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Full Speed Against the Brick Wall

by Tomasz Konicz Thursday, Jul. 24, 2008 at 2:18 AM
mbatko@lycos.com

Massive capital has streamed into the raw material sector and crude oil. When we leave the market to speculators, panic rules. The economy falls into a double crisis-out of scarce raw materials and energy and falling profit rates and mass demand.

FULL SPEED AGAINST THE BRICK WALL

Why the dominant economic system cannot solve the global problems threatening civilization

By Tomacz Konicz

[This article published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis 7/13/2008 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/28/28280/1.html.]




Panic is slowly spreading in view of the permanently soaring prices for raw materials, food and sources of energy. In the meantime 85 percent of all Germans are “anxious” about the continuous price jumps [1] according to a survey. Half of those questioned in the survey admitted they are already conserving on car travel and food and look pessimistically toward the future.

The price explosion is not only seen as “inflation” by Europe’s citizens as in the euro’s introduction. This time the price hike is so strong that it even enters official statistics and forces the European Central Bank to act. To counteract the official inflation rate of four percent in the euro-zone, the European Central Bank [2] raised the key interest rate to 4.25 percent in early July 2008. “The risk is that inflation could explode if we are not resolved.” So the head of the European Central Bank (EZB), Jean-Claude Trichet, explained their decision.

This decision reflecting classical monetary theory and aiming at regulating the money supply will do nothing. The exploding prices for raw materials and sources of energy responsible for the continuous rice in worldwide prices did not climb because the EZB carried out an overly law monetary policy. In the meantime, we have only discussed whether a low supply that cannot cover the demand or a speculative bubble is responsible for the price surge.

The organization of petroleum-exporting states (OPEC) makes speculators responsible for the high oil price because intrigues contributed “75 percent” to the price jump of the last months. “The higher price has nothing to do with a shortage in supply,” OPEC general secretary Abdallah Salem al-Badri said. [3] On the other hand, the International Energy Agency (IEA) representing the interests of oil-importing industrial nations blamed a high demand for the price explosion [4] that from 2010 will grow faster than the supply of crude oil. Consequently the high prices are justified according to the IEA so the industrial countries’ demands for expanded oil production should be supported.

A NEW SPECULATIVE BUBBLE

In a certain sense, both sides are right. A successful speculation anticipates future developments. It is only a question of time until the growing demand for raw materials and energy can not be satisfied any more. When Gasprom head Alexej Miller predicted world market prices of 00 for natural gas and 0 for crude oil [5], the only question is when this will happen – in weeks, months or years.

A “dead certain” economically funded speculation is now leading to the price explosion in raw materials, food and energy. The current bonanza on the commodity futures markets only anticipates future developments. The short-to-medium-term shortage of supply announced by the IEA and the prospect of oil wells soon running dry are really “possible.” OPEC general secretary Abdallah Salem al-Badri identified the most important driving force of this speculation:

“Because of the weakness of the American economy and the mortgage crisis in the US, investors sought possibilities for capital investments. When massive capital streams into the raw material sector and crude oil becomes very attractive for speculators when the market is left to speculators, panic rules. Many people lose their assets with the myth of shortage in crude oil.”

OPEC general secretary Abdallah Salem al-Badri

Thus the bursting speculative bubble on the US real estate market still shaking the world financial markets [6] passes smoothly into a speculative dynamic on the commodity futures markets. The global “bubble economy” [7] established since the turn of the millennium breaks open another chapter after the Asian crisis (1997/98), the dot-com bubble (2001) and the real estate bonanza (2007). The “investors” fleeing from the collapsing US real estate market, mostly investment- and hedge funds or pension chests, now massively buy futures contracts for oil, gas, food and other raw materials on the commodity futures markets.

With futures contracts, claims to commodity quotas at current prices are assured for a fixed future time – in a few weeks or months. Speculative profits arise when the world market price for the respective commodity climbs in the interim. Originally futures contracts provided a fixed internal basis for agricultural producers. They could sell their products on futures commodity exchanges long before their harvest at firm prices and thus delegate the risk of falling or rising prices to the speculators.

