In a comment last week on George Soros’ well-publicized essay on the Eurozone crisis, we noted his fixation with the European roots of the present crisis. In his view, the combination of the Eurozone’s curious institutional design (a common currency without a fully empowered central bank) and the overly cautious approach of European policymakers together explain the European sovereign debt crisis. Whilst there is a specific European dimension to the crisis, we argued that it is also a crisis of capitalism, not just of the Euro.
In a piece published in the New Left Review in May 2012, the French economist Michel Aglietta gives his account of the European crisis. His account is more general and wide-ranging that Soros’. His explanation of the debt build up in Western economies is tied to the emergence of a new “accumulation regime”: one that demands a maximisation of returns for shareholders and downward pressure on labour costs. The gap between stagnating wages and the demand needed to maintain growth levels is provided through credit. The availability of credit in Western economies was made possible by various factors, including financial innovations and the recycling of large dollar surpluses built up by East Asian economies. These surpluses were an outcome of the East Asian crash of the late 1990s: a traumatic event that pushed governments in the region to insulate themselves from further instability by focusing on export-led growth.
Whilst generating a great deal of liquidity within the global financial system, these developments in East Asia also help explain why European economies failed to capitalize on the boom years of the 2000s when borrowing rates across the continent fell steeply on the introduction of the Euro. Aglietta notes that the intention in the early 2000s was that the mobility of capital within Europe would lead to a convergence of national economies. Productive investments would be sought out and the differences between national economies would slowly disappear. Capital certainly flooded to those countries that had the highest interest rates prior to 1999 – Greece, Spain etc – but there was no evening out of competitiveness across the region. In fact, as Aglietta notes, divergences grew. This was because at the same time as capital was moving into Europe’s periphery, so were East Asian economies beginning a concerted export drive as a response to their 1997-1998 crisis. Unable to compete with these imports, industrial activity in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere shrunk. Capital was channelled into a property and services boom, with growth becoming dependent upon rising house prices. In a better starting position and not faced with the temptations of sudden influxes of capital, countries like Germany and the Netherlands faced up to East Asian competition and were able to generate their own export surpluses. Aglietta also notices that given the poor performance of the German economy in the first half of the 2000s, the country was not sucked into the property boom that affected countries like Ireland and Spain. Divergences within Europe are thus not only an internal European story but have a global dimension as well.
Aglietta makes a number of other important points. His discussion of the options open to Greece and to Europe makes for interesting reading. He notes that Europe cannot really afford a Japanese-style era of deflation and high public debts. A reason for this is that Japan has a large industrial sector and is in a very dynamic part of the world. Aglietta also observes that Japanese debt is financed by Japanese savers, meaning that the risk of spiralling debt refinancing costs is kept low. In Europe the situation is different on all counts, making it difficult to replicate the Japanese model. On Greece, Aglietta gives a detailed breakdown of how “Grexit” would work, arguing that the long-term benefits outpace the short-term costs. Argentina, he argues, did the right thing but it did it badly. Greece could learn lessons from it and exit the Euro in a more orderly manner.
For all the elegance in his exposition, Aglietta’s solution to the crisis is surprisingly apolitical. He argues that “the euro must be constituted as a full currency, which means it must be undergirded by a sovereign power” (p36). This means transferring competences to the European level, fiscal union, and a long-term development strategy based on the idea of permanent transfers from one part of Europe to another. Aglietta’s recommendations are obvious but the problem today is that public opinion across Europe is moving in the opposite direction, against the idea of further transfers of power to European institutions. In practice, pursuing Aglietta’s recommendations means deepening the gap between national politics and European-level policymaking, thus compromising democracy in the name of economic emergency. Whilst that may provide some palliative to the economic crisis, it will only make the political crisis even greater.