First published on 14 April 2015 by the New Left Project
Deflation, as we have already seen, involves a transference of wealth from the rest of the community to the rentier class and to all holders of titles to money; just as inflation involves the opposite. In particular it involves a transference from all borrowers, that is to say from traders, manufacturers, and farmers, to lenders, from the active to the inactive.
John Maynard Keynes in A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)
For more than three decades economic policy-making in western economies has been dominated by financial interests – those of bankers, creditors/moneylenders, investors and financiers. Their interests have been eagerly supported by most of the mainstream economics profession (including private, academic and official economists) in a variety of helpful ways. Perhaps the most helpful was the tendency of economists to look away.
Most economists have very little understanding of money and credit and of how the banking system operates. Hard though this is to believe, classical economic theory neglects the role of money, debt and banks in the economic system. Instead orthodox economists theorise as if money is neutral, simply a ‘veil’ over activity in the real economy, as if changes in the stock of money have no impact on wider economic activity.
This has led economists (wilfully or blindly) into promoting policies that have accelerated the capital gains of the financial sector, building up mountains of unpayable debts. These policies include the de-regulation and liberalisation of capital flows (‘globalisation’); the removal of constraints on lending and on interest rates charged to consumers and firms; the abolition of legislation that divided the speculative divisions of banks from their retail divisions, such as the Glass-Steagall Act in the US; and tax breaks for debt-financed investments – to name but a few.
But the most important element of these pro-finance policies is, and was, their anti-inflationary, or the downright direct deflationary, bias. Deflationary policies were actively promoted by orthodox economists at the IMF, at western central banks and in OECD Treasuries.
Its easy to understand why. Inflation erodes the value of a financier’s most valuable asset: debt.
‘Inflation’ for these economists and financiers is strictly defined and refers to the inflation of wages or prices – rises in earnings of workers and in the prices charged by firms. But there is another kind of inflation – asset-price inflation – and for decades economists and central bankers ignored asset-price inflation, when they weren’t actively stoking asset-price bubbles.
Assets are owned on the whole by the rich and the rentier class – and include real estate, race horses, works of art, brands, software, football clubs etc. – from which an endless stream of rents flow. (Think of revenues from the sale of ManU tickets and t-shirts flowing straight into the pockets of the Glazer brothers.)
While wages and prices were suppressed, asset prices were allowed to let rip. Which goes a long way to explaining why the rich got richer and the rest got poorer over those three decades.
Now finally inflation has been slain, and deflation is taking hold across the world. In the UK, as Geoff Tily of the TUC hasshown, inflation is falling faster than across the Eurozone. This is largely the consequence of private debt, which first caused the catastrophic collapse in 2007-9, and is now constraining recovery, exacerbated by austerity. This has meant prolonged weak growth in incomes, while the UK economy, for example, has performed well below its capacity, and the Eurozone is weakening fast.
Financiers, their friends in the media, most notably the Financial Times, and the economic profession, are celebrating ‘good deflation’. Their argument is that falling prices provide room for consumers to spend more, and that deflation will therefore boost the economy. This approach requires them to once again turn a blind eye: this time to the vast volume of private debt that continues to act as a drag on economic activity, in particular on investment and on the creation of skilled, well-paid employment.
As prices fall, the relative value of debt, and of interest rates, rises. (Just as inflation erodes the value of debt, deflation inflatesthe value of debt.) So, for example, if generalised prices fall 2% and interest rates remain at 2%, then in this deflationary environment the real rate of interest is 4%.
The prospect of debt and interest rates rising in value, regardless of the actions of borrowers or central bankers, even while prices fall and incomes remain low, is of grave concern. It is particularly concerning for all those productive actors in the economy that need to borrow. This includes businesses who need to make improvements to their firms, and anyone who needs an overdraft, student loan or mortgage. Deflation is a particularly big threat to households that have had to borrow large mortgages to afford a decent home.
In 1933, Irving Fisher concluded gloomily that:
deflation caused by the debt reacts on the debt. Each dollar of debt still unpaid becomes a bigger dollar, and if the over-indebtedness with which we started was great enough, the liquidation of debts cannot keep up with the fall of prices which it causes. ……Then we have the great paradox which, I submit, is the chief secret of most, if not all, great depressions: The more the debtors pay, the more they owe. The more the economic boat tips, the more it tends to tip. It is not tending to right itself, but is capsizing.
