Wishing for central banks to act in the interest of working people rather than the financial industry is about as fruitful as hoping a starving wolf won’t eat the chicken that was just placed next to it. Pigs will fly, the Amazon will freeze over and Wall Street will give all its money away before a central bank in the capitalist core goes against its raison d’être.
We need no fresh reminders of central bank behavior. Consider that just five central banks — the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada — handed out about US$10 trillion (€8.8 trillion) to artificially prop up financial markets in the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic on top of the US$9.36 trillion (or €8.3 trillion at the early 2020 exchange rate) that was spent on propping up financial markets in the years following the 2008 global economic collapse.
So about $20 trillion — that’s the equivalent of a year’s gross domestic product of Japan, Germany, India, the United Kingdom, France and Italy combined — to reward the most parasitic portion of the economy, an industry that confiscates money not only from all of you who work for a living but from industrial capital as well. What did you get? Little or, more likely, nothing. Actually, what you have been getting for the past year is worse than nothing. And that brings us to the topic of interest rates. Although we ordinary mortals are not supposed to comprehend the mystical alchemy of the practitioners of high finance as they conjure the forces of capitalism to magically guide the economy to a steady course, in reality there is no mystery.
Given a choice among the Federal Reserve’s three congressionally mandated goals — maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates — employment is what is jettisoned every time. The European Central Bank is a little more honest by listing its single goal to be to “maintain price stability.” The Bank of Canada is somewhere between those two by stating that its mandate is “to promote the economic and financial welfare of Canada.”
Of course, with bankers defining “welfare of Canada,” we need not hold our breath in anticipation of how that “welfare” will be determined. Although there are reasons for the sudden appearance of price inflation from early 2022, this really isn’t a mystery, either. Ongoing supply-chain disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, drastic rises in fuel prices due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Western cutoff of Russian energy in response, and good old fashioned corporate greed account for the past year’s inflation, not wage increases. How to respond? The world’s central banks responded in unison — throw people out of work to dampen the economy.
Indeed, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail to be hit hard. Perhaps central bank officials do have other tools, but can’t seem to find anything other than the hammer. The hammer here is interest rates, and they have been using their one and only inflation-fighting tactic of rapidly raising interest rates to slow down the economy. By making it more expensive to borrow money, business and consumer spending will slacken and when that happens, layoffs follow.
When the hammer is the only tool and it is used on you
Inflation is not good, but central bank officials are not using their hammer because they are upset that you are paying more for groceries but rather because inflation reduces the value of speculators’ financial assets. Just as the then chair of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, plunged the United States into what was then the steepest recession since the Great Depression by raising interest rates to unprecedented highs, and thereby causing unemployment to skyrocket to 10.8% — with the enthusiastic support of the Reagan administration even though Volcker was an appointee of Jimmy Carter — interest rates have risen sharply this year. Nowhere near to the extent of the early 1980s, yet, but enough to make a recession a real possibility in 2023.
Here are a few numbers to illustrate this:
The Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate to 4.375% in December 2022, up from 0.125% at the start of 2022, with more to come.
The European Central Bank has raised its benchmark rate for lending to banks to 2.5%, up from years of 0%, with more raises expected.
The Bank of Canada raised its policy interest rate seven times in 2022, to 4.25% from 0.25% in March.
The Bank of England raised its interest rate eight times in 2022, reaching 3.5% in December 2022, with further raises expected.
The bottom line is that you’ll pay more to use your credit card and the price of mortgages (and rents) will rise even higher; housing costs are already obscenely high because housing is a commodity. Bank profits, however, will go up — and there is nothing more important than that for bankers, in or out of central bank offices.
So although there are always a few spare trillions dollars or euros or pounds or yen lying around to shovel into the bottomless pockets of financiers, it’s crumbs for you if you are lucky. Thus central banks are acting in the interest of speculators with these rapid-fire interest rate increases just as they did for years following the 2008 economic crash that financiers caused and then again in the wake of the sudden 2020 downturn triggered by the pandemic. Their standard solution to recessions is to throw more money at banks and inflate another stock-market bubble. Now that wages have temporarily ceased falling (and even slightly nudged upward) and unemployment has fallen sharply, it’s time to apply a different medicine, one that, in a remarkable coincidence, also punishes working people and rewards speculators.
So, are central banks simply evil people? Is it time to “end the Fed” as Federal Reserve critics frequently call for in the United States? Or to put an end to other central banks?
Ironically, the answer is no.
That answer certainly is counter-intuitive. Why shouldn’t we be rid of institutions that do so much to perpetuate, and widen, inequality, and which are run by bankers for the benefit of bankers despite being formally government institutions? Simply put, if you don’t like what the Federal Reserve, or the European Central Bank, or any other central bank does, what you actually don’t like is the capitalist system. The Federal Reserve, for example, is surely (as its critics accurately charge) a far too secretive, unaccountable branch of government that protects the interests of financiers at the expense of everybody else. Nothing unique there. The European Central Bank is perhaps the world’s most undemocratic central bank — it is the most powerful entity in the European Union and is completely unaccountable to anyone, openly operating on behalf of European finance capital.
Recall how Greece was treated by the European Central Bank during the country’s financial crisis of the mid-2010s. The ECB issued a series of diktats that cut off all funding for the Greek government, including from Greek banks, in order to bring the new Syriza government to its knees and force a full surrender to punishing austerity imposed by it, the European Union and International Monetary Fund. So harsh were these measures that the IMF reportedly said the ECB was too extreme in its austerity measures! The Greek economy was crushed to ensure banks that lent to Athens, in particular French and German banks, would be repaid in full no matter the cost to Greeks.
No sense reforming what can’t be reformed
Democratically accountable central banks that promulgated policies to increase employment and toward a socially responsible financial system would be welcome reforms. But such a reform is an impossibility, and not simply because central banks are outside any democratic accountability under the official rationale of lessening “political interference” in economic decision-making but in reality because finance capital is so powerful that it can demand, and has received, the right to act without constraints in its own interests. As much as powerful capitalists possess the ability to bend government politics toward their preferred outcomes, finance is the only industry that has government departments dedicated to it, that its executives manage independently of any other government entity.
If it can’t be reformed, why not get rid of it? Eliminating central banks while keeping the rest of capitalism in place is a pointless idea because they are a necessity in advanced capitalist countries, which is why each has one. And, perversely, eliminating the central bank would actually increase the dominance of financiers and would make the booms and busts of the capitalist business cycle sharper than they already are.
Strange as it seems today, there was a populist component to the creation of the Federal Reserve. Populists of the late 19th century wanted a more elastic currency so that the government could extend emergency credit when the economy collapsed (as it then frequently did) rather than be handcuffed by the gold standard. In those days, when a crash happened, the U.S. government had to turn to the biggest robber barons of the day, such as J.P. Morgan, and ask them directly for a bailout.
Banks hoarded their reserves during crashes, making the downturns worse, and could issue their own banknotes, helping to fuel bubbles. But, since we are talking about the United States, it took a consensus on Wall Street and not popular demand for a central bank to be created in 1913. Financiers had come to believe that a central bank would temper the extremes of booms and busts, thereby stabilizing the economy. Industrialists joined financiers in that consensus.
Needless to say, the capitalists and not the populists were the drivers of Fed policy from the beginning. But a central bank does, albeit in a highly inegalitarian manner, stabilize a national economy through regulating credit and alternately tightening and loosening monetary policy. Central banks in all advanced capitalist countries manage domestic money supplies and currencies, a crucial task in today’s world in which markets subject to wild swings set prices for everything.
Somewhat similarly, the Bank of England, created in 1694 by royal charter, “was founded to ‘promote the public Good and Benefit of our People,’ ” according to its website. Despite that lofty sentiment, the bank admits it was created primarily to fund a war against France. The Bank of England was nationalized in 1946 and although it remains wholly owned by the British government, it, like central banks generally, is “independent” — in other words, completely free of democratic accountability. That independence” was granted by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997. Not for nothing did Margaret Thatcher say her greatest accomplishment was “Tony Blair and New Labour.”
It won’t come as a surprise that financial institutions are skilled at finding ways around central bank policies. Not that central banks don’t act in those interests — the Fed under Alan Greenspan encouraged the 1990s stock market bubble and the real estate bubble of the 2000s, and following the 2008 crash, Ben Bernanke was focused on the then long non-existent phantom of inflation while ignoring the all too real problem of high unemployment. The European Central Bank is, if anything, even more guilty of that than the Federal Reserve.
If central banks went away, financiers wouldn’t
The entire capitalist system acts to benefit capitalists (industrialists and financiers) to the detriment of working people. Why should we expect an arm of a capitalist government to act any different? If central banks were eliminated, the exact same powerful capitalist interests would continue to bend government policy to their preferred outcome and would continue to exercise the same dominance over government, social institutions and the mass media. The only difference would be that the economy would become more unstable than it already is because there would be less ability on the part of governments to dampen excesses. Why would that be good?
Capitalism is an unstable system that will always have booms and busts, and as time goes on the busts tend to worsen. (That tendency was temporarily kept at bay after the Great Depression by significant reforms, but those reforms have been undone and the tendency has reasserted itself.) Capitalism is a system in which those who amass the capital thereby amass power, and power translates into the ability to bend the rules to preferred outcomes or to bypass the rules. Money concentrates into fewer hands and wages are squeezed to facilitate the upward flow of money. Those who succeed are the people endowed with outsized desires to acquire and the personality traits that enable those desires to be met.
