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Time to cut the losses

In the last week, stock markets the world over have been showing the classic signs of bipolar disorder, but in the most concentrated form. Euphoric, manic, hysterical highs followed by the deepest depression. Much of it, say some of the commentators, is internally generated, the result of speculators feeding off each other’s panic.

But as everyone else knows, there are clear external causes. The soaring highs are the direct result of a renewed series of injections, by governments and central banks, of credit – the same stuff that the world’s financial system became addicted to and wholly dependent on during the “long boom”. It doesn’t help. Yesterday, the two largest Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse were obliged to seek new capital in a further attempt to prevent them turning into non-banks, ceasing to exist, becoming, as Monty Python had it, dead parrots. When the Swiss banks fall, there’s nowhere safe left for your money.

The stock market lows – a five-year retreat reached in the UK and back to the 1980s in Japan – are the result of an avalanche of indications that the recession is not only with us, but will last for years. Giant corporations are bankrupt, jobs falling off a cliff, house prices dropping like a stone. Even the price of oil has fallen back, as the speculators move their money elsewhere. China, which has powered the global economy, is cutting back and shutting down factories.

The Brown-led government, which has taken on the role of street-level pushers, are looking to raise the money that they are guaranteeing to the banks by issuing more debt to the investment markets. But there’s a limit to what can be raised. The rest will come from an assault on government spending, public services, the elimination of the legal guarantee for public sector pensions, and last but not least, any measures to deal with climate change – irrespective of Miliband the Younger’s pronouncement on an 80% emissions reduction by 2050.

Early signs of the brutal reality that will result came from the news that under Brown and Darling’s control, Northern Rock has been foreclosing, repossessing and evicting at double the rate of the rest of the industry. So much for the benefits of “nationalisation”.

Brown knows that the bankers’ bail-out won’t stop the rot, so he’s promoting a restructuring of the world’s economy, along the lines of the Bretton Woods arrangements that laid the basis for the post-war recovery and the boom years. The Financial Times says this is premature, adding:

“Lest we forget, Mr Brown himself was in charge of the IMF’s ministerial steering committee for a large part of the past decade and yet signally failed to implement the ideas he is parading. During this time, it was repeatedly explained to him that every early warning system devised by the finest minds in international economics, including those at the fund, either predicts crises that never arrive or misses those that do.” The paper of business is correct. The basis for restoring stability after a decade and a half of the Great Depression wasn’t Keynes’s proposals, but the massive destruction of surplus productive capacity and human lives during the second world war.

A much easier, less destructive way out of the mess would be to cut the losses, admit the capitalist system is bankrupt and make the transition to a new kind of economy altogether. One based on not-for-profit production, social ownership, self-management, planned production for need, distributed via an intelligent market informed by democratic processes and expressed preferences. That’s what we will be discussing tomorrow at the Stand Up for Your Rights festival. Be there!

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
17 October 2008

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