Economy

Milton Friedman died on 16 November aged 94 years. He was one of the foremost bourgeois economists of the 20th century. His reputation as a monetarist theoretician and advisor to the likes of Thatcher, Reagan and Pinochet as these attacked all the gains of the working class was well earned.

The financial press and the investment houses of global finance capital are in euphoria. The world's stock markets are booming. But a closer look reveals that all this euphoria is misleading and the real situation is far less healthy than would appear on the surface.

The Financial Times recently claimed the British economy has been doing rather well out of globalisation. A closer look at the figures shows that what we have before us a growing polarisation, with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. On a world scale the position is even worse, which may possibly explain the growing instability all across the globe.

Capitalism cannot provide a decent living to everyone, but as long as it guarantees significant layers of the population a reasonable standard of living it can maintain a degree of social stability. Recent figures on the situation in the USA show that “middle America” is beginning to feel the pinch, a phenomenon which indicates that social turmoil will soon be on the agenda.

One of the key elements in holding up consumer spending – and therefore sales and profits – in the USA has been growing house prices. The growing nominal value of housing has led to a widespread phenomenon of remortgaging, i.e. borrowing more to keep up annual family incomes. This cannot continue for much longer. The signs are already there that we are close to the limit.

Capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries is becoming ever more based on finances and services. The idea is that the actual production of real goods can be done in less developed countries where labour costs are much cheaper. For this to work, the consumer boom in the West must be maintained permanently, otherwise who will buy the goods? Can this be maintained in the long run?

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have ravaged the US coast of the Gulf of Mexico, does the fast-rising oil price presage a worldwide economic recession? The track record of oil shocks is indeed close to perfect. In the case of the US, each of the previous three oil shocks was followed by recession.

Official figures reveal that US corporate profits as share of GDP have moved up from lows in 2001 to reach near record levels in 2005. But if you look over the much longer term, US profits are still below the levels achieved in the 'golden years' of capitalism back in the 1960s. The steady decline of the ability of capitalists to extract profits from their workforces is revealed even more clearly when we look at the profit figures before tax.

When Meghnad Desai comes to discuss this aspect of Marx’s work, this is the area where his ‘equilibrium’ interpretation of Marx’s economics leads him most seriously astray. He seems to imply that Marx can be used to defend the idea of the long-term survival of capitalism, which is something alien to Marx. It is also an oversimplification of what Marx said.

The socialist calculation debate is usually regarded as beginning in 1920 with a challenge to the socialists thrown down by the right wing Austrian economist von Mises. He opined that rational economic calculation would be impossible in a socialist commonwealth. Unfortunately, the socialists who took up this challenge did not, with the sole exception of Maurice Dobb of the British Communist Party, regard themselves as Marxists.

Marxist economics answers the question ‘how did the many start poor?’ with an analysis of primitive accumulation, the historical process of the dispossession of the toilers from the means of production and creation of a propertyless working class. We then go on to explain capitalist production as the production not just of commodities, but also of rich and poor. Reproduction is the reproduction not just of factories and offices, but of the capitalists who own them and the workers who labour in them.

Economists, with outstanding exceptions such as Marx, have usually set out to glorify capitalism. They tend to conclude that it will automatically produce full employment and increasing prosperity – so long as nobody messes about with its workings. That is the outlook of monetarism. But Marxists believe that Keynesianism doesn’t work either. It doesn’t work because capitalism can’t be made to work. The problem of capitalism in crisis is not just a matter of inadequate demand - of markets - it’s a problem of profitable markets.

Meghnad Desai has published a book, Marx’s Revenge in which he poses a fundamental question for Marxists – could capitalism go on for ever? The short answer to this is that capitalism will last until such time as it is overthrown through socialist revolution, conscious action by millions of people. So the question needs to be reformulated: is socialism on the agenda? If capitalism is a flawed system, as we argue, then it will offer endless opportunities for its overthrow. Desai, on the other hand, seems to argue that a crisis-free future is possible for capitalism. Talk of socialism is therefore premature. Mick Brooks argues the case for socialism in the

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The world economy is being sustained by US consumer spending and Chinese manufacturing. US consumer spending is based on the illusion of growing property values, but these cannot keep going up forever. The property bubble in the US will burst and when it does it will have devastating effects on the whole of the world economy.

House price increases are slowing down in Britain. In June in London prices actually fell. This is the beginning of the end of the house price bubble and it will be very painful for many families who have borrowed on the basis of the increased equity in their property. It will have a knock-on effect on the whole economy as spending is already slowing.

Over the past couple of years the U.S. economy has gained some momentum and avoided slipping back into recession, but this was based on the increased squeezing of the U.S. and world working class, not job growth or significant investment in productive capacity. Even if the U.S. economy miraculously takes off in the second half of 2005, the damage has already been done for millions of working Americans.

Behind all the optimistic talk about the health of world capitalism from Bush, Blair etc, the more serious analysts are worried. In its semi-annual report, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development announced that it is cutting its forecasts for all leading economies. It may not happen this year, but the huge imbalance in the world economy is going to crack.

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