The Asymptotes of Power


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    I'm not a big fan of venting opinions on the topic "capitalism", since I think it's a very poorly defined term, i.e. many people hav
    [See the full post at: The Asymptotes of Power]


    Very useful discussion of the topic; far more powerful than a focus primarily on demand and supply, consumption and production as key drivers. Thanks for the succinct version.

    Dig Dirt

    The analysis is very convincing. It would suggest a tumultuous 5 or 10 years. In line with TAE’s articles about centralized control putting more pressure on the periphery one would hope this ‘tops out’ at some point too.


    And this concept of asymptotic illuminates the cause of deceit and fraud in gov’t, desperate acts to maintain control. Current examples in Canada are calling citizens pornographers and the evidence that the Conservative Party used robocalls to misdirect voters from their pollling stations thereby stealing their majority in the House.
    Needed my dictionary on this one. ” The shadow of the asymptote” …Can’t wait to drop that phrase into a conversation. The shadow knows…:)


    This was indeed a fascinating and very thorough analysis. The idea of analyzing capitalism/capital as a mode of power, measured quantitatively in terms of differential relationships between classes, is very much in line with TAE’s perspective. A spectacular find by Ilargi.

    The conclusion at the end begins to get into the issue of what capitalist elites will have to do to overcome their asymptotic levels of power, and the option that stands out above all else is neo-feudal slavery. It is no coincidence that systems of slavery for African-Americans only really began to wind down in the 1930-50 period, with the last great systemic crisis. I’d like to re-post that part of the report just to emphasize the point as much as possible!

    How much more force and violence are needed to keep the current capitalist regime going? This of course is a subject in and of itself. But given its crucial importance, I think it is worth at least a brief, closing illustration.

    During the 1930s and 1940s, this level proved to be the asymptote of capitalist power: it triggered a systemic crisis, the complete creordering of the U.S. political economy, and a sharp decline in capitalist power, as indicated by the large drop in inequality. The present situation is remarkably similar – and, in our view, so are the challenges to the ruling class.

    In order to have reached the peak level of power it currently enjoys, the ruling class has had to inflict growing threats, sabotage and pain on the underlying population. One key manifestation of this infliction is illustrated in our last chart, Figure 17.

    The chart reproduces the distributional measure from Figure 16 (left scale) and contrasts it with the ratio between the adult correctional population and the labour force (right scale). The correctional population here includes the number of adults in prison, in jail, on probation and on parole.

    As we can see, since the 1940s this ratio has been tightly and positively correlated with the distributional power of the ruling class: the greater the power indicated by the income share of the top 10 per cent of the population, the larger the dose of violence proxied by the correctional population. Presently, the number of ‘corrected’ adults is equivalent to nearly 5 per cent of the U.S. labour force. This is the largest proportion in the world, as well as in the history of the United States.

    Although there are no hard and fast rules here, it is doubtful that this massive punishment can be increased much further without highly destabilizing consequences.

    I do share a certain ambivalence with the authors here about how much farther the process of enslavement can go, but obviously I think there are many ways in which it can be extended further without completely “destabilizing” the elites’ power base. Similar processes of mass enslavement have occurred throughout history, which includes recent history for many poorer parts of the world. The way to increase the system of “massive punishment” is to re-define the legal boundaries of punishment at the federal and state levels, especially with respect to debtors (private and public, real or imagined), and that process is already well underway.


    “The present situation is remarkably similar – and, in our view, so are the challenges to the ruling class.”

    Interesting use of the term “challenges”. It’s not used in the sense of an external challenge to, but more in the sense of obstacles to success. I find it interesting that it’s framed that way rather than from an objective perspective or that of the non-elite.


    Maybe a better way of putting my previous comment would be that “challenges to the ruling class” might more accurately be worded as “challenges for the ruling class”.

    On another subject, I wonder if Bichler and Nitzan have an undivulged basis for the claim that approaching the asymptote of capitalist power in the 1930s and 1940s triggered a systemic crisis, or if that’s an unsubstantiated interpretation of the correlation.


    I have often seen the correlation between income inequality and collapse/depression referred to, both in terms of the 30s and comparing the 30s to the present. But I have never seen such a fascinating and compelling explanation of the root cause. That correlation between the prison population and upper 10% share of income is really disturbing.

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