How often has deflation been mentioned during this General Election campaign – by any of the political parties? Because this generation has never lived through a period of deflation, and because the finance sector has so successfully captured the imaginations of politicians, there is widespread ignorance of deflation’s impacts.
Far from being lulled into complacency, society and the political parties should be protesting loudly at the failure of the government and the Bank of England to adequately address the threat of deflation to the people of Britain, who are burdened by some of the highest levels of private debt in the world.
In the Scottish leaders’ TV debate last night, Jim Murphy (the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland) has challenged Scottish nationalists to explain where the money will come from under the ‘full fiscal autonomy’, since the full gains of the Mansion Tax would not be available to Scotland. In effect Murphy is arguing that “there is no money” – or that the proposed Mansion Tax is the only source of income for reversing austerity.
Derek Mackay, the chairman of the SNP, responded on the Today programme this morning(at 70 minutes), where he was confronted also by points from the fiscal hawks at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. In defence of the SNP case he partly resorted to alternative sources of money (including oil revenues) to cover spending. (In fairness to Mackay, he did try to make a growth argument, but the BBC wasn’t interested).
While there is clearly a bigger picture here, the assumption behind Murphy’s assault on the SNP mirrors that of the Chancellor’s attack on Ed Balls. It is typical of flawed austerity economics and austerity politics, and is a battle that nobody can win – least of all the Scottish or British people.
The point of rejecting austerity policies is surely to recognise that cutting public spending in times of economic weakness harms both private and public employment and earnings, and economic activity generally.
If sound public infrastructure spending is expanded, then well-paid, skilled employment will be expanded.
The ‘money comes from’ that same increase in employment and economic activity, as higher labour income leads to higher tax revenues and lower benefit, tax credit and housing benefit expenditures.
It’s not rocket science.
While there may be a brief lag between any spending and these gains to the public finances, the gap is easily made up from short-term borrowing. The latter might be from capital markets, high street banks, even the Bank of England – it does not matter (though of course ‘the cheaper the better’ might be the best guide). The borrowing can be repaid as appropriate when the gains to the public finances materialise. Current government borrowing rates are at historic lows. And as economic activity and government revenues pick up, the debt to GDP ratio – the main international indicator – improves.
All this is the point of fiscal autonomy. This is the point of a sovereign government with its own central bank.
That is why the UK should take the lead, and in so doing could help the Eurozone to escape from the depressing, deflationary downward spiral of austerity.
That can only be achieved by a newly-elected British government that has the intellectual capacity and confidence to move beyond the sterile, flawed “there is no money” argument.
“The state has no source of money, other than the money people earn themselves. If the state wishes to spend more it can only do so by borrowing your savings, or by taxing you more. And it’s no good thinking that someone else will pay. That someone else is you.”
“There is no such thing as public money. There is only taxpayers’ money.”
Mrs Thatcher, speech to Conservative Party Conference, October, 1983.
“We know that there is no such thing as public money – there is only taxpayers’ money”
David Cameron, on the campaign trail, 6 April, 2015.
Quantitative Easing: ‘new money that the Bank creates electronically’.
Bank of England website in ‘Quantitative Easing: how it works.’[ii]
“When a bank makes a loan to one of its customers it simply credits the customer’s account with a higher deposit balance. At that instant, new money is created.”
Bank of England Money in the Modern Economy: Quarterly Bulletin, Q1, January, 2014.
At the heart of the politically inept responses to the 2007-9 Great Recession is an ideologically-driven and mendacious conviction: that while society can afford to bail out a systemically broken banking system, Trident and the HS2 railway extension, it cannot afford to finance the NHS, higher education, skilled apprenticeships, an expansion of broadband and the arts.
Continue reading… ›
Sir, The European Central Bank forecasts unemployment in the eurozone to remain at 10 per cent even after €1.1tn of quantitative easing. This is hardly surprising: the evidence suggests that conventional QE is an unreliable tool for boosting GDP or employment.
