IS CAPITALISM COLLAPSING?
By Joachim Hirsch
[This article published August 2012 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.links-netz.de/T_texte/T_hirsch_zussamenbruch.html
This question would have appeared somewhat unusual several years ago. Today this question even appears in the established media. The open eruption of the current economic crisis occurred four years ago and no end is in sight despite a frenzied political activism in crafting bailout umbrellas. Those pretending to be experts argue over its causes and possible ways out. In any event, they did not foresee the crisis. The governments are also arguing. Proponents of a harsh austerity course – led by German chancellor Angela Merkel – face advocates of a soft monetary policy, essentially the southern European countries plus France. This position gained influence after the victory of the socialists in the French presidential- and parliamentary elections. Contrary to the austerity policy that strangles the economy in the afflicted countries and intensifies the debt problem, the economic stagnation could be overcome by opening the money-vaults and making credits cheaper. But this assumes that the economically stronger countries will be held liable for the crisis.
Euro bonds are still contested. The European Central Bank simply buys up debts of stricken countries. That this contradicts European agreements is repressed. That this strategy will work is unlikely. The desired upswing is more a question of prospects for business profits than of available money or interests. This upswing is not very likely given the economic decline in large parts of Europe. The policy of money-multiplication will probably lead to considerable inflation. A massive devaluation of money would in fact be an elegant solution of the state debt problem. The state debts would then be lower and could be more easily repaid. The price for that will be considerable economic dislocations with hardly foreseeable consequences. This will burden again the broad population whose savings and income will be further reduced. Owners of “tangible assets” remain unshorn. Not surprisingly “the markets” honor this policy.
One of the causes for the obvious helplessness of the governments is that they act as simple receivers of orders (or apparatchik) of the financial industry. The financial industry has no interest in a policy that would make it liable for its inflicted disaster. The deregulation of the financial markets pursued since the 1980s by the governments – including the German social-democratic government under Chancellor Schroeder – provided the financial industry withy a dominant worldwide position and started a dynamic through which the “markets” – internationalized financial capital – could essentially determine the economic- and social-political directives.
A more rational policy like massive tax hikes on mammoth incomes, introduction of an effective financial transactions tax and measures making financial groups and their shareholders materially liable for the risks they assumed is repressed. That Sigmar Gabriel, the chairperson of the SDP, now propagates a “tax on the rich” while t6he top tax rates were drastically lowered during his party’s time in office may be understood as a joke coined for the primary election. The accumulated state debts can never be repaid burdening the banks that bought the high-interest securities. But instead of simply cancelling them, more and more relief measures to help these banks were introduced and financed from tax funds.
Something else has obviously not been carried out in light of the expected reactions of the “markets.” The “taxpayers” have to pay for the consequences of enormous misguided speculations. A reorganization of the whole financial sector that breaks the power of mammoth corporations and subjects them to political control is on the wane or in the stars.
Seeking the causes of the crisis and its continuance simply in a financial management going off course or an incorrect state policy as often happens in the public debate is wrong. Nation-state conflicts of interest prevent a halfway consistent policy on the international plane and worsen the crisis. That economic globalization has no political “globalization” or Europeanization of politics in the regional framework has its price. Still the crisis has deeper causes. How the crisis can be mastered by a more rational policy is a mystery. A little historical retrospect is necessary.
FORDISM AND ITS CRISIS
The relatively long period of prosperity after the Second World War was caused by the war’s enormous destruction of assets. New beginnings were possible on the ruins. With the tremendous military spending, the worldwide economic crisis of the 1930s was finally overcome. Favorable profit possibilities were opened to capital in the reconstruction phase after the war. At the same time the system competition of the Cold War led to strengthening workers weakened by fascism and war. For legitimating reasons, capital was forced to make some material concessions. The so-called “Golden Age” of capitalism, afterwards described as Fordism, backed an expanded state interventionism based on corporate arrangements (“social partnership”) and the gradual development of the social state. The “dream of perpetual prosperity” (B. Lutz) became an important basis of legitimation of the capitalist system in the West. Growing business profits and rising mass income were seemingly compatible. The basic contradiction of capitalism was solved. Remembrance of this exceptional phase still justifies the hope of many social-democratic politicians and experts of restoring that dream.
