Beyond Imperialism? Have We Reached a New Stage of Capitalism?

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             In 1917 Lenin published a penetrating analysis of the development of capitalism, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.  In it he described how the emergence of finance and monopoly capital enabled the great powers to exploit colonial empires, exporting finance capital to the periphery, while super-profits accruing to the capitalist center permitted the bribing of a very narrow labor aristocracy who could divert revolutionary action from the center’s working class along reformist lines.1 The theory pointed to the emergence of new revolutionary potential in the world classes of the colonial world as they struggled to overthrow both colonialism and the capitalist imperialism underlying it; thus, imperialism contained within it the seeds of its own destruction.  This theory fit well the emergence of national liberation struggles in the colonial world through the mid-1970s. However, from 1970 onward we have seen developments in the structure and praxis of capitalism which call into question whether the underlying model fits the current stage of capitalist development.  Among these developments four are particularly characteristic: the hyperfinancialization of capital, the fusion of ownership and management at the highest levels of capital, capitalism’s cannibalization of invested public labor through privatization recapitulating key facets of the earlier process of primitive accumulation, and the emergence of external, environmental constraints on capitalism’s ability to accumulate and reproduce.

             When Hilferding (1912, 283) and Lenin (1939, 47) emphasized the emergence of finance capital in the late decades of the nineteenth century, they saw it in terms of the transformation of the banking sector into industrial capitalists: 

”This bank capital, i.e., capital in money form which is thus really transformed into industrial capital, I call ‘finance capital’…. Finance capital is capital controlled by bank and employed by industrialists.”

However, the first decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed the hyperfinancialization of capital.  While there is evidence that this phenomenon began in the U.S. as early as the late 1970s, in 2000 it was dramatically displayed as profits of the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector substantially exceeded those of the manufacturing sector.  This trend has widened in the U.S. in every succeeding year with the exception of 2008.

             This development in the structure and praxis of global capitalism has created a substantial rentier subsector of the ruling class which is especially interested in pursuing policies which extract value from productive enterprises.  What Marx described as “fictitious capital” (Marx 1998, 397 passim) has become a key element in the ruling class’ preference for austerity policies.  Interest, other forms of debt service, and land rents constitute some of the various forms of fictitious capital; what distinguishes fictitious capital from money-capital per se is that it is not intended to fund the process of capitalist reproduction, but rather to merely be relent to meet or to speculate in the obligations of other fictitious capital.  In this respect hyperfinancialization results in a fundamental disconnect between fictitious capital and capitalist reproduction and is qualitatively quite different from previous stages of finance capital.  The extent to which the proceeds of the rentier sector are no longer invested to any degree in industrial production is striking. 

              Austerity policies in the current stage of capital are precisely designed to guarantee that such forms of fictitious capital are privileged over productive capital and that value from productive capital is extracted from the economy to meet obligations to fictitious capital.  Reduction of deficits, realization of “sound” deficit-to-GDP ratios, privileging income flows to creditors over other spending priorities, privatization of public assets to extract value for private interests – all of these characteristics of austerity are designed to ensure the flow of rents to the rentier subsector and to make the state and the national economy a more reliable source of such rents.

             The rentier subsector’s interest in both the state and the individual becoming more reliable sources of debt-related rents should be obvious from the fact of what Randy Martin (2002) describes as “the financialization of everything”: it takes a lifetime of debt to buy a house to get a place to live; students have to assume decades of debt to get an education in order to get a job, rather than the government funding education freely as was the ideal a hundred years ago; even with health insurance, a single catastrophic illness will burden the victim with a lifetime of yet more debt; credit card debt finances daily life for many people at rates which would have been criminally usurious a hundred years ago.  One can go on and on.  The amount of debt which ordinary citizens must assume – and the debt service which they must bear – is crushing, and the sovereign debt assumed by states to provide necessary services in a time when the right wing has made the notion of increasing taxes tantamount to political-economic suicide is even more crushing.   There is a very real sense in which the cycle of indebtedness represents a second mode of extraction of surplus value from the labor of the working class.

