16 December 2013

Capitalism of Oligopolies

Pieces of Samir Amin, 2009, Capitalism of Oligopolies

At the Heart of Today's Problem: Capitalism of Oligopolies

Which Has Been Generalized, Globalized, and Financialized

Capitalism has reached a stage of centralization and concentration of capital out of all comparison with the situation only 50 years ago, and I thus describe this capitalism as one of generalized oligopolies.  "Monopolies" (or, better, oligopolies) are in no way new inventions in modern history.  What is new, however, is the limited number of registered oligopolies ("groups") which stands at about 500, if only the colossal ones are counted, and 3,000 to 5,000 in an almost comprehensive list.  They now determine, through their decisions, the whole of economic life on the planet, and more besides.  This capitalism of generalized oligopolies is thus a qualitative leap forward in the general evolution of capitalism.

The reason given for this evolution - and usually it is the only one - is that it is the inevitable result of technological progress.  This is only very partially true - and even so, it is important to specify that technological invention is itself commanded very largely by the requirements of concentration and gigantism.  For much production, efficiency not only does not demand gigantism but, on the contrary, "small" and "medium" enterprises.  This is the case, for example, with agricultural production, in which modern family agriculture has proved to be far more efficient.  But it is also true of many other types of production of goods and services, which are now subordinated to the oligopolies that determine the conditions of their survival.

In actual fact, the most important real reason is the search for maximum profits, which benefits the powerful groups who have priority access to capital markets.  Such concentration has always been the response of capital to the long, deep crises that have marked its history.  In recent history, it happened for the first time after the crisis that started in the 1870s and for the second time, exactly a century later, in the 1970s.

This concentration is at the origin of the "financialization" of the system, as this is how the oligopolies siphon off the global surplus value produced by the production system, a "rent monopoly" that enables oligopolistic groups to increase their rate of profit considerably.  This levy is obtained by the oligopolies' exclusive access to the monetary and financial markets which thus become the dominant markets.

"Financialization," therefore, is not, in any way, the result of a regrettable drift linked to the "deregulation" of financial markets, even less of "accidents" (like subprimes) on which vulgar economics and its accompanying political discourse concentrate people's attention.  It is a necessary requirement for the reproduction of the system of generalized oligopolies.  In other words, as long as their (private) status goes unchallenged, the talk of bold "regulation" of the financial markets is in vain.

The capitalism of generalized and financialized oligopolies is also globalized.  Here, again, "globalization" is in no way a new characteristic of capitalism, which has always been "globalized."  I have even gone further in the description of capitalist globalization, stressing its inherently "polarizing" character (producing a growing gulf between the "developed" centers of the system and its dominated peripheries).  This has taken place at all stages of capitalist expansion in the past and present, and it will in the foreseeable future.  I have also advanced the thesis that the new phase of globalization is necessarily associated with the emergence of the "collective imperialism of the Triad" (the United States, Europe, and Japan).

The new globalization is itself inseparable from the exclusive control of access to the natural resources of the planet exercised by collective imperialism.  Hence the center-peripheries contradiction - the North-South conflict in current parlance - is central to any possible transformation of the actually existing capitalism of our time.  And more markedly than in the past, this, in turn, requires the "military control of the planet" on the part of the collective imperialist center.

The different "systemic crises" that have been studied and analyzed - the energy-guzzling nature of production systems, the agricultural and food crisis, and so on - are inseparable from the exigencies of the reproduction of the capitalism of generalized, financialized, and globalized oligopolies.  If the status of these oligopolies is not brought into question, any policies to solve these "systemic crises" - "sustainable development" formulae - will just remain idle chitchat.

The capitalism of generalized, financialized, and globalized oligopolies has thus become an "obsolete" system, in the sense that the socialization of oligopolies, that is the abolition of their private status, should now become the essential strategic objective in any genuine critical analysis of the real world.  If this does not happen, the system by itself can only produce more and more barbaric and criminal destruction - even the destruction of the planet itself.  It will certainly mean the destruction of the societies in the peripheries: those in the so-called "emerging" countries as well as in the "marginalized" countries.

The obsolete character of the system as it has reached the present stage of its evolution is itself inseparable from changes in the structures of the governing classes ("bourgeoisies"), political practice, ideology, and political culture.  The historical bourgeoisie is disappearing from the scene and is now being replaced by the plutocracy of the "bosses" of oligopolies.  The drift of the practice of democracy emptied of all content and the emergence of ultra-reactionary ideological expressions are the necessary accompaniment of the obsolete character of contemporary capitalism.

The domination of oligopolies is exercised in the central imperialist Triad under different conditions and by different means than those used in the countries of the peripheries of the system.  It is a decisive difference, essential for identifying the major contradictions of the system and then imagining the possible evolutions in the North-South conflict, which will probably increase.

The collective imperialist Triad brings together the United States and its external provinces (Canada and Australia), Western and Central Europe, and Japan.  The globalized monopolies are all products of the concentration of national capital in the countries that constitute the Triad.  The countries of Eastern Europe, even those that now belong to the European Union, do not even have their own "national" oligopolies and thus represent just a field of expansion for the oligopolies of Western Europe (particularly Germany).  They are therefore reduced to the status of the periphery.  Their asymmetric relationship to Western Europe is, mutatis mutandis, analogous to that which links Latin America to the United States (and, incidentally, to Western Europe and Japan).

