Stagnation, not growth, is the norm for mature capitalism

Economic growth is supposedly the norm, necessitating that an explanation be found for slumps and stagnation. But are these reversed? Is stagnation is the norm with the periods of strong growth requiring explanation?

A two-decade “long depression” occurred after an 1870s bubble inflated by speculation in railroads and construction in North America and Europe burst; the Great Depression lasted more than a decade and ended only because of World War II; and stagnation had been the recent fate of the world’s advanced capitalist countries even before the economic crisis that broke out in 2007 and 2008.

There are no signs of any recovery; on the contrary unemployment remains high across North America and Europe, with consumer and governmental debt rising to unsustainable levels. This state of affairs is the new norm of capitalism, argue John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney in their newly released book, The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China.*

The authors, frequent collaborators in Monthly Review (of which Professor Foster is the editor), marshal an impressive collection of material to present an understanding of the capitalist dynamics that have brought the world to its present state of crisis and why that is the natural outcome of these dynamic forces, examining the crisis from a global perspective.

A structural crisis of capitalism is not the same as a standard “business cycle.” During the Great Depression, the U.S. economy moved through an entire cycle, but the “boom” period of the cycle merely gained back some of the dramatic losses of the early 1930s before the economy began sinking again in 1937. Periods of “epoch-making innovation,” such as that resulting from the steam engine or the automobile, have fueled growth for a time, but no such inventions are on the horizon today.

The reassertion of stagnation as normal state

Professors Foster and McChesney argue that, in the absence of such dramatic innovation, which have not occurred for several decades, stagnation is the expected norm, particularly in “mature” capitalist economies:

“The result was that the economy, despite its ordinary ups and downs, tended to sink into a normal state of long-run slow growth, rather than the robust growth assumed by orthodox economics. In essence, an economy in which decisions on [business] savings and investment are made privately tends to fall into a stagnation trap; existing demand is insufficient to absorb all of the actual and potential savings (or surplus) available, output falls, and there is no automatic mechanism that generates full recovery.” [page 12]

One way of conceptualizing that is to note that U.S. corporations are sitting on at least $2 trillion of cash — there are not enough investment opportunities to put that money, accumulated by a small number of hands, to good use. Investment decreases because demand decreases under the impact of stagnant or declining wages, and financial speculation increases.

The rise in the accumulated surplus leads to general deprivation. The “competitive capitalism” of the 19th century kept over-accumulation at bay through dramatic expansion but also through frequent bankruptcies, the authors write. In the modern era, they argue, there is a chronic buildup of excess capacity and thus stagnation, although regular business cycles continue. A lack of price competition caused by the consolidation of many industries into a small number of major competitors pushes prices higher, aggravating the erosion of living standards.

Price competition is ruinous to oligopolistic corporations, the authors argue, so they indirectly collude to prop up prices. (This requires no formal agreement when serious competitors can counted on one’s fingers.) Specific cases of price competition come in destructive forms, such as outsourcing huge amounts of production to countries with extremely low wages and sweatshop conditions. Firms compete through cutting production costs and by increasing market share through advertising and marketing techniques, rather on on retail pricing.

Thus, competition in a modern capitalist economy assumes a form drastically different than the mythological image of small firms competing on an even playing field commonly taught:

“Competition over productivity or for low-cost position remains intense, but the drastically diminished role of price competition means that the benefits of economic progress tend to be concentrated in the growing surplus of the big firms rather than disseminated more broadly by falling prices throughout the entire economy. This aggravates problems of overaccumulation. Faced with a tendency to market saturation, and hence the threat of overproduction, monopolistic corporations attempt to defend their prices and profit margins by further reducing capacity utilization. This, however, prevents the economy from clearing out its excess capacity, reinforcing stagnation tendencies. … Major corporations have considerable latitude to govern their output and investment levels, as well as their price levels, which are not externally determined by the market, but rather with an eye to their nearest oligopolistic rivals.” [page 37]

(The reference to “monopolistic corporations” in the quote above does not refer to a “pure” monopoly, but rather a handful of corporations that, as a group, act in a monopolistic manner — “monopolistic” and “oligopolistic” are used interchangeably throughout The Endless Crisis.)

