Thursday, 11 May 2017

Failing better

In 2013, David Graeber tried to analyse the attitudes of global elites towards the social movements bubbling up beneath them. The first principle was: “under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success,”

It might seem strange to imagine that the social democratic policies of Jeremy Corbyn provoke such fear and loathing, or even that they constitute an ‘alternative’, but I think they do inspire a form of dread.  We all know about his terrible approval ratings but level of vituperation directed at Corbyn from journalists and centrist politicians betrays something else. Such people find his policies – reversing swingeing tax cuts for corporations and the top 5% (partial recompense for the financial asset boosting free lunch known as Quantitative Easing), re-nationalising the railways and not selling arms to repressive regimes  – deeply threatening.

In their eyes, not only must Corbyn not ‘experience success’, he must be seen to fail catastrophically. He – and everything he has come to represent – must crash and burn, so British politics can return to the comfort zone of one centrist neoliberal arguing with a more right-wing neoliberal about how they manage economic decline.

So we must see that he doesn’t.

This is not about Labour winning the General Election. They are almost certain to lose. Opinion polls can be wrong but not that wrong. The one thing that has palpably changed from two years ago is that UKIP voters have migrated to the Tories. Prising that coalition apart in this election, in which Brexit is the dominant issue, is a herculean task.

However, how Labour loses is of vital importance. The party must be able to demonstrate that it is tapping into the enormous discontent and exasperation about the way this country is set up and the direction it is headed. As many have noticed, in polls, Labour is ahead, substantially ahead in fact, of the Tories among the under 40s. These non-middle aged people are feeling the brunt of what is happening in British society – wages falling by over 10% in a decade, unaffordable house prices and the travails of private renting, and a benefits system that represents a punishment, not a welfare, state. Older people, by contrast, are by and large insulated. They often own property and live on generous private pensions which have vanished for people coming after them, and don’t have to work for a living. However, they are much more likely to vote, and the propensity to vote is behind the Conservatives’ huge opinion poll leads.

This would seem to be an intractable problem for the Labour party in the absence of a fresh financial crisis that fundamentally changes the rule of the game. As things stand, all it can do it try to eat in to Tories’ older coalition and launch the mother of all campaigns to get (relatively) younger people to register to vote and actually do so.

Beyond that it can lay claim to the support of the legions of self-employed people and small businesses as opposed to big business. Loyalty to corporations above all else, which miraculously survived the financial crash, was one of the grievous faults of the last Labour government. Policies such as binding arbitration for late payments and the right for workers to buy firms that are sold or floated on the stock exchange need to be brought centre stage. For a party formed as movement of private sector workers, it is utterly inept for Labour to either conflate the interests of owners with employees or retreat into its public sector comfort zone.

If Labour loses the election but does so with an increased share of the vote compared to 2015, there is hope. If it secures the active backing of the pre-middle aged portion of the population, it can plausibly claim to represent the future. But if it crashes catastrophically, the New Labour old guard will ride, however unfairly, on a wave of vindication and Yvette ‘work capability assessment’ Cooper or someone like her will become leader. The robotization of British politics will then be complete. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter,” said the playwright Samuel Beckett. “Fail again. Fail better.”

Monday, 17 April 2017

Another Country

A review of ‘Cash not Care: the planned demolition of the UK welfare state’, by Mo Stewart

‘I want my country back!’ wailed Brexiters across the land during last year’s Referendum. But reading this book you realise that ‘your country’ – England, Britain and all parts thereof – was lost years ago and the capital of Belgium had nothing to do with the theft. Stewart painstakingly shows how hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people have been prodded like cattle through a system deliberately designed to override the opinions of doctors and medical diagnosis, and leave them destitute. Currently, more than 2/3rds of people who appeal to a tribunal against a decision of this system to rule them ‘fit for work’ are successful. The Work Capability Assessment, to give its proper name, betrays (in the words of one commentator) “a failure of compassion, unacknowledged incompetence and injustice on a massive scale”. And yet, far from acknowledging this tragedy the government wants to intensify it. No wonder one of the chapters of Stewart’s book is entitled, The Shame of Britain.

However, it is not this knowledge that imparts the strong sensation you are living in a foreign country. That unnerving sense creeps up on you through the realisation that the Work Capability Assessment is a replica of the non-medical assessment model of an American insurance corporation branded an ‘outlaw company’ for the way it has systematically denied ‘meritorious’ pay outs to sick and disabled claimants.  It was to Unum, labelled the second worst insurance company in America, and accused of running ‘disability denial factories’, that successive British governments turned in their desire to ‘reform’ the welfare state. You can read the whole shameful saga here.

