CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES OF THE FINANCIAL CRISIS
at the edge of the abyss
by Joachim Hirsch
[This article published on www.links-netz.de June 2010 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.links=netz.de/T-Texte/T_hirsch_abgrund.html
The current crisis is the most serious since the 1930s and will engender enormous political and social upheavals. Global capitalism and the system of states will not be the same as before if the crisis does not end in a collapse. The governments of all countries including the German government are resolutely pushing the disaster. In 2008 the banking system facing bankruptcy was bailed out by the states after the open eruption of the crisis. Those who inflicted the disaster were drawn out of the mess because they were supposedly “system-relevant.’ In the meantime the money houses are making good profits again. Deutsche Bank even posted the best quarterly profits of its history. The result of this bailout is a dramatic state indebtedness which must now be paid by the population whether through inflationary money devaluation, an intensified state austerity policy or both. The beautiful effect for the banks is that the state must borrow the money for its bailout actions from those whom it earlier blamed and pays interest for this. Thus the businesses were spared and the consequences of the crisis shifted to the state budgets. The same mechanism is repeated in the Greek crisis. A debt cancellation for Greece would have been sensible. This debt cancellation would have struck the financial firms that stocked up on risky high-interest Greek government bonds. They were also spared here. All this means the factors that caused the crisis – an over-accumulation of capital with simultaneously declining mass income and the structure of the international financial system – are still effective. The structural economic imbalances that led to the crisis continue. Thus the over-capacities in the auto industry were maintained thanks to state bailout measures – the clunker bonuses, Opel revitalization and so forth.
The horrific state indebtedness will lead to an intensified state austerity policy. This was made official after the election in North Rhine-Westphalia. The tax cutting theater abruptly ended. The taxes and fees – for the broad population – are raised and social benefits cut on a wide front. Income- and property taxes were not discussed. The investors including the higher-paid clientele of the FDP should not be frightened. The slight economic recovery will be strangled which will hurt state finances again. Altogether the crisis will be long-lasting. There will not be further state bailout actions. The state simply has no money any more and reaches the limit of its credit-worthiness.
Concerning the development since 2008, it is clear who has profited most from the crisis. Financial capital is closely interlocked with other capital factions. Financial capital internationalized through the neoliberal deregulation policy was inflated with speculation bubbles and became the strongest capital faction. Mammoth capital firms like pensions and hedge funds arose which dominate the international capital markets. Financial capital faces strong states as more or less equal. No government dares take any counter-measures that could alarm the “financial markets.” Banks and financial firms were and are decreeing their crisis policy to the governments – top their own advantage. This explains the manifest inability to better regulate international capital transactions as loudly proclaimed after the outbreak of the crisis. The urgently necessary shattering or nationalization of the enormous financial firms was silenced. Cosmetic changes for calming the population dominate in the present discussion.
The neoliberal restructuring and “globalization” of capitalism has led to states becoming practically the spoils or prey of financial capital. The social formation emerging from the crisis could be described as a new variant of state-monopolist interventionist capitalism. This means the neoliberal program is increasingly enforced with the help of the states. This strongly restricts what is called the relative autonomy of the state. The state operates very clearly in the interests of a capital faction. Its ability to guarantee the long-term viability of the economic-social system is put in question. The current policy demonstrates this.
In the course of the neoliberal undermining of democracy, the parties became mere machines tactically maximizing votes, lost their support and connection wit the interests of broad sectors of the population and therefore can no longer offer a principled social reorientation. This development is even reinforced. At the same time the personnel competent to formulate an independent policy is lacking to them. Therefore governments only react to conditions set for them by the economically powerful. This is the end of politics in the true sense.
A return of the state is often emphasized as a consequence of the crisis. The times when the end of states or the genesis of an “empire” beyond the nation-state system was proclaimed are over. Whether the European Union and the Euro currency will survive the dislocations caused by the state financial crisis is open. One essential cause of the Euro-crisis is the German economic- and social policy enormously distorting competitive conditions within Europe with its wage-dumping more than the lax state financial policy in the realm of the Club Med. The competitive advantage gained by the German economy cannot be corrected within the Euro-zone any more through currency adjustments. Since a relatively uniform economic zone was created with the European Union (EU) without a common economic policy, the interests of strong states can prevail without warning. The policy of the German government aims at changing nothing. In any case the European Union will emerge from the crisis in a very different form.
Thus the return of the state must be relativized since states depend on a capital faction more strongly than ever. At the same time the shift of the crisis consequences to the state machine means a crisis of politics and a crisis of the state loom on the horizon. Voters have hardly any positive expectations for the parties. A crisis of representation exists unrecognized. The result will be a strengthening of authoritarian budgetism accompanied by populist elements. The reactions of the population to this political crisis and the crisis of the state cannot be foreseen. For a long while the population persisted in passivity. In any case the social conflicts are shifted more strongly to the state machine and the political system. Where this will lead does not give reason for optimism.
