How the U.S. is able to dictate to the rest of the world

The United States government is able to impose its will on all the world’s countries. The rest of the world, even some of the strongest imperialist countries of the Global North, lie prostrate at the feet of the U.S. What is the source of this seemingly impregnable power? Which of course leads to the next question: How long can it last? 

The U.S. moves against any country that dares to act on a belief that its resources should be for its own people’s benefits rather than maximizing profits of multinational corporations or prioritizes the welfare of its citizens over corporate profit or simply refuses to accept dictation in how it should organize its economy. The military is frequently put to use, as are manipulation of the United Nations and the strong arms of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). But sanctions are a frequently used tool, enforced on countries, banks and corporations that have no presence in the U.S. and conduct business entirely outside the United States. The U.S. can impose its will on national governments around the world, using multilateral institutions to force governments to act in the interest of multinational capital, even when that is opposite the interests of the country itself or that country’s peoples. And when a country persists in refusing to bend to U.S. demands, sanctions imposing misery on the general population are unilaterally imposed and the rest of the world is forced to observe them.

In short, the U.S. government possesses a power that no country has ever held, not even Britain at the height of its empire. And that government, regardless of which party or what personality is in the White House or in control of Congress, is ruthless in using this power to impose its will.

This power is most often wielded within an enveloping shell of propaganda that claims the U.S. is acting in the interest of “democracy” and maintaining the “rule of law” so that business can be conducted in the interest of a common good. So successful has this propaganda been that this domination is called the “Washington Consensus.” Just who agreed to this “consensus” other than Washington political elites and the corporate executives and financial speculators those elites represent has never been clear. “Washington diktat” would be a more accurate name.

Much speculation among Left circles exists as to when this domination will be brought to an end, with many commentators believing that the fall of the U.S. dollar is not far off and perhaps China will become the new center of a system less imperialistic. On the Right, particularly in the financial industry, such speculation is far from unknown, although there of course the downfall of the dollar is feared. In financial circles, however, there is no illusion that the end of dollar supremacy in world economics is imminent.

There are only two possible challengers to U.S. dollar hegemony: The European Union’s euro and China’s renminbi. But the EU and China are very much subordinated to the dollar, and thus not in a position to counter U.S. dictates. Let’s start here, and then we’ll move on to the mechanics of U.S. economic hegemony over the world, which rests on the dollar being the global reserve currency and the leveraging of that status to control the world’s multilateral institutions and forcing global compliance with its sanctions.

Europe “helpless” in the face of U.S. sanctions

A February 2019 paper published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, discussing the inability of EU countries to counteract the Trump administration’s pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, flatly declared the EU “helpless”: “In trying to shield EU-based individuals and entities with commercial interests from its adverse impact, European policy-makers have recently been exposed as more or less helpless.”

The legislative arm of the EU, the European Parliament, was no more bullish. In a paper published in November 2020, the Parliament wrote this about U.S. extraterritorial sanctions: “[T]his bold attempt to prescribe the conduct of EU companies and nationals without even asking for consent challenges the EU and its Member States as well as the functioning and development of transatlantic relations. The extraterritorial reach of sanctions does not only affect EU businesses but also puts into question the political independence and ultimately the sovereignty of the EU and its Member States.”

No such open worries are going to be said in public by the Chinese government. But is China better prepared than the EU? Mary Hui, a Hong Kong-based business journalist, wrote in Quartz, “China is actually far more vulnerable to US sanctions than it will let on, even if the sanctions are aimed at individuals and not banks. That’s because the primary system powering the world’s cross-border financial transactions between banks, Swift, is dominated by the US dollar.” We’ll delve into this shortly. As a result of that domination, Ms. Hui wrote, “the US has outsize control over the machinery of international transactions—or, as the Economist put it, ‘America is uniquely well positioned to use financial warfare in the service of foreign policy.’ ”

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

In 2017, then U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin threatened China with sanctions that would cut it off from the U.S. financial system if it didn’t comply with fresh United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea in 2007; he had already threatened unilateral sanctions on any country that trades with North Korea if the United Nations didn’t apply sanctions on Pyongyang.

So neither Brussels or Beijing are in a position, at this time, to meaningfully challenge U.S. hegemony. That hegemony rests on multiple legs.

The world financial platform that the U.S. ultimately controls

The use (or, actually, abuse) of the two biggest multilateral financial institutions, the World Bank and the IMF, are well known. The U.S., as the biggest vote holder and through the rules set up for decision-making, carries a veto and thus imposes its will on any country that falls into debt and must turn to the World Bank or IMF for a loan. There also are the U.S.-controlled regional banks, such as the Asian Development Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, that impose U.S. dictates through the terms of their loans.

Also important as an institution, however, is a multilateral financial institution most haven’t heard of: The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, known as SWIFT. Based in Brussels, SWIFT is the primary platform used by the world’s financial institutions “to securely exchange information about financial transactions, including payment instructions, among themselves.” SWIFT says it is officially a member-owned cooperative with more than 11,000 member financial institutions in more than 200 countries and territories.

That sounds like it is a truly global entity. Despite that description, the U.S. holds ultimate authority over it and what it does. U.S. government agencies, including the CIA, National Security Agency and Treasury Department, have access to the SWIFT transaction database. Payments in U.S. dollars can be seized by the U.S. government even when the transaction is between two entities outside the U.S. And here we have a key to understanding.

The skyline of Beijing (photo by Picrazy2)

Beyond the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to acquire information is the status of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency, the foundation of the world capitalist system of which SWIFT is very much a component and thus subject to dictates the same as any other financial institution. What is a reserve currency? This succinct definition offered by the Council on Foreign Relations provides the picture:

“A reserve currency is a foreign currency that a central bank or treasury holds as part of its country’s formal foreign exchange reserves. Countries hold reserves for a number of reasons, including to weather economic shocks, pay for imports, service debts, and moderate the value of its own currency. Many countries cannot borrow money or pay for foreign goods in their own currencies—since much of international trade is done in dollars—and therefore need to hold reserves to ensure a steady supply of imports during a crisis and assure creditors that debt payments denominated in foreign currency can be made.”

The currency mostly used is the U.S. dollar, the Council explains:

“Most countries want to hold their reserves in a currency with large and open financial markets, since they want to be sure that they can access their reserves in a moment of need. Central banks often hold currency in the form of government bonds, such as U.S. Treasuries. The U.S. Treasury market remains by far the world’s largest and most liquid—the easiest to buy into and sell out of bond market[s].”

If you use dollars, the U.S. can go after you

Everybody uses the dollar because everybody else uses it. Almost two-thirds of foreign exchange reserves are held in U.S. dollars. Here’s the breakdown of the four most commonly held currencies, as of the first quarter of 2020:

  • U.S. dollar 62%
  • EU euro 20%
  • Japanese yen 4%
  • Chinese renminbi 2%

That 62 percent gives the U.S. government its power to not only impose sanctions unilaterally, but to force the rest of the world to observe them, in conjunction with the use of the dollar as the primary currency in international transactions. In some industries, it is almost the only currency used. To again turn to the Council on Foreign Relations explainer:

“In addition to accounting for the bulk of global reserves, the dollar is the currency of choice for international trade. Major commodities such as oil are primarily bought and sold using U.S. dollars. Some countries, including Saudi Arabia, still peg their currencies to the dollar. Factors that contribute to the dollar’s dominance include its stable value, the size of the U.S. economy, and the United States’ geopolitical heft. In addition, no other country has a market for its debt akin to the United States’, which totals roughly $18 trillion.

The dollar’s centrality to the system of global payments also increases the power of U.S. financial sanctions. Almost all trade done in U.S. dollars, even trade among other countries, can be subject to U.S. sanctions, because they are handled by so-called correspondent banks with accounts at the Federal Reserve. By cutting off the ability to transact in dollars, the United States can make it difficult for those it blacklists to do business.”

Sanctions imposed by the U.S. government are effectively extra-territorial because a non-U.S. bank that seeks to handle a transaction in U.S. dollars has to do so by clearing the transaction through a U.S. bank; a U.S. bank that cleared such a transaction would be in violation of the sanctions. The agency that monitors sanctions compliance, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), insists that any transaction using the dollar comes under U.S. law and thus blocking funds “is a territorial exercise of jurisdiction” wherever it occurs, even if no U.S. entities are involved. Even offering software as a service (or for download) from United States servers is under OFAC jurisdiction.

Two further measures of dollar dominance are that about half of all cross-border bank loans and international debt securities are denominated in U.S. currency and that 88 percent of all foreign-exchange transactions in 2019 involved the dollar on one side. That forex domination has remained largely unchanged; the figure was 87 percent in April 2003.

