I hear the sounds of the city and dispossessed
Get down and get undressed.
Since the 1970s in America, the radical economists have used the model of monopoly rents to critique capitalism – inheriting the progressive tradition of battling against the giant trusts and restoring competition as a way of cutting down the accumulated economic and political advantages of the capitalist class. This way of thinking cuts across the grain of the (intentionally) naïve Manicheanism of the conservative economists, who like to pit the private sector (which is productive) against the government sector (which is parasitic). The notion that production – say, of education – magically turns into its opposite when done by the state is one of the stranger tics of the economic school that comes out of Chicago. But, as the radical economists like to point out, their liberal opponents, too, hold on to some less mystical version of this story, and ultimately believe that the market is the most efficient way to allocate capital – while worrying about distribution effects. The radicals, though, simply don’t believe in the private market at all – that is, they find that the state and the players in the private sector are always intertwined in some way.
One of the radical ploys, then, is to press on the idea of competition. In today’s NYT, for instance, there is an article by Yochai Benkler that asks the question: why has the U.S. fallen so far behind the rest of the developed world in the number of users of broadband, and in the expensiveness of broadband. The answer is that the government has coddled monopolies:
“IMAGINE that for $33 a month you could buy Internet service twice as fast as what you get from Verizon or Comcast, bundled with digital high-definition television, unlimited long distance and international calling to 70 countries and wireless Internet connectivity for your laptop or smartphone throughout much of the country.
That’s what you can buy in France, and similar speeds and prices are available in other countries with competitive markets. But not in the United States. Prices here are three to five times that much for the fastest speeds — the highest prices among advanced economies.
Affordability is the hard part — because there is no competition pushing down prices. The plan acknowledges that only 15 percent of homes will have a choice in providers, and then only between Verizon’s FiOS fiber-optic network and the local cable company. (AT&T’s “fiber” offering is merely souped-up DSL transmitted partly over its old copper wires, which can’t compete at these higher speeds.) The remaining 85 percent will have no choice at all.
Last year my colleagues and I did a study for the Federal Communications Commissionshowing that a significant reason that other countries had managed to both expand access and lower rates over the last decade was a commitment to open-access policies, requiring companies that build networks to sell access to rivals that then invest in, and compete on, the network.”
Among those disposed to Marxist analysis, monopoly rents operate beyond the unpaid labor of the workers embodied in profit. If competition can work on the surface to lower prices, then, the thought is, monopoly can work on the surface to raise them – or preserve prices from the “cheapening of the commodity” which, according to Marx, is one of the responses to competition between individual capitalists.
Marx was always corrosive about the idea that reform, rather than revolution, would remove the fundamental social conditions that immiserated the working class. This is from the Grundrisse:
“As the division of labor produces agglomeration, combination, cooperation, the opposite of private interests, class interests, competition produces concentration of capital, monopoly, stock companies [Aktiengesellschaften] – purely antithetical forms of the unity that the antithesis itself evokes – so private exchange produces world trade, private independence the most complete dependence on the so called world market, and, with the splittered act of exchange, a bank and credit sector, whose accounting books record the smallest equivalences of private exchange. The private interests of each nation divide it multitudinously into just so many nations as it possesses full grown individuals; the interests of the exporters and importers of the same nation stand here opposed to one another; and the national trade contains merely a semblance of existence, etc. in the rate of exchange Nobody should believe because of this that he might be able to abolish the foundations of domestic or foreign private trade through a reform of the Borse. But so many relations of trade and production are generated within the bourgeois society that depends on exchange value that they are even like so many mines, set to explode it (a mass of antithetical forms of social unity, whose opposed character is never to be exploded through quiet metamorphosis. On the other hand, if we did not find veiled, in society as it is, the material conditions of production and their corresponding relations of intercourse [Verkehrsvehältnisse] for a classless society, all efforts to explode it would be quixotic.)” – Grundrisse, 93-94
The interesting reference, here, is to those salvageable relations of intercourse, or commerce – which, in the standard translation of the Grundrisse, are rendered as relations of exchange. Here, I think, Marx is making a stab at what would later be called relations of reciprocity. Given the idea that there are features within the current nature of capitalism that are proleptic of the post-revolutionary state of society, one has to ask whether this or that feature of reform is a step in that direction or away from it. In any case, the accumulation that makes the capitalists as a class stronger is, as Marx saw, composed of unpaid labor that has the effect of making the working class more and more dependent on the capitalist class.
Marx does see that at any point in time, there are positions within the spectrum of ownership that would cause the capitalists to internally oppose one another – for instance, on the question of export and import. These antitheses can have enormous consequences that can be mapped out in various branches of industry. A very rough overview of the American economy since WWII could be made using two simple variables – the rate at which monopoly rents are exhausted, and the rate at which the working class successfully lowered the rate of exploitation – and you would get a picture of a sort of conjunction in the 1970s. At that point, there was a certain flip as the American capitalist class as a whole saw its interest in raising the rate of exploitation for the reason that the supplement of monopoly rents – in the world economy – had shrunk. In such pacts, the importers and exporters can agree.