             It should take little critical examination of the situation to see that the hyperfinancialization of capital characteristic of the current stage of global capitalism is increasingly inclined to austerity as a buffer against the collapse of the entire system of fictitious capital.  It is precisely because hyperfinancialization is less robust against the vicissitudes crises than previous stages of capitalism, as Michael Hudson points out:

 ”Financial claims rise exponentially, beyond the economy’s ability to pay. Bubble economies try to postpone the inevitable crash by inflating prices for real estate, stocks and bonds by enough to enable debtors to take out higher loans against the property they pledge as collateral. Governments balance their budgets by privatizing public enterprises, selling “tollbooth” privileges on credit to buyers who bid up their prices by debt leveraging. Financial underwriters reap commissions and insiders making a killing as sales prices for stocks are underpriced to guarantee first-day price jumps…. A crash occurs at the point where this disparity is widely recognized. To bankers, the antidote is to lend enough new credit to re-inflate prices real estate and other assets, enabling new buyers to borrow the credit to buy property from defaulters. Rather than scaling back the U.S. economy’s over-indebtedness, for instance, the Treasury and Federal Reserve have bailed out the banks to save them from taking a loss on debt write-downs.  The dream is to keep the compound interest scheme expanding ad infinitum. But the pretense that fictitious finance-capital claims can be paid must be dropped at the point where financial managers desert the sinking financial ship. Their last act before the bubble bursts is the time-honored practice of taking the money and running – paying themselves as large bonuses and salaries as corporate treasuries (and public bailouts) allow” (2010, 25).
This hyperfinancialization of capital has been accompanied by what David Harvey (2005, 31-38) has characterized as a fusion of the ownership and the management of capitalist enterprises, which is increasingly paid with stock options and other longterm compensation packages2 which provide strong incentives to manipulate stock price and make increasing stock price the principal objective of corporate operations.  This second new characteristic also begins to emerge with a vengeance in the 1970s, accelerating through 2005.  The trend seen in 2000-2005 continues, with a small dip in 2008, through 2011-2012 (Hay Group 2012).  Figure 1 tracks this development in terms of median level and mean percent composition of CEO compensation from 1936 through 2005 in the 50 largest firms in the U.S.:2

Figure 1. 

Median Level and Mean Percent Composition of CEO Compensation, 1939-2005, in the 50 largest U.S. Firms



                                                                                                 Source: Fyrdman and Jenter 2010.


Prior to the 1950 this pattern of executive compensation was virtually unknown in U.S. capitalism.  What makes this particularly pernicious is the incentives it provides to senior executives to fixate on stock price performance since it significantly determines compensation levels. Figure 2 maps CEO median equity incentives from 1992 to 2005:3

Figure 2.

CEO Median Equity Incentives: 1992-2005










                                                                                                                  Source: Frydman and Jenter (2010).

 The Jensen-Murphy Statistic is the dollar change in executive wealth for a $1,000 change in firm value.  The Equity-at-Stake variable is the dollar change in executive wealth per 1% change in firm value.  Note that both variables increased substantially over the sample period, although the Equity-at-Stake value declined from 2000 to 2002 (this almost certainly reflects recessionary pressures and the traumatic effects of 9/11 on the national economy) while increasing rapidly again in the post-2002 period.  The Jensen-Murphy Statistic increases steadily until 2003, when it begins declining slightly.  Trending out both lines to 2010 indicates continued growth in the value of both variables.  This is extremely important: by 2005 the median CEO incentive in terms of Equity-at-Stake was almost $700,000 in compensation for a 1% increase in firm value; in terms of the Jensen-Murphy Statistic by 2005 the median CEO incentive was more than $6.00 per $1,000 change in firm value.  These variables point to the shift from production concerns to financial concerns in all sectors of the economy which has accompanied hyperfinancialization.           

             While The Shock Doctrine (Klein 2007) lacked a class perspective and a rigorous economic analysis, it pointed to factors which have increasingly come to be characteristic of contemporary capitalism.  While advocacy of harsh neoliberal policies was not unique to Milton Friedman and the Chicago school – it has increasingly become the orthodoxy of capitalist economists since the Reagan administration – nor was it only occasioned by natural and economic disaster (Harvey 2005; Sanaith 2005), austerity has become the dogma imposed by multinational institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on developed and developing world alike since the mid-1980s.  In particular this has involved privatization of assets developed and hitherto maintained by collective, public investments. 