Yes, those people so endowed can and do create policy for central banks. Eliminating those banks wouldn’t touch the ability of people so endowed to suffuse their viewpoints and favored policy outcomes throughout a capitalist society, nor would it touch their ability to leverage their outsized wealth and the power their wealth gives them to shape government policy and public opinion making to benefit themselves. Getting rid of government would actually intensify the dominance of industrialists and financiers in all spheres of life. The dominance of a globalized class that maintains power through a web of institutions and scrambles to manage ceaseless instability — not a small cabal of bankers who somehow control everything, an idea rooted in Right-wing conspiracy theories that easily shade off into anti-Semitism.
None of the foregoing is to suggest that we should simply accept the brutal, dehumanizing capitalist system. But rather than hankering for reforms that might actually make it worse, a better world with an economy designed for human needs is what we should be after. If we blame central banks instead of the system that it is a component of, then we are doing nothing more than blaming the messenger. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the composite expression of the interests of the largest industrialists and financiers, and allowing those markets even greater freedom is what we should be fighting, not tacitly helping.
There is no respite from class warfare. Past annual Global Rights Index reports issued by the International Trade Union Confederation have invariably shown that there is no country on Earth that fully protects workers’ rights and the 2022 edition is not only not an exception but finds that repression of labor organizing is increasing.
The best any country scored for the 2022 ITUC Global Rights Index was “sporadic violations of rights,” and only nine countries, all in Europe, managed that. That’s down from the dozen classified at this rating two years ago. Capitalism, and its neoliberal variant now four decades old, is not becoming more gentle. It is doing what it must do, what the holders of capital must do to keep their party going.
Let’s take a look at a few general highlights before we highlight individual countries. Or should we say lowlights? Then again, they are “highlights” for industrialists and financiers.
87% of countries violated the right to strike.
79% of countries violated the right to collective bargaining.
77% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish or join a trade union.
74% of countries impeded the registration of unions.
In its executive summary, the Global Rights Index report says:
“Workers are on the front lines as they face the impact of multiple areas of crisis: historic levels of inequality, the climate emergency, the loss of lives and livelihoods from the pandemic, and the devastating impact of conflict. And workplaces are the front line in the fight for democracy. Brutal governments know how much this matters when four out of five countries block collective bargaining and one third of countries violently attack workers. Trade unionists have been murdered on every continent. Where people stand up for rights and social justice they are silenced with brutal repression.”
Lest we think these are problems only in undeveloped countries, there are Global North countries that score poorly in the index, including Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada and the United States. Almost all trends are getting worse, in all parts of the world. Several indicators — including the right to strike, the right to establish and join a trade union, the right to trade union activities and the right to civil liberties — have steadily worsened since the survey’s annual reports began being issued in 2014. “The number of countries which exclude workers from their right to establish or join a trade union increased from 106 in 2021 to 113 in 2022,” the report said.
The Global Rights Index ranks the world’s countries from 1 to 5, with 1 the best category, denoting “sporadic violations of rights,” defined as where “Violations against workers are not absent but do not occur on a regular basis.” The nine countries given a rating of 1 are Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Norway and Sweden. (These are green on the report’s maps.)
Rating 2 countries are those with “repeated violations of rights,” defined as where “Certain rights have come under repeated attacks by governments and/or companies and have undermined the struggle for better working conditions.” Countries with this rating include the Czech Republic, France, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain. (These are yellow on the report’s maps.)
Rating 3 countries are those with “regular violations of rights,” defined as where “Governments and/or companies are regularly interfering in collective labour rights or are failing to fully guarantee important aspects of these rights” due to legal deficiencies “which make frequent violations possible.” Countries with this rating include Argentina, Britain, Canada, Mexico and South Africa. (These are light orange on the report’s maps.)
Rating 4 countries are those with “systematic violations of rights,” defined as where “The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers, putting fundamental rights under threat.” Countries with this rating include Australia, Chile, Greece, Peru, Senegal and the United States. (These are dark orange on the report’s maps.)
Rating 5 countries are those with “no guarantees of rights,” defined as “workers have effectively no access to these rights [spelled out in legislation] and are therefore exposed to autocratic regimes and unfair labour practices.” Countries with this rating include Brazil, China, Colombia, South Korea and Turkey. (These are red on the report’s maps.) In addition, there are countries with a 5+ rating, those with “No guarantee of rights due to the breakdown of the rule of law.” Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen are among the 10 counties listed in this category, and are colored deep red.
The ITUC says it represents 200 million workers in 163 countries and has 332 national affiliates. It determines its ratings by checking adherence to a list of 97 standards derived from International Labour Organization conventions. Those 97 standards pertain to civil liberties, the right to establish or join unions, trade union activities, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike.
Worth noting is the poor rating of the United States and Britain, the two countries that most like to scold other governments and present themselves as democratic beacons that the world should emulate (or else). The United States has consistently been given a 4 rating, including in 2020 and 2019. The 2022 report notes a myriad of union-busting offensives used by employers there. The United Kingdom, which has had 3 and 4 ratings in past years, has seen workers summarily sacked and replaced with agency workers at below minimum wage.
Conditions are not appreciably better in those countries most eager to follow U.S. and British leads. In Canada, failures to comply with collective-bargaining agreements are a “common occurrence,” union leaders are prosecuted for participating in strikes and workers participating in strikes are fired. In Australia, criminal charges are filed against unions and union leaders as intimidation tactics, and governments not only allow employers to refuse to bargain with unions but intervene in disputes on the side of employers. Both countries are ranked worse than where they had been two years ago.
And so it goes, to channel Kurt Vonnegut. In its latest report on “the world of work,” the International Labour Organization (ILO) said “three out of five workers lived in countries where labour incomes had not yet recovered to their level prior to the crisis,” while inequality and the gender gap in pay remain large. A separate ILO report said “a return to pre-pandemic performance is likely to remain elusive for much of the world over the coming years,” with a global deficit of 52 million full-time equivalent jobs. Tens of millions of adults fell into extreme poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic.
These dismal results aren’t any surprise to anyone paying attention. The wealthy, and especially billionaires, have only gotten richer at everyone else’s expense during the pandemic. In just the first year of the pandemic, 2020, the world’s billionaires accumulated an additional trillion dollars. At the same time, corporations across the Global North enrich speculators and their top executives with trillions of dollars in dividend payments and stock buybacks and the world’s governments, through their central banks, handed out an astounding $10 trillion in free money to the financial industry through “quantitative easing” programs, the technical name for intervening in financial markets by creating vast sums of money specifically to be injected into them and thereby inflating stock-market bubbles. Despite these incredible sums of money, there is never more than crumbs for working people. It’s always austerity for those whose work actually creates the wealth that industrialists and financiers divvy up between themselves.
But central bank interventions are profitable for the financial industry, and that’s all that matters. The object of capitalism is to make the biggest possible profit, regardless of cost to employees, consumers, anybody else, the environment or the community; providing a useful product or service is incidental to the goal. Forcing down wages and working conditions through legal manipulation and outright force and violence is always prominent among capitalists’ methodologies to accomplish their goals. The International Trade Union Confederation’s sad results are not the result of some mysterious failure; they come standard with the system.
The size of the financial industry bears no relation to the economy. Self-mythological panegyrics aside, the finance industry confiscates money; it doesn’t create it. How much? Get out your calculators, and maybe you’ll have to find a way to add a couple of digits to what your screen can hold.
Perhaps the total amount of money extracted by financiers (or, more to the point, speculators) is not quite as large as Douglas Adams’ description of space in the, yes, increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhikers’ Trilogy, as “Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is.” But it’s close.
OK, let’s put down a couple of numbers here. The numbers on their own are so absurd as to defy easy comprehension, so let’s try to find a way to situate them.
Total amount of financial instruments traded, on average, per day: US$9.68 trillion (€9.65 trillion).
Yep, that’s a whole lot of money. So big that the imagination struggles to grasp such numbers. One way to put those numbers in perspective is that the size of the world economy (global gross domestic product for all the world’s countries) was US$96.1 trillion (€95.8 trillion) in 2021.
In other words, the volume of currency trading (foreign exchange), stocks, bonds and their derivatives exceeds the size of the global economy in 10 business days. (The period is almost certainly a little less, as that US$9.68 trillion in average daily trading doesn’t include most government bonds, trading figures for which are difficult to come by.) To create another comparison, the amount of debt owed by the world’s governments, businesses and households (the $305 trillion total above) is more than three and a half times of the value of all economic activity produced in a year.
Still another way to look at this activity is that foreign exchange trading (including swaps, options, spot transactions and outright forwards) in one day is bigger than the economies of all countries other than the United States and China. Given that the U.S. dollar, the world’s reserve currency, is involved in 88 percent of foreign exchange trades, trading in the dollar by itself totals more than a year’s production of all countries other than itself and China.
A multi-headed monster that is never satiated
Rolling Stone magazine once memorably described Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” That makes finance capital as a whole a multi-headed monster with the attributes of a tyrannosaurus rex, killer whale, giant squid and elephant that can swallow ships at sea whole, fly through the air at supersonic speed and never stops eating. Or something like that. Perhaps some planet-eating monster in a science fiction potboiler? Maybe we can fall back on Douglas Adams after all, and just consider the financial industry vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big.