Dollar dominance cemented at end of World War II

The roots of the dollar as the global reserve currency go back to the creation of the Bretton Woods system in 1944 (named for the New Hampshire town where representatives of Allied and other governments met to discuss the post-war monetary system as victory in World War II drew closer). The World Bank and IMF were created here. To stabilize currencies and make it more difficult for countries to reduce the value of their currencies for competitive reasons (to boost exports), all currencies were pegged to the dollar, and the dollar in turn was convertible into gold at $35 an ounce. Thus the dollar became the center of the world financial system, which cemented U.S. dominance. 

By the early 1970s, the Nixon administration believed that the Bretton Woods monetary system no longer sufficiently advantaged the United States despite its currency’s centrality within the system cementing U.S. economic suzerainty. Because of the system of fixing the value of a U.S. dollar to the price of gold, any government could exchange the dollars it held in reserve for U.S. Treasury Department gold on demand. 

Rising world supplies of dollars and domestic inflation depressed the value of the dollar, causing the Treasury price of gold to be artificially low and thereby making the exchange of dollars for gold at the fixed price an excellent deal for other governments. The Nixon administration refused to adjust the value of the dollar, instead in 1971 pulling the dollar from the gold standard by refusing to continue to exchange foreign-held dollars for gold on demand. Currencies would now float on markets against each other, their values set by speculators rather than by governments, making all but the strongest countries highly vulnerable to financial pressure. 

“Imperialism is the real virus.” (photo by Paul Sableman from St. Louis)

The world’s oil-producing states dramatically raised oil prices in 1973. The Nixon administration eliminated U.S. capital controls a year later, encouraged oil producers to park their new glut of dollars in U.S. banks and adopted policies to encourage the banks to lend those deposited dollars to the South. But perhaps “encourage” is too mild a word. The economist and strong critic of imperialism Michael Hudson once wrote, “I was informed at a White House meeting that U.S. diplomats had let Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries know that they could charge as much as they wanted for their oil, but that the United States would treat it as an act of war not to keep their oil proceeds in U.S. dollar assets.”

Restrictions limiting cross-border movements of capital were opposed by multi-national corporations that had moved production overseas, by speculators in the new currency-exchange markets that blossomed with the breakdown of Bretton Woods and by neoliberal ideologues, creating decisive momentum within the U.S. for the elimination of capital controls. The ultimate result of these developments was to make the dollar even more central to world trade and thus further enhance U.S. control. Needless to say, bipartisan U.S. policy ever since has been to maintain this control.

U.S. sanctions in action: The cases of Cuba and Iran

Two examples of U.S. sanctions being applied extraterritorially are those imposed on Cuba and Iran. (There are many other examples, including that of Venezuela.) In the case of Cuba, any entity that conducts business with Cuba is barred from doing business in the U.S. or with any U.S. entity; foreign businesses that are owned by U.S. companies are strictly prohibited from doing any business with Cuba. Any company that had done business in Cuba must cease all activities there if acquired by a U.S. corporation. Several companies selling life-saving medical equipment and medicines to Cuba had to cease doing so when acquired by a U.S. corporation.

Meanwhile, U.S. embassy personnel have reportedly threatened firms in countries such as Switzerland, France, Mexico and the Dominican Republic with commercial reprisals unless they canceled sales of goods to Cuba such as soap and milk. Amazingly, an American Journal of Public Health report quoted a July 1995 written communication by the U.S. Department of Commerce in which the department said those types of sales contribute to “medical terrorism” on the part of Cubans! Well, many of us when we were, say, 5 years old might have regarded soap with terror, but presumably have long gotten over that. Perhaps Commerce employees haven’t.

The sanctions on Cuba have been repeatedly tightened over the years. Joy Gordon, writing in the Harvard International Law Journal in January 2016, provides a vivid picture of the difficulties thereby caused:

“The Torricelli Act [of 1992] provided that no ship could dock in the United States within 180 days of entering a Cuban port. This restriction made deliveries to Cuba commercially unfeasible for many European and Asian companies, as their vessels would normally deliver or take on shipments from the United States while they were in the Caribbean. The Torricelli Act also prohibited foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba. … The Helms-Burton Act, enacted in 1996, permitted U.S. nationals to bring suit against foreign companies that were doing business in Cuba and that owned properties that had been abandoned or confiscated after the revolution. Additionally, the Helms-Burton Act prohibited third-party countries from selling goods in the United States that contained any components originating in Cuba. This significantly impacted Cuba’s major exports, particularly sugar and nickel. 

[T]he shipping restrictions in the Torricelli Act have increased costs in several ways, such as Cuba sometimes having to pay for ships carrying imports from Europe or elsewhere to return empty because they cannot stop at U.S. ports to pick up goods. Shipping companies have partially responded by dedicating particular ships for Cuba deliveries; but in most cases, they tend to designate old ships in poor condition, which then leads to higher maritime insurance costs.”

The United Nations estimates that the cost of the embargo to Cuba has been about $130 billion.

However distasteful we find the religious fundamentalist government of Iran, U.S. sanctions, which are blunt weapons, have caused much hardship on Iranians. The same restrictions on Cuba apply to Iran. The Iranian government said in September 2020 that it has lost $150 billion since the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and that it is hampered from importing food and medicines.

The Trump administration’s renewed sanctions were imposed unilaterally and against the expressed policies of all other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia. With those governments unable to restrain Washington, businesses from around the world pulled out to avoid getting sanctioned. EU countermeasures were ineffective — small fines didn’t outweigh far larger U.S. fines, European companies are subject to U.S. sanctions and favorable judgments in European courts are unenforceable in U.S. courts.

Sascha Lohmann, author of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs paper, wrote:

“Well ahead of the deadlines set by the Trump administration and absent any enforcement action, major European and Asian companies withdrew from the otherwise lucrative Iranian market. Most not­a­bly, this included [SWIFT,] which cut off most of the more than 50 Iranian banks in early November 2018, including the Central Bank of Iran, after they again became subject to U.S. financial sanctions. …  [T]he exodus of EU-based companies has revealed an inconvenient truth to European policy-makers, namely that those companies are effectively regulated in Washington, D.C. … [T]he secretary of the Treasury can order U.S. banks to close or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining of correspondent or payable-through accounts on behalf of a foreign bank, thereby closing down access to dollarized transactions — the ‘Wall Street equivalent of the death penalty.’ ”

The long arm of U.S. sanctions stretches around the world

The idea that sanctions can be the “Wall Street equivalent of the death penalty” is not a figment of the imagination. Two examples of sanctions against European multinational enterprises demonstrate this.

In 2015, the French bank BNP Paribas was given a penalty of almost $9 billion for violating U.S. sanctions by processing dollar payments from Cuba, Iran and Sudan. The bank also pleaded guilty to two criminal charges. These penalties were handed down in U.S. courts and prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The chief executive officer of the bank told the court “we deeply regret the past misconduct.” The judge overseeing the case declared the bank “not only flouted U.S. foreign policy but also provided support to governments that threaten both our regional and national security,” a passage highlighted in the Department’s press release announcing the settlement.

Why would a French bank agree to these penalties and do so in such apologetic terms? And why would it accept the preposterous idea that Cuba represents any security threat to the U.S. or that a French bank is required to enforce U.S. foreign policy? As part of the settlement, Reuters reported, “regulators banned BNP for a year from conducting certain U.S. dollar transactions, a critical part of the bank’s global business.” And that gives us the clue. Had the bank not settled its case, it risked a permanent ban on access to the U.S. financial system, meaning it could not handle any deals denominated in dollars. Even the one-year ban could have triggered an exodus of clients in several major industries, including oil and gas.

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

This was completely an extraterritorial application of U.S. law. An International Bar Association summary of the case noted, “the transactions in question were not illegal under French or EU law. Nor did they fall foul of France’s obligations under the World Trade Organization or the United Nations; no agreements between France and the US were violated. But as they were denominated in dollars, the deals ultimately had to pass through New York and thus came under its regulatory authority.”

It does not take direct involvement in financial transactions to run afoul of the long arm of U.S. sanctions. A Swiss company, Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA), was forced to agree to pay $8 million to settle allegations that it provided blacklisted airlines with “software and/or services that were provided from, transited through, or originated in the United States.” Among the actions punished were that SITA used software originating in the U.S. to track lost baggage and used a global lost-baggage tracing system hosted on servers in the United States. Retrieving baggage is a service most people would not consider a high crime.

Can the EU or China create an alternative?

Dropping the widespread use of the dollar and substituting one or more other currencies, and setting up alternative financial systems, would be the logical short-term path toward ending U.S. financial hegemony. The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, in a 2018 report, quoted the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, “We must increase Europe’s autonomy and sovereignty in trade, economic and financial policies. It will not be easy, but we have already begun to do it.” DW reported that the European Commission was developing a system parallel to SWIFT that would allow Iran to interface with European clearing systems with transactions based on the euro, but such a system never was put in place. In January 2021, as the new Biden administration took office, Iran dismissed it entirely, Bloomberg reported: “European governments have ‘no idea’ how to finance the conduit set up two years ago, known as Instex, and ‘have not had enough courage to maintain their economic sovereignty,’ the Central Bank of Iran said in comments on Twitter.” 

