Tag Archives: working class

Making the best of a good crisis?

17 May

A recent debate has emerged around the use European elites can make of the Eurozone crisis. According to the Naomi Klein theory of social change, backed up recently by Paul Krugman, crises are used by capitalists as opportunities to reform economies in their favour. Whether such crises, or “disasters” to use Klein’s turn, are wars provoked by outside interventions (Iraq) or financial crises of the kind we are seeing today in Europe and elsewhere, the point is that crises are good for those who favour neoliberal policies.

In the context of the austerity versus stimulus debate, Krugman suggests that the reason why austerity is preferred is not that it works (it clearly isn’t working) but it is because stimulus might work. If European economies begin to grow again, then the window of opportunity to replace “social Europe” with a neoliberal alternative will have gone. Successful stimulus will only strengthen the case against deeper structural reform. Krugman notes that this view is already entering into the evaluation of Japan’s recent attempt at monetary stimulus: cautious voices are pointing out that if this works, then there will be no incentive to tackle the country’s underlying problems.

There is quite a bit wrong with this explanation for austerity, however compelling it may seem at the intuitive level. Everyone likes to bash those far-sighted capitalists – the elusive 1% – who conspire behind closed doors to get what they want at the expense of everyone else, the 99%. But this is more a conspiracy theory than it is an explanation of why governments are committed – for the time being – to the austerity agenda. Profiting from a crisis is one thing. Creating a crisis in order to implement a cunning plan is another. In Europe, there is no doubt that authors of the bail-outs have tried to calibrate carrot and stick, using the difficulties of the present crisis in countries like Greece and Portugal as a way of encouraging structural reform. They have also cautioned against any suggestion that the crisis is over, believing that such talk will undermine the commitment of national elites to the reform programme. All this, however, is a far cry from the notion that crises are manufactured as opportunities for neoliberally inspired reforms.

Krugman makes the added point that elites chose austerity over stimulus because they feared the latter could be too successful. He invokes the work of the Polish Marxist Michal Kalecki and his notion of the political business cycle. According to Krugman, Kalecki’s idea explains why businessmen don’t like Keynesian economies. In fact, Kalecki argues something much more specific. At issue for Kalecki is not the ability of Keynesian deficit spending to return crisis-ridden capitalist economies to the status quo ante, which is what Krugman and others imply. Kalecki’s point is not about the stabilizing effects of Keynesianism but rather about its transformative and radical political effects. These are not internal to Keynesianism itself – Keynes was far from being a radical on this point – but are part of the political consequences of Keynesian policies (hence the title of Kalecki’s famous 1943 essay, ‘Political Aspects of Full Employment’).

Kalecki argues that full employment, as a policy goal, is both feasible and attainable. However, politically, the problem with maintaining full employment is that it empowers the working class to the point that it begins to challenge the basic contours of the capitalist economy itself. Full employment has a creative effect by way of ideas and actions that threatens the fabric of capitalist society. It holds up the prospect of a better society and stimulates people to think about how that alternative could be achieved. Kalecki’s point is that stimulus makes a return to the status quo ante more difficult and that is why owners of capital will do everything to frustrate governments who identify full employment as their main goal.

In today’s context, what is striking is that the austerity versus stimulus debate is had against a backdrop of consensus around the nature of the economic system. Both are means to an agreed end and Krugman’s argument for stimulus is that it works better than austerity in this regard. Kalecki’s point about stimulus was that it throws open, because of the mobilisation and politicisation of workers, the question of what the ends are and of what kind of economic system we would like. If we want to bring back Kalecki to the present discussion, it is this aspect that we should emphasize. And to resist Krugman and Klein’s conspiratorial accounts of intended crises and infinitely cunning capitalist elites.

Europe’s internal adjustment

14 Feb

With all the talk of competitive currency devaluations and international currency wars, less attention is being paid on the arresting fact that some countries within the Eurozone are achieving what many thought they could not: an internal devaluation via wages and other production costs.

A consequence of this is that some Southern European economies are regaining shares in export markets, their products cheapened by a mixture of labour market reforms and downwards pressure on wages. The FT recently reported that in Portugal exports in 2012 rose by 5.8%, with exports to outside the EU rising 20% in this period. This was Portugal’s third consecutive year of plus 5% export growth. Writing about Spain, Tony Barber suggested that a similar phenomenon was occurring in the Spanish manufacturing sector. Car companies planning to reduce production in France and Belgium are boosting output in Spain. Nissan has committed 130 million Euros of extra investment into its Barcelona plant in order to raise annual production to 80,000 units. Ford, Renault and Volkswagen have all followed suit with their own investments. Barber explains that lying behind such decisions are changes in Spanish labour laws. A reform package last year introduced by the government has loosened up collective bargaining practices, making it easier for firms to negotiate favourable terms with workers.