“The stagnation tendency endemic to the mature, monopolistic economy, it is crucial to understand, is not due to technological stagnation, i.e., any failure at technology innovation and productivity expansion. Productivity continues to advance and technological innovations are introduced (if in a more rationalized way) as firms continue to compete for low-cost position. Yet this, in itself, turns into a major problem of the capital-rich societies at the center of the system, since the main constraint on accumulation is not that the economy is not productive enough, but rather that it is too productive.” [page 38]

Crisis is not a bolt from the blue

The current slump — ongoing stagnation following a steep downturn — is decades in the making. The Great Depression was ended by the massive spending needed to fight World War II, but the boom period of the 1950s and 1960s wound down as pent-up consumer demand was satiated, the final boosts from the automobile ran their course, the stimulus of the Vietnam War ended, and new productive capacity in Europe and Japan contributed to a global surplus. Professors Foster and McChesney demonstrate that financialization was the response to the stagnation that began to grip capitalist economies in the 1970s.

“[U]nable to find an outlet for its growing surplus in the real economy, capital (via corporations and individual investors) poured its excess surplus/savings into finance, speculating in the increase in asset prices. Financial institutions, meanwhile, on their part, found new, innovative ways to accommodate this vast inflow of money capital and to leverage the financial superstructure of the economy up to ever greater heights with added borrowing — facilitated by all sorts of exotic instruments, such as derivatives, options, securitization, etc. Some growth of finance was, of course, required as capital became more mobile globally. This, too, acted as a catalyst, promoting the runaway growth of finance on a global scale.” [page 42]

As a result, debt and financial profits increased much faster than the overall economy. Financialization rests on increasing asset prices; thus, a series of financial bubbles was necessary to keep the whole thing going. As instability increased, repeated central-bank interventions were necessary to deal with a steady outbreak of market and currency crises. The increasing power of financial institutions enabled them to induce governments to deregulate markets, encouraging ever more risky behavior.

The effect of these developments, the authors write, is a “stagnation-financialization trap,” whereby financial expansion has become the main fix for the system, which merely enables the cycle of crises to continue without dealing with the underlying structural weaknesses.

“Today’s neoliberal regime itself is best viewed as the political-policy counterpart of monopoly-finance capital. It is aimed at promoting more extreme forms of exploitation. … Neoliberal accumulation strategies, which function with the aid of a ‘predator state,’ are thus directed first and foremost at enhancing corporate profits in the face of stagnation, while providing further needed cash infusions into the financial sector. … Neoliberalism has also increased international inequalities, taking advantage of the very debt burden that peripheral economies were encouraged to take on, in order to force stringent restructuring on poorer economies.” [pages 44-45]

Thus, the system’s only answer has been attempts to re-inflate new asset bubbles. Globalization has only made this problem a global one:

“At the world level, what can be called a ‘new phase of financial imperialism,’ in the context of sluggish growth at the center of the system, constitutes the dominant reality of today’s globalization. Extremely high rates of exploitation, rooted in low wages in the export-oriented periphery, including ‘emerging economies,’ have given rise to global surpluses that can nowhere be profitably absorbed within production. The exports of such economies are dependent on the consumption of the wealthy economies, particularly the United States, with its massive current account deficit. At the same time, the vast export surpluses generated in these ‘emerging’ export economies are attracted to the highly leveraged capital markets of the global North, where such global surpluses serve to reinforce the financialization of the accumulation process centered in the rich economies.” [page 63]

International oligopoly supplants national oligopoly

The concomitant need for growth under the rigors of capitalist competition fuels corporate mergers; such combinations are necessary to buoy profits via increasing market shares when markets are mature. Because of globalization, the tendency toward oligopoly now takes place on an international scale.

This internationalization of oligopoly gives a false impression of renewed national competition, professors Foster and McChesney argue, because national firms are subsumed by international firms as part of the process of globalization. As under earlier, national scales, few corporations can survive this competition. The 500 largest corporations in the world collectively earn revenues of about 40 percent of world gross domestic product! [pages 76-77]

As ever more power accrues to the capitalists who reap the profits from these corporations, they can move production, or, as is standard in the apparel and computer industries, subcontract production to the places with the lowest wages and longest hours, thereby accumulating fantastic profits and reversing, for now, earlier downward pressures on profits.

“Corporations seek, by means of divide-and-rule strategies, to gain advantages over different local, regional, and national labor markets, benefiting from the reality that, while capital is globally mobile, labor — due to a combination of cultural, political, economic, and geographical reasons — for the most part, is not. Consequently, workers increasingly feel the crunch of worldwide job and wage competition, and giant capital enjoys widening profit margins as the world races to the bottom in wages and working conditions. …

The conflict between workers is engendered by capital through the creating of an industrial reserve army of the unemployed. This divide-and-rule strategy integrates disparate labor surpluses, ensuring a constant and growing supply of recruits to the global reserve army, which is made less recalcitrant by insecure employment and the continued threat of unemployment.” [pages 114-115]

Chinese wages, for instance, have remained at about five percent of the U.S. level since the Deng Xiaoping-led imposition of capitalism in the late 1980s because of hundreds of millions of displaced rural farm workers streaming into cities; rural incomes are still lower than average city wages.

