Category: Recommended Readings

David Harvey Reviews Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

Afterthoughts on Piketty’s Capital

By David Harvey

Retrieved 05/17/14 from

Thomas Piketty has written a book called Capital that has caused quite a stir. He advocates progressive taxation and a global wealth tax as the only way to counter the trend towards the creation of a “patrimonial” form of capitalism marked by what he dubs “terrifying” inequalities of wealth and income. He also documents in excruciating and hard to rebut detail how social inequality of both wealth and income has evolved over the last two centuries, with particular emphasis on the role of wealth. He demolishes the widely-held view that free market capitalism spreads the wealth around and that it is the great bulwark for the defense of individual liberties and freedoms. Free-market capitalism, in the absence of any major redistributive interventions on the part of the state, Piketty shows, produces anti-democratic oligarchies. This demonstration has given sustenance to liberal outrage as it drives the Wall Street Journal apoplectic.

The book has often been presented as a twenty-first century substitute for Karl Marx’s nineteenth century work of the same title. Piketty actually denies this was his intention, which is just as well since his is not a book about capital at all. It does not tell us why the crash of 2008 occurred and why it is taking so long for so many people to get out from under the dual burdens of prolonged unemployment and millions of houses lost to foreclosure. It does not help us understand why growth is currently so sluggish in the US as opposed to China and why Europe is locked down in a politics of austerity and an economy of stagnation. What Piketty does show statistically (and we should be indebted to him and his colleagues for this) is that capital has tended throughout its history to produce ever-greater levels of inequality. This is, for many of us, hardly news. It was, moreover, exactly Marx’s theoretical conclusion in Volume One of his version of Capital. Piketty fails to note this, which is not surprising since he has since claimed, in the face of accusations in the right wing press that he is a Marxist in disguise, not to have read Marx’s Capital.

Piketty assembles a lot of data to support his arguments. His account of the differences between income and wealth is persuasive and helpful. And he gives a thoughtful defense of inheritance taxes, progressive taxation and a global wealth tax as possible (though almost certainly not politically viable) antidotes to the further concentration of wealth and power.

But why does this trend towards greater inequality over time occur? From his data (spiced up with some neat literary allusions to Jane Austen and Balzac) he derives a mathematical law to explain what happens: the ever-increasing accumulation of wealth on the part of the famous one percent (a term popularized thanks of course to the “Occupy” movement) is due to the simple fact that the rate of return on capital (r) always exceeds the rate of growth of income (g). This, says Piketty, is and always has been “the central contradiction” of capital.

But a statistical regularity of this sort hardly constitutes an adequate explanation let alone a law. So what forces produce and sustain such a contradiction? Piketty does not say. The law is the law and that is that. Marx would obviously have attributed the existence of such a law to the imbalance of power between capital and labor. And that explanation still holds water. The steady decline in labor’s share of national income since the 1970s derived from the declining political and economic power of labor as capital mobilized technologies, unemployment, off-shoring and anti-labor politics (such as those of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) to crush all opposition. As Alan Budd, an economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher confessed in an unguarded moment, anti-inflation policies of the 1980s turned out to be “a very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes…what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which recreated a reserve army of labour and has allowed capitalists to make high profits ever since.” The disparity in remuneration between average workers and CEO’s stood at around thirty to one in 1970. It now is well above three hundred to one and in the case of MacDonalds about 1200 to one.

But in Volume 2 of Marx’s Capital (which Piketty also has not read even as he cheerfully dismisses it) Marx pointed out that capital’s penchant for driving wages down would at some point restrict the capacity of the market to absorb capital’s product. Henry Ford recognized this dilemma long ago when he mandated the $5 eight-hour day for his workers in order, he said, to boost consumer demand. Many thought that lack of effective demand underpinned the Great Depression of the 1930s. This inspired Keynesian expansionary policies after World War Two and resulted in some reductions in inequalities of incomes (though not so much of wealth) in the midst of strong demand led growth. But this solution rested on the relative empowerment of labor and the construction of the “social state” (Piketty’s term) funded by progressive taxation. “All told,” he writes, “over the period 1932-1980, nearly half a century, the top federal income tax in the United States averaged 81 percent.” And this did not in any way dampen growth (another piece of Piketty’s evidence that rebuts right wing beliefs).

By the end of the 1960s it became clear to many capitalists that they needed to do something about the excessive power of labor. Hence the demotion of Keynes from the pantheon of respectable economists, the switch to the supply side thinking of Milton Friedman, the crusade to stabilize if not reduce taxation, to deconstruct the social state and to discipline the forces of labor. After 1980 top tax rates came down and capital gains – a major source of income for the ultra-wealthy – were taxed at a much lower rate in the US, hugely boosting the flow of wealth to the top one percent. But the impact on growth, Piketty shows, was negligible. So “trickle down” of benefits from the rich to the rest (another right wing favorite belief) does not work. None of this was dictated by any mathematical law. It was all about politics.

