Try not to live as a pretender,
But so try to manage your affairs
That you are loved by wide expanses,
And hear the call of future years.
Boris Pasternak – It is not Seemly to be Famous – stanza 3
It is now well documented that while the super rich have grown richer the poor have travelled in the opposite direction. According to several economic writers the blame lies squarely with the neo-liberal economic model*, and, that its demise signals the last rites for capitalism. It’s a stretch to suggest that because one economic model has failed that we must prepare for a new world order.
However, there is one truth and that is that the poor have been raped. They have been raped of income, of opportunity, of prospects, of their self-esteem and of their very dignity. Let’s draw our picture with a few succinct and powerful quotes from notable writers.
“The USA, under neoliberalism, boosted profits by impoverishing its own citizens.” Paul Mason (p19)1
“…income inequality has reached extreme levels not seen since the 1920s, and before that, the 1890s.” James Rickards (p236)2
The general thrust of these quotes are supported by other economists that I have previously quoted in earlier posts: Stiglitz, Chang, Rodrik, and Krugman. There can be no doubt that the poor have not kept pace with the distribution of wealth that has been generated. The push to globalization and its fellow rider free trade have cost the poor of the western nations much.
Multinationals have simply used their capital to invest elsewhere, mostly in Asia and China in particular, to utilise the cheap and at times slave labour. A prime example, quoted in several books is that of Apple. This company pays to have its phones etc. manufactured in China by cheap labour but when the finished product comes back to USA and Europe, Apple charge a price that would equate to the phones being manufactured in America or Europe. The company makes huge profits from such an arrangement. Huge!
We are all now aware why the big boys have been promoting globalization and free trade; it’s of great benefit to their profit margin. The rest of the populace can go take a hike!
But wait! The hoi polloi have not sauntered off with their cap between their legs. No, they’ve used their democratic right to vote against the elite. They have done what our politicians have been afraid to do.
Stunned, the elite stare in amazement at the audacity of the low-life. Some have voiced their anger at this popular wave of sentiment: the Brexit vote in UK, the Trump victory and the referendum outcome in Italy. Shit! they cry. The bastards are ganging up on us! However, the real reason is that the elite have been blinkered by “decades of denial” Rickards (p230) Paul Mason (p258)
Nonetheless, the elite have sent out their Stormtroopers to defend their rights. Politicians of various hues have marched to the given tune. Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission has made it clear that events should not be dictated by populism. John Major, ex-Prime Minister of Britain bemoaned the “tyranny of the majority” (John Stuart Mill 1859). Meanwhile, Labour MP Chuka Umunna, speaking on the BBC News channel spoke of the “elective dictatorship”.
· These little men are so full of their own self-importance.
Let’s try and explain to these political hacks why populism is so in vogue:
“Once the election is over, voters are ignored and winning elites carry out preconceived plans”. Rickards (p238) Ring a bell? Been here before?
This leads nicely to philosopher Michael Sandel, (p13) 3
“Disillusion with politics has deepened as citizens grow frustrated with a political system unable to act for the public good, or address the questions that matter most”.
I would make one quibble with Sandel with his use of the word ‘unable’; I would have used the adjective ‘unwilling’.
Michael Sandel’s book was published in 2012 and was probably written therefore in 2011, if not before. Five years later and the elite still had not grasped the significance of what was happening right under their noses! The logical explanation is that they couldn’t give a shit. And now the shit has hit the fan!
One can only learn if willing to. It seems our political masters are unwilling. Their attack on democracy, for that’s what it amounts to, is a clear attempt to diminish the power of the majority. We cannot as a society, have a democracy that does not adhere to the majority vote, whether we agree with the vote or not. Let those who talk of the “tyranny of the majority” stand up and demand a dictatorship.
I appreciate that Karl Popper in his work the Open Society had a dilemma accepting a majority vote in favour of a fascist party. My response to his concern is that society should never get so low down that it is faced with such a prospect. A democratic society has failed if it reaches that stage.
In the midst of a crisis people hanker for a solution, a solution with the least trouble. The question is should people push forward in a direction of which they are unsure, full of doubt but advised to dare. Or will people be more cautious and look for something vaguely familiar or perhaps rely on the political party that appears to know what it wants and how to get everyone there. The road to fascism!
