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    Corporate Power and the Future of U.S. Capitalism [1]

    by Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, Research Note, December 2020

    http://bnarchives.yorku.ca/664/

    Corporate power in the United States has risen to unprecedented levels, but the rate at which this power has grown is decelerating. Both facts have important implications for the future of U.S. capitalism.

    According to the theory of capital as power (or CasP for short), the quest for capitalized power – and for more and more of it – is the key driving force of modern capitalism. Capitalists, CasP argues, particularly dominant ones, judge their power differentially. They measure it by the size of their earnings and assets – but they do so not absolutely, but relative to others. Driven by power, their goal is not simply to amass more money, but to do so faster than the average. Their ‘bottom line’ is not maximum accumulation, but differential accumulation.

    Figure 1 examines this process in the United States. For the sake of presentation, we define ‘dominant capital’ here as the top 200 U.S.-incorporated firms in the North American Compustat dataset, ranked annually by market value. To measure their relative-income-read-differential-power, we compare, for each year, the average earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) received by a top 200 firm to the same earnings recorded by the average U.S. corporation.

    The top series, plotted against the left log scale, shows that this differential has grown exponentially. In the early 1950s, the EBIT of a typical dominant capital firm was roughly 1,000 times larger than that of the average U.S. corporation. But having risen at a compounded average annual rate of 4.1 per cent, by 2007 this ratio reached an all‑time high of nearly 18,000.

    The uptrend hasn’t been even, though. It stalled twice – first during the period between 1974 and 1984, and then again in the twenty years since 2000. And these lulls weren’t flukes.

    The bottom series, plotted against the right scale, shows the annual rate of change of this differential. The temporal regression trend and the shaded polygon underneath it depict a persistent slowdown: in the early 1950s, the differential rose at an average annual rate of over 6 per cent; by the late 2010s, it increased by slightly more than 2 per cent.

    This deceleration is not surprising. Dominant capital grows primarily through mergers and acquisitions, and as it does its rate of expansion becomes more and more difficult to sustain. It is one thing for dominant capital firms to double their relative size when they are only 1,000 times bigger than the average. It is quite another to do the same when they are 18,000 larger.

    And here lies the problem. Dominant capitalists and corporations cannot stop trying to increase their power. The need to beat the average and grow faster than others is ‘in their nature’. And that has consequences, because rising differential earnings require greater threats, sabotage and violence against the rest of society. If this relentless pressure is not counteracted by effective democratic resistance, U.S. subjects are likely hear much more about the benefits of ‘economies of scale’, the imperatives of ‘global competition’ and the dictates of ‘national security’ – processes that, they will be told, require them to accept ever larger corporations and a much more authoritarian society.

    Endnotes

    [1] Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan teach political economy at colleges and universities in Israel and Canada, respectively. All their publications are available for free on The Bichler & Nitzan Archives (http://bnarchives.net). Work on this paper was partly supported by SSHRC. We thank Daniel Moure for his proofreading.

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    • #245183
      Jeremy Zerbe
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      How much difference do you think the ongoing economic reorganization toward already dominant, quarantine-readied businesses like Amazon, Walmart, etc. during the current health crisis will make for this regression trend?

      Will it be just another blip upward in a continued dampening of the annual rate of change? Or will we see it explode upward again, possibly kickstarting a newly expansive rate of change for these increasingly powerful dominant firms as small(er) businesses that may have once provided competition continue to fold? To that end: does this annual rate of change graph look about the same if viewed with the top 50 firms rather than 200? What about the top 10?

      An additional, sort of sillier question: Is this tendency for the annual rate of change to regress the CasP version of Marx’s tendency for the rate of profit to fall?

    • #245184
      Jonathan Nitzan
      • Topics started: 24
      • Total posts: 129

      How much difference do you think the ongoing economic reorganization toward already dominant, quarantine-readied businesses like Amazon, Walmart, etc. during the current health crisis will make for this regression trend?

      It’s hard to tell. On the dominant capital side, some online firms have seen their EBIT rise significantly in 2020, but others have suffered. With smaller firms, if the carnage decimated mostly those at the very bottom of the distribution, the effect would be to increase the average EBIT. On balance, then, it’s hard to guess the direction differential EBIT took in 2019-2020.

      [D]oes this annual rate of change graph look about the same if viewed with the top 50 firms rather than 200? What about the top 10?

      Don’t know, we haven’t done the empirical work using different thresholds.

      Is this tendency for the annual rate of change to regress the CasP version of Marx’s tendency for the rate of profit to fall?

      Interesting question. Marx proposed that, over the long run, the organic composition of capital tends to rise faster than the rate of exploitation, and that this differential implied that, over the long run, the rate of profit will tend to fall. In our CasP case here, the downward tendency comes from the growing difficulty of keeping the pace of corporate amalgamation in particular and the growth of power in general.

      The difference is threefold.

      1. To demonstrate Marx’s tendency of the rate of profit to fall requires leaps of faith, particularly in defining the “proper” rate of profit. In CasP, the measurement of differential earnings and differential capitalization is relatively straightforward.

      2. The reason for the downward tendencies is different. In Marx, it is inherent, in CasP it depends on the dynamics of power.

      3. Marx’s claims have been researched for over a century. CasP work is in its infancy.

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