Bank of England research shows that it benefits the well-off, who gain from increasing asset prices, much more than the poorest. In the eurozone, where interest rates are at rock bottom and bond yields have already turned negative, injecting even more liquidity into the markets will do little to help the real economy.
There is an alternative. Rather than being injected into the financial markets, the new money created by eurozone central banks could be used to finance government spending (such as investing in much needed infrastructure projects); alternatively each eurozone citizen could be given €175 per month, for 19 months, which they could use to pay down existing debts or spend as they please. By directly boosting spending and employment, either approach would be far more effective than the ECB’s plans for conventional QE.
The ECB will argue that this approach breaks the taboo of mixing monetary and fiscal policy. But traditional monetary policy no longer works. Failure to consider new approaches will unnecessarily prolong stagnation and high unemployment. It is time for the ECB and eurozone central banks to bypass the financial system and work with governments to inject newly created money directly into the real economy.
Victoria Chick, University College London
Frances Coppola, Associate Editor, Piera
Nigel Dodd, London School of Economics
Jean Gadrey, University of Lille
David Graeber, London School of Economics
Constantin Gurdgiev, Trinity College Dublin
Joseph Huber, Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg
Steve Keen, Kingston University
Christian Marazzi, University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland
Bill Mitchell, University of Newcastle
Ann Pettifor, Prime Economics
Helge Peukert, University of Erfurt
Lord Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor, Warwick University
Guy Standing, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Kees Van Der Pijl, University of Sussex
Johann Walter, Westfälische Hochschule, Gelsenkirchen Bocholt Recklinghausen, University of Applied Sciences
John Weeks, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Richard Werner, University of Southampton
Simon Wren-Lewis,University of Oxford
Islamic Finance is a system of banking operating within a liberalized, deregulated economic framework that is entirely hostile to the values and principles of, for example stakeholder engagement and responsibility, upon which Islamic banks have been established. As a result, Islamic financial institutions find themselves unable to compete with western financial institutions that do not operate under similar ethical principles, or the prohibition against usury. Indeed usury is positively encouraged under today’s liberalized and globalized economic framework. 2 Incorporating the Rentier Sectors into a Financial Model, by Michael Hudson, University of Missouri at Kansas City & Levy Institute, USA and Dirk Bezemer, University of Groningen, Netherlands. World Economic Review Vol 1: 1-12, 2012. file:///Users/annpettifor/Dropbox/Hudson-and-Bezemer%20Rentierism2012.pdf 3 In the YouGov Cambridge University Public Trust in Banking Report, published 17 April, 2013 and found here: http://yougov.co.uk/news/2013/04/17/special-report-public-trust-banking/ 8 If Islamic finance or banking is to be made to work, then its practitioners will have to help in the creation or re-creation of an alternative economic framework, within which Islamic finance could operate safely and even profitably – One which honours and safeguards stakeholder finance (with both lender and borrower sharing risk); and low or zero rates of interest as the price of borrowing funds.
Watch the interview on Boom Bust here.
On the FED:
‘I don’t believe the FED has the role of global stabiliser… I believe that role ought to be played by an institution over and above the central banks but there is no such thing, so the FED is rightly focusing on its mandate and audience which is the people of the United States and its economy. We can’t blame them for that, but we can blame the politicians who are very deliberately leaving currencies and interest rates up to something called ‘the market’ instead of taking responsibility for stabilising the global economy.’
And on Greece, in response to Varoufakis’s statement that Greece should have defaulted on its debts in 2010 before European taxpayers became liable…
‘I have thought all along that Greece should never have been in the eurozone. Secondly, banks should not have thrown money at the Greek private sector – recklessly – which is what they did on the assumption that Greece’s debts would always be backed up by the German taxpayers… The European Commission should not have allowed that to happen and should not have turned a blind eye to that kind of crazy lending. Thirdly, Greece should really accept that the Euro is not sustainable.’
Greece did not default because the IMF exists to defend the interests of international creditors!
