Archive for Key Thinkers

Samir Amin (1931- )

The below was written by Nick Dearden in 2011 and published in Red Pepper at http://www.redpepper.org.uk/samir-amin-at-80/

Many of Samir Amin’s writings are available at https://monthlyreview.org/author/samiramin/

Amin

Samir Amin is one of the world’s greatest radical thinkers – a ‘creative Marxist’ who went from Communist activism in Nasser’s Egypt, to advising African socialist leaders like Julius Nyerere to being a leading figure in the World Social Forum.

Samir Amin’s ideas were formed in the heady ferment of 1950s and ’60s when pan-Africanists like Kwamah Nkrumah ran Ghana and Juliuys Nyrere Tanzania, when General Nasser was transforming the Middle East from Amin’s native Egypt and liberation movements thrived from South Africa to Algeria.

Africa looked very different before the International Monetary Fund destroyed what progress had been made towards emancipation and LiveAid created a popular conception of a continent of famine and fecklessness. Yet through these times, Amin’s ideas have continued to shine out, denouncing the inhumanity of contemporary capitalism and empire, but also harshly critiquing movements from political Islam to Eurocentric Marxism and its marginalisation of the truly dispossessed.

Global power

Amin believes that the world capitalism – a rule of oligopolies based in the rich world – maintains its rule through five monopolies – control of technology, access to natural resources, finance, global media, and the means of mass destruction. Only by overturning these monopolies can real progress be made.

This raises particular challenges for those of us who are activists in the North because any change we promote must challenge the privileges of the North vis-à-vis the South. Our internationalism cannot be expressed through a type of humanitarian approach to the global South – that countries in the South need our ‘help to develop’. For Amin, any form of international work must be based on an explicitly anti-imperialist perspective. Anything else will fail to challenge structure of power – those monopolies which really keep the powerful powerful.

Along with colleagues like Andre Gunder Frank, Amin see the world divided into the ‘centre’ and the ‘peripheries’. The role of peripheries, those countries we call the global South, is to supply the centres – specifically the ‘Triad’ of North America, Western Europe and Japan – with the means of developing without being able to develop themselves. Most obviously, the exploitation of Africa’s minerals on terms of trade starkly favourable to the centre will never allow African liberation, only continual exploitation.

This flies in the face of so much ‘development thinking’ which would have you believe that Africa’s problems come from not being properly integrated into the global economy which has grown up over the last 40 years. Amin believes in fact Africa’s problem stem from it being too integrated but in ‘the wrong way’.

In fact, as long as the monopolies of control are intact, countries of the centre have had few problems globalising production since the 1970s. Sweatshop labour now takes place across the periphery but it hasn’t challenged the power of those in the North because of their control of finance, natural resources, the military and so on. In fact, it has enhanced their power by reducing wages and destroying a manufacturing sector that had become a power base for unionised workers.

So there is no point whatever in asking countries of the centre to concede better trading relationships to the peripheries. Amin is also concerned at environmental activism which too often becomes a debate about how countries of the centre manage their control of the world’s resources, rather than challenging that control. It is vital that Northern activists challenge the means through which the ruling class in their own society exerts control over the rest of the world.

De-linking

Of course, this is not just a project for activists in the North – far from it. The theory for which Amin is most famous that of ‘de-linking’.

De-linking means countries of the periphery withdrawing from their exploitative integration in the global economy. In a sense it is de-globalisation, but it is not a form of economic isolation – something which African socialist leaders too readily fell into. Rather it means not engaging in economic relationships from a point of weakness.

Amin argues that Southern countries should develop their economy through various forms of state intervention, control of money flowing in an out of their financial sectors and promoting trading with other Southern countries. Countries must nationalise financial sectors, strongly regulate natural resources, ‘de-link’ internal prices from the world market, and free themselves from control by international institutions like the World Trade Organisation. Whatever problems come with nationalised industries, it is the only possible basis for a genuinely socially controlled economy going forward.

After 30 years of being told that their problems would be solved by exporting more, privatising their natural resources and liberalising their financial sectors, many developing countries would today do well to heed Amin’s advice. Instead, too many countries have bought into a de-politicised narrative which posits ideologically loaded terms like ‘good governance’, ‘poverty’ and ‘civil society’ carefully disguising questions as to how poverty happened, what interests governance serves, or the legitimacy of organisations claiming to speak on behalf of the dispossessed.

Amin does not believes that the ‘rise’ of China, India and other emerging economies has in any way broken the power of the oligopolies, in fact that power has only become more concentrated. But there have been important changes. Imperialist powers have realised competition between themselves is not helpful and have created a sort of collective imperialism which is expressed through institutions like the WTO and IMF.