But rather than summarise the story, I want to reflect on four things it says about the parlous state of this country in 2017:

1 We have a media problem

Stewart’s book is peppered with mounting anger that the story she is telling is unknown to the vast majority of the British people. “The entire national press, collectively,” she writes, “refused to expose to the British people the confirmed involvement of Unum (Provident) Insurance with the UK welfare reforms claims management since 1994.” There were isolated exceptions – Private Eye ­– for example. But almost exclusively it was left to minority publications, such as the Disability News Service, to tell the story. But, with the best will in the world, they have a limited market so “the vast majority of the abled bodied British people …. remained in total ignorance.” Academic research which lifted the lid of what was happening was only read by other academics or activists.

In short the steady undermining of Britain’s welfare state has been able to go on unimpeded because the media failed in its basic duty to inform the public of what was happening. It has been found that, among the public, estimates of incidence of benefit fraud range from 10 to 70% when, in reality, fraud stands at 0.3%. (I know that what the public means by fraud probably involves not really being ill as opposed to official definitions of fraud which involve outright deception but the gap is still enormous). On this and on other issues, media-formed perceptions are wildly inaccurate.

“We lack knowledge of the world beyond our direct experience … vast swathes of state-corporate activity are unreported,” Dan Hind wrote in The Return of the Public. The alternative media, though it has undoubtedly grown in recent years, cannot reach enough people to burst the bubble of the perceptions set by the mass media. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that public service media, such as the BBC, increasingly echo government priorities and see their role as reporting what ‘mainstream’ political currents, all claiming to represent the centre ground, agree to disagree about. The problem is the ‘centre-ground’ is a home for extremist political thinking and all three main political parties in this country have been utterly complicit in what has gone on. The perfect cover.

There is a justified air of fatalism about Stewart’s book – stemming from an awareness that, despite the moral imperative of its writing, it will likely not break through media fantasies. The same is true of any number of other urgent, seemingly hopeless situations – the nature of the environmental crisis, the likelihood of renewed financial breakdown – for example. Given the character of our media set-up, things will almost certainly get worse.

Improvement, by contrast, depends on changing the way reality ‘out there’, reality beyond day to day experience, is described. The existing media, not just tabloid newspapers, but also the BBC and liberal broadsheets, have a structural problem, and aren’t just guilty of moral failings. Dan Hind’s idea is for the public to decide, through a fund diverted from the BBC licence fee, what issues they want to see investigated. Thousands of journalists would be employed on researching subjects which the media would have a duty to report. The truth of what has happened to the British social security system could be one of those subjects. This may sound weak in the face of the problem but we have to accept – as Stewart’s research demonstrates – that the problem exists and that preaching ever more loudly to the converted is not going to dent it.

2 Our political parties have been thoroughly corporatized

“Sadly, these are policies that tarnish all three major political parties,” says academic Peter Beresford in the introduction to Stewart’s book. You couldn’t get the proverbial Rizla paper between New Labour and the Tories on welfare ‘reform’.   Way back in 1994 Unum were first appointed official government advisers by Conservative social security minister, Peter Lilley. When New Labour was elected, the desire for ‘active welfare’ intensified. Unum and Atos were both included in technical working groups that ironed out the details of the non-medical assessments that would determine who was eligible for disability benefits. “Approved doctors were trained in Unum’s approach to claims management”. A stringent ‘all work test’ was introduced, followed by Personal Capacity Assessment, described by the OECD as “one of the toughest in the world” – but evidently not tough enough. The 2008 Work Capability Assessment, defiantly focused on what ill people can do (such as raising their hands above their head in a tell-tale sign of work readiness), despite what ill-informed doctors might protest, was the culmination of this process.

When the Coalition entered government two years later, it made the WCA tougher still and carried through on applying it to existing Incapacity Benefit claimants – with the unwavering support of Labour, now in opposition.  The Conservatives now back “making workers pay into flexible savings accounts to fund their own sick pay” and enlarging the number of workers covered by employer ‘Group Income Protection’.

By coincidence, Unum has for years attempted to hawk both its individual and employer insurance products on the grounds that state benefits are becoming harder and harder to get.

But clearly welfare and disability is not the only area where corporations exert a decisive impact on UK government policies.  As the 2009 Alternative Report on UK Banking Reform noted, the City of London ‘has co-opted the leadership of both main political parties’. Not only did this monopolisation of views determine the climate of deregulation before the financial crisis, it also ensured that post-crisis nothing would be done to inhibit the ‘competitiveness’ of the UK as a financial centre.