             Virtually the entire public investment of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc has been expropriated by private interests with the assistance of their counterrevolutionary successor regimes. Similar policies have been forced on the developing world wherever there is dependence on IMF or World Bank sufferance.  In the United States public utilities and other public investments have been surrendered to private control exploitation.  Repeated attempts by Republicans to privatize Social Security and Medicare are yet more examples.  Similar policies have been forced on European countries, faced by “debt crises” brought on by the excesses of finance capital, like Greece and Ireland.

             It is important, however, to note two aspects of this process.  First, this amounts to making available to capitalist accumulation the collective proceeds of decades of public labor.  In The Accumulation of CapitalRosa Luxemburg discusses precisely how something very similar was a necessary precondition for the successful assimilation of the colonial world into capitalist commodity production:

 ”Hence derives the vital necessity for capitalism in its relations with colonial countries to appropriate the most important means of production.  Since the primitive associations of the natives are the strongest protection for their social organisations and for their material bases of existence, capital must begin by planning for the systematic destruction and annihilation of all the non-capitalist social units which obstruct its development.  With that we have passed beyond the stage of primitive accumulation; this process is still going on.  Each new colonial expansion is accompanied, as a matter of course, by a relentless battle of capital against the social and economic ties of the natives, who are also forcibly robbed of their means of production and labour power.  Any hope to restrict the accumulation to 'peaceful competition,' i.e. to regular commodity exchange such as takes place between capitalist producer-countries, rests on the pious belief that capital can accumulate without mediation of the productive forces and without the demand of more primitive organisations, and that it can rely upon the slow internal process of a disintegrating natural economy.  Accumulation, with its spasmodic expansion, can no more wait for, and be content with, a natural internal disintegration of non-capitalist formations and their transition to commodity economy, than it can wait for, and be content with, the natural increase of the working population. Force is the only solution open to capital; the accumulation of capital, seen as an historical process, employs force as a permanent weapon, not only at its genesis, but further on down to the present day” (1951: 370-371).

Luxemburg’s recognition of the vital role of primitive accumulation in creating and perpetuating the imperialist stage of capitalism as it disseminates capitalist production throughout the world marks a significant difference between her theory and that of Lenin, and one which seems better confirmed from economic analysis of the historical course of imperialism.  In the latest stage of capitalism the constant pressure for profit has set capitalism on a similar form of accumulation against public investment.  This accumulation cannot strictly be called primitive – it is accumulation against public investments under conditions of advanced state-capitalism or socialism.  It is a kind of autophagic accumulation – the self-cannibalization of invested labor, of the embodiments of many years of social labor, a retrospective expropriation of collective, public value.  Thus the latest stage of capitalism recapitulates its origins.

             The second factor is no less important than the first: while primitive accumulation is often conducted a gunpoint – a major field for the militarism associated with imperialism -- autophagic accumulation is largely conducted without the use of military force; it occurs under the auspices of capitalist legality, often mediated by international agencies and finance capital.  Certainly like all capitalist ownership it is predicated on state power and the military force on which state power rests, but the repressive veneer of legal process only heightens the impression of inevitability and despair.

             Autophagic accumulation is only a relatively short-term remedy for capitalism’s hunger for profits – there is only so much accumulated social labor to be expropriated -- and when the last elements of collective social investment have been consumed, only heightened crisis and increasing contradiction in an environment of highly restricted opportunities can result.  This characteristic of capitalism is importantly self-limiting on capitalism’s ability to accumulate.

             The increasing role of this autophagic accumulation in the general vector of capitalist accumulation is the third major characteristic of the current stage of capitalist development.

             The emergence of stark environmental limitations on capitalist production and accumulation, limitations for which it is difficult to imagine easy or quick fixes arising from new technologies, is the most sobering characteristic of the current stage of capitalism. What was once a rhetorical flourish in the words of Rosa Luxemburg – socialism or barbarism – now presents itself as an existential question for the human species as environmental limitations on capitalism itself reveal themselves.

