This article has been reproduced from the Socialist Standard (October 1998), the monthly journal of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Thirty countries covering a quarter of the world’s population are officially in recession. Even defenders of capitalism are now compelled to use the term “world economic crisis”.
It had to happen. Given the chronic state of overcapacity and potential overproduction in relation to the market in all the key sectors of global industry-electronics, computers, vehicle production, pharmaceuticals, shipbuilding, steel-the boom in Asia had to come to an end sooner or later. It already had in Japan, by far the biggest economy in the region and in fact the second biggest in the world after the US. Now the rest of East Asia-Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and other so-called tiger economies-has followed.
It is difficult to believe that at the beginning of the decade Kinnock, when leader of the Labour Party, went into the 1992 general election holding up the Japanese model of incestuous government-corporation partnership as the way forward for Britain. Those who pointed to the relatively rapid rate of capital accumulation in East Asia to deny the socialist contention that world capitalism has been in a depressive state since the end of the post-war boom in the early 1970s have also had their come-uppance. Marx was right. They were wrong. There can be no such thing as a permanent boom. That’s only a dream peddled by smooth-talking politicians and ageing Keynesian professors.
Marx was right
Marx, the first person to provide a convincing analysis of how the capitalist economic system worked, concluded that, whereas capital accumulation-or economic growth, if you like-was a key feature of capitalism, this did not take place smoothly. Capital accumulation proceeds by fits and starts, periods of relatively rapid growth being followed by periods of contraction and stagnation. The graph of long-term growth under capitalism is not a straight line moving up from left to right but a jagged line with peaks and troughs, with each peak normally higher than the previous one. Marx argued that this cyclical pattern of growth was not just accidental but was inevitable under capitalism-it was the way capitalism functioned and developed, its “law of motion” as he put it-with each period of rapid growth ending in a slump and each slump preparing the conditions for the next round of growth.
The history of capitalism since Marx’s day has amply proved the validity of this analysis. In order to maintain or increase their share of the market and realise the surplus value embodied in their products, capitalist firms are compelled by competition to reduce their costs by improving their productivity, in particular by the introduction of more productive machines. This leads to an increase in overall productive capacity. During the period of recovery that follows a slump this poses no problem as the market is beginning to recover and expand again.
However, as the competitive pressures to increase productive capacity continue, the point is eventually reached when productive capacity in a key industry or group of industries comes to outstrip the market demand for its products. At this point a crisis of overproduction breaks out. As profits fall, production is cut back, workers are laid off and, through the knock-on effect on other industries, the market shrinks, so inaugurating the period of slump. During the slump, the least productive machines are taken out of production and capital is depreciated or simply written off. This purge of under-productive machinery and over-valued capital eventually creates the conditions which allow capitalist growth to recommence, so beginning the boom-slump cycle again.
This is how capitalism has developed and continues to develop, only now that (as Marx foresaw) capitalism is a global system the periods of rapid growth and purging slumps also occur on a world scale. The big slump of the 1930s was a world phenomenon, as was the post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s which ended in the early 1970s. So of course is the current world economic and financial crisis. For more on the Marxian theory, see Booms and Slumps – What Causes Them
Just because the 1930s slump was preceded by the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, some people jump to the conclusion that it is financial crashes that cause slumps. Actually, it’s the other way round: financial crashes usually reflect the situation in the underlying real world of economic activity. Where they occur this is a sign that something has already gone wrong in the real world, that, to be precise, productive capacity and production has come to outstrip market demand or is threatening to. As J. K. Galbraith showed in his book The Great Crash, this is what happened towards the end of the 1920s; when the gamblers on the stock exchange realised that overproduction was occurring they tried to convert their paper wealth into real wealth and provoked a crash. The slump followed but as a result of the preceding overproduction not of the stock market crash, which at most only exacerbated the economic crisis.
