[Marxism] America No. 1?

Julio Huato juliohuato at gmail.com
Sun Mar 6 17:23:02 MST 2005


I'd like to step back a little on this discussion.  IMO, Yoshie,
Joaquín, and rr are raising issues that are important, and we
shouldn't let the polemics obscure them.  So let me use this exchange
between rr and Joaquín to state my views.

rr wrote:

>>> 1. How do any of these "traits" of  US capitalism differ from the
>> historical traits of US capitalism during its period of ascent?...

Joaquín replied:

>> Because they are not compensated for or accompanied by a major expansion
>> of productive forces nor a transformation of technique.

To which rr replied:

> This is not so.  Productivity growth, capital expansion, and
> transformation of technique were the hallmarks of US arrogance
> 1994-2000.  US productivity growth 2002-2004 outpaces that period, not
> to mention Europe's  and Japan's.  2 by 2:  As Joaquin puts it, the
> argument can be interpreted to "accept" or find less repugnant all the
> brutality of capital as long as there is an "offset" in expansion of the
> means of production.  But capitalism isn't about expansion of the means
> of production, it is about the expropriation of values.  It gets more or
> less brutal on the internal metabolism, the rate of that successful
> expropriation.

We should take a longer view.  And the rest of the world is not only
Europe and Japan.  In retrospect, the 1990s may end up looking like a
rarity in U.S. productivity data, as compared to the rest of the
world.  In the postwar, the productivity gap between the U.S. and the
rest of the world narrowed significantly.  So, obviously, we're
talking about a secular trend that was only partially, temporarily
reversed in the late 1990s.

With respect to the rest of the rich capitalist world, this phenomenon
is to a large extent due to Japan's and Europe's recovery (followed by
Japan's spectacular growth streak) until the 1970s.  But in spite of
the subsequent sluggishness, Japan and more so Europe have reached and
sustained productivity levels pretty close to those in the U.S.'s.  In
fact, output per hour is almost the same in the U.S. as in the EU.  In
output per worker and output per capita, the U.S.'s indices are
higher, but that just means that in the U.S. more members of a
household work, and they work more hours.  That's more "absolute
surplus value production" than "relative surplus value production." 
In other words, that kind of productivity edge is not sustainable in
the long run.

Because of the cheap money in the late 1970s, Latin America
overborrowed and ended up in a big mess lasting 3 decades.  So the
last 30 years have not been nice to the region.  But if you take the
postwar period as a whole, you observe that the region's productivity
gap with the U.S. narrowed in *relative* terms well until the early
1980s.  In absolute terms the gap remained about constant (it went up
after the 1980s), but in relative terms it narrowed (or stayed put). 
It's like an age difference.  It looks long when we're kids, but it
narrows as we grow older, because the difference represents an
increasingly smaller percentage of our respective ages.  (Moreover,
the gap in the average standard of living between Latin America and
the U.S. has definitely narrowed, and more rapidly than the
productivity gap, because of the so-called "demographic transition":
population growth slowing down in the region after the 1970s.)

Certainly, the 1980s tragically reversed this trend in Latin America
-- until recently.  But one could argue that the reasons underlying
the brutal contraction in the Latin American economies in the 1980s
was *not* the result of fundamental tendencies in capitalist
reproduction (to use fancy Marxist terms) but rather the outcome of
fortuitous events in U.S. monetary policy with very large
consequences.  But whatever really happened in the 1980s, now many
countries in Latin America are a bit closer to U.S. productivity
levels (and standards of living) than they were in 1955 (in relative
terms).  And very significant politically, and understandably, the
working people in Latin America have become increasingly intolerant to
the existence of this gap (and are becoming increasingly aware of the
negative characteristics of the U.S. society and culture).

Finally, enter southeast Asia, China and India in the last 25-35
years: these are clearly the most remarkable instances of catching up
in world history.  They include more than one third of the world's
population.  Certainly, social inequality has increased in the region
(we're talking about a social process propelled by capitalist
production, and we know what that entails).  But domestic inequality
in those countries is only a fraction of the ranges of inequality we
see in the world as a whole.