Government policy has become thoroughly corporatized across the board. Corporate taxation heads inexorably downwards, subsidies go up and it is deemed as simply natural that public services are privatised or contracted out. Challengers to this state of affairs are branded left-wing populists but, in reality, they present isolated cases of politicians who haven’t been recuperated by this system and espouse policies that would have been considered quite tame and mainstream a few decades ago. They are not examples of dogmatic socialism against capitalist wisdom but pluralism in the face of a narrow corporate logic.

3 Chronically ill people are treated in a way that would shock us if it were meted out to the acutely ill

Britain can still muster outrage over the mistreatment of acutely ill people – those left on trolleys in hospital corridors or suffering prolonged abuse of care. But when it comes to mistreatment of the chronically ill – those affected by strokes, cancer, heart disease or ME for example – such empathy miraculously vanishes. At the root of the conscious cruelty inflicted by the WCA lies a stubborn conviction that these people aren’t really ill. According to the biopsychosocial model, the claims management ‘philosophy’ beloved of Unum and the Department for Work and Pensions, illness is a belief. With the right attitude (and convenient withdrawal of financial support) the temporarily ill can overcome their impairments. Just as, under neoliberalism, the unemployed, are responsible for their unemployment, so the sick are now responsible for their sickness. But this, frankly, is unscientific baloney – illness is real, whether acute or chronic.

And the idea that the UK is suffering from some kind of epidemic of psychosomatic illness just won’t wash. The amount spent by the UK on disability benefits is half what it was at its peak in the mid-90s and the benefits population is ‘static if not falling’.

In truth, what lies behind the mammoth injustice of the WCA is a refusal to accept the consequences of class. People in poorer areas die sooner and spend more of their lives contending with a disability than those in wealthier areas. In fact, the gap in disability-free life expectancy between low and high income groups is 13 years. The book, The Spirit Level, reports a study of civil servants which found that low job status was related to ‘some cancers, chronic lung disease, gastrointestinal disease, depression, suicide, sickness absence from work, back pain and self-reported health’. The authors conclude that ‘there is a sickness gradient in health running right across society … those above us have better health, those below us have worse health,  from the very bottom to the very top.’ If you want to change those outcomes, you have to change society, not tell those at the bottom, living with very real illnesses, to get their act together.

4 You might think the Work Capability Assessment is monstrously unjust but those behind it fervently believe they are fighting for social justice

I think we have to accept that, though the WCA is based on disbelieving people with actual diagnosed illnesses, Iain Duncan Smith’s tears are real. He genuinely believes he has helped the ‘disadvantaged’ by declaring the ill ‘fit for work’ and removing all financial support from the unemployed for a maximum of three years. This, as fellow partner in crime Chris Grayling once put it, is ‘tough love’. And insufferable moral worthiness is not limited to the Conservatives. Labour’s Yvette Cooper, who as DWP minister in the last Labour administration actually introduced the WCA, chided the incoming Coalition in June 2010 not to abolish the medical assessments in their zeal to cut spending across the board. To do so would be ‘deeply unfair’, she said. Yes, really.

This impenetrable sense of do-goodery stems, in my opinion, from a conviction that work is fantastically good for you. Getting more and more people into work, despite the fact that they might be seriously ill, thus becomes a matter of social justice. But when Iain Duncan Smith, or Yvette Cooper think of work, they always imagine the self-actualising, well paid kind – the kind, in fact, that they do.  But low-paid, temporary, exploitative work – the kind that people who go through the WCA are forced into – is not always good for you. In fact it can be very bad for you, as the fact that in our work-saturated society the most common reason to apply for Employment and Support Allowance is having a mental health problem, attests.

Work is not good for your health, illness is real. Apart these minor tweaks government policy towards the sick and disabled in this country makes perfect sense.

If you want to understand how politics in this country works for minorities who are never going to constitute an electorally important group, read this book. You’ll never be quite the same again.

Friday, 3 March 2017

What New Labour can teach Jeremy Corbyn

One of the sub-plots around the questioning of Jeremy Corbyn’s virtues (or lack of them) as leader of the Labour party has been a reassertion of the unfairly maligned, it is alleged, successes of New Labour. Leftist traducing of the last Labour government’s record, under the catch-all ‘Blairite’ banner of abuse, has obscured that government’s undoubted achievements. Massive flaws like Iraq aside, Corbynite bitterness and the Conservative spendthrift mantra have allied, it is claimed, to conceal the real advances made between 1997 and 2010.