The ability to boost export competitiveness by internally devaluing is not uniform across the Eurozone. France has enacted its own labour market reforms but labour costs remain significantly higher there than in Spain or Portugal. Monti in Italy has been less successful in pushing through labour market reforms. This unevenness has had the effect of exaggerating the competition between countries within the Eurozone. Unable to compete with one another via national currency manipulations, competition is realized via changes in the labour market. Accepting lower wages has become a matter of national duty in today’s Eurozone.

This development has various implications. The first is that it seems parts of the Eurozone are able to achieve what we thought was only possible in the olden days of the Gold Standard: internal adjustment where the burden falls upon societies, not currencies. This worked back then because there were far fewer public expectations about jobs and welfare to challenge the harsh assumptions of Gold Standard supporters. When such internal adjustment became intolerable, it collapsed. We might have expected something similar today. In fact, the quiescence of European labour has made internal adjustment possible. In some places, it has meant hollowing out national democracy in favour of more stable, technocratic alternatives, but the single currency remains. Differences between the constraints imposed by Eurozone membership and those of the Gold Standard help explain some of the stability of the former but not all. Much is also due to weak labour militancy.

Another implication dovetails with a previous post on falling productivity in the UK. In some Eurozone member states, productivity figures have improved. In Spain, productivity is has risen by 12% since mid-2008. However, such increases have not been achieved via any labour-saving investments. There have been no marked technological developments that explain rising productivity figures. Rather, gains have been made through labour itself. This tells us a great deal about European capitalism: it is far easier to claw back price competitiveness via assaults on labour than it is to boost productivity through capital investment in research, product development and technological improvement. Paradoxically, we can say that weak labour militancy results in low incentives for firms to channel capital into labour saving technology.

The kind of internal adjustment taking place within the Eurozone is thus hardly a victory for supporters of austerity. Competiveness is boosted in short-term ways, via downward pressure on wages. There is no longer term gain in productivity that might actually leave a socially useful legacy for societies as a whole. Recessions and social upheavals in the past had the same human cost in terms of wasted lives but they came with great labour-saving inventions and other gains. European leaders are so worried about currency wars precisely because Yen and Dollar devaluations threaten to wipe away the marginal gains in price competitiveness their businesses have made. And they know that were this to occur, there would be nothing much left. Only the waste.

The crisis of privatized Keynesianism

7 Nov

A guest contributor to The Current Moment, Wolfgang Streeck has published a powerful account of the current global economic crisis in the New Left Review. Streeck’s analysis is worth outlining in detail as it provides a very useful overview of current events as manifestations of a deeper set of contradictions within contemporary capitalist political economy.

Streeck’s basic idea is that we live in an age of what he calls “democratic capitalism”. Largely a product of the post-1945 compromise between capital and labour, democratic capitalism represents an unstable attempt at combining public expectations with private interests. Public expectations are mediated through democratic procedures (elections, party platforms) and are implemented through the instrument of majority rule. Private interests are focused on the maximization of returns on capital and are agnostic about political institutions. What they are concerned about, however, is minimizing the extent to which private accumulation is forced to accommodate itself with the demands of social justice.

Streeck argues that from the 1970s onwards, with the high growth rates of the post-war Golden Age a thing of the past, crises in this model of democratic capitalism have taken four different forms. The first, which prevailed in the 1970s, was inflation. With collective bargaining still strongly rooted in industrialized countries, governments were able to hold onto their political commitment to full employment only by running a lax monetary policy. As Streeck notes, inflation targets those who hold financial assets and creditors. That the reaction of governments in the 1970s was to manage the global economic downturn through inflation reflects the power of organized labour in governmental decision-making at that time.

Subsequent attempts at resolving the same conflict have reflected different patterns of power in advanced industrialized societies, the general trajectory being the decline in the power of organized labour. After having pursued inflationary policies, governments began in the 1980s to meet public expectations through borrowing. Inflation rates fell but governments accumulated high levels of debt. This goes some way to explaining one of the paradoxes of Thatcherism: the vicious attack on labour unions that never led to any marked reduction in government spending. Streeck observes that into the 1990s, this accumulation of public debt became unsustainable. As a way out, the debt burden was transferred from governments to individuals – what Colin Crouch has called “privatized Keynesianism”. As we have already noted on The Current Moment, this shift from public to private debt was made possible by a fundamental revising of the social contract of advanced industrialized countries. What had been considered an integral part of national citizenship became something to be accessed only through private borrowing.

