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]

Can a no-growth future and capitalism be compatible?

Is the era of economic growth over for advanced capitalist countries? If stagnation is what is on offer for the future, what does that portend?

The first question, although limited to the United States, is the subject of an interesting paper by the economist Robert J. Gordon, in which he makes a case that the era of high growth that has persisted for the past two centuries is drawing to a close and that, by the end of the 21st century, the annual growth in gross domestic product per capita may be as low as 0.2 percent — the estimated rate of growth prior to the 18th century.

The paper provides a useful starting point for discussion. A central idea that the paper rests on is that nearly all of the dramatic gains in standards of living, GDP growth and life expectancy that have occurred since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution had already occurred by the 1970s, and that those earlier inventions had vastly more impact than the Internet/computer/dot-com boom that arose in the mid-1990s.

To illustrate this point, Professor Gordon provides a graphic of past, present and projected future growth that assumes the shape of a steep bell curve. British economic growth is represented from 1300 to 1906, estimated by historians for the first four hundred years and by actual figures from 1700 because it was then the leading capitalist power. After 1906, actual United States growth in GDP per capita is used to the present day (because it became the leading capitalist power), followed by the author’s estimates out to 2100. The graph rises sharply starting at around 1870 until about 1950, peaking at 2.5 percent. It’s been downhill since, a trend that is forecast to continue until the growth rate declines to the Medieval rate.

If such a pattern does materialize — and Professor Gordon is far from alone in such pessimistic projections — what would that mean for an economic order, capitalism, that is based on endless growth? That is a question well outside the scope of his paper, and there is no intention here to imply a criticism of a paper for not discussing something beyond its scope. But as this blog attempts to tackle big questions, we are free to ask at a moment when stagnation is already upon us: Can capitalism survive an extended period of essentially no growth?

The Industrial Revolution and continued industrial innovation has brought fantastic changes to humanity, with the most dramatic changes coming in the 20th century. Professor Gordon posits three periods of major inventions: 1750 to 1830, 1870 to 1900 and the recent period of computer innovation. He argues that the first two periods brought a rapid series of inventions that took upwards of a century to be fully realized, fueling long periods of growth that lasted until the mid-20th century. Starting with the steam engine and the cotton gin, products resulting from the inventions of these periods include television, air conditioning and modern expressway systems.

Another example is indoor plumbing, which eliminated much manual labor, Professor Gordon writes:

“Every drop of water for laundry, cooking, and indoor chamber pots had to be hauled in by the housewife, and wastewater hauled out. The average North Carolina housewife in 1885 had to walk 148 miles per year while carrying 35 tonnes of water. Coal or wood for open-hearth fires had to be carried in and ashes had to be collected and carried out.” [pages 4-5]

Motorized vehicles also had a dramatic effect on productivity and standards of living:

“The average horse produced 20 to 50 pounds of manure and a gallon of urine daily, applied without restraint to stables and streets. … The low standard of living reflected not just the small amount that people could purchase but also the amount of effort at the workplace and at home where they had to expend to perform ordinary tasks. … To maintain a horse every year cost approximately the same as buying a horse. Imagine today that for your $30,000 car you had to spend $30,000 every year on fuel and repairs. That’s an interesting measure of how much efficiency was gained from replacing the horses. Gone was the need for unsanitary and repulsive jobs of people who had to remove horse waste.” [page 5]

After 1970, a slowdown in productivity growth (output per hour) began because the “one-time-only” benefits accruing from the earlier inventions and their spinoffs “had occurred and could not happen again.” The years from 1996 to 2004 brought an uptick in productivity and economic growth, but that had passed even before the economic downturn set in. The rapid development of online commerce lasted only a decade, and the innovations from the widespread adoption of the Internet have already occurred. Moreover, Professor Gordon argues, this most recent period of innovation did not focus on labor-saving measures but rather on entertainment and communication devices rather than replacing human labor with machines.

I would add that the primary economic effect of the Internet has been to shift commerce from one merchant to another, not altogether different from the mania of the past two decades in the U.S. to build new sports stadiums and casinos, which do nothing but shift consumer spending from one entertainment option to another with the additional expense of massive public subsidies. Professor Gordon illustrates his point most effectively when offering a thought experiment: You can keep all the inventions made in 2002 or earlier but none since, or you can have all the products of the past decade but none resulting from the two earlier periods of inventions.

“Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3 am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

I have posed this imaginary choice to several audiences in speeches, and the usual reaction is a guffaw, a chuckle, because the preference for option A is so obvious. The audience realises that it has been trapped into recognition that just one of the many late 19th century inventions is more important than the portable electronic devices of the past decade on which they have become so dependent.” [page 5]

The author offers six “headwinds” that he believes will reduce the growth of U.S. GDP per capita to a snail’s pace: the mass of retiring baby boomers leaving the workforce will cause output per capita to grow more slowly than productivity; the decline in U.S. educational attainment and growth in higher-education costs; growing inequality; the outsourcing and wage pressure inherent in globalization; environmental damage; and debt and the reduction in growth that results from austerity imposed to reduce debt.

Other than the reference to globalization as one of the six “headwinds” that will increasingly buffet the U.S. economy, the paper too narrowly analyzes the U.S. economy as a closed system, a weakness perhaps unavoidable given its specific focus. It is in no way controversial to note that no country is immune from the problems of the rest of the world given the deeply interconnected state of the world capitalist economy.