Taken from the Murnaghan Budget Debate with me; Luke Johnson, businessman; John Longworth, British Chambers of Commerce 15.03.15 courtesy of MURNAGHAN, SKY NEWS
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: More on next week’s budget now and what it could mean for business in the United Kingdom. I am joined by the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, John Longworth; by the economist and author Ann Pettifor and the businessman Luke Johnson who is Chairman of Risk Capital Partners which owns a number of high street restaurant and café chains. A very good morning to you all and as I was discussing there with the former Chancellor, Ken Clarke, Luke Johnson it is a pre-election budget, can the Chancellor dare make this a budget for business and will there be any votes in it if he does?
LUKE JOHNSON: Well I think what he needs to demonstrate and remind people is that this government has generally speaking done a damned good job over the last five years. They inherited an economy in a shambles and we are now a rapidly growing economy with falling unemployment, good investment, rising confidence and I think actually from the point of view of business, which is how we create jobs in the private sector, it’s been a good performance.
DM: Would you pick out a measure or couple of measures, specific measures you would like to see?
LUKE JOHNSON: Well I think the biggest single measure is that he has maintained low interest rates and a stable currency which has meant that mortgages haven’t become unaffordable and business that can borrow has been able to borrow at competitive rates and I think that set a general tone which means that we have been able to deliver growth and create these jobs.
DM: So steady as she goes really. Ann Pettifor, what Luke Johnson is saying there is that the general economic climate is a pretty fair wind for business at the moment.
ANN PETTIFOR: Well I just have to say that Luke is wrong on several things. First of all the Chancellor choked off a recovery that was already in place in 2010 and austerity really has not helped, it hasn’t helped productivity, it hasn’t helped incomes, people’s incomes have been falling in real terms over seven years and this in turn doesn’t help the rest of the economy and as for investment, Luke, it’s been pretty, pretty bad and the reason for that is partly because government investment has collapsed but also because the banks are not lending. There is a real problem and I think one of the big things he has to do in this budget is to do more than give the banks the funding. The Funding for Lending scheme has become the Funding for Not Lending scheme and he has got to do more in terms of making the banks shift lending from property where there is a bubble, into real investment for real businesses for real firms.
DM: Well let’s talk to a man who represents a lot of businesses. So we’ve got a clear dichotomy here, is it generally steady as she goes or is it a lot of work to do?
JOHN LONGWORTH: Well we have got good growth predictions. Our forecast that we published last week showed good growth over the next three years, 2.7, 2.6% growth. It’s based on consumption, that’s not good, we need more business investment, we need to shift the economy more towards exports, it needs to be a long-term sustainable growth but it’s growth nonetheless. If I were the Chancellor I would probably be looking to give something away immediately that would help voters and I would be looking to promise quite a lot of stuff for after the next election, given he’s got …
DM: That’s the facts but we are asking what for business?
JOHN LONGWORTH: But on business we’ve been very specific in this particular budget proposal, we said that we want the investment allowances to continue at the very high level they are at the moment rather than being cut back because this allows business to plan for investment in the medium to long term and that would be something that is very affordable, something that businesses can focus on. In the Autumn Statement of course we also asked for the Chancellor to increase the amount of compensation people receive for infrastructure disruption which will enable infrastructure projects to go ahead because people will be less inclined to say no if they are getting 150% of the value of their property for example.
DM: Okay, Ann?
ANN PETTIFOR: The real problem for businesses I think is deflation, prices are falling. Prices of products they are pushing out the door are falling and that means that profits will fall. I don’t think that the Chancellor, or indeed most economic commentators, have put enough focus on the threat of deflation because Britain is a highly indebted country. Our personal and corporate debt is very high and is, the OBR predict it to be even higher in a few years’ time. The Chancellor I think and the Bank of England have been astonishingly complacent about something that would really affect small businesses, the way in which their prices are falling. Now input prices are falling, oil prices are falling but that is not the real reason why prices are falling across the board, the real reason prices are falling across the board is because of a lack of demand, because of austerity essentially.
DM: Which has affected consumers?
ANN PETTIFOR: There is both a lack of consumer demand and investment demand and the Chancellor has to address demand.
DM: I have got to bring Luke Johnson back in this because there are several points that Ann Pettifor has refuted and you can re-refute them, if that is a word, on investment. So deflation, okay, it in particular it is evidenced in the eurozone but is there much a government can do about that?
