Saturday, December 10, 2016

Movie: Strike A Rock, Two Women of Marikana

It's just over four years since the strike at the Lonmin Mine in Marikana South Africa where 37 unarmed platinum miners were shot by the police. In all some 44 miners died and it was revealed that the massacre of these workers was part of a collaboration between the mine owners, the state (ANC) and the leaders of the NUM. Miners Shot Down is an award winning documentary about the strike. Supporters of this blog showed the film here in the East Bay (as did many others) raising money for the families of the murdered miners.  
The trailer above is from the Documentary Strike a Rock,  that continues the story of the people of Marikana. Below is a description of the film as well as links to more information on how to contact the filmmakers as well as links to Facebook and Twitter.  RM

Strike A Rock

Strike A Rock is the story of two South African mothers, Primrose Sonti and Thumeka Magwangqana, who lead their community in a fight against seemingly insurmountable odds for equality, justice and dignity.

After a massacre by the South African police shakes the foundations of the poverty stricken mining community of Marikana, Primrose Sonti and Thumeka Magwangqana resolve to rise up and organise. They form a community organisation Sikhala Sonke (We-Cry-Together) to advocate for economic and social justice. Growing in determination, Primrose joins the new opposition political party the Economic Freedom Fighters - that promises the disenfranchised poor land and jobs.

When sheer determination unexpectedly lands her a seat in post-Apartheid South African Parliament, Primrose will have a life-changing move to Cape Town. At the same time Thumeka picks up the reigns of Sikhala Sonke in Marikana and together with a legal advocacy team lodge a landmark complaint against Lonmin Platinum Mine and the IFC, a private sector lending arm of the World Bank group, for its investment in Lonmin. This is a story about two women who battle every day to rebuild their traumatised community. It's a story of gaining a voice and building strength, of protesting and sacrificing. But most importantly it is a story about friendship, sisterhood and the importance in sticking together in the face of adversity. How will these two women make their voices heard to affect real change?

Directed by Aliki Saragas and produced by Elafos Productions Please find more information on the film here:  Facebook: @strikearock Twitter: @StrikeARock

PO BOX 1153
Johannesburg, Highlands North 2037
South Africa
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Trump, trade and technology

by Michael Roberts

US President-elect Donald Trump reckons that the cause of the losses in manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years has been the rigging of trade terms by low labour-cost manufacturing in China and Mexico.  So it is trade and the shifting of production locations by US multi-nationals overseas – in other words, globalisation.

This claim has upset mainstream economists who see ‘free trade’ as a totem of economic theory.  From Ricardo onwards, mainstream economic theory reckons that free trade is beneficial to all by applying the ‘comparative advantages’ that each trading nation has to make in exchanges of commodities.  Such trade is then is mutually beneficial.

Actually, this theory is fraught with flaws, as Anwar Shaikh has only recently spelt out in his book, Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises, while mainstream economist Dani Rodrik has pointed out that the so-called ‘Pareto optimum’ of equality of gains and losses cannot be achieved.  Rodrik argues in his book, The Globalization Paradox that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible.

Keynesian guru Paul Krugman has always been a proponent of ‘free trade’.  Indeed, he got his Nobel prize in economics for a ‘new’ theory of international trade that reckoned, even with tariffs and market imperfections, international trade would be beneficial to all participants.

From this position, Krugman has recently been at pains to argue against the Trump thesis that the loss of American manufacturing jobs is down to ‘nasty foreigners’ with their trading trickery and to American companies taking their factories overseas and selling their goods back into the US.
In a recent short paper and on his blog, Krugman shows that very few US manufacturing jobs would have been saved with different trade policies or by not agreeing to NAFTA, for example. 

Manufacturing employment in the US fell from around a quarter of the work force in 1970 to 9% in 2015.  Krugman finds that “trade is less than half the story”.  Absent the US trade deficit, manufacturing may be a fifth bigger than it is. “That wouldn’t make much difference to the long-run downward trend, but looms larger relative to the absolute decline since 2000.”

Another study by Autor et al reckons competition from China led to the loss of 985,000 manufacturing jobs between 1999 and 2011. That’s less than a fifth of the absolute loss of manufacturing jobs over that period and a quite small share of the long-term manufacturing decline.  “So America’s shift away from manufacturing doesn’t have much to do with trade and even less to do with trade policy.”

The biggest reason Trump — or anyone else — can’t bring back home these manufacturing jobs is because they have been lost in large part to the success of efficiency. Manufacturing output in the US was at an all-time high in 2015. Over the past three-and-a-half decades, manufacturers have shed more than seven million jobs while producing more stuff than ever. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported in The Manufacturing Footprint and the Importance of U.S. Manufacturing Jobs that “If you try to understand how so many jobs have disappeared, the answer that you come up with over and over again in the data is that it’s not trade that caused that — it’s primarily technology,”…Eighty percent of lost jobs were not replaced by workers in China, but by machines and automation. That is the first problem if you slap on tariffs. What you discover is that American companies are likely to replace the more expensive workers with machines.”

What these studies reveal is what Marxist economics could have told them many times before.  Under capitalism, increased productivity of labour comes through mechanisation and labour shedding i.e. reducing labour costs.  Marx explained in Capital that this is one of the key features in capitalist accumulation – the capital-bias of technology – something continually ignored by mainstream economics, until now it seems.

Marx put it differently to the mainstream.  Investment under capitalism takes place for profit only, not to raise output or productivity as such.  If profit cannot be sufficiently raised through more labour hours ( more workers and longer hours) or by intensifying efforts (speed and efficiency – time and motion), then the productivity of labour can only be increased by better technology.  So, in Marxist terms, the organic composition of capital (the amount of machinery and plant relative to the number of workers) will rise secularly.

Marxist economists have already provided empirical evidence for this tendency.  G Carchedi in a recent paper shows that the ‘technical composition’ of capital (the value of machinery and plant relative to the number of workers) in productive sectors has risen in the last 60 years in the US (while profitability has fallen secularly (ARP)) – see ‘OCC’ in the graph below.  My own estimates show that the US organic composition of capital (the value of technology and plant to the value of labour power in wages etc) rose 46% in the last 70 years.
This ‘capital bias’ in technology could also explain the falling labour share and growing inequalities.  Workers can fight to keep as much of the new value that they have created as part of their ‘compensation’ but capitalism will only invest for growth if that share does not rise too much that it causes profitability to decline.  So capitalist accumulation implies a falling share of value to labour over time or what Marx would call a rising rate of exploitation (or surplus value).

It used to be argued in mainstream economics that inequalities were the result of different skills in the workforce and the share going to labour was dependent on the race between workers improving their skills and education and introduction of machines to replace past skills.  But even Krugman now recognises that inequalities of income and wealth across US society and the declining share of income going to labour in the capitalist sector are not due to the level of education and skill in the US workforce, but to deeper factors.