             Global climate change and peak oil are two such limitations which carry with them profound implications for the future of capitalism.  Global climate change – the climatological effects of increased radiative forcing produced by massive increases in anthropocentric production of greenhouse gases – and peak oil – the point in history at which the world production of crude oil reaches its maximal level and begins to decline as petroleum supplies are exhausted – are scientific facts.  Peak oil has likely been reached already between 2005 and 2011, as reported by various trade analysts and official projections of oil-producing country governments.  The definitive U.N. study of the current state of global climate change science, The Fourth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), has amassed a wealth of evidence which refutes deniers once and for all.

             All the predictions arrived at by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show an increase of nearly 2º to nearly 4ºC in global surface warming (the worst case model, A1FI, assumes that anthropocentric production of greenhouse gases remains unabated), shown in Figure 3:4

Figure 3.

IPCC Predictions of Global Climate Change: Global Surface Warming










                                                                                                      Source: IPCC,1st Working Group, 4th Assessment Report.

 These results have catastrophic implications for agriculture, particularly when combined with the results of peak oil.

             It is not possible in a single article to survey all the ways in which environmental limitations increasingly restrain capitalism’s ability to reproduce itself.  However, we can start with what Engels in his eulogy for Marx termed Marx’s discovery of “the law of development in human history”:

 ”Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”5

Man must first eat before he produces.  What, then, is the likely impact of global climate change and peak oil on man’s ability to feed himself? 

             Schade and Pimentel (2010) offer a thorough analysis and empirically-sound estimates of potential human carrying capacity of the world’s cropland and food production to 2050.  They estimate that by 2050 worldwide demand for arable land will have increased by 200-750 Mha.  From 1950 to 1995 grain yields have increased by an average of more than 2% per year; since 1995 this growth in grain yields has declined. Under the best case scenario they estimate that an additional 200 Mha. will be necessary by 2050 if per capita consumption does not change and crop yields increase by 0.3%; the under worst case scenario they estimate that 750 Mha. will be necessary by 2050 if per capita food consumption doubles (i.e., as Chinese and Indian diets improve) and crop yields increase by  1% per year.  Table 1 shows the nature of the problem:

Table 1.

Land deficit and human dieback (9.2  billion people projected in 2010)


                                                                    Land                Add. Land    Land                                        Billion people

                                                                    Farmed now    needed          available   Deficit    Deficit     into which

                                                                    (Gha.)              (Gha.)           (Gha.)       (Gha.)     as %         this translates


                                            Best Case           1.5                   0.6                0.5            0.1          5                  0.46

                                            Worst Case         1.5                   1.2                0.3            0.9         33                  3.1


                                                           Source: Schade and Pimentel 2010.

 If crop yields continue to increase and rate of consumption remains constant, nearly a half-billion people will starve in 2050.  If crop yields continue to increase and the rate of consumption of the newly industrialized nations of Asia begin to mimic those of the U.S. and Europe, more than three billion people will starve in 2050.   None of these estimates take into account the impact of peak oil and global climate change.

             Looking at the resources required per capita per year to sustain the basic human food needs today in Table 2, one can easily see that the disaster predicted by the intersection of global climate change and peak oil dwarfs the disaster predicted on the basis of population growth alone:

Table 2.

Resources used per capita per year in the U.S, China, and the world to supply basic human needs


                                                            Resources                                            U.S.                 China               World


                                                            Cropland (ha.)                                     0.48                 0.08                0.22

                                                            Pasture (ha.)                                        0.79                 0.33                0.52

                                                            Forest (ha.)                                          0.79                 0.11                0.59

                                                            Total  (ha.)                                           2.78                 0.45                1.97

                                                            Water (million liters)                             2.0                 0.46                0.60

                                                            Fossil fuel oil equivalents                  9,500               1,400              2,100


                                                                               Source: Schade and Pimentel 2010.

 Per capita world food production has two vulnerabilities highlighted by this table: (1) massive dependence on industrial agriculture, irrigation, and fertilizer which assumes continued access to undepleted fossil fuels, particularly petroleum, in the developed world and (2) the ambient temperature sensitivity of arable land.  Neither is safely assumable under conditions of global climate change and peak oil, and the situation only deteriorates with time under conditions of capitalist production.