It would seem that Teheran’s dismissal is warranted. The European Parliament, in its paper on U.S. sanctions being imposed extraterritorially, could only offer liberal weak-tea ideas, such as “Encourage and assist EU businesses in bringing claims in international investor-state arbitration and in US courts; Complaints against extraterritorial measures in the [World Trade Organization].” Such prescriptions are unlikely to have anyone in Washington losing sleep.

What about China? Beijing has actually created a functioning alternative to the World Bank and IMF, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Just on the basis of the new bank representing a bad example (from Washington’s perspective), the U.S. government leaned heavily on Australia and other countries sufficiently firmly that Canberra initially declined to join the bank despite its initial interest, nor did Indonesia and South Korea, although all three did later join. There is a possibility of one-sidedness here, however, as China has by far the biggest share of the vote, 27 percent, dwarfing No. 2 India’s 7 percent, giving Beijing potential veto power. And with US$74 billion in capitalization (less than the goal of $100 billion set in 2014), it can’t realistically be a substitute for existing multilateral financial institutes.

China has also set up an alternative to SWIFT, the Cross-border Interbank Payment System (CIPS), a renminbi-denominated clearing and settlement system. CIPS says it has participants from 50 countries and regions, and processes US$19.4 billion per day. But that’s well less than one percent of the $6 trillion SWIFT handles daily. The Bank of China, the country’s central bank, is on the record of seeking an alternative to the dollar system so that it can evade any U.S. sanctions. “A good punch to the enemy will save yourself from hundreds of punches from your enemies,” a 2020 Bank of China report said. “We need to get prepared in advance, mentally and practically.” The report said if Chinese banks are deprived of access to dollar settlements, China should consider ceasing the use of the U.S. dollar as the anchor currency for its foreign exchange controls.

That is easier said than done — China holds $1.1 trillion in U.S. government debt issued by the U.S. Treasury Department. That total is second only to Japan, and Beijing’s holdings comprise 15 percent of all U.S. debt held by foreign governments. The South China Morning Post admits that China holds such large reserve assets of U.S. debt “largely due to its status as a ‘safe haven’ for investment during turbulent market conditions.” Although Beijing seeks an erosion of dollar dominance and fears that U.S. economic instability could result in another world economic downturn, its use of the safe haven is nowhere near at an end. “While it is clear that China is keen to lessen its dependence on US government debt, experts believe that Beijing is likely to continue buying US Treasuries, as there are few risk-free low cost substitutes,” the Morning Post wrote.

Coupled with the restrictions on renminbi conversion, Chinese institutions are today far from a position of challenging current global financial relations. The U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley recently predicted that the renminbi could represent five to 10 percent of foreign-exchange reserves by 2030, up from the current two percent. Although that would mean central banks around the world would increase their holdings of the Chinese currency, it would not amount to any real threat to dollar dominance.

No empire, or system, lasts forever

The bottom line question from all of the above is this: Will this U.S. dominance come to an end? Stepping back and looking at this question in a historical way tells us that the answer can only be yes, given that there has been a sequence of cities that have been the financial center. Centuries ago, the seat of a small republic such as Venice could be the leading financial center on the strength of its trading networks. Once capitalism took hold, however, the financial center was successively located within a larger federation that possessed both a strong navy and a significant fleet of merchant ships (Amsterdam); then within a sizeable and unified country with a large enough population to maintain a powerful navy and a physical presence throughout an empire (London); and finally within a continent-spanning country that can project its economic and multi-dimensional military power around the world (New York). 

No empire, whatever its form, lasts forever. But knowledge of the sequence of capitalist centers tells us nothing of timing. Each successive new financial locus was embedded in successively larger powers able to operate militarily over larger areas and with more force. What then could replace the U.S.? The European Union has its effectiveness diluted by the many nationalisms within its sphere (and thus nationalism acts as a weakening agent for the EU whereas it is a strengthening agent for the U.S. and China). China’s economy is yet too small and retains capital controls, and its currency, the renminbi, isn’t fully convertible. U.S. Treasury bills remain the ultimate safe haven, as shown when investors poured into U.S. debt during crises such as the 2008 collapse, even when events in the U.S. are the trigger.

There are no other possible other contenders, and both the EU and China, as already discussed, are in no position to seriously challenge U.S. hegemony.

Here we have a collision of possibilities: The transcending of capitalism and transition to a new economic system or the decreasing functionality of the world capitalist system should it persist for several more decades. Given the resiliency of capitalism, and the many tools available to it (not least military power), the latter scenario can’t be ruled out although it might be unlikely. Making any prediction on the lifespan of capitalism is fraught with difficulty, not least because of the many predictions of its collapse for well over a century. But capitalism as a system requires infinite growth, quite impossible on a finite planet and all the more dire given there is almost no place on Earth remaining into which it can expand.

Although we can’t know what the expiration date of capitalism will be, it will almost certainly be sometime in the current century. But it won’t be followed by something better without a global movement of movements working across borders with a conscious aim of bringing a better world into being. In the absence of such movements, capitalism is likely to hang on for decades to come. In that scenario, what country or bloc could replace the U.S. as the center? And would we want a new center to dictate to the rest of the world? In a world of economic democracy (what we can call socialism) where all nations and societies can develop in their own way, in harmony with the environment and without the need to expand, and with production done for human need rather than corporate profit, there would no global center or hegemon and no need for one. Capitalism, however, can’t function without a center that uses financial, military and all other means to keep itself in the saddle and the rest of the world in line.

Yes, the day of U.S. dethronement will come, as will the end of capitalism. But the former is not going to happen any time soon, however much millions around the world wish that to be so, and the latter is what we should be working toward. A better world is possible; a gentler and kinder capitalism with a different center is not.

If neoliberalism is crumbling, what will follow?

The biggest problem with the future is that you can’t know what it will be. When Ronald Reagan was elected United States president in 1980, we did not at the time realize a new era of capitalism had begun; that the ascension of Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain a year earlier definitively brought the end of the Keynesian period. Less than a decade earlier Richard Nixon had said, “We’re all Keynesians now.”

The very election of Reagan was a shock — I truly thought that United Statesians would at the last moment recoil at the thought of an extremist who endlessly spouted lies and nonsense getting into the White House. Perhaps I simply overestimated the general public but the 1970s did introduce considerable economic uncertainty, enough for people to vote for a bad actor who told them what they wanted to hear.

And so neoliberalism was born, although the term wasn’t yet in use; back then we usually referred to “Reaganism” and “Thatcherism.” Their policies didn’t go away when their terms in office were up. A new, more vicious era was firmly upon the world. I can’t help but think about the parallels with the past four years. A bad reality television host and con man told United Statesians what they wanted to hear and despite his obvious mendacity, enough bought it so that another candidate who I was sure couldn’t possibly be elected was elevated into the White House.

A garment factory (photo by Fahad Faisal)

One parallel perhaps begets another. The 1970s stagnation of Keynesianism brought something much worse, the neoliberal era of capitalism, alas a much more representative specimen of the global economic system — Keynesianism was an outlier and a product of intense activism that forced significant concessions out of capitalists. Let’s not romanticize the Keynesian era — the benefits to working people were confined to White men with steady jobs and in the U.S. there was plenty of political repression to go around. Not to mention that capitalist exploitation of working people continued unabated; there simply were some extra crumbs given out.

Back to today: Given the crumbing economy, with its low-paid, precarious jobs, unsustainable and onerous student and consumer debt and inability to tackle global warming as features of a global race to the bottom, the ability of industrialists and financiers to keep neoliberalism going is increasingly in question. So if the start of the 1980s was the dawn of a new economic era, will the start of the 2020s be the dawn of another new era? And, if so, of what?

What’s old becomes new again

Post-Industrial Revolution capitalism can be roughly divided into three eras. First, the era of laissez faire, which came under strong pressure in the Great Depression and was ultimately followed by the Keynesianism of the mid-20th century. Laissez faire is an ideology that opposes government interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of property rights. (That ideology lives on — neoliberal godfather Milton Friedman insisted that the only proper role of government is to enforce contracts and provide for military defense.) The onset of the Great Depression served to discredit laissez faire, opening the space for alternative theories.

Keynesianism, simply put, is the belief that capitalism is unstable and requires government intervention in the economy when private enterprise is unable or unwilling to spend enough to lift it out of a slump. Mid-20th century Keynesianism depended on an 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 capitalism can expand. Because profits were high and there were many new markets to conquer — and because they were fearful of having their system swept away by the dramatic rise in social organizing — capitalists tolerated wage gains after World War II.

