Monthly Archives: November 2011

A Very Short History Of Neoliberalism

PowersThatWere (The World’s First Museum of Neoliberalism) Presents:
A Very Short History Of Neoliberalism (Part 1 of a Series)

Now that neoliberalism is dead, we should remember before it was alive. August 1938. An international group of 26 intellectuals gather in Paris to discuss American journalist Walter Lippmann’s book ‘The Good Society’. Among them are Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Röpke and Alexander Rüstow. Lippmann happens to be in Paris for his honeymoon so participates in an event that became called the Colloque Walt Lippmann. The topic of discussion: the need to recreate market liberalism for the present conditions. For this group such a project was of the upmost importance – the belief in free markets was, after all, in a bad way. Soviet socialism was a world player, while the whole of the West moved towards some idea of socialism, central planning and the welfare state. Capitalism was shortly to become Keynesian in shape. The 1929 stock market crash still loomed large in the public psyches of the Great Powers and beyond. Classical liberalism had everywhere failed or been usurped by differing variants of state capitalism. Alexander Rüstow coined the phrase ‘neo-liberalism’ to give a name to what the attendees were attempting to create some shape. However, the war interrupted.

Nearly all the members at this meeting regrouped in 1947, at the behest of Hayek to the first meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society, the private debating society established by him at the Hotel du Parc in Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland. The first real discussion of neoliberalism began on 1st April 1947. After fascism’s defeat in Germany and with a post-war consensus of Keynesianism in the ‘West’ and aggrandising state socialism in the ‘East’ the situation had become rather more acute for the group. It was no longer enough to presume that laissez faire would achieve capitalism, rather that a group of active advocates for it would be required. A vanguard so to so speak. For this group the state would be recast, not as the provider of welfare services, but as the final arbiter in favour of creating and enforcing markets. Politics itself and the traditional action of the state within the economy were hopelessly inefficient at allocating resources, with politicians threatened by democratic means looking for short term populism rather than long term and efficient economic cycles. Indeed, only a strong state, with democracy as a secondary interest to economic growth (for an increasingly few to enjoy) was necessary in order to rise above the competing groups of politics and decide for the stability of market rule.

Knowing the unpopularity of their ideas, the neoliberals had to understand how best to influence politics. Hayek thought the best model was to rely on tricks stolen from left-wing groups like the Fabian Society, who for him had managed to install socialism (as he saw it) as the only viable option politically and economically. The need was to operate at the level of ideas, influencing elites, creating a climate of opinion through what he termed neoliberal ‘secondhand dealers in ideas’ – opinion formers, knowledgeable people with influence on elite circles. The Fabians had effectively used the model of a think tank, so this is what the neoliberals would do. The example was the Institute for Economic Affairs, setup at Hayek’s bequest in London by Antony Fisher, largely with the profits from his invention of battery farming – the neoliberal advocacy think tank. This model was copied globally. The neoliberals were there to play the long game. But as Naomi Klein’s book ‘The Shock Doctrine’ memorably recognised, the neoliberal were also opportunistic – any crisis, real or percieved, would provide a moment for them to offer their own solution.

Almost by chance, the neoliberals in Germany had their opportunity in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, in the phase of reconstruction, simply by being placed in the right place at the right time. Ludwig Erhard who would help oversee economic reconstruction and was later to be seen as one of the principle architects of the German ‘social market’ had read the wartime books of Mont Pèlerin member Wilhelm Röpke and found them to be like ‘water in the desert’. The neoliberal economists had largely been untainted by Nazism and in some cases had been in the resistance. They therefore were a safe pair of hands. Reconstructing Germany along the lines of a free market system was viewed as problematic by the occupying allies, who favoured Keynesianism. However, Erhard was capable of forcing elements of the neoliberal agenda into government policy even at this early stage, a tendency only reversed by considerable pressure from social democrats.