             Recent research by Zhang and Cai (2011) suggests that while Russia, China, and the U.S. could see increases in arable land due to global climate change as the northern reaches of those countries increase in average temperature by 2050, South America (-1% to -21%), Africa (-1% to –18%), Europe (-11% to -17%), India (-2% to -4%) will lose substantial amounts of arable land by 2050.   Even the countries identified as small net-gainers of arable land by 2050 begin to rapidly lose arable land as the century moves toward its close, due both to mean temperature and a decrease in water available for irrigation (both because of temperature and the lack of fossil fuels to power pumps).

             Pimentel, et al. (1997) estimate that if the U.S. were required to operate only on domestic sources of petroleum and domestically-produced crops, it would be able to sustain a population of no more than 200 million.  This highlights the scope of the impending crisis: today without imported oil or foodstuffs one third of the U.S. population would starve.  Any significant attrition of arable land, like that projected from 2050-2090, would substantially decrease the human carrying capacity of the U.S.  Further, dependence on fossil fuels for industrialized agriculture and fertilizer presents a serious chokepoint for U.S. food production.  Projecting the impact of global climate change and peak oil to approximately 2050 suggests that the estimates of Schade and Pimentel may be as much as 50% too low globally.

             The four new features of the current stage of capitalism – hyperfinancialization, the closer connection between ownership and management and the behavioral incentives it provides, autophagic accumulation in both the developed and developing worlds, and the emergence of carrying-capacity environmental limitations on capitalist accumulation – have intensified capitalism’s contradictions and carry implications for revolutionary struggle as urgent as those of the features of Lenin’s Imperialism.  To mention merely the most compelling: the working classes of the industrialized world are positioned to resume their place at the vanguard of revolution. The immiseration of the working class in the developed world has resumed and heightened under the impact of hyperfinancialization, and the priorities of finance capital have substantially increased the reserve army of labor, which further creates opportunities for proletarian action.  The environmental crises will not touch merely the developing world, but pose survival questions for the advanced working classes of the capitalist center: the effects of climate change on agriculture and the fact that peak oil means that capitalism will not have the necessary resources available under its mode of production to deal with those effects endanger all working people globally. 

            Capitalism is again in transition, and with each development has become a more “moribund capitalism” (Lenin 1939, 126).


 1While it is the case that Lenin makes an explicit argument about Social Democratic and trade union leaders being bought off by the upper-profits of imperialism, particularly in the preface to the French and German editions of Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, he clearly never asserted that this affected more than a very small element of the top leadership of the working class.  Lenin clearly conceived of the obstacles presented to revolutionary action in the center by such a labor aristocracy as neither insurmountable, nor a reason to abandon the revolutionary potential of the advanced industrial working class.  However, the failure in the advanced West generally to overcome capitalist hegemony, despite the overwhelming majority of workers losing more than it gained under imperialism, remains a conundrum of Marxist theory.  The failure of revolutionary leadership to overcome intense waves of anti-communist repression in the capitalist center no doubt plays a key role here.

 2Compensation data is from proxy statements from 1936 to 2002.The S&P ExecuComp database was used to extend the data to 2005 (Fyrdman and Saks 2010).  Depicted are three components of compensation which can be separately tracked over the sample period: salaries and bonuses, payouts from longterm incentive plans (including the value of restricted stock), and the grant-date values of option grants (calculated using Black-Scholes-Merton).  All dollar values are in inflation-adjusted 2000 dollars.

 3The Jensen-Murphy Statistic is calculated as the executive's fractional equity ownership [(number of shares held + number of options held * average option delta) / (number of shares outstanding)],multiplied by $1,000. Option deltas and holding were calculated using the Core and Guay (2002) approximation as implemented by Edmans, et al. (2009).  Equity-at-Stake is the product of the executive's fractional equity ownership (defined by the Jensen-Murphy Statistic) and the firm's equity market capitalization.  All dollar values are in inflation-adjusted 2000 dollars.