Ship-breaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh (photo by Naquib Hossain)

As Keynesianism broke down over the course of the 1970s — or more accurately, as capitalists no long tolerated paying better wages and conceding better working conditions in the face of declining profits in a world of more intensive competition on an international level — industrialists and financiers brought on the era of neoliberalism in an effort to boost profitability. There were no effective counter-forces: The movements of the 1960s had vanished. Reagan and Thatcher were products, not the causes, of the new era. It took time to understand that. And when “the end of history” was proclaimed upon the crumbling of the Soviet Union, the process of smashing working people’s ability to defend themselves was only accelerated.

And here we are today. With ever fewer jobs that provide a living wage, housing and education costs rising far faster than inflation or wages, the ability of capital to effortlessly move production to wherever wages and regulations are the lowest, and a political system wholly captured by the biggest industrialists and financiers, it is no surprise that anger is rising around the world. Neoliberalism has reached its logical conclusion.

So what follows neoliberalism? And how much longer can capitalism survive?

There won’t be any return to Keynesianism, even if it were possible for that to be the cure to what ails the world. The specific circumstances of the mid-20th century no longer exist. We do not have to stretch our imaginations to know what the world’s corporate masters would be willing to do to keep themselves in power and money. Suspending constitutions and implementing outright fascism is possible if industrialists and financiers see no other alternative to keep their party going if conditions deteriorate to the point that large numbers of people begin to withdraw their consent to the formal-democratic version of corporate rule.

The future is unwritten

But even that would a temporary fix. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, nor can you destroy the environment without limit. A collapse in civilization induced by unchecked capitalism is very unlikely to happen suddenly; without a global mass movement intervening, modern industrial civilization is likely to slowly fall apart over decades and thus capitalism, in this scenario, would also linger for decades. Whatever follows in the rubble left behind would not likely be pleasant; much would depend on the ability of our descendants to organize a cooperative economy in an era of scarcity and defeat the inevitable attempts at imposing dictatorial regimes that would offer simplistic solutions to complicated problems.

Technology is not likely to solve all our future problems for ourselves. The Star Trek universe, where decades of nuclear war is followed by the era of plenty for all (how else could Earth and the Federation afford all those starships?) isn’t realistic. Months, never mind decades, of nuclear war would be enough to reduce humanity to a primitive state, assuming humans even survived the wars. And the uses of technology are based on the relations of power. Technology today could be used to reduce the workday and reduce drudge work, for example, but instead it is used to intensify work and surveil employees. Because we live in a drastically unequal society, technology is a tool of those who possess power and capital instead of a being the liberating tool it could be in a better world.

Although we can’t know what the expiration date of capitalism will be, it is likely to be sometime in the current century. If we are in the beginning stages of the end of neoliberalism, that does not mean we are in the beginning stages of the end of capitalism. Given capitalism’s ability to absorb dissent and its elasticity, it is quite conceivable that some new form of capitalism could replace neoliberalism. Given a powerful enough movement coordinating on an international basis, a new version of capitalism could be something better, temporarily. Such a movement aiming at reforms within capitalism would eventually be disappointed — once movements stand down, the hard-won reforms begin to be taken away. An international movement for a better world has no choice but to work toward abolishing capitalism and instituting a system of economic democracy.

The rise of right-wing authoritarians with aspirations to become fascist dictators — people such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Orbán — does not have to be a harbinger of the future as were Reagan and Thatcher. With enough people around the world organizing, it won’t be.

The world was once run by monarchs who sat on thrones due to divine will — God selected one family to rule in perpetuity. Most of the world’s people once believed that. Today, it would be laughable to promote such an idea. Not long ago in human history, millions of people were held in slavery — a human being could be owned by another human being and have no rights whatsoever. People believed that not only were certain people inferior and properly enslaved but that the economy would collapse without slavery. Today, not even the most vulgar racist would suggest such a thing in public.

Capitalism is not the end of history. It is nothing more than one more system of repression, one more system of organization. It is no more permanent than slavery, feudalism, absolute monarchy or any other system of the past. If this were not so, there would not be so much frenetic activity put into convincing us that “there is no alternative.” We’ll be deciding the next system in the coming years. If we don’t, it’ll be decided for us.

The crises of neoliberalism won’t be solved by more neoliberalism

We’re in a world of trouble if we are unable to conceive of alternative economic models. We need not linger on the details of rising inequality, political instability, tightening corporate control of governments, looming environmental crisis, increasingly precarious employment (if even available) and the inability to meet the basic needs of billions of people around the world to see that capitalism is failing humanity.

To put this in a nutshell, on a global basis, about 200 million people are unemployed among 2.4 billion who have no stable employment.

Neoliberalism is not a virus foisted on the world by some secret cabal; it is merely the latest phase of capitalism, one that, from the standpoint of capitalists, is the logical outgrowth of the breakdown of mid-20th century Keynesianism. We’re not going back to Keynesianism, because that was a brief period dependent on an 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 into which the capitalist system can expand.

What happens to rain forests when the market is allowed to decide. (Photo of Montane Rainforest in Ecuador by Gunnar Brehm)

What happens to rain forests when the market is allowed to decide. (Photo of Montane Rainforest in Ecuador by Gunnar Brehm)

So when I saw a paper titled “Industrial policy in the 21st century: merits, demerits and how can we make it work” in the latest issue of Real-World Economic Review, I was intrigued. As its title implies, Real-World Economic Review specializes in papers by economists who think far outside the orthodox box that serves industrial and financial elites very well; the very fact that a field requires a publication with such a title speaks for itself.

The disappointing prescriptions offered in the paper, however, might at best be described as “neoliberal lite.” The author of “Industrial policy in the 21st century,” Mohammad Muaz Jalil of the NGO Swiss Foundation for Technical Cooperation, is well-intentioned, but advocates the same export-oriented policies that have led to sweatshops and dangerous working conditions across the developing world. It also implies endless growth, a dangerous illusion.

More of the same hardly seems a likely escape, and that is before we contemplate the mathematical impossibility of every country exporting its way out of economic difficulty. For every country that achieves an trade surplus, some other country has to have a trade deficit.

What works for a few doesn’t work for all

Mr. Jalil begins by noting that East Asian countries used industrial policies, including protectionist policies, to build their economies, most notably Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. He uses the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) definition of industrial policy:

“Industrial Policy is any type of intervention or government policy that attempts to improve the business environment or to alter the structure of economic activity toward sectors, technologies or tasks that are expected to offer better prospects for economic growth or societal welfare than would occur in the absence of such intervention.”

The above East Asian countries used various mixes of export-oriented growth strategies and protection for young industries. Favored corporations received export subsidies, reduced interest rates and preferential allocation of foreign exchange with the goal of these enterprises becoming competitive globally. Manufacturing in these countries started at a low level but steadily moved up the “value chain” — that is, they were able to produce increasingly sophisticated products.

Mr. Jalil does acknowledge some criticisms of this type of policy, noting the difficulty in foreseeing who or what will be the winners in the future, the much stiffer international competition of today, that international supply chains have become dominant, and that today’s severe global trade regime restricts the ability of governments to intervene. Governments today nonetheless use industrial policies, albeit within the so-called “Washington consensus” (which is really the “Washington diktat”) that imposes neoliberal policies around the world through the World Trade Organization and international lending banks controlled by the United States and to a lesser degree the European Union.

When we get to specific examples, the paper’s prescriptions rapidly break down. Mr. Jalil presents Brazil and South Africa as examples. Brazil is one of the world’s most unequal societies, and one with severe economic problems not likely to improve in the wake of the Brazilian Right’s soft coup against former President Dilma Rousseff. A weak currency, lack of growth, continuing inflation, huge piles of debt owed in dollars and euros, and local corporations saddled with debt and low credit ratings seems not a rosy picture. Poverty is widespread, and activists who challenge land owners who clear-cut rain forests are not infrequently killed.

South Africa has the most inequality of any country in the world. The African National Congress threw away its moral authority to implement its “Freedom Charter” upon taking power by negotiating away its economic control. The ANC took office handcuffed, and having tied themselves to financial markets, those markets applied further “discipline” by attacking the South African economy at the first sign of anything that displeased them.

South African workers, especially miners, are subjected to violence at the hands of the ANC government, abetted by ANC-aligned unions. More than half of South Africans live in poverty and the unemployment rate is 26.6 percent. This is an example to emulate?

Sweatshop advocates don’t have to work in them

Next up, the author promotes the Bangladesh garment industry as a success story! Well, for Wal-Mart and other global retailers who rack up enormous profits on the backs of sweatshop workers being paid starvation wages this is undoubtedly a success. But as a development strategy beneficial to working people? Let’s look at the evidence.

Bangladeshi garment workers can work 14 to 16 hours a day, some seven days a week. The minimum wage is little more than half of the minimum required to provide a family with shelter, food and education, according to the activist group War on Want. The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights estimates that a worker in Bangladesh would have to labor 15 1/2 hours to buy a gallon of milk. In 2014, the Wal-Mart chief executive officer earned 24,500 times more than a Bangladeshi sweatshop worker. Yet despite repeated accidents resulting in mass deaths, little has changed.