In the meantime this guaranteeing system of futures commodity exchanges has decayed to a speculative mode for profit-seeking capital. Foods are also affected. In an interview [8] with the Neue Zuricher Zeitung (NZZ), Nestle head Peter Brabeck described the effects of this new bull market under which the heavy-weights of the food branch suffer:

The hedge funds increasingly shift from the financial markets to the raw material markets. In the past, we could estimate how the harvests would turn out – and adjust with corresponding prices. This is over. Today whether Calpirg (Californian pension fund) decides to enter the raw material market with 0 million is more important than the harvest – because all other pension funds of the world will do the same and invest billion in one blow in an agricultural market. Everything has become very speculative.

Nestle head Peter Brabeck

“PEAK EVERYTHING”

Massively falling prices will not occur with a “bursting” of this most recent speculative bubble since the imminent maximum crude oil production – peak oil – is anticipated. A similar development where a rising demand cannot be covered any more by a falling supply threatens with sources of energy.

The boom with the price of gold [9] that within six months hit a record from 0 to 00 in March 2008 gives a hint of future price developments with energy and food. If this speculative bubble “bursts,” the price of gold will only fall to 0. An ounce of gold now oscillates around 0. What will happen in the next price rally?

A new term illuminating the real material foundation of today’s speculative bonanza with raw materials and energy is propagated by Richard Heinberg [10], one of the most distinguished theoreticians of peak oil in the Anglo-Saxon global justice community: peak everything. [11] [Video] If the current late-capitalist economic system is not overcome, Heinberg sees an age of ruin [12] beginning in the 21st century that will be marked by declining production of several vital resources.

Besides peak oil, declining harvests also threaten with agricultural production. [13] Heinberg sees the classical peak-scenario – a maximum production after which production falls rapidly – in more areas: with natural gas production, uranium mining, water supply, available acreage, fish stocks and the production of copper, platinum, silver, gold and zinc. These production maximums will go alone with decreasing “climate stability” and also a “peak” in the global population.

In his NZZ interview, Nestle head Brabeck also confirms the peak-scenario with water and food that is also promoted by growing plants for the production of biofuels:

To produce 1 liter of bioethanol, you need 4000 liters of water! Water is a greater problem than CO2 emissions. We have already tapped the renewable and fossil water supply today. Like crude oil, this fossil supply was created millions of years ago. Nearly all the big producers irrigate their fields artificially.

Nestle head Peter Brabeck

These fossil water supplies are mainly in the US, India and China where they are exposed to an uncontrolled exploitation. “In India and China, the water levels are already receding 1.5 meters per year. In India Punjab today, one has to drill 330 feet to find water,” Brabeck warned.

The US documentary film King Corn illustrates excellently how a capitalist agriculture supplies a food industry aiming at official extravagance because of excessive exploitation of natural and fossil resources. [14] As corn farmers, the authors of the film tried to describe the structure of the rice industry that aims at changing an overproduction of products – like corn syrup – contributing to massive harmful obesity in the US. A reversal of the commodity landscape directed at maximum quantity is necessary, a radical redirection of farming, the authors of the film explain in a radio interview. [15] The dependence of high-tech agriculture on fossil sources of energy must be reduced, the filmmakers emphasized.

Since 85 percent of the worldwide energy need is covered by fossil energy and fossil water reserves will be used up to maintain capitalist agriculture, Heinberg predicts an across-the-board social descent in industrial countries in retaining these economic structures. As an important moment in this decay, he stresses a collapse in economic growth, private consumption, mass mobility and innovativeness of our societies. Decreased social stability will occur with the social descent of broad sectors of the population. With a good will, the current economic dislocations could be the beginning of a long-term development – and the building of a police state forced in all industrial countries [16] as the only “solution” to which our political elites are capable. Heinberg sees a global transformation of the energetic basis of human civilization as a minimum prerequisite to mitigate this depressing tendency. [17]

In the decades before us, our central survival task as individuals and as a species must lie in a transition from fossil fuel. This must happen as peacefully, justly and intelligently as possible.

Richard Heinberg

RADICALIZATION OF ENERGY POLICY

This is obviously not happening. Current developments are running contrary to Heinberg’s postulate. Like junkies [18], states and conglomerates aggressively pounce on the remaining reserves of energy, searching feverishly for new natural gas and oil deposits in all the corners and ends of the world.