Actually I think outlining the achievements of the last Labour government is exactly what is required because they serve to illustrate the depth of the problem Corbyn, or any other Labour leader, faces.

A list of New Labour’s accomplishments would have to include introducing working tax credits, building over 3,000 Sure Start centres, reducing child and pensioner poverty and overseeing the  largest peacetime increase in health and education spending in British history.

But all these achievements were crucially and ineluctably linked to supporting a Thatcherite economic model that began shipping water in the early 2000s and sank to the ocean floor in 2008. The undoubted progress made on reducing child poverty began to unravel in 2005 and real wages started stagnating in 2003. In the guise of being relaxed about people becoming ‘filthy rich’, the proportion of national income contributed by corporation tax fell to its lowest ever level (just 2.5%) and capital gains tax was cut nearly in half. New Labour’s response to imminent systemic meltdown was to spend £1.5 trillion on bailing out the banks, institute a £375 billion asset-saving quantitative easing scheme whose benefits overwhelmingly went to the top 10% of taxpayers and promise austerity. In other words, the mirror opposite of the redistribution and public spending that underscored its achievements.

RIP social democracy.           

What this means is that any departure from (old) New Labour orthodoxy is going to have to be much more than plain anti-austerity. It’s obvious that you can’t fund social care or the health service properly if you are intent, as was the case with Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, on austerity. But to be sustainably anti-austerity you have to find an economic model of capitalism to replace the fake growth of the New Labour years. “Almost everyone agrees that wealth, as experienced by households, was in excess of reality,” Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council under Obama, said of the pre-crisis economy in 2013. In essence, you need an economic model, not ‘in excess of reality’, that automatically generates the tax you need, through income and corporate income tax, to fund the signature social programmes of the early New Labour years.

Now such a model, at this stage in the history of capitalism, is extremely hard to find. Since the mid-1970s, growth has fallen in every region of the world, and markedly so in ‘mature’ economies. At 0.8%, productivity in mature economies, an essential component of economic growth, is significantly below its pre-crisis level and a mere blip compared to the 5% a year achieved in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Such sustained underperformance, augmented by the 2008 crash, has resulted in a fiscal crisis across the western world and lent a spurious justification to austerity which claims, utterly contrary to the evidence, an ability to reduce public debts.

As above graph shows, government debt grew massively in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis (the largest transfer from poor to rich since the time of William the Conqueror), and then continued to shoot upwards in the era of austerity, whose end point is forever postponed further into the future. There are many reasons for this – the government has deliberately reduced its revenue by swingeing cuts to corporate income tax and the inexorable rise of poorly paid, low productivity, self-employed, temporary and part-time jobs has slashed tax income while increasing the amount paid out through tax credits. Lastly, the government is gladly divulging billions in corporate welfare and ‘legacy payments’ from the financial crisis.

But the fact that, a ‘quintessentially private sector crisis’, rather than spending on schools and hospitals, caused this fiscal crisis, does not detract from the stubborn fact of its existence.

There is tendency on the Left to assume that public debts and deficits don’t really matter. You can always find money from somewhere, an attitude bolstered the invention of $12 trillion dollars in ‘quantitative easing’ by states across the world in order to maintain share prices. But they do, especially in an era of declining, low-growth capitalism. Apart from anything else, when the government borrows, it borrows from somebody – namely banks, insurance companies and high net worth individuals. That money has to be paid back with interest, as opposed to simply being confiscated through tax.

If I were Corbyn, I’d never miss an opportunity to talk about the economy, debt and deficit – how any government deficit consists of two elements, revenue and spending, and how governments’ revenue from taxing companies and the extremely wealthy, has been systematically crippled over the past few decades. I’d emphasise how cuts strip demand from the economy and thus income from VAT. In a left-wing version of triangulation, I’d attack the Conservatives, at all times, on their alleged strong point, the economy, and hone in on the hollowness of austerity arguments.

This, however, probably won’t work. I don’t mean in the sense of winning an election but in the sense of achieving your aims once in power. Even full-throated Corbynism will only raise corporate tax slightly, will only raise tax on the 1% slightly and may close down one or two tax havens. This is a mere drop in the ocean compared to 50% tax rates on corporations and 90% tax bands for the highest earners common in the era of successful capitalism. Public investment, another signature Corbyn policy, will likely not spark a revival in moribund private investment.