The shipbuilding industry is also promoted as a route to prosperity for Bangladeshis. A key component of this industry is “ship-breaking,” whereby ships are driven onto land to be disassembled. The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reports that ship-breakers work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, and are paid 30 to 45 cents an hour to perform a job “in which it is common for workers to be maimed or killed.” The ship-breakers are reported to live in crowded hovels, sleeping on concrete floors.

Ship-breaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh (photo by Naquib Hossain)

Ship-breaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh (photo by Naquib Hossain)

Nobody would choose to do such things except under the most dire deprivation. That such work is a route to sustainable development is a common trope of neoliberal apologists, but defies common sense in any humanistic context.

The author points to the increasing number of developing-country corporations among the world’s biggest, but those numbers are nonetheless still minuscule. In fact, the corporations of the Global North remain overwhelmingly dominant. A study by Sean Starrs in New Left Review found that, when the world’s industries are grouped into 25 broad categories, U.S. firms led in 18 and in 10 of those U.S. corporations hauled in at least 40 percent of the aggregate profits. Germany and Japan hold the lead in two other sectors.

In support of these prescriptions, Mr. Jalil argues that as countries move up the value chain, the next country can “take over” “entry” industries and begin its own ascent. But there is only so much productive capacity that the world can absorb — the idea that every country can become a manufacturer of the same high-end electronics equipment, for example, defies reality. It also ignores, again, that every country can’t be a net exporter. It also sidesteps the fact that China’s growth threatens to “crowd out” other competitors due to its massive size.

Minqi Li, in his book The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, argues that the huge mass of low-wage Chinese workers will drag down wage levels globally; the increase of industrialization in developing countries will lead to exhaustion of energy sources; and that ecological limits will force a halt to growth, fatal to a system dependent on growth. Professor Li argues that an upward convergence of wages around the world in present-day low-wage havens would significantly reduce capitalists’ profits.

In this scenario, capitalists would seek to cut wages in core countries to make up the difference, which in turn would trigger reductions in demand. Reduced demand would spell trouble for any export-oriented economy, especially as the ultra-low wages suppress domestic consumption.

Nor can sufficient jobs be created for the expanding population of farmers and others dispossessed from the countryside — Samir Amin calculates that even with an increase of seven percent in gross domestic product for the next 50 years, no more than a third of this population could find regular work. No such growth has ever occurred for such sustained periods.

Where is the second Earth going to come from?

Finally, all this imagined explosion of industry is predicated on endless growth. We live on a finite planet, and thus infinite growth is impossible. Consumption is already growing beyond Earth’s carrying capacity and the anthropogenic changes to the atmosphere have us dangerously close to the point of no return in terms of global warming. Humanity is currently consuming the equivalent of 1.6 Earths, and at current rates of consumption trends, that will rise to two Earths by the 2030s.

Not a substitute for Earth (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Not a substitute for Earth (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Ramping up ever more production, even assuming that markets could be found for it, can not be a long-term solution for poverty. Managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society, and thus do all they can to externalize environmental and other costs onto society. Alas, renewable energy is not a short cut to reversing global warming. Renewable energy is not necessarily clean nor without contributions to climate change (the production of wind turbines and electric cars lead to plenty of pollution), and the limits that living on a finite planet with finite resources presents are all the more acute in an economic system that requires endless growth.

Finally, the belief that industrial policy can create prosperity is predicated on developing countries having the independence to implement protectionist measures. Mr. Jalil argues that the poorest countries have temporary reprieves from World Trade Organization rules until the end of this decade, but that they have room for maneuver is questionable at best. Not only WTO rules, but the bilateral and multilateral “free trade” agreements render such protections illegal. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes several developing countries, would further restrict any ability to protect local industries — and the TPP is intended to be a model for other countries. (Although wounded, TPP is not dead yet because a two-year window has yet to expire.)

In a world where “free trade” agreements strongly constrict the ability of governments to enact laws and regulations, and which grant multi-national corporations the right to sue to eliminate any law they don’t like — in essence, a requirement that corporate profits trump any labor, safety, environmental or health measure — the road to becoming a net exporter will begin and end with sweatshops for most countries.

Low wages and a lack of enforceable regulations are precisely why multi-national capital is invested in developing countries like Bangladesh. The global “free trade” regime is nothing more than a mechanism for the most powerful industrialists and financiers of the Global North to accelerate a race to the bottom and increase their exploitation to the maximum humanly possible. That developing countries can win at this — or that the advanced capitalist countries will allow more competitors to arise — is fantasy. A neoliberal fantasy.

Mr. Jalil concludes with a call for private-sector funding able to “respond to diversity and dynamism inherent in markets.” Huh? Markets in the capitalist world are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers — allowing markets to make an ever wider range of social decisions is what has led the world to its impasse and ever harsher austerity for working people. Neoliberal capitalism may teach that people exist to serve markets, but we don’t have to accept that.

The belief that private funding — which, after all, is done to extract profit regardless of social or environmental cost — will make us live happily ever after should be left to the realm of fairy tales. As the saying goes, insanity is believing that doing the same thing over and over again will produce different results.

Could an economic collapse be in our near future?

Climate scientists and others have in the past few years issued a steady stream of analyses showing that without immediate remedial actions, a disastrous future is headed our way. But is it a four-decade-old study that will prove prescient?

That study, issued in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, forecast that industrial output would decline early in the 21st century, followed quickly by a rise in death rates due to reduced provision of services and food that would lead to a dramatic decline in world population. To be specific, per capita industrial output was forecast to decline “precipitously” starting in about 2015.

Well, here we are. Despite years of stagnation following the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, things have not gotten that bad. At least not yet. Although the original authors of The Limits to Growth, led by Donella Meadows, caution against tying their predictions too tightly to a specific year, the actual trends of the past four decades are not far off from the what was predicted by the study’s models. A recent paper examining the original 1972 study goes so far as to say that the study’s predictions are well on course to being borne out.

Sunset at a cement factory (photo by Stefan Wernli)

Sunset at a cement factory (photo by Stefan Wernli)

That research paper, prepared by a University of Melbourne scientist, Graham Turner, is unambiguously titled “Is Global Collapse Imminent?” As you might guess from the title, Dr. Turner is not terribly optimistic.

He is merely the latest researcher to sound alarm bells. Just last month, a revised paper by 19 climate scientists led by James Hansen demonstrates that continued greenhouse-gas emissions will lead to a sea-level rise of several meters in as few as 50 years, increasingly powerful storms and rapid cooling in Europe. Two other recent papers calculate that humanity has already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level and a separate group of 18 scientists demonstrated in their study that Earth is crossing multiple points of no return. All the while, governments cling to the idea that “green capitalism” will magically pull humanity out of the frying pan.

Four decades of ‘business as usual’

At least global warming is acknowledged today, even if the world’s governments prescriptions thus far are woefully inadequate. In 1972, the message of The Limits to Growth was far from welcome and widely ridiculed. Adjusting parameters to test various possibilities, the authors ran a dozen scenarios in a global model of the environment and economy, and found that “overshoot and collapse” was inevitable with continued “business as usual”; that is, without significant changes to economic activity. Needless to say, such changes have not occurred.

In the “business as usual” model, the capital needed to extract harder-to-reach resources becomes sufficiently high that other needs for investment are starved at the same time that resources begin to become depleted. Industrial output would begin to decline about 2015, but pollution would continue to increase and fewer inputs would be available for agriculture, resulting in declining food production. Coupled with declines in services such as health and education due to insufficient capital, the death rate begins to rise in 2020 and world population declines at a rate of about half a billion per decade from 2030. According to Dr. Turner:

“The World3 model simulated a stock of non-renewable as well as renewable resources. The function of renewable resources in World3, such as agricultural land and the trees, could erode as a result of economic activity, but they could also recover their function if deliberate action was taken or harmful activity reduced. The rate of recovery relative to rates of degradation affects when thresholds or limits are exceeded as well as the magnitude of any potential collapse.”

The World3 computer model simulated interactions within and between population, industrial capital, pollution, agricultural systems and non-renewable resources, set up to capture positive and negative feedback loops. Dr. Turner writes that changing parameters merely delays collapse. The current boom in fracking natural gas and the extraction of petroleum products from tar sands weren’t anticipated in the 1970s, but the expansion of new technologies to exploit resources pushes back the collapse “one to two decades” but “when it occurs the speed of decline is even greater.”

Turner collapse chartSo how much stock should we put in a study more than 40 years old? Dr. Turner asserts that actual environmental, economic and population measurements in the intervening years “aligns strongly” to what the Limits to Growth model expected from its “business as usual” run. He writes:

“[T]he observed industrial output per capita illustrates a slowing rate of growth that is consistent with the [business as usual scenario] reaching a peak. In this scenario, the industrial output per capita begins a substantial reversal and decline at about 2015. Observed food per capita is broadly in keeping with the [Limits to Growth business as usual scenario], with food supply increasing only marginally faster than population. Literacy rates show a saturating growth trend, while electricity generation per capita … grows more rapidly and in better agreement with the [Limits to Growth] model.”

