Tag Archive for Crisis

Book Review: 21st-century imperialism

Seán Edwards

John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016)

In 2002 Anne Daly produced a documentary called Race to the Bottom, provoked by a fire that killed fifty-two workers in a garment factory in Bangladesh. John Smith’s book begins with the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when another garment factory collapsed and 1,131 workers died. Clearly, the race to the bottom continues. 
The conditions derive from the cut-throat competition between suppliers in Bangladesh and other oppressed countries that is mandated by the transnational corporations in the imperialist countries. The more monopolised the garment industry in the North, the more intense the competition between countries, between businesses and between workers in the global South. Most of the profits accrue to the North. According to an example given in this book, only €0.95 of the price of a H&M tee-shirt sold in Germany for €4.95 stays in Bangladesh. 
Along with other examples of intensified exploitation, smartphone manufacture, and coffee-growing, John Smith connects the outsourcing of production to the lowest-wage economies with the nature of capitalism today. 
The twenty-first century dawned with capitalism—according to most observers in the media—swinging along nicely. The taoiseach of the time, Brian Cowan, cheerfully exclaimed that the era of booms and slumps was over. Only Marxists predicted a crash. (They would say that, wouldn’t they?) 
When the crash came, the economists and the politicians were taken by surprise. They are still thrashing about looking for an explanation, blaming each other, blaming deregulation, blaming rogue bankers, always addressing the superficialities, afraid to look into the abyss: the crisis of capitalism. 
Among the Marxists, Monthly Review Press not only saw the crash coming but described many of its features in advance. It has maintained a spirit of inquiry into the workings of contemporary capitalism, so it is appropriate that it is the publisher of John Smith’s book. This book is strictly about economics, not so much the political and military means of maintaining imperialist hegemony—that would be another book. 
The crash of 2007 was not a surprise; the only surprise is that it was delayed so long, which Smith endeavours to explain. 
One of the responses to the stagnation crisis of the 1970s was the drive to cut costs by moving production to countries with cheaper labour. This was closely associated with increasing financialisation, which the author insists is not a separate phenomenon. Both were facilitated by the advances in information technology. What began as an economic solution has become a pathology. After thirty years, it was fundamental to the new crisis. 
The outsourcing of production, ever seeking cheaper labour power, accelerated up to the crash of 2007: for example, Levi-Strauss, which in the 1960s operated sixty-three factories in the United States, closed its last factory there in 2004. The process was pushed also by the emergence of such retail giants as Walmart, Tesco, and Carrefour—commercial interests coming to dominate manufacturers and growers, at home and abroad. The pressure on suppliers inevitably leads to further pressure on wages. 
According to mainstream economics, the “developing countries” should be catching up with the developed. There is no sign of this happening, however (apart from a few special cases), for a number of reasons. 
The process is controlled by the transnational corporations, whether through direct investment or subcontracting. While there is free movement of capital, there is no free movement of labour. The reserve army of the unemployed and precariously employed is so large, and continues to be reinforced by the displacement of peasants from the land. 
Development is largely limited to the particular activities required by powerful corporations and by commercial and financial interests. It is unusual for a product to be manufactured entirely in one country. For example, transnational companies and their subcontractors operating in China typically assemble articles for export from parts made elsewhere. This keeps control in the hands of the corporation. 
The direct rule of the colonial powers has been more or less successfully replaced by neo-colonialism. Imperialist hegemony is enforced by economic means, in alliance with the local ruling class—not that force, or the threat of force, has been abandoned. Levelling up is just not happening. 
Meanwhile the wages and conditions of workers in the imperialist countries continue to deteriorate, with jobs in production only partly replaced by service employment. They are facing austerity policies imposed by governments and employers. These have so far met with only sporadic resistance, but this may be changing. 
John Smith argues at some length that Marx’s theory of surplus value needs to be interpreted in the global context of contemporary imperialism. As he sums up his argument, “global labour arbitrage—super-exploitation—that is forcing down the value of labour power, is now the increasingly predominant form of the capital-labour relationship.” This he sees as “a defining feature of the neoliberal era,” along with the financialisation with which it is closely associated. He makes the point that financial assets are largely derived from the surplus value extracted from super-exploited workers in low-wage countries. 
Behind the financial crisis of 2007 lay a crisis of production, that is, of capitalism itself, of imperialism. After nine years, no solution has been found. The policy of North American and European governments has been to protect business, keeping share prices up by “quantitative easing” and imposing austerity on working people. They have certainly succeeded in making the rich richer, but the underlying crisis remains, and is spreading to the oppressed countries, which depend on exporting to what is now a stagnant market. 
The return to Keynesian strategies and re-regulation advocated by the left is hardly more promising; nor is the “non-interference” proposed by some on the right. The author argues that there is no capitalist solution to the crisis. There has been, he maintains, an enormous growth in the working class, the industrial working class in particular, which includes women and men, all races and all religions, “more closely resembling the face of humanity than ever before”—a powerful force. 
Either humanity will destroy capitalism, or capitalism will destroy humanity. We are back to Marx: “Workers of all countries, unite!”—never more difficult, never more urgent, never more necessary.

Greece and the European Union: First as Tragedy, Second as Farce, Thirdly as Vassal State

james petras

Another brilliantly insightful article by James Petras available at http://petras.lahaine.org/?p=2044 and reprinted below in full:

james petras

First, the denial came as tragedy: When the Greek majority elected Syriza to government and their debts increased, the economy plunged further into depression and unemployment and poverty soared. The Greek people voted for Syriza believing its promises of ‘a new course’. Immediately following their victory, Syriza reneged on their promise to restore sovereignty – and end the subjugation of the Greek people to the economic dictates of overseas bankers, bureaucrats and political oligarchs. Instead Syriza kept Greece in the oligarchical imperialist bloc, portraying the European Union as an association of independent sovereign countries. What began as a great victory of the Greek people turned into a tragic strategic retreat. >From their first day in office, Syriza led the Greek people down the blind alley of total submission to the German empire.

Then the tragedy turned into farce when the Greek people refused to acknowledge the impending betrayal by their elected leaders. They were stunned, but mute, as Syriza emptied the Greek treasury and offered even greater concessions, including acceptance of the illegal and odious debts incurred by private bankers, speculators and political kleptocrats in previous regimes.

True to their own vocation as imperial overlords, the EU bosses saw the gross servility of Syriza as an invitation to demand more concessions – total surrender to perpetual debt peonage and mass impoverishment. Syriza’s demagogic leaders, Yanis Varoufakis and Alexis Tsipras, shifting from fits of hysteria to infantile egotism, denounced ‘the Germans and their blackmail’ and then performed a coy belly-crawl at the feet of the ‘Troika’, peddling their capitulation to the bankers as ‘negotiations’ and referring to their overlords as . . . ‘partners’.

Syriza, in office for only 5 months brought Greece to the edge of total bankruptcy and surrender, then launched the ‘mother of all deceptions’ on the Greek people: Tsipras convoked a ‘referendum’ on whether Greece should reject or accept further dictates and cuts to bare bones destitution. Over 60% of the Greek people voted a resounding NO to further plunder and poverty.

In Orwellian fashion, the megalomaniac Tsipras immediately re-interpreted the ‘NO’vote as a mandate to capitulation to the imperial powers, accepting the EU bankers’ direct supervision of the regime’s implementation of Troika’s policies – including drastic reductions of Greek pensions, doubling the regressive ‘VAT’ consumption tax on vital necessities and a speed-up of evictions of storeowners and householders behind in their mortgage payments. Thus Greece became a vassal state: Nineteenth century colonialism was re-imposed in the 21st century.

Colonialism by Invitation

Greek politicians, whether Conservative or Socialist, have openly sought to join the German-led imperial bloc known as the European Union, even when it was obvious that the Greek economy and financial system was vulnerable to domination by the powerful German ruling class.