Democracy: The Only Road Forward
In the general election of 2015 in the UK, the Conservative Party polled 36.9% of the public vote and secured power as the next government. The Labour Party won 30.4% of the popular vote and is now trying to override a majority decision of 52% that voted to leave the EU.
The Scottish nationalist with 4.7% of the national vote are busy screaming in alto from the upper circle; joined by the Liberals who saw their percentage of the vote fall by a staggering 16%. The refrain of this unlikely choir is, ‘All we are saying, is let’s stay in’. They’ll still be singing as the gravy train goes rolling down the track – out of sight.
We have reached an impasse, will the political class respond positively and accept that the times are changing or must they be pushed to the wayside. Will it be the death knell of capitalism as espoused by Paul Mason and James Rickards? There is little doubt that neoliberal policies have proved a nightmare for the overwhelming majority. Those at the top end of the table had a feast out of neoliberalism. The question is are they now willing to share?
Perchance they will remain in denial as both Rickards and Mason state. If so what are the consequences? I doubt the elite can carry on much longer on their present course. The deep frustration with the elite will turn increasingly to anger which will beget activist groups taking up the cause of the people.
Such a scenario will not strengthen the elite as the use of force against these factions will break down quickly. It will not bring out the silent majority against the perpetrators. That old reliance was only solid when there was trust and most people felt good about their lifestyle. The rise of populism is a clear indication that many are genuinely feeling downtrodden.
Many of the elite may feel just as Mitt Romney does, “…inequality is the kind of thing that should be discussed quietly and privately.” J Stiglitz (p33)4 Those days I’m afraid are gone, if they ever existed outside the comfort of elite homes and country clubs.
Winter for all Seasons
According to Paul Mason (p262) quoting from a survey from the OECD that world development will be weak for the next 50 years and that inequality will rise by an estimated 40%. If these figures are anywhere near accurate then winter is going to be all year round for the poor. And if winter is all year round people are going to get mighty fed-up! Guy Fawkes might get reinvented for real.
Mason also states that the only way to keep globalization and free trade is by having the costs borne by the poor. Again if he is right – its winter! He gains support for his view from James Rickards (p227) who argues, “Yet free markets and free trade are flawed in theory, non-existent in practice.”
This assertion is proven when we look again at the practises of Apple and other conglomerates. Such businesses gain comparative advantage because their money buys more in China and the cheap labour make it a double whammy. China also gains comparative advantage by having the investment and the jobs. Who loses? The workers in America and other western nations!
Further examples are the manipulation of the Chinese currency the yuan or of their interest rates. Other nations have also made great use of the manipulation of both as well as the corporate tax which for example, is due to reduce from 28% in 2010 to 17% in the UK by 2020. Therefore there are no free markets or free trade; everything has a fix.
Nonetheless, the lack of truly free markets or trade does not spell the end of capitalism. The system has witnessed upheaval before, several times, and by hook or crook the system has mutated or morphed and we carry on. In living memory for some is the horror of the 1920s and 1930s – ‘Buddy can you spare me a dime’.
Another period of uncertainty was in 1968 when many of the young at the time believed they were on the brink of revolution particularly in France. In the USA there was the anti-Vietnam protests, civil rights, the rise of the Black Panther movement, and woman’s lib. The Prague Spring, trouble was brewing all over the world. “Many protests were a direct response to perceived injustices…”
Most recently the 2008 financial crash has kicked many, right where it hurts. Ouch!
What is increasingly likely is turmoil in the EU. The euro (€) has never been stable and the single market is hurting many countries. These nations: Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland among their number have been on the receiving end of the slump that followed the 2008 crash. For eight (8) years they have held to the philosophy of the single market but, and it’s a big but, for how much longer.
Paul Mason (p261) argues that the EU is just one ‘political accident’ away from collapse. In this I would be in agreement with him. The self-interest of politicians from one of the nations mentioned above may be the trigger in a struggle to stay in power. Moreover, the euro (€) was a political construct not a financial one and therefore weak from, GO. The bureaucracy is too big, and wields too much political power. A bureaucracy should never hold political influence; otherwise we enter the realm of Stalin.