Peak oil and difficult economics

Rising energy costs following global peak oil will make much of the remaining stock uneconomical to exploit. This is a critical forcing point in the collapse scenario. And as more energy is required to extract resources that are more difficult to exploit, the net energy from production continues to fall. John Michael Greer, a writer on peak oil, observes that, just as it takes more energy to produce a steel product than it did a century ago due to the lower quality of iron ore today, more energy is required to produce energy today.

Net energy from oil production has vastly shrunken over the years, Mr. Greer writes:

“[T]the sort of shallow wells that built the US oil industry has a net energy of anything up to 200 to 1: in other words, less than a quart out of each 42-gallon barrel of oil goes to paying off the energy cost of extraction, and the rest is pure profit. … As you slide down the grades of hydrocarbon goo, though, that pleasant equation gets replaced by figures considerably less genial. Your average barrel of oil from a conventional US oilfield today has a net energy around 30 to 1. … The surge of new petroleum that hit the oil market just in time to help drive the current crash of oil prices, though, didn’t come from 30-to-1 conventional oil wells. … What produced the surge this time was a mix of tar sands and hydrofractured shales, which are a very, very long way down the goo curve. …

“The real difficulty with the goo you get from tar sands and hydrofractured shales is that you have to put a lot more energy into getting each [barrel of oil equivalent] of energy out of the ground and into usable condition than you do with conventional crude oil. The exact figures are a matter of dispute, and factoring in every energy input is a fiendishly difficult process, but it’s certainly much less than 30 to 1—and credible estimates put the net energy of tar sands and hydrofractured shales well down into single digits. Now ask yourself this: where is the energy that has to be put into the extraction process coming from? The answer, of course, is that it’s coming out of the same global energy supply to which tar sands and hydrofractured shales are supposedly contributing.”

It is that declining energy availability and greater expense that is the tipping point, Dr. Turner argues:

“Contemporary research into the energy required to extract and supply a unit of energy from oil shows that the inputs have increased by almost an order of magnitude. It does not matter how big the resource stock is if it cannot be extracted fast enough or other scarce inputs needed elsewhere in the economy are consumed in the extraction. Oil and gas optimists note that extracting unconventional fuels is only economic above an oil price somewhere in the vicinity of US$70 per barrel. They readily acknowledge that the age of cheap oil is over, without apparently realising that expensive fuels are a sign of constraints on extraction rates and inputs needed. It is these constraints which lead to the collapse in the [Limits to Growth] modelling of the [business as usual] scenario.”

New oil is dirty oil

The current plunge in oil and gas prices will not be permanent. Speculation on why Saudi Arabia, by far the world’s biggest oil exporter, continues to furiously pump out oil as fast as it can despite the collapse in pricing frequently centers on speculation that the Saudis’ pumping costs are lower than elsewhere and thus can sustain low prices while driving out competitors who must operate in the red at such prices.

If this scenario pans out, a shortage of oil will eventually materialize, driving the price up again. But the difficult economics will not have disappeared; all the easy sources of petroleum have long since been tapped. And the sources for the recent boom — tar sands and fracking — are heavy contributors to global warming, another looming danger. The case for catastrophic climate disruption due to global warming is far better understood today than it was in 1972 — and we are already experiencing its effects.

Dr. Turner, noting with understatement that these gigantic global problems “have been met with considerable resistance from powerful societal forces,” concludes:

“A challenging lesson from the [Limits to Growth] scenarios is that global environmental issues are typically intertwined and should not be treated as isolated problems. Another lesson is the importance of taking pre-emptive action well ahead of problems becoming entrenched. Regrettably, the alignment of data trends with the [Limits to Growth] dynamics indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade, or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.”

Sobering indeed. Left unsaid (and, as always, there is no criticism intended in noting a research paper not going outside its parameters) is why so little has been done to head off a looming global catastrophe. Free of constraints, it is not difficult to quantify those “powerful societal forces” as the biggest industrialists and financiers in the world capitalist system. As long as we have an economic system that allows private capital to accumulate without limit on a finite planet, and externalize the costs, in a system that requires endless growth, there is no real prospect of making the drastic changes necessary to head off a very painful future.

Just because a study was conducted decades in the past does not mean we can’t learn from it, even with a measure of skepticism toward peak-oil fast-collapse scenarios. If we reach still further back in time, Rosa Luxemburg’s words haunt us still: Socialism or barbarism.

More unemployment and less security

The bad news is that the world’s number of unemployed workers and those with precarious employment is expected to rise during 2016 and 2017. The worse news is that the true number of those in these categories are probably significantly undercounted.

The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency that just issued its “World Employment Social Outlook,” predicts that 200 million people will be unemployed in 2016, three million more than last year. This will be most acute in middle-income and poor countries, where unemployment is forecast by the ILO to increase by 2.4 million with a slight decrease in unemployment in the most developed countries. Brazil and China alone are expected to add 1.5 million to the unemployment rolls in the next two years.

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

Not that having employment is necessarily a marker of stability. The ILO report says that nearly half of the world’s workers — 1.5 billion people — hold “vulnerable employment.” This total includes subsistence and informal workers, and unpaid family workers. This vast cohort (the “reserve army of labor” although the ILO never uses such direct terminology) will not be getting smaller in the foreseeable future. All these factors add up to more inequality. Nor is it limited to any one part of the world, the ILO report says:

“The improvement in the labour market situation in developed economies is limited and uneven, and in some countries the middle class has been shrinking, according to various measures. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has risen significantly in most advanced G20 countries. Since the start of the global crisis, top incomes have continued to increase while the poorest 40 per cent of households have tended to fall behind.” [page 4]

In one-third of the world’s countries, the “precariat” constitutes at least two-thirds of the total workforce. The percentages of those with precarious employment is much higher in developing countries than in the advanced capitalist countries, but in all parts of the world the labor force participation rate — that is, the percentage of those of working age who are employed — is slowly shrinking and is forecast by the ILO to continue to do so through the rest of the decade. Here it is the developed countries that have the lowest participation rate (60.5 percent in 2015), more than two percentage points lower than the global average.

The massive size of the precariat

A gloomy picture, indeed. A picture, however, that does not fully capture the bleakness of stagnation. The number of precarious workers is likely higher than what the ILO calculates. In their book The Endless Crisis, John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney estimate that the true size of the precariat is actually significantly larger than those with regular employment. They write:

“If we take the categories of the unemployed, the vulnerably employed, and the economically inactive population in prime working ages (25-54) and add them together, we come up with what might be called the maximum size of the global reserve army in 2011: some 2.4 billion people, compared to 1.4 billion in the active labor army. It is the existence of a reserve army that in its maximum extent is more than 70 percent larger than the active labor army that serves to restrain wages globally, and particularly in the poorer countries.” [page 143]

Capitalism is unable to create sufficient employment, and thus considers such people to be “excess population.” Mass migrations from Latin America to the United States, or from Africa and the Middle East to Europe, are consequences. In the 19th century, industrializing European countries had a safety valve in massive emigration (not so good for Indigenous peoples in the target countries of course), but there are no longer large areas into which capitalism can expand. Professors Foster and McChesney put this in stark terms:

“While such mass emigration was a possibility for the early capitalist powers, which moved out to seize large parts of the planet, it is not possible for countries of the global South today. Consequently, the kind of reduction in peasant population currently pushed by the system points, if it were effected fully, to mass genocide. An unimaginable 7 percent annual rate of growth for fifty years across the entire global South, [economist Samir] Amin points out, could not absorb even a third of this vast surplus agricultural population. …

“Aside from the direct benefits of enormously high rates of exploitation, which feed the economic surplus flowing into the advanced capitalist counties, the introduction of low-cost imports from ‘feeder economies’ in Asia and other parts of the global South by multinational corporations has a deflationary effect. This protects the value of money, particularly the dollar as the hegemonic currency, and thus the financial assets of the capitalist class. The existence of an enormous global reserve army of labor thus forces income deflation on the world’s workers, beginning in the global South, but also affecting the workers of the global North, who are increasingly subject to neoliberal ‘labour market flexibility.’ ” [pages 147, 149]

These trends become more acute as high unemployment persists. The true level of unemployment is approximately double official numbers across North America, Europe and Australia. The reason for this is that all those countries do not include discouraged workers, those employed part time but not able to secure full-time work nor all persons marginally attached to the labor force (those who wish to work but have given up).

Less pay to go with less security

With all these factors working against them, wages for working people are stagnant while productivity continues to increase — the one percent is grabbing all the wealth created. This is a global phenomenon. Employees in the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Britain and Japan have seen their pay lag behind productivity gains and income inequality widen.

Thus it comes as no surprise that labor rights are under attack everywhere. How bad? In a 2014 study, the International Trade Union Confederation determined the degree to which five basic rights — fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike — are upheld, and then assigned a numerical grade. Every country in the world had a ranking of below 50 percent. In other words, every country flunked when graded on respect for labor rights.