Nonetheless, sweatshop pay and conditions are so poor in China that the pattern is workers staying for at most a few years then returning to their villages because physical survival under such conditions for much longer is impossible. That they can return is because the Chinese government has not yet succeeded in eliminating rights to the land held by villagers, a remaining vestige of the Mao era that, ironically, props up the sweatshop system. Those land rights are a social benefit that enables migrants to survive their stints working in sweatshops.

On such horrific conditions rests modern capitalism. Nor are workers, primarily in advanced capitalist countries, who have steady employment the norm, when viewed on a global scale. Using International Labour Organisation figures as a starting point, professors Foster and McChesney calculate that the “global reserve army” — workers who are underemployed, unemployed or “vulnerably employed” (including informal workers) totals 2.4 billion. In contrast, the world’s wage workers total 1.4 billion — far less! [pages 144-146]

Failure of orthodox economic ‘theory

The authors note that orthodox economics assumes that new industrial development will eventually employ all these people, a hope based on ideology and not on reality. The countries that industrialized in the 19th century, particularly Britain and other European countries, were far from able to absorb all their displaced farmers — each experienced massive emigration. But today’s developing countries can’t export their population; as a result, the economy can’t possibly grow fast enough to absorb all their reserve labor armies even if the global economy weren’t in a years-long slump.

China and India contain too large a reserve army of labor for wages to substantially increase there; therefore Chinese and Indian consumption will not be a path out of world economic crisis as many orthodox economists and political leaders have hoped, according to The Endless Crisis. Orthodox economics, dominated by rigid Chicago School thinking, completely failed to predict the financial meltdown and subsequent stagnation. The reason for that lies in orthodox economics existing as an ideological campaign that long ago severed itself from analyzing the real world.

“Their abstract models, geared more toward legitimizing the system than to understanding its laws of motion, have become increasingly otherworldly — constructed around such unreal assumptions such as perfect and pure competition, perfect information, perfect rationality … and the market efficiency hypothesis. … This is an economics that has gone the way of stark idealism — removed altogether from material conditions.” [page 5]

The Endless Crisis is a welcome, and very needed, departure from the usual apologetics for capitalist outcomes. Professors Foster and McChesney provide a single source for understanding the present economic impasse, laying out with devastating precision the reasons for the economic crisis, the inevitability of crisis, the inequality and instability inherent in the capitalist system, and the need to move to a more humane system. Transcending capitalism and creating a better world can only be accomplished internationally, with working people around the world linking together. The authors write:

“Never before has the conflict between private appropriation and the social needs (even survival) of humanity been so stark.” [page 63]

Past structural crises of capitalism could be overcome because there was still room to grow. But when there are no more new markets to conquer, deprivation for the many is the only way for the few to continue to accumulate in a system dedicated to that ever narrower accumulation.

* John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China [Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012]

2 comments on “Stagnation, not growth, is the norm for mature capitalism

  1. ken williams says:

    Surplus value problem?
    Can the debt be repaid? Is not the debt a form of debt bondage?
    Can the enviorment devistation be amelerated without giving up national rights to yhe UN?
    What is tjhe next step in bring about global socialism?

    • Good questions, although I don’t believe I understand your U.N. reference. The United Nations is an instrument of the most powerful countries, reflecting the consensus (or lack of consensus) among them. It has no independent base of power. The U.N. does what the most powerful countries, in the first place, the United States, wish it to do and no more.

      Ameliorating environmental devastation should be addressed globally, but, given the present political circumstances, will have to be tackled at the level of national governments due to the inability of finding any international consensus. Pressure from below is the only force that will be able to counter the recalcitrance of many national governments to take any real steps to counter global warming.

      The next step in bringing about global fully democratic socialism, or whatever terminology we wish to call a better world organized for the benefit of all humanity and not for only a minuscule privileged minority, is to organize. An international movement of peoples, linked across borders and conscious of the uneven development of the world under the impact of capitalism, is the route toward creating a better, more rational and fair world, and is also the route toward tackling the immense problems posed by environmental devastation.

      A rational economic system and a rational stewardship of the environment go hand-in-hand; we can’t have the latter without the former.

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