From the beginning, the Greek Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) and their Conservative counterparts refused to recognize the class basis of the European Union. Both political factions and the Greek economic elites, that is, the kleptocrats who governed and the oligarchs who ruled, viewed entry into the EU as an opportunity for taking and faking loans, borrowing, defaulting and passing their enormous debts on to the public treasury!

Widely circulating notions among the Left that ‘Germany is responsible’ for the Greek crisis are only half true, while the accusations among rightwing financial scribes that the ‘Greek people are spendthrifts’ who brought on their own crisis is equally one-sided. The reality is more complex:

The crash and collapse of the Greek economy was a product of an entrenched parasitic rentier ruling class –both Socialist and Conservative – which thrived on borrowing at high interest rates and speculating in non-productive economic activities while imposing an astronomical military budget. They engaged in fraudulent overseas financial transactions while grossly manipulating and fabricating financial data to cover-up Greece’s unsustainable trade and budget deficits.

German and other EU exporters had penetrated and dominated the Greek markets. The bankers charged exorbitant interest rates while investors exploited cheap Greek labor. The creditors ignored the obvious risks because Greek rulers were their willing accomplices in the ongoing pillage.

Clearly entry into and continued membership in the EU has largely benefited two groups of elites: the German rulers and the Greek rentiers: The latter received short-term financial grants and transfers while the former gained powerful levers over the banks, markets and, most important, established cultural-ideological hegemony over the Greek political class. The Greek elite and middle class believed ‘they were Europeans’ – that the EU was a beneficent arrangement and a source of prosperity and upward mobility. In reality, Greek leaders were merely accomplices to the German conquest of Greece. And the major part of the middle class aped the views of the Greek elite.

The financial crash of 2008-2009 ended the illusions for some but not most Greeks. After 6 years of pain and suffering a new version of the old political class came to power: Syriza! Syriza brought in new faces and rhetoric but operated with the same blind commitment to the EU. The Syriza leadership believed they were “partners”.

The road to vassalage is rooted deep in the psyche of the political class. Instead of recognizing their subordinate membership in the EU as the root cause of their crisis, they blamed ‘the Germans, the bankers, Angela Merkel, Wolfgang Schnauble , the IMF, the Troika… The Greek rulers and middle class were in fact both victims and accomplices.

The German imperial regime loaned money from the tax revenues of German workers to enable their complicit Greek vassals to pay back the German bankers… German workers complained. The German media deflected criticism by blaming the ‘lazy Greek cheats’. Meanwhile, the Greek oligarch-controlled media deflected criticism of the role of the parasitical political class back to the ‘Germans’. This all served to obscure the class dynamics of empire building — colonialism by invitation. The ideology of blaming peoples, instead of classes, is pitting German workers against Greek employees and pensioners. The German masses support their bankers, while the Greek masses have elected and followed Syriza – their traitors.

From Andreas Papandreou to Alexis Tsipras: Misconceptions about the European Union

After Syriza was elected a small army of instant experts, mostly leftist academics from Canada, the US and Europe, sprang up to write and speak, usually with more heat than light, on current Greek political and economic developments. Most have little knowledge or experience of Greek politics, particularly its history and relations with the EU over the past thirty five years.

The most important policy decisions shaping the current Syriza government’s betrayal of Greek sovereignty go back to the early 1980’s when I was working as an adviser to PASOK Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. At that time, I was party to an internal debate of whether to continue within the EU or leave. Papandreou was elected on an anti EU, anti NATO platform, which, like Tsipras, he promptly reneged on– arguing that ‘there were no alternatives’. Even then, there were international and Greek academic sycophants, as there are today, who argued that membership in the EU was the only realistic alternative- it was the ‘only possibility’. The ‘possibilistas” at that time, operating either from ignorance or deceit, were full of bluster and presumption. They denied the underlying power realities in the structure of the EU and dismissed the class capacity of the working and popular masses to forge an alternative. Then, as now, it was possible to develop independent alternative relations with Europe, Russia, China, the Middle East and North Africa. The advantages of maintaining a protected market, a robust tourist sector and an independent monetary system were evident and did not require EU membership (or vassalage).

Above all, what stood out in both leaders, Andreas Papandreou and Alexis Tsipras, was their profound misconception of the class nature of the dominant forces in the EU. In the 1980’s Germany was just beginning to recover its imperial reach. By the time Syriza-Tsipras rose to power (January 2015), Germany’s imperial power was undeniable. Tsipras’ misunderstanding of this reality can be attributed to his and his ‘comrades’ rejection of class and imperial analyses. Even academic Marxists, who spouted Marxist theory, never applied their abstract critiques of capitalism and imperialism to the concrete realities of German empire building and Greece’s quasi-colonial position within the EU. They viewed their role as that of ‘colonial reformers’ –imagining that they were clever enough to ‘negotiate’ better terms in the German-centered EU. They inevitably failed because Berlin had a built-in majority among its fervently neo-liberal ex-communist satellites plus the IMF, French and English imperial partners. Syriza was no match for this power configuration. Then there was the bizarre delusion among the Syriza intellectuals that European capitalism was more benign than the US version.

EU membership has created scaffolding for German empire-building. The take off point was West Germany’s annexation of East Germany. This was soon followed by the incorporation of the rightwing regimes in the Baltic and Balkans as subordinate members of the EU – their public assets were snapped up by Germany corporations at bargain prices. The third step was the systematic break-up of Yugoslavia and the incorporation of Slovenia into the German orbit. The fourth step was the takeover of key sectors of the Polish and Czech economies and the exploitation of cheap skilled labor from Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and other satellite states.

Without firing a shot, German empire-building has revolved around making loans and financial transfers to the new subordinate member states in the EU. These financial transactions were predicated upon the following conditions: 1) Privatization and sale of the new member states’ prized public assets to mainly German as well as other EU investors and 2) Forcing member states to dismantle their social programs, approve massive lay-offs and meet impossible fiscal targets. In other words, expansion of the contemporary German empire required austerity measures, which transformed the ex-communist countries into satellites, vassals and sources of mercenaries – a pattern which is now playing out in Greece.

The reason these new German ‘colonies’ (especially Poland and the Baltic States) insist on the EU imposing harsh austerity measures on Greece, is that they went through the same brutal process convincing their own beleaguered citizens that there was no alternative – resistance was futile. Any successful demonstration by Greek workers, farmers and employees that resistance to empire was possible would expose the corrupt relationship between these client leaders and the German imperial order. In order to preserve the foundations of the new imperial order, Germany has had to take a hardline on Greece. Otherwise the recently incorporated colonial subjects in the Baltic, Balkan and Central Europe states might “re-think” the brutal terms of their own incorporation to the European Union. This explains the openly punitive approach to Greece – turning it into the ‘Haiti of Europe’ analogous to the US’ long standing brutalization of the rebellious Haitians – as an object lesson to its own Caribbean and Latin American clients.

The root cause of German intransigence has nothing to do with the political personalities or quirks of Angela Merkle and Wolfgang Schnauble: Such imperial leaders do not operate out of neurotic vindictiveness. Their demand for total Greek submission is an imperative of German empire-building, a continuation of the step-by-step conquest of Europe.

German empire-building emphasizes economic conquests, which go hand-in-hand with US empire-building based on military conquests. The same economic satellites of Germany also serve as sites for US military bases and exercises encircling Russia; these vassal states provide mercenary soldiers for US imperial wars in South Asia, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

Syriza’s economic surrender is matched by its spineless sell-out to NATO, its support of sanctions against Russia and its embrace of US policies toward Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

Germany and its imperial partners have launched a savage attack on the working people of Greece, usurping Greek sovereignty and planning to seize 50 billion Euros of vital Greek public enterprises, land and resources. This alone should dispels the myth, promoted especially by the French social democratic demagogue Jacques Delores, that European capitalism is a benign form of ‘social welfarism’ and an ‘alternative’ to the savage Anglo-American version capitalism.