However, any possible collapse can and should be managed. The EU needs to reinvent itself and those in power must surely be aware of the need for radical reform. The euro is but a starting point. It’s about the political class’s ability to face reality. If not – KA-POW!
Moreover, Mason and Rickards are not the first economic writers to predict the fall of capitalism. Joseph Schumpeter (1883 – 1950) had a whole school of economics named after him and prophesied the evolution of capitalism into socialism. It didn’t happen, as you are aware.
Schumpeter recognised that capitalism adapted and adopted but felt that the very nature of the system and the changes it goes through would cause its mutation. Schumpeter termed it ‘creative destruction’ thus the process of regular change and the growth of multinationals and management teams would stymie the entrepreneur, as a result the system would lose its dynamism and, the bureaucracy and the State would play a greater part in the new socialist world.
Of course others preceded Schumpeter. We can look back to Marx and Engels, to the world of Lenin and Trotsky, to Mao and the likes of Ho Chi Minh. With the exclusion of Marx and Engels, the other attempts at the promised land directed by the state from the centre came crashing down. The failure in all these enterprises was the insistence on ‘democratic centralism’ – basically the central committee told everyone what to do. It was the vision of the Politburo or nothing.
The other side of the coin of failure was trying to control development and trade in a predominately capitalist world. In essence they could not compete which forced their leaders to become increasingly totalitarian. And as usual the workers paid the price!
Nonetheless, the state has a role in the capitalist system. Neoliberalism may want a minimalist state but we’ve never heard the big boys moan when regularly bailed out. In every economic downturn or crash as in 1929 and 2008 the state stepped in with tax payers’ money to prevent the catastrophe that would have followed in consequence.
Ha-Joon Chang (p456)5 is adamant that the state has a crucial role and may even be critical in maintaining a society for the public good. “The economy is much bigger than the market. We will not be able to build a good economy-or a good society-unless we look at the vast expanse beyond the market.” He cites Herbert Simon of the Behaviourist School, that 80% of economic activity happens inside organizations not in the market. (p159)
So what can the state do to help rebuild our broken economy? Many jobs can be created by investment especially by improving infrastructure: build more and better roads etc. Even Donald Trump threatens to help America get going again by infrastructure programmes.
Retreat is another way to help our economy, retreat to the Bretton Woods agreement of July 1944 and claw back the free rein given to the banking sector through deregulation by Reagan, Bush and Clinton. Perhaps there’s a need for another clever intervention as with the New Deal 1933-1938 which held back the growing tide of anger at the depth and extent of poverty at the time. Of course the economy really took off with the Second World War but I’m not advocating a third.
The Bretton Woods agreement was an attempt to bring lasting stability to the world economy, and it worked until dismantled. The team which drafted the programme described the world of finance as “…a casino instead of a driver of economic well-being.” Rodrik (p97)6 Rodrik (p111) after examining a lot of evidence, stated, “The inevitable conclusion is that financial globalization has failed us.”
Trade globalization can also be restricted and more power shifted to domestic governments. Let’s leave it to economist Ha-Joon Chang (p446) to lay down the case for a rethink:
“In the last three decades of hyper-globalization, economic growth has slowed down, inequality has increased, and financial crises have become far more frequent in most countries.”
Michael Sandel (p64) adds, “Economists often assume that markets do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark on social norms. Often, market incentives erode or crowd out nonmarket incentives.”
Sandel argues that to put a price on everything diminishes the human interaction. He gives several examples such as the selling of kidneys and blood. Such enterprises hurt the lower class the most; it is therefore unfair, as here survival often necessitates the action. His philosophy demolishes the logic of neoliberal economists that we are all motivated by self-interest.
The trafficking of women and children for sex is a clear example. The kidnappers / sellers are self –interested as are the men who pay to use these unfortunates. But can it ever be justified? Would we or should we ever permit it as a legitimized trade transaction?
The human factor cannot be discounted from any understanding of how the world works. Money is but one example of a motivator. However, it’s also regarded as the ‘root of all evil’. Somebody knew something. Economists don’t like nouns like ‘altruism’ because they can’t quantify it and therefore can’t add it to their constructed model.
Let’s refer once again to the philosopher Michael Sandel (p130)
“Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted by use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish.”