As he put it a few years ago:
“The effect of technological progress on wages depends on the bias of the progress; if it’s capital-biased, workers won’t share fully in productivity gains, and if it’s strongly enough capital-biased, they can actually be made worse off.  So it’s wrong to assume, as many people on the right seem to, that gains from technology always trickle down to workers; not necessarily.”

So it depends on the class struggle between labour and capital over the appropriation of the value created by the productivity of labour.  And clearly labour has been losing that battle, particularly in recent decades, under the pressure of anti-trade union laws, ending of employment protection and tenure, the reduction of benefits, a growing reserve army of underemployed and through the globalisation of manufacturing.

This is the real reason for American workers falling behind in wages relative to increased productivity and investment in new technology that sheds jobs.  The falling share going to labour in national income began at just the point when US corporate profitability was at an all-time low in the deep recession of the early 1980s.  Capitalism had to restore profitability.  It did so partly by raising the rate of surplus value through sacking workers, stopping wage increases and phasing out benefits and pensions – and by the introduction of new technology to replace labour after a major slump in production.

Another study found
that the “negative correlation between the (weaker) penetration of collective bargaining agreements and increased wage inequality is strong. This result applies to the relationship between the lowest and highest wages, but also between the median wage and the hi ghest wage. Lower trade union density and lower unemployment also increase wage inequality.” So it was the weakened bargaining power of unions and higher unemployment combined with a marked decrease in redistribution through taxes and transfers that was the main explanation why Americans have fallen behind in income since the 1980s.

In this context, the latest report by the world’s top experts in the field, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman on the extreme inequality of incomes in the US, is perfectly explicable.  The trio find that the bottom half of the income distribution in the US has been completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s. From 1980 to 2014, average national income per adult grew by 61% in the US, yet the average pre-tax income of the bottom 50% of individual income earners stagnated at about $16,000 per adult after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, income skyrocketed at the top of the income distribution, rising 121% for the top 10%, 205% for the top 1% and 636% for the top 0.001%!

In 1980, adults in the top 1% earned on average 27 times more than bottom 50% of adults. Today they earn 81 times more. This ratio of 1 to 81 is similar to the gap between the average income in the United States and the average income in the world’s poorest countries, among them the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Burundi. And the increase in income concentration at the top in the US over the past 15 years is due to a boom in capital income i.e. income from dividends, interest and rents, not higher wages.

It’s a tale of two countries. For the 117 million Americans in the bottom half of the income distribution, growth has been non-existent for a generation while at the top of the ladder it has been extraordinarily strong. And this stagnation of national income accruing at the bottom is not due to population aging. Quite the contrary: for the bottom half of the working-age population (adults below 65), income has actually fallen. From 1980 to 2014, for example, none of the growth in per-adult national income went to the bottom 50%, while 32% went to the middle class (defined as adults between the median and the 90th percentile), 68% to the top 10% and 36% to the top 1%. The trio comment: “An economy that fails to deliver growth for half of its people for an entire generation is bound to generate discontent with the status quo and a rejection of establishment politics.”  Indeed.

And because progressive income taxation has been eroded and social benefits cut back, government taxation and transfers have had little redistributive effect on the inequality caused by the market. “There was almost no growth in real (inflation-adjusted) incomes after taxes and transfers for the bottom 50 percent of working-age adults over this period”. As the trio say: “The diverging trends in the distribution of pre-tax income across France and the United States—two advanced economies subject to the same forces of technological progress and globalization—show that working-class incomes are not bound to stagnate in Western countries. In the United States, the stagnation of bottom 50 percent of incomes and the upsurge in the top 1 percent coincided with drastically reduced progressive taxation, widespread deregulation of industries and services, particularly the financial services industry, weakened unions, and an eroding minimum wage.” 

So the loss of US manufacturing jobs, as it has been in other advanced capitalist economies, is not due to nasty foreigners fixing trade deals.  It is due to the inexorable attempt of American capital to reduce its labour costs through mechanisation or through finding new cheap labour areas overseas to produce.  The rising inequality in incomes is a product of ‘capital-bias’ in capitalist accumulation and ‘globalisation’ aimed at counteracting falling profitability in the advanced capitalist economies. But it is also the result of ”neo-liberal’policies designed to hold down wages and boost profit share.  Trump cannot and won’t reverse that with all his bluster because to do so would threaten the profitability of America capital.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Who Are Those 'Gusanos' Who Celebrated Fidel's Death?

While millions mourned the death of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, Cubans in Miami who abandoned the island decades before, celebrated.

In a grotesque display of insensitivity, some Cubans in Miami celebrated the death of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, carrying "Trump / Pence" signs, hoping to “Make Cuba Great Again” by destroying the Cuban Revolution and bringing back the racism, neocolonialism and fascism of the Batista dictatorship.

"Gusanos," or worms is the term Fidel used to describe the first 1960’s waves of wealthy white former landowners who fled Cuba to the United States after the overthrow of U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

These Cubans were welcomed, nurtured and harbored by successive U.S.administrations, establishing themselves as the most vocal force against the Cuban Revolution, taking part in military operations and terror campaigns against Cuba and of course backing the U.S. blockade against the Cuban people.

The gusanos were behind the 1961 U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, which Havana was able to defeat in 72 hours, capturing hundreds of mercenaries, many of whom Cuba identified as plantation owners, Batista's ex-military men, factory owners and businessmen.

In 2011, declassified CIA documents showed that one of the key figures in the 1976 terrorist bombing of Cubana Flight 455 was Luis Posada Carriles, a right-wing Cuban who had fled the island after the revolution.

Posada Carriles, now 88, was also part of the failed Bay of Pigs assault and was an informant for the CIA. Orlando Bosch was another CIA agent who helped mastermind the attack on the civilian plane.
The documents also show that Bosch received a phone call from the bombers saying "a bus with 73 dogs went off a cliff and all got killed." He is also connected to terror attacks on Cuban hotels in 1997.

Bosch is well connected to the Bush family, having been personally championed by Jeb Bush, when he was the governor of Florida, and released from U.S. custody by former President George H. W. Bush.

Another leader of the gusanos is Felix Rodriguez, who is an ex-CIA agent known for having participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was sent by the CIA to Bolivia to kill revolutionary leader Che Guevara in 1967.

He ordered that Guevara be “shot below the neck” so that it would look as though he had been “killed in combat.”

These Cuban terrorists are seen as heroes by the counter-revolutionary Cuban community in the U.S., whose ties to the murder of innocent Cubans has no bearing on their conscience.

These gusanos are also among some of the most right-wing politicians and celebrities in the U.S. and the state of Florida. Rafael Diaz-Balart, who served as a deputy interior minister in the Batista's regime is the father of U.S. Congressmen Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Republicans.

Another infamous member of the right-wing Cuban community is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican U.S. Congresswoman who in 2014 proposed a bill calling for sanctions on Venezuela. Meanwhile, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero III is the very grandson of Batista.

Also of note is the Estefan family in Florida. Pop singer Gloria Estefan's father was Batista’s bodyguard and participated in the Bay of Pigs failed invasion.

But Fidel’s Cuba could not stand by and allow the U.S.-backed gusanos to meddle with its internal affairs and terrorize the Cuban people.

Five Cubans were sent by the government to the U.S. to monitor Miami-based terrorist groups plotting to attack Cuba to avoid a further loss of lives.

The Cuban 5, as they came to be known worldwide, were imprisoned in the United States in 1998 and sentenced in 2001 on espionage charges.

After years of an international campaign calling for their release, the last of the five was released in December 2014, coinciding with announcements from Cuban President Raul Castro and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama that the two countries would begin to re-establish ties.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Support a recount but no Clinton no Trump

No                                         No       
The struggle for a recount of the Presidential vote in three states is continuing; it is led by Jill Stein of the Green Party and has since been followed by independent recount requests in two more states, Florida and Nevada.

The Republican’s oppose the recounts efforts because it "won" the undemocratic Electoral College and it they want their man, the degenerate con man Trump in the White house. The Democrats are quietly supporting the recount but in reality do not support it because as a party of the capitalist class and the entire electoral system to which they are wedded, do not want to weaken this system. Specifically they do not want to weaken the un-democratic Electoral College as this keeps the vote of the urban working class underweighted compared to the vote of the rural small town middle class and helps capitalism stay in power.

There is an ongoing debate inside the Green Party on this issue. This debate is healthy and hopefully will help the Green party on another front, that is, to see that the party can have debate and differences of opinion and grow stronger. . 

But first of all to the general issue of the elections and the call for a recount as clarity is necessary on this in order to not foster illusions in the electoral process in capitalist society. The reality is that all elections in capitalist countries are fraudulent. It is only a matter of degree. The US is one of the most fraudulent with its electoral college, its highly concentrated capitalist media, its gerrymandering, its elimination of people who have felonies from the voter roles, its lack of a mass workers party.

And we should not forget that Green Party presidential candidate, Jill Stein, was arrested both in 2012 and 2016 when she tried to take direct action to get into the debates shown on national television.  Which candidates and parties can participate in these debates is determined by a commission composed of representatives from both the Democratic and Republican parties. In other words, only the capitalist parties and their policies are debated on national television.

However in spite of all this it would be incorrect to conclude that people who are against capitalism should not participate in elections. Elections are in reality a struggle for ideas and consciousness. The different wings of the capitalist class here in the US, through their different parties and control of the mass media seek to convince the majority working class population that they cannot change things and so should just let the people that know how get on with it. One result of this is that only about 50% of the population vote. This in itself guarantees a fraudulent result and with the Republican Party especially making more and more people ineligible to vote, all US elections are fraudulent. There is also the gerrymandering. This adds to the fraud. 

For those of us who support and maintain this blog and who oppose capitalism this is our position on voting in capitalist elections. Can voting in capitalist elections end capitalism? History answers this decisively. On all occasions when the working class rose up and sought to overthrow capitalism the capitalist class turned to violence, either fascism or military dictatorship to prevent the will of the majority to end capitalism from being carried out. So not only are elections in capitalist states such as in the US fraudulent, they also are not vehicles through which the working class can end capitalism. So then the question is raised. What is the point in participating in elections? The point is this. 

Elections present a huge dialogue about society. What should be done? How should society go forward etc? Unfortunately this dialogue in the US is extremely limited. This is because there is no mass workers party to contest ideas and policies with the capitalist parties, so all we have here are mass capitalist parties arguing amongst themselves about which section of this class will govern society for the next period.

But nevertheless, there are months and months of discussion and dialogue about the country and policies and what is going on. It would be a very bad mistake for anti capitalist forces to boycott this dialogue.  Those of us who oppose capitalism have a responsibility to take part in this dialogue and fight for our ideas. The struggle against capitalism is the struggle for the consciousness of the working class. Elections allow anti capitalist forces to participate in this struggle. 

It would only be correct to boycott capitalist elections if another system was available. Such as one when democratic working peoples councils arise presenting which could build another society, a period of dual power. It is clear this is not the case at the moment. So it is incorrect and irresponsible not to, participate in elections.

So because there is no mass workers party to contest ideas and policies with the capitalist parties, this dialogue in the US is extremely narrow.

Now to the present debate in the Green Party that is leading the recount struggle to see if there was fraud in the original counting of the vote. Some say that calling for a recount could only help Trump. If the recount is lost he will stay in power and say “look I won.” He will of course continue to lie about losing the overall vote. If the recount would be won, which is unlikely, Clinton the US capitalist representative and warmonger would end up in the White house. So why support the recount some of the main the opponents of the recount in the Green Party argue. The authors of this Blog disagree with this opinion.

Here are our thoughts. Though we can’t rule much out these days, it is unlikely that the recount will unseat Trump. But fighting for the recount weakens Trump whether it would unseat him or not. It weakens him because it keeps reminding people how he did not win a majority of the vote. Also his hypocrisy when after saying before the election he was prepared to challenge the vote if it was close he actually lost the vote to Clinton by over 2 million and now is whining about the recount. The recount also strengthens the Green Party as it shows it was prepared to step forward and challenge the bully Trump. This is good.

Jill Stein and the Green party have received more publicity with the recount than she or the party did during the elections.  Prior to the announcement of the recall efforts, Facts For Working People produced a flier calling on a massive protest and days of direct action during inauguration week. You can download a pdf of it here.

However let us look more closely at the issue of the Green Party recount. 

Facts For Working People supports a recount. To the extent we have influence we want to make this clear. But we do not leave it there, we support a "Recount Plus."  Here is our Recount Plus.

#  Yes to the recount.

#  But no support for Clinton.

#  For new elections.

#  These to be held on the basis of one person one vote and votes for all over 18 years.

#  End the Electoral College. 

#  End the removal of voters from the rolls because of felony records. 

#  Scrap the gerrymandered districts. 

#  Have a special country-wide vote advocating that all lobbying of politicians is banned and becomes a felony.

#  A special conference of the Green Party to which it invites the rank and file of the trade union movement and turns itself into a workers party.

This is the position of this Blog on the recount.

Mark Carney, Marx’s scribbles and the lost decade

by Michael Roberts

Mark Carney is the governor of the Bank of England.  Formerly the head of the central Bank of Canada, some years ago he was headhunted to take over at the BoE on a huge salary and expenses.
This week he gave the Roscoe Lecture at Liverpool’s John Moores University, his first speech since the decision of the Brits to vote (narrowly) to leave the European Union.  Carney took the opportunity to offer what his view of the state of global capitalism.  And he does not make it sound good.  speech946

Carney pointed out that since the global financial crash of 2008, average real incomes in Britain have taken the biggest plunge since the 1860s, when “Karl Marx was scribbling in the British Library.”  And “it was the poorest (who) are hit the hardest. During recessions the lower-skilled, lower paid people tend to lose their jobs first.”
However, Carney was at pains to claim that capitalism has worked for people: “global markets and technological progress has lifted more than a billion people out of poverty, while a series of technological advances have fundamentally enriched our lives….. global markets and technological progress has lifted more than a billion people out of poverty, while a series of technological advances have fundamentally enriched our lives  He added “Globally, since 1960, real per capita GDP has risen more than two-and-a-half times, average incomes have begun to converge and life expectancy has increased by nearly two decades.”
What he did not say in this praise of this record of capitalism is that the majority of that one billion lifted out of deep poverty were in China, an economy that eschews ‘free markets’ and ‘globalisation’; and goes for state investment, capital controls and the direct submission of the private sector to the regime.  Life expectancy may have risen due to investment in public services and healthcare.  Capitalism and free markets have played no role in that.  In the ‘free markets’, most of the very poor in other countries remain poor.  Indeed, the policies of the central bankers, the IMF and the World Bank in driving for ‘globalisation’ and ‘free trade’ have made the lot of these poor even worse, not better.

Per capita incomes may have risen (again mainly due to China and to a lesser extent, India, in the equation), but those incomes have not been equally increased.  As Carney admitted in his speech “globalisation is associated with low wages, insecure employment, stateless corporations and striking inequalities.”  In Anglo-Saxon countries, the income share of the top 1% has risen notably since 1980. Today, in the US, the richest 1% of households receive 20% of all income.  Such high income inequalities are dwarfed by staggering wealth inequalities. The proportion of the wealth held by the richest 1% of Americans increased from 25% in 1990 to 40% in 2012. Globally, the share of wealth held by the richest 1% in the world rose from one-third in 2000 to one-half in 2010.  And now “a typical millennial earned £8,000 less during their twenties than their predecessors.”

Carney criticised mainstream economics: “Amongst economists, a belief in free trade is totemic. But, while trade makes countries better off, it does not raise all boats; in the clinical words of the economist, trade is not Pareto optimal. Rather the benefits from trade are unequally spread across individuals and time….. Some workers, however, lose their jobs and the dignity of work, or see their “factor prices” – in plain English, wages – equalised downwards.”  Perhaps Carney had been reading Marx’s scribbles after all – as this was close to scribbler’s view of free trade under capitalism – uneven and combined development.

But if capitalism has been successful over the last 50 years, according to Carney, what about the last ten? To put it mildly, the performance of the advanced economies over the past ten years has consistently disappointed.  …It doesn’t it feel like the good old days, because anxiety about the future has increased, productivity hasn’t recovered and real wages are below where they were a decade ago, something that no-one alive today has experienced before

No wonder, Carney concluded thatthe public is complaining about low wages, insecure employment, stateless corporations and striking inequalities.” He admitted that mainstream economics and policies had failed the majority. “Economists must clearly acknowledge the challenges we face, including the realities of uneven gains from trade and technology”, he said.
Why have things gone so wrong?  Don’t we need to know?  We do, said Carney,  because any doctor knows that the importance of diagnosing the underlying causes of the patient’s symptoms before administering the cure.”  Unfortunately, Carney does not know the cause:  “The underlying reasons for the 16% shortfall of the UK’s productive capacity, relative to trend, are poorly understood.”

But we must try.  Carney listed three priorities: “Economists must clearly acknowledge the challenges we face, including the realities of uneven gains from trade and technology”  “We must grow our economy by rebalancing the mix of monetary policy, fiscal policy and structural reforms.  We need to move towards more inclusive growth where everyone has a stake in globalisation.”  This wish list has as much chance of surviving as the proverbial snowball in the fires of hell.

But no matter, Carney was much more concerned to convince his Liverpool audience that if it had not been for the easy money policies of the Bank under his direction, things would be even worse in the UK – although given the stats he presented, that was hardly convincing.  “Monetary policy has been keeping the patient alive, creating the possibility of a lasting cure through fiscal and structural operations,” he said, adding, “monetary policy isn’t a spectre, but a friendly ghost”.  But then he delivered a health warning about easy money.  It leads to a consumer boom and that never provides sustained economic growth which depends on investment.  “The UK expansion is increasingly consumption-led. The saving rate has fallen towards historic lows and borrowing has resumed. Evidence from the past quarter century across a range of countries suggests episodes of consumption-led growth tends to be both slower and less durable.  This is because consumption growth eventually outpaces earnings growth, increasing debt and making demand more sensitive to changes in employment and income.”  The relative boom in the British economy (ie 2%-plus economic growth) won’t last.”
It was up to governments now to turn things round.  But given that Carney and his bank economists did not know why things had got so bad, he offered no real advice to governments on how to get productivity up, inequality down and real incomes restored.

Next year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Marx’s Capital Volume One, the product of the ‘scribblings’ that Marx was making in the British Museum in the 1860s.  Perhaps Carney should have read them to see why things are so bad and what to do about it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Nature is good. Capitalism is not.

by Richard Mellor

added note: 10.30 pm
I forgot to add when I posted these comments that if there is a reader who can explain the chemical, botanical or biological or whatever process is actually taking place with this tree, and by that I mean the general processes for the layperson, I'd put the piece on the blog with a link back to this video. You can send it to  Science is good.


I was walking the trail this morning and as anyone that walks the trails it is not only a physical but a mental pleasure.  I find the Redwoods to be a very special environment although all nature is mystical.

I often just think about things as I walk and I almost walked by this tree. It had fallen across a narrow trail with half of it falling down a fairly steep ravine to the little creek below. I always imagine these creeks, what they must have looked like 200 years ago before the damming of the major rivers and urbanization.  I believe there is a movement to un-dam some of these rivers and that would be good, maybe we'll get the Salmon back.

What caught my eye was the chemical process taking place where the park workers had cut the tree in order to keep the trail open. As you can see in the video it was dripping and it was like flesh rotting and falling to the ground and as I say in the video, people who study these things can describe this process in detail as opposed to saying that the tree is just rotting like me.

We could all learn these things but not under a capitalist system. How we produce the necessities of life under this capitalist system is extremely destructive. Capitalism is a social system that produces not for social need, not for immediate consumption, not for a use value, but for a sale, for the market and today that means a global market. It is the process of the production of commodities for sale in this market that creates wealth.  But that wealth cannot be realized until the commodity that contains it is sold.

In yesterday's raider game a player got injured. The game was held up and the commentator said. "lets take a break".  Well, what he meant was lets sell some commodities so capital accumulation can take place.  He probably never thought of it that way; he probably thinks it's as normal as breathing but that's the real purpose of the football game being on TV. or the game as it is played existing at all. If you wonder why they spend so much time selling us things including spending trillions of dollars convincing us that we need them, it's to release the wealth contained in the object their selling us. It's wealth created by workers for which they received no compensation.

So as I walk along I think of these things and as I looked at this fallen tree and its new contribution to nature in death, I thought about how the wealth we create could actually be used in a socialist society.  Understanding the scientific process, the biology or botany or whatever it should be called, going on here, is something we can all be taught to understand.

The working class creates wealth through our collective labor power. But this wealth is not collectively owned not collectively allocated to society as a whole. We do not even decide how that wealth (above our own wages) is spent.  If we did, the millions of poor would eat. The millions of uneducated would become knowledgeable about our world and our place history, the history of those whose labor enriches all except those whose labor it is.

Capitalism doesn't free humanity. It enslaves us. We don't even own the product of our own labor power. Those who don't work own our labor time and what we produce during it.

That I can walk in such beautiful surroundings at all is not due to the market but in spite of it. The resources of humanity, including human beings are used to benefit the the ruling class who are a small minority of the population that maintain their rule through coercion and violence. Imagine the thousands upon thousands or scientists and engineers employed in the war machine industry, in the making of one F22.

We can feed, educate and house everyone; the resources are there, the ability to feed everyone is there, the ability to house everyone and make it possible for millions to become experts in fields that can advance humanity and allow us to become truly free human beings is there.

The class that governs society is a parasitic class. It cannot advance humanity only destroy it. Imagine the money spent on wars. We do not have a defense budget, we have an offense budget. Trump is considering Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp. for the Secretary of State job.  We will now have climate deniers,  bankers from the same firm of bloodsuckers that paid Hillary Clinton hundreds of thousands of dollars for a chat, running society. We will have people making decisions that affect our lives and that will hand billions of dollars to various other capitalist governments based on texts written thousands of years ago.

Trump's son in law and advisor apparently, Jared Kushner, is an Orthodox Jew from a wealthy family. He is a Zionist and has donated lots of money to the Zionist regime to fund religious schools and also to fund the settlements, areas that have been ethnically cleansed of Palestinians so that right wing religious fanatics can live there as god said it was their land.; he is funded a European colonial settler state.  The 1% have no morals at all do they. They are all hypocrites no matter what religious organization they lay claim to. Kushner never condemned Trumps racism, his disgusting comments about women and treatment of them and he has no problem funding ethnic cleansing. He'd better watch out though. Trump whipped up the Nazis and other white supremacist groups and they won't forget who Kushner is.

We now have a president endorsed by the Nazi's and the KKK.

For socialist like myself, it is not utopian to imagine that millions of people, young people, can become botanists or mathematicians or have a deeper understanding of any subject as we also participate in the labor aspect of making society function. We can all learn languages. New technology reduces the need for labor power and would increase leisure time or time during which we can participate in the organization of work and structure of our communities. But that's only if we own it. As long as this product of collective human labor power, mental and physical, is owned by a small select group of people for their personal gain, then technology increases our misery it does not set us free.

We can't make this system fair. We have to get rid of it before it destroys us all.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Italians reject reforms. Renzi resigns.

In what has been described by some as the “Third Domino”, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is to resign after a referendum voted no on his constitutional reforms today. The other two domino's are the Brexit vote and the election of Trump in the US and they are seen as the rejection of the status quo also.

The possibility now looms that Italy could, like the UK, seek to exit from the EU as one of the leading opposition parties, the Five Star Movement has talked of a referendum on EU membership and is supported by another antiestablishment party, the Northern league. The BBC is reporting the early percentages as the Yes vote at 39-43% and the No at 57-61%.

I am not deeply aware of all the issues but from what I have read there is concern about increased centralization of power with these reforms and the strengthening of the executive branch of government.   Italy also has significant debt issues and the economy is still 12% smaller than when the financial crisis began in 2008. Both immigration and the size of the government bureaucracy are issues.

As always though, supporters of the reforms Renzi wants saying they will make Italy more competitive is a warning to workers as is the call for less government. “More competitive” means lower wages, benefits and a reduction of the power of workers and our unions in the workplace.

Right wing parties and politicians like France’s Marine Le Pen of the Front Nationale are ecstatic, "The Italians have disavowed the EU and Renzi. We must listen to this thirst for freedom of nations," Le Pen is reported as saying.

These developments are an attempt to put a break on capitalist globalization and on the part of the capitalists of various nations, (and some workers) a return to the independence of the sovereign nation state, or more accurately, the political formation we call the nation state within the framework of a global economy. This contradiction, the existence of nation states with an global economy, Marx pointed our 150 years ago, that the nation state is an obstacle to the development of a globally integrated economy and that this contradiction cannot be resolved with the framework of capitalism. World wars are the result of competing nation states as are more regional ones that we see in the era of nuclear weapons. In the last analysis national economies cannot escape being dragged in to the world economy, it is an inevitable process under capitalism. But this contradiction, this tension, cannot be undone except through the elimination of capitalism and the creation of a democratic socialist federation of nation states.

For workers in the advanced capitalist countries these developments are also a rejection of capitalist globalization which they see as destroying their living standards allowing capital to seek cheaper labor, or the migration of cheaper labor to higher waged countries undermining wages.  As workers living standards have declined, the wealth at the top increases as the body politic is mired in corruption. People see no way forward if things stay as they are.

Here in the US, given the absence of any offensive at all from the heads of organized labor, a con man like Trump has been elected president in what are some of the most undemocratic of all bourgeois elections, and all bourgeois elections are undemocratic. We are serious on this blog when we write that the heads of the workers’ organizations at the highest levels are responsible for the rise of Trump in the US as they have the resources to offer an alternative but have not. They have cooperated with capitalism and its representatives and are cooperating with the con man Trump. For the labor leadership, there is no other choice as mobilizing the power of their own members and the working class in general can only lead to chaos.

We saw the same with Syriza and Tsipras in Greece who when the Greek working class made it clear they were prepared to fight austerity imposed on them by the EU and the World Bank, capitulated immediately rather than launch a Europe wide campaign to drive back the offensive of global capital.

All is not bad news as far as elections go today, as we have seen a huge shift in to the Labor Party in Britain and the rise of Corbyn.  On Italy’s northern border in Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen an environmental candidate defeated far right candidate Norbert Hofer by a 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent today. Had the right-winger won and the potential for an Austrian exit from the EU been on the cards, the EU, would have been thrown it to a severe crisis and still may be. Instead, "I will be a pro-European president of Austria open to the world." Van der Bellen said, giving the EU figures like Merkel some breathing room.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Economics: The long depression and Marx’s law

Buy This Book

The long depression and Marx’s law – a reply to Pete Green

by Michael Roberts

Pete Green has now taken up the cudgels in the debate that Jim Kincaid and I have begun over the causes of regular and recurrent crises in capitalist production and in particular the Great Recession.  He makes a welcome and considered critique of my views, as expressed in my book, The Long Depression and in recent discussions at the Historical Materialism conference in London earlier this month.  I think he raises some new and important points in his critique, which, as he says, will require further debate and research.

Like Pete, I cannot deal with all arguments in this short reply on my blog but I’ll do my best to take up some key ones, but it still makes this post long enough!

Pete starts by saying he is not going to dispute the data on the rate of profit that I have presented, mainly for the US, but also for other economies.  But apparently he “shares Jim Kincaid’s scepticism about reliance on US national income accounts as source for corporate profitability”.  Actually, I am not sure Jim is sceptical of the official data.  Indeed, he has said that I have used the data accurately and as Pete says, “there is no adequate alternative available for those engaged in empirical investigation”.

And that is what the bulk of my research is: engaging in empirical investigation to verify or otherwise particular theories or laws.  In my view, too many Marxist economists have ignored empirical work and concentrated on interpreting (and re-interpreting) Marx’s writings and ‘what he meant’, rather testing his laws of motion of capitalism to see if they best fit the facts.

Luckily, I am not alone in doing empirical investigations – Andrew Kliman has done prodigious analysis, Anwar Shaikh’s new book is a gold mine of empirical studies, G Carchedi has also tested Marx’s law with the evidence.  And there is a host of new young scholars internationally doing such work.  Carchedi and I will be publishing a book of these research projects next year that empirically support Marx’s law of profitability.

But Pete wants to “step back” from any debate over the stats and consider the “theoretical framework” of my book.  He does not think that Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is “sufficient for an explanation of the cyclical fluctuations that have characterised capitalism”.  Why not?  Well, it seems that, while he does not deny “the logical coherence” of Marx’s law of profitability and its relevance to “whole period since the 1960s”, using the law to explain regular crises or “fluctuations” is “over-reductionist” and “two-dimensional”, especially in reference to the latest crises (ie the Great Recession?).

So Pete reckons that Marx’s law of profitability is logically coherent but irrelevant to an understanding of crises.  It’s ‘overreductionist’ (or maybe just reductionist?) to claim its relevance to crises.  There are more dimensions than two (presumably the tendency and the counter-tendency?), he says.

This does not seem the way to approach the relevance of Marx’s law to crises.  Pete says that the law is not “sufficient” to explain crises.  But does he think it “necessary”, which is not the same thing as sufficient?  If he does; how does it fit in?  You see, I think we must start with Marx’s approach, which was to abstract from reality the underlying essential (necessary) laws of capitalist motion and then add back concrete features of capitalism to reach the immediate.  In only that way can we identify the causes of crises under capitalism.  In that sense, Marx’s law can be seen as the underlying or ‘ultimate’ cause of recurrent crises, which can be triggered by ‘proximate’ events i.e. (oil price crisis, stock market bubble, real estate crash etc).  Then we have ‘sufficient’ causes.  For more on this, see my paper, Presentation to the Third seminar of the FI on the economic crisis

This approach thus makes it transparent that a financial crash or credit crisis is not the essence of crises in capitalism, but their surface manifestation.  Jim Kincaid has done a new post in which he outlines what Marx said about the 1847 crisis in Britain making the point that the falling rate of profit plays no role in Marx’s account”, considering only the financial speculation and credit crunches.  Jim claims that for Marx, “The fall in the rate of profit of these businesses is only a transmission mechanism.  What matters are the causes of bankruptcy and business collapse.

At this point, I am reminded of what Marx said a little later in 1858 during the first great international crisis of the 19th century: “What are the social circumstances reproducing, almost regularly, these seasons of general self-delusion, of over-speculation and fictitious credit?  If they were once traced out, we should arrive at a very plain alternative.  Either they may be controlled by society, or they are inherent in the present system of production.  In the first case, society may avert crises; in the second, so long as the system lasts, they must be borne with, like the natural changes of the seasons”.   Dispatches for the New York Tribune, Penguin p201.

As Marx puts it, ‘over-speculation and fictitious credit’ arise from regular crises in the capitalist system of production.  They cannot be eradicated by social action unless the mode of production is replaced.  It is not possible to separate crises in the financial sector from what is happening in the production sector.

Pete refers to the debate between Marxist economists on the cause of crises in the 1920s and 1930s, as described in Richard Day’s excellent book, The crisis and the crash.  As Pete says, the debate was between those who explained cyclical fluctuations as due to disproportionality between departments of production and those who reckoned it was due to the ‘limited consumption of the masses’, ie underconsumption.  As Pete says, “Marx’s tendency for the rate of profit to fall, as a function of a rising organic composition of capital, plays no role at all in these debates.”  But that does that mean the law is irrelevant?  It was no accident that the law was ignored.  Most leading Marxist revolutionaries had not read or seen Volume 3 of Capital where Marx’s “most important law of political economy” is expounded.  And if they had, they were guided away from Marx’s law as a cause of crises by the likes of Kautsky, Hilferding and Luxemburg.

One Marxist economist who had read and digested Volume 3 was Henryk Grossman.  As a result, he was able to present a coherent theory of capitalist crises based on the law, showing the connection between the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and the countertendencies; the relation between the rate of profit and the mass of profit; and thus the relation between profit and crises.  But his thesis, as Rick Kuhn says in his excellent biography of Grossman, was “an economic theory without a political home”.  Grossman also shows in his work, The law of accumulation being also a theory of crises, that those who followed an ‘anarchy of production’ theory of crises could not really provide a coherent argument for regular and recurring slumps or breakdowns inherent in capitalist production.  Indeed, just remove competition and allow monopoly to regulate and the anarchy can be controlled, suggested Hilferding or Kautsky.

Pete brings to our attention the work of Pavel Maksakovsky at that time.  As Pete says, he provides us with the most sophisticated version of the anarchy of production theory of crises.  As usual, Maksakovsky refers to Marx’s law of profitability, but only to dismiss it as irrelevant to the cycles of boom and slump and instead, like those in debate of the 1920s, focuses on Volume Two of Capital with its reproduction schema.  Maksakovksy outlines his theory succinctly in pp136-9 of his book. 

This is a disproportion theory but with the addition of trying to show that the disproportion between the sectors of means of production gets ‘periodically detached from consumption’.  Interestingly, Maksakovsky, correctly in my view, dismisses the idea that excessive credit and financial market busts are the cause of crises (p139), just as Marx did in 1858, but now revived by Jim.  They are only at the ‘superstructural level’ of capitalist society and can never eliminate the cyclical developments caused by the ‘anarchy of production’.  This is worth remembering in the light of the arguments now being presented by many modern Marxist economists that finance is the real cause of crises now and for the Great Recession (see below).

Does the anarchy of production or disproportion of sectors of reproduction hold up to scrutiny as an alternate theory of crises?  I don’t think so.  Grossman demolishes it in his book and in a little known essay on Marx’s reproduction schema (recently edited by Rick Kuhn).  Grossman shows that Marx’s schema do not show a “widening and deepening contradiction” (Maksakovsky) between production and consumption under capitalism and so cannot be the Marxist explanation of recurrent crises.  By assuming in the reproduction schema, accumulation and exchange between the sectors take place at the level of labour values, Maksakovsky makes the same mistake as Luxemburg and others and so finds ‘disproportion’.  But Marx’s reproduction schema are at the level of prices of production after the process of competition.  Rates of profit are averaged.  At that level, there is no inherent disproportion from the reproduction schema.

To deny disproportion as the cause of capitalist crises is not to support Say’s law (or ‘fallacy’, to be more exact) that ‘supply creates its own demand’ –as Pete suggests that I do.  Marx was fierce in his dismissal of Say’s nonsense.  The very process of exchange on the market creates the ‘possibility of crisis’.  But that does not explain the periodic and recurrent crises in capitalist production and investment.

Pete does not like the “clever” flow chart in my book that shows the different possible theories of crisis.  He says I want the readers to follow me down to Marx’s law of profitability, but he has three objections to that path.  Pete admits that in the circuit of capital “production is primary” but then goes onto say that production and circulation are in a “contradictory unity” in capitalism.  So is production not ‘primary’ after all?  Indeed, he refers us to the thesis of David Harvey who argues that capitalism has various ‘bottleneck points’ in the circuit of capital and crises can come from any one of them, not just or even mainly in the ‘primary’ production of surplus value and the accumulation of capital, but also in the ‘secondary’ circulation of capital through credit finance, households and the role of government.  So Pete says we need to have a theory of crisis that “embraces the whole circuit of capital” not just in production.

That’s fine but does this mean that the ‘bottlenecks’ in the circulation and distribution of capital are on the same level of causality as breakdowns in the ‘primary’ production process?  The Marxist answer, in my opinion, is no.  As I said before, in my view, and I think in Marx’s, circulation and distribution are at a lower plane of causal abstraction, or if you like closer to the proximate than the ultimate or underlying causes.  A collapse in the stock market or in real estate prices will not lead to a collapse in production unless there are already serious difficulties in the latter.  There have been many stock market collapses without a slump in production and employment (1987), but not vice versa.

Indeed, I agree with what Jim says summing up his post on the 1847 crisis mentioned above that The rate of profit and the forces which determine it should remain central in our analysis.  Marx’s own account of the 1847 crisis would surely have been strengthened by attention to profitability and its conflicting trends. We need to trace the many ways in which the law of value asserts itself – often in displaced and distorted forms.  But also recognise, and give due weight to, the role of contingent factors in any crisis we examine.”

Pete also wants to drag in the Keynesian “lack of effective demand” as one of the multi-dimensional causes of crises.  I have argued in many places that this ‘cause’ is no such thing.  Pete agrees that aggregate demand is endogenous to investment and profit; “Keynes himself would have agreed”.  Yes, but for the wrong reasons.  The Keynesian-Kalecki thesis puts ‘effective demand’ i.e. investment demand, as the causal factor in the movement of profits.  But Marxist economics says profits call the tune, not investment.  I and other Marxist scholars have shown that the empirical evidence for the Keynesian ‘multiplier’ (a fall in spending leads to a slump) is very weak compared to the Marxist multiplier (a fall in profits leads to a slump).

Pete says I should not ‘conflate’ the underconsumption thesis with the overproduction thesis as the cause of crises.  But then says that the “problem is a relative lack of productive consumption”.  We may be bandying with words here, but that sounds like an underconsumption thesis to me.  I presume this to refer to an excess of investment goods produced over the capitalists’ demand for them.  But crises do not happen because of a lack of “productive consumption”, but because of insufficient profits brought on by falling profitability over time.  And this can be proved empirically.

Andrew Kliman shows in his book, The failure of capitalist production (Chapter 8) that investment growth is always outstripping consumption but it does not lead to recurrent crises, as Maksakovsky ansd Sweezy argued.  The cyclical crisis of boom and slump does not flow from excessive investment over consumption but from insufficient profit from investment.  I await an empirical justification of the Maksakovksy thesis.

Pete says the proponents of Marx’s law of profitability as the underlying and ultimate causes of recurrent and regular crises are neglecting the ‘multi-dimensional’ and ‘complex’ nature of capitalism.  I ignore the uneven and combined development of the world economy as expressed in the global imbalances so “astutely” identified by Keynesian economic commentator, Martin Wolf (or for that matter, I could add Yanis Varoufakis in his book, The Global Minatour).  I also ignore the counteracting factors of globalisation in driving up the rate of profit.  I also ignore the role of finance and growth of financial profits in total corporate profits.

The more I go down these points by Pete, the more I feel that a series of straw men have been erected for my views to be knocked down by him.  These layers of ‘multi-dimension’ have not been ignored by me.  The counteracting factors explain the up and down waves of the profitability cycle in capitalism.  In both my books, I have spent some time looking at these long waves of profitability.  And I discuss the impact of uneven and combine development of capital in the context of the euro crisis in my book.

Pete says that “Unlike some critics,  I am not rejecting the relevance of this or the equally significant role of counter-tendencies raising profitability over the long-term. Indeed I would endorse to a degree Michael’s emphasis on longer waves in profitability but link them more closely to Kondratiev waves”.  But I have done just that in both books – trying to relate these waves to Kondratiev’s!

Pete is right to say that Marx’s law of profitability appears to have different cycles than the so-called ‘business’ or Juglar cycles of boom and slump.  I could not agree more.  In my first book, The Great Recession, I spent much time trying to analyse the connections between the various cycles in ‘capital in motion’ and try to link them together.  I did the same in The Long Depression in a whole chapter.

Pete says that “What can be shown in my view is that when the underlying rate of profit is falling, the business cycle fluctuations are more severe as is evident from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, and when the underlying rate is rising, the amplitude or the severity of recessions is reduced as in the 1990s and early 2000s.”  That almost word for word what I have said in the past.

Pete is keen to tell us that what is new is the “unprecedented rise in the share of financial profits in total corporate profits”. Again this is dealt with in both my books.  Indeed, I try to integrate this new development into an analysis of unproductive investment and fictitious capital as one of the new ‘counteracting factors’ to the law as such.  I even try to measure its impact (see my paper, Debt matters).
Pete finishes by wanting to defend or promote again the Keynesian idea of “a lack of effective demand” as the cause of crises.  He rejects my claim that the Keynesian position is a tautology (‘it rains because it rains’) of a slump not a cause. In retort, he suggests that Marx’s law of profitability is as remote a cause of crises as saying storms and hurricanes are caused by global warming; only worse, the law of profitability as a proven cause is more questionable than man-made global warming.  Pete is not a global warming sceptic but he is falling profitability one.

Actually, his analogy has some merit.  Global warming is an underlying cause of increased storms, floods and extreme weather.  The science of correlations, causation and forecasts strongly supports this.  Similarly, I and others argue that capitalist crises have an underlying cause in the inability of capitalists to stop the overall rate of profit on capital falling as they accumulate and try to increase profits.  This dialectical contradiction also has increasing empirical backing with correlations, causations and forecasts.  By the way, Marx used the analogy of the law of gravity and the movement of objects to place his law of profitability in crises.

I’m afraid the thesis of Maksakovsky has not changed my view that all other theories of crises in capitalism: underconsumption, overproduction, disproportion, bottlenecks in circulation, global imbalances, financial instability, are either wrong or at a lower plane of abstraction, so that, on their own, they do not explain crises.  As Alan Freeman says, Marx’s law remains “the only credible competitor left in the contest to explain what is going wrong with capitalism”.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Trump and Pence Bailout Carrier. Indianans Will Pay

Here is what Trump said about companies like Carrier and others that receive lots of money in taxpayer subsidies of one sort or another:

"I've been watching these politicians go through this for years," Trump said at a rally in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, on October 10. "I've been watching them give low-interest loans. I've been watching them give zero-interest loans. These companies don't even need the money, most of them; they take the money. There were a couple of instances where geniuses with great lawyers gave them money and then they moved anyway…I mean, the whole thing is crazy."

Read more at Mother Jones.  Trump is a stupid man in a way. He is nothing but a con man and he has conned a lot of people, even his neo Nazi and KKK supporters. He might regret betraying them too. But either way, the Trump euphoria evidenced in the stock markets , will not be repeated in the streets and communities.  He will savage the public sector for sure, not just services, but public sector workers and our unions that make up the bulk of organized labor. He will not bring back those blue collar industrial jobs that were the entrance to the middle class for many Americans. There is going to be a lot of anger directed at Trump.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The long depression in Italy

by Michael Roberts

Italy has a referendum this coming weekend.  Italy’s Blairite (Clintonesque) prime minister Matteo Renzi of the ruling the centre-left Democrats called a referendum, British Cameron-style, to ‘reform’ the electoral constitution.  He wants to reduce the size of the upper house of parliament, the Senate, from over 350 senators to just 100 and also have them come from the regions and cities, namely the elected mayors etc.  Most important, he wants to end the ability of the Senate to send back policies or measures passed by the lower house assembly (elected by popular vote in proportional representation – i.e. seats according to the share of the vote).  Thus, the Senate could no longer go on with ‘ping-ponging’ tactics back and forth with the lower assembly.

Renzi has staked his political reputation and his position as PM on winning this vote, like David Cameron did in the UK over the Brexit referendum.  And, according to the opinion polls, he looks as though he is heading for the same defeat as Cameron, throwing another major capitalist state into confusion, uncertainty and paralysis.

But it is all relative – after all, Italian politics and the economy have been in a state of paralysis for decades, with the situation only worsening since the end of the Great Recession.  Italy is now in a Long Depression that it seems unable to escape from.
Italy GDP
The immediate problem is Italy’s banks.  Europe’s banks currently hold €1trn of what are called ‘non-performing loans’, loans that the borrowers are no longer paying interest on and could be about to default on.  Of that €1trn, around one-third is held by Italy’s banks.  These bad debts are like a millstone around the necks of Italy’s finance sector.  The myriad of small Italian regional and large national banks have been lending to small businesses and property companies.  But thousands of these small companies are bust and cannot pay back their debts as the economy stagnates.

As I said in my book, The Long Depression, (Chapter 9) in some ways, Italy is in the most dire position of the top seven capitalist economies.  Italian capital was in the doldrums before the Great Recession.  Profitability has been falling since 2000 and is now down 30% since 2004.  Net investment has dried up and productivity of labour is not just growing slowly, as it is in other major economies, it is contracting outright.  Italy cannot recover because the Long Depression in Europe continues.
Italy ROP
And as a result, its banks are close to bankruptcy.  Banking analysts reckon that up to eight banks, led by Italy’s third largest and oldest, the infamous Monte Pachi, risk failing if Renzi loses the referendum.  That’s because potential investors in these banks, badly needed to recapitalise them if they write off these huge bad debts, won’t cough up.

I made some simple estimates of the likely losses that the Italian banks face (based on the Bank of Italy’s recent financial review).  The banks have lent up to now €2trn to Italians businesses and households.  About €330bn of these loans are ‘bad’ (i.e. won’t be paid back).  That’s about 20% of Italy’s GDP.  The banks have built up reserves to cover these potential losses of about €150bn and they could expect to sell off some of assets of bust businesses over time.  Even so, there would still be a potential loss of about €100bn on the banks’ books if they grasped the nettle and ‘wrote off’ these bad loans.  That would completely wipe out the value of the shares of the investors in many of these banks.  For example, the hit to Monte Paschi would be nine times more than the bank is worth on the stock market right now.  And Italy’s largest, Unicredit, which is supposed to helping the other smaller bust banks like Banco Veneto, would also be wiped out.  Indeed, Unicredit wants to raise €13bn for itself to shore it up.

I reckon that a bailout of the banks would cost at least €40bn, just to put the larger banks back on their feet.  Where is such a bailout to come from?  The Renzi government set up a special fund called Atlante, which was funded by the other larger banks, with a little from the state savings bank.  This raised just €4bn, most of which has already been spent on Monte Paschi to no avail.  But that is not the worst of it.  Under the new EU banking bailout rules, insisted on by Germany, state money cannot be used to bail out the banks.  The bank shareholders and bond holders must take the hit – at least first.

That sounds okay, you might say.  Let the bank shareholders pay.  But here is the rub.  The Italian banks have been engaged in crude mis-selling to all their customers with their savings.  Customers were encouraged to ‘save’ by buying the bank’s own bonds – in other words lending to the bank itself.  So hundreds of thousands of older (not so wealthy) people would now lose all their savings if the banks write off their bad debts and ‘recapitalise’ by writing down their own borrowings (bonds to zero).  This would be political dynamite, apart from causing misery to hundreds of thousands – and it has already happened to ‘savers’ with Banco Veneto and Monte Paschi.

Renzi has been pressing the Germans and EU leaders to relax the rules and allow state funds (ideally European ‘stability’ funds, which are available) to bail out his banks.  But the Germans are stubbornly holding to the rules, particularly as bailing out the Italians, after the Greeks, is anathema in Germany and fuel to fire to the Eurosceptics in the upcoming German election in 2017.

So if the vote goes against Renzi on Sunday, international and Italian investors are going to be very reluctant to stomp up funds to Italian banks when they fear the Italian government will fall and possibly be replaced in an early general election by the populist Five Star alliance, which has already won mayor’s positions in Rome and Turin and is leading in the opinion polls.  Could there be a ‘populist’ leading Italy out of control of the elite, and this time not Berlusconi?  At best, there will be a government unable to act through parliament to implement ‘reforms’ in the interest of capital, namely reducing labour rights; more privatisation and government spending cuts.

It’s possible that Renzi will win the vote against all the expectations as ‘no’ voters don’t bother to turn out.  Even if he does, the problem of the banks won’t go away.  And the problem of the banks is merely a symptom of the failure of Italian capitalism and the paralysis of its political elite.  Italy remains deep in depression and we have not even had a new slump yet.