Capitalism, ‘a parenthesis in history’

Capitalism is experiencing a profound long-term crisis to which Amin believes it has no solution short of political barbarism. He describes this form of capitalism as ‘senile’.

This crisis is characterised by an increased dependence on finance, which means less and less money is being made from productive activities, and more from simple ‘rent’. It is a far more direct means of stealing wealth from the majority of the world. The accompanying form of politics means that democracy has been reduced to a farce in which people are spectators in an elite drama – that is when they’re not fulfilling their proper role of consuming.

Capitalism necessarily requires an ongoing process of dispossession so that it can accumulate and continue to expand. Capitalism could not have developed without the European conquest of the world – the availability so many ‘spare’ resources was vital. The safety value for many of those dispossessed from European land was the ‘new world’ which allowed mass emigration – though of course others died in droves, witness the Irish potato famine.

So as much as many of the dispossessed might aspire to the lives of those in advanced capitalist countries, it is simply not possible. Nor can traditional Marxists be correct when they say capitalism is a necessary stage on the path to socialism – a view which Amin describes as ‘Eurocentric’.

Industry cannot incorporate more than a small fraction of humanity, but it does require the resources that that humanity depends upon. So the only way that capitalism can move forward is through the creation of a ‘slum planet’ – a sort of ‘apartheid at the world level’. Amin sees the dispossession of the peasantry across the peripheral countries will become the central issue of the twenty-first century.

This is one reason why Amin see the role of the peasantry in the South – almost half of humanity after all – as key to determining the future. The strength of movements around food sovereignty, against land grabbing and supporting the rights of indigenous peoples, give support to this theory. But for Amin, agriculture is not merely a big opportunity, the existence of the peasantry presents capitalism with an insurmountable challenge.

Amin believes the road to socialism depends on reversing this trend of dispossession meaning, at national and regional levels, protecting local agricultural production, ensuring countries’ have food sovereignty and de-linking internal prices from world commodity markets. This would stop the dispossession of peasants and their exodus into the towns.

Only this revolution in the way the land is seen, treated and access can lay the basis for a new society. This also means ditching the idea of ‘growth’ as it is spoken about today and by which all world economies are judged, which really benefits only a minority of the world population. The rest of humanity is “abandoned to stagnation, if not pauperisation”.

The long road to socialism

Perhaps this makes Samir Amin sounds rather idealistic in his approach, but this is far from true. Amin explicitly rejects the idea of a ‘24 hour revolution’ – a single insurrectionary act which ushers in a period of socialism. Indeed he accepts there may well be a need to use private, even international capital, in order to diversify Southern economies. The important thing is control. For this reason Amin also refuses to use the phrase “socialism of the 21st century” focussing on the need for “the long route of the transition to socialism”.

But that’s not to say there have not been significant victories. Interestingly, Amin is less interested in developments in Latin America, which he believes contain risks of repeating the mistakes of many national liberation movements on the 1950s and 60s in becoming a form of “popular statism”.

Amin is more interested in Nepal as an possible future model to look towards. He also sees the Chinese revolution as an incredibly significant event in directly challenging the basis of capitalism and in the struggle for democratic socialism, most especially in its “abolition of the private property of land” and the formation of powerful communes and collectives.

Amin’s somewhat romantic view of the Chinese revolution is certainly challenging to Western sensibilities, but his underlying view that the formation of democracy must go beyond a narrow political project, and that peasants – and especially women – through collective organisations, might be better placed than Western individualists to define a really progressive vision of democracy needs to be properly taken on board by activists.

Enlightenment

Perhaps Amin’s central thesis is somewhat obvious, but it’s often forgotten – that a true revolution must be based on those who are being dispossessed and impoverished. But he goes further in undermining the assumption that any thinking emerging from the South will lack enlightenment, or that a lack of enlightenment should be excused.

He believes the Enlightenment was humanity’s first step towards democracy, liberating us from the idea that God created our activity. He has caused controversy in his utter rejection of political Islam. This ideology, embedded for example in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, obscures the real nature of society, including by playing into the idea that the world consists of different cultural groups which conflict with each other, an idea which helps the centre control the peripheries.

Amin’s view is that organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, with their cultural and economic conservatism, are actually viewed positively by the US and other imperialist governments. And he doesn’t limit his critique to Islam either, launching similar criticism on political Hinduism practiced by the BJP in India and Political Buddhism, expressed through the Dalai Lama.