What has been crucial to previous and current versions of empire-building is the role of a political collaborator class facilitating the transition to colonialism. Here is where social democrats, like Alexis Tsipras, who excel in the art of talking left while embracing the right, flatter and deceive the masses into deepening austerity and pillage.

Instead of identifying the class enemies within the EU and organizing an alternative working class program, Tsipras and his fellow collaborators pose as EU ‘partners’ , fostering class collaboration – better to serve imperial Europe: When the German capitalists demanded their interest payments, Tsipras bled the Greek economy. When German capitalists sought to dominate Greek markets, Tsipras and Syriza opened the door by keeping Greece in the EU. When German capital wanted to supervise the take-over of Greek properties, Tsipras and Syriza embraced the sell-off.

There is clear class collaboration within the Greek elite in the destruction of nation’s sovereignty: Greek banker oligarchs and sectors of the commercial and tourist elite have acted as intermediaries of the German empire builders and they personally benefit from the German and EU takeover despite the destitution of the Greek public. Such economic intermediaries, representing 25% of the electorate, have become the main political supporters of the Syriza-Tsipras betrayal. They join with the EU elite applauding Tsipras’ purge of left critics and his authoritarian seizure of legislative and executive power! This collaborator class will never suffer from pension cuts, layoffs and unemployment. They will never have to line up at crippled banks for a humiliating dole of 65 Euros of pension money. These collaborators have hundreds of thousands and millions stashed in overseas bank accounts and invested in overseas real estate. Unlike the Greek masses, they are ‘European’ first and foremost – willing accomplices of German empire builders!

Tragic Beginnings: The Greek People Elect a Trojan Horse

Syriza is deeply rooted in Greek political culture .A leadership of educated mascots serving overseas European empire-builders. Syriza is supported by academic leftists who are remote from the struggles, sacrifices and suffering of the Greek masses. Syriza’s leadership emerged on the scene as ideological mentors and saviors with heady ideas and shaky hands. They joined forces with downwardly mobile middle class radicals who aspired to rise again via the traditional method: radical rhetoric, election to office, negotiations and transactions with the local and foreign elite and betrayal of their voters. Theirs is a familiar political road to power, privilege and prestige. In this regard, Tsipras personifies an entire generation of upwardly mobile opportunists, willing and able to sellout Greece and its people. He perpetuates the worst political traditions: In campaigns he promoted consumerism over class consciousness (discarding any mobilization of the masses upon election!). He is a useful fool, embedded in a culture of clientelism, kleptocracy, tax evasion, predatory lenders and spenders – the very reason his German overlords tolerated him and Syriza, although on a short leash!

Tsipras’ Syriza has absolute contempt for democracy. He embraces the ‘Caudillo Principle’: one man, one leader, one policy! Any dissenters invite dismissal!

Syriza has utterly submitted to imperial institutions, the Troika and their dictates, NATO and above all the EU, the Eurozone. Tsipras/ Syriza reject outright independence and freedom from imperial dictates. In his ‘capitulation to the Germans’ Tsipra engaged in histrionic theatrics, but by his own personal dictate, the massive ‘NO to EU’ vote was transformed into a YES.

The cruelest political crime of all has been Tsipras running down the Greek economy, bleeding the banks, emptying the pension funds and freezing everyday salaries while ‘blaming the bankers’, in order to force the mass of Greeks to accept the savage dictates of his imperial overlords or face utter destitution!

The Ultimate Surrender

Tsipras and his sycophants in Syriza, while constantly decrying Greece’s subordination to the EU empire-builders and claiming victimhood, managed to undermine the Greek people’s national consciousness in less than 6 months. What had been a victorious referendum and expression of rejection by three-fifths of the Greek voters turned into a prelude to a farcical surrender by empire collaborators. The people’s victory in the referendum was twisted to represent popular support for a Caudillo. While pretending to consult the Greek electorate, Tsipras manipulated the popular will into a mandate for his regime to push Greece beyond debt peonage and into colonial vassalage.

Tsipras is a supreme representation of Adorno’s authoritarian personality: On his knees to those above him, while at the throat of those below.

Once he has completed his task of dividing, demoralizing and impoverishing the Greek majority, the local and overseas ruling elites will discard him like a used condom, and he will pass into history as a virtuoso in deceiving and betraying the Greek people.

Epilogue:

Syriza’s embrace of hard-right foreign policies should not be seen as the ‘result of outside pressure’, as its phony left supporters have argued, but rather a deliberate choice. So far, the best example of the Syriza regime’s reactionary policies is its signing of a military agreement with Israel.

According to the Jerusalem Post (July 19, 2015), the Greek Defense Minister signed a mutual defense and training agreement with Israel, which included joint military exercises. Syriza has even backed Israel’s belligerent position against the Islamic Republic of Iran, endorsing Tel Aviv’s ridiculous claim that Teheran represents a terrorist threat in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Syriza and Israel have inked a mutual military support pact that exceeds any other EU member agreement with Israel and is only matched in belligerence by Washington’s special arrangements with the Zionist regime.

Israel’s ultra-militarist ‘Defense’ Minister Moshe Yaalon, (the Butcher of Gaza), hailed the agreement and thanked the Syriza regime for ‘its support’. It is more than likely that Syriza’s support for the Jewish state explains its popularity with Anglo-American and Canadian ‘left’ Zionists…

Syriza’s strategic ties with Israel are not the result of EU ‘pressure’ or the dictates of the ‘Troika’. The agreement is a radical reversal of over a half-century of Greek support for the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people against the Israeli terrorist state. This military pact, like the Syriza regime’s economic capitulation to the German ruling class, is deeply rooted in the ‘colonial ideology’, which permeates Tsipras’ policies. He has taken Greece a significant step ‘forward’ from economic vassal to a mercenary client of the most retrograde regime in the Mediterranean.

The emerging market crisis returns

Taken from https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/the-emerging-market-crisis-returns/

By Michael Roberts

The business media is full of the meltdown of the Chinese stock market, the credit bubble and impending crash in the Chinese economy.  But less well announced is the dangerous economic slowdown and already unfolding debt crisis in ‘emerging economies’ in general.

So for the first time since the emerging market crisis of 1998, all the large so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are in trouble.  And so are the next range of ‘developing’ economies like Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, Argentina, Venezuela etc.

Previously rising commodity prices in oil, base metals and food led to fast growth in many of these economies.  This in turn led to a flood of capital from advanced capitalist economies by banks and companies looking for higher profits than available in their economies.

But the commodity boom has collapsed.  Global commodity prices continue to plunge. Bloomberg’s commodity price index, tracking gold, crude oil and other raw materials, is down to its lowest point since 2002. It has fallen by 40% since 2011.  It’s another indicator of the long depression and deflationary pressures in the world economy (see my post: https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/…/the-spectre-of-de…/).

That’s partly because of the Great Recession and the weak recovery afterwards has reduced demand for energy and industrial materials.  And it is partly because the biggest consumer of these goods, China, has seen its economy slow in growth from double digits to (just) 7% a year or even lower.  Inflation in many top economies has given way to deflation in prices (in Europe and Japan).

The latest ‘flash’ estimates of business activity globally, based on the so-called purchasing managers indexes, show that emerging economies are now contracting for the first time for over two years.

Unemployment across emerging markets has risen sharply this year, reversing a six-year slide, even as it has continued to fall in developed countries.  Across emerging markets, unemployment has risen to 5.7 per cent, from a cyclical low of 5.2 per cent in January, the sharpest rise since the global financial crisis, according to figures compiled by JPMorgan.

During the emerging market boom, capital flowed into the emerging economies and corporations in Asia and Latin America ran up large debts.  Now the money is flowing out, not in and profits are falling as prices for commodities and sales of even for hi-tech goods are falling.  Investors pulled a net $4.5bn from EM funds in the week through July 30, according to data from EPFR, compared with $3.3bn a week earlier. A total of $14.5bn has now been redeemed from EM funds over the past three weeks alone.