The melting of the ice pack in the Arctic entailing very likely catastrophic effects [19] on the climate of the northern hemisphere only seduces neighboring countries to a race [20] over fossil energy hidden under the rapidly melting ice that could blow even more CO2 into the air. The costly development of new oil- and gas-fields that were long unprofitable is considered everywhere, as for example at the Brazilian coast. [21] The last discovered oil wells in North Dakota represent the dream of oil millionaires for a few. [22] The ecologically disastrous exploitation of the oil sands in Canada was hardly worthwhile a decade ago. Now enormous profits are realized by corporations. [23]

The shift in opinion regarding environmental- and atmospheric protection going along with the first pauperization pushes in industrial countries – for example in the US – is even more disastrous. [24] According to a new survey [25], a radicalization of public opinion is occurring on account of the incipient energy crisis. A majority now support a forced reduction of fossil energy, a radicalization of present energy policy. 60 percent of those surveyed were convinced that enlargement of the energy supply is now more important than protection of the atmosphere. This was an increase of six percent compared to the last survey in February.

The number of people who regard energy savings as a priority fell ten percent to 45 percent. Nearly half of those questioned, 47 percent, are now convinced that oil production and building new power plants for fossil energy have absolute priority. This survey poured more water on the mills of the campaign of the Republican presidential candidate John McCain who wants to drill now for more oil even in nature reserves and the coastal waters of the US.

On the other hand, Barack Obama – who strongly supports alternative energy – may now receive a new counter-wind in this question. As the Guardian reported [26], protection of the atmosphere is on the agenda of several industrial countries because of the nascent “economic panic.” Nearly all governments now face the question whether they want to save the planet or the economy since pressure increases to abandon “green policy” on account of debilitating recessions. So advisors of British prime minister told Blair that the government plans on developing regenerative energy are “on the verge of bankruptcy” which the population is ready to tolerate. Confronted with the first ramifications of a civilization-threatening crisis, the capitalist world system caught in a blind dynamic seems to react with an acceleration of the current disastrous energy policy – to go full speed one last time. The crash will turn out even more severe.

This inability of the system to react adequately to these momentous civilization threats, resource shortage and climate change and instead going the opposite direction with a radicalization of the current energy policy can be explained by several causes.

BILLION BUSINESS PROFIT

The property- and production conditions in several key industries of the “first world” are among the most important factors. The interests of influential corporations that earn vast sums in the status quo oppose a radical energy turn. In 2007, the largest worldwide oil corporation realized the highest profit of a US business in the country’s economic history, .6 billion. [27]

The sales of this corporation of 4.5 billion approach the gross domestic product of medium-sized states. South Africa, the largest national economy of southern Africa, achieved a total output in 2006 of 5 billion. US corporations enjoyed almost total support from the lame duck Bush administration. Daniel J. Weiss from the think tank Center for American Progress reacted almost helplessly in view of this record profit:

President Bush spent a large part of his term in office defending the big oil companies and this paid off. In December 2007 he prevented planned tax incentives for wind- and solar-plants, alternative projects, energy efficiency and more efficient cars. He did all this to prevent eliminating tax subsidies to oil corporations.

For a long time Exxon financed [28] “climate skeptics.” Since the 1990s, Exxon/Mobil invested billions in seemingly serious and independent think tanks and institutes that sowed doubt about the scientific consensus on global warming and necessary counter-measures. Some of the best-known allegedly “independent” think tanks of the US like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation were among Exxon’s recipients. One popular tactic in the public relations work of the Exxon lobbyists consisted in training pseudo-media scientists who created the impression of a controversial discussion about the causes of global warming within science. The lobbyists of the oil multinationals were at work in Europe and the US and actually delayed for a decade effective public discussion of the climate problematic – and effective counter-measures according to critics.

