The reason for virtual disappearance of great depressions is the new attitude of the electorate… [E]conomic science knows how to use monetary and fiscal policy to keep any recessions that break out from snowballing into lasting chronic slumps. If Marxians wait for capitalism to collapse in a final crisis, they wait in vain. We have eaten of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and, for better or worse, there is no returning to laissez faire capitalism. The electorate in a mixed economy insists that any political party which is in power—whether it be the Republican or the Democratic, the Tory or the Labor party—take the expansionary actions that can prevent depressions. Economics, 8th Addition, Paul Samuelson (1970, McGraw-Hill), p. 250.
Since Samuelson---probably the most influential bourgeois economist of the post-war era---died at the end of 2009, we will never know if he would now retract these statements. Every claim in the above quote is false, and false in a way that sheds light on where we are today. And because every claim is false, policy makers are in a hell of a mess.
The reason for virtual disappearance of great depressions is the new attitude of the electorate…… [E]conomic science knows how to use monetary and fiscal policy to keep any recessions that break out from snowballing into lasting chronic slumps.
In 1970, when the 8th edition of Samuelson’s iconic textbook was published, nearly everyone did share the belief that government had access to tools that could reverse any slump. Even the old red-baiting Cold Warrior President, Richard Nixon, embraced Keynesian prescriptions at that time.
But matters changed quickly in the 1970s. A long period of inflation and stagnant growth settled in, seemingly immune to fiscal and monetary therapy. The loss of the “stimulus” of the war in Vietnam and a restructuring of energy prices challenged the consensus celebrated by Samuelson. Many economists identified the soaring inflation with union and other cost-of-living escalators; consequently, a dampening of wages and benefits was urged, a tendency that continues unabated today. By the end of the 1970s, Treasury Secretary Volker’s shock therapy to contain inflation brought the US economy into deep recession. The Reagan victory in 1980 signaled a loss of confidence in government intervention and the rise of a competitive ideology. Some called it “voodoo economics,” but it proved to have amazing resilience: it turned away from the Keynesian toolbox, and it established a new consensus.
We have eaten of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and, for better or worse, there is no returning to laissez faire capitalism.
By 1980, the “Fruit” was less than appetizing. Reagan’s election (and Thatcher’s before him) signaled a return to the gruel of laissez faire under the cheery brand description, “neo-liberalism.” A whole new set of popular terms like “supply side,” “trickle down,” etc. were created to sell the new thinking, while the “deep” thinkers of academia, cast off the economics of aggregates and the priority of demand for the micro-foundations of Hobbes and his selfish, but rational animal dominating his/her living space. By 1992, with both the collapse of European socialism and the election of a “New Democratic” President, the “Tree of Knowledge” was a mere stump and neo-liberalism had penetrated nearly every aspect of life in the most advanced capitalist countries. Laissez faire returned with a vengeance and enjoyed even greater dominance than in its original incarnation. And the restored economic doctrine saw no need for the tools of repair since it saw the capitalist market as self-correcting.
The electorate in a mixed economy insists that any political party which is in power—whether it be the Republican or the Democratic, the Tory or the Labor party—take the expansionary actions that can prevent depressions.
This unassailable truth of 1970 has proven to not only be assailable, but down right false. The political parties mentioned by Samuelson – the dominant parties in the US and UK – did not vigorously defend the value of “expansionary actions;” rather, they fled from the policy as though it were radioactive. With William Clinton’s ascendancy to the Presidency at the head of the old New Deal party, advocates of expansionary government intervention had been largely purged from prominence in the Democratic Party. Likewise, Tony Blair’s rise to Prime Minister in the UK signaled the Labour Party’s wholesale embrace of neo-liberalism.
Of course Samuelson’s claim that the “electorate… insists…” on these policies was never tested because the electorate was never asked — elites settled the matter for them. In 1970, prominent intellectuals still believed that important matters were decided through the electoral process; surely few share that illusion today, when political actors persistently ignore the will of the electorate on matters like taxing the rich or shoring up social programs.