What to do about all this? The ILO offers these conclusions as part of its call for a “shift in economic and employment policies”:

“It is particularly important to strengthen labour market institutions and ensure that social protection systems are well designed, in order to prevent further increases in long-term unemployment, underemployment and working poverty. A rebalancing in reform efforts is also needed. In particular, financial reforms need to ensure that banks perform their role of channelling resources into the real economy and into investment for sustainable enterprise expansion and job creation.” [page 5]

We should be long past the time when it was possible to believe we could wag our fingers at bad policy-makers and expect they will see the light of day. The unceasing competition of capitalism, its relentless drive to enclose ever more human activity within its logic of profit at any cost, mandates the world we now live in. Drastic imbalances in power are inherent in capitalism; these can’t be legislated away. Thus the ILO’s prescriptions are meaningless. Reforms are possible with enough movement organization, but reforms are eventually taken back, as the past four decades has amply demonstrated.

Desires by industrialists and financiers to press their offensive against working people are behind “free trade” agreements that eliminate barriers to the movement of capital, encourage shifting of production to places with ever lower wages, and impose restrictions on the ability of governments to implement, or even maintain, laws safeguarding health, safety, labor rights and the environment. These are simply the expected outcomes under the logic of capitalism. No regulation can change that. Only a change of economic system can achieve that.

Capitalism in outer space

Would it be possible to circumvent Earth’s physical limitations with a rapid colonization of the solar system? Yet it would be a temporary panacea since humanity would still not have unlimited resources.

To put this another way: Could humanity pull a rabbit out of the hat by industrializing space and tapping the solar system’s abundant metal and gas resources to overcome the dwindling availability and environmental devastation of our home planet? Would we want to?

I’ve been stimulated to think about these questions since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel 2312. Set three centuries into the future, around the year that is its title, the novel envisions a time when humans live comfortably on Mercury, Mars, the Moon, satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, the asteroid belt, and more than 19,000 hollowed-out asteroids engineered to create a staggering assortment of environments. Still more real estate is being opened up with the terraforming of Venus nearing completion.

Complex political, environmental and social problems nonetheless endure, with multiple political blocs stretching across the solar system: a still capitalist Earth struggling with vast environmental distress, including a 20-meter rise in sea level, with various off-Earth colonies still under control of major countries; a “Mondragon Accord” consisting of off-Earth localities working together within a cooperative economy modeled on the eponymous collective enterprise; a socialist Mars, now one of the solar system’s biggest powers; and an unknown number of those hollowed-out asteroids that comprise the “unaffiliated,” some of which exist in self-imposed isolation.

Mars before terraforming (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Mars before terraforming (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

This imagined 24th century, for all its technological wonders and the copious free time of many off-Earth inhabitants, is a time of hideous inequality, particularly for Earth’s billions of desperately poor and billions more comprising a planetary precariat; these broad groups still comprise most of Earth’s population. Capitalism continues to do its work, centuries in the future, only now the divide is not North/South but rather Space/Earth.

Despite the social consciousness Mr. Robinson brings to his marvelous novels — I have been a fan of his since reading his Mars trilogy in the 1990s — this all seems rather too easy. His 2312, as with his earlier works, is outstanding literature that soars vastly above ordinary science fiction, wrestling with complex socio-economic problems and human relationships from a Left perspective through characters that are actually fully formed human beings. One of these is rare in the genre; having both puts him in very rarified company, with, for example, Ursula K. Le Guin.

Industrializing the solar system

There has frequently been an underlying pessimism in Mr. Robinson’s novels despite his creation of worlds with alternative social systems, dizzying technological advances, and racial, gender and sexual-orientation equality. That is, capitalism seems unmovable, continuing to grind down large sections of humanity and further degrading environments long past the point of any rational excuse and despite alternative socialist systems flourishing somewhere.

In light of this, let’s rephrase the opening questions I asked: Can capitalism be saved by industrializing the solar system? In the world of 2312, that is what has happened. Earth is in bad shape indeed, with 11 billion mostly precarious inhabitants, countless species wiped out and drowned cities. Food grown in and imported from hollowed-out asteroids devoted to agriculture, and access to natural resources mined across the solar system, are what keep it from complete collapse.

But, again, it seems too easy. Our present-day course continues through this century into the first decades of the 22nd century before a series of technology breakthroughs — including space elevators, artificial intelligence and automated self-replicating factories that convert raw materials into finished products — touch off a fantastic exodus into space; in less than a century the solar system out to Saturn is settled and thousands of asteroids are hollowed to create new, artificial worlds to inhabit.

Venus before the real estate rush (Image created by NASA and National Space Science Data Center via Pioneer 1 probe)

Venus before the real estate rush (Image created by NASA and National Space Science Data Center via Pioneer 1 probe)

I can’t help but think of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. So it is here, with robotic machines creating the infrastructure both to make planets, moons and space rocks inhabitable and collecting and delivering vast amounts of raw materials from across the solar system. The terraforming of Mars is made possible by stripping the Saturnian moon Titan of half of its nitrogen. Venus’ terraforming requires the disassembly of another Saturnian moon and bombarding Venus with the ex-moon’s ice while Venus cools off behind a sunscreen that blocks the Sun, freezing out its carbon dioxide atmosphere.

A truly gargantuan amount of capital would be required to finance these projects! And surely there would be a pushback against such wholesale destruction. In the author’s Mars trilogy (a different universe and story), the Mars colonists, having effected a revolution to free themselves from the grip of Earth’s dominant corporations, are divided into those who wish to go no further than the pre-revolution partial terraforming already forced through by Earth and those who wish to make Mars fully Earth-like.

In 2312, however, environmentalism is strangely absent, although internally understandable as most of the action is off Earth and virtually every character of note is a “spacer” native to someplace else — their very existence is based on artificial environments, technology, the use of resources across the solar system and political alliances across space. In such a time and place, the vast engineering that makes space civilization work would appear as an inevitability; such environmental disputes that do exist are territorial.

The chicken and egg of space

Setting aside that any systematic attempt to exploit other worlds would surely be accompanied and critiqued by an environmental movement, the depicted 24th century civilization rests entirely on magic in the Clarkeian sense. The depicted mechanics of engineering are physically possible but would they be viable for an Earth destroying itself environmentally, economically and morally?

Although ever mounting inequality could conceivably pool enough capital to make early stages of space colonization financially possible, the countervailing factors of environmental destruction, global warming, depletion of natural resources and increasing unrest on a world scale as more billions are immiserated (and all the problems that flow from them) should give us pause. Were humanity to continue on its current course into the 22nd century, it would most likely be too late.

The metals, gases and water to be found throughout the solar system would greatly expand the natural resources available for humanity, surely providing enough to create the necessary early space-colony infrastructure, but we have a chicken-and-egg problem: The resources to establish a space presence exist, but can’t be reached until we are present in space.

A rational system geared for human need rather than private profit, in which a healed planet has reversed its gathering crises, seems better equipped. There would not be the concentrated capital that now exists, but with a planned, democratic economy it might be possible to slowly establish bases on the Moon, or perhaps Mars or nearby asteroids (presumably accompanied by an environmental movement), should humanity see it in its common interest and as a spur to useful technological development distributed in an egalitarian manner.

Under capitalism, it is inevitable that private enterprise will take the helm, with expectations of the highest possible profit. But space capitalists would have to be heavily subsidized by governments; already, the U.S. space agency NASA is shifting more of its budget to contracts with private companies to launch rockets for it. Should a space program become just another corporate subsidy? And as tempting as grabbing the solar system’s natural resources may be, limitations will assert themselves. Capitalism requires ceaseless expansion and growth and that is no more possible in a finite solar system than on a finite Earth.

A badly degraded Earth, saddled with massive poverty, environmental degradation and billions struggling to survive in the face of dwindling resources and global warming, is an unlikely candidate to, in the nick of time, develop a series of magical technologies that save the day. But even this outer space cornucopia, where spacers routinely travel billions of miles the way the more privileged among us take airplane trips, is dependent on the surplus value extracted from Earth’s inhabitants, both on Earth itself and on major projects, such as the Venusian terraforming. That is so even though Earth in turn is dependent on the food and raw materials continually sent to it by spacers.

None of this, I wish to stress, is meant as a criticism of Mr. Robinson. His novel 2312 does what the best literature does — stimulate thinking at the same time we enjoy well-crafted writing. As I was reading it last month while on vacation in Vermont, my partner asked me to read a bit of it out loud to her and just the first six pages, vivid descriptions of the Mercurian city moving along a planet-circling track while “sun walkers” walk the surface ahead of the deadly sunrise on excursions, matching the pace of the city, made her want to read it herself, so enraptured did she become. Me too.

Economists say solution to problems is more of the same

Neoliberalism is dead! Long live neoliberalism! Such is the contradictory message given by the OECD in its report on the global economy’s next 50 years.