Add the more recent recovery in Russia and Eastern Europe.  Also, the
three largest countries in Latin America are picking up speed.  Mexico
has benefited from higher oil prices, but not only that.  The
maquiladora sector, which seemed like it'd be overwhelmed by China's
manufacturing, is recovering briskly, and the rest of the
manufacturing sector (which people assumed would be swept off by
NAFTA) as well as farming are having a boom.  Brazil is also growing. 
Argentina just renegotiated a very advantageous deal with the holders
of its debt and it's going to keep growing fast at least in the near
future.  Venezuela is also benefiting from oil prices and it is
channeling a lot of those resources to the best possible use in a
country of large inequities: basic health care, education, and
infrastructure.

Conclusion: The weight of the U.S. economy in the world, although
still large (15-25% of global output), has declined and will continue
to decline.  On the other hand, the U.S. military budget is equal to
that of the rest of the world added up.  That's a concern, but if
anything the quagmire in Iraq has demonstrated once and for all the
limits of U.S. military "superiority."  Lashing out is not going to
stop the U.S. relative decline.  In fact, it is obvious to me that the
only event that could (and should) stop the ruin of the U.S. as a
society is that the most progressive forces in the country (and that
includes the working class in a position of leadership) take it over
and radically reorient its course.

The monopoly rents that Joaquín alludes to are more Marx than Lenin,
that is, they're of the ephemeral type, in spite of "intellectual
ownership" laws.  The infrastructure required to sustain technological
leadership (and this type of monopoly rents) in the U.S. has been
deteriorating rather rapidly, again in *relative* terms.  To sustain
these rents, firms need to retain a technological edge, innovate
continuously.  But there's a strong bias against science and
intellectual pursuits in the U.S. culture.  That bias is linked to the
historical origin of the nation.  The ruling elites in the U.S. (or a
large portion of the elites) have exhibited historically strongly
racist, xenophobic, parochial, and nationalistic instincts.  (The
reaction of the White House to 9/11 is a clear manifestation of this.)
 These socio-psychological attributes of the U.S. ruling class, not to
mention the reactionary influence of Christian fundamentalism among
rank-and-file Americans, are lethal to technological progress and they
will make it impossible for the U.S. to retain its predominance.

To summarize my views:

1. Yoshie is right to point out the need to defend public education as
an institution, which in the case of the U.S. is prior to the dispute
over reforming its contents.  But Yoshie is mistaken in believing that
the critique of the state of public education in 'purely technical'
terms (were that possible) is pure crisis-mongering.  There's an
actual crisis going on: a decline of U.S. educational standards and
scientific activity, if not in absolute terms (as some people claim),
certainly in relation to the rest of the world.  And that is a big
deal.

2. Joaquín is correct in calling attention to the deterioration in the
relative technological and economic position of the U.S. vis-a-vis the
rest of the world.  That deterioration is certainly connected to the
state of public education, and at a deeper level it is connected to
hardwired traits in the psychology of the ruling class and to U.S.
culture as a whole as it was conformed historically.

3. rr is correct in pointing out that the monopoly rents that Joaquín
views as propping up the U.S. economy (although they may be
substantial to the fistful of capitalists who pocket them) are not
substantial in terms of the U.S. economy as a whole, not to mention
the global economy.  Therefore, those rents *cannot* explain the
political backwardness of the workers' movement in the U.S., just as
they cannot explain the economic gap between the rich and the poor
capitalist countries.  And the proof that these rents are not decisive
is provided by Joaquín himself, who -- in spite of the rents --
forecasts an impending collapse of the U.S. society and culture.

4. Joaquín is right in pointing to the tendency of the U.S. society to
collapse.  But from that we should conclude that we need to redouble
our efforts to help the workers in this country unite, organize, reach
out to workers everywhere else, rescue this nation, and rebuild it
from its very foundations.  The U.S. workers are in a position to
contribute monumentally to building a better world.  And that's the
bottom line.

Julio




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