And currencies across Asia are dropping like stones.

And the US is poised to raise rates in September, so emerging markets could suffer further instability as the cost of servicing that debt rises in dollar terms.  A debt crisis is emerging.

The latest data on foreign exchange reserves show a sharp fall in dollar reserves. The reserves of emerging market governments have slumped as these governments experience declining trade surpluses and weak domestic economies, leading to a flight of money.   The IMF’s COFER figures, the measure for FX reserve data, show that emerging-market reserves have dropped for three successive quarters, from a peak of $8.06trn at end Q2 2014 to $7.5trn by end Q1 2015. These analysts reckon that emerging-market reserves have fallen $575bn since the middle of last year, the sharpest decline in 20 years.  Capital is fleeing these ’emerging economies’ as their real GDP growth slows and investment drops off.

Investment bank JP Morgan reckons that the debt of non-financial corporations in emerging economies has surged from about 73% of GDP before the financial crisis to 106% of GDP as of 4Q14. This 34%-point increase is enormous, averaging nearly 5%-points per year since 2007.  In previous research, the IMF has found that an increase in the ratio of credit to GDP of 5%-points or more in a single year signals a heightened risk of an eventual financial crisis. Many emerging market economies have registered such an increase since 2007. Hence the conclusion of the credit analysts, S&P, that “we have reached an inflexion point in the corporate credit cycle”.

Alongside rising debt are falling profitability and consumer demand in emerging markets outside China.

Falling commodity prices for emerging economy exports, rising corporate debt, falling profitability and demand, significant capital outflows and the probability that the US Fed will hike rates this autumn/fall and increase debt servicing costs. It’s a concoction for a serious crash/slump in the great ‘growth’ story of the ’emerging’ economies.

Karl Marx Was Right

marx-400x209
Global Research, June 01, 2015
http://www.globalresearch.ca/karl-marx-was-right/5452795

Karl Marx exposed the peculiar dynamics of capitalism, or what he called “the bourgeois mode of production.” He foresaw that capitalism had built within it the seeds of its own destruction. He knew that reigning ideologies—think neoliberalism—were created to serve the interests of the elites and in particular the economic elites, since “the class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production” and “the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships … the relationships which make one class the ruling one.” He saw that there would come a day when capitalism would exhaust its potential and collapse. He did not know when that day would come. Marx, as Meghnad Desai wrote, was “an astronomer of history, not an astrologer.” Marx was keenly aware of capitalism’s ability to innovate and adapt. But he also knew that capitalist expansion was not eternally sustainable. And as we witness the denouement of capitalism and the disintegration of globalism, Karl Marx is vindicated as capitalism’s most prescient and important critic.

In a preface to “The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” Marx wrote:

No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.

Therefore, mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since looking at the matter more closely, we always find that the task itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist, or are at least in the process of formation.

Socialism, in other words, would not be possible until capitalism had exhausted its potential for further development. That the end is coming is hard now to dispute, although one would be foolish to predict when. We are called to study Marx to be ready.

The final stages of capitalism, Marx wrote, would be marked by developments that are intimately familiar to most of us. Unable to expand and generate profits at past levels, the capitalist system would begin to consume the structures that sustained it. It would prey upon, in the name of austerity, the working class and the poor, driving them ever deeper into debt and poverty and diminishing the capacity of the state to serve the needs of ordinary citizens. It would, as it has, increasingly relocate jobs, including both manufacturing and professional positions, to countries with cheap pools of laborers. Industries would mechanize their workplaces. This would trigger an economic assault on not only the working class but the middle class—the bulwark of a capitalist system—that would be disguised by the imposition of massive personal debt as incomes declined or remained stagnant. Politics would in the late stages of capitalism become subordinate to economics, leading to political parties hollowed out of any real political content and abjectly subservient to the dictates and money of global capitalism.

But as Marx warned, there is a limit to an economy built on scaffolding of debt expansion. There comes a moment, Marx knew, when there would be no new markets available and no new pools of people who could take on more debt. This is what happened with the subprime mortgage crisis. Once the banks cannot conjure up new subprime borrowers, the scheme falls apart and the system crashes.

Capitalist oligarchs, meanwhile, hoard huge sums of wealth—$18 trillion stashed in overseas tax havens—exacted as tribute from those they dominate, indebt and impoverish. Capitalism would, in the end, Marx said, turn on the so-called free market, along with the values and traditions it claims to defend. It would in its final stages pillage the systems and structures that made capitalism possible. It would resort, as it caused widespread suffering, to harsher forms of repression. It would attempt in a frantic last stand to maintain its profits by looting and pillaging state institutions, contradicting its stated nature.

Marx warned that in the later stages of capitalism huge corporations would exercise a monopoly on global markets. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe,” he wrote. “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” These corporations, whether in the banking sector, the agricultural and food industries, the arms industries or the communications industries, would use their power, usually by seizing the mechanisms of state, to prevent anyone from challenging their monopoly. They would fix prices to maximize profit. They would, as they [have been doing], push through trade deals such as the TPP and CAFTA to further weaken the nation-state’s ability to impede exploitation by imposing environmental regulations or monitoring working conditions. And in the end these corporate monopolies would obliterate free market competition.

May 22 editorial in The New York Times gives us a window into what Marx said would characterize the late stages of capitalism:

As of this week, Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland are felons, having pleaded guilty on Wednesday to criminal charges of conspiring to rig the value of the world’s currencies. According to the Justice Department, the lengthy and lucrative conspiracy enabled the banks to pad their profits without regard to fairness, the law or the public good.

The Times goes on:

The banks will pay fines totaling about $9 billion, assessed by the Justice Department as well as state, federal and foreign regulators. That seems like a sweet deal for a scam that lasted for at least five years, from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2013, during which the banks’ revenue from foreign exchange was some $85 billion.

The final stages of what we call capitalism, as Marx grasped, is not capitalism at all. Corporations gobble down government expenditures, in essence taxpayer money, like pigs at a trough. The arms industry with its official $612 billion defense authorization bill—which ignores numerous other military expenditures tucked away in other budgets, raising our real expenditure on national security expenses to over $1 trillion a year—has gotten the government this year to commit to spending $348 billion over the next decade to modernize our nuclear weapons and build 12 new Ohio-class nuclear submarines, estimated at $8 billion each. Exactly how these two massive arms programs are supposed to address what we are told is the greatest threat of our time—the war on terror—is a mystery. After all, as far as I know, ISIS does not own a rowboat. We spend some $100 billion a year on intelligence—read surveillance—and 70 percent of that money goes to private contractors such as Booz Allen Hamilton, [which] gets 99 percent of its revenues from the U.S. government. And on top of this we are the largest exporters of arms in the world.

The fossil fuel industry swallows up $5.3 trillion a year worldwide in hidden costs to keep burning fossil fuels, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This money, the IMF noted, is in addition to the $492 billion in direct subsidies offered by governments around the world through write-offs and write-downs and land-use loopholes. In a sane world these subsidies would be invested to free us from the deadly effects of carbon emissions caused by fossil fuels, but we do not live in a sane world.

Bloomberg News in the 2013 article “Why Should Taxpayers Give Big Banks $83 Billion a Year?” reported that economists had determined that government subsidies lower the big banks’ borrowing costs by about 0.8 percent.

“Multiplied by the total liabilities of the 10 largest U.S. banks by assets,” the report said, “it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of $83 billion a year.”

“The top five banks—JPMorgan, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.—account,” the report went on, “for $64 billion of the total subsidy, an amount roughly equal to their typical annual profits. In other words, the banks occupying the commanding heights of the U.S. financial industry—with almost $9 trillion in assets, more than half the size of the U.S. economy—would just about break even in the absence of corporate welfare. In large part, the profits they report are essentially transfers from taxpayers to their shareholders.”

