Europe is dying. If its trajectory is not changed, the EU must succumb to a financial coup d’êtat rolling back the past three centuries of Enlightenment social philosophy. The question is whether a break-up is now the only way to recover its social democratic ideals from the banks that have taken over its central planning organs.
Michael Hudson has a brilliant analysis of the tragedy that is unfolding in Europe, where the politicians beholden to the financial predatory class are ‘suiciding’ the European social state and three centuries of a particular logic of civilization.
Below, we add an excerpt from Noam Chomsky, who argues that Latin America now shows a clear alternative to the self-destruction of Europe.
“The idea is to create an artificial financial crisis, to come in and “save” it by imposing on Europe and North America “Greek-style” cutbacks in social security and pensions. For the United States, state and local pensions in particular are to be cut back by “emergency” measures to “free” government budgets.
All this is quite an inversion of the social philosophy that most voters hold. This is the political problem inherent in the neoliberal worldview. It is diametrically opposed to the original liberalism of Adam Smith and his successors. The idea of a free market in the 19th century was one free from predatory rentier financial and property claims. Today, a “free market” (Alan Greenspan and Ayn Rand style) is a market free for predators. The world is being treated to a travesty of liberalism and free markets.
This shows the usual ignorance of how interest really are set – a blind spot which is a precondition for being approved for the post of central banker these days. Ignored is the fact that central banks determine interest rates. Under the ECB rules, national central banks can no longer do this. Yet that is precisely what central banks were created to do. As a result, European governments are obliged to borrow at rates determined by financial markets.
This financial stranglehold threatens either to break up Europe or to plunge it into the same kind of poverty that the EU is imposing on the Baltics. Latvia is the prime example. Despite a plunge of over 20% in its GDP, its government is running a budget surplus, in the hope of lowering wage rates. Public-sector wages have been driven down by over 30%, and the government expresses the hope for yet further cuts – spreading to the private sector. Spending on hospitals, ambulance care and schooling has been drastically cut back.
What is missing from this argument? The cost of labor can be lowered by a classical restoration of progressive taxes and a tax shift back onto property – land and rentier income. Instead, the cost of living is to be raised, by shifting the tax burden further onto labor and off real estate and finance. The idea is for the economic surplus to be pledged for debt service.
In England, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has described a “euro mutiny” against regressive fiscal policy. But it is more than that. Beyond merely shrinking the economy, the neoliberal aim is to change the shape of the trajectory along which Western civilization has been moving for the past two centuries. It is nothing less than to roll back Social Security and pensions for labor, health care, education and other public spending, to dismantle the social welfare state, the Progressive Era and even classical liberalism.
So we are witnessing a policy long in the planning, now being unleashed in a full-court press. The rentier interests, the vested interests that a century of Progressive Era, New Deal and kindred reforms sought to subordinate to the economy at large, are fighting back. And they are in control, with their own representatives in power – ironically, as Social Democrats and Labour party leaders, from President Obama here to President Papandreou in Greece and President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Spain.
Having bided their time for the past few years the global predatory class is now making its move to “free” economies from the social philosophy long thought to have been built into the economic system irreversibly: Social Security and old-age pensions so that labor didn’t have to be paid higher wages to save for its own retirement; public education and health care to raise labor productivity; basic infrastructure spending to lower the costs of doing business; anti-monopoly price regulation to prevent prices from rising above the necessary costs of production; and central banking to stabilize economies by monetizing government deficits rather than forcing the economy to rely on commercial bank credit under conditions where property and income are collateralized to pay the interest-bearing debts culminating in forfeitures as the logical culmination of the Miracle of Compound Interest.
This is the Junk Economics that financial lobbyists are trying to sell to voters: “Prosperity requires austerity.” “An independent central bank is the hallmark of democracy.” “Governments are just like families: they have to balance the budget.” “It is all the result of aging populations, not debt overload.” These are the oxymorons to which the world will be treated during the coming week in Toronto.
It is the rhetoric of fiscal and financial class war. The problem is that there is not enough economic surpluses available to pay the financial sector on its bad loans while also paying pensions and social security. Something has to give. The commission is to provide a cover story for a revived Rubinomics, this time aimed not at the former Soviet Union but here at home. Its aim is to scale back Social Security while reviving George Bush’s aborted privatization plan to send FICA paycheck withholding into the stock market – that is, into the hands of money managers to stick into an array of junk financial packages designed to skim off labor’s savings.
So Mr. Obama is hypocritical in warning Europe not to go too far too fast to shrink its economy and squeeze out a rising army of the unemployed. His idea at home is to do the same thing. The strategy is to panic voters about the federal debt – panic them enough to oppose spending on the social programs designed to help them. The fiscal crisis is being blamed on demographic mathematics of an aging population – not on the exponentially soaring private debt overhead, junk loans and massive financial fraud that the government is bailing out.
What really is causing the financial and fiscal squeeze, of course, is the fact that that government funding is now needed to compensate the financial sector for what promises to be year after year of losses as loans go bad in economies that are all loaned up and sinking into negative equity.
When politicians let the financial sector run the show, their natural preference is to turn the economy into a grab bag. And they usually come out ahead. That’s what the words “foreclosure,” “forfeiture” and “liquidate” mean – along with “sound money,” “business confidence” and the usual consequences, “debt deflation” and “debt peonage.”