But it’s more than this. Periodic recessions are in the nature of capitalism and, in the West, we are due one. Even if massive corporate indebtedness does not turn the next recession into systemic meltdown, public finances will be further diminished. Tax revenues will decline while spending on unemployment benefits will have to increase. This is on top of the effects of 2008 which no government on earth has recovered from. The outcome will likely be hyper-austerity and state repression or an utter revulsion with cuts leading to … something else. Corbynism will seem, in retrospect, quite quaint.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

André Gorz and the importance of refusing work

Twenty years ago the French philosopher André Gorz warned of the crucial difference between a basic income that enabled its recipients to refuse work and one designed to prompt them to take any on offer.

At a time when basic income advocates were a novelty, Gorz foresaw the dangers ‘inherent in demanding continuous income for discontinuous work’. Basic income was, according to one contemporary conservative advocate, not an end in itself, but the means for everyone to ‘fit themselves into this new system’.

The idea, said Gorz, was ‘to enable employment to become intermittent, and [it] may even encourage such intermittent employment’.

But a ‘sufficient’ unconditional basic income had precisely the opposite logic. “The aim,” he wrote in 1997’s Reclaiming Work, “is not to force the recipients to accept any kind of work on any terms whatsoever, but to free them from the constraints of the labour market. The basic social income must enable them to refuse work [my italics] and reject ‘inhuman’ working conditions.”

Far from encouraging work and entrepreneurship, Gorz wanted a basic income, in line with the ideas of libertarian communists and socialists of past eras, to lead to ‘less employment and less selling of labour and services’. He looked forward to the ‘elimination of work as the dominant form of activity’ and its replacement by myriad forms of ‘personal activity’.

In the late ‘90s, few policy-makers paid serious attention to proposals for a basic income. Now, by contrast, basic income pilots are springing up like mushrooms after a cloudburst. Experiments are planned, or are in progress, in Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Scotland.  The kind of basic income they embody, however, is closer to Gorz’s nightmare than his dream of liberation.

Intermittent employment, through zero hours contracts, extreme part-time work, freelancing and the burgeoning gig economy, was only just emerging into the sunlight in the 1990s. But now it is an established fact of life for millions of people. And all the basic income pilots, without exception, take intermittent employment as a given, even a desideratum. Basic income, in other words, becomes a means for people to ‘fit themselves into this new system’.

In Finland, the centre-right government hopes the basic income pilot will help participants ‘take short-term jobs’ and ‘encourage people to seek and accept work’. The BI pilot in Ontario, Canada, though set at a more for generous level than in Finland, aims to ‘strengthen the incentive to work’.  In the Dutch city of Utrecht, the ruling socially liberal D66 party, which has initiated a BI experiment directed solely at the unemployed, is committed to ‘strengthening the economy for entrepreneurs, be they big multinationals or small-scale freelancers.

This all suggests that these basic income pilots, besides being more humane that punitive welfare systems, will be good for the economy. But ‘sufficient’, Gorz-style basic income, aimed at facilitating the refusal rather than the acceptance of work, while sounding utopian, may in fact be more economically beneficial. This is because it works to a counter western societies’ now permanent over-supply of labour.

A basic income that is i) substantial and ii) paid to everyone, not just the unemployed and the poor would, according to one article on radical implications of basic income, ‘simultaneously push up the wage rate for unattractive, unrewarding (which no one is now forced to accept in order to survive) and bring down the average wage rate for attractive, intrinsically rewarding work (because fundamental needs are covered anyway)’.

Or, as one of the organisers of the Swiss group, Generation Basic Income (which advocates a monthly ‘basic income max’ of nearly £2,000 a month), puts it: ‘Income from labour will be renegotiated ….Good work that people like to do, will be cheaper. Poor work that people do not like to do, will be better paid, because no-one can be blackmailed with their existence to do it.’

Many basic income advocates stress the inexorability of automation as demonstrating a ‘like it or not’ justification of an unconditional income. But so-called advanced economies, certainly the UK, are de-industrialised without being fully automated. In many ways, they are running on the easy availability of abundant cheap labour. There are now 20,000 hand car washes in Britain, while the automated version – rollover car wash machines – have halved in number in a decade.  This is reverse automation.

 A substantial basic income, that enabled the refusal of work, could turn off the labour tap and spur automation in a way that ‘incentivising employment’ basic income won’t.