But then the wheel turned full circle and the more pressing question became: where is the demand? Piketty systematically ignores this question. The 1990s fudged the answer by a vast expansion of credit, including the extension of mortgage finance into sub-prime markets. But the resultant asset bubble was bound to go pop as it did in 2007-8 bringing down Lehman Brothers and the credit system with it. However, profit rates and the further concentration of private wealth recovered very quickly after 2009 while everything and everyone else did badly. Profit rates of businesses are now as high as they have ever been in the US. Businesses are sitting on oodles of cash and refuse to spend it because market conditions are not robust.

Piketty’s formulation of the mathematical law disguises more than it reveals about the class politics involved. As Warren Buffett has noted, “sure there is class war, and it is my class, the rich, who are making it and we are winning.” One key measure of their victory is the growing disparities in wealth and income of the top one percent relative to everyone else.

There is, however, a central difficulty with Piketty’s argument. It rests on a mistaken definition of capital. Capital is a process not a thing. It is a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money often, but not exclusively through the exploitation of labor power. Piketty defines capital as the stock of all assets held by private individuals, corporations and governments that can be traded in the market no matter whether these assets are being used or not. This includes land, real estate and intellectual property rights as well as my art and jewelry collection. How to determine the value of all of these things is a difficult technical problem that has no agreed upon solution. In order to calculate a meaningful rate of return, r, we have to have some way of valuing the initial capital. Unfortunately there is no way to value it independently of the value of the goods and services it is used to produce or how much it can be sold for in the market. The whole of neo-classical economic thought (which is the basis of Piketty’s thinking) is founded on a tautology. The rate of return on capital depends crucially on the rate of growth because capital is valued by way of that which it produces and not by what went into its production. Its value is heavily influenced by speculative conditions and can be seriously warped by the famous “irrational exuberance” that Greenspan spotted as characteristic of stock and housing markets. If we subtract housing and real estate – to say nothing of the value of the art collections of the hedge funders – from the definition of capital (and the rationale for their inclusion is rather weak) then Piketty’s explanation for increasing disparities in wealth and income would fall flat on its face, though his descriptions of the state of past and present inequalities would still stand.

Money, land, real estate and plant and equipment that are not being used productively are not capital. If the rate of return on the capital that is being used is high then this is because a part of capital is withdrawn from circulation and in effect goes on strike. Restricting the supply of capital to new investment (a phenomena we are now witnessing) ensures a high rate of return on that capital which is in circulation. The creation of such artificial scarcity is not only what the oil companies do to ensure their high rate of return: it is what all capital does when given the chance. This is what underpins the tendency for the rate of return on capital (no matter how it is defined and measured) to always exceed the rate of growth of income. This is how capital ensures its own reproduction, no matter how uncomfortable the consequences are for the rest of us. And this is how the capitalist class lives.

There is much that is valuable in Piketty’s data sets. But his explanation as to why the inequalities and oligarchic tendencies arise is seriously flawed. His proposals as to the remedies for the inequalities are naïve if not utopian. And he has certainly not produced a working model for capital of the twenty-first century. For that we still need Marx or his modern-day equivalent.

David Harvey is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, published by Profile Press in London and Oxford University Press in New York.

What’s going on in Venezuela? Media Manipulation and Economic War

By Ricardo Fuentes-Ramírez

Retrieved from

A burning street barricade (Roberto Gil)

A burning street barricade (Roberto Gil)

The violent opposition protests that erupted during February 2014 in Venezuela are difficult to comprehend relying only on the mainstream media. One of the main sources of this difficulty is the significant number of exaggerated, manipulated, or uncorroborated social media postings. These postings are best exemplified by the number of images from police brutality from other countries that are shared claiming they are from Venezuela in order to discredit the current government. Steve Ellner’s article on Green Left and Pablo Vivanco’s article on BASICS News are recommended in order to give some context on these protests and their aftermath. However, another complicated subject is the economic problems that are mentioned as the causes of these protests, specifically inflation and basic good shortages. Therefore, it is useful to go over some articles that discuss these issues in more depth.