It’s the same today in Asia. The financial crisis there is a reflection of the fact that stock exchange and foreign currency gamblers have realised that the countries of East Asia have expanded their productive capacities beyond market demand. This has been obvious for a few years in the case of Japan where overproduction has led to full-scale recession with lay-offs and factory closures. But Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the others were in the same situation of potential overproduction since a significant part of their growth had been in the same industries which Japan had overexpanded: car and other vehicle production, and electronics and computer hardware.
The reason why governments and central bankers in Europe and North America are so worried about the financial crisis in Asia is that their own real economies are in the same state of potential overproduction as the Asian countries and that this could provoke a financial crash in their countries too. The king is naked here as well.
So far they have managed to avoid this though current indications are not good. Even if these countries avoid a full-scale crash this does not mean that they also have to power to avoid an economic slowdown or downturn. Such slowdowns and downturns can occur without a financial crash. Indeed this to an extent is what has already happened. Since the early 1970s the world economy has been in a period of slow growth, punctuated by falls in production from time to time. This is a reflection of the a lower rate of profit and of the unresolved problem of productive capacity having outstripped market demand in key technologically advanced industries such as aerospace, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, and computers.
One consequence of this period of slow growth is that significant amounts of profits are not being reinvested in production but, instead, are being held in liquid form and invested in financial assets with the aim of making as large a short-term profit in as short a time as possible. All the multinational corporations and other big companies now have treasury departments engaged in financial speculation of one form or another whether on the stock exchange, the bond market, currency transactions, commodity markets or dodgy hedges such as derivatives. In France in recent years many major companies have even set up or taken over banks for just this purpose.
This extra demand for financial assets, deriving from non-reinvested profits, has driven up their price, so creating the anomalous situation of a stock exchange boom in what is essentially a depressed economy. Nothing could illustrate more clearly how divorced is the world of finance from the world of reality. Most of the financial transactions that take place on the world scale today are not investments of productive capital-are not used to set up factories or to buy machinery, equipment or raw materials-but are to buy and sell shares or bonds or foreign currencies or commodity futures or property or failing companies to asset strip them.
Such purely financial transactions are utterly unproductive, even from a capitalist point of view. Not only do they not result in the production of a single extra item of wealth but they don’t even increase the amount of surplus value available for sharing amongst the various sections of the capitalist class. It’s a zero-sum game. As socialists have always maintained, stock exchanges are places where capitalists gamble and try to cheat each other with a view to acquiring as large a mass as possible of the surplus value that has already been produced by and robbed from the workforce.
Rising share prices-and despite dramatic falls from time to time, there has been a steady long-term rise in the share price indexes of most stock exchanges-do not represent an increase in real wealth. They merely amount to a rise in the book value of the real wealth-the productive capital of the companies in question-that shares are supposed to represent. It’s a rise in paper values not real value. When a share goes up in price this means that you can get more for it if you sell it. If you don’t sell your shares all it means is that their book value has gone up, but if everybody or even large numbers tried to realise this book value by selling their shares, the real situation would soon reassert itself. The price would fall, bringing down the book value of the corresponding productive capital to its real value.
Is the Big One coming?
Even some supporters of capitalism, among them the arch-speculator George Soros himself, have begun to express concern about where the parasitic and volatile nature of global finance capital may lead the world. At a congressional hearing in Washington on 15 September Soros even spoke of the danger of the “disintegration of the global capitalist system”. We have always been cautious in predicting a 1930s-scale slump, but if even supporters of capitalism are discussing this as a serious possibility who are we to insist that they’re wrong?
One thing is certain, though. Until the problem-for capitalism-of excess productive capacity and potential overproduction in relation to market possibilities is resolved, there can be no return to any period of rapid economic growth as in the post-war boom when growth rates were twice the maximum that has obtained in any of the already industrialised countries since the early 1970s. But the only way this problem can be resolved is by a bigger slump than we have yet seen since the war in which the system would be purged of its excess productive capacity and overvalued capital.
If this does not happen, then global capitalism will continue in its present state of slow growth against a background of high unemployment and declining welfare provisions, staggering on from financial crisis to financial crisis and from mini-boom to mini-slump. Can this really be the end of history?
Author: A. Buick
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