Creative Marxism

Samir Amin decribes himself as a ‘creative Marxist’ – “to begin from Marx but not to end with him or with Lenin or Mao” – which incorporates all manner of critical ways of thinking even ones “which were wrongly considered to be ‘alien’ by the dogmas of the historical Marxism of the past.”

These views are surely more relevant today than when Amin started writing. A creative Marxism takes proper account of the perspective and aspirations of the truly dispossessed in the world, break out of historical dogmas and rejects attempts to stick together a broken model, but equally sees the impossibility of overthrowing this model tomorrow. Fortunately Amin seems more prolific than ever – and well worth the read.

J. M. Keynes (1883–1946)

John Maynard Keynes was arguably one of the most influential economists within the school of economy that seeks to reform capitalism to bring it to a more stable functioning. He believed “that capitalism, wisely managed, can probably be made more efficient for attaining economic ends than any alternative system yet in sight, but that in itself it is in many ways extremely objectionable.”

Keynes’s economic analysis took on far more political weight after the Second World War, when massive state investment was required to save capitalism, and his analysis was adopted by the trade union and social-democratic movements in western Europe and North America.

Keynes criticised the idea of the “natural” functioning of the system; he understood that if left to itself it did not tend towards an equilibrium between investment and demand, and consequently jobs. He tore up the classical thinking that said supply creates its own demand (Say’s Law) and the belief that if there isn’t full employment it’s because labour costs too much.

He also demolished the consequent argument that savings create investment and showed that it was in fact the other way around, and so disequilibrium occurs as a result of excess savings that could not or would not find an investment avenue as a result of a lack of return, or confidence in a return (lack of demand). He saw growing income inequality as a danger to investment and demand, and so to economic growth, as those who possess more wealth spend proportionately less, while a small increase in the wages of workers has a massive effect on consumption.

So for Keynes, to counteract the tendencies within the system, state policy has to champion demand and investment. He famously called for the “socialisation of investment” as a means of ensuring that investment would be productive rather than speculative and would be sufficient to provide employment to maintain demand and confidence for both the consumer and the investor. Keynes worked out the multiplier effect of what jobs produce in consumption and therefore demand and consequently in investment and more jobs.

Through this state-led investment he believed we might ultimately achieve the “euthanasia of the rentier”—the disappearance of the class of unproductive speculators—and a balance towards full employment.

According to his analysis, during crises, which occur as a result of insufficient investment, the state should re-inflate the economy through investment, and if needs be this can be deficit-funded, as the return in jobs, taxes and growth outweighs the cost of funding it. However, he also concluded that in normal times investment should be led by the state and could not be left to the whims and psychology of private owners.

John Kenneth Galbraith, (1908–2006)

The radical political economist J. K. Galbraith was born in Canada in 1908 but is remembered most as a leading American academic, public official, and adviser to various governments. He wrote what is still considered the seminal account of the 1929 Wall Street crash. Published in 1955, The Great Crash, 1929, lays bare the reality of the bubble that blew up in the American economy in the late 1920s in property, land and shares and that burst with such traumatic consequences in the 1930s and 40s.

But the real tragedy is that while President Franklin D. Roosevelt learnt lessons from the crash in 1929 and instituted various regulatory reforms—separating retail banking from speculative activities and investing massive sums in jobs and public works, which helped the economy recover and supported millions of working people—these progressive reforms were eroded and then done away with, allowing speculation to reign again, with—no surprise—consequences similar to 1929. What’s worse is that the political establishment today doesn’t seem to be relearning these important lessons.

The closing pages of Galbraith’s book recommend the following:

1. Reduce income inequality: Galbraith points to growing inequality in income and shows how this had the effect of making the economy dependent on both luxury spending and high levels of investment, increasing volatility and negatively affecting employment.

2. Bad corporate structure: Galbraith identifies a rotten, corrupt corporate structure that promoted swindlers and frauds but most importantly allowed companies to set up various holding companies (in essence SPVs and SIVs) as a means of promoting get-rich-quick schemes, at the expense of sound and sustainable growth.

3. Bad banking structure: Galbraith identifies a bad banking structure of interbank lending without transparency that facilitated the panic and chaos of the crash and spread the crisis further and faster.

4. Uneven trade and account balances: Galbraith points out how uneven trade balances presented a weakness for both creditor and debtor-countries and created a whole new set of debt structures to facilitate payments, creating imbalances and relations of dependence.

5. Poor state of economic intelligence: Galbraith attacks the poor level of information that passed as expert economic advice, which both failed to identify the crisis and then failed to offer remedies. He especially condemns the dismissive attitude adopted by the establishment towards reasoned, critical economic thinkers.

Written in 1955, looking back on a period in the late 1920s and early 30s, this book could easily have been written yesterday.

