Three Essays on Marx’s Value Theory & The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism

Reviewed by Sarah

Samir Amin, Three Essays on Marx’s Value Theory. (Monthly Review Press, 2013);
Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 2013)

In these two works Amin characterizes the current state of the global economy as generalized monopoly capitalism. This regime, in his view, began after 1975 and was fully in place by 2000. He gives a compelling description of it.

Inspired by Marx’s value theory, Amin argues that the surplus created by early 20th-century monopoly capitalism required new areas for investment It therefore expanded first into the tertiary sector and more recently into the financial sector. The first led to a push for privatization of public-sector services; the second, to the financialization of the economic system. In both instances, further accumulation was achieved. Through financialization, generalized monopoly capitalism transferred control over reproduction of the economic system to about 30 giant banks in the core Triad (USA, Europe, and Japan). The economic system is driven not by the market, but rather by the power of the plutocracy.

Amin explains that generalized monopoly is the result of the continued concentration of power and wealth – but not property – that grows mostly from investment in the stock market, rather than investors’ own innovations. It is, therefore, expressed through the power of money, rather than the power of property. It is constituted by plutocracies that govern oligopolistic groups through their directors and salaried servants. While shareholders own the corporations, it is the top executives who decide in their name. The old bourgeoisie ceases to exist; its members have become subcontractors or employees of generalized monopoly capitalism.

The oligopoly, although acting at a global level, is strictly national. Yet national sovereignty is weakened and nothing replaces it. This new stage of capitalism involves a stronger collusion between capital and the state, and both are above the market. Calls for decentralization fail to recognize, argues Amin, that there is no going back in history, no possible return to competitive capitalism.

The system, however, is failing, due to the “awakening of the South.” From the beginning, capitalism destroys two sources of wealth, human beings and nature; included is the material and cultural dispossession of people in peripheral nations. The decline of capitalism begins in the 1870s, but continues with challenges from the periphery and semi-periphery, such as Russia in 1905, Iran in 1907, Mexico in 1910, and China 1911.

Amin defines emerging economies in a way that challenges common parlance. The key characteristic of a truly emerging economy is its ability to de-link from the center; to be inward looking, creating a domestic market and reasserting sovereignty. Economies whose GDP is growing significantly, but that do not de-link and remain at the service of generalized monopoly capitalism are not emergent. Thus, Turkey, Iran, and Egypt are not emergent. China, however, is a good example – though not a model – of an emerging country that challenges the Triad. The Triad fights against the mobilization of peripheral peoples and states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that seek to escape from subordination.

Amin reminds us that audacity of hope, as expressed in many proposals to modify the system without challenging it, is a mirage. The true solution is a socialist one. He offers his recommendations of what is necessary for an effective transition into socialism: socialize the ownership of monopolies, de-financialize, and de-link. He is unsure whether the Left is prepared and sufficiently mobilized for such a task. The population can just as readily be led into fascism. The European Union creates opportunities for a movement toward socialism, but the question is whether it can be transformed. Amin does not have much hope there. Yet he does see possibilities in anti-imperialist struggles of the periphery, as they are potentially anti-capitalist.

While in both works Amin brings Marx’s analysis effectively to the 21st century, he does not offer a new outlook. His proposals disregard current research and the efforts of many social actors. He views the socialization of monopoly capitalism as the only acceptable form of change. In the abstract, socialization is a logical solution to the problem of the dehumanizing character of capitalism. Yet, he does not address the fact that socialization of the generalized monopolies is just as likely to lead to state capitalism, as in China. Existing research on worker-managed enterprises illustrates the tendency for a small number of workers to dominate the decision-making process, eventually leading to oligarchy. Amin, however, leaves this issue to an unknown future, where the actors must sustain the fight for democracy.

Amin wants to include the lessons of the 20th century in his desire to reiterate that capitalism is imploding. This leads him into interesting paradoxes. He sees China de-linking from, and challenging, the Triad, but does not explore the extent to which China may be simply competing for a spot among those in the core. If China is, as he observes, engaging in state capitalism, one must wonder whether it is really de-linking, or simply presenting another set of monopolies that vie for power among the oligopoly. There is also a paradox in his treatment of development. By recalling Marx’s view of social value, he reminds us of a humanistic view of development, one where development is more than GDP. He also adds a desire to view the world from the perspective of the South. Yet, he chooses to rely on the vision of development born of the West, where socialism is seen as a more advanced stage of human civilization, preceded by generalized monopoly capitalism. Significant research in development theory has questioned such unilinear, Western visions of development. Yet he reiterates them.

The limited regard for detail leads to significant overgeneralizations with no supportive evidence, as in the argument that the Chinese peasantry is not reactionary because it is not defending the principle of private property, or the argument that German workers are relatively docile because they accepted salary levels 30% lower than those of the French. Because there is no supportive evidence, the reader must accept his word for it; one must believe Chinese peasants do not seek private property, that German workers have lower salaries than French workers, and are relatively docile. There is also little specificity regarding who the oligopolies are, what role multinational corporations play in this process and how.

Nevertheless, in Three Essays on Marx’s Value Theory, Amin offers a wonderful application of Marx’ value theory to analyze generalized monopoly capitalism. It is a dense set of essays that speak to experts. The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism on the other hand, is much more approachable, meant for a larger audience, but not the layperson. The jargon embedded here presumes some degree of knowledge of Marxist theory. Both offer his insightful reflections on the current affairs of global economy. These two works in conjunction with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century can be a great resource for further discussion.

Reviewed by Sarah Hernandez Division of Social Sciences New College of Florida