And getting bigger. When I last did this exercise 10 years ago, it took about 11 business days for speculators to trade financial instruments and contracts valued at all the products and services produced by the entire world in one year. Now it’s 10 days. There’s progress for you.
There is no rational economic reason for a financial industry — and “bloated” would be woefully inadequate to describe it — even a fraction of this size. Most of the action on stock exchanges is simply speculation. Greed is certainly a part of the picture, but by no means the entire picture. Because there are insufficient opportunities for investment, more money is diverted into speculation. As ever bigger piles of money are diverted into speculation, the size of the financial industry and the percentage of corporate profits claimed by the financial industry steadily grows. This capital is a function of the amount of money flowing upward to the rich becoming larger than they can use for personal luxury consumption or investment; these torrents of money are diverted into increasingly risky pure speculation.
Too much money comes to chase too few assets, rapidly bidding up prices until there is no possible revenue stream that can sustain the price of assets bought at inflated levels. Not altogether different from those Warner Brothers cartoons in which the character walks off a cliff, takes several steps suspended in air before looking down, sees there is nothing but air below and then falls, at some point speculators look down and notice they have no support, mass panic commences and prices collapse, bringing on another economic downturn. One that working people, not speculators, will pay for.
The very size of financial markets is a major contributing cause of economic instability. Financial companies, having extracted immense sums of bailout money after the 2008 collapse, have leveraged their power to become even bigger through consolidation, thereby enabling them to divert more capital from productive use. But even during the “boom” portion of business cycles financiers are destructive to an economy by rewarding manufacturers for mass layoffs, moving production to low-wage developing countries with few or no effective labor or environmental laws, and setting up subsidiaries overseas and using creative accounting to shift profits offshore to avoid paying taxes. Financiers provide rewards for such behavior in the form of rising stock prices, and those stock prices in turn provide top executives a rationale to give themselves stratospheric pay packages because they “enhanced shareholder value.”
In turn, there is continual downward pressure on wages — an increasing share of corporate revenues go toward executive pay and profits as the share going toward wages declines. And much of those corporate profits are quickly funneled into dividends and stock buybacks, yet more ways for money to move upward into the ever grasping hands of super-wealthy speculators.
As I wrote back in June, the corporations of North America, Europe and Japan handed out an astounding US$2.75 trillion (€2.63 trillion at then exchange rates) to shareholders in 2021 through dividend payments and stock buybacks. By February 2022, the amount of money created by the central banks of five of the world’s biggest economies for the purpose of artificially propping up financial markets since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic totaled US$9.94 trillion (€8.76 trillion). That is on top of the US$9.36 trillion (€8.3 trillion at the early 2020 exchange rate) that was spent on propping up financial markets in the years following the 2008 global economic collapse. That’s US$19.3 trillion (€17.1 trillion) in the span of 14 years, and this astounding sum of subsidies and handouts represents only one program of the many used by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada.
Crash to crash, but it’s you who is supposed to fall down
How could a parasitic industry grow to such gargantuan proportions? In theory, stock markets exist to distribute investment capital to where it is needed and to enable corporations to raise money for investment or other purposes. In real life, neither is really true. A corporation with stock traded on an exchange can use that status to issue new shares, raising money without the burden of dealing with lenders and paying them interest. But large corporations can raise money in a variety of ways, for example by issuing bonds or other interest-bearing debt, or by selling shares directly to private investors. Nor do corporations necessarily wish to float new stock — doing so is disliked by investors because profits are diluted when spread among more shares. Instead, it is more common for large companies to buy back shares of their stock (at a premium to the trading price), which means less sharing of distributed profits. And thus the steady increase in buybacks, which combined with dividends, in some years exceeds the total of profits!
And what of distributing investment capital to where it is needed? That is saying, in so many words, that stock markets make finance more efficient — that capital will be put to use in the industries or companies in which a high profit is seen as a good bet because a company is filling a need with a product but lacks sufficient capital to take full advantage, or that the company already has a history of delivering profits. At bottom, buying stock is a gamble on the future profits of the company in which stock is bought. An investor is betting that profits will not only rise, but rise at a faster rate than in the past. I at one time worked on a financial news wire service, and one day was surprised when the stock price of a well-known technology company fell despite announcing it had earned a profit of $800 million for the previous three months, a higher profit than the same quarter in the previous year. On closer examination, the company was punished by speculators because the rate of the increase of the profit did not increase — this gigantic profit was lower than what stock market “analysts” had predicted.
This illustrates that trading is primarily done for speculation, not for any rational economic reason. The beginnings of the financial industry lie in the very slow rate of business in the early days of capitalism; it could take years for an investment made on the other side of the globe to pay off. Thus financiers stepped in to provide cash liquidity. But because financial speculation doesn’t have the physical limitations of the production of tangible goods, speculation would become prominent. Indeed, financial crashes long predate the crashes of 1929 and 2008. “Tulip mania” consumed the Dutch in the 1630s, speculation fueled by the first futures contracts; uncontrolled speculation in the 1710s in the English South Sea Company and the French Company of the Indies led to the collapse of stock in both, a bubble in which short selling was born; an 1830s bubble in U.S. real estate burst when banks stopped making payments; and an 1870s bubble inflated by speculation in railroads and construction in North America and Europe burst when the Vienna stock market crashed, followed by waves of bank failures, to note some of the more well-known examples.
The world’s billionaires and multi-national corporations profited enormously from the Covid-19 pandemic, enormously inflating their wealth. Not surprisingly, debt increased dramatically as well. The 2020 increase in debt was the biggest for any year since World War II, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Half of the 2020 increase in debt was governmental, again no surprise given the trillions handed out to financial institutions that year. According to the IMF, “Debt increases are particularly striking in advanced economies, where public debt rose from around 70 percent of GDP, in 2007, to 124 percent of GDP, in 2020. Private debt, on the other hand, rose at a more moderate pace from 164 to 178 percent of GDP, in the same period. … Public debt now accounts for almost 40 percent of total global debt, the highest share since the mid-1960s.”
Extracting money from those who work
It should always be remembered that profit comes from a capitalist paying to employees much less than the value of what they produce. In turn, the financial industry extracts money from the producers of tangible goods and services, and often from governments as well. Finance capital seeks to profit off any and all economic activity anywhere, regardless of cost to everybody else. It’s incredibly profitable — not only are investment banks among the most profitable corporations, but speculators can rake in hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars annually — and they pay less in taxes that you do!
Not even the biggest corporations are immune from financial industry pressure. Several years ago, DuPont, the chemical multi-national that produces many products that dominate their market, had racked up about US$17.8 billion in profits over five years, handed out $4 billion to shareholders from the proceeds of selling its performance chemicals business and boasted a one-year increase in its stock price of 20 percent. Yet a powerful hedge-fund manager declared war on DuPont management, demanding DuPont be broken up into two companies, under the theory that more profit could be extracted. The speculator did not get what he wanted, but DuPont did lay off workers to appease speculators despite its massive profitability. Ultimately, DuPont merged with Dow Chemical and then the combined conglomerate split into three companies, maneuvering done mainly to throw more cash at speculators.
Even Wal-Mart is not ruthless enough for Wall Street. After five years of massive profits (US$80 billion), speculators began driving down the price of Wal-Mart stock in part because the company had raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour. Wal-Mart did attempt to offset that news by also announcing a new $20 billion buyback of shares, but not even blowing that kiss to financiers served to lift speculator moods. Thus the company that is the most ruthless in accelerating the trend of moving manufacturing to the locations with the lowest wages, legendary for its relentless pressure on its suppliers to manufacture at such low cost that they have no choice but to move their production to China, or Bangladesh, or Vietnam, because the suppliers can’t pay more than starvation wages and remain in business, was deemed by financiers to be insufficiently brutal.
As always, it’s heads, Wall Street wins and tails, Wall Street wins. Those fantastic values of financial instruments traded don’t fall from the sky and aren’t because of some rare acumen of speculators. Those sums of money, which would put orbiting satellites at risk if they were stacked up, are the direct result of exploitation of those who work.
Six years is an eternity in politics. Consider what was common opinion at the start of 2016: That changing demographics in the United States favored the Democratic Party; it would soon be impossible for Republicans to win a national election unless they sharply changed from their primary strategy of sending dog whistles to their base of conservative white people, a dwindling percentage of the U.S. population.
Six short years later, there is not only much hand-wringing that Republicans are using bare-knuckle tactics that are poised to give themselves a permanent grip on power despite their minority status but there is open worry of a possible coup by fascistic elements in the Republican Party that would put an end to formal democracy. No longer, it seems, is demographics destiny; the Democratic Party, ever haughtily giving the back of the hand to its base, had believed it merely need show up to win elections.
One year on from Donald Trump’s attempt at a fascist coup — that the attack on the Capitol by his deluded but fanatical followers had no chance to succeed does not mitigate the severity of that day — the Orange Menace’s grip on the worst of the two parties of capital has further tightened. And perhaps Republicans won’t have to resort to widespread cheating and voter suppression to win back the White House — not that the possibility will in any way give them second thoughts about blocking access to the ballot box — given the pathetic performance of Democrats since winning the 2020 elections, a lack of results dismal even by Democrats’ standards of ineptitude.