The dream was short. The second worldwide economic crisis of the 20th century broke out in the middle of the 1970s. Its essential cause was that the realized productivity gains or the realized profit was no longer enough to guarantee the business profits with rising mass income and considering spending for the social security systems. The consequences were continuing economic stagnation and growth of unemployment. Given the new crisis, capital went on an offensive that was directed against the Fordist achievements – strong unions, corporate economic regulation and the social state. In a trivializing way, the result of this strategy is often termed “globalization.” This was possible because capitalism had intensely internationalized in the postwar phase. Through capitalism’s own policy, the relative strength between capital and the states had shifted to the disadvantage of the latter. The crucial instrument of the capital offensive was a massive deregulation of the capital- and financial markets. From the end of the 1970s, this was carried out by liberal-conservative governments that came to power after the breakdown of social-democratic administrations caused by the way. Thatcher in Great Britain and Reagan in the US started the deregulation. Other states gradually followed under the pressure of the initiated structural change of the world economy. Even the social-democratic parties changed to the neoliberal course.
The neoliberal deregulation policy mobilized the location competition under whose pressure the governments began to enforce wage-depressing measures and dismantle social state securities. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of system competition had an important role in implementing neoliberal restructuring. After its apparent historical victory, capital did not need any material legitimation any more. In this sense, this strategy was very successful. Business profits skyrocketed and the social income distribution shifted to the disadvantage of wage earners on a global scale.
THE CRISIS OF POST-FORDIST NEOLIBERAL CAPITALISM
The basis for the next crisis was laid with the establishment of neoliberal post-Fordism. The weakening of mass purchasing power limited the profitable investment possibilities for exploiting profits in the productive sector. The neoliberal privatization policy that can be termed an act of internal conquest and settlement created new fields of investment. However these were not enough to compensate for the weakened mass purchasing power. A drastic expansion of speculative investments occurred. The boom of the “New Economy” was one expression of this. The bursting of this bubble around the turn of the millennium could be somewhat managed. But the financial speculation expanded more and more. Economic deregulation multiplied the possibilities for developing highly complex financial products whose risks could be systematically veiled. The realized profits are fictional insofar as no material assets correspond to them. A gigantic financial bubble arose – through the expansion of unsecured real estate credits – that had to burst some time or other. That was the case in 2008, initiated by the spectacular bankruptcy of the Lehmann Bank. Many financial concerns fell into liquidity problems. They had to be “bailed out” by state assistance since their position – called “system relevance” – could not be infringed. This led to a drastic increase of state debts. The current state debt crisis is less the result of a dubious budget policy than the fact that the losses of the financial industry were shifted to the state budget. The consequences are a massive austerity policy and increases of mass taxes. The multitude of the population must pay for the losses of the financial and guarantee the flow of their future profits. This struck the countries of the Eurozone very hard. Its fundamental construction flaw, the absence of a common economic- and financial policy, led to an ever greater drifting apart of national economies and aggravated the crisis. In the meantime, the survival of the common currency and European integration altogether is on the verge of dissolution.
STRUCTURAL OVER-ACCUMULATION CRISIS
What is hidden behind the financial- and debt crisis is the fact that accelerated capital accumulation which represents the life elixir of capitalism leads necessarily in the long run to a decline of the profit rate, a faltering of accumulation and thus to massive crises. Marx explained that an over-accumulation crisis owing to falling long-term profit rates is inevitable for capitalism. This is not an absolute law because counter-tendencies can be mobilized again and again as the neoliberal offensive showed after the crisis of Fordism. But the crisis of neoliberal capitalism also makes clear that the falling profit rate cannot be counter-acted in the long-term. The implementation of neoliberal post-Fordist capitalism has not stabilized the system but provokes a new eruption of the crisis.
Blaming banks, financial corporations or governments for the crisis is too simplistic. With their criminal intrigues, those active in the financial industry veil their culpability. Revealing this connection or culpability is a taboo to the dominant economics and the journalism armed by dominant economics. Crises are always regarded as avoidable accidents and capitalism as basically stable – if mistakes are not made. Crises are commonly ascribed to the state today.