Government expenditure accounts for 41 percent of GDP. Corporate capitalists intend to seize this money, hence the privatization of whole parts of the military, the push to privatize Social Security, the contracting of corporations to collect 70 percent of intelligence for our 16 intelligence agencies, as well as the privatization of prisons, schools and our disastrous for-profit health care service. None of these seizures of basic services make them more efficient or reduce costs. That is not the point. It is about feeding off the carcass of the state. And it ensures the disintegration of the structures that sustain capitalism itself. All this Marx got.

Marx illuminated these contradictions within capitalism. He understood that the idea of capitalism—free trade, free markets, individualism, innovation, self-development—works only in the utopian mind of a true believer such as Alan Greenspan, never in reality. The hoarding of wealth by a tiny capitalist elite, Marx foresaw, along with the exploitation of the workers, meant that the masses could no longer buy the products that propelled capitalism forward. Wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite—the world’s richest 1 percent will own more than half of the world’s wealth by next year.

The assault on the working class has been going on now for several decades. Salaries have remained stagnant or declined since the 1970s. Manufacturing has been shipped overseas, where workers in countries such as China or Bangladesh are paid as little as 22 cents an hour. The working poor, forced to compete with the labor of those who are little better than serfs in the global marketplace, proliferate across the American landscape, struggling to live at a subsistence level. Industries such as construction, which once provided well-paying unionized jobs, are the domain of nonunionized, often undocumented workers. Corporations import foreign engineers and software specialists that do professional work at one-third of the normal salary on H-1B, L-1 and other work visas. All these workers are bereft of the rights of citizens.

The capitalists respond to the collapse of their domestic economies, which they engineered, by becoming global loan sharks and speculators. They lend money at exorbitant interest rates to the working class and the poor, even if they know the money could never be repaid, and then sell these bundled debts, credit default swaps, bonds and stocks to pension funds, cities, investment firms and institutions. This late form of capitalism is built on what Marx called “fictitious capital.” And it leads, as Marx knew, to the vaporization of money.

Once subprime borrowers began to default, as these big banks and investment firms knew was inevitable, the global crash of 2008 took place. The government bailed out the banks, largely by printing money, but left the poor and the working class—not to mention students recently out of college—with crippling personal debt. Austerity became policy. The victims of financial fraud would be made to pay for that fraud. And what saved us from a full-blown depression was, in a tactic Marx would have found ironic, massive state intervention in the economy, including the nationalization of huge corporations such as AIG and General Motors.

What we saw in 2008 was the enactment of a welfare state for the rich, a kind of state socialism for the financial elites that Marx predicted. But with this comes an increased and volatile cycle of boom and bust, bringing the system closer to disintegration and collapse. We have undergone two major stock market crashes and the implosion of real estate prices in just the first decade of the 21st century.

The corporations that own the media have worked overtime to sell to a bewildered public the fiction that we are enjoying a recovery. Employment figures, through a variety of gimmicks, including erasing those who are unemployed for over a year from unemployment rolls, are a lie, as is nearly every other financial indicator pumped out for public consumption. We live, rather, in the twilight stages of global capitalism, which may be surprisingly more resilient than we expect, but which is ultimately terminal. Marx knew that once the market mechanism became the sole determining factor for the fate of the nation-state, as well as the natural world, both would be demolished. No one knows when this will happen. But that it will happen, perhaps within our lifetime, seems certain.

“The old is dying, the new struggles to be born, and in the interregnum there are many morbid symptoms,” Antonio Gramsci wrote.

What comes next is up to us.

The better is yet to come

A Social Vision and an Economic Strategy for Ireland in the 21st Century

By Dr Tom Healy of http://www.nerinstitute.net/

NERI Vision

In recent years, both parts of Ireland underwent a deep economic crisis that impacted on employment, incomes and social infrastructure. Although levels of prosperity exceed those of earlier generations, inequality in the ownership of wealth and in the distribution of income is likely to have increased – at least before taxes and social transfers are taken into account. Future trends in economic well-being are uncertain as Ireland adjusts to a rapidly changing world.  Continuing shocks in areas such as banking, property prices, unemployment and energy supply and cost – to mention only some – are likely to constitute sources of stress for social cohesion, democracy and sustainable economies.

This paper reviews the key economic and associated social challenges in the coming three decades and suggests an overarching framework to better understand:

  • Why the cycle of bust and boom has not been abolished;
  • What options and choices are open to communities in each part of the island; and
  • How synergies on an all-island (Ireland) and cross-island (Ireland and Great Britain) basis be harnessed.

The paper is intended as a contribution to a debate on our economic future and how we can achieve very different outcomes to those experienced up to now. Underlying a vision for the 2040’s is an emphasis on:

  • Human rights – economic and social; and
  • Security and sustainability of economic well-being which transcend conventional measures of economic prosperity.

This paper is not intended as a blueprint or a set model to be applied or rolled out. Rather, it suggests a different way of approaching public policy based on different norms and values – in practice – to those incorporated into public decision-making in the recent decades.

Although constituting two separate jurisdictions with very different characteristics and policy institutions, the Paper seeks to identify a unified perspective for the whole island and its relationship to the neighbouring island. This is without prejudice to the existing or future constitutional arrangements and preferences of any country or part thereof.

Author

Dr Tom Healy

 

The Chronic Crisis, with Worse to Come?