Many reading these lines will wonder why we should care which party wins since neither of the two parties of capital will work for working people, who constitute the vast majority of United Statesians as they do in any advanced capitalist country. Even the minuscule number of genuine progressives among Democratic members of Congress are constrained by their party’s dominant corporate wing and, due to the material realities of elite politics, inevitably find themselves politically supporting that wing. Nor is the corporate wing reluctant to undercut its electoral base and its progressive colleagues. Witness House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doing an end-run around the Squad’s refusal to back the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the larger Build Back Better bill passed the Senate by gathering sufficient Republican votes to win passage of the infrastructure bill and thus torpedo the only leverage the party had over its two Senate holdouts, fossil-fuel mouthpiece Joe Manchin and perfidious Kyrsten Sinema. It is impossible to avoid thinking there are other Democrats secretly glad the focus is on those two holdouts, allowing them to avoid the pressure to vote for Build Back Better.
There are others who argue that people should hold their noses and vote for Democrats anyway, given that when Democrats are in office there is more room to maneuver and some possibility of some small reforms. The all-out assault by Republicans, when Trump occupied the White House, on seemingly every front does provide support to lesser-evilism voting. So those who do hold their noses and vote for Democrats won’t get any criticism from me although I can’t bring myself to do it. Whether voting for lesser evils or for socialist or Green candidates, the important thing is to be involved in organizing; taking a half-hour to vote once a year need not detract from activist work.
Nonetheless, there are anti-capitalists, including Marxists, who argue forcefully that Trump and his minions are a unique threat, a threat that rises to the threat of fascism. Fascism is far worse than capitalist formal democracy, sham as the latter is. There is no question, or shouldn’t be, that Trump has aspirations of being a fascist dictator. That alone should be enough to see him and his followers as a mortal threat. Trump does not have sufficient support of industrialists and financiers (however much they applaud what he did for them while in office) to actually become a fascist dictator, and his base, although depressingly large and immune to reason and reality, is not big enough for a successful putsch.
Trump does have the blind support of the Republican Party, after Republican leaders momentarily wavered during the immediate aftermath of the 2021 insurrection, so he does have an institutional base he originally lacked — an institution that has become singularly focused on voter suppression and using all means available to put themselves in a position to overturn election results that don’t go their way. There is indeed here an existential threat to the formal democracy of the United States. History provides no shortage of warnings of what could happen, from Weimar Germany and post-World War 1 Italy to Chile and Argentina in the 1970s.
Fascism is a specific form of dictatorship
First, let’s clarify what the political term fascism means. It does not mean any right-wing movement or politician we don’t like, and shouldn’t be thrown around as such. What it does reference is a specific political phenomenon.
At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.
Despite national differences that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter the content of a fascist movement’s rhetoric, and is invariably the beneficiary. Instituting a fascist dictatorship is no easy decision even for the biggest industrialists, bankers and landowners who might salivate over the potential profits. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these big businessmen are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism — some form of democratic government, under which citizens “consent” to the ruling structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain.
Fascism is instituted when it is no longer possible for capitalists to enjoy the profits they believe they are entitled to, or to put a forceful end to large and rising left-wing movements threatening the power of industrialists and financiers. Neither of these conditions are in place in the United States, and with one party dedicated to using existing legal power to repress working people and giving capitalists all they want, and the other party giving them much of what they want while absorbing and smothering nascent movements, formal democracy works just fine for them. What immediate need do they have of going to the trouble of instituting a dictatorship? (Although some of course would love to have one no matter the circumstances.)
The foregoing does not give us license to be complacent. The economy is fragile, environmental destruction steadily mounts, and the numbers of people willing to oppose capitalism has grown tremendously over the past couple of decades, particularly since the 2008 economic crash. And industrialists and financiers — the bourgeoisie to use the classical term — believe themselves entitled to rule. The most important lesson from studying the fascism of the past is the overwhelming violence they will use to keep themselves in power. (No surprise there, given that violence, slavery, colonialism and plunder established capitalism and has kept it in place ever since.) U.S. capitalists are quite content to have police and the world’s biggest and most well-equipped military at their service, and there has never been much hesitation to use it.
If conditions continue to deteriorate, then Trump (or, more likely, someone with more intelligence and self-control) could be tapped on the shoulder. Trump is hardly the only demagogue out there. It could have happened in the 1930s. In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first year as president, a group of bankers and industrialists, backed by financing from DuPont, General Motors and Morgan Bank, hatched a scheme to institute fascism. Wall Street bond salesman Gerald McGuire approached retired Marine Corps General Smedley Butler with an offer for him to be the fascist leader and deliver an ultimatum to Roosevelt to either take orders from businessmen or be forced from office by an army of 500,000 veterans. Their arms were to be supplied by Remington, a DuPont subsidiary.
Butler declined, informed Roosevelt and the plan was defused by leaking it to the press. No one was punished and the coup threat was treated as a joke. Perhaps the coup plotters didn’t do their homework — Butler, in 1929, became the first general officer since the Civil War to be placed under arrest. His crime? Criticizing Benito Mussolini! Butler, summing up his highly decorated career in 1935, said in an interview, “I spent thirty three years and four months [in] the Marine Corps. … [D]uring that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”
Don’t confuse form with content
What we shouldn’t get hung up on is appearances. Chilean fascism under Pinochet and the Argentine “Process” took different forms than did the classical German and Italian varieties, and any fascism in the U.S. would have further divergences and would be wrapped in Christian fundamentalism and phony right-wing “populism.” Political culture in North America is such that brownshirts goose-stepping down the street wouldn’t have much appeal, and we need not have that. There were fascist street gangs in Chile and Argentina who did much marauding and received funding, but in those cases the military was the decisive organization. The military and police would almost certainly be decisive in any fascist takeover in the U.S., with crucial support from the right-wing militias that already exist and Trump’s middle-class base that we saw in action at the Capitol during the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
Comparisons of present-day United States to Weimar Germany are easily overstated, but the years leading up to Hitler being handed power (it is a myth that he was elected) are instructive. Consider the full name of the Nazi party — the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Yet workers were whom the Nazis intended to suppress on behalf of their corporate benefactors. At the same time that Nazi rhetoric claimed to uphold the right to strike and other worker interests, Hitler was assuring Germany’s industrialists that such policies were merely an attempt to gain popular support and would not be implemented.
What Hitler’s corporate bankrollers wanted was clear enough: the destruction of their workers’ ability to defend themselves and higher profits in a stable atmosphere. This Hitler promised in meetings of Nazi leaders and industrialists. But no matter how powerful they are, numerically these big businessmen are a minuscule portion of the population. How to create popular support for a movement that would destroy unions, strip working people of all protections, regiment all spheres of life, mercilessly destroy several groups of society, reduce the standard of living of those who still had jobs and inevitably lead to war? This is not an appealing program.
Germany’s blue-collar workforce mostly didn’t buy into fascist siren songs, and continued to support the Communists and the Social Democrats, although it was sharply divided between the two. Most of the middle class, however, was a different story. The desperate economic crisis of the Weimar Republic devastated the shopkeeper, the professional, the white-collar worker on the lower rungs of management. The middle class was losing or threatened with losing what it had, and its sons and daughters were unemployed with little or no prospects. From here the Nazis were able to draw their votes, and these sons, along with unpoliticized people at the bottom of society, swelled the ranks of the storm troops.
The Nazis skillfully appealed to German middle class fears of economic dislocation, the increasing numbers of unemployed blue-collar workers, the threat of being swallowed by big business, and political instability (although the Nazis were the most responsible for the last of those four), creating the social base needed by the economic elite to bring its movement to power. A movement that was as anathema to the middle class as it was to the lower economic ranks, although its middle-class supporters were blind to that reality as the Nazis simultaneously appealed to its grudges against societal elites.
In the last election before President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, the Nazi vote was 2 million less than the combined vote for Communists and Social Democrats. Although there were many Communists who bravely battled Nazis in the streets, there was no attempt at a united defense of the two parties or their armed followers. The Communists, the Social Democrats and the unions all failed to mount any effective challenge, and the leaders of what remained of Germany’s centrist and nationalist right-wing parties thought they could control Hitler. Had the Communists, Social Democrats and the unions made a common fight against the Nazis, that would have been enough to stop Hitler’s accession to power.
Once in power, Hitler quickly arrested the political opposition, putting Communists, Social Democrats, union leaders and others into concentration camps. Within weeks, the right to strike was abolished, union contracts were canceled and an employer-aligned fascist “union” began to replace the existing unions. With opposition silenced by terror, severe oppression of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, artists and others began. Once Hitler had destroyed all political opposition, there was no need to maintain his corps of street thugs, some of whom began demanding that the populist promises begin to be fulfilled. The storm troops, too, found out those promises were fantasy and this potential internal Nazi opposition was crushed in the murderous 1934 “Night of the Long Knives.”
From German shopkeepers to U.S. small business owners
Yes, history never repeats exactly. But what is noteworthy here is the class composition of Nazi support beyond big capitalists, who provided huge sums of money. It was shopkeepers, professionals and the white-collar workers on the lower rungs of management. This is consistently the case with fascist movements. It was the middle classes who supported a military overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, as did the parties they voted for. (Both parties of the opposition to President Allende’s Popular Unity government were banned after the takeover; Pinochet’s blood-soaked dictatorship was a régime for Chilean big business and U.S.-based multinational capital, not a régime for shopkeepers or white-collar professionals, nor even big business’ political representatives, as they would soon find out.)