The paper is valuable in that it provides a reminder that the era of rapid economic growth since the Industrial Revolution has been a unique period in human history, and that such a time might not continue. Capitalism is a system that requires constant growth, an often overlooked aspect that has asserted itself in dramatic form as the stagnation of recent years has inflicted so much economic misery in advanced capitalist countries, and elsewhere.

In previous posts on this blog, I have written that the Keynesian policies that fueled the long post-World War II boom in the U.S. economy rested on a pair of one-time occurrences that can’t be repeated because it depended on a strong industrial base and market expansion. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining to which to expand. Moreover, capitalists who are saved by Keynesian spending programs amass enough power to later impose their preferred neoliberal policies.

Those neoliberal polices are in the interests of the capitalists who impose them, but are not simply a “choice.” The competitive pressures of capitalism lead to globalization and austerity. Irresistible competitive pressures were foreseen by Karl Marx, who encapsulated some of these problems in his theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. In order to maintain profitability and compete successfully, a capitalist must reduce the costs of production. (This can be more or less stressed at different times; for instance, during the 1990s, there was a Wall Street mania in which industrial companies regularly made public pronouncements proclaiming their intent to become the “lowest-cost producer” in their industry in an attempt to curry favor with speculators.)

Corporate globalization is a natural consequence of the pressure to reduce costs; moving production to countries with far lower wages and few enforceable labor laws is an obvious response under the logic of capitalism. Mechanization is another response — machines make labor more efficient and require fewer workers be employed. But, Marx argued, more advanced methods of production are more capital-intensive, and thus higher efficiency is offset by diminishing returns on capital. The Marxist economist Anwar Shaikh summarized this concept this way:

“[T]he … pattern implies that the more advanced methods tend to achieve a lower unit production cost at the expense of a lower rate of profit. Competition, nonetheless, forces capitalists to adopt these methods, because the capitalist with the lower unit costs can lower his prices and expand at the expense of his competitors — thus offsetting his lower rate of profit by means of a larger share of the market.”*

One way of visualizing this phenomenon is to think of a construction company. Where many workers are necessary when equipped with shovels, far fewer are needed for the same job when the company buys a truck in which one driver can excavate many times the amount of dirt as a worker with a shovel. The company can buy newer and bigger trucks, but the amount of gained efficiency will never be nearly as dramatic as the purchase of the first truck. If we’d like to carry this example further, we might imagine that some of the displaced workers, after turning in their shovels, go to work on the assembly line building the trucks. But competitive pressures eventually cause the truck manufacturer to move the assembly line overseas.

Countervailing factors can frequently reverse this tendency; cuts to wages, work speedups, layoffs, downturns in the prices of natural resources and shuttering of facilities can each buoy profit margins. Nonetheless, some economists argue that it is precisely a falling rate of profit that has caused the ongoing global economic slump. Marxist economist Andrew Kliman perhaps is the most forceful in arguing that the rate of profit has been falling since the 1970s, leading to sluggish investment and economic growth and mounting debt problems despite the adoption of “free-market” policies.

He is not alone in arguing that, unless there is a transcending of capitalism, the only way within capitalism to restore profitability is through a full-scale destruction of the value of existing capital assets — a process not nearly complete despite the harsh austerity imposed around the world since 2008. (Such a destruction happened in the closures of the Great Depression and the physical damage of World War II.)

The various theories discussed here are not necessarily incompatible; capitalism is undergoing a deep structural crisis — not one of its recurring cyclical downturns. This crisis is the culmination of multiple factors that affect one another, and complex analyses are necessary to understand it. Professor Kliman directly declares that stagnation and a crisis-prone economy is the “new normal” while Professor Gordon describes his paper as “intentionally provocative.” But, coming from different perspectives, they envision stagnation as the capitalist future (although the latter discusses only U.S. prospects), as do other perspectives.

What does it mean for a capitalist economy that no longer can grow? The route out of past crises has been expansion to new areas, but infinite expansion on a finite planet is impossible. U.S. capitalists tolerated high wages for a time after World War II because they could expand into overseas markets and thereby increase profits. Once intensified competition from rebuilt Europe and Japan, and the relative maturity of markets, put pressure on profits, the rise of neoliberalism ensued.

In the absence of new markets, the only way to increase or even maintain profits is to reduce costs, and ultimately that means cutting wages and benefits. Doing so, however, leads to a new set of problems — consumer spending in advanced capitalist countries tends to account for 60 to 70 percent of economic activity. When working people don’t have enough money to spend, consumer spending declines and depresses the economy, further squeezing profits. More austerity simply means more economic contraction, as many Europeans are experiencing first-hand.

Capitalist businesses must grow or die, and capitalism functions only if it is expanding. When it doesn’t, or can’t, crisis is the result. If so much money is concentrated into so few hands, those wealthy hands can’t possibly buy enough to offset the deprivation of everyone else, nor should that be a desirable way to run an economy.

If stagnation is the “new normal” of capitalism, then deprivation, pain and worsening inequality is all that it can offer, save for the occasional temporary uptick — a never-ending race to the bottom. Is such a system really the best humanity can do?

* “Falling rate of profit” entry in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Tom Bottomore, editor) [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1983], page 159