Galbraith wrote a number of other important works, including American Capitalism (1952), The Affluent Society (1958), The New Industrial State (1967), and A Short History of Financial Euphoria (1994). He dealt with such themes as the rise of powerful corporations and how this enabled them to be price-setters, undermining competitiveness and consumer power and also how this led to the neglect and undermining of the public sector.

Galbraith was a major influence in Keynesian circles in putting forward an analysis of power and corporations.

Nikolai Kondratiev, (1892–1938)

Nikolai Kondratiev was a Soviet economist in the early twentieth century who is known for developing the cyclical analysis of capitalism. Kondratiev outlined and dated the cycles as he saw them, finding new contradictions emerging in capitalism out of the preceding crisis that gave rise to the developing crisis.

Every new phase of the cycle is predetermined with the accumulation of the factors of the preceding phase, and every new cycle follows the preceding one as naturally as one phase of each cycle after another. However, it has to be understood that every new cycle emerges in particular new historical conditions, on a new level of development of productive forces, and therefore is not a simple reiteration of the preceding cycle.

“Kondratiev cycles,” as they are now called, or long-wave cycles, contain a period of expansion culminating in a peak, followed by a recession, a period of stagnation, and then a secondary recession or depression before a new cycle of expansion begins.

Kondratiev tracked and dated each cycle as lasting roughly sixty years and importantly predicted in 1926 that a major depression was due, three years before the Great Depression began. He saw technological innovation as the key to restoring profitability and starting the expansionary phase, for example the steam engine and cotton production in in the late 1700s, the railways and steel in the 1840s, electrical engineering and chemicals in the 1850s, and, to continue this trend, the automobile and petrochemicals after the Second World War.

Below is a completed Kondratiev graph of the cycles:

Expansion   Recession   Plateau      Depression

1784–1800  1800–1816 1816–1835 1835–1844

1845–1858  1859–1864 1864–1874 1875–1896

1896–1907  1907–1920 1920–1929 1929–1949

Those who today subscribe to long-wave cycle theory suggest that a period of expansion and growth began after the Second World War, with a recession kicking in in the 1970s, followed by stagnation in the 80s. Arguably, the secondary recession or depression was delayed until now by state-led structural changes to the economy, commonly known as neo-liberalism and financialisation, to support profit and growth through those years.

V. I. Lenin (1870–1924)

Lenin’s valuable contribution to political economy was in seeking to advance Marx’s critique of capitalism from competitive capitalism to what he described as monopoly capitalism. For Lenin, capitalism had developed from a competitive local system to an all-embracing global system, divided among dominant countries and between monopoly companies. Out of competition, companies either grew, making use of the best technology and merging, or closed down, leading to a few companies dominating markets. Monopoly—the opposite of competition—is in fact a result of competition.

To continue expanding, companies merged so as to better exploit foreign regions; and to support this process they required bank capital. Lenin described the outcome of this process as finance capital. Its expansion required the active support of states in suppressing revolts as well as in conquering new territories. Hence, for Lenin, this monopoly stage of capitalism was imperialism.

This process divided the world among the dominant powers of the time; and any redivision would result in war. The additional profits yielded from the super-exploitation of colonies provided the ability to buy off workers in the home imperialist countries, which resulted in the split in the international socialist movement and the rise of the reformist tendency known as social democracy. This division of the world also led to huge revolutionary potential in the colonies and the most exploited regions.

Lenin identified the essential features of imperialism as:

(1) the concentration of production and capital having developed to such a degree that it has created monopolies, which play a decisive role in economic life;

      (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy;

      (3) the exceptional importance acquired by the export of capital, as distinct from the export of commodities;

      (4) the formation of international monopolist associations, which share the world among themselves; and

      (5) the completion of the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers.

Imperialism, therefore, is capitalism at the stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established, at which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance, at which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, and at which the division of all territories among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.

Lenin’s famous work Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism was published in 1916. Lenin’s works are available on line at www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/index.htm

Karl Marx, 1818–1883

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Born in Germany in 1818, Karl Marx was and remains the political economist who most clearly expresses the will of working people to be free of the chains of slavery and oppression, seeing the economic system as the root of this.

In presenting the views of Marx it is important to note also the influence of his colleague and friend Frederick Engels.

Marx developed the labour theory of value and identified this as the key to understanding capitalism. As slave society and feudal society previously exploited the many for the benefit of the few, so too capitalism now exploits workers for the benefit of those with capital, which they use to employ others. Profit, for Marx, is created through the expropriation by capitalists of part of the value that labour creates. It is labour that creates the value of a product; yet workers do not receive that value in their wages—for if they did there would be no profit.