Inflation has always been a problem in Venezuela. As Gregory Wilpert explains, during the 1990s, annual inflation rates averaged around 50%. However, under the Chávez government the trend was finally turned around, with inflation going down to an average 22% per year. Nevertheless, it has continued being a problem. The main cause of inflation is having an oil-based economy. Wilpert explains, “Venezuela receives an influx of petrodollars that basically come into the economy and raise the level of wages and raise the level of prices in a way that heats up inflation.” What the media fails to mention, as Tamara Pearson has emphasized, is that “the government regularly (once or twice a year) increases the minimum wage to match inflation levels, or higher than them, and the informal sector increases its prices to match inflation as well,” so “people’s purchasing power has actually increased significantly under the current government.” In other words, even though there is inflation, Venezuelans’ purchasing power is actually increasing, not decreasing.

The other issue mentioned is shortages of basic goods. Many news sources have tried to give the impression Venezuelans are close to starving. However, as discussed by Ryan Mallet-Outtrim,  “food consumption increased by 80% between 1999 and 2011,” while the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization “awarded Venezuela for halving hunger within its territory between 1990-1992 and 2010-2012.” Similarly, Oliver Levingston notes “Venezuela’s average caloric intake has gone from 91% of recommended levels in 1998 to 101.6%” so “the average Venezuelan went from being under-fed to exceeding their recommended calorie intake within the space of decade.” Nonetheless, it is true that basic goods like corn flour, milk, and toilet paper are in and out of stock at unpredictable rates. So while Venezuelans aren’t going to be out of flour for more than a few days, you can’t plan to bake a cake next week because maybe there won’t be any (See Pearson’s The Scarcity Diaries).

So what’s behind this occasional scarcity? Is it just bad government policy? Not exactly. In fact, scarcity is mostly fueled by deliberate actions taken by wealthy Venezuelans, which as the government has denounced, are nothing less than an economic war waged against the people. As Levingston explains, private food producers and importers deliberately hoard and engage in investment strikes in order to undermine support for government policy. As evidence of this practice, Levingston mentions some of the numerous cases of government inspectors discovering tons of hoarded food. In early 2008, 13,000 tons of hoarded food were found in two weeks of state inspections. In March 2009, the government nationalized a rice-processing plant after it found 18,000 tons of rice hoarded in warehouses. He adds further evidence lies in the fact that scarcity moves so closely with the electoral calendar, it is difficult to argue it is not, at least in part, by political design. As an example, he mentions one of the periods of greatest shortages were the months prior to the December 2007 referendum. Similarly, “in the lead-up to April 2013 elections, scarcity and disinvestment skyrocketed,” and between the two general elections from November 2012 and June 2013, more than 40,000 tons of hoarded food were uncovered.

In terms of wealthy Venezuelan importers, these usually take advantage of the government’s currency controls in order to acquire US dollars at low rates with the pretense of importing goods for consumption in Venezuela, but instead sell these dollars in the black market. Of what they actually import, as Wilpert explains, between 30% to 40% is smuggled out of Venezuela. Furthermore, what they do offer in stores for consumption in Venezuela is overpriced at black market exchange rates, instead of the exchange rate at which they actually imported it. Tamara Pearson gives the actual example of what she calls one of her few vice foods: Pringles. At the rate at which importers acquire dollars from the government, Pringles should cost close to $2.20. However, they mark up the price according to the rate at which they are selling dollars in the black market, so they actually sell for $15.70! Thus, these wealthy Venezuelans fuel both inflation and shortages in the country.

Why are rich Venezuelans sabotaging their own country? Since the election of Hugo Chavez, and continuing with the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, government policy has been designed to democratize not only the political structures of the country, but the economy as well. The poor Venezuelan masses, for the first time in history, have benefited from the country’s vast resources; they have had substantial access to education and health care, and they have been politically empowered, both through traditional political structures as well as new ones, such as the innovative Communes. As the poor working masses have been empowered, the rich have been proportionately disempowered. Thus, wealthy Venezuelans have engaged in political and economic war, through the media and through their resources, to avoid further democratization of Venezuelan society. In a nutshell, that is what’s going on Venezuela.

Selected Readings from José Carlos Mariátegui

In this pdf, you will find the readings Prologue to Tempest in the Andes, The Indigenous Question in Latin America, The Latin American Socialist Revolution, and The Anti-Imperialist Point of View by José Carlos Mariátegui. They were retrieved from an anthology titled Marxism in Latin America 1909 to the Present edited by Michael Lowy. Click here to download the pdf file

José Carlos Mariátegui La Chira (14 June 1894 – 16 April 1930) was a Peruvian journalist, political philosopher, and activist. A prolific writer before his early death at age 35, he is considered one of the most influential Latin American socialists of the 20th century. Mariátegui’s most famous work, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928), is still widely read in South America. An avowed, self-taught Marxist, he insisted that a socialist revolution should evolve organically in Latin America on the basis of local conditions and practices, not the result of mechanically applying a European formula.” (Wikipedia)

Read a full biographical note on Mariátegui here. 

