Chris Harman


For Marxists only

(January 1981)

From Socialist Review, 19 January-16 February 1981: 1, p.34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The World Economic Crisis: US imperialism at bay
Yam Fitt, Alexandre Faire and Jean Pierre Vigier
Zed Press, £10.95 (Hdbk), £3.95 (pbk)

The Economic Crisis and American Society
Manuel Castells
Basil Blackwell, £4.95.

Major international crisis has been with us for seven years now. Yet attempts at explanation are still few and far between. Under such circumstances virtually any book on the subject is welcome. Unfortunately, however, neither of these two works provides an adequate account of what is happening.

The World Economic Crisis is a collection of more or less journalistic accounts of how US capitalism has responded in terms of international policy as the crisis has begun to hit it.

They are, by and large, disappointing. The single exception is an introduction by Noam Chomsky. He provides a lucid account of US efforts to reassert its international power – an excellent antidote to all those who see things in terms of a simple decline of US influence.

Otherwise, the book never quite comes to terms with its subject matter. Facts (sometimes from rather dubious sources) are given which simply contradict claims made elsewhere. For example, Yann Fitt notes in passing that the world’s major raw material and food producer is the US; this does not stop all three authors reproducing the ‘unequal exchange’ argument – the claim that the exploitation of the Third World countries takes place because they are the major raw material and food producers and are forced to sell these things at reduced prices.

The ‘scientific’ argument used to back up such conclusions is strange indeed. Vigier attempts to account for the effect of technological change on the rate of profit – but all he succeeds in doing is producing two or three pages of gibberish.

The pieces by Fitt and Vigier are the most disappointing. The world economic crisis for them is little more than a conspiracy by the US. West Germany, for instance is seen as no more than a puppet of the Americans. This hardly explains the unwillingness over the last year of West Germany to support the trade boycott of Russia which was supposed to follow the occupation of Afghanistan. And the implication is that everything reactionary in Europe comes from the US-German bloc – which must be surprising news for those in the various parts of Central Africa where French troops still operate or those faced with British troops in Northern Ireland.

Castells’ book is a more serious effort. Some sections of it are very good indeed – his accounts of the crisis of the cities and of the changes in the family as married women are pulled into the workforce, for example. He also provides a wealth of useful factual material. Where he fails is in his attempts in the first part of the book to provide an account of the dynamic of the system that would fit the different elements of the crisis together. The failure, like so many others before, is a failure to explain convincingly the interaction of Marx’s ‘theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ and its ‘countervailing factors’.

The result is that in the latter half of the book arbitrary assertion tends to replace Marxist argument (he even, at one point, goes against the labour theory of value by claiming that technical change which increases productivity also creates new value).

Despite these criticisms, the book is worth looking at for those with some prior knowledge of Marxist economics.

Last updated on 18 March 2010