 4The A1 model group assumes (a) population growth to 9.2 billion by 2050, then gradual decline, (b) quick spread of new and efficient technologies, and (c) a convergent world in which income and way of life converge amongst regions.  The A1FI submodel  includes an emphasis on continued fossil-fuel extraction well post peak.  The A1 model group projects global surface warming between 1º and 6.4º C by 2100.  The A2 model group assumes (a) continuously increasing population, (b) regionally-oriented economic development, and (c) a world of independently-operating, self-reliant countries.  The A2 model group projects global surface warming between 2º and 5.4º C.  The majority of climate scientists regard a mix of A1FI and A2 outcomes as most likely.

 5Quoted in Der Sozialdemokrat, 22 March 1883 (



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Edmans, A., and Gabaix, X.  2009.  "Is CEO pay really inefficient?  A survey of new  optimal contracting theories."  European Financial Management 15(3):486-917.

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  • It is also necessary to indicate by these new analysis, as I have tried since 2001, today on 2015, 'what is to be done' for people as a whole. While Lenin already conceived the united forces of workers, soldiers (coming back from 1914-1917... world war fronts, united with the peasant's and surf's struggles for revolution, we have to indicate also that in this higher stage of capitalism that I termed 'Fictitious Kapital' in 2006/2007, more than 90% of people are under heaviest 'exploitation' and 'expropriation' of their basic needs and basic Human Rights and cut-off from most of modern fruits of technological advances achieved socially, and are kept, by police-state, resulting in terrorism and neo-fascism spreading all over the world, and reduced to powerless citizens unable to defend themselves from a constant accelerating rates of accumulation of F.K. by disposition as D. Harvey describes too. In other Blogs, written in French, : ' ' I explain the necessity of uniting students and working classes for a final International and to begin concretely a new social relations of production, a complete alternative to the present capitalism in total bankruptcy, un- controlled and war-spreading chaos. Since 'Real' world production, in 2013, was only 5 trillion dollars whereas total financial debts accumulated by 'Fictitious Kapital, the higher stage today' exceeded 60 trillions of dollars, therefore impossible to be payed by working men or women or real economy ! Open Social Universities combining theory and practice and structuring for another world to be defended and developed for saving the human kinds and the planet in grave danger of degraded equilibrium and over-extended pollution and all governments in bankruptcy by Fictitious Kapital new stage, driven towards a nuclear world war, the only way F.K. can 'survive', by a massive genocide all-over the world in progress right now ! Abram Badal

    Posted by Abram Badal, 03/28/2015 6:22pm (5 years ago)

  • Truly excellent analysis of late capitalist reorganization. Should be widely distributed.

    Posted by Bob Patenaude, 05/17/2013 12:26am (7 years ago)

  • A lot to chew on here. On first reading, it rings completely true. The struggle against capitalism is ever more urgent.
    --jim lane in Dallas

    Posted by jim lane, 08/20/2012 8:21am (8 years ago)

  • Many thanks, Greg, a great contribution to theory which should be widely distributed and discussed. I love the phrase "autophagic accumulation", which could be turned into great graphics for the movement.

    I agree that objective developments place the working class of the industrialized countries once again at the vanguard of the anti-capitalist struggle, but there are still subjective obstacles to achieving that role full-blast, which is where we activists come in. Also, let's not assume that the working classes and allies in the less industrialized countries now are NOT playing a vanguard role in many cases. Especially, but not only, in the Latin American region, the movements of the working class and its allies are striking blows on a daily basis which have the effect of limiting the options of international monopoly capital and its political tools.

    Posted by , 08/19/2012 9:35pm (8 years ago)

  • This was an excellent analysis. It brings to mind Marx's comment in "Capital" Vol. 1 that: "Capital has a Werewolf's hunger for profit."

    Posted by Steve Katz, 08/19/2012 6:36am (8 years ago)

  • *applause* Really wonderful piece. It really spells out the how and why of things like education "reform" and other such efforts to turn public resources into a revenue stream for private profit..."making available to capitalist accumulation the collective proceeds of decades of public labor."

    I'll be sharing this one around.

    Posted by Starry Messenger, 08/16/2012 10:39pm (8 years ago)

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