ANOTHER SOCIETY IS NECESSARY. SOCIAL POLICY AS SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE
By Joachim Hirsch
[This article published on www.links-netz.de in October 2003 is translated from the German on the Internet, ]
If one’s view is not completely blocked or distorted by the all-pervasive neoliberal gossip of politicians and journalists, several peculiarities in the dominant social conditions are striking. Year after year more goods and services – the so-called “gross domestic product” – are produced while the number of the poor grows simultaneously, social benefits are slashed, pensions cut and public budgets trimmed to the austerity course – to the detriment of public goods. Swimming pools, libraries and relief- and supply institutions fall victim. The educational system rots even though we live in one of the richest societies on this globe. While the number of unemployed increases, those still employed are forced to longer and more intensive work. Fewer and fewer workers are needed in immediate production and more and more are employed in promoting products for which buyers never would have developed a need without advertising campaigns. This is called a service society. As a result, the noise swells, landscapes are changed into concrete and garbage removal absorbs a growing part of social work. That capitalism is a system that produces riches and systematically creates poverty is more striking than ever.
Capitalism may have had an historical justification when people were freed from direct dependence on nature and from travail and misery and developed social productive forces to eliminate material distress. This state was partly realized in some parts of the world through the struggles of social movements in improving living conditions. This improvement had to be wrested arduously from capital and is not an obvious consequence of market forces. On the contrary, as Karl Polanyi showed, the capitalist market- and competition system necessarily destroys its own natural and human foundations because of its functional logic as long as organized social forces do not put a stop to this. As a result of the struggles of the labor movement, a stage of social productivity has been reached where the forced work of nearly everyone is no longer an obvious consequence of market forces. Marx once said a mode of production cannot survive historically when production relations become the fetter or chain of the development of productive forces. One cannot say the development of productive forces has slackened. New technologies will always be developed and new products thrown on the market. There will be vehement rationalization and the assets of part of the workforce will increase. Simultaneously others will be forced to even more stupid work. Thus the problem is not the development of productive forces in itself but the fact that their destructive force is raised to another power since the natural foundations of life are degraded and a rational and halfway self-determined life becomes almost impossible in the permanent race of more labor for more consumption of fewer and fewer useful and necessary things. Strictly speaking, we have all become appendages of the technical-economic machine that we seemingly cannot influence any more. This compulsory relation produces a spreading resignation and reinforces the idea that nothing can be done and that participation in democratic political processes has hardly any effect. For a long time we have not decided what is a good life but financial jugglers, marketing strategists and product designers.
One could ask why this should be changed when people are content. Who would cast people out and with what right when the “happy consciousness” stressed by Marcuse fills event-shoppers? The problem is that the commercialization of life in the general march of the market has hardly beautiful backsides. The material poverty in the world and the complex of violence, war and flight can possibly be forgotten as long as the gates of the prosperity fortresses are halfway closed and military attacks are carried out when conditions are endangered. Charitable gifts can occasionally calm the conscience. Nevertheless the precariousness of all work relations advances even in the rich metropolises. Social insecurities and inequalities grow dramatically and individual biographies are subjected to the dictates of the market and competition ever more abruptly. Many conditions necessary for a reasonable formation of life disappear.
Let us come back to Marx. Marx said capital can no longer be exploited when necessary labor is reduced to a minimum owing to technical progress. In his optimistic way of looking at things, this meant the self-destruction of capitalism and the possibility of creating a communist society. We are actually near this state – at least concerning technical possibilities. The present-day mode of production can only be maintained through systematically produced wear-and-tear, impoverishment and many kinds of work pressure – structurally enforced by the “market” or by legal and administrative maneuvers. This is the background for the capitalist system that is becoming more openly violent. The “concrete movement” hoped for by Marx that could abolish this state is not in sight. The prevailing socialization mechanism seems to prevent this all the more as its irrationality comes to light. Should we reign to this? Is it enough to be content with individual repair measures? Isn’t it time to reflect about a fundamentally different organization of society?
This means bidding farewell to thinking in the categories of the goods- and work-society that dominate social conceptions. At least in Germany society has reached a state in which the general work pressure and the circle of work, performance and compensation consumption has loosened. This is true for an increasingly smaller segment in the metropolises of world capitalism. There people work and consume under high pressure. The rest are not allowed paid work and are socially excluded in different forms and degrees. The excluded are persuaded they are responsible themselves. They only need to exert themselves more to get one of the jobs that are rationalized away. Instead of this nonsense to which the contradictoriness of capitalism leads, the loosening of the work pressure could be used for a better life for everyone. Conditions must be created so that activities can be promoted that are not honored by the market but are useful and less estranged and do not ruin – natural – living conditions. Individual paid work is no longer the standard of a reasonable and secure material well-being. The capitalist market- and competition society has survived historically. Social possibilities allow developing a “social infrastructure” that ensures a reasonable life without work pressure. This means something more than basic security in the sense of a guaranteed minimum income. The relation of individual and society, collective production and collective consumption must be recalibrated and the supply of public goods and services expanded. There will still be paid work as far as needs go beyond this individual and collective basic provision. But this paid work can assume more rational and more human forms.
As far as they occur, debates on social infrastructure usually end in raising the “system question.” This is somewhat useless and unproductive. There is no “one” capitalism. As historical experience teaches, capitalism can have very different faces in the developed social hierarchies of power moving at the height of the times, appropriating a new concept of society corresponding to current conditions and gradually making it concrete – doubtlessly in the form of passionate social conflicts - are vital. This underlies our idea of “social policy as social infrastructure.” This is not a blueprint for another society but a proposal to reflect very differently about society, the development of new forms of socialization and changed social institutions. If this reflection becomes practical and is enriched with other dimensions given to the prevailing consciousness, this would be momentous and far-reaching.