LUKE JOHNSON: I don’t think so. If you look at job creation, if you look at new business creation which is at record levels, if you look at the fact that 85% of the population work in the private sector and are not that affected by government investment, I think it is frankly political the idea that we have really suffered austerity. You can’t have it both ways, if we are very highly indebted then to run prudent budgets is surely correct isn’t it?
ANN PETTIFOR: Well it isn’t Luke because what’s happened is we had a big financial crisis and the private sector contracted massively as a result of that through no fault of their own, investment collapsed and this is because of the banking crisis and in that circumstance the government has to intervene. We have seen the fall in GDP and growth is a function of the fall in government spending and government investment. Normally the government shouldn’t do this but …
LUKE JOHNSON: I don’t agree, I don’t agree.
ANN PETTIFOR: … the point is that the government’s investment stimulates the private sector, think about …
LUKE JOHNSON: So what happened in France? Unemployment is almost twice ours, they’ve had no growth in recent years and that is because they have continued to spend more than they can afford, they have an unsustainable public sector and what this government is actually done is say we need a bigger and more healthy private sector, we need to attract investment and we need to …
DM: All right, hold on, let me bring in John Longworth because there is a philosophical divide here about how much, what the government can do about providing not just a stable business environment but by encouraging growth and Ann Pettifor was very clear that the government could spend and invest a lot more and that would stimulate the economy.
JOHN LONGWORTH: Well the speed at which the government invests or spends money of course is a matter of debate, the fact of the matter is that we do need to get the deficit down because we have to have a cushion against potential world shocks that come forward, you never know what’s going to happen next and at the moment we are in a very fragile situation with the deficit being as high as it is. There is no question in my mind that in the last four or five years the Chancellor has actually played a blinder. What he’s done is persuade the world markets that he has applied austerity which has given confidence in the UK …
DM: And then not actually applied it.
JOHN LONGWORTH: Exactly, which is a good thing in these circumstances.
DM: So in effect pulling the wool over the eyes of the …
JOHN LONGWORTH: Then of course is what happens next which is the really important thing because in the next parliament whoever comes into government is going to have to cut the deficit much more strongly.
DM: Okay, I want to ask you, don’t sit on the fence for me now, we are looking beyond the budget, beyond the election, you fear a Miliband led government don’t you, especially if they are in coalition with the SNP.
JOHN LONGWORTH: We never comment on parties or people, we only comment on policies and actions so we’ll be looking at all the party’s policies over the next few weeks and commenting on whether we think they are good for business. There is no question that whoever comes into office is going to have to cut the deficit, it is all a question of at what speed and how they do it, whether it’s by tax or cuts.
DM: So do you accept that, whoever gets into power does have to continue dealing with both the deficit and the overall debt?
ANN PETTIFOR: You know, I think this obsession with the deficit is bizarre actually because it’s really not the issue but the other really interesting thing is that the deficit is at about 5% which is higher than it is allowed to be across the eurozone which is why we’re doing better slightly. The Chancellor cut very substantially until 2012 when he realised the error of his ways and he started to increase spending and then the recovery began. He did that and then he boosted – the Bank of England has lent £55 billion to the banks in order to stimulate basically investment and lending for small businesses, that’s all gone into property and we’ve got a massive property boom. Call that a blinder? I would call that a blinder when people see property …
DM: That analysis is persuasive isn’t it, Luke Johnson, in terms of what we’re doing again, are we beginning to repeat the mistakes of past, consumer led, money going into housing, inflated prices certainly in the metropolitan area?
LUKE JOHNSON: I don’t think we need to be too London centric, I think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s all gone into property. There is no doubt that there is…
ANN PETTIFOR: Excuse me, banks have stopped lending to businesses, they are only lending to property.
LUKE JOHNSON: If you let me speak then at least I can respond to your remarks. I do believe that there is investment going into business, these things don’t happen quickly. As we’ve heard I think actually to maintain low interest rates and to produce the growth we’ve had or to help produce the growth we’ve had or to help produce the growth, which other countries have achieved that? To cut unemployment and thereby save money, that’s a great achievement and I think that to think that what we need to do is far more government spending is naïve at best.