In the Triad, the oligopolies occupy the whole scene of economic decision-making.  Their domination is exercised directly on all the huge companies producing goods and services, as well as on the financial institutions (banks and others) that pertain to their power.  And it is exercised indirectly on all the small and medium businesses (in agriculture as in other fields of production), which are often reduced to the status of subcontractors, continually subordinated to the constraints that the oligopolies impose on them at all stages of their activities.  The oligopolies of the Triad operate in the countries of the periphery using various methods that will be described later on.

Not only do the oligopolies dominate the economic life of the countries of the Triad.  They monopolize political power for their own advantage, the electoral political parties (right and left) having become their debtors.  This situation will be, for the foreseeable future, accepted as "legitimate," in spite of the degradation of democracy that it entails.  It will not be threatened until, sometime in the future perhaps, "anti-plutocratic fronts" are able to include on their agenda the abolition of the private management of oligopolies and their socialization, in complex and open-endedly evolving forms.

Oligopolies exercise their power in the peripheries in completely different ways.  It is true that outright delocalization and the expanding practice of subcontracting have given the oligopolies of the Triad some power to intervene directly into the economic life of various countries.  But they still remain independent countries dominated by local governing classes through which the oligopolies of the Triad are forced to operate.  There are all kinds of formulae governing their relationships, ranging from the direct submission of the local governing classes in the "compradorized" ("re-colonized") countries, above all in the "marginalized" peripheries (particularly, but not only, Africa), to sometimes difficult negotiations (with obligatory mutual concessions) with the governing classes, especially in the "emerging" countries - above all, China.

There are also oligopolies in the countries of the South.  These were the large public bodies in the former systems of actually existing socialism (in China of course as in the Soviet Union, but also at a more modest level in Cuba and Vietnam).  Such was also the case in India, Brazil, and other parts of the "capitalist South"; some of these oligopolies had public or semi-public status, while others were private.  As the globalization process deepened, certain oligopolies (public and private) began to operate outside their borders and copy the methods used by the oligopolies of the Triad.  Nevertheless, the interventions of the oligopolies of the South outside their frontiers are - and will remain for a long time - marginal, compared with those of the North.  Furthermore, the oligopolies of the South have not captured the political power in their respective countries for their own exclusive profit.  In China the "statocracy" of the Party-State still constitutes the essential core of power.  In Russia, the mixture of State/private oligarchies has returned autonomous power to the State that had lost it for a while after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In India, Brazil, and other countries of the South, the weight of the private oligarchy is not exclusive: power rests on broader, hegemonic blocs, including mainly the national bourgeoisie, the middle classes, the owners of modernized large estates (latifundia) and rich peasants.

All these conditions make it impossible to confuse the State in the Triad countries (which functions for the exclusive use of the oligarchy and is still legitimate) and the State in the peripheries.  The latter never had the same legitimacy as it has in the centers and it may very well lose what little it does have.  Those in power are in fact fragile and vulnerable to social and political struggles.

The hypothesis that this vulnerability will be "transitory" and likely to attenuate with the development of local capitalism, itself integrated into globalization, is, even for the "emerging countries," unquestionably mistaken - a hypothesis that derives from the linear vision of "stages of development" (formulated by Rostow in 1960).  But conventional thought and vulgar economics are not intellectually equipped to understand that "catching up" is impossible in this system and that the gap between the centers and the peripheries will not "gradually" disappear.

The oligopolies and the political powers that serve them in the countries of the Triad pursue their sole aim of "emerging from the financial crisis" and basically restoring the system as it was.  There are good reasons to believe that this restoration - if it succeeds, which is not impossible, although more difficult than is generally thought - cannot be sustainable, because it involves returning to the expansion of finance, which is essential for the oligopolies if they are to appropriate monopoly rent for their own benefit.  A new financial collapse, still more sensational than that of 2008, is therefore probable.  But, these considerations apart, the restoration of the system, designed to expand the fields of activities for the oligopolies again, would mean aggravating the process of accumulation by dispossession of the peoples of the South (through seizure of their natural resources, including their agricultural land).  And ecologist discourses on "sustainable development" will not prevail over the logic of expansion of oligopolies, which are more than capable of appearing to "adopt" them in their rhetoric - as we are already seeing.

The main victims of this restoration will be the nations of the South, both the "emerging" countries and the others.  So it is very likely that the "North-South conflicts" are destined to become much greater in the future.  The responses that the "South" will give to these challenges could thus be pivotal in challenging the whole globalized system.  This may not mean questioning "capitalism" directly, but it would surely mean questioning the globalization commanded by the domination of the oligopolies.

The responses of the South must indeed focus on helping to arm their peoples and States to face the aggression of the oligopolies of the Triad, to facilitate their "delinking" from the existing system of globalization, and to promote multiple substantial alternatives of South-South cooperation.

Challenging the private status of the oligopolies by the peoples of the North themselves (the "anti-plutocratic front") is certainly an absolutely strategic objective in the struggle for the emancipation of workers and peoples.  But this objective has yet to become politically mature and it is not very likely to happen in the foreseeable future.  Meanwhile, the North-South conflicts will probably move to center stage.



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