Up to today these propaganda campaigns have had lasting effects, above all in the Anglo-Saxon realm. The oil multinationals received enormous help by the television empire of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch who scattered doubt in 2008 about the causes of climate change with his Fox News. [29]

The oil men around George W. Bush still occupying the White House are making hypocritical appeals for protection of the atmosphere. The German government pretends to be a pioneer for climate protection. Chancellor Angela Merkel fights in the front lines against her own climate promises. [30] On the urging of the electricity corporations, the German government will plaster the country with new coal power plants harmful to the atmosphere. Merkel resisted doggedly and successfully the decartelization of the electricity corporations posting record annual profits and holding a monopoly position. This is desired by the European Union. Because of massive resistance, Berlin prevented the EU climate protection initiative that was decried as a competitive disadvantage by the German auto-lobby. With all their strength, German electricity- and energy corporations strive to hinder the regenerative or renewable energy. [31]

The market domination of a few conglomerates forming an oli-gopoly can hardly be maintained on account of the strongly decentralized production structure in a potentially massive use of solar- and wind-power in a regenerative energy sector. This production structure would also favor democratic property relations. With thousands of wind power plants and hundreds of thousands of solar modules, practically everyone with suitable acreage could become an electricity producer. This may be a horror for our electricity conglomerates. The new productive forces championing renewable energy come into conflict with the production conditions in the energy sector of industrial societies dominated by oil and energy monopolies.

END OF CAPITALIST GROWTH

The shortage of elementary resources going along with “peak everything” touches the core of the capitalist mode of production and its specific organization forms in individual production units, factories and corporations.

First, there is the apparent efficiency of individual company calculation. The cost-benefit calculation of a business stands in contradiction to the total follow-up social costs of capitalist private enterprise production. The individual enterprise is only directly liable for a fraction of the costs caused during goods production. The general public covers the rest of the costs like training workers, basic scientific research and the transportation infrastructure. The taxpayer pays for destruction of the environment caused in the course of goods production.

In the case of climate change, this contradiction is now carried too far. From the view of German car companies, it is obviously right to get the German government to violate European CO2 norms since this would negatively affect the individual business cost-benefit calculation. German electricity corporations and US oil multinationals marginalize renewable energy since this is rational in the scope of their company calculations. The global costs of climate change are not directly charged to these firms. Serious attempts at an aggregate economic cost-calculation hardly exist. A business that voluntarily renounces maximizing its profit margin and more growth sinned against its owners. A lobbyism directed at realizing short-term profits ultimately undermines the foundations of capitalism as the Guardian said. [32]

There is a long history of business-financed lobbyism violating laws and ultimately saving the corporate-dominated economy.

In the meantime the capitalist state lacks even a remnant of dignity. For Marx, the state was the “ideal total capitalist.” The state must focus on the system interest of aggregate capital and guarantee the optimal exploitation conditions for aggregate capital. The state appeared as an independent power factor and if necessary advanced against capital fractions and commercial branches whose intrigues endangered the whole system. Now the late middle class state has decayed to nothing but the spoils of competing fractions of capital.

Another defining moment of capitalist societies that represents the driving force of contradictory – creative and destructive – “economic growth” also seems to strike its limit, as the Guardian notes:

It is hardly conceivable how the current global growth rate of 3.7 percent a year (the global economy doubles every 19 years) can be maintained if everything is driven by the wind and the sun.

The growth that is only the visible economic expression of the accumulation of capital [33] is really bound to its “material foundation.” The entrepreneur invests his money as capital in raw materials, workers and energy to produce new goods in factories that can be sold with profit. In this endless exploitation process of capital, capital is invested in more energy, raw materials etc. to produce even more goods. This boundless core process of capitalist production assumes permanent growth of capital since no one invests his money to receive less or just as much. Expenditures – raw materials and energy – must also be permanently increased for this exploitation process. This process could strike its “physical limit” on account of the existing “peak everything” forecast by Richard Heinberg.

Another problem in the course of accumulation of capital results from the prevailing definition of “demand.” For capital and current economies, there is only demand for goods where there are means for acquiring these goods. Thus no demand for food exists where a famine waits at the horn of Africa.

Only persons who are paid and participate in goods production can have solvent demand. For some time, this principle according to which wage-earners participating in the accumulation of capital and in the production process act as the most important consumer group has fallen into crisis. With the industrial revolution in microelectronics since the 1980s, capital hits an “inner limit” since human workers become rapidly superfluous through the automation of the production process. The microelectronic revolution makes more jobs redundant in the long term than arise in the new high-tech sectors. Much greater production capacities are now available for capital and a shriveling global mass demand which until recently was covered by the credit- and real estate-financed boom in the US. As a reaction to this crisis, a development of the financial sector began in the 1980s in advanced capitalist economies which went along with ever more frequent speculative bubbles of increasing intensity.