As a rule, the solution of great capitalist crises and restoration of capital profitability lead to shifting the relative strengths to the disadvantage of wage-earners and capital destruction on a large scale so many businesses perish. For those remaining, this improves the exploitation conditions. The currently dominant crisis policy ensures that real mass incomes fall. But capital destruction on a large scale hardly occurs. The businesses threatened by bankruptcy – not only the financial corporations – were and are revitalized by state assistance insofar as they are “system-relevant.” This means the crisis cannot have “purifying” effects according to free enterprise logic but continues. A solution is impossible as long as no radical change of economic- and social policy occurs. Changed social relative strengths are necessary. There are presently no signs of this.
Whether the political posturing on the crisis can continue for a long time is uncertain. In the short-term, stabilizing business profits and shifting burdens to the population are helpful. The causes of the crisis remain and are even intensified. The dominant politics may temporarily make ends meet but the crisis intensifies in the long run. Thus the prospects are not rosy. In the best case, the crisis will continue with all its political and social consequences. A massive economic collapse becomes increasingly likely. The breakdown of the Eurozone could cause a disaster of global proportions. Hoping for that breakdown would be wrong. Great economic crises hardly ever have emancipative effects. But they can wreak economic and social destruction that make possible a successful new beginning. That is the real historical logic of capital. A new greater war would be another way out.
Capitalism moves from crisis to crisis and inflicts tremendous political, social and ecological devastation; it doesn’t collapse in itself as historical experience demonstrates. Capitalism abolishes human living conditions, not itself. In light of this, it may be worthwhile to reconsider whether capitalism is really the best of all conceivable social systems.
“MARKETS” AS A FETISH
By Joachim Hirsch
[This article published May 2012 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.links-netz.de/T_texte/T_hirsch_maerkte.html
Hardly a news broadcast or politician’s speech occurs in which the “markets” are not invoked. Markets are stylized as the pivot of world events. That sounds like imploring distant gods or at least obscure powers of fate. Obviously the emphasis is not on the supermarket or the weekly market. The financial markets are meant, those on which monetary-, capital- and financial products are traded worldwide across borders. Unlike apples and bananas, these products are not visible but hidden behind complex collections of numbers and data. The common person only has access to these markets through stock brokers and bank consultants who as a rule palm off toxic products. That contributes to markets appearing as a higher power that must be offered sacrifice to be gracious. This quasi-religious conceptual world is really not surprising since the marketable economic discipline has changed into a somewhat atavistic religious doctrine.
Markets are not subjects with feelings and states of being (timid, alarmed, disappointed and so forth) gifted with their own will. Rather markets are social arrangements in which very concrete persons associate. These institutions are based on property- and legal relationships secured by the force of the state. Personalization that resonates in the conventional use of the term veils this. Goods must be brought to the market, as Marx recognized. This also includes financial products and happens on the financial markets to exploit capital and make profit. Those who populate the “markets” could be named by name. This naming includes the risk of revealing their behavior and unveiling the quasi-religious fetish. What these subjects inflict, not only financial crises but massive privatizations with terrible consequences for the affected must be mentioned: unemployment, forced migration, food speculation, land robbery and more. Marx once described capitalists as character-masks of capital since they only play the role forced on them by the capital relation. That is not entirely right. Capitalists must make profit so they and the whole system do not perish. However there are margins and limits, for example through state controls and regulations. These have changed considerably in the last decades. One reason for this is the so-called “globalization” – one of those terms with which the neoliberal capital offensive has veiled itself after the great crisis of the seventies. Behind that is the fact that international capital increasingly succeeds in evading restrictions to which it was subject when the nation states exercised a certain control and governments were democratically responsible at least rudimentarily. The controls were abolished by the governments themselves. The “markets” then ensured democracy would go downhill. Global corporations didn’t need to worry any more since the societies were seen as locations. That they undermined their own foundations of existence in the long term and provoked unparalleled social crises is a completely different matter. These dislocations do not appear on the quarterly balance sheet. The rest is fate.
