It's the system, stupid
A sketchy deal on spending cuts which allow the US debt ceiling to be raised is no more than an acknowledgement that law-makers in even the world’s largest national economy can make little if any impact on the deepening crisis.
The credit ratings agencies whose pronouncements are treated as holy gospel say that America’s AAA rating won’t last. And it’s easy to see why. US debt, already at a staggering $13 trillion, is forecast to rise without pause through to 2016.
As it does so, the cost of financing the debt will have to come out of current budgets, leading to further cuts in health and welfare benefits. Political turmoil in Washington, with Barack Obama looking increasingly like a lame duck, one-term president, only adds to the sense of crisis.
Stock markets nose-dived on news of the vague compromise which, like the UK Coalition’s savage austerity programme, is founded on false expectations of growth. Market speculators immediately turned their attention back to Europe, driving up borrowing rates once again for Italy, where Berlusconi has called an emergency meeting, and Spain, where prime minister Zapatero yesterday postponed his holiday to deal with the crisis.
Throughout the post-war period, the world economy grew as it had to if profits were to be maintained, but the global trend in the rate of that growth has been relentlessly downward. Throughout the period of globalisation a series of ever sharper, deeper and more extensive crises saw the rate plummet and then recover, but the recovery was always weaker than the crash.
During 2007/8, when a series of individual mortgage defaults undermined the extreme fragility of the global house of cards built from credit and debt, the growth rate threatened to turn negative for the first time. This prompted the panic which saw governments and central banks flood the world with more credit, which as debt has now rebounded with such devastating effect.
Sovereign debt quickly overtook private and corporate debt, and now all are in the same boat – with the rudder entangled in a net of credit default swaps, holed below the water line and sinking fast towards a collective default. The long-hoped for “return to growth” is just that – a hope.
Reports on manufacturing this week reveal that output is not just slowing badly in the US, the world’s largest producer, but actually shrinking in China, the world’s second largest, and in the UK – the seventh largest.
The universal consequences of the crisis and attempts to fix it include inflation boosted by fantasy finance and unemployment as public bodies cut spending. Corporations respond in their usual ruthless way in a desperate bid to maintain profits.
Foxconn, the world's largest maker of computer components which assembles products for Apple, Sony and Nokia, is in the spotlight after a string of suicides of workers at its massive Chinese plants, blamed on harsh working conditions. The Taiwan-based company currently employs 1.2 million people, with most of them working on the Chinese mainland.
The corporation’s classic response is contained in its plans to introduce a million robots to its production lines over the next three years to cut rising labour costs and improve efficiency. If it is successful, the products it turns out will be highly competitive, but will flood onto a declining market as the global economy slows further. And because labour is the source of all value, the rate of profit on the whole operation will shrink dramatically.
It’s just another example of the inescapable, contradictory logic that ensures that in the midst of a crisis – and this is unarguably the worst in the short history of capitalist society – any attempt to fix things has exactly the opposite effect. In the 1992 US presidential election campaign, Bill Clinton taunted his opponent with the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid”. Actually, it’s the system, stupid.
3 August 2011