Somebody must take a loss on the economy’s bad loans – and bankers want the economy to take the loss, to “save the financial system.” From the financial sector’s vantage point, the economy is to be managed to preserve bank liquidity, rather than the financial system run to serve the economy. Government social spending (on everything apart from bank bailouts and financial subsidies) and disposable personal income are to be cut back to keep the debt overhead from being written down. Corporate cash flow is to be used to pay creditors, not employ more labor and make long-term capital investment.
The economy is to be sacrificed to subsidize the fantasy that debts can be paid, if only banks can be “made whole” to begin lending again – that is, to resume loading the economy down with even more debt, causing yet more intrusive debt deflation.
This is not the familiar old 19th-century class war of industrial employers against labor, although that is part of what is happening. It is above all a war of the financial sector against the “real” economy: industry as well as labor.
The underlying reality is indeed that pensions cannot be paid – at least, not paid out of financial gains. For the past fifty years the Western economies have indulged the fantasy of paying retirees out of purely financial gains (M-M’ as Marxists would put it), not out of an expanding economy (M-C-M’, employing labor to produce more output). The myth was that finance would take the form of productive loans to increase capital formation and hiring. The reality is that finance takes the form of debt – and gambling. Its gains therefore were made from the economy at large. They were extractive, not productive. Wealth at the rentier top of the economic pyramid shrank the base below. So something has to give. The question is, what form will the “give” take? And who will do the giving – and be the recipients?”
2. Noam Chomsky:
“In Latin America, specialists and polling organisations have, for some time, observed that the extension of formal democracy was accompanied by an increasing disillusionment about democracy and a lack of faith in democratic institutions. A persuasive explanation for these disturbing tendencies was given by the Argentinian political scientist Atilio Boron, who pointed out that the new wave of democratisation in Latin America coincided with neoliberal economic “reforms”, which undermine effective democracy. The phenomenon extends worldwide, although it appears that the tendency may have reversed in recent years, with departures from neoliberal orthodoxy.
The annual polls on Latin American opinion by the Chilean polling agency Latinobarómetro, and their reception in the west, are interesting in this respect. Few elements of the reigning western orthodoxy are upheld with more fervour than the view that Chávez is a tyrant dedicated to the destruction of democracy. The polls are therefore a serious annoyance that have to be overcome by the usual device: suppression.
The November 2007 poll had the same irritating results as in the preceding few years: Venezuela ranked second behind Uruguay in satisfaction with democracy and third in satisfaction with leaders. It ranked first in the assessment of the current and future economic situation, equality and justice, and education standards. True, it ranked only 11th in favouring a market economy but, even with this flaw, overall it ranked highest in Latin America on matters of democracy, justice and optimism, far above the US favourites Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile.
The Latin America analyst Mark Turner has written of an “almost total English-speaking blackout about the results of this important snapshot of [Latin American] views and opinions”. He also found the usual exception: there were reports of the finding that Chávez is about as unpopular as Bush in Latin America, a fact that will come as little surprise to those who are familiar with the bitterly hostile coverage to which the Venezuelan president is subjected in the media, not least (and this is an odd feature of this putative dictatorship) in his country.
In the US, faith in institutions has been declining steadily. It is interesting to compare recent presidential elections in the richest country in the world and the poorest country in South America, Bolivia. In the 2004 US presidential election, voters had a choice between two men born to wealth and privilege, who attended the same elite university, joined the same secret society where privileged young men are trained to take their place in the ruling class, and were able to run in the election because they were supported by pretty much the same conglomerations of private power. Their announced programmes were similar, consistent with the needs of their primary constituency: wealth and privilege.
By contrast, in the December 2005 election in Bolivia, voters were familiar with the issues: control of resources, cultural rights for the indigenous majority, problems of justice in a complex multi-ethnic society and many others. They eventually chose Evo Morales, someone from their own ranks, and not a representative of narrow sectors of privilege. There was real participation, extending over years of intense struggle and organisation.
Election day was not just a brief interlude for pushing a lever and then retreating to passivity and private concerns, but one phase in ongoing participation in the workings of the society. The comparison, and it is not the only one, raises some questions about where democracy promotion is most needed.
Latin America has real choices, for the first time in its history. The usual modalities of imperial control – violence and economic strangulation – are much more limited than before. There are lively and vibrant popular organisations providing the essential basis for meaningful democracy. Latin American and other former colonies have enormous internal problems and there are sure to be many setbacks, but there are promising developments as well. It is in these parts of the world that today’s democratic wave finds its basis and its home. That is why the World Social Forum has met in Porto Alegre, Mumbai, Caracas, Nairobi, not in northern cities, though by now the global forum has spawned many regional and local offshoots, doing valuable work geared to problems of significance in their own regions.
The former colonies, in Latin America in particular, have a better chance than ever before to overcome centuries of subjugation, violence and foreign intervention, which they have so far survived as dependencies with islands of luxury in a sea of misery. These are exciting prospects for Latin America, and if the hopes can be realised, even partially, the results cannot fail to have a large-scale global impact as well.”