Article from the excellent political economy blogger Zoltan Zigedy

http://zzs-blg.blogspot.ie/2014/09/the-chronic-crisis-with-worse-to-come.html

Looking back on the ten years following the 1929 stock market crash, Marxist economist and Science and Society co-editor, Vladimir D. Kazakevich, wrote of the “chronic crisis” that persisted throughout the nineteen thirties in the US (“The War and American Finance,” Science and Society, Spring 1940). Kazakevich drew attention to the stagnation that lasted over the decade, noting that after World War One, the United States became the most dominant economy in the world. Yet “[a]s the most powerful capitalist country, the United States developed particularly glaring financial weaknesses, attributable, for the most part, precisely to its foremost place in a capitalist world torn by economic contradiction and frustration.”
Kazakevich, a good Marxist instead of a born-again Keynesian, reflected on the collapse of growth of the capital goods sector through the New Deal decade: “These figures show how enormously capitalist activity had shrunk in the thirties as compared to the twenties. Most of the Federal expenditures of the New Deal period were directed towards sustaining the demand for consumers’ goods rather than for capital or producers’ goods… Although widely advocated, ‘priming of the pump’ from the end of consumers’ goods alone, has proved a complete failure as an economic measure for resuscitation of the capitalist organization harassed by a chronic crisis.”
Economic commentators today are increasingly nervous about a similar slump in capital goods accompanying our own “chronic crisis.” Because the growth of capital spending (and capital equipment spending) is running well below its long-term average of 8% (growing just 3% in 2013), the average age of industrial machinery and equipment in the US has surpassed 10 years, the highest average age since 1938 when Kazakevich was painting his dire picture! (The Wall Street Journal, 9-3-14) Thus, the slug-like motion of the US economy during the last seven years mimics in an important way the stagnation following the great crash initiating the Great Depression.
While capital spending may not now play quite the decisive role it played in the US economy during the 1930s, it remains a strong indicator of the hesitancy of managers to expand the productive core of the economy. They fail to see prospects for profit expansion in the extensive growth or retooling of the manufacturing sector. Of course that does not mean that managers are not seeking profits or investors are not seeking a return on investment. Managers have plowed more cash into mergers and acquisitions during the first half of 2014 than any time since 1999. That also is typically a part of capitalist restructuring after a severe crash. This rationalizing of capitalist production serves and has served to restore the growth of profit following a capitalist misadventure.
In the wake of the crash of 2007-2008 the US economy experienced a dramatic jump in labor productivity (in the absence of capital investment, this necessarily came largely from an increase in the rate of exploitation). Massive layoffs, plant closings, and weak union leadership combined wage stagnation with extreme speed up of a shrunken labor force. Profits ensued. And consequently the previously depressed rate of profit resumed its growth.
Unfortunately for the prospects of capitalism, the growth of productivity has petered out: its past 5-year average is only slightly more than half of the 20-year average, with productivity actually falling 1.7% in the first quarter of 2014. So this road to profit recovery and growth is seemingly closed.
Of course if the past productivity gains had been shared with the working class, capitalism likely would have experienced an increase in revenues (folks would have purchased more goods and services) and a rosier earnings outlook. But that did not happen. Adjusted for inflation, the cumulative growth of median household income has dropped precipitously since the crash, settling at the level of 1990. Consequently, corporate revenue growth peaked in the third quarter of 2011 and has shrunk ever since.
Thus, three signal measures promising profit-rate increases– capital investment, labor productivity, and revenue increases– are failing the US economy.
Not surprisingly, reported corporate profit growth has suffered. From its peak in the last quarter of 2009 (over 10%), it has receded steadily.
Profits, Profits, Profits!
It is important to emphasize that it is profits that fuel the capitalist system. While it seems an obvious point, it is the starting point of the Marxist theory of crisis. The capitalist system only appears healthy when the capitalist both holds capital and expects a return. He or she dreads two things: idle capital (capital with no prospect of return) and a stagnant or declining rate of return. Consequently, capitalism generates systemic growth if and only if capital is abundant, investment opportunities are rife, and the rate of profit is sufficiently enticing.
But this law of capitalist accumulation contains the seeds of capitalist crisis. As noted above, the growth of the rate of profit has been declining for some time. At the same time, the accumulation of capital is expanding faster than the overall US economy. The relative mass of profits– measured by US corporate profits as a percentage of GDP– reached unprecedented levels in the second quarter of 2014 (a level of profit/GDP only approached twice since 1947: immediately before the crash and in 1950). In other words, despite the fall in the rate of profit, the profit-generating capitalist engine is producing potential new capital faster than wealth is being produced. Three conclusions follow: capital is winning the class war, growth is lagging, and the mass of capital is growing relative to the size of the economy while the profit rate is declining.
And new capital must seek a home, a place to go to accumulate more capital.
Combine the profit-generated capital with the unprecedented cash held by corporations and the availability of cheap credit (nearly non-existent interest rates) and the capitalist class is faced with a daunting task of finding investment opportunities for a vast pool of capital.
If this sounds familiar, it is. Before the crash, many economic commentators noted that the investment world was awash in cash searching for opportunities. I wrote in April of 2007 (Tabloid Political Economy: The Coming DepressionMarxism-Leninism Today, April 5, 2007) that “Despite being awash in capital, financial power searches for investment opportunities to no avail. Economic theorists have been puzzled by the low returns available, even for high-risk or long-term investment. Under normal circumstances, risk and patience earn a premium in investment, but not today. Instead, the enormous pool of wealth concentrated in fewer hands can only lure borrowers at modest rates. There is simply too much accumulated wealth pursuing too few investment opportunities.”
It is this paradox of accumulation– two much capital, too few opportunities– that collapses the already stressed rate of profit and courts structural crisis (or deepening crisis, in our case). It is this paradox of accumulation that drives capital-gorged investors to pursue riskier and more ephemeral schemes.
Risk
Once again a vast pool of capital chases diminishing investment opportunities. Once again, as in the prelude to the crash, yields have shrunk, leading investors into riskier and more speculative investments. Pension funds and hedge funds are moving toward more arcane and less safe bets, hoping that return will outweigh the danger. As Richard Barley perceptively observes in the Wall Street Journal (August 11, 2014):
…there is a dearth of high quality securities. Yet there is still a global glut of capital seeking a home… All this creates incentives for financial engineering. In credit derivatives markets, there are signs investors are delving into esoteric structures. Citigroup reports a “large increase” in trading of products that slice and dice exposure to defaults in credit-default-swap indexes… Precrisis, low yields and seemingly benign market conditions led to the creation of instruments that ultimately few understood. The longer the reach for yield persists, the greater the chance that investors revisit the unhappy past.
For some time, the elusive “reach for yield” has driven a re-vitalized junk-bond market. In the five years after the crash, four of the ten fastest-growing bond funds held substantial quantities of low rated debt, according to WSJ analysts. They note that this “…development underscores the intense demand for investment returns since the 2008 crisis.”
But the flow of cash to the high yield market depressed yields to levels unseen since late 2007. They are rising again as investors sense that global economic turmoil and low yields signal danger.
The mania for mergers and acquisitions has also swung into dangerous, risky territory. Despite Federal guidelines urging the limitation of leverage to six times gross earnings by banks financing acquisitions, forty percent of private-equity takeovers in 2014 have exceeded the 6X rule. This rate is fast approaching the pre-crisis level of 2007.
The Wealth Effect
A seemingly robust stock market and a relatively stable US debt market join to create the illusion of a healthy, prosperous economy. They have, to great effect, masked the serious cracks in US capitalism.
The long anticipated Federal Reserve retreat from QE (Quantitative Easing: the purchase of US and other debt by the Fed) has not brought the disaster that many in the punditry and on Wall Street feared. Seldom noted, however, is the fact that the Peoples Republic of China has escalated its purchase of US treasuries nearly dollar for dollar against the Federal Reserve’s retreat.
The “stellar” performance of equities is another matter. One moderately alarming sign is the steady march of equity price-to-earnings ratios to a territory greater than the long-term average and to a level equal to or above that of 2006-2007. Of course this alone does not explain the market’s performance.
A puzzling aspect of equity price expansion is the historically low market activity in the post-crash period. What, then, has jacked up stock prices?
Part of the answer lies in corporate repurchases of shares, a practice that elevates the market price by taking stocks off the table. The Wall Street Journal (9-16-14) reports that $338.2 billion of equities were bought back by corporations in the first half of 2014, the most since 2007. The same report noted that corporations in the second quarter of 2014 spent “31% of their cash flow on buybacks.”
Corporations are hoarding cash and amassing debt at unprecedented levels (thanks to low interest rates, corporate bond issuance may approach $1.5 trillion this year, having grown geometrically over the last twenty years). Thus, corporate activity has shifted away from investing in future growth and toward mergers and acquisitions and stock buybacks, activities that bolster share inflation without creating underlying value.
Take Apple, for example. Sitting on vast quantities of cash, Apple nonetheless sold $12 billion worth of corporate bonds this year. At the same time, Apple repurchased $32.9 billion in Apple stocks, effectively driving up the price of those shares remaining in the market place.
Does this really create wealth? Or is it a ruse to keep the party going?
Interestingly, it’s not just the jaundiced Marxist eye that peers through the fog to see rocky shoals ahead. Rob Buckland, a CITIGROUP analyst, perceives the US economy as entering “phase three,” the phase preceding a marked downturn. Business Insider(August 15, 2014) summarizes Buckland’s phase three as follows:
Phase 3: This is the tricky part. Stocks are still flying high, but credit spreads are widening as investors become increasingly unwilling to finance further risk. Corporate CEOs have now experienced a lengthy period of gains and become risk-happy. (And we’d note that central banks are already talking about tightening credit by raising interest rates.) Bubbles can form in Phase 3, Buckland says, as the high-flying stock market ignores the early warning signs of the deteriorating credit market….(http://www.businessinsider.com/citi-economy-phase-3-where-bubbles-form-prior-to-crash-2014-8#ixzz3DcJqF9tH)
It is against this backdrop that worries are surfacing among investors. Some bearish hedge fund managers are investing anxiously in credit-default swaps and retreating from high risk. Discounting the distractions and illusions fostered by the monopoly media, serious students see the intractable crisis in Europe, the slowdown of the emerging market economies, the recent setbacks to Abe-nomics in Japan, and the loss of momentum in the economy of the Peoples Republic of China as adding to the contradictions lurking under the surface of the US economy.
Vladimir Kazakevich expressed fears in his 1940 article cited above that “…powerful interests on both sides of the Atlantic are likely to regard a war economy as an immediate solution for the chronic crisis…” Certainly his fears were well grounded. Militarism did prove able to “solve” the contradictions of global depression, at the enormous, unprecedented human cost of World War Two.
One cannot but wonder today if a similar logic is operating in the minds of US and NATO leaders who seem determined to stir hatred and belligerency. The newly emerged ISIS demons seem almost too perfect of a foe — almost a caricature of evil that may well bring an unprecedented level of US military might back to the Middle East. The “limited” US air campaign has already cost over a billion dollars, a nasty piece of military “pump priming” for the US economy.
And bear-baiting– poking Russia with threats, sanctions, and military engagement– is the new obsession of NATO, even at great economic cost to a prostrate Europe. The actions contemplated by militarists would push the risk level back to some of the worst days of the Cold War.
Is it now more and more apparent that only the “specter” of socialism can offer an answer to the chronic global crisis of capitalism and its attendants, xenophobia and war mongering?
Zoltan Zigedy