These successive crises are well-illustrated in one of Streeck’s graphs. We see below, for the United States, a fall in inflation followed by a rising in public debt, leading in turn to a rise in private debt. For Streeck, these are different movements in the unstable co-existence of social democratic expectations and the imperatives of market society.

As an historical overview of current events, Streeck’s analysis is excellent. He identifies developments as inherently subjective: a product of changing expectations and outlooks. There is no inevitable resolution of a particular crisis: what matters is how expectations are changed over time. The liberalization of financial markets and their centrality in today’s political economy can therefore be read as a consequence rather than a cause of our present difficulties. As the social contract of advanced industrialized economies narrowed, so did financial services become central to our everyday life. With certain basic rights removed from the right of citizenship and considered instead as a privilege accorded to those daring enough to invest in themselves, so our dependence on financial services has grown exponentially.

What are the political implications of Streeck’s account? That at the heart of the present crisis is a fundamental rewriting of our social contract. Specific institutional and regulatory developments in international financial have played a role but only as consequences of this prior change. Solutions to the present crisis thus lie not in the technicalities of international capital markets but in the elaboration of a new social model based more on rights than on debt-funded privileges.

This time was different

16 Sep

In our long running attempt to sort out what ‘financialization’ is supposed to mean, we revisited the ‘Finance’ chapter in Doug Henwood‘s excellent After the New Economy. Published in 2003, Henwood’s book describes the collapse of the telecom/dot.com bubble in the light of wider trends in post-war political economy. A brief summary of Henwood’s account (or our reading of it) helps shed light on some features of our own post-crisis stagnation.

The hinge, on Henwood’s account, is the late 1970s, when inflation, full employment, and an uppity working class continued to press its demands, while firms had watched profit rates decline for twenty years. Carter appointed Volcker to the Fed in 1979, and the new chairman took the helm with the famous statement “the American standard of living must decline.” After jacking up interest rates first in 1979, and then, not satisfied, to a peak of 19% in 1981, Volcker eased a bit, before raising them again in 1983 and 1984. By 1981 the damage had already been done – unemployment was at 11%. And if workers hadn’t gotten the message, Reagan was happy to turn to the screw by firing the air traffic controllers. (See Henwood 207-211 for the full account.) As an aside, we can’t help noticing that austerity seems to have been in the Democrats’ back pocket for a long time now – Volcker being a Democratic appointee.

Of course, this story is well-known, but it sets up one important bit of context for thinking about the growing importance of financial operations since the late 1970s. As Henwood points out, the official ideology of the stock market is that it is a way of raising capital for investment. The problem is that “over the long haul, firms are overwhelmingly self-financing – that is, most of their investment expenditures are funded through profits (about 90%, on long-term averages), and surprisingly little by external sources, like banks and financial markets” (p.187). Most shares bought and sold in the market are not, in fact, bought from the issuer by an investor, but are essentially secondary trades. The money exchanging hands does not go to the firm issuing the shares. How, then, to think about the growth of the stock-market?

Henwood’s thought appears to be that the more important feature had to do with changes in ownership and class relations. Against the background of the late 1970s early 1980s upper class offensive, the growing power and influence of shareholders made itself felt in two ways. First, increasing compensation of managers in stocks bound these managers to the short-term fate of the company’s stocks, rather than its long-term economic health. (And recall that this increasing stock-based compensation is a major reason for growing inequality – more important even than changes in tax rates). Second, the emphasis on stock values put a much greater emphasis on increasing profit rates by whatever means necessary – most importantly suppressing wages and labor costs generally. The restructuring of ownership was thus part and parcel of the offensive against the wage and compensation demands of most Americans. It was more a class project of redistribution upwards than a dynamic growth model. Indeed, if Volcker had been more honest, he would have said “the American standard of living for American workers must decline.”