The Social Democratic Fantasy of Money

The public square occupations are an explosion of public discontent. They prove that people are willing to act against a capitalist life which they find intolerable. We take spirit from that. But as the participants in the occupations surge out of the squares where they were initially confined and into the buildings from which they have always been excluded, the limpets of the establishment have moved to gain influence for themselves. Their aim is to repurpose the slogans of the movement to fit their agendas for moderate reform.

The Bloomsbury Social Centre is not going to bite its hands and sit on its tongue. The following will be the first short analysis in what we hope to become a series. The series will provide short discussions of the self-serving and economically falsified reform schemes that are proposed to the Occupy movement by those think tankers, aspirant bureaucrats and opposition politicians who would wish to usurp its influence. These clowns of the establishment fringe are adept at producing incomprehensible, turgid “programmes” which lightly criticise — and which therefore ultimately support — the system from which the clowns have always benefited. Most of us here believe that anti-capitalist thinking and practice must oppose capital, and not only one or the other of its symptoms.

The Bloomsbury Social Centre is not a group: the text below is not its “line”; but it is a provocation, intended for us and for you.

1: Economic Justice Can Be Achieved By Monetary Reform.

According to populist bureaucrats with a cosmetic interest in “social justice”, the main cause of social inequality can be traced to the structure of our financial services sector. In particular, the institutional structure of finance is understood to allow banks to “create money”, and then to “misallocate resources” in the interest of short-term profit, with “profound economic consequences for our society.”

According to the nightmare scenario which this position constructs, private banks “create money” by lending their deposits. One bank loans deposits to a second bank, the second bank loans a proportion of the deposits to a third, the third loans a proportion to a fourth, and so on. By this means a chain of credit relations is generated, in which the total value of the deposits in the chain is greater than the sum of money originally deposited. Most of the money in use in the economy is “credit money” in this sense. In other words, it is debt. Private-sector banks “create money” only in the sense that they mediate this chain of credit.

Proponents of economic justice by way of monetary reform argue that banks also gain control over where money is “allocated”. Money which ought to be allocated to “manufacturing and small businesses” is instead channelled into “assets”, like stocks and shares or the Collateralised Debt Obligations which went toxic in 2008.

The proposed solution to this problem is that the state resume control of money creation. By “digitally” creating money and then spending it directly on “socially useful stuff” like schools, hospitals and roads, or by lending it at “low rates of interest” to small businesses, a transformed state-capitalist economic policy will lead to a more just and equitable society, with increased living standards and better “access” to public resources, similar in structure to post-war Social Democracy (to “welfarism” in the broad sense).

This whole argument looks quite appealing, to anyone who doesn’t remember or who hasn’t studied the culmination of post-war Social Democracy in the 1970s, in a decade of stagnation, rising unemployment, high inflation, tumbling standards of living and increasingly desperate class struggle; but it remains to be indicated why this argument about monetary reform is such a desperately fabricated myth, generated by people who live comfortably within the current system, who are not the people who suffer in it, and who for that reason are opposed to any more fundamental change. The argument relies first of all (and quite explicitly) on the assumption that “creation of money” instigated by the state on a massive scale would not lead to a commensurate rise in inflation, devaluing the “purchasing power” of the working classes while obviating any increase in total economic activity. To prevent inflation (a decline in the value of a unit of money relative to the commodities it purchases), economic activity will have to expand in line with increases in the money supply. The argument that the state will organise that expansion itself by means of direct investment (by stimulating “aggregate demand”) fails to take into account the basic fact that demand itself needs to be sustained. If the state-managed direct investment doesn’t create long-term avenues for capital valorisation — if the new bridges don’t create new opportunities for profitable private-sector investment, commensurate to their own capital value — then inflation will occur in any case. Inflation here is not an absolute marker of crisis: it is the index of stagnation which has not been overcome.