It bears reflecting upon the words of the Nobel committee in awarding the prize in economics to Samuelson in the same year as the publication of the 8th edition: “More than any other contemporary economist, Samuelson has helped to raise the general analytical and methodological level in economic science. He has simply rewritten considerable parts of economic theory.” Unfortunately, the “general analytical and methodological level” has proven to be unhelpful in understanding the course of economic history.
If Marxians wait for capitalism to collapse in a final crisis, they wait in vain.
Samuelson’s peculiar coinage of the term “Marxians” suggests that he seldom engaged Marxists to solicit their opinion. Of course one does encounter Marxist-poseurs who frequently and loudly predict an apocalyptic final collapse of capitalism just as one hears of half-baked fans who believe the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series—it’s possible, but not likely.
Capitalism will assuredly disappear as a result of “a final conflict” (“C’est la lutte finale” in the original words of the Internationale) and not a final economic crisis. Yet there is a relationship between economic and social crises and the final conflict that will push capitalism into the fabled historic dustbin. That is just to say that wars, economic calumnies, or political paralysis are almost always the immediate and decisive causes of revolutionary risings.
We cannot give Samuelson this point, however, because he meant to deny both that (1) economic crises will not alone bring down capitalism and that (2) no economic crisis – like the Great Depression—can again shake the foundations of the capitalist edifice. On the later, all (authentic) Marxists are in agreement: capitalism cannot, from its internal logic, escape serious economic turmoil; crises are inescapable partners of the accumulation process.
With capitalism’s foundations seriously buffeted by the last four years of bank failures, housing foreclosures, mass layoffs, financial scandals, shrinking wealth, stagnant incomes, dwindling social services, and a host of other blows, few would want to stand on the ground carved out by Samuelson in 1970. What may have appeared to be transparently obvious in 1970 is now decidedly questionable in the light of the protracted economic crisis that we have endured since late 2008.
The Next Step?
I have written often and confidently that we have only seen the first act of a continuing severe structural crisis of global capitalism. Regardless of policy initiatives, there is much more pain and economic chaos ahead. Contrary to the most esteemed minds of the economic profession, there are no quick or decisive solutions to be found from either the market fundamentalists or the Keynesian heretics opposing them. And their political expressions—conservative and social democratic parties – are equally bankrupt, offering no real exit from the looming disaster. Thus, both the seriously damaged economic engine and impotent political institutions combine to guarantee that the crisis will be with us for some time to come.
For the moment, Europe is the locus of the global crisis. The European Union project, realized in an era of great optimism and capitalist triumphalism, is in imminent danger of collapsing; its vulnerability to predatory financial capitalism has left its constituent countries, particularly its weakest countries, in immediate danger of reversion to nineteenth century standards of development and living. The global market mechanism has determined that Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and probably Italy have no essential role in the global economy except for nostalgic tourism and retirement villas.
The illusion of a unified Europe, devoid of borders and with a shared standard of living, is just that—an illusion. The old economic and social relations of dominance and exploitation did not evaporate in Europe because politicians voted in idyllic times to create a union. And with a profound global crisis, the weaknesses of this unsteady union became the target of the bond vultures that turn hardship into profits. In the beginning, these bond vultures swooped down upon Greece, capturing its economy for the big banks and handing its sovereignty to the European imperial centers. I wrote of the weakness and vulnerability of this union often in 2008 and 2009. I returned to this theme in November, 2011: “one might conclude that unification – mutually beneficial combinations of national entities—is extremely unlikely to be successful with capitalist social and economic relations intact. Conversely, socialist social and economic relations, linked with an internationalist perspective hold the only real, lasting opportunity for unity among diverse states.”
The Great Debt Dilemma
The foreclosing of a bourgeois solution to the European crisis arises from the dominance of finance capital in the world economy. That is to say, no real solution is available through policy initiatives crafted by bourgeois economists or advocated by politicians who are intent upon keeping state-monopoly capitalism unchanged while ignoring the predatory role of the financial sector. Those who hope to return to the capitalism of Samuelson’s time are simply delusional.