Of course, it’s true that, by the end of the 1990s, the highly mobile capital, sloshing around both in the stock market, and across the globe, did produce some innovation, but in the most inefficient way. All kinds of now forgotten telecommunications (WorldCom, Qwest, Global Crossing) and dot.com ventures  (Pets.com, TheGlobe.com) raised money through mammoth IPOs, and less so venture capital, and crashed hard, with bankers and favored investors making the lion’s share of the money on the up and downswing. Henwood quotes former investment banker Nomi Prins’s calculation that by 2003, over 96% of the telecom capacity lay dormant. Old news, but a painfully familiar story to us, especially given all the unused housing stock. When the stock market does serve as a conduit for investment, it tends to lead to massive over-speculation on asset values, and the promise of returns on stocks and other financial instruments becomes disconnected from the real values, or reasonable potentials, of the underlying assets. And the people who tend to benefit the most are the big and regular players, not the so-called investor class.

However, though familiar, there are at least three aspects of the boom and bust of the late 1990s and early 2000s that strike us as different from the credit-crunch and subsequent stagnation. First, most obviously, at least we got the internet out of the 1990s, whereas now we got a lot of unused houses, and a good portion of the population living in houses they can’t, and never could, afford. The underlying asset, in other words, was never believed to be able to create value. There were at least theories – though many of them wacky – about how the internet, and various websites, could make money, and thus pay returns. Second, the housing bubble was driven not just by speculation on stock values, but by extremely complex new financial instruments that were linked to debt, not equity. The ability to repay mortgages, not the ability to give a return on dividends, was, as far as we understand it, a decisive feature of the CDOs, CDO squareds, and in a way CDSs. No doubt there is an important story to tell there about the class relations and ownership structures involved in that kind of speculation, but it is not quite the same as the shareholders of the world uniting against the working class. Third, in retrospect, what is painfully evident is the role of debt – not just corporate and government, but household – as a response to the ‘decline of the American standard of living.’ The individualized, unspoken, and doomed-from-the-start response to Volcker’s commandment was the taking on of debt by households to sustain consumption they could no longer finance through earnings. This was debt in the form of mortgages, second mortgages, credit cards and student loans. What seems to make this time different is, in a way, the discovery of debt as a way of extracting value from workers that couldn’t be extracted via further wage-suppression. And the economic consequences of debt-financed consumption are even more dire than just a stock bubble, since it made its way into all areas of the economy – anywhere a consumer used borrowed dollars to buy things. Of course, the thing about debt, especially when there is systematic inability to pay, is that it can always be renegotiated. These renegotiations are usually mediated by the state, so it matters who controls the state. On that front, we know which side the balance of forces favors.


Who are they?

9 Sep

After Obama’s speech last night, Corey Robin pointed us to this article by Katha Pollit, which argues that, for the most part, liberals have given up talking about the poor. Pollit has a point. Relative to almost no discussion of poverty and unemployment, Obama’s speech said something. But it took the minimal approach of addressing the fate of the unemployed, rather than the overall structure of options available in the economy. And it is indeed noticeable that the old, diseased welfare-state liberalism has been feeble, especially relative to the politically ascendant progessive-neoliberalism of the Democratic leadership.

However, we’re not so sure ‘the poor’ is a better way talking about the relevant constituency. For one, ‘the poor’ are still a minority – a somewhat different one from the unemployed, it is true – but they are 14%. (Well, according to the official measure, which considerably undermeasures poverty). As such, it is not clear to us that talking about ‘the poor’ escapes any of the political problems we discussed in our post Tuesday. It creates a separate minority, with distinct interests from the many who might not be poor, but who ultimately would also benefit from a different economic order than this one. Why carve up an already fragmented electorate that ought to be organized on the basis of shared, majority interests? Why isolate the interests of the poor from those of the middle?

The other problem is that ‘the poor’ is a fairly passive category. To be sure, there are ‘poor people’s movements’ – though they seem pretty weak in the US. And there are those who use the category poor not because they seem as the objects of charity, but as groups that should or could act to help themselves. But for the most part, it is still a category connected to liberal charity and philanthropy. ‘They need our help.’

Why not say working class instead? It covers the unemployed, the poor, and many of those in the ‘middle’ who have a decent, if fragile and often debt-financed, standard of living. The working class is potentially a majority, not one amongst a number of minorities struggling for recognition of its interests. It is, moreover, an active political and social agent, at least in theory.

Of course, the background problem is that, no matter the category pundits use, the relevant group is more talked about – ‘the unemployed’ ‘the poor’ ‘the working class’ – than making its own claims. ‘They’ have only sporadically (i.e. Wisconsin) made their own claims – and for the most part seem to lose when they do. That real political problem is reflected in the way ‘they’ get talked about – fluid categories, specious identification of interests, and political half-measures as bribes for votes.

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