Although the middle classes in a capitalist country, particularly in advanced capitalist countries, are highly heterogeneous, including a wide mix of people with varying interests and thus unable to constitute an organized bloc, the weight of their demographic size can make them decisive if large numbers go one way or another. Large numbers in the U.S. are anti-fascist and/or Democratic Party partisans, and many of their sons and daughters are describing themselves as socialists, even if an ill-defined socialism that is more oriented toward strong reforms of capitalism unable to be accommodated by Democrats. Nonetheless, it is from middle class ranks that support for Trump comes. That has been seen clearly as hundreds of Trump’s insurgents are prosecuted (albeit treated with kid gloves in contrast to the harsh treatment of Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protest movements).
A study by two University of Chicago researchers, for example, found that more than half of the January 6 insurrectionists held white-collar positions such as small business owners, architects, doctors and lawyers. The two researchers, political-science professor Robert A. Pape and senior research associate Keven Ruby, also found that a large number of the insurrectionists live in counties that have seen declines in their White, non-Hispanic population, also not a surprise given the “great replacement” canard Trump-style fascists are fond of peddling. That of course was a prominent theme in the 2017 fascist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Whatever capitalist country you live in, it can happen there. Fascism is capitalism stripped of all democratic veneers. In every fascist state, wages drastically decline accompanied by draconian laws stripping working people of all protections at the same time that corporate profits rise dramatically, all in an atmosphere of state-organized terror. The only safeguard against this happening in any capitalist country, including the United States, is for working people to organize in their own defense. Given the sorry record of social democracy, no help from there will come to the rescue in Europe. In the U.S., it would be laughable to believe the Democrats would save us from potential Republican dictatorship, whether a conventional authoritarianism or an outright fascist régime.
The long history of Democrats falling to their knees
Democratic Party ineptitude and weak-kneed acquiescence has been on display long before the Biden administration and current congressional majority’s yearlong lack of resolve. From Jimmy Carter’s austerity setting up the start of the neoliberal era for Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton ramming through regressive legislation that Republicans could only dreamed of having done to Democrats’ meek “me too” in response to Newt Gingrich’s Contract On America and the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress to Barack Obama’s serial capitulations to Democrats’ present inability (unwillingness?) to implement the programs they were elected to fulfill, and instead give the Pentagon another raise, liberals are persistently run over by conservatives. But however weak-willed Democrats are, that is only one side of the picture.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Democrats believe in so-called “American exceptionalism,” imperialism and corporate control of society just as fervently as do Republicans.
Liberalism has reached an intellectual dead end, however much individual liberals may yearn for alternatives. There are various reasons that can be assigned as to the cause of the Democratic Party’s — and, thus, North American liberalism’s — steady march rightward: Dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, cowardliness. Although these factors form a significant portion of the answer to the puzzle, an underlying cause has to be found in the exhaustion of North American liberalism. Similar to European social democracy, it is trapped by its core desire to stabilize an unstable capitalist system.
In contrast to the Right, which loudly advocates what it stands for and uses all means possible to get it, liberals are caught in the contradiction of knowing changes are needed but unable to put forth anything beyond the most tepid reforms, a bit of tinkering around the edges. The Democratic Party is not only reliant on corporate money, but in thrall to ideologies that promote corporate domination, propaganda blasted across the corporate media and propagated through a thick web of “think tanks” and other well-funded institutions. With no clear ideas to fall back on, they meekly fall to their knees when the world’s industrialists and financiers, acting through their corporations, think tanks and the “market,” pronounce their verdict on what is to be done.
There is no secret formula waiting to be discovered. The only way to prevent a fascist takeover is through the same methodology that is the route to a better world: A mass movement of movements linking together struggles, organizing with people who don’t look like us and uniting across borders. As long as capitalism exists, the threat of fascism exists.
Predictions are difficult to make, especially, as the old joke goes, when they are about the future. Particularly fraught have been predictions of the demise of capitalism. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that because capitalism remains the world’s dominant economic system, predictions of the system’s demise are not only wrong, but destined to be wrong in the future.
“Conventional wisdom” here, of course, is nothing more than a display of the axiom that the intellectual ideas of a society are those of the dominant class. Certainly, both industrialists and financiers would like us to believe that nothing fundamental can change. Bourgeois ideology proclaims that through every possible channel every day.
Yet what is of human creation is not permanent; everything of human creation has an expiration date. Capitalism will be no different.
When will capitalism be transcended and what will follow? That central question has been asked for two centuries and, given the increasing intensity of economic crises, mounting inequality and looming environmental catastrophe, is as important as ever. The unending series of protests, uprisings and movements dedicated to either forcing systemic reform or outright replacement are eloquent testament to how capitalism fails most of the world’s population.
Nonetheless, there is no arguing that capitalism remains firmly in the saddle, with no existing social movement anywhere near strong enough today to put the system at risk. Does that mean we should regard past predictions of capitalism’s demise as mistaken or wishful thinking? Perhaps only an ambiguous answer, at least preliminary, is appropriate. For those who wish to see capitalism continue indefinitely — those who benefit and those so frightened by propaganda that anything else is literally unimaginable — there is an easy answer: Yes. For those who wish for a better world, an economic system based on human need and in harmony with the environment, the answer is no.
Whether yes, no, maybe or let’s wait and see, an examination of why predictions of capitalism’s demise are thus far off the mark is a healthy exercise. I thus was interested in a new book wrestling with these issues, Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures since Karl Marx by Francesco Boldizzoni. Foretelling is a curious hybrid as the author is quite critical of capitalism but also has a pessimistic outlook regarding its replacement; it is rare for a book to receive praise from a Wall Street Journal reviewer and New Left Review contributor Wolfgang Streeck. Foretelling provides a strong challenge to the thinking of critics of capitalism and those who subscribe to leading theories, particularly Marxist, of the end of capitalism.
Such a challenge is healthy, and those who are interested in a basic history of economic thought for the past 200 years would do well with this book. Whether it succeeds in its core intention, however, is a separate matter, although any conclusions will partly depend on a reader’s perspective.
Capitalism will end, as do all products of history
We get a good sense of Professor Boldizzoni’s perspective in his introduction, where he writes that capitalism will end, or slowly turn into something new, like all products of history, although there is no guarantee it will be something better. The brutality of prior systems lives on in capitalism. The slow growth rates of a more service-oriented economy has led to more “distributional conflicts,” and the Left must find effective tools to deal with it or the “populist right” will take its place. To all but capitalism’s more fervent apologists, this can hardly be considered controversial. But we also read here a foreshadowing of pessimism with a passage declaring “this battle to ‘overthrow the system’ is lost from the start” — believing it raises false hopes and thus “does not do progressivism any service.”
Capitalism isn’t going anywhere in the near future and past predictions have not been borne out, so a hard look, if we are intellectually honest, is warranted. It is healthy to have ideas challenged, so let us engage with these ideas.
Before getting to the heart of its argument, the first four of the six chapters of Foretelling the End of Capitalism are a wide-ranging survey of thinkers from the early 19th century to the early 21st, across the full political spectrum. These are not deep excavations but do provide basic understandings. These are mostly solid introductions to the evolution of thinking on the topic of political economy and important theories that have arisen, except for weaknesses with some Marxist writers. For example, a brief discussion of fin de siècle German social democracy — Eduard Bernstein vs. Karl Kautsky vs. Rosa Luxemburg — is shallow; the author only sees the surface of Kautsky’s writings and does not grasp what lies below the surface, nor how to interpret the evolution of Kautsky’s thinking, without which it is impossible to understand why Kautsky would come to draw close to Bernstein, an outcome the book entirely misses.
That is no more than a minor point. More serious is what this reviewer considers among the most bizarre interpretations of fascism he has ever come across. Professor Boldizzoni writes that fascism, or more specifically, Nazism, was “the middle ground between the liberal and Soviet worlds.” He presents the ideas of several writers on fascism, but all but one are hopelessly confused and serve only to obfuscate. Incredibly, there is not one word from Leon Trotsky, the preeminent analyzer of Nazism during the 1930s — an inexcusable omission. Nor is the orthodox communist conception as handed down by Josef Stalin presented. Although that conception was badly mistaken with tragic circumstances, it should have been discussed, given the consequences of that line being put into action.
It is true that fascism is notoriously difficult to diagnose, but if approached from a class standpoint, it becomes understandable. At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It is a phenomenon squarely at the far right of the political spectrum; it is not an ersatz “third way” precursor. Fascist movements have a social base, which provides support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base, rooted in middle class white-collar professionals and small business owners. (That is still true today; look at the profile of the Trump followers who have been arrested for participating in the January 6 attack on the U.S. capitol building.)
“In National Socialism, everything is as contradictory and as chaotic as in a nightmare,” Trotsky wrote in a vivid 1932 essay, using the intentionally misleading formal name for the Nazis. “Hitler’s party calls itself socialist, yet it leads a terroristic struggle against all socialist organizations. It calls itself a worker’s party, yet its ranks include all classes except the proletariat. It hurls lightning bolts at the heads of capitalists, yet is supported by them. … The whole world has collapsed inside the heads of the petit bourgeoisie, which has completely lost its equilibrium. This class is screaming so clamorously out of despair, fear and bitterness that it is itself deafened and loses sense of its words and gestures.”
Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements. Despite national differences that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter what a fascist movement’s rhetoric contains, and is invariably the beneficiary even though its beneficiaries will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. The massive profits pocketed by industrialists in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Pinochet’s Chile and elsewhere speak volumes, as do the draconian anti-labor laws implemented. Fascism is capitalism stripped of all democratic veneers.
Are the reasons behind capitalism’s staying power psychological?
Nonetheless, these early chapters are useful for other theorists who are discussed, including John Stuart Mill, Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Jürgen Habermas and several writers of the late 20th century. The author skillfully dismantles the apologia for capitalism’s inequality offered by publicists masquerading as economists. In the final two chapters, Professor Boldizzoni explicates his core arguments. Here we find no illusions about the nature of capitalism nor misunderstandings of its social relations. Capitalism is a socio-economic system, not a type of economic activity, imposed by force; an “institutionalized social order” in which even human labor is reduced to a commodity. Capitalism is kept together through hierarchy and individualism, upholding new forms of previous master/slave and lord/serf relations.
So why have forecasts of capitalism’s demise been so far off the mark thus far? Or, perhaps, we might better phrase this question as: Why does capitalism persist despite the misery and opposition it continually spawns? Foretelling the End of Capitalism begins to answer this question by offering three factors — “cognitive distortions that affect the forecasting process,” faults in the construction of social theories and, decisively, “the faith in progress that underlies modern thought.” This is further teased out through two mistakes — overgeneralization through drawing overly broad conclusions or magnifying specific events and “black and white thinking,” an example of which is ignoring that there are “many varieties” of capitalism. Seeing the next system only in terms of the negatives of capitalism and, finally, a misunderstanding of culture underlie mistaken forecasts, the book asserts.
All this comes down to “cognitive distortions” and “theoretical flaws,” working together and in conjunction with “a more general mental disposition” common to those who attempt to predict what may happen in the future. “The entire history of social forecasting and its mistakes is intertwined with faith in progress,” Professor Boldizzoni writes. All of his reasons are psychological. There is nothing material!
This is the reasoning of someone who believes the current world is the only possible world that can be, whether that belief is conscious or hidden in the unconscious. Capitalism has not fallen; therefore those who forecast its eventual end are dreamers outside reality. It is as if there are no material reasons for the continued life of capitalism, some of which have to do with the very pillars of capitalism that the author himself explicates well.
It is certainly possible to draw up a list of theoretical failings far more specific than flawed enlightenment thinking. No single or small group of developments can possibly encompass all the factors that have kept the world economic system in place. I have previously written that no serious discussion of this question, however, should exclude these factors:
The early pioneers of the socialist movement seriously underestimated the ability of capitalism as a system to adapt and therefore did not foresee the ability of working people to extract concessions for themselves.
The early pioneers failed to understand the buoying effect that would be provided by imperialism (for the leading capitalist countries).
Many of the early pioneers clung to an overly mechanical (mis)understanding of social development that led to a passive belief in an automatic unfolding of revolution that implied, incorrectly, that powerful capitalists would simply sit back and allow themselves to be overthrown. (Kautsky and Bernstein are emblematic here.)
Many leaders during the Soviet era continued to hold to a similar overly mechanical belief in future revolution while at the same time failing to grasp the nuances of capitalist development.
An overly centralized world movement that retarded the theoretical developments needed for local conditions, blocking the creation of innovative leadership while at the same time discouraging existing local leaderships from attempting revolutions.
A too narrow conception of “working class” or “working people” — a tendency to visualize only blue-collar manual workers as working people, a declining percentage of the population in increasingly technological capitalist societies. Such narrow horizons served to exclude a large proportion of wage workers, with the result that movements purporting to be organizations of working people instead divided them at the start.
I am under no illusion that the above list exhausts the catalogue of factors. Obviously, the ability and willingness of the governments over which capitalists hold decisive sway to use violence to keep industrialists and financiers in power; the ability to disseminate propaganda in a variety of forms through an array of media, schools and institutions; and the willingness to invade, overthrow and impose military violence and sanctions against any country that challenges capitalism’s masters so as to make life there difficult are indispensable factors as to capitalism’s staying power. The last of this paragraph’s factors goes a long way in itself as to why alternatives to capitalism have faltered.
Every attempt at constructing a post-capitalist economy has been met with overwhelming military, financial and other forms of force, putting them on a war footing. We can not know what might have been created if those countries had been allowed to peacefully develop, and this factor is indispensable if we are to seriously ponder the acceptance of “there is no alternative” propaganda. Despite the acknowledgements of bourgeois culture’s orientation toward wealth accumulation and cultural processes, Foretelling the End of Capitalism offers lectures on the weaknesses of enlightenment thinking rather than analyzing material conditions.
Culture as the glue holding together capitalism
Professor Boldizzoni puts forth the thesis that political, economic and social structures are all held together by “a powerful glue”: culture. Capitalism, he writes, is the product of a particular Western family of cultures, with hierarchy and individualism the most important factors. Behavior standards “change slowly”; it “may take several centuries” for culture to transform. He writes, “The emergence of a new system will be possible when the circumstances under which the old one was formed have eventually ceased to exist. It will reflect the changes in the material circumstances as well as in the culture sphere that are to occur over the next few centuries. The transition, however, will be so gradual that it will be barely noticeable.”
There is plenty to unpack in the preceding paragraph. That culture is a “powerful glue” keeping capitalism is indisputable, and that changes in “material circumstances” will facilitate a transition to a new system is also not in dispute. But these assertions, which certainly would not be controversial to a Marxist, are odd in light of the author’s criticisms of Karl Marx. It is unavoidable to note that those criticisms are rooted in a shallow understanding of Marx’s body of work. The author makes the common mistake of seeing Marxism as overly mechanical, teleological and offering a “perfect society,” nor does he grasp the subtlety of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” admittedly a confusing phrase that might better be retired. (“Dictatorship of the proletariat” simply means the predominance of working people, the vast majority of people in capitalist society, without reference to any particular governmental form. All capitalist societies constitute a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” the predominance of industrialists and financiers, which has taken many forms, including formal democracy and fascist.)
These misunderstandings are possible because Marxism’s 20th century practitioners in the Soviet bloc presented it in overly simplified terms, seeing it themselves in a mechanical manner. And that was not new. Friedrich Engels, in an 1890 letter to Joseph Bloch, lamented that he and Marx had put so much emphasis on economics. “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that younger writers sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it,” Engels wrote. “We had to emphasize this main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we have not always had the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights. … Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have mastered its main principles, and those even not always correctly.”
We can conceptualize Marxist materialist philosophy like this: The flow and movement of any phenomenon or idea takes varying directions, and far from always in an expected direction. As the concept of “flow” implies, history and social development do not consist of discrete steps or stages. Philosophical, political and religious ideas (which are built on the materials of their predecessors); the prevailing culture (which include traditions shaped in the conditions of the past that have survived into the present); and local geographic factors influence not only each other but also influence economic conditions. What was a cause can become an effect, and an effect can become a cause. These forces are given concrete form within a state, the form of which (including its legal structure) is based on the material conditions of life — the economic structure is the foundation on which society is built and which therefore shapes social consciousness.
Properly understood, Marxism is not, and has never been, a reach for utopia; its founders were scornful of the utopians of their time. Still more puzzling is Professor Boldizzoni’s bizarre aside that Swedish social democrats were “seeking the achievement of a perfect society.” That would certainly be news to them. The post-World War II Swedish model sought full employment, equality and the transfer of excess profits to the collective ownership of employees. Better than ordinary capitalism and envisioned as an evolutionary route to a future socialist society, but hardly nirvana.
How high should movements aim?
Nordic social democracy is what the author seems to have in mind when he references “many varieties” of capitalism. Yes, there are national differences in capitalism, sometimes significant, but given the domination of the United States and its ability to dictate to the rest of the world, it is unrealistic to see that there is anything other than a single world system. And Swedish capitalism is far removed from any “perfect society” — dominated by corporate power and subject to the pressures of corporate globalization the same as other small or midsized capitalist country, Sweden today has inequality and poverty levels above the European Union average.
Sweden’s failure to institute even the most rudimentary beginnings of an evolutionary path to a socialist economic democracy under the 1970s “Meidner plan” of forcing companies to issue stock to public agencies until the public had majority control succumbed not only to the might of local capitalists and the pressures of corporate globalization, but because of the failure of working people to organize. Without a massive movement, no project of socialism, or, if you prefer, economic democracy, can succeed.
If we are dwelling on disagreements here, it is because these areas of dispute are central to the author’s thesis. What should be done? Professor Boldizzoni forecasts that although capitalism will be replaced, it will last for centuries to come. No mention of the environmental crisis — humanity doesn’t have one full century, never mind several, to wait! There is also the matter of the inability to achieve endless growth on a finite planet, and capitalism’s need for continual growth in a world into which it has expanded to almost every corner. (But it should be acknowledged that he has the intellectual honesty to make his own forecast and thus risk being as wrong as those he’s discussed.) He concludes by lamenting “we must come to terms with the limits of the possible” and declaring “the social democratic experience” the height of achievement. This conclusion brings into sharper relief why he is so insistent on seeing any attempt to move past capitalism as utopian.