Why wouldn’t the infrastructure create those avenues for value creation? The problem for monetary reformists who wish to shower down on us “useful stuff” is that under current conditions useful stuff is not likely significantly to extend profitability. The assumption that it will overlooks both the degree of lag by which Britain trails most competitive industrial exporters and also (and more importantly) the basic profitability crisis in which global capital has been acrimoniously embroiled since the early-1970s. Point by point:

(1) investment in “useful” infrastructure speeds up and reduces costs in the process of commodity circulation. This means that its beneficial effects on the economy as a whole depends on the existence of markets for the commodities which circulate. The beneficial effects of “useful” roads, towards which monetary reformists so frantically gesticulate, are contingent on the uses to which capital can put them. Alas, part of the reason for declining global profitability in major industrial sectors over the last four decades is persistent overcapacity, a problem which will not be solved by increasing the rate at which their commodities are brought to market.

(2) State loans to the neglected manufacturing sector at “generously” low rates of interest cannot be guaranteed to sustain domestic demand for the products of that sector (outside of a total war economy, the state can’t keep buying everything forever), with the effect that increases in the extent of sector activity lead only to upward trends in competition between enterprises exporting to international markets, and, ultimately, with the sickening inevitability which characterises almost everything capital does, to reduced wages and standards of living for workers. It hardly needs to be said that this applies to “small businesses” as well as to big ones.

(3) Meanwhile, from the commanding heights of their half-empty office buildings, private investors holding British currency are unlikely to look favourably on any massive scheme of state money-printing for the purposes of infrastructure investment. If these investors dump their currency, foreign exchange (FOREX) markets are flooded with unwanted Sterling, driving its price downwards – this, of course, is just another way of talking about inflation. Under capitalism, state involvement in the economy can only lead to growth, currency stability, healthy rates of interest and such other “primary goods” on the condition that intervention also improves the conditions for capitalist profit-making.

It might be asked why this would matter, since the state’s creation and use of money produces “socially useful stuff”. Can’t we just use it? But socially useful stuff is only useful to people who have access to a wage and whose wages allow them to reproduce themselves, unless social reproduction is conducted outside of the wage system. Where there’s no revenue to buy drugs, maintain equipment and pay staff, the hospital might as well be a ball pit. More generally, “long term” state financed investment in infrastructure is every bit as “short-termist” as the most rapacious short trade in financial markets, if that investment doesn’t lead to an increase in private-sector demand. Arguing that capital “comes from” banks and that it should “come from” the state, so that it could be used “usefully” and “democratically”, mistakes what capital is. Capital is money which is invested to produce more money. When it cannot be so invested (because the state has seized control of the money supply and is devaluing it), capital will go away, either by vanishing (by “devalorisation”) or by traipsing across the world in search of a more stable business climate; and this can lead only to further economic cataclysms on the domestic scene, which is to say, to massive unemployment, to increased “precariousness”, and to human misery in general.

What’s the alternative? Do we retreat to our bunkers and wait piously for the endtimes? And yet the conclusion isn’t bleak, because it simply means that people will have to learn to coordinate labour cooperatively, without the medium of money, which according to the Social Democratic argument is the agent which will solve the “injustice” of capitalism, but which is in fact nothing more than an element of its reproduction, and which is perfectly subservient to its logic. Compress the above into a slogan, and it is this: Without exploitation and injustice, money loses its value; and for so long as people rely on value to reproduce themselves, the devaluation of money by means of its ethically minded “creation” will only exacerbate the problem it purports to solve.

The fantasy of a Social Democratic “genuine alternative” to capitalism, conducted by way of monetary reform, is in fact nothing of the sort: firstly because it will never be implemented (it is not intended to be; it is a tool meant to win support for “Social Democratic” parties who are now incapable of introducing Social Democracy), and, secondly, because even if it were to be, it would lead to nothing besides more viciously accelerated domestic crisis and decline. The fantasy of a Social Democratic “genuine alternative” to capitalism is in fact an alternative to one thing only, namely, to communism, the practical means by which the majority of people might reproduce themselves without the exploitation on which profit is founded.[1]

[1] The quotations in this piece come from the New Economic Foundation’s overview to their book Where Does Money Come From?, available at [http://www.neweconomics.org/sites/neweconomics.org/files/Where_does_money_come_from_OVERVIEW.pdf]

Kill your hot desk.