The competitive drive to increase profits increases the exploitation of workers and creates unemployment. This drive also creates periodic crises, through the over-production of goods and increased displacement of workers by technology.

Competition and crisis also drive the increased monopolisation of production and consequently of wealth, leading to even greater inequality and the potential for further crisis.

However, through the internationalisation and rationalisation of production, capitalism creates and organises its own “gravediggers,” in the form of the working class. According to Marx, it is this class alone whose material interests are tied to the ending of exploitation and competition and to the development of co-operative production and ultimately to what is commonly called socialism.

Marxs’ writings on this subject can be found at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/subject/economy/index.htm

William Thompson, 1775 – 1833

William Thompson, 1775 – 1833

Ii is not the mere possession of wealth, but the right distribution of it, that is important to a community.

Force, fraud, chance, prescription, are almost everywhere the main arbiters of distribution, and have almost frightened reason from daring to contemplate the mischief they have caused.

William Thompson is largely an unknown or forgotten political economist from Ireland. Introduced to many through James Connolly’s ‘Labour in Irish History’, Connolly describing him as Irelands first socialist and as a forunner to Marx. Thompson championed the cause of women and the cooperative movement in Ireland publishing his political economy most notably in two books entitled An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness and Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery.

A wealthy man, Thompson tried to implement some of his ideas on his own estate but unfortunately died before he could attempt this ultimately leaving his estates to the burgeoning cooperative movement in his will.  Thompson continued the use of Smith’s labour theory of value but identified, in advance of Karl Marx, the exploitative nature of the creation and expropriation of surplus value by capitalists. He also appreciated and understood the political expression of class interest and rejected the concept that any increase in wages would automatically increases costs and so negative the increase. Thompson, like both Marx and Connolly after him, saw this as merely serving the interest of capitalists.

For more information on Thompson check out this article http://www.communistpartyofireland.ie/s-thompson.html

David Ricardo (1772–1823)

David Ricardo was a trader by profession and a member of Parliament. He drew attention to the labour theory (before Marx) as the key to understanding prices and the creation of profit. In this he also recognised the different interests—sometimes conflicting interests—of classes, and placed classes in their position within the production process. Ricardo also clearly distinguished rent, and capital gained from rent, from capital produced through the production process. His most famous work is Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817).

Ricardo saw profit as arising from labour. The more labour involved, the greater the profit to be gained. However, as much of the good agricultural land was held in a monopoly by landowners, who merely live off the rent, and as the population grew, investment must turn to poorer land to be cultivated. As this land improves, it will cause an increase in the rent required for the use of good land (as less labour is required). This rent—something for nothing—then eats into the total profits of the capitalist, and so there is a conflict between landowners on the one hand and speculators and productive capitalists. With less profit from land there is less capital to reinvest and hence less growth in the system.

As population grows, therefore, land rent grows, and profits and growth decrease. Ricardo concluded that with a growing population and with this conflict between rent and capitalist growth, the system would tend towards a standstill.

Ricardo’s famous text can be found at http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/ricardo/tax/index.htm

Adam Smith (1723–1790)

A political economist and philosopher at the University of Glasgow, Adam Smith published his seminal work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in 1776. Smith is often referred to as the father of capitalism and is usually looked on as an ardent advocate of free-market forces, as opposed to state intervention. In reality, he was describing the functioning and “laws” of capitalism as he saw them, while maintaining a moral position in favour of liberty.

For Smith, the “wealth of a nation” should be judged by the well-being of the people in the nation. While using pin-making to exemplify the rationality of the division of labour, he went on to say that this minute division of labour will turn workers into ignorant creatures.

Smith’s contribution was his attempt to scientifically and logically dissect the system, understand its component parts, and so lay bare how it actually works: to show the working of the capitalist market, the division of labour in production, and who benefits. His conclusion was that “rational self-interest” and competition lead to greater wealth and growth under capitalism.

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as they can both to employ their capital in the support of domestic industry and so to direct that industry so that its product will be of the greatest value, every individual necessarily labours to render the annual income of society as great as they can. They generally neither intend to promote the public interest nor know how much they are promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic industry to that of foreign industry, they intend only their own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner that its product may be of the greatest value, they intend only their own gain; and in this—as in many other cases—they are led by an “invisible hand” to promote an end that was no part of their intention.

Nor is it always the worse for society that promoting the public interest was no part of their aim. By pursuing their own interest the capitalist frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when they really intend to promote it. As he said, “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

Smiths seminal work can be found online at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-adam/works/wealth-of-nations/index.htm