Ecuador: Left-Center Political Regimes Versus Radical Social Movements (by James Petras)

By James Petras

Retrieved from

On February 17, 2013, national elections will take place in Ecuador in which incumbent left-center President, Rafael Correa, is likely to win with an absolute majority against opposition candidates covering the political spectrum from Right to Left. [Update: Rafael Correa won the elections, defeating his nearest rival by more than 30 percentage points.]

Since he was first elected in 2006, Correa has won a string of elections, including presidential elections (2009), a constitutional referendum, a constituent assembly and a ballot on constitutional amendments. Correa’s electoral successes occur despite the opposition from the main Indian organizations, CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) and CONFENIAE, the principle public sector teachers unions, environmental NGOs and numerous radical intellectual, academics and trade union activists. He also has routed the traditional pro-US right-wing and liberal parties, successfully defeated and prosecuted the subversive intent of the mass media moguls and survived an aborted police-military coup in 2010. Unquestionably Correa has demonstrated his capacity to win repeated elections and even increase his margin of victory.

The electoral successes of Correa raise fundamental issues which transcend the immediate context of Ecuadorean politics and reflect a general pattern throughout Latin America. These issues include: (1) the relation between mass social movements and left of center electoral parties and politicians. (2) The relation between pro-active extractive capitalist development strategies (mining, oil, agro-business), inclusionary social policies and anti-imperialist regional foreign policies. (3) The inverse relation between the growth and consolidation of a left-center regime and the decline and weakening of radical social movements. (4) The problem of the initial convergence and divergence between radical social movements and left-center political leaders; as they move from ‘opposition’ to political power. (5) The shifts in power between movements and electoral politicians, with the former exercising greater capacity to mobilize during the period of opposition to the Right and the latter dominating and dictating the political agenda subsequent to securing electoral office.

The Politics of Post Neo-Liberalism

Correa’s “citizen based” electoral movement, operates from positions in government and eschews any ‘class framework’. In fact in its broadest terms, it appeals to and directs government programs to both the urban poor and the big foreign petroleum multi-nationals; the small and medium size business people and the Guayaquil business elite; workers in the informal sector and the public sector professionals and employees, the returning immigrants from Europe (especially Spain) and the construction, real estate and communication elite.

In foreign policy Correa has supported and has the backing of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments and is a member of ALBA; it has received large scale low interest loans from China (in exchange for oil investment and trade agreements) and retains commercial ties with the US and EU. Correa has backed greater Latin American integration and signed off on major public-private petrol contracts with US and European oil companies. He claims to be a socialist but condemns the Marxist FARC and praises the Colombian regimes’ ‘neo-liberalism’; questioned the illegal foreign debt (lowering it by 60%) and at the same time retains the dollar as Ecuador’s currency and opens indigenous territories to foreign capital exploitation.

In a word Correa’s “post neo-liberal policies” combine ‘nationalist populist’ and neo-liberal policies more than a program for the 21st century socialism that he proclaims.

Perspectives on President Correa’s Government

The national-populist extractive policies and development strategy of the Correa regime has polarized opinion across the hemisphere and within Ecuador. On the extreme right Washington and its mass media acolytes view Ecuador as a radical ‘socialist regime’. They take at face value Correa’s embrace of “21st century socialism”, in large part because of his ties to Venezuela, membership in ALBA, renegotiation of the foreign debt and Ecuador’s giving political asylum (in its British embassy) to Julian Assange, the Wilkileak’s leader.

Echoing Washington’s ‘radical leftist’ label are the traditional and newly minted rightist parties (Sociedad Patriotica) who have been marginalized by Correa’s electoral successes. Their critique of Correa’s early nationalist policies, renegotiating the debt and prevailing oil contracts, is now tempered by his recent large scale, long term investment agreement with several foreign multinational petroleum companies. The Ecuadorean oligarchy while publically condemning Correa are privately busy negotiating public-private procurement agreements especially in communications, infrastructure and banking.

The Indian movement, CONAIE, peasants, the teachers union, the ecology-NGOs and some smaller leftist parties oppose Correa for his “sellout” to the big oil companies, his authoritarian centralized power, the expansion of exploitation in the Amazon region and territorial encroachment and threats to Indian lands, water and health.

In contrast to internal opposition from the social movements, the vast majority of leftist parties and center-leftist regimes in Latin America, led by Cuba and Venezuela, are staunch supporters and allies of the Correa regime based primarily on his anti-imperialist policies, support for regional integration and opposition to US interventionist and destabilization policies in the region.