This is an area that I don’t think Mason has fully taken on board; emotion is a most powerful part of our makeup and can lead us in many directions. I’m thinking of religion and its hold over people and their decision making. Any move to socialism may be blocked, unless we let God in, because religion can be very intractable.
Obviously, the market is not all that the neoliberal /classical economists would have us believe. But is the capitalist system doomed as Mason and Rickards suggest. I have an alternative view of what is taking place. I believe it’s a war of the elites.
Clash of the Titans
Wealth creation has a direct relation with power and consequently the Middle East has become one of the richest areas on the planet. Therefore, presumably, it could become the prime powerhouse of the globe and its elite the most powerful group. Add to that scenario the emergence of China and its record breaking productivity which casts it into a power player. Then of course, we have the West, led by America.
On the outskirts of this game lies Russia, rejected by the elite of the West because Putin won’t play ball by the set rules. Putin cannot be trusted to conform to the big picture. So, Russia gets up to as much mischief as it can in an attempt to be heard and still retain some credibility as a big player.
So here we have it, three main players at the table and an outcast screeching on a bench nearby. The Middle East has vast wealth and can turn on a tap to get as much as it wants. China has been accumulating significant wealth over the last few decades and can screw its people for more if needed – bang goes their saving plans.
The West has a fair back up but needed a whole lot more, hence the rape of the poor. It needed to replenish the coffers to make the banker feel good. But the West had an ace up its sleeve; it could cause big trouble in little China and particularly in the Middle East.
War! The Iraq war was only partially about oil and more about destabilizing the region. The Arab world was then encouraged to turn against each other. In Libya, under the guise of introducing democracy the West invaded – the nation is still torn apart. A similar ploy was utilized in Syria. For generations the different brothers of Islam, Shiite and Sunni lived in calm cohesion, now there is nothing but killing of their brothers.
China has built a powerful industrial base but this has been on the back of Western capital. The multinationals can at any time transfer their allegiance back to their home nation leaving China with a major industrial wasteland.
It may seem that the West have the resource to come out on top. Perhaps, but the rise of populism has taken the gloss off their cosy abode, unless they come up with something new damp and rot will set in and they could lose any advantage.
Therefore the contention is that the world is in trouble because the elites are at war. Once this battle is resolved it will be back to business. Thus capitalism is not falling apart; it is being used by the elites to fight their respective corner.
There is so much more to this theory: industrial espionage, the deliberate interference on manufacturing of products. In this war some industrial giants are being forced to recall damaged goods which have been sabotaged, costing them $ millions. It’s nasty out there!
Notwithstanding, neoliberalism has proven a disaster movie: the steadfast, independent and strong individual (read – elites) have fought off the greedy bandits’ (read –poor) and secured world domination. Not quite! Ordinary Joe is back with a new army armed with the knowledge that:
· Financial globalization has failed
· Trade globalization has failed
· That inequality has greatly increased.
The people want a better managed, more fair, more decent society than the ‘grab what you can mentality’ of the present system. Citizens want a ‘civic spirit’; they want to flex those ‘muscles’ to strengthen the positive values to take us forward. The people want a fair share of the goods they help produce.
So we are getting close to the crossroads, there will be change but I don’t think it will be revolutionary, it will be a while yet before the end to the capitalist system. Capitalism will not meld or morph into socialism; we are simply not ready intellectually for that stage of development. How damned unfortunate!
Instead governments will spend as Keynes advised. They will also introduce a degree of protectionism while continuing to promote free trade. Currency, corporate tax and interest rates will be manipulated. The financial world will be regulated as before. This will be a period of stabilizing the economy. Government investment will become a crucial element in future development.
Much may be determined by the political class. Whether they have the nous to change, the strength of will, the character, and a sense of civic duty. Or will they besmirch the aspirations of the people and cry foul as have British politicians over the Brexit vote.
We move on, perhaps a tad slower than before but hopefully happier.
1. Paul Mason POSTCAPITALISM A Guide to our Future.
2. James Rickards The Road to Ruin
3. Michael Sandel What Money Can’t Buy
4. J.E.Stiglitz The Price of Inequality
5. Ha-Joon Chang Economics: The User’s Guide
6. Dani Rodrik The Globalization Paradox