In response to:
Galbraith's Utopia from the November 15, 1973 issue
To the Editors:
For anybody devoted to the critique of orthodox economics the reading of Paul M. Sweezy’s review of John Kenneth Galbraith’s latest book Economics and the Public Purpose (NYR November 15, 1973) is a sad experience. The Western economies are on the verge of a severe depression as the result of a system which rests on egotistic greed of special interest groups and is unable to conceive and pursue the “public purpose.” To realize the common good against the special interest is not only the aim of Galbraith but also of Sweezy; yet, instead of accepting him as an ally Sweezy tears into Galbraith merely because he envisions a different way towards the same goal. Sweezy calls his review “Galbraith’s Utopia”; but has Sweezy, the dogmatic advocate of an obsolete utopia, the right to reject Galbraith’s ideas as utopian?
The thrust of Galbraith’s work is and has always been an attack against orthodox laissez-faire economics. Galbraith is perhaps the best known representative of a long line of economists who emphasized the changes in American capitalism brought about by the growing size of corporations: internally, the separation of management and ownership and the professionalization of management of which the technostructure is the most recent manifestation; externally, the growing importance of market and monopoly power. This is what Galbraith means by the perhaps not too fortunate term “the planning system.” It does not reduce Galbraith’s importance to note that these ideas were already advanced in the 1930s, e.g., by Berle and Means (The Modern Corporation and Private Property), by Arthur R. Burns (The Decline of Competition), by James Burnham (The Managerial Revolution). These ideas represented an attack against laissez-faire economics and the free market economy if the free market does not function any more because the owners are not any more the decision makers and because of the market power of the management of large corporations, the public purpose can only be ensured by strict government control or even socialization. This is the conclusion for which Berle and Means prepared the ground already in the 1930s. Sweezy would hardly disagree with this conclusion.
His violent disagreement is with Galbraith’s strategy of reform. He seems to imply that Galbraith advances his ideas about the bureaucratization, professionalization, and the planning strategies of corporate management only in order to make the task of reform appear easier. Galbraith expects reform from the technostructure and from what he called the scientific/ educational estate (in The New Industrial State); from what used to be called, even by Marxists, the intelligentsia. Is this so abstruse to justify Sweezy’s outcries? Are not the origins of Marxism to be found in the ideas of classical economists, of Hegel, of the utopian socialists? Has not every great change in history been preceded by a change in ideas and attitudes initiated by intellectuals? Sweezy’s outcry: “I challenge Galbraith, or anyone else, to say where such allies might conceivably be found except in the working class” suffers from what Sweezy accuses Galbraith of: “it is light years away from the reality of monopoly society.”
The working class has become segmentalized. Organized manual labor has become one of the most powerful and strongest supporters of monopoly capitalism: it supports unlimited economic growth, protectionism, restriction of competition, imperialists’ wars and, until recently, the Nixon administration which is much more “the executive organ of the bourgeoisie” than the British government during the lifetime of Marx. Unorganized labor is divided by ethnic differences. Those minorites which are discriminated against are in an entirely different position than organized labor; their labor power is not needed by the economy; therefore, they cannot fight for their interests by withholding it (strike). Their only weapon is civil warfare which organized labor abhors. The entire history of the labor and union movements in Western countries shows that the Marxist scheme has never worked and will not work. The “proletariat” is not inclined to be revolutionary when it is bought off with an increasing share of the capitalists” spoils. A “proletarian” revolution such as in Russia leads to the support of a “new class,” one very much like the technostructure which Galbraith describes.
Nothing said here should be interpreted as a critique of Karl Marx, the philosopher, the prophet, the teacher, and, above all, the great moralist (Schumpeter). A man can be a genius in his own time: a hundred years later, rigid application of his ideas to changed conditions can be quite unrealistic.
Today, orthodox Marxism is as obsolete as orthodox laissez-faire. The salvation lies not in orthodox but in revisionist Marxism based on the alienation concept of the young Marx: in a new, more balanced and less materialistic life style, in an improved quality of life and in a wise economizing of scarce resources of the spaceship earth. All this will not be brought about by a proletarian or any other revolution unless new ideas about the public purpose are developed and propagated by the educational and scientific estate. This may be a faint hope but we ought to be grateful to Galbraith for pointing it out.
Walter A. Weisskopf
Paul M Sweezy replies:
Let us assume that Galbraith’s aims and mine are essentially the same and that they are accurately characterized, at least in part, by Professor Weisskopf (in his last paragraph) as “a new, more balanced and less materialistic life style…an improved quality of life and…a wise economizing of scarce resources of the spaceship earth.” Even on this assumption, it does not follow that I “tear into Galbraith merely because he envisions a different way towards the same goal.” Quite apart from whether the expression “tear into” is justified (it certainly wasn’t my intention), my argument is that the methods favored by Galbraith will not lead toward this goal at all, and that the reasons he advances for believing that they will serve only to obfuscate and hence shield from analysis and criticism the very power relations and class interests which shape and benefit from the system which Professor Weisskopf begins by excoriating.
I welcome the development and propagation of “new ideas about the public purpose.” But I think it is fair to ask those engaged in this enterprise not only to clarify their conception of the public purpose but also to analyze why, under the present system, the public purpose (on any reasonable definition) gets such short shrift. Galbraith thinks it is because power is wielded by the technostructure. I think the technostructure is a myth, and that the real reason is that power is wielded by the owners and managers of capital in the interest of maximizing profits and the rate of capital accumulation. This is a fundamental difference which should not be glossed over and cannot be reconciled by willingness to accept each other as allies. On many secondary issues, to be sure, we are and I hope will continue to be allies. But not on this.
March 21, 1974