The American theoretician Paul Sweezy (http://www.monthlyreview.org/080401foster.php) spoke of a “financialization” of capitalism in which the banks overshadow concrete industry. The profits of 16 percent generated in the financial sector of the US in 1985 increased all realized profits to nearly 40 percent in 2005 (http://www.monthlyreview.org/images/080401foster-tb1-1-2.gif). At the same time a long-term collapse of private investment activity in the US (http://www.monthlyreview.org/images/080401foster-tb1-2.gif) to 1.6 percent of the gross domestic product can be observed. The investment in new production facilities was a much lower priority than the joyful hunt for profits on the world financial markets.

Once again we are met with the speculative bubble on the futures commodity markets and the “bubble economy” discussed at the outset. A crisis phenomenon of capitalist production is involved. Confronted with a profit rate constantly falling in real production – because of technical progress -, capital seemingly seeks more profitable investment opportunities in speculative businesses. However no new assets are produced on the stock exchanges or the futures commodity markets. These assets are only distributed differently so that a crash follows every boom. Wealth and assets can only be gained by production through the insertion of raw materials, labor and energy. The economic system ruling over us falls into a double crisis – out of scarce raw materials and sources of energy on one side and falling profit rates and mass demand on the other side.

Links:

(1) http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/deutschlandtrend/deutschlandtrend332.html

(2) http://www.ecb.int/

(3) http://www.opec.org/opecna/Speeches/2008/19thWPC.htm

(4) http://iea.org/Textbase/press/pressdetail.asp?PRESS_REL_ID=267

(5) http://www.aktuell.ru/russland/news/gazprom-chef_miller_kuendigt_gaspreis_von_1_000_usd_an_21678.html

(6) http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/0,1518,563875,00.html

(7) http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/27/27542/1.html

(8) http://www.nzz.ch/nachrichten/wirtschaft/aktuell/dann_gibts_nichts_mehr_zu_essen_1.693850.html

(9) http://www.finanzen.net/rohstoffe/goldpreis

(10) http://www.richardheinberg.com/

(11) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybRz91eimTg

(12) http://www.richardheinberg.com/museletter/185

(13) http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/28/28093/1.html

(14) http://www.kingcorn.net/

(15) http://shout.lbo-talk.org:8000/content/lbo/RadioArchive/2008/08_04_10.pls

(16) http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/28/28213/1.html

(17) http://www.richardheinberg.com/museletter/185

(18) http://www.faz.net/s/Rub0E9EEF84AC1E4A389A8DC6C23161FE44/Doc~E22139C1A2CF04E16A2AA311F912910E4~ATpl~Ecommon~Scontent.html

(19) http://www.democracynow.org/2007/10/25/leading_australian_scientist_tim_flannery_on

(20) http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/25/25935/1.html

(21) http://www.nzz.ch/nachrichten/international/neue_energie-supermacht_1.753531.html

(22) http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080630/ap_on_re_us/overnight_millionaires_1

(23) http://www.wirtschaftsblatt.at/home/boerse/investor/332422/index.do?_vl_backlink=/home/index.do&_vl_pos=2.2.DT

(24) http://www.tagesschau.de/wirtschaft/workingpoor2.html

(25) http://people-press.org/report/433/gas-prices

(26) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/01/climatechange.carbonemissions

(27) http://climateprogress.org/2008/02/01/exxonmobil-pumps-its-way-to-record-profits-while-bush-pumps-up-big-oil/

(28) http://www.germanwatch.org/kliko/k45exxon.htm

(29) http://www.desmogblog.com/murdochs-green-image-mucked-by-fox-news-misinformation

(30) http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/26/26602/1.html

(31) http://www.wir-klimaretter.de/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=765&Itemid=275

(32) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/01/climatechange.carbonemissions

(33) http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akkumulation_(Wirtschaft)

(34) http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/27/27542/1.html

(35) http://www.the-privateer.com/chart/dow-long.html

Telepolis Artikel-URL: http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/28/28280/1.html





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