayer Lehman in Montgomery as the owner of four slave houses and seven slaves: two adult males, a fifty-year-old listed as black and a nineteen-year-old listed as mulatto; three adult females, all black, aged forty-five, thirty-five, and twenty-eight; a nine-year-old mulatto girl; and a five-year-old black boy. But even this inadequate record is vexed, implying, as it does, that slaves always knew their ages with certainty; some did, but the system was designed to keep them from all such sense of self-possession. The historical ironies are intense: the slave schedules reflect a society struggling to identify Americans from whom it had systematically stripped identity, while granting new immigrants like the Lehman brothers the status of free citizens.

Slave-holding was the most direct, but hardly the only, way in which the Lehmans were implicated in the slave economy.It was not simply that the Lehmans profited from the labor of those they had enslaved, or that their firm depended on the sale of cotton produced by other slaves, but that their entire business was imbricated in institutionalized slavery from start to finish. Contemporary accounts record the brothers’ accepting profits from slaves traded as chattel in lieu of debts—in 1859, a newspaper in Troy, Alabama, reported that a sheriff had sold “one negro woman, Beckey, about twenty years old, and her child Gus, about two years old,” to “satisfy a fifa in my hands in favor of Lehman Brothers.” (“Fifa” stood for fieri facias, a legal instrument that empowered a sheriff to levy the possessions of a defendant to make good a debt.) From such seemingly routine transactions an entire political economy arose.

Thus, while it is perfectly true that the Lehman brothers’ embroilment in slavery was commonplace in their time and place, that makes it all the more problematic to suggest that slavery can be marginal to their story. The embedded ordinariness of slavery is the point: to efface that, as the play does, is to miss everything. The triumphalism of the classic American immigrant success story here works to occlude the question of complicity in slavery, fashioning a familiar myth of hard work rewarded by social mobility that is superimposed over the actual system, in which the total deprivation of the rights of citizenship and humanity for some enabled others to enjoy precisely the rewards and mobility that slaves were so violently, and absolutely, denied.

Henry Lehman died in 1855, but when the Civil War came, the two surviving brothers were staunchly on the side of the Confederacy. Mayer Lehman was a committed Southern Democrat, friendly with the governor of Alabama, and knew Jefferson Davis socially. In October 1861, Lehman Brothers, “Merchants of Montgomery,” advertised in local papers that they had stockpiled “almost every article of necessity” during the war. Promising to “be reasonable as to prices,” they added that “owing to the hardness of the times, they are compelled to demand the cash.” Cash, appropriately, was italicized. During the war, the firm successfully ran blockades while issuing the Confederacy with free credit; the Governor of Mississippi sent a public note of thanks in 1864 to “Messrs. Lehman & Brothers,” for accepting “Confederate Treasury notes,” while “charging nothing for their trouble,” to supply the army with cotton and wool for uniforms—despite the blockade that “prevented a larger supply.” In October 1865, “Lehman & Brothers, rich Jews, and merchants,” were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson for doing so, one of the raft of pardons Johnson issued to white Southerners after the war in the name of restoring the Union, but in fact easing the cost of defeat for the embittered white South (and contributing to his eventual impeachment).

The latitude Johnson granted the South enabled the outrages of Reconstruction, as “black codes” establishing segregation replaced slavery in all but name. Southern lands and assets were restored to prewar owners; once again, the Lehman brothers benefited along with the system they upheld, their property reinstated after the war. The Lehmans had not only survived the conflict, they had profited directly from it, without paying any penalty for their support of the Confederacy. The moral exemplum about capitalism and the American Dream to be found in the story of Lehman Brothers is primarily the way in which the South’s investment in the cotton economy profoundly shaped American history from the antebellum period onward, particularly in the slave economy’s legacy of white wealth and black impoverishment, white privilege and black disenfranchisement.