Market fundamentalists who thought that the Euro-crisis would dissipate with a bit of budget discipline, a heavy dose of government austerity, and perhaps a few emergency loans have been thoroughly discredited by shrinking growth, even greater debt burdens, and intense human suffering. The wholesale dumping of political incumbents has signaled the bankruptcy of conservative answers to those ruling elites who first chose this road.
In the trail of this failure is the “I told you so” of the Keynesians and social democrats. In truth, liberal economists were loud and outspoken about policies that hung on a thin strand of hope rather than rational thought (Despite the fact that policies of austerity made absolutely no sense, it drove the media and politicians into a frenzy of advocacy—a tribute to the power of elitist wishful thinking over common sense). Krugman, Stiglitz and a host of other economists seek to bolster the social democratic case by advocating robust deficit spending to re-kindle growth in the Euro-zone. They argued sensibly that austerity and reduced government spending would only make matters worse. And they assumed that the converse—more government stimuli—would therefore make matters better. But this is a non sequitur.
Certainly more government spending when directed towards programs that benefit those suffering from the economic crisis is a justifiable social good and urgently needed, though it does not follow that it is necessarily a prescription for recovery. Neither the historical record nor theory demonstrates that government spending is a sure-fire recipe for restoring capitalist growth and profitability. It may help, it may not. And it will not in this case unless we excise the influence of financial markets upon the fate of the Euro-zone.
To hear the social democrats, the answer to the European debt crisis is to reject austerity in favor of growth. But they forget or choose to ignore the elephant in the room: the international debt market. Bond vultures, their accomplices --the credit rating agencies, and lending institutions-- pounce on even a hint of deficit spending. The entire contemporary history of the European crisis is that of a crisis engineered by debt holders who view any additional credit extension or currency deflation as a threat to their existing debt holdings. And they hold the power to enforce their interests through debt markets. Equally, they have nearly all the European political forces in a strangle hold that places the interests of the financial sector ahead of all else. That is the demonstrated dominance of finance capital in the twenty-first century. We ignore this at our peril.
The facile answer of the social democrats—from the recent successful electoral campaign of the “socialists” in France to the ascendancy of SYRIZA in Greece—is to reject austerity and endorse growth. But this is no answer at all if it depends upon the “good will” of financial markets that neither have a “will” nor respect the social “good.” The dominance of finance capital cannot be wished or negotiated away.
Nor is exit from the Euro an option without a radical break from international finance. Credit markets will be closed to any country that departs the zone without guaranteeing the integrity of existing debt, a burden that leaves an exiting or exiled country exactly where it was before it left.
Doom or Promise?
The debt dilemma poses an impossible challenge to those who wish to see Europe governed as usual. It forecloses both a conservative and social democratic answer to the current crisis ravaging Europe. Understandably, the habits of decades of complacency and relative stability leave the electorate with a desire to find an easy way out within the confines of the known rather than a leap into the unknown. Embracing solutions beyond the habitual ones comes with great difficulty even among the victims. But for four years, the habitual solutions have failed and the debt dilemma gives us every reason to believe that they will continue to fail.
Only a vigorous people’s movement determined to overthrow the dominance of finance capital will lead Europe (and the rest of us) out of the death grip of financial markets. Central to that overthrow is the establishment of public ownership and control over financial institutions and the removal of those institutions from the market place. It is a nascent movement; we see its stirrings in the growth of the Communist movement emerging around the ideological pole established by the Greek Communist Party, a Party that refuses to compromise by joining a doomed-to-fail coalition government with no answer to the debt dilemma. The era of smug, smooth, and easy recoveries from the capitalist business cycle, as announced by Paul Samuelson, is over. Likewise, the era of economic tinkering and political self-satisfaction is inadequate for this moment. We enter a new era with fear and uncertainty gripping most of the world’s population. Therefore, the realization of the promise of the new era may be a while in coming, but it's surely coming.