Seemingly intent on providing yet more evidence that orthodox economics is a service for the one percent rather than a science, the report’s prescriptions are a mix of advocacy of more of the same policies that have brought the world to its present crisis with mild reforms that would be in direct opposition to the logical outcomes of those same policies and contradict the interests of the corporate beneficiaries of those policies.

The paper, “Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years,” published by the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a club of the the world’s most developed countries along with a few large developing countries), carries the caveat that it does not necessarily reflect the view of OECD member countries, but as it is presented as a “synthesis” of several earlier OECD studies, it is fair to consider the paper an authoritative representation of elite thinking.

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

(Mural by Ben Shahn)

Those elites, evidently, see difficulties ahead but believe the adoption of the right policies will allow everything to be just fine as we march into the second half of the 21st century with the world capitalist system intact and robust.

Perhaps the biggest contradiction, or perhaps an unwillingness to think through the implications, is the paper’s prediction of a steady decline in world economic growth, from an overall 3.6 percent (but only 1.2 percent for OECD countries) in the 2010-2020 decade to 2.4 percent (0.5 percent for OECD countries) in the 2050-2060 decade. Although the “Policy Challenges” paper never uses the word, or so much as hints at it, that is a forecast of another half-century of stagnation.

The implications of that stagnation are a sputtering economy, more unemployment and more inequality because capitalism is a system that requires growth. A system based on endless growth can’t function without it — slow growth (all the more so no growth) means misery for working people as the recent years of “recovery” from the 2008 economic collapse has demonstrated. That is so even without the austerity policies advocated by the “Policy Challenges” paper, which would only accelerate dislocation.

A lot of austerity and a little wishful thinking

Among the prescriptions the paper calls for are:

  • More and bigger “free trade” agreements, supported by “policies that favour … worker mobility (e.g. pension portability).”
  • “Enact social insurance reforms to maintain labour supply in the face of rising longevity and an ageing workforce.”
  • Push more of the costs of a university education onto students.
  • International coordination of intellectual property rights, greenhouse-gas emissions and taxation.
  • Adoption of policies to encourage renewable energy.
  • Phasing in higher capital requirements for banks and continued “accommodative” monetary policies.
  • “Flexible” labor markets that are “pursued in a way that cushions their potentially negative impact on equality.”

At first glance, the above list appears to be a somewhat eclectic mix of austerity and, shall we say, Keynesian lite (albeit with the emphasis on austerity). But the austerity measures fit snugly into current economic policy while the ameliorative measures are directly in opposition to not only current policy but the advocated austerity measures.

It is disingenuous to advocate more corporate globalization through more and bigger “free trade” agreements while at the same arguing for harmonization of taxation and environmental rules so as to avoid a race to the bottom. The very point of corporate globalization and, especially, “free trade” agreements is to take advantage of lower wages and lesser environmental and labor standards among different countries. We already are in a race to the bottom, fueled by existing “free trade” agreements, which “harmonize” downward.

The accompanying call for “pension portability” is code for privatizing public-retirement systems. It also presupposes that working people have pensions connected to their jobs, but in the United States that is a relic of the past for the vast majority of employees. At best, a worker might have a “defined contribution” plan such as a 401(k) that mostly relies on the employee’s own contributions and shifts the risks from employer to employee. A public retirement system has no need for “portability”; only a privatized system free of employer responsibility and job security does.

Bullet point number two above, in parallel with “pension portability,” is a polite way of advocating people work more years before being eligible for retirement and receive less money on which to retire. Bizarrely, the OECD paper rests its labor prescriptions on “labor shortages in the OECD” countries! Huh? The unemployment rate for the European Union, which includes most of the OECD countries, is 10.3 percent. The official U.S. unemployment rate is 6.1 percent, but the real rate is 12.1 percent. (The “U-6” figure including part-time workers needing full-time work and discouraged workers.)

The paper forecasts “income convergence between OECD countries and developing countries” in the coming decades (although it does not address if that will be an upward or a downward convergence) that “may dampen work-related migration flows, exacerbating labour shortages in the OECD” [page 26]. Completely missing are future flows of migrants escaping environmental damage from global warming. The paper sees global warming as no big deal, despite predicting that greenhouse-gas emissions will double from 2010 to 2060.

Although the paper does state that “rising greenhouse gas concentrations pose the most comprehensively global risk to economic output,” [page 30] it projects that the cut to global gross domestic product will be only 0.7 to 2.5 percent.

Oh, that’s right, it’s the “magic of the market”

The rosy future of a benign world of international convergence in which income inequality is entirely the product of differentiated skill levels depicted by the OECD paper rests on the neoliberal belief in “free trade” agreements. The paper asserts:

“Openness to trade is associated with higher incomes and growth. These benefits are transmitted through several channels: shifting production from low to high productive locations; relocation of factors of production towards sectors and firms with high productivity; and rising incomes due to an increase in market size that supports more specialisation, faster technology diffusion and stronger incentives to invest in ‘non-rival’ assets.” [page 34, citation omitted]

Reality is far different from these neoliberal fairly tales. Production has been shifted to “high-productive locations” only if we define those as locations in which the maximum possible amount of profit is extracted through the lowest wages and harshest working conditions. That is “productive” — for the industrialists and financiers who extract and pocket these profits.

That “free trade” agreements fill the pockets of capitalists while immiserating working people certainly accounts for much of the reason for the persistent promotion of them as job-building exercises, but not all of it. Ideology also plays a part. The economic models are based on the “magic of the market” that assume, inter alia, that capital and labor instantaneously react to changing conditions but never cross national borders; that market mechanisms will ensure full use of all resources; and that flexible exchange rates will prevent lowered tariffs from causing changes in trade balances.

In his recent book, Capitalist Globalization: Consequences, Resistance, and Alternatives, non-orthodox economics professor Martin Hart-Landsberg dismantled these arguments. He wrote:

“[T]his kind of modeling assumes a world in which liberalization cannot, by assumption, cause or worsen unemployment, capital flight or trade imbalances. Thanks to these assumptions, if a country drops its trade restrictions, market forces will quickly and effortlessly lead capital and labor to shift into new, more productive uses. And since trade always remains in balance, this restructuring will generate a dollar’s worth of new exports for every dollar of new imports. Given these assumptions, it is no wonder that mainstream economic studies always produce results supporting ratification of free trade agreements.”

That is still the case as seen in the unrealistic, propagandized boosterism for deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and more subtle but similar assumptions imbedded in the OECD “Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years” paper. The paper, despite its embrace of more reliance on market forces as the “solution” to human development, is seemingly oblivious to the consequences of markets.

Market forces will call the tune, not wishful thinking

Calls for international coordination of taxation and governmental regulations, and for higher capital requirements for banks, fly directly in the face of what has and and will occur as a result of market forces — a race to the bottom. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. “Free trade” agreements continually push rules more draconian, and facilitate monopolies on an international scale, because doing so benefits those interests. That is why these agreements are negotiated in secret, with full participation by corporate lobbyists while labor and environmental advocates are shut out.

To argue, as the final bullet point above does, that “flexible” labor markets should be “pursued in a way that cushions their potentially negative impact on equality” is oxymoronic. Just how are the falling wages and substitution of part-time work for full-time generated by labor “flexibility” not going to create a “negative impact” on equality?

(OECD projections of world economic growth. Graphic from "Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years" paper, page 15, OECD)

(OECD projections of world economic growth. Graphic from “Policy Challenges for the Next 50 Years” paper, page 15, OECD)

The slowing growth forecast — in particular for the world’s mature capitalist countries, forecast to decline to 0.5 percent annually by mid-century and not average much above one percent per year during any other decade — contains serious implications. Again, that is a forecast of permanent stagnation. Under capitalism, gross domestic products must increase faster than the working population because of new machinery, computerization, work speedups and layoffs continually introduced by capitalists subject to relentless competitive pressures.

Economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary simply to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer.

Capitalism already fails to produce jobs. Using International Labour Organisation figures as a starting point, professors John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. 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 only 1.4 billion!

The stimulus to the global economy from the Internet has likely already run its course; thus it would take a future unforeseen technological breakthrough to provide growth on the scale of what was seen during much of the 20th century. The economist Robert J. Gordon, in a 2012 paper forecasting dwindling future growth, argued that this most recent period of innovation from computers focused on entertainment and communication devices, while earlier periods of innovation brought a rapid series of inventions that took upwards of a century to be fully realized, fueling long periods of growths.

A major effect of the mass introduction of computers was simply to shift commerce to online merchants from traditional ones. By contrast, the taming of electricity and the inventions of steam engines and automobiles powered development for long periods of time.

An economic system designed to meet human needs, rather than private profit, would have no need to grow. But as capitalism is designed for private profit, and requires continual growth to maintain itself, harsher austerity (and the force that will be necessary to implement it) is what is on offer by the world’s elites.