Understanding the crisis

Understanding the crisis

A response to the review by NC of The Failure of Capitalist Production by Andrew Kliman in the January issue of Socialist Voice.

Understanding the crisis is the key to addressing the political challenges we are facing today. A clear understanding of the forces behind the crisis and the contradictions that exploded in 2007 will help communists and class-conscious trade unionists to evolve the correct strategies and tactics for building class solidarity and consciousness, for pushing forward our class interests and the interests of humanity and the planet as a whole.

There are many great thinkers and activists who bring up to date and develop classic Marxist concepts to explain current events: the journal Monthly Review, the author of the book reviewed in January, Andrew Kliman, Michael Hudson, Samir Amin and researchers at RMF (Research on Money and Finance), to name but a few.

They may differ on some points in emphasis or on others in more fundamental understanding. But the aim should not be to choose one view over another and stick blindly to that view: it should be a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. And this is being achieved by using our collective knowledge and experience, combined with the most developed and coherent analysis of the system, placing it firmly in the historical trajectory of this country.

In short, it is to take the best critiques of the capitalist system today and add our experience to them.

Academics and professional economists (no offence intended) have a tendency to exaggerate differences in order to differentiate themselves from other thinkers. While they may lead the way in developing theories and providing the research that others can use, they cannot be relied on exclusively in explaining events, especially the present crisis. It is not about saying Kliman is right and Monthly Review is wrong but rather, in the best tradition of Marxism, taking the best features of the most advanced scientific thought to explain the world around us, and using this to help us change the world.

 

1. Financialisation of the accumulation process

The review seems to counterpose Kliman’s view of the declining rate of profit and the destruction of capital (or failure to destroy sufficient capital) to financialisation theory (in particular Monthly Review writers) in explaining the crisis and to suggest that it is either one or the other.

The reviewer writes: “The thesis presented in the book stands out in a number of ways from many contemporary radical interpretations (notably the financialised-underconsumptionist thesis advanced by the influential Monthly Review, which melds together a particular Marxian/post-Keynesian viewpoint and that of the Marxist political geographer David Harvey).”

I do not agree that either financialisation or insufficient destruction of capital is the root cause of the crisis. The system itself is the root cause, and both financialisation and insufficient destruction of capital in previous recessions are essential features of monopoly capitalism. Accepting both is not necessarily a contradiction when one understands them as features of monopoly capitalism in its current state.

Kliman’s calculations of the declining rate of profit for the system as a whole, I suggest, do not necessarily contradict the evidence that after-tax profits and wealth have been concentrating and monopolising, leading to an abundance of capital in fewer hands that required investment in financial innovations and that blew up speculative bubbles to avoid global stagnation.

The failure to destroy capital en masse since the Second World War has driven capital to these financial avenues as other, more productive avenues are shut off by over-production and the cheapening of production.

My understanding, for what it is worth, is that the financialisation of the accumulation process (finance as the main avenue for investment of excess capital and source of profit and growth within the system today) is a product of the very crisis Kliman explains so well. It is a result, not a cause, of the generally stagnating economy. It has been a systemic response to divert after-tax profits (and after what capital can be reinvested in the monopolies that finance controls) to financial or (in the case of property bubbles) finance-led investment avenues.

Financialisation was not a misled policy choice but rather a solution to the problem of excess capital in the system, which, without a massive destruction of capital, had no home to go to.

Take GE Capital, Pfizer International Bank or the Volkswagen Bank as examples. These are the banking arms of global manufacturing monopolies. They were not set up as a policy choice by those companies to divert their capital to finance and away from manufacturing: they were set up because even after tax (what little they pay), bonuses and reinvestment, global monopolies still had masses of capital to invest, and financial products offered an avenue.

But financialisation, or the failure to destroy enough capital, do not by themselves explain the crisis; because what drove them as processes?

To try to find this out it might be worth while looking at more of the dominant features and how they connect to financialisation and the declining rate of profit in order to better understand the crisis and the establishment’s response.

 

2. The monopolisation of power

Wealth, income and control are all features of power, and power is being monopolised and concentrated in fewer and fewer hands globally. Power over productive relations that mould the shape of society, human relations and indeed the environment are increasingly centralised in the hands of the big monopolies and their biggest shareholders.

Even during this recession, global wealth increased, from $195 trillion in 2010 to $231 trillion in 2011, with the top 1 per cent—those with more than $712,000—accounting for 44 per cent of that $231 trillion and the top 10 per cent owning 84 per cent, while the bottom 50 per cent have barely 1 per cent.

Recent research found that of 43,060 transnational corporations analysed, a little over 730 entities control 80 per cent of these corporations, and a mere 147 control more than 40 per cent. Of these 147 controlling entities, 75 per cent are financial institutions.

This is how monopolised and uncompetitive production is. The automobile industry is dominated by about six companies, semiconductors by about twelve, music production about four; there are about ten big pharmaceutical companies, three soft drinks companies, and only two major commercial aviation companies.

And, as described above, these are then controlled by a few—often the same—large shareholders. This would suggest that a willing destruction of capital (or devaluation of assets) will be unlikely, given the power possessed by this handful of people who would take the biggest hit.

 

3. The internationalisation of production

Hand in hand with the process of monopolisation, and driven by the same accumulation process, production has become internationalised.

The dominant form of production and exchange is not local: it is truly global. A pair of Nike shoes contains about fifty parts, which are made in dozens of different factories in half a dozen countries. The total cost of a pair of Nike runners is about $1.50; they sell for over $100.

This means that workers are pitted against each other globally in a race to the bottom, with only one winner: profit. The amount of money big monopolies can accumulate through the internationalisation of production is huge. This is what has led to an over-accumulation of capital in the system.

The increasing size of monopolies means they can control the production and distribution networks within their field, and pit one against another. Labour becomes de-skilled as workers merely complete one task rather than completing an entire commodity. And more and more is produced through this cheapening and fragmentation of the production process.

However, the drive to pursue profits and ensure a return for shareholders does not pass on price reductions to consumers, as seen in the Nike example; and as workers in the “West” are cheapened by this process, consumption and demand are weakened, resulting in a continuous state of over-production.

Supply is not driven by demand but by the creation of surplus value through the application of labour in the production process. Capital emphasises the need to get the most out of labour, increase and cheapen production. Demand often suffers as a result and rarely meets supply. The extension of debt, or credit, has been a useful tool in artificially trying to match demand to supply. However, it is like putting a plaster over a gunshot wound and cannot seriously create an equilibrium between contradictory forces.

