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Understanding the World with Paul Sweezy

 

I’m an optimist by disposition but some weeks it’s hard to find evidence of progress in human affairs. Here on the tv screen is Secretary of State Colin Powell smoothly fulfilling his designated function as the Empire’s prime dispenser of official lies. This particular morning Powell is ladling unctuous bilge about the US-sponsored coup in Haiti, even as the renaissant Tonton Macoutes, under the tolerant gaze of USMC officers, swarm across Port au Prince chopping up any supporters of Aristide they can find.

And here’s Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nomination in his grasp. Having made his own extremely zestful contribution to the body count in Vietnam during the Phoenix sweeps Kerry knows where many of the Empire’s bodies are rotting. In his first senate term he even led useful hearings into the BCCI scandal and the arms-for-cocaine shuttle in Central America. Then the Elders of Empire told him to mind his manners shut up, which he promptly did.

But truth can pop out of Kerry’s mouth from time to time, as happened amid the Haiti coup unrolling at the end of February under the carefully uncomprehending eyes of the US press. The Bush administration, Newsday reported Kerry as saying, “has a theological and ideological hatred for Aristide” which led to the administration “empowering” the rebels.

Not so bad. Then Kerry flew to Los Angeles (where the LAPD had just plugged 17 bullets into a robber backing his car towards them) and called for 40,000 more troops in Iraq, 100,000 more cops on the streets at home, 100,000 more firemen. There’s Keynesianism in action for you: John Kerry’s bold pledge for job creation. He also pumped up California’s AG, Bill Lockyer, to prod the courts into nullifying San Francisco’s marriages for gays.

Democrats will spend the rest of the year insisting they’re not liberal softies. So, rest assured, Kerry “will not hesitate to order direct military action when needed to capture and destroy terrorist groups and their leaders.” The Washington Post’s man noted that “Kerry appeared to outline his own preemptive doctrine in the speech.”

That’s the presidential option this year: a choice between preemptive doctrines. Bill Blum, who’s written a useful history of the outfit, picked up on Kerry’s attack in this same speech on Bush for providing insufficient funding for the National Endowment for Democracy. As Bill wrote, “He probably thought he was on safe ground; the word ‘democracy’ always sells well. But this is his most depressing comment of all. He’s calling for more money for an organization that was set up to be a front for the CIA, literally, and that for 20 years has been destabilizing governments, progressive movements, labor unions, and anyone else on Washington’s hit list”, including Haiti, where the NED has been active.

“When all seems dark”, my father, Claud, used to say when I was a teenager, “try reading a little Marx. It puts things in perspective.” As I’d mope over the defection of some girl friend he’d thrust a copy of the Eighteenth Brumaire into my hand and tell me to cheer up. I remembered Claud’s advice last weekend, when news that one of the world’s great Marxist economists, Paul Sweezy, had died at the age of 93.

Sweezy wasn’t at all like Marx in personal demeanor. Karl was hairy, bohemian, cantankerous whereas Paul, godlike in his good looks, radiated an amiable and dignified calm, as least in my limited personal experience. Reading Marx, you feel you feel you’re getting to the truth of the matter and it was the same way with Sweezy. He wrote and taught with extraordinary clarity.

After Sweezy’s death, I asked Robert Pollin, once a student of Sweezy’s, now teaching economics at U Mass, for his thoughts on Sweezy. Bob remembered the excitement of Sweezy’s lectures at the New School, and he swiftly furnished many interesting paragraphs about Sweezy’s great contributions, in the big books and in Monthly Review, which he founded with Leo Huberman in 1949.

At Harvard in the 1930s Sweezy was the star grad student of Joseph Schumpeter. Pollin reckons that Schumpeter was thinking of Sweezy, whom he greatly admired, when he wrote in Capitalism, Socialism, Dem ocracy, that capitalism would not survive because capitalism breeds intellectual freedom, hence people with critical faculties and it’s only inevitable that this spirit breeds powerful minds who will turn their guns on the deficiencies of capitalism itself. Then Schumpeter, conservative himself, wrote that socialism would succeed, maybe unwieldily, but more egalitarian nonetheless, in part because the brilliant thinkers grown dissatisfied with the crassness and injustices of capitalism would also rise to the top in a socialist society, and make it function decently. “And again,” Bob writes, ” who else could he have had in mind here but Paul, his student and protégé?”

Different times, brighter hopes. These days we’re looking at a lot of socialist rubble, but simultaneously at capitalist architecture whose stresses and failures Sweezy in accessible terms, decade after decade, in his books and in Monthly Review, which he founded with Leo Huberman in 1949, trenchantly detected and explained: the reasons for the New Deal’s failure, until World War 11 bailed out the system; military Keynesianism and the Korean war as the factors in US recovery after that war; underdevelopment in the Third World, consequence of dependency that was created by imperialism the focus, (an analysis evolved with Harry Magdoff in Monthly Review); the increasing role of finance in the operations of capitalism, an analysis, again evolved with Magdoff in Monthly Review from the late Sixties on.

Way ahead of most, Sweezy was clear-eyed about the trends: the capture of more and more of society’s wealth by the rich, the threat this tapering pyramid of purchasing power poses to the stability of the whole system, the need for the left to bolster what defenses working people can muster against the predators. “Sweezy”, Bob Pollin writes, “was the most powerful Marxist exponent of underconsumptionism since Rosa Luxemburg. Keynes himself later embraced this as his analysis of the 1930s depression. Underconsumptionism is the tendency in capitalist economies for the capitalists to produce more things than the people can afford to buy. Capitalism could solve this problem through more income equality, and
more social control over investment spending. But capitalists don’t like that solution. Therefore, as Sweezy and Baran argued in Monopoly Capital, they come up with alternative means of getting buyers for the things monopolist firms decide to produce: they get the military to spend, they induce spending through advertising, and they ride the wave of epoch-making innovations like the automobile (which brought public highway construction and government subsidized construction of the suburbs).”

Read Sweezy’s books and you can understand why we have US Marines presiding over the continuing enslavement of Haiti, why we have John Kerry proclaiming his doctrine of progressive interventionism, why we have Alan Greenspan calling for renewed onslaught on Social Security. He taught generations how to understand these things, how not to be surprised. Like all great teachers he gave us the consolations as well as the burden of such knowledge. If you know what’s happening you’re in a position to figure out how to do something about it, and that’s always uplifting.

 

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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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