DM: When you talk, you’ve said it twice now about low interest rates, hasn’t the Chancellor just got lucky with the overall prevailing global environment and now we’re seeing falling commodity prices, in particular oil and the inflationary outlook, as Ann Pettifor was saying, it’s not inflationary it’s deflationary so interest rates can stay low.
LUKE JOHNSON: Yes, well sure he’s been lucky and I think it’s useful to have people in charge who are lucky.
ANN PETTIFOR: But talk to the people whose incomes have been falling in real terms over this period, they don’t feel this has been a blinder of a Chancellor basically, they are feeling really hard done by and as I think John said, think of the young people, oh no it was Ken Clarke who was saying that, think of all the young people who have really lost out and are going to be pretty bitter about it. Pensioners have done rather well.
DM: Just one last word from you John Longworth, we’re nearly out of time, your feelings on what Ann’s just said?
JOHN LONGWORTH: Well there are big challenges, we have still got over half a million young people out of work under 24 and it is very important that we actually give them skills to make them employable so the education system needs to be reformed for example. There is an issue about businesses getting access to finance, we still have a substantial number of businesses in our network saying they can’t grow to be the mid-sized businesses of the future, the home grown businesses of the future, because they can’t get access to finance so we have still got a big issue to solve there but we’re making progress.
DM: Okay, well listen, thank you all for your thoughts, all will be revealed of course on Wednesday and I’m sure a lot more of you will be tramping in and out of the studios during the course of Wednesday. Luke Johnson, thank you very much indeed, John Longworth and Ann Pettifor, very good to see you.
In the latest PRIME publication by Dr. Geoff Tily “On Prosperity, Growth and Finance” the author elaborates on an earlier theme: the development of the economic concept of ‘growth’ in the 1960s by orthodox economists. Tily points out that growth is not just a relatively recent and post-World War II preoccupation, it must also be understood as “inherent to the case for a globalized system.”
Tily notes that Keynes was concerned with the level of economic activity – output and employment. Before the Second World War “there was no sense of a systematic, and to some extent uniform, rate of change of the level at which an economy operated.” As orthodox economists struggled to build a rival system to Keynes’s, they set the world “a systematic and improbable target: to chase growth. Nobody seems to have paused to consider whether growth derived as the rate of change of a continuous function was a meaningful or valid way to interpret changes in the size of economies over time” writes Tily.
Prof. Steve Keen at a meeting addressed by European and US central bankers wears the new uniform set by Yannis Vanoufakis – finance minister of Greece… a leather jacket with shirt!
From Left: Steve Keen, Yours Truly, Frances Coppola of Pieria and Ross Ashcroft of Renegade Economist…
New building of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt Main, Germany by Norbert Nagel, 2014
The 4th February late-night decision by the European Central Bank to reject Greek bank collateral for monetary policy operations will, I confidently predict, precipitate not just a run on Greek banks; not just greater price instability across the Eurozone – but ultimately, the collapse of the fantastic machinery that is the ‘self-regulating’ economy of the Eurozone.
As is well known, the primary duty of the ECB is to promote price stability. Subject to price stability it has a duty to promote the union’s Treaty objectives that include:
balanced economic growth… full employment, social progress and solidarity amongst member states.
Before the decision of 4th February, the ECB had failed lamentably in its primary duty: to maintain price stability and to do so at a self-imposed target, at or close to 2%. In December, eleven out of eighteen Eurozone countries were in annual deflation. This is not just lamentable monetary policy failure, it is technocratic misconduct on a grand scale. The Spanish economy has recorded months of negative inflation. Italy registered -0.1% deflation in December, 2014; Ireland -0.3%; Portugal -0.3%; Belgium -0.4%; Greece -2.5%. Greece has been in annual deflation every month since February, 2013.
While failing in their primary mandate, ECB technocrats bypassed their European political masters and last night flouted wider EU Treaty objectives for social and political stability and for solidarity amongst member states.
