Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Monopoly-finance capital and the crisis

From: Interview of John Bellamy Foster for Norwegian Daily, Klassekampen

I don't think capital has anywhere to turn in the immediate situation, that is, there is no hope for restarting accumulation right now.  One hears all the time about the creation of new bubbles, and certainly since financialization is how capital in the monopoly-finance phase has sought to combat stagnation, this is a natural enough question to ask. But it is often treated as though bubbles, i.e. major speculative episodes within the more ongoing financialization process, can be based on anything whatsoever. Historically, however, such speculative bubbles in the advanced capitalist economies are based in the stock market and real estate. Neither is likely to be expansive at present. We are in a period in which a massive wiping out of value is taking place, which will eventually, as in all such occasions in the history of capitalism, create the basis for renewed accumulation. But the process has to work its way out first.  Right now we can say that there is a crisis of financialization on top of stagnation, pulling the economy doubly down. A speculative bubble in natural resources or food is hard to imagine since these are known to be the most volatile areas in which to invest; right now commodity prices are dropping rapidly in response to world recession, increasing fears of deflation, and placing third world economies especially in danger.

The system has geographically expanded throughout its history and in recent decades, but is coming up against limits in this regard today.  Just think of the massive depeasantization of the world that we have seen in the past few decades, perhaps the greatest movement of peoples in all of human history, in effect a whole new set of enclosures on a global scale. China's enhanced role in the world economy, indeed the only significant sustained source of growth in the global economy for more than a decade, on balance seems not to have increased the stability of the system -- if anything the reverse. Geographically, and in terms of imperialism, we are up against the kind of absolute limits of capitalist expansion pointed to by Rosa Luxemburg.

[ ... ]

The crisis is a clear illustration of the point that productive forces are shackled by the existing relations of production (i.e., class, property relations).  In the present case, the combination of stagnation in the real economy and the imperative of ever increased accumulation of capital, demanded by the capitalist relations of production, led to accelerating concentration of profit in the financial sector.  In recent years in the United States, over 40% of all profit in the entire economy was concentrated in monopolized finance.  But these booked profits were ultimately based on the assurance of future payments by workers ever more squeezed in the stagnating real economy.  Then the payments on subprime debt faltered, and as a result of the completely opaque securitization process, no one knew which debts were bad and which were good.  At the same time, the illusion that derivatives constituted "insurance" against default completely evaporated -- indeed it turned out to be the equivalent of adjoining house owners insuring each other against fire when the whole neighborhood burns down.  Credit markets froze because the banks and other financial institutions were ceasing to lend since the borrowers could not be counted on to pay them back.  The banks themselves were insolvent, their capital had disappeared, and they could not pay their current debts, were they forced to do so.

Under these circumstances, no matter how many hundreds of billions of dollars in liquidity were poured into the financial sector, nothing happened.  All those with money, including the banks, were hoarding.  The U.S. was printing dollars like mad and flooding the financial sector with liquidity, but rather than loaning out money capital the banks were stuffing it in their vaults, or more precisely using it to purchase Treasury bills, creating a kind of revolving door that negated the attempts of the government.  Faced with an insolvency crisis, and the prospect not of making money but of being presented with claims they owed but could not pay, the banks did exactly what Keynes had said they would do under such circumstances: they simply hoarded cash.  At present, the authorities have prevented a complete meltdown (in the U.S. version of a plan adopted with some variation by all the advanced capitalist countries) by injecting capital directly into banks in return for preferred stock (a partial nationalization of banks), guaranteeing new debt of banks, and increasing deposit insurance.  In the United States alone this is estimated potentially to cost $2.25 trillion -- far beyond the $700 billion bailout of a couple of weeks ago (New York Times, October 15, 2008).  This is a desperate attempt to stop the financial avalanche.

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