Internationally Correa has widespread support among progressives in the US and Europe especially for his early policies questioning the legality of the foreign debt, his rhetorical proposal to conserve the Amazon in exchange for cash transfers from the EU/US, his renegotiations of the oil contracts and his anti-imperialist pronouncements. Most important, Correa has secured long term large scale financial aid from China in exchange for exploitation of its oil resources.

Buttressed by allies in Latin America and Asia, Correa has effectively resisted pressures from the outside from the US. Internally, Correa has built a formidable bloc of social and political forces which has effectively countered opposition from the oligarchical right as well as from the once powerful radical social movements. The sustained popular majorities backing Correa from 2006 to the present 2013 are based essentially on several factors – substantial increases in social expenditures benefiting popular constituencies and nationalist policies increasing state revenues. The entire Correa paradigm, however, is based on one singular factor – the high price for oil and the boom in commodity prices which finances his strategy of extractive capital led growth and expenditures for social inclusion.

The Social Bases of Correa’s Popularity

Correa’s electoral victories are directly related to his populist social policies financed by the substantial oil revenues resulting from the high prices and huge increase from the renegotiation of the oil contracts with the multi-nationals – an increase from a 20% to an 85% tax. Correa increased the health budget from $561 million in 2006 to $774 million in 2012, about 6.8% of the national budget. Clinics have multiplied, the price of medications has been reduced as a result of a joint venture with the Cuban firm Enfarm, and access to medical care has vastly improved. Educational spending has increased from 2.5% of GDP in 2006 to 6% in 2013, including a free lunch program for children. The regime has increased state subsidies for social housing, especially for low income classes as well as returning immigrants. To lower unemployment, Correa has allocated $140 million in micro credits to finance self-employment, a measure especially popular among workers in the “informal sector”. By effectively reducing the debt to foreign creditors by two-thirds (debt service runs to 2.24% of GDP), Correa has increased the minimum wage and pensions for low income retirees thus expanding the social security system.

Anti-poverty subsidies, payments of $35 monthly (increased to $50 two weeks before the Elections) to poor families and the disabled and low interest loans have allowed Correa to gain influence and divide the opposition movements in the countryside. Business elites especially in Guayaquil and the middle and upper echelon of the public sector especially in the petrol sector, have become important contributors and backers of Correa’s electoral machine.

As a result of State subsidies, contracts and the backing of business and banking sectors and the weakening of the opposition media elites, Correa has built a broad electoral base that transverses the class spectrum. The entire ‘popular alliance’ is, however, highly dependent on Correa’s pact with extractive multi-nationals. His electoral success is a result of a strategy based on the revenue from a narrowly based export sector. And the export sector is highly dependent on the expansion of oil exploitation in the Amazon region which adversely affects the livelihood and health of the indigenous communities, who in turn are highly organized and in a permanent ‘resistance mode”.

The Contradictions of Extractive Capitalism and Populist Politics: The Threats and Challenges to Social Movements

The oil sector accounts for over 50 percent of Ecuador’s export earnings and over one-third of all tax revenues. Production has oscillated around 500,000 barrels a day, with increasing shares sold to China and a decreasing percentage to the US. In February 2013 Ecuador signed contracts for $1.7 billion in investments to boost output in the Amazon fields with Canadian, US, Spanish and Argentine multi-nationals in association with the Ecuadorean state company Petroecuador.

The biggest oil investments in the history of Ecuador promise to increase the levels of oil spills, contamination of Indian communities and intensification of the conflicts between CONAIE and its ecological and movement allies and the Correa regime. In other words as Correa sustains and consolidates his majoritarian electoral support outside of the Amazon and adjoining regions with increased social expenditures based on rising oil revenues, he will further dispossess and alienate the movements of the interior.

Social inclusion of the urban masses and promotion of an independent foreign policy are based on an alliance with foreign extractive multi-nationals which undermine the habitation and economy of small producers and Indian communities.

The history of petroleum exploitation contamination up to the present day provides little evidence to support President Correa’s claims of environmental safeguards. Texaco/Chevron oil exploitation in the Amazon contaminated millions of acres, dispossessed scores of Indian communities and sickened thousands of inhabitants resulting in a judiciary award of $8 billion dollars in favor of the 30,000 indigenous people adversely affected.

Recently Correa’s proposed oil contracts with multi-nationals to exploit 13 blocks in the pristine Amazon region covering millions of acres and inhabited by seven Indian nationalities, without consulting the indigenous communities thus contravening his own newly written constitution. Powerful mobilizations, led by CONAIE and CONFEIAE (the Ecuadorean Confederation of Amazonian Indian Nationalities) on the 28th of November 2012 in Quito and in the regions targeted for exploitation, has caused several oil majors to delay drilling. In the face of determined Indian resistance, Correa has shown the authoritarian side of his regime: threatening to dispatch the military to occupy and forcibly impose a kind of ‘martial law’, raising the prospects of prolonged political warfare.

