Thursday, March 12, 2009

David Harvey on the Financial Crisis

Reading Capital has an excellent piece from David Harvey on neoliberalism and the financial crisis ("The Crisis and the Consolidation of Class Power"). Here's an excerpt:
One of the major barriers to continuous capital accumulation back in the 1960s and early 70s was the labour question. There were scarcities of labour both in Europe and the US and labour was well organised, with political clout. So one of the big barriers to capital accumulation during that period was; how can capital get access to cheaper and more docile labour supplies? There were a number of answers. One was to encourage more immigration. In the United States there was a major revision of the immigration laws in 1965 that in effect allowed the US access to the global surplus population (before that only Europeans and Caucasians were privileged). In the late 1960s the French government was subsidising the import of Maghrebian labour, the Germans were bringing in the Turks, the Swedes were bringing in the Yugoslavs, the British were drawing upon their empire. So a pro-immigration policy emerged which was one attempt to deal with the labour problem.

The second thing you go for is rapid technological change which throws people out of work and if that failed then there were people like Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet to crush organized labour. And finally capital goes to where the surplus labour is by off-shoring, and this was facilitated by two things. Firstly technical reorganisation of the transport systems: one of the biggest revolutions that happened during this period is containerisation which allowed you to make auto parts in Brazil and ship them for very low cost to Detroit or wherever. Secondly the new communications systems allowed the tight organization of commodity chain production across the global space.

All of these solved the labour problem for capital, so by 1985 capital has no labour problem any more. It may have specific problems in particular areas but globally it has plenty of labour available to it; the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of much of China added something like 2 billion people to the global proletariat in 20 years. So labour availability is no problem now and the result of that is that labour has been disempowered for the last 30 years. But when labour is disempowered it gets low wages, and if you engage in wage repression this limits markets. So capital was beginning to face problems with its market, and there were two things which happened.

The first was the gap between what labour was earning and what it was spending was covered by the rise of the credit card industry and increasing indebtedness of households. So in the US in 1980 you would find that the average household would owe around $40,000 in debts now it’s about $130,000 for every household, including mortgages. So household debt sky-rockets and that brings you to financialisation, and that was about getting the financial institutions to support the household debts of working class people whose earnings are not increasing. And you start with the respectable working class, but by the time you get to the year 2000 you start to find these sub-prime mortgages circulating. You are looking to create a market. And so finance starts to support the debt-financing of people who have almost no income. But if you hadn’t done that what would have happened to the property developers who are building the houses? So you try and stabilize the market by funding that
indebtedness.

The second thing which happened was that from the 1980s onwards the rich are getting far richer because of that wage repression. The story we are told is that they will invest in new activity but they don’t; most of them start to invest in assets, i.e. they put money in the stock market, the stock market goes up so they think it is a good investment so they put more money in the stock market, so you get these stock market bubbles. It is a ponzi-like system without the Madoff’s organizing it. The rich bid up asset values, including stocks, property, and leisure property as well as the art market. These investments involve financialisation. But as you bid up asset values this carries over to the whole economy, so to live in Manhattan became all but impossible unless you went incredibly into debt, and everyone is caught in this inflation of asset values, including the working classes whose incomes are not rising. And now we’ve got a collapse of asset values; the housing market is down, the stock market is down.

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