Image

 

A quick announcement to all students, official or unofficial, insurgent or contemplative, Bloomsbury-based and/or international: today we set up an excellent quiet study space on the third floor of the building, in a large seminar room which catches the sun and offers (as estate agents everywhere would love to say) excellent views out over Gordon Square. Come by to do some reading in an environment more lovely than the hell cubicle your rapacious University makes available to you! (Stay for dinner and political conversation.)

Solidarity,

Bloomsbury Social Centre

THIS WEEK AT THE BLOOMSBURY SOCIAL CENTRE

Everyday: 11am meeting; 8pm Dinner + politics chat

SUNDAY // Workshops
1pm >> Letter writing to protest prisoners
4pm >> Conflict resolution
5pm >> Practical squatting

MONDAY // Preparing for the strike! + Workfare meeting
All day >> meet at 7.30am, 12noon and 4.30pm
to flyer at schools, unis and tube stations
7pm >> Workfare meeting
6pm >> Banner and placard making for the strike
meet at 6pm, going on till closing (midnight)

TUESDAY // Preparing for the strike! + Women’s meeting
All day >> meet at 7.30am, 12noon and 4.30pm
to flyer at schools, unis and tube stations
6pm >> Banner and placard making for the strike
meet at 6pm, going on till closing (midnight)
7pm >> WOMEN’S MEETING

WEDNESDAY // Strike day
6am >> Flying picket, bringing the fight to the pickets that need it most
9am >> Picket lines at SOAS and UCL
12noon >> Teach-out at Torrington Place
4pm >> Zombie picket at Birkbeck
6pm >> Picket lines at Birkbeck (evening classes)

Statement from the Bloomsbury Social Centre

bloomsburysocialcentre@gmail.com

At 10.30am on Wednesday 23rd November, students, workers and residents from across Bloomsbury occupied a disused University property. From today, 53 Gordon Square will be renamed the Bloomsbury Social Centre.

The building has been empty for three years, subject to a legal dispute over its ownership. One of the claimants, the School of Oriental and African Studies, has this year announced that the property is to be redeveloped as a new post-graduate centre. Concurrently, it has announced the appointment of a new dean of post-graduate studies, one of whose perks will be a luxury apartment in the top-floor of the building.

SOAS management are perhaps ignorant of the context in which 53 Gordon Square was left vacantly to rot. Since 2008, the recession has been steadily worsening. House prices have remained unaffordable, living costs for ordinary people have continued to rise, and desperately needed public space has been made over to Big Retail at fire sale prices.

We don’t need any more luxury apartments, any more than we need new senior managers to live in them. The Bloomsbury Social Centre will instead be a real community resource: the material instrument required to build for the November 30th strike. Students, workers and local people are all invited to use it.

We entered through the main door at about 11 a.m., without being blocked. Only SOAS management have raised any dispute on this point. Remember that this is the same institution which in past months has allowed security and police to assault its own students and staff at what would otherwise have been peaceful protests. This morning we were intimidated by CIS security guards; in the afternoon we were intimidated by police, who have tried to smash down doors and made threats of arrests.

Our experience today is akin to (but it is also just a taster of) what communities subject to austerity are everywhere now forced to confront. It is because they confront it — because they must — that austerity policing has everywhere intensified.

In Bloomsbury the recession has been used as an excuse to stagnate wages, casualise employment, and to impose redundancies. It has been used further to separate workers, residents and students. Things have to change. Empty buildings wait across our city. We take heart from the action of Occupy movements around the world, the resistance to austerity measures in Greece, and the militant workers’ movement which is pushing forward the revolutions in Egypt and beyond.

In solidarity,

The Bloomsbury Social Centre