While Correa can and does win national elections and routs his electoral opposition in the big cities, he faces a resolute organized majority in the Amazon and adjoining regions. Correa’s dilemma is that unless he diversifies the economy and reaches a compromise via consultation with CONAIE, his dependence on new oil ventures drives him toward de facto alliance with the traditional export elites and greater dependence on the military and police.

The Latin American Context

Correa’s bet on an export strategy based on primary goods has created a potentially dynamic mega cycle of growth but it is increasingly dependent on high world prices for oil. Any significant decline in price would immediately lead to a precipitous fall in social expenditures, erode his social coalition and strengthen the opposition from the right and the radical social movements. Correa’s repeated electoral successes and his widespread support across the progressive and anti-imperialist political spectrum, has seriously weakened the radical social movements a pattern that has been repeated throughout Latin America.

In the previous decade, roughly the period of the 1990’s to the early years of the 21st century, the radical social movements took center stage in toppling rightwing, US backed neo-liberal regimes. Ecuador was no exception: CONAIE and its urban allies ousted the incumbent neo-liberal President Mahuad in January 21, 2000, and joined with Correa in driving the Lucio Gutierrez regime from power in April 2005. Similar mass struggles and social mobilizations ousted neo-liberals in Argentina and Bolivia, while movement backed center left politicians took power in Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru.

Once ensconced in power the center-left regimes adopted a commodity led export strategy, embraced partnerships with the MNC and built broad electoral conditions which marginalized the radical social movements; with the aid of increased revenues they substituted populist transfer payments for structural transformations.

Nationalist foreign policies were combined with alliances with big commodity based MNC. To the extent that class struggles emerged, the populist leaders condemned them and even accused their leaders of “conspiring with the Right” – thus questioning the legitimacy of their demands and struggles.

The post neo-liberal center-left regimes in Latin America, with their populist politics of ‘inclusion’ have been far more effective in reducing the appeal and influence of the radical mass social movements than the previous US backed repressive neo-liberal regimes.

Those social movements which opted to support and join the center-left regimes (or were co-opted) became transmission belts for extractive policies. Confined to administrating the regime’s anti-poverty programs and defending the extractive capitalist model, the co-opted leaders argued for higher tax revenues and social expenditures, and, occasionally, called for greater environmental controls. But ultimately the “insider strategy”, adopted by some social leaders, has led to bureaucratic subordination and the loss of any specific class loyalties.


National-populism is and will be challenged from within by its ‘allies’ among the MNC who will increasingly influence their ‘public sector partners’ and, from the ‘outside’, by the pressures from the world market. In the meantime as long as commodity prices hold and the nationalist-populist leaders continue their ‘inclusive’ social programs, Latin American politics will remain relative stable and the economy will continue to grow, but it will continue to face resistance from the alliance of eco-social and indigenous movements.

What lessons can be drawn from the past two decades of social movement – populist electoral party alliances? The message is both clear and ambiguous. Clearly movements which do not have an independent political perspective will lose out to their electoral allies. However, there is no question that because of movement action, the populist electoral class has legislated significant social expenditures benefiting the popular classes and pursued a relative independent foreign policy – an ambiguous legacy or unfinished history?

The voluntary selling of labor power and the profit-worthy entrepreneur: On the bourgeois denial of exploitation

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez

One of the many ideological barriers that undermine efforts to understand the origins of profits, or to understand the nature of the relationship between the capitalist and the worker, is the bourgeois ideal of commodity production and exchange as the universal and natural form of human economic life. The late American economist Paul Sweezy argued this point early on in his discussion of value theory in his classical text The Theory of Capitalist Development. Quoting Smith, he sums it up as the idea that the propensity to exchange is peculiar to humans, and thus is one of the pillars, along with the division of labor, of human civilization. However, the analytical tools of historical materialism shed light to the fact that this not the case. In Sweezy’s words, commodity production “is not the universal and inevitable from of economic life. It is rather one possible form of economic life… a historically conditioned form which can in no sense claim to be a direct manifestation of human nature.”  Therefore, continuing with Sweezy’s argument, we must direct our attention to “the character of the social relations which underlie the commodity form.”