What is the possible? A standard list of social democratic reforms, such as the “power to tax,” the power to pursue industrial policy and “monetary sovereignty,” offered as counters to European Union policy and centralization. Public ownership of infrastructure and banking is also put forth. These would be welcome reforms, but more than a century of working for reforms within capitalism rather than overcoming it has put the world in precisely the place it is today. Reforms can be won through social struggle, but once movements stand down, the reforms are taken back. Movements must aim higher.
If we believe the world can’t be better, that it can’t be meaningfully changed, that we have no choice other than tinkering around the edges as capitalism destroys the environment, then nothing will get better. Our conditions will actually get worse because there is no stasis. A better world is possible and speculating on what some basic concepts of a better world might look like is necessary if we are to get there. Giving up is not an option. Study of material conditions and the multitude of factors as to why predictions of capitalism’s demise have yet to come to pass — or, to put it in a better way, why capitalism has proven so resilient — are indispensable to achieving an understanding of our present and providing ourselves with the tools necessary to build the movement of movements, working across borders, that is the path toward any possible better world. Lamenting the weight of enlightenment thinking isn’t that route.
Foretelling the End of Capitalism is correct that there won’t be a sudden collapse of capitalism. If no social movement intervenes, capitalism has several more decades of life and would likely be followed by something worse, in a world of environmental disaster, rising seas and dwindling resources. Decades, not centuries — the present path of humanity is unsustainable. There is no substitute for a post-capitalist future, and the past need not dictate the future.
As always, the value of a book isn’t measured by whether we agree with everything in it. If Foretelling didn’t have much of interest to offer, I wouldn’t have written this essay. The question the book attempts to answer is a challenge that must be confronted because it is a question that remains all too relevant. But although the author in good faith sought to interrogate the predictions of the past to provide an understanding of today, he instead produced a cry of defeat and despair.
It is not unusual for critics of United States foreign policy, whether or not they feel free to use the term “imperialism,” to express regret that a previously rational system has soured. Such sentiments are routine for liberals and hardly unknown among social democrats.
Such sentiments are, to anyone who cares to pursue a study of history, quite ahistorical. Violence, force and coercion — exemplified in widespread use of slave labor, imperialist conquests of peoples around the world and ruthless extraction of natural resources — pervades the entire history of capitalism. The rise of capitalism can’t be understood outside slavery, colonialism and plunder. To follow up on my previous article discussing how U.S. domination of the world is rooted in the stranglehold Washington has over the world’s financial institutions and its possession of the dominant currency, let’s conduct a further examination of the history of how capitalism functions, this time highlighting imperialism and violence.
My inspiration for this examination is my recent reading of John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Mr. Perkins, for those not familiar with his book, provides a first-hand account of how the U.S. government employs debt, financial entanglements, bribes, threats and finally violence and assassinations of national leaders who won’t place their economies and resources under the control of U.S.-based multi-national corporations. That is no surprise to anyone paying attention, but the book became an improbable best seller, meaning there must have been many eyes opened. That can only be a positive development.
But even Mr. Perkins, who is unsparing in drawing conclusions and under no illusions about what he and his fellow “economic hit men” were doing and on whose behalf, shows a measure of naïveté. He repeatedly draws upon the “ideals of the U.S. founding fathers” and laments that a republic dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has morphed into a global empire. Given the outstanding service he has provided in writing his book, and the physical danger that he put himself in to publish it (he postponed writing it multiple times fearing possible consequences), least of all do I want to imply criticism or raise any snarky accusations against Mr. Perkins. My point here is that even a strong critic of U.S. imperialism with eyes open can harbor illusions about the nature of capitalism. The all-encompassing pervasiveness of capitalist propaganda, and that the relentless dissemination of it across every conceivable media and institutional outlet, still leaves most people with a wistful idealization of some earlier, innocent capitalism not yet befouled by anti-social behavior and violence or by greed.
Such an innocent capitalism has never existed, and couldn’t.
Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. It is not for nothing that Karl Marx famously wrote, “If money … ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Markets over people from the start
Although the relative weight that should be given to the two sides of the equation of how capitalism took root in feudal Europe — feudal lords pushing their peasants off the land to clear space for commodity agricultural products or the capital accumulated from trade by merchants growing large enough to create the surpluses capable of being converted into the capital necessary to start production on a scale larger than artisan production — is likely never to be definitively settled (and the two basic factors reinforced one another), force was a crucial midwife. English lords wanted to transform arable land into sheep meadows to take advantage of the demand for wool, and began razing peasant cottages to clear the land. These actions became known as the “enclosure movement.”
Forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), peasants could either become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or become laborers in the new factories at pitifully low wages and enduring inhuman conditions and working hours. The brutality of this process is glimpsed in this account by historian Michael Perelman, in his book The Invention of Capitalism:
“Simple dispossession from the commons was a necessary, but not always sufficient, condition to harness rural people to the labor market. A series of cruel laws accompanied the dispossession of the peasants’ rights, including the period before capitalism had become a significant economic force.
For example, beginning with the Tudors, England created a series of stern measures to prevent peasants from drifting into vagrancy or falling back onto welfare systems. According to a 1572 statute, beggars over the age of fourteen were to be severely flogged and branded with a red-hot iron on the left ear unless someone was willing to take them into service for two years. Repeat offenders over the age of eighteen were to be executed unless someone would take them into service. Third offenses automatically resulted in execution. … Similar statutes appeared almost simultaneously in England, the Low Countries, and Zurich. … Eventually, the majority of workers, lacking any alternative, had little choice but to work for wages at something close to subsistence level.”
Additional taking of the commons occurred in the early 19th century, when British industrialists sought to eliminate the remaining portions of any commons left so there would be no alternative to selling one’s labor power to capitalists for a pittance. As industrial resistance gathered steam, the British government employed 12,000 troops to repress craft workers, artisans, factory workers and small farmers who were resisting the introduction of machinery by capitalists, seeing these machines as threats to their freedom and dignity. That represented more troops than Britain was using in its simultaneous fight against Napoleon’s armies in Spain.
Slavery critical to capitalist accumulation
Nor can the role of slavery in bootstrapping the rise of capitalism be ignored. The slave trade, until the end of the seventeenth century, was conducted by government monopolies. European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. Britain and other European powers earned far more from the plantations of their Caribbean colonies than from North American possessions; much Caribbean produce could not be grown in Europe, while North American colonies tended to produce what Europe could already provide for itself.
Britain profited enormously from the triangular trade, both in the slave trade itself and the surpluses generated from plantation crops produced with slave labor. Proceeds from the slave trade were large enough to lift the prosperity of the British economy as a whole, provide the investment funds to build the infrastructure necessary to support industry and the scale of trade resulting from a growing industrial economy, and ease credit problems.
Spain’s slaughter of Indigenous peoples and Spanish use of the survivors as slaves to mine enormous amounts of gold and silver — the basis of money across Europe and Asia — also was a crucial contributor to the rise of European economies, both by swelling the amount of money available and enabling the importation of goods from China, which was not interested in buying European products but had a need of silver to stabilize its own economy. The Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, horrified at what he witnessed, wrote in 1542, “the Spaniards, who no sooner had knowledge of these people than they became like fierce wolves and tigers and lions who have gone many days without food or nourishment. And no other thing have they done for forty years until this day, and still today see fit to do, but dismember, slay, perturb, afflict, torment, and destroy the Indians by all manner of cruelty — new and divers and most singular manners such as never before seen or read of heard of — some few of which shall be recounted below, and they do this to such a degree that on the Island of Hispaniola, of the above three millions souls that we once saw, today there be no more than two hundred of those native people remaining.”
When the Spanish were kicked out by Latin America’s early 19th century wars of liberation, that did not mean real independence. The British replaced the Spanish, using more modern financial means to exploit the region. The era of direct colonialism, beginning with Spain’s massive extraction of gold and silver, was replaced by one-sided trading relationships following the region’s formal independence in the early nineteenth century. George Canning, an imperialist “free trader” who was the British foreign secretary, wrote in 1824: “The deed is done, the nail is driven, Spanish America is free; and if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly, she is English.”
Canning was no idle boaster. At the same time, the French foreign minister lamented, “In the hour of emancipation the Spanish colonies turned into some sort of British colonies.” And lest we think this was simply European hubris, here is what the Argentine finance minister had to say: “We are not in a position to take measures against foreign trade, particularly British, because we are bound to that nation by large debts and would expose ourselves to a rupture which would cause much harm.” What had happened? Argentina flung its ports wide open to trade under British influence, flooding itself with a deluge of European goods sufficient to strangle nascent local production; when Argentina later attempted to escape dependency by imposing trade barriers in order to build up its own industry, British and French warships forced the country open again.
The “right” to force opium on China to maintain profits
Imperialism was not confined to any single continent. Consider Britain’s treatment of China in the latter half of the 19th century. (We are concentrating on Britain for the moment because it was the leading capitalist power at this time.) British warships were sent to China to force the Chinese to import opium, a drug that was illegal back home. This was done under the rubric of Britain’s alleged “right to trade.” Under this doctrine, underdeveloped countries had no choice but to buy products from more powerful capitalist countries, even products that caused widespread injury to the country’s people. This could also be considered a “right” to force opium on China. Where else but under capitalism could such a preposterous “right” be conjured? U.S. smugglers also made enormous fortunes selling opium to Chinese as well.