But this arrogance, this disregard for the governments and the political will of the Greek people in particular and the peoples of Europe in general – is wholly in line with the Maastricht Treaty’s utopian vision for the Eurozone. As Wynne Godley argued way back in 1992, the architecture of the Eurozone is premised on the notion that economies are
self-righting organisms which never under any circumstances need management at all.
This machinery was made to fit a financier-friendly ideology based on contempt for democratic government. According to this ideology governments are ‘rent-seeking’ and should be marginalized. Economic policy (monetary and fiscal) must be privatized in the hands of financial markets that, surprisingly, are regarded as having no such ‘rent-seeking’ instincts.
The ECB’s mandate, as Godley argued, is premised on a belief that
governments are unable, and therefore should not try, to achieve any of the traditional goals of economic policy, such as growth and full employment.
Instead the fantastic machinery of invisible, unaccountable capital markets is entrusted with the task of managing and above all, disciplining Eurozone economies, governments and peoples.
This enhanced Treaty-embedded role for the private finance sector led to the profligate financing of speculative activities in Greece, Spain and Ireland by German, French and British bankers before 2007. It led to the immense enrichment of the financier class; and to the sector’s co-responsibility for the inevitable financial and economic crises of 2007-15. The crisis in turn demolished the mythology of the free market. Instead financiers socialized losses and extracted government and taxpayer guarantees to protect them from risk.
But just as in the 1930s, the ideologues that laid the foundations of the Eurozone, and those that have against all odds upheld it, were not prepared for the Greek election result. They were not prepared for the fact that, as Karl Polanyi once argued, society would take measures to protect itself from the fantastic, unaccountable and ruthless machinery of capital markets.
For on 25th January 2015 the people of Greece took a second, bold step at reversing austerity and restoring some form of social and political stability. They did so by electing a Syriza government dedicated to resolving the debt crisis and reversing the “fiscal waterboarding” policies of the Troika.
This followed an earlier attempt by Greek society to restore some accountable form of government. In October 2011 an angry reaction to the terms of a Troika-imposed economic programme led to social upheaval. According to the Finanical Times:
thousands of anti-austerity protesters, including rightwing radicals and anarchists, stormed (the President’s) parade route, forcing Karolos Papoulias, to flee.” In a panic, Prime Minister Papandreou called a national referendum.
The capital markets immediately sprang into action and proceeded to discipline not just Greek but other European governments, their firms and their peoples. The Financial Timesagain:
Eurozone bond markets, which had briefly rallied after the Greek debt restructuring was agreed, sold off in a panic. Yields on Greece’s benchmark 10-year bond spiked by 16.2 per cent in a single day. More worryingly, borrowing costs for bigger eurozone governments began to approach levels where others had been forced into bailouts: yields on Italy’s 10-year bond jumped to more than 6.2 per cent.
European leaders, including President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel rallied behind the capital markets and forced the Greek Prime Minister into a humiliating climb-down.
Today’s Eurozone’s architecture and associated economic policies are not different in intent from the “fetters” or “corset” that was the Gold Standard, and that regarded the role of governments with the same contempt. They are the same policies that led 1930s Europe into unbearable degradation, poverty, and misery. Today these policies once again threaten to unleash dangerous tensions. Society – locally, nationally, and internationally – is making ‘concerted efforts to protect itself from the market’. History is repeating itself. Current resistance to market liberalism echoes past resistance. As Karl Polanyi argued in his great, and increasingly relevant, work, The Great Transformation, the second ‘great transformation’ of the 20th century, the rise of fascism, was a direct result of the first ‘great transformation’ – the rise of market liberalism.
Adherence to this utopian vision of how economies work explains the ECB’s crude and inept handling of the democratically elected Greek government’s attempt to resolve its debt crisis. Their actions will shake the foundations of the Eurozone.
Just as the collapse of the Gold Standard in Britain and the United States led to a dramatic pre-war recovery in those countries, so the collapse of the utopian blueprint that is the Eurozone may herald good news for Europe’s economies, for its thousands of firms and for its millions of unemployed. Above all it may revive popular faith in a united, peaceful European Union based on collaboration, shared responsibility and solidarity.
Indeed we may yet come to thank ECB technocrats for shaking the very foundations of the current, ill-constructed Eurozone.