The governments subjected to these “markets” capitulate and regularly act against the interests of the majority of the population. In any case the “markets” are more important than elections and take on the features of exciting sports events. Who wins is rather irrelevant because the markets ultimately decide. That political science describes the prevailing conditions as “post-democracy” is evidence of a certain cognitive ability. The businesses active on the international financial markets have the final say with the help of their dependencies like the rating agencies paid by them. If that is not enough and the states still do not function according to their will, “technocratic” governments are installed and democratic legitimation is generally lacking. Financial capital adorns these governments with its own personnel as now happens in Greece and Italy. Openly authoritarian regimes or military dictatorships are not needed any more in the age of “post-democracy.” That the leaders of international institutions like the European Central Bank are appointed by financial groups is a foregone conclusion. No regard for democratic procedures is necessary. Goldman Sachs and others run all this.
The term “financialization” of capitalism is often used in light of this development. This term also hides something. The neoliberal offensive led to mass income falling worldwide and profits exploding. As a result, investments in the productive sector were not as profitable any more given increasing “market satiations.” But neoliberal deregulation opened up the possibility of compensating through financial speculations. No assets are created now in the financial sector. Thus the profits are fictional. The population pays for the arising debt bubbles. This happens when banks or states are “bailed out” at the taxpayers’ expense. The resulting public austerity policy leads to continuation of the crisis. The neoliberal spinning top spins on and on.
Speaking of capital exploitation, profit interests or international capital linkages and the leading actors instead of “markets” would be very helpful. Power relations and politics and changing these power relations and politics are central, not mysterious powers or an automation of the economy – instead of a fetish dominating and making people dumb. In the meantime this hardly occurs. Those on whom one depends as a politician or who “ensures” one’s job as a journalist may not be annoyed. Neoliberalism has failed economically and politically, at least regarding its initial promises. This is not discussed because the “markets” now rule in the general consciousness, a fact that has no alternative as the German chancellor likes to stress. The ideological power of neoliberalism is assailed but continues effectively as an everyday glance at the news and politicians’ speeches shows. Everyday consciousness and actions are clearly defined by this brainwashing. The “markets” “free of ideology” ensure that neoliberal policy will emerge strengthened. The crisis that is the expression of contradictions inherent in the capital relation is not an industrial accident and will survive. That is the effect of the “bailout umbrella” and the like…
The new economic crisis has lasted for some time. Publications grappling with its causes, effects and consequences multiply. The journal Widerspruch (57, 2009) focused on “State and Crisis.” The question of the crisis-induced transformation of states and systems of states is central like the conditions of emancipative policy.
Elmar Altvater connects the economic-, financial-, energy- and climate crises that all refer back to the capitalist model of production and consumption as the “mother of all crises.” He criticizes the state crisis policy and argues no sustainable solution is possible without an ecological reorganization of capitalism. He considers reflections on an “ecological New Deal” misguided because these reflections – still based on forced growth – only contain a modification of dominant policy…
A Manifesto for Economic Sense July 2012 http://www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org/
More than four years after the financial crisis began, the world’s major advanced economies remain deeply depressed, in a scene all too reminiscent of the 1930s. And the reason is simple: we are relying on the same ideas that governed policy in the 1930s. These ideas, long since disproved, involve profound errors both about the causes of the crisis, its nature, and the appropriate response.
These errors have taken deep root in public consciousness and provide the public support for the excessive austerity of current fiscal policies in many countries. So the time is ripe for a Manifesto in which mainstream economists offer the public a more evidence-based analysis of our problems.
• The causes. Many policy makers insist that the crisis was caused by irresponsible public borrowing. With very few exceptions - other than Greece - this is false. Instead, the conditions for crisis were created by excessive private sector borrowing and lending, including by over-leveraged banks. The collapse of this bubble led to massive falls in output and thus in tax revenue. So the large government deficits we see today are a consequence of the crisis, not its cause.