Within two decades, the Lehmans had quit cotton factoring and the South, transforming themselves into a Northern finance powerhouse on Wall Street. They continued to broker deals between Southern cotton planters and the merchants and exchanges of the North after the war, while expanding their business to other commodities, before taking a seat on the newly formed New York Stock Exchange in 1887.

It is that process of transformation—leaving slavery behind but banking its profits—that is the story not only of Lehman Brothers, but also of the formation of modern American capitalism. The Lehman Trilogy wants its audiences to agree that an “abstracted” economy is somehow more morally objectionable than a “real” one, but this fable requires actively repressing the source of the “real” wealth. The Lehmans always traded in “derivative” capital; there was no golden age in which they traded innocent “goods” that became degraded by late capitalism into mere financial tools of decadent speculation.

If The Lehman Trilogy holds up a mirror to our moment, it is by registering slavery in a peripheral glance only to look away. Early in the play, Emanuel tells Henry, “I don’t want to sell buckets and spades to slaves.” Henry responds: “We sell to whoever will buy. Here in America, everything changes.” As an instance of the disavowal so often at work in popular accounts of slavery’s influence on modern America, this exchange is staggering. Slaves did not buy and sell; they were bought and sold. In endorsing the great American myth of transformation, the play implies that capitalism itself is emancipatory, that it might magically transform chattel into customers—and just as magically transform a dubious refusal to talk about slaves into a virtuous refusal to sell to slaves. The play thus succumbs to the abstraction it deplores, evading the material conditions that produced wealth to focus on capitalism as a transcendent promise of freedom and empowerment, endorsing the logic of a consumerist political economy.

Similar mechanisms of disavowal run throughout our cultural mythologies. Proslavery propaganda in the antebellum South insisted that Northern wage slaves were worse off than Southern chattel slaves. As wage slavery was conflated with an emerging trope of white slavery, bondage was rewritten as a universal condition. In the nineteenth century, even antislavery white writers were apt to suggest that capitalism made all Americans into slaves, rather than admit that American capitalism was partly made from slavery. Ishmael famously demands in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), “Who ain’t a slave?” Henry David Thoreau agreed, declaring in Walden, “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one.” In 1863, the year in which American slaves were emancipated, Emily Dickinson likened an author in the marketplace to a slave at auction: “Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man,” her poem begins; it ends by urging: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price—.” In Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 The Gilded Age, the slave trade is just another market for the speculator Beriah Sellers to try to exploit, while Stewart Denison argued in his 1885 novel An Iron Crown: A Tale of the Great Republic that monopoly capitalism was trapping all Americans into economic bondage:

When four or five railway kings can steal one hundred and sixty millions in twenty years; when an oil company can pile fabulous millions on millions in ten years; when a Wall-street pirate can steal from the American people one hundred millions in twenty years by wrecking railroads… when the rich daily grow enormously rich, and the poor daily grow poorer; when all these things can occur, under the sanction of law, in a great republic, is it not time to stop and think? Having reflected, is it not time to act, before our slavery is complete and irremediable?

While scholars painstakingly examine the interconnections of slavery and capitalism, showing the complex traffic between Northern industrial and Southern cotton economies, too many of our popular accounts still view slavery as the South’s “peculiar institution” and treat it as a discrete, if horrifying, historical anomaly. This is how disavowal manages cognitive dissonance: it means conceding the existence of slavery, while refusing to believe that it has anything to do with the story you are telling; it means willfully pushing slavery to the edges of your consciousness and being saved by the logic of exception. The musical Hamilton does the same thing in its ambivalent dynamic of denouncing slavery’s iniquities while suggesting that its own protagonists were exempt from them. Anyone who didn’t know better would finish Hamilton innocent of the fact that George Washington owned slaves, much less that Alexander Hamilton himself bought and sold them on behalf of his wife’s family. Such stories try to have it both ways: for their heroes to be representative Americans, while erasing the vicious ways in which they truly were representative. The fact that everyone was doing it is not a defense, it merely measures the scale of the crime.

 

Category : Capitalism | Racism | Slavery | US History | Blog