Mainstream economists (such as Larry Summers and Paul Krugman) are clutching at straws to try to explain capitalism’s poor performance, especially the specter of low investment and slow growth—otherwise known as “secular stagnation.” The latest straw is monopoly power.
Even the Council of Economic Advisers (pdf) is focusing attention on the monopoly straw—although, like others within mainstream economics, they’re not at all clear why it’s happening.
there is evidence of 1) increasing concentration across a number of industries, 2) increasing rents, in the form of higher returns on invested capital, across a number of firms, and 3) decreasing business and labor dynamism. However, the links among these factors are not clear. On the one hand, it could be that a decrease in firm entry is leading to higher levels of concentration, which leads to higher rents. On the other hand, it could be that higher levels of concentration are providing advantages to incumbents which are then used to raise entry barriers, leading to lower entry. Or it might be that some other factor is driving these trends. For example, innovation by a handful of firms in winner-take-all markets could give them a dominant market position in a very profitable market that could be difficult to challenge, discouraging entry. Even though it is not clear whether or how these three factors are linked, these trends are nevertheless troubling because they suggest that competition may be decreasing and could require attention by policymakers and regulators.
While some on the liberal wing of mainstream economics have recently discovered increased concentration within the U.S. economy, they fail to credit the longstanding tradition outside of mainstream economics (e.g., within the Marxian critique of political economy) of analyzing the concentration and centralization of capital and the rise of “monopoly capital.”
Liberal mainstream economists simply have no theory of the contradictory dynamics of capitalism (one that can explain, for example, its recurring boom-and-bust cycles), much less a theory of the firm (other than hanging on to the fantasy of the social benefits of competition). That’s why they don’t have a theory of the causes and consequences of the rise of monopoly capital—nor, for that matter, do they indicate any knowledge of the criticisms of and alternatives to the theory of monopoly capital.
I’m thinking in particular of the work of Bruce Norton who, in a variety of articles, has identified some of the key problems in the theory of monopoly capitalism, especially the presumption that “capitalists always strive to increase their accumulation to the maximum extent possible.”* Norton draws particular attention to the wide variety of distributions of the surplus-value corporate boards of directors appropriate from their workers—not just in the form of dividends, but also “profit taxes, salaries of corporate supervisory managers, lawyers, financial and personnel officers, etc., [which are] equally central to the basic workings of the US economy and particularly aggregate demand.”
Each supports processes shaping in particular ways the social formation, the accumulation process, and the continued appropriation of surplus value, and each is a class process, a distribution of surplus labour. We need accumulation theory which takes pains (1) to identify all these various flows of surplus in a particular social formation and (2) to theorise their variegated inter relationships with other aspects of social life (including the continued extraction of surplus value).
That’s precisely what is missing from mainstream economics, including its liberal wing: a theory of the contradictory class dynamics of capitalist firms and of capitalism as a whole.
*See, e.g., his “Epochs and Essences: A Review of Marxist Long-Wave and Stagnation Theories,” published in 1988 in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, and “The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism and Classical Economics,” published in 1995 in History of Political Economy.