• The nature of the crisis. When real estate bubbles on both sides of the Atlantic burst, many parts of the private sector slashed spending in an attempt to pay down past debts. This was a rational response on the part of individuals, but - just like the similar response of debtors in the 1930s - it has proved collectively self-defeating, because one person’s spending is another person’s income. The result of the spending collapse has been an economic depression that has worsened the public debt.
• The appropriate response. At a time when the private sector is engaged in a collective effort to spend less, public policy should act as a stabilizing force, attempting to sustain spending. At the very least we should not be making things worse by big cuts in government spending or big increases in tax rates on ordinary people. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many governments are now doing.
• The big mistake. After responding well in the first, acute phase of the economic crisis, conventional policy wisdom took a wrong turn - focusing on government deficits, which are mainly the result of a crisis-induced plunge in revenue, and arguing that the public sector should attempt to reduce its debts in tandem with the private sector. As a result, instead of playing a stabilizing role, fiscal policy has ended up reinforcing and exacerbating the dampening effects of private-sector spending cuts.
In the face of a less severe shock, monetary policy could take up the slack. But with interest rates close to zero, monetary policy - while it should do all it can - cannot do the whole job. There must of course be a medium-term plan for reducing the government deficit. But if this is too front-loaded it can easily be self-defeating by aborting the recovery. A key priority now is to reduce unemployment, before it becomes endemic, making recovery and future deficit reduction even more difficult.
How do those who support present policies answer the argument we have just made? They use two quite different arguments in support of their case.
The confidence argument. Their first argument is that government deficits will raise interest rates and thus prevent recovery. By contrast, they argue, austerity will increase confidence and thus encourage recovery.
But there is no evidence at all in favour of this argument. First, despite exceptionally high deficits, interest rates today are unprecedentedly low in all major countries where there is a normally functioning central bank. This is true even in Japan where the government debt now exceeds 200% of annual GDP; and past downgrades by the rating agencies here have had no effect on Japanese interest rates. Interest rates are only high in some Euro countries, because the ECB is not allowed to act as lender of last resort to the government. Elsewhere the central bank can always, if needed, fund the deficit, leaving the bond market unaffected.
Moreover past experience includes no relevant case where budget cuts have actually generated increased economic activity. The IMF has studied 173 cases of budget cuts in individual countries and found that the consistent result is economic contraction. In the handful of cases in which fiscal consolidation was followed by growth, the main channels were a currency depreciation against a strong world market, not a current possibility. The lesson of the IMF’s study is clear - budget cuts retard recovery. And that is what is happening now - the countries with the biggest budget cuts have experienced the biggest falls in output.
For the truth is, as we can now see, that budget cuts do not inspire business confidence. Companies will only invest when they can foresee enough customers with enough income to spend. Austerity discourages investment.
So there is massive evidence against the confidence argument; all the alleged evidence in favor of the doctrine has evaporated on closer examination.
The structural argument. A second argument against expanding demand is that output is in fact constrained on the supply side - by structural imbalances. If this theory were right, however, at least some parts of our economies ought to be at full stretch, and so should some occupations. But in most countries that is just not the case. Every major sector of our economies is struggling, and every occupation has higher unemployment than usual. So the problem must be a general lack of spending and demand.
In the 1930s the same structural argument was used against proactive spending policies in the U.S. But as spending rose between 1940 and 1942, output rose by 20%. So the problem in the 1930s, as now, was a shortage of demand not of supply.
As a result of their mistaken ideas, many Western policy-makers are inflicting massive suffering on their peoples. But the ideas they espouse about how to handle recessions were rejected by nearly all economists after the disasters of the 1930s, and for the following forty years or so the West enjoyed an unparalleled period of economic stability and low unemployment. It is tragic that in recent years the old ideas have again taken root. But we can no longer accept a situation where mistaken fears of higher interest rates weigh more highly with policy-makers than the horrors of mass unemployment.
Better policies will differ between countries and need detailed debate. But they must be based on a correct analysis of the problem. We therefore urge all economists and others who agree with the broad thrust of this Manifesto to register their agreement at www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org, and to publically argue the case for a sounder approach. The whole world suffers when men and women are silent about what they know is wrong.
2-hr video “What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire”