Wednesday 9 December 2009

Marxist accounts of the current crisis

by Joseph Choonara from International Socialism Journal Issue: 123 Just as medical science progresses through pathology, Marxist political economy develops through the analysis of the actual crises of capitalism. It is therefore no surprise that the current paroxysm has sparked both a revival of interest in Marxism1 and a flurry of responses by prominent Marxists. My focus here should not be taken to indicate that non-Marxist accounts are unworthy of engagement. A number of mainstream economists have been forced, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly, to grapple with the realities of the system.2 But the crisis has also revealed the paucity of what passes for academic economic theory, captured in an astonishing admission by Willem Buiter, a London School of Economics professor and a former member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee:
The typical graduate macroeconomics and monetary economics training received at Anglo-American universities during the past 30 years or so may have set back by decades serious investigations of aggregate economic behaviour and economic policy-relevant understanding. It was a privately and socially costly waste of time and other resources. Most mainstream macroeconomic theoretical innovations since the 1970s…have turned out to be self-referential, inward-looking distractions at best. Research tended to be motivated by the internal logic, intellectual sunk capital and aesthetic puzzles of established research programmes, rather than by a powerful desire to understand how the economy works—let alone how the economy works during times of stress and financial instability. So the economics profession was caught unprepared when the crisis struck.3
The record of Marxists has been better. Nonetheless, their approaches to the crisis are far from homogenous, have often been developed in isolation from each other and diverge on several points. Here I consider widely accessible accounts that have appeared in English over the past few months, appraising their strengths and weaknesses relative to each other and to the tradition associated with this journal.4 The “real” and the financial All Marxist accounts of the current crisis have been forced to recognise its financial dimension. The crisis has been marked by the near collapse of the banking system in several countries and began with the bursting of the subprime mortgage bubble in the US. One of the first Marxist accounts to draw attention to subprime was produced by Robin Blackburn, who wrote on this subject as early as spring 2007, a few months before the real panic began:
In recent months “subprime” defaults have jumped. A Lehman Brothers analyst warns that some $225 billion worth of subprime loans will be in default by the end of 2007 but others say the figure will be nearer $300 billion. The “equity tranch” [the riskiest slice of the repackaged debt] is now dubbed “toxic waste” by the insiders and analysts are waiting to see which bodies float to the surface… The default crunch will not only cause great unhappiness to the victims who stand to lose their homes—it hurts the housing market and increases the chances of a downturn.5
Back then the term subprime barely warranted a mention in most newspapers. The Financial Times was more attentive than most, carrying an article entitled “Subprime Sickness”, which argued:
There are plenty of reasons to believe that the [subprime] fallout can largely be confined to the sector… Even the fact that so many Wall Street banks were heavily involved in the subprime sector…need not be a cause for alarm. The exposure for any bank should be small. Typically they did not hold on to such mortgages, but packaged them up and sold them on in securitisation…securitisation is doing what it is intended to do—spreading the risk.6
Unlike the Financial Times, Blackburn was “ahead of the curve” because he had focused in the preceding years on developing a detailed analysis of the fragilities of the global financial system.7However, it was possible to see the outlines of a potential crisis from a different starting point. International Socialism published a remarkably prophetic article in summer 2007, which, by coincidence, came out just in time for the onset of the credit crunch. This saw the growth of finance originating in the decline of profit rates during the post-war boom and the failure to sufficiently restore them from the low levels they had reached by the 1980s. This led to a scramble for alternative outlets for profits:
Low levels of past profitability do not stop capitalists imagining that there are miraculous profits to be made in the future and in sucking surplus value from all over the world to be ploughed into projects aimed at obtaining them. Many of these are purely speculative gambles in unproductive spheres, as with bubbles in real estate, commodities markets, share prices and so on… Against such a background, corporate profits will be being puffed up until they lose touch with reality, and things will seem to be going very well until overnight it is discovered they are going very badly.8
These two different accounts illustrate a dividing line in Marxist analyses of the current crisis. Some emphasise the internal logic of “financialisation” and tend to see the financial crisis as impinging upon the “real” economy from the outside; others, while recognising the importance of the financial dimension, emphasise the underlying problems in the “real” economy that drove the expansion of finance and paved the way for the crisis. The distinction between the “real” and the financial has to be qualified in two ways. First, the growth of finance has, in part, been driven by traditional corporations based in the “real” economy. For instance, by 2003, 42 percent of General Electric’s profits were generated by its financial wing, GE Capital.9 Second, and more fundamentally, for Marxists the financial system is not simply something grafted onto a pure, non-financial capitalism. Whenever money ceases to function simply as money, when it also functions as capital, it opens up the possibility of credit and financial speculation.10 As David Harvey has recently argued, “There is a more dialectical relationship between what you might call the ‘real’ and ‘financial’ sides of the economy”.11 The real questions at stake are whether financial growth is driven by processes autonomous from the non-financial areas of the economy; whether the current crisis is a new type of crisis or is rooted in tendencies Marx identified, even if the crisis is deferred and given unique characteristics by the growth of finance;12 and whether the dynamic of the system has been fundamentally changed by a process of “financialisation”. I will begin by considering those accounts that emphasise the transformation of capitalism through finance over the recent period.

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