A 2015 Medium article detailing the background and results of the two opium wars, noted the huge amounts of money that were made:
“Opium was big business for the British, one of the critical economic engines of the era. Britain controlled India and oversaw one million Indian opium farmers. By 1850, the drug accounted for a staggering 15 to 20 percent of the British Empire’s revenue, and the India-to-China opium business became, in the words of Frederic Wakeman, a leading historian of the period, the ‘world’s most valuable single commodity trade of the nineteenth century.’ Notes Carl Trocki, author of Opium, Empire and the Global Economy, ‘The entire commercial infrastructure of European trade in Asia was built around opium. … [A] procession of American sea merchants made their fortunes smuggling opium. They were aware of its poisonous effects on the Chinese people, but few of them ever mentioned the drug in the thousands of pages of letters and documents they sent back to America.’ ”
Eventually, Chinese authorities ordered foreigners, mainly British and U.S., to hand over all opium. After a refusal, Chinese authorities destroyed all the opium they could find. In response, British warships were sent to bombard coastal cities until China agreed to the one-sided Treaty of Nanking, in which it was forced to pay Britain an indemnity of millions, to cede Hong Kong and to open five ports to trade, where foreigners were not subject to Chinese law or authorities.
When further demands were refused, the British, French and U.S. navies launched the second opium war, attacking coastal and interior cities. They invaded Beijing, “chased the emperor out of town, and, in an orgy of fine-art and jewelry looting, destroyed the Versailles of China, the old Summer Palace.” A new treaty, more unequal than the first, was imposed, forcing open the entire country. A British lawyer enlisted to provide justification for this behavior wrote, as the first opium war was developing, “Our men of war are now, it is to be hoped, far on their way towards China, which shall be ‘our oyster, which [we] with sword will open.’ Then may we extract from the Emperor an acknowledgement of the heinous offence — or series of offences — which he has committed against the law of nature and of nations, and read him a lesson, even from a barbarian book, which will benefit him and all his successors.”
Fantastic profits for European capital; death for Africans
Nor was Africa spared exploitation. Far from it. The exact number of Africans kidnapped and forcibly transported across the Atlantic will never be known, but scholars’ estimates tend to range from about ten million to twelve million. The human toll, however, is still higher because, simultaneous with those who were successfully kidnapped, millions more were killed or maimed, and thus not shipped across the Atlantic. This level of inhumanity cannot be accomplished without an accompanying ideology.
Walter Rodney, in his outstanding contribution to understanding lagging development in the South, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that although racism and other hatreds, including anti-Semitism, long existed across Europe, racism was an integral part of capitalism because it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to their accumulations of wealth. “Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons,” Dr. Rodney wrote. “European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”
Exploitation did not end with the end of slavery in the 19th century, Dr. Rodney pointed out. Colonial powers confiscated huge areas of arable land in Africa, then sold it at nominal prices to the well-connected. In Kenya, for example, the British declared the fertile highlands “crown lands” and sold blocks of land as large as 550 square miles (1,400 square kilometers). These massive land confiscations not only enabled the creation of massively profitable plantations, but created the conditions that forced newly landless Africans to become low-wage agricultural workers and to pay taxes to the colonial power. Laws were passed forbidding Africans from growing cash crops in plantation regions, a system of compulsion summed up by a British colonel who became a settler in Kenya: “We have stolen his land. Now we must steal his limbs. Compulsory labor is the corollary of our occupation of the country.” In other parts of colonial Africa, where land remained in African hands, colonial governments slapped money taxes on cattle, land, houses and the people themselves; subsistence farmers don’t have money to pay money taxes so farmers were forced to grow cash crops, for which they were paid very little.
The alternative to farming was to go to work in the mines, where wages were set at starvation levels. European and North American mining and trading companies made fantastic profits (sometimes as high as 90 percent) and raw materials could be exploited at similar levels. (A U.S. rubber company, from 1940 to 1965, took 160 million dollars worth of rubber out of Liberia while the Liberian government received eight million dollars.) Another method of extracting wealth was through forced labor — French, British, Belgian and Portuguese colonial governments required Africans to perform unpaid labor on railroads and other infrastructure projects. The French were particularly vicious in their use of forced labor (each year throughout the 1920s, 10,000 new people were put to work on a single railroad and at least 25 percent of the railroad’s forced laborers died from starvation or disease). These railroads did not benefit Africans when independence came in the mid-20th century because they were laid down to bring raw materials to a port and had no relationship to the trading or geographical patterns of the new countries or their neighbors.
The entire territory that today constitutes the Democratic Republic of Congo was, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the personal possession of Belgium’s king, Leopold II. At least 10 million Congolese lost their lives at the hands of Belgian authorities eager to extract rubber and other resources at any cost. This genocidal plunder — the loss of life halved the local population — rested on a system of terror and slave labor. This system included forced labor requiring work in mines day and night, the chopping off of hands as punishment and “the burning of countless villages and cities where every individual who was found was killed.”
As the U.S. grew to prominence, becoming a leading capitalist power itself as the 20th century began, overthrowing governments to ensure undisputed “profitable investment” became routine. The U.S., incidentally, was the first country to recognize King Leopold’s claim to Congo.
If it’s your “backyard” you do what you want to do
The U.S. has long considered Latin America its “backyard.” Cuba’s economy was based on slave-produced sugar cane under Spanish rule, and when a series of rebellions finally succeeded in freeing the country from Spanish colonial rule, Cuban independence was formal only as the United States quickly became a colonial master in all but name. U.S. forces left Cuba in 1902 after a four-year occupation but not before dictating that Cubans agree to the Platt Amendment. The amendment, inserted into the Cuban constitution as the price for U.S. withdrawal, gave the U.S. control over Cuban foreign and economic policies and the right to intervene with military force to protect U.S. corporate interests. By 1905, U.S. interests owned 60 percent of Cuba’s land and controlled most of its industry. Just four months after the 1959 revolution took power, the U.S. government was already viewing the potential success of the revolution as a “bad example” for the rest of Latin America. The U.S. State Department defined U.S. goals in Cuba as “receptivity to U.S. and free world capital and increasing trade” and “access by the United States to essential Cuban resources.” Those goals have not changed to this day.
That follows naturally from what the pre-revolution U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Earl T. Smith, had said of the island country: “I ran Cuba from the sixth floor of the US embassy. The Cubans’ job was to grow sugar and shut up.”
When a strike broke out against the United Fruit Company in Colombia in 1929, the action was put down through a massacre of the workers. The U.S. embassy in Bogotá cabled the State Department in Washington this triumphant message: “I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.” Honor. Think about that.
For much of the 20th century, the effective ruler of Guatemala and Honduras was the United Fruit Company. The company owned vast plantations in eight countries, and toppled governments in Guatemala and Honduras. For many years, United Fruit had an especially sweet deal in Guatemala. The company paid no taxes, imported equipment without paying duties and was guaranteed low wages. The company also possessed a monopoly on Guatemalan railroads, ocean ports and the telegraph. When a president, Jacobo Arbenz, moved to end this exploitation and orient Guatemala’s economy toward benefiting Guatemalans through mild reforms, the CIA overthrew him. U.S. intelligence agencies declared Arbenz’s program had to be reversed because loosening the United Fruit Company’s domination of the country was against U.S. interests. The U.S. instituted what would become a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.
But not outside ordinary policy. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Most of these invasions were for reasons along the lines articulated by former U.S. president William Howard Taft: to ensure profits for one or more U.S. corporations or to overthrow governments that did not prioritize the maximization of those profits.
But not outside ordinary policy. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Most of these invasions were for reasons along the lines articulated by former U.S. president William Howard Taft: to ensure profits for one or more U.S. corporations or to overthrow governments that did not prioritize the maximization of those profits.
The U.S. invaded and occupied Nicaragua multiple times. One of these occasions, in 1909, came as a result of a Nicaraguan president accepting a loan from British bankers instead of U.S. bankers, then opening negotiations with Germany and Japan to build a new canal to rival the Panama Canal. The U.S. installed a dictatorship, and President Taft placed Nicaragua’s customs collections under U.S. control. The disapproved British loan was refinanced through two U.S. banks, which were given control of Nicaragua’s national bank and railroad as a reward. These developments were not an accident, for President Taft had already declared that his foreign policy was “to include active intervention to secure our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment” abroad.
All these atrocities — and countless others — all happened before the assassinations in Ecuador, Iran and Panama of heads of state who refused to do as they were ordered to by U.S. government operatives (and, in the case of Omar Torrijos, refusing the bribes that were the first tactic to get local leaders on side) recounted by Mr. Perkins in Confessions. No, those atrocities — and the author leaves us in no doubt that those were not “accidents” but were assassinations carried out by the U.S. government — do not represent an unprecedented turn to the dark side. Those acts, as are the present-day sanctions that kill in the hundreds of thousands, are business as usual for the U.S. government and the capitalism it imposes around the world. Imperialism, brutality and violence are nothing new; they are essential tools long wielded in abundance.
Far more examples could be cited; the above represents a minuscule fraction of atrocities that could be told. Such a long history of systematic violence and brutality speaks for itself as to the “morality” of capitalism.
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.’ ”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.