Magazine article Monthly Review

A Predatory System

Magazine article Monthly Review

A Predatory System

Article excerpt

A Predatory System François Chesnais, Finance Capital Today: Corporations and Banks in the Lasting Global Slump (Chicago: Haymarket, 2018), 328 pages, $28.00, paperback.

Over two decades ago, the financialization of capitalism joined the list of topics most hotly discussed by intellectuals and economists who follow Marxist theory. François Chesnais was one of the first authors among them to address the topic directly. A closing chapter of his 1994 book La mondialisation du capital, which studied the reorganization of productive capital during the ongoing global wave of liberalization, was devoted entirely to the subject of financialization. That chapter would be expanded into two in the book's second edition, published three years later.

Also in 1997, in Monthly Review, Paul Sweezy published the article "More (or Less) on Globalization," in which he pointed to the links between the stagnation of the world's major economies, the growth of multinational corporate production, and "the financialization of the capital accumulation process." Given the succession of financial crises wracking the world, and conventional economic theory's flailing before them, the term would soon be popularized, inspiring a growing range of studies and research projects, many along Marxist lines.

Chesnais's latest book, Finance Capital Today, emerges as the most polished attempt yet to clarify a number of lingering questions around the matter. Chesnais is well-equipped to confront these problems: he provides an exhaustive review of the debate over financialization, drawing on a vast institutional and non-institutional financial literature and tackling conceptual issues head-on. His book takes the discussion to a new level entirely.

Chesnais's main thesis is that financialization is the profound, widespread dissemination of the characteristics of interest-bearing capital (as identified by Marx in volume 3 of Capital) throughout the capitalist system as a whole, through which its activity becomes "organically embedded in the fabric of social life." The omnipresence of interest-bearing capital-the most flagrant form of the mystification of capital, in Marx's view-thus cannot be dissociated from a consideration of the extreme degree of the concentration and centralization of capital that now characterizes the accumulation process.

Chesnais treats these concepts with clarifying precision, arguing that we must distinguish "finance capital" from "financial capital." The former, in the definition made famous by Rudolf Hilferding-though its meaning may have since shifted-refers to the simultaneous, interconnected processes of the concentration and centralization of capital. Through the intensification of mergers and acquisitions, this phenomenon has produced today's internationalized global banks, major transnational industrial and service corporations, and global commerce giants, all of them closely intertwined. Financial capital, meanwhile, denotes finance stricto sensu -or, as Chesnais puts it, "finance qua finance": the process associated with the spectacular growth, over the last forty years, of the assets (bonds, stocks, derivatives) held and traded by financial corporations (major banks and funds) and by the financial departments of major corporations and transnational businesses.

According to Chesnais, finance capital and financial capital refer to distinct but related dimensions of contemporary capitalism. The most important result of their combined influence is that a general vision of capital as property has come to permeate that of capital as function. From the perspective of the substance of value, this means that the appropriation of surplus value grows increasingly distant from its source-whether because highly concentrated industrial capital holds outsized market power and the capacity for monopsony, because the predatory appropriation of the surplus value of weaker businesses comes to prevail over the direct exploitation of labor, or because the search for valorization has come to rest on fictitious assets whose connection to the production of surplus value is increasingly remote. …

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