For example, the view of commodity production as our universal and natural economic form, would lead many to simply disregard capitalist profits as a result of exchange, and the overpricing of final products above the sum of the prices of its inputs. Marx’s analysis clearly demonstrates that this, once again, is not the case. One of the clearest examples on this issue can be found in his discussion on the contradictions in the circuit of capital, where he explains that if an individual with £40 value worth in wine, exchanges them for £50 value worth in corn, the total amount of value continues being £90. Therefore, “if equivalents are exchanged, no surplus-value results, and if non-equivalents are exchanged, still no surplus value. Circulation, or the exchange of commodities, begets no value.” Another of Marx’s important points on the matter is summarized by Sweezy, arguing that if every capitalist “were to attempt to reap a profit by raising the price, let us say by 10 per cent, what each gained as a seller he would lose as a buyer, and the only result would be higher prices all around from which no one would benefit.” At this point, it is clear to us that labor-power must be the source from which the capitalist is extracting profits, or more precisely, surplus value.

As Marx explains, capitalists “must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose, use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labor, and, consequently, a creation of value.” In order to find this commodity, Marx mentions two prerequisites. The individual who possesses labor-power must be the “untrammeled owner of his capacity of labor,” and also must not be “in the position to sell commodities in which his labor is incorporated,” he should “be obliged to offer for sale as a commodity that very labor-power, which exists only in his living self.” As Michael Lebowitz explains, “Marx proposed, workers first must be free in a double sense. They must be free to sell their labor-power… and they must be “free” of means of production.”

Once these conditions are satisfied, the capitalist can buy labor-power and use it to produce use-values.  The value of these use-values would be equal to the socially necessary abstract labor time required to produce them. However, if the capitalist were to sell these commodities at a value equal to the sum of the value of labor-power and the value of the means of production required to produce them, he would make no profits. Nevertheless, if the laborer were to continue working, after having worked the amount of hours equal to the value of his labor-power, he would be adding value that would result in profits for the capitalist. Sweezy summarizes this process explaining, “In a day’s work the laborer produces more than a day’s means of subsistence. Consequently the working day can be divided into two parts, necessary labor and surplus labor…” where “the product of surplus labor is appropriated by the capitalist in the form of surplus value.”

This appropriation, for Marx, meant that the working class is being exploited. This leads us to the question, why would the working class voluntarily participate in a process that results in their exploitation? Is it merely an ideological apparatus that perpetuates a false consciousness, allowing the capitalist to exploit the worker with no need for coercion? Surely ideology has a role, but it is in the particular stage of the development of the forces and relations of production that we find the underlying process that explains this phenomenon. As mentioned above, it is with the tools of historical materialism that we can comprehend how the capitalist can extract surplus value from workers in what appears to be a voluntary agreement. Specifically, it is related to the “double freeing” of the worker.

In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the two conditions of the free laborer were ensured. First, the decay of the feudal system meant the disintegration of the bonds between the serfs and the lords; setting the conditions for a mass of people that are “untrammeled owners of their capacity of labor.” Meanwhile, the enclosure movement ensured the second condition. As Ernest Mandel summarizes, “The economic changes which, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, created a mass of producers separated from their means of production in the towns, were thus accompanied by changes which in practice deprived part of the peasantry of land as a means of producing their means of life. In this way the modern proletariat appeared… In other words, the separation of the producers from their means of production creates a class of proletarians who cannot live otherwise than by hiring out their strength, that is, by selling their labor-power, to the owners of capital, which enables the latter to secure for themselves the surplus-value produced by these producers.”

This leads to what I consider a fundamental question, is the labor process truly free of coercion toward the worker? Surely, legal processes such as indentured and bonded labor or peonage, which were common practice in late feudalism and early capitalism across different geographical areas, are no longer in place to ensure coercive rights to capitalists. However, the absence of official, state condoned, coercive mechanisms, does not imply there is a total absence of coercion. As Lebowitz argues, the buying and selling of labor-power “looks like a free transaction;” however, the workers are being “compelled to sell their power to produce in order to get the things they need… They can sell it to whomever they choose, but they cannot choose whether or not to sell their power to perform labor (if they are to survive).” I would argue that in addition, most areas in the capitalist world economy in reality offer very limited choices in terms of to whom workers can sell their labor-power, but the main point is this: workers must sell their labor-power or starve to death. This is the fundamental reality of the modern proletariat, and this can hardly be classified as a free and voluntary choice.