 

4. The proletarianisation of peoples

One of the great myths is that “globalisation” is destroying the working class and making everyone some kind of middle class. The artificial growth of a middle class has been shown to have been merely superficial and based upon mounting debt and rising asset values. The reality is that, as the internationalisation of production has developed, and in particular the monopolisation of land, this has brought with it the proletarianisation of peoples. More and more peasants and subsistence farmers are driven off their land and forced into cities to work in factories. This also has damaging and negative consequences for the environment, in both rural and urban settings, and has led to the development of horrific slum dwellings around cities.

In addition to this, as the monopolisation of production and retail outlets has progressed, the number of small businesses has also declined globally, being replaced with megastores and transnational companies.

The number of small businesses closing during this crisis is evident. Equally, during a time of crisis, with little real avenue for investment, many companies pursue aggressive take-over strategies to reduce their competition and increase their market share. Often small businesses are absorbed by their larger competitors, again reducing the number of self-employed and increasing the wage class: workers.

 

5. The growing reserve army of labour

As the system expands into almost every corner of the earth, by open warfare at times, and the working class is expanded, so too is the number of global unemployed—the number of potential workers the system has at its disposal. Marx called this group of potential workers the reserve army of labour, and this has truly expanded as monopoly capitalism has grown.

The proletarianisation of peoples and the defeat of the socialist economies have greatly expanded the number of potential workers, to 2.4 billion today, approximately 65 per cent of the potential global work force.

Supply and demand in influencing the cost of labour (our wages) has an obvious and speedy impact, but the cheaper cost of maintaining a worker in southern parts of the globe is the main driving force behind this process. As production has become so internationalised, the speed at which it can seek out and move to the cheapest parts of the globe has increased. The ever-growing reserve army of cheap labour is part of a race to the bottom and of the assault on trade unions and working conditions in the West.

The retreat of social democracy is less an ideological or policy retreat than a result of the fact that its material base—strong domestic industry in the central economies—has vanished as a result of the monopolisation and internationalisation processes and with it the leverage that workers in those countries could bring to bear on political economy.

 

6. The pauperisation of the working class in monopoly centres

This process of imposed division and competition between workers is leading to the pauperisation of the working class in the centres of monopoly capital and the gross exploitation and abuse of workers in the South.

As major economic activities have moved away from the West, social democracy has withered. These economies have been forced to become more “open” to deal with the new speed and direction of capital in undermining the terms and conditions of employment.

While real wages have largely stagnated, debt has driven consumption. Inflating asset values, such as houses and shares, have provided a false growth in consumption by working people in the West. This has been shattered by the burst of this latest speculative bubble.

The extremely weak foundations that consumption was reliant upon have been exposed, and increasing “austerity,” to shore up finance capital, is only exacerbating the overproduction of real goods.

 

7. The role of debt

Credit, and its negative—debt—have always played a role in the capitalist production process. However, it is fair to say today that the role it plays now is far greater and more global in its effect on production and the usual cyclical functioning of the system.

As capital concentrated, those accumulating it could more easily direct and control production to suit their needs through investment and ownership in companies. Equally, the amassing capital required ever more investment avenues. Monopoly production killed off many “real” investment opportunities, and the processes outlined above closed off avenues in reinvestment.

For every extension of a loan, or every bet on a future price or event, debt within the system is created. Debt-based “products” became a significant source of investment and return, including the purchase of and speculation in government bonds or collateralised mortgage products.

Banks created hundreds of debt-based androids that acted as investment avenues but also as security for further loans. This side of the accumulating process (M—M, in the terms used by Marx in Capital) created capital out of itself, and with it volumes of personal, corporate and government debt in the system as debt became an asset and a source of further investment and growth.

The scale of systemic reliance upon this system of M—M growth can be seen in the unusual length of the investors’ “strike” and the negligible effect of hundreds of billions in quantitative easing. During a recession, investors are afraid, and a hoarding of capital is not unusual. However, it would normally pick up after a number of “corrective measures” and an appropriate avenue is found for it.

Today this fear is still clear to see; and reading the pages of Bloomberg or listening to many of the speeches at Davos one can see that it is not going anywhere in the near future. The scale of debt in the system means that investors don’t know how to hedge their bets, as the likelihood of default is ever present and very real. With “sure things” having totally collapsed, investors don’t know where the next Lehman Brother or Irish economy is.

Equally, any quantitative easing that has taken place has not created new jobs or oiled the wheels of production: instead it has been used by those same corporate hoarders to pay off some of their own debts.

 

8. Speculation and bubbles

While the processes described above have concentrated ever more capital in fewer controlling hands, growth in monopoly centres, such as the United States, Britain, and Europe, would have been negligible over the last couple of decades had it not been for speculation-led financial growth in a series of bubbles.

In the German economy, the driving engine of the economy in the European Union, growth never reached more than 4 per cent but was more often 1 or 2 per cent (and this is including finance-led growth). In Ireland, if one knocks off the 25 per cent or so of GNP attributable to the property bubble each year of the so-called Celtic Tiger, our economic growth was more of a mirage than a miracle. Even recently published reports show that the economy is still stagnant; the only small bit of growth is in foreign monopolies.

Mergers and acquisitions, commodity bubbles and futures speculation, energy and “dot-com” bubbles, sovereign debt and currency speculation, property and mortgage bubbles (and throw in some legal, and illegal, money-laundering)—these have provided the system with its major source of growth, investment, and the creation of new capital through profits.

Speculation is different from investment; it is different from the run-of-the-mill extension of credit to a business or company. In a capitalist sense, investment follows an analysis of the company or product and a belief in its ultimate success. That is to say, the investor has “bought in” to the product. Speculation is less thorough. Little analysis is done, or no thorough analysis can be done, as it may be a blind bet on a future event.

The nature of speculation leads to bubbles, as a spike or inflation of asset prices resulting from the investment of capital attracts more capital, leading to further inflation and consequently to a bubble. While this does provide an avenue for a “quick fix” for capital to invest in and get a return, providing growth in the system, it is quickly flooded with all that other capital seeking an investment opportunity. What may have begun as a spike in valuation grows into a bubble and ends with no soft landing but with an explosive burst.

 

A system in deep and lasting crisis

The phenomena described above are all dominant features of capitalism today, and they cannot be undone. This is the situation from which any capitalist recovery must come, or from which any transformation to socialism will be born.

These features, and the extent to which they have developed, are what make the present crisis distinctly different from previous recessions, in a number of
ways.

1. The crisis is universal. It is not confined to one area of the accumulation process. It is not merely a banking or finance crisis. It is not merely a crisis of under-consumption. It is not merely a crisis of over-production of houses or over-investment in energy.

2. The crisis is global. It is not just in one area or one hemisphere. The United States, the European Union, Japan and the global South are all affected.

3. It appears to be continuous or permanent. Rather than being a two-year or three-year “downturn” with a gradual recovery, this is now the fifth year of the crisis, and there are few signs of a recovery.

This is what makes the crisis truly systemic and structural. This is what makes this crisis different from previous ones. The result of this crisis, and any so-called solutions to this crisis, will deepen the contradictions and accentuate these features even more.

Wealth is already being concentrated even further. Production is monopolised even further, with mergers and acquisitions being used as an investment avenue for the abundance of capital in the system. Production is moving to ever-cheaper parts of the globe, reducing the cost of production to maximise profits out of a contracting customer base. The global number of unemployed is increasing, and the impoverishment of working people in the West will further reduce consumption for goods but also lead to the further indebtedness of both individuals and countries.

Without a massive destruction of capital, the stagnation and contradictions that were only superficially covered up by finance-led growth will lie exposed for some time, wreaking hardship and misery on the vast majority while benefiting only a few.

The structure of monopoly capitalism, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, with monopoly rivalry and the control of monopolies through shares that are dominated by a few hedge funds and finance companies, may well prevent the global destruction of asset value on the scale that Kliman suggests, leaving us with the understanding that this is not a normal cyclical crisis or recession but one whose features are so accentuated, structural and systemic, and with contradictions so great, that it may well constitute a phase of capitalism in aggressive decay.