Modern capitalism obviously generates exceptions or alterations to this fundamental reality. Most advanced capitalist nations possess welfare systems or safety nets that would prevent the worker from actually starving to death. However, this does not change the main point. In this particular case, workers must sell their labor-power or instead live practically in poverty, in conditions that profoundly hamper the development of the individual’s potential or capabilities. Once again, it is hardly a choice free of coercive elements. Would the average individual willingly desire to live in such conditions? Others would surely argue that the modern proletariat actually has choices. He can choose to become self-employed or to become an employer instead of selling his labor-power. However, these practices are the exception, not the rule. These exceptions no doubt help promote the idea that capitalism is a system of voluntary and free choices. Nonetheless, the fact is that a variety of political, cultural, and economic mechanisms block most of the proletariat from following these alternate paths. As Marx says, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” In practice, the mass of dispossessed workers, or free workers from the bourgeois perspective, are in fact forced to sell their labor-power by the processes we have so far discussed.

In addition, once these social relations of production are set, ideological elements develop that secure their continuous operation. This particular process exemplifies the relevance of value theory along with historical materialism. The pertinence of these perspectives, among other reasons, stems from the fact that they are profoundly useful analytical tools to debunk the myths that surround the origin of capitalist profits or the overall workings of the capitalist economy.

Sweezy’s closing remarks on the transformation problem coincide with this point: “Under capitalist conditions, a part of this social output is appropriated by that group and community which owns the means of production. This is not an ethical judgment, but a method of describing the really basic economic relation between social groups. It finds its most clear theoretical formulation in the theory of surplus value. As long as we retain value calculation, there can be no obscuring of the origin and nature of profits as a deduction from the product of total social labor… In short, value calculation makes it possible to look beneath the surface phenomena of money and commodities to the underlying relations between people and classes.” For this reason, value theory and historical materialism are not only useful analytical or theoretical tools; they are fundamental and key tools for activists seeking to organize and recruit workers for the struggle toward a socialist society.



Lebowitz, M. A. (2006). Build it now: Socialism for the Twenty-first century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Mandel, E. (1968). Marxist Economic Theory Volume One. London: Merlin Press.

Marx, K. (1967). Capital, Volume I. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, K., Engels, F., & Tucker, R. C. (1978). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The Marx-Engels Reader (pp. 594-617). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1972)

Sweezy, P. M. (1942). The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian     Political Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Puerto Rican Political Prisoner Avelino Gonzalez Claudio returns home

“Puerto Rican Political Prisoner Avelino Gonzalez Claudio will be returning to Puerto Rico this Thursday December 6th, 2012 to complete the remainder for his sentence, afterwards, he will be completing his probation time.

Avelino will be arriving at   2pm to Luis Munoz Marin Airport and will be welcomed back to his homeland by a group of people.”

In August of 1985, Avelino González Claudio was accused of participating in the planning and authorisation of an operation to secure $7,117,000 from a Wells Fargo armored truck in Hartford, Connecticut on September 12, 1983, along with other Puerto Ricans and two North Americans. The operation was carried out by a clandestine organization fighting for the independence of Puerto Rico, the PRTP-Macheteros. Avelino was not arrested at the time. However, more than 20 years later, he was arrested in Manatí­, Puerto Rico, on February 7, 2008.

Avelino was born in the town of Vega Baja on October 8, 1942. As a student at the University of Puerto Rico, he became a member and then vice-president of the Pro-Independence University Federation (Federación Universitaria Pro Independencia-FUPI). In the mid-1960’s, he married and moved to New York City, earning his living on Wall Street, and working with the Puerto Rican community, joining and then leading the Vito Marcantonio Mission of the Movemiento Pro-Independencia (MPI) in New York. He and his family of four children returned to Puerto Rico, where he worked in the independence movement, including administering the political journal Pensamiento Crí­tico (Critical Thought).

When the arrests of 1985 took place, and Avelino was not arrested, he assumed the identity of José Ortega, and, while the FBI pursued him, he lived a quiet life, working as a computer teacher to support his family and contributing constructively to his nation, seeking to improve the services provided by the Department of Education.

The charges against those arrested in 1985 had various results: Carlos Ayes, Filiberto Ojeda, Juan Segarra, Norman Ramirez and Roberto Maldonado went to trial in 1989; Ivonne Meléndez Carrión also went to trial—some were acquitted, others convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from one year to 55 years; while Orlando González, Hilton Fernández Diamante, Jorge A. Farinacci, Isaac Camacho, Elí­as Castro and Angel Días Ruiz negotiated a plea agreement in 1992. They were sentenced to terms of five years in prison. Two others have never been arrested: Avelino’s brother Norberto and Victor Gerena, and are being sought by the FBI.

Avelino is currently being held in Somers, the state of Connecticut’s supermax prison, far from his family and his nation, where he is locked down 23 hours a day, with no access to family visits or phone calls, in conditions which are calculated not only to interfere with his ability to prepare a defense, but which are tantamount to torture. He was sentenced to 7 years.

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