In short we don’t need to create more low paid work but this is just what the intermittent employment model of basic income is predicated upon doing. A ubiquitous justification of this model is that it gives the recipients the confidence to start their own business because they won’t face starvation if they fail. It’s hard to argue with the logic except that the last thing we need is more small businesses. Self-employment in the UK, in the most un-basic income conditions imaginable, has already increased by 26% in the last ten years, and now encompasses 15% of the workforce. Simultaneously, since 2008, the income of the self-employed has dropped by a quarter.

The reason is that the ranks of the self-employed have been boosted by a legion of small-scale service businesses – cleaners, gardeners, dog walkers, website designers, personal trainers, nutritionists – that are often barely able to keep their head above water financially. Introducing an insufficient basic income would boost the number of these services immensely and – because they would be many more freelance dog walkers for busy dog owners to choose from – would water down self-employed income even more.

Ventures like Task Rabbit, which matches freelance contractors with people seeking help with tasks like moving or cleaning, have spread across the US and are now growing in the UK. According to the chief executive of one ‘crowdworking’ US company, technology now enables employers to recruit people for ten minute tasks, pay them a tiny amount of money and then ‘get rid of them when you don’t need them anymore’. This is as good a description of a capitalist dystopia as I can find, and it’s an economy that would be massively emboldened by the guilt erasing incentivising employment model of basic income.

The above may seem churlish in the context of a welfare state that has morphed into a punishment state, and relishes denying income to the sick and disabled, forcing them to beg at food banks. Compared to this, unconditional income is little short of an epiphany. But when I think of the future in the light of a basic income predicated on incentivising work, I can’t help but envisage millions of self-employed task bunnies meekly serving the myriad whims of the elite. Labour will have never been so cheap or so abundant. No-one will starve but everyone will be exploited.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The deformities of 21st century capitalism

In part one, I noted the strange anomaly that an ever more munificent corporate tax regime has resulted more and more frugal rates of investment by the private sector. Waving farewell to the relative high points of the 1960s and ‘70s, corporations have chosen to keep hold of a larger and larger proportion of their profits. Governments around the world have played the role of useful idiot, plying multinationals with multiple tax cuts, while pretending not to notice that the money given away almost never goes into production.
Especially in developed countries, says the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), corporations are now mainly using profits to pay out dividends or buy back their own shares, rather than investing in new plants or equipment. Or they are simply banking the profits, often in zero percent tax havens. It is estimated that corporations are sitting on $700 trillion worldwide.
This graph, from Chapter 5 of UNCTAD’s 2016 Trade & Development Report, illustrates just how extreme the fall in investment in the major economies has been over the last three decades:

The crucial concept here is the decline in ‘fixed capital formation’ – investment in tangible things like equipment, factories or new products. So-called ‘investment’ in financial instruments – just betting on a rise in the value of these assets – has grown exponentially.
In a remotely rational world, this outcome might have prompted a bit of a rethink on the part of governments. But, in keeping with the era of alternative facts, it has, in fact, inspired the realisation that these efforts to lighten the burden on corporate-land were, in retrospect, paltry and what is called for is a far more muscular approach to taxing cutting. The ‘love fest’ embodied by Donald Trump and Theresa May is leading the charge for a more reasonable levy on the world’s richest people. Where this will end is anyone’s guess. Probably in us sub-humans paying for the privilege of being exploited, except, of course, we’re doing that already.
What is eminently predictable is that if Britain and America set the pace by radically cutting rates of corporate taxation, other countries will feel obliged to follow suit for fear of appearing unattractive to roaming corporations. Ireland, with its corporate tax rate of 12.5%, may well be a harbinger of everybody’s future. Though Ireland will doubtless want to revise that rate downwards in an effort to retain its competitive advantage.
But for those of us keen on keeping our reality principle intact, there is another kind of realisation. That the mantra of austerity, of no money left, of ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, is nothing more than an excuse for unnecessary suffering. There is plenty of money left, it’s just in the wrong hands, and, most importantly, is not being used. The Tax Justice Network estimates that there is up to $32 trillion lying idle in tax havens, equivalent to 10 to 15% of global wealth. US corporations alone – led by the likes of Google, Apple and Microsoft – have $2.1 trillion stockpiled overseas.
Interestingly, there is a law in America that penalises firms found to be hoarding cash. They have to pay 20% above the normal corporate tax rate. But since 1986, multinational companies have been exempt from this restriction. They can avoid all taxes on profit paid to affiliates, known as ‘passive foreign investment companies’, with no conditions on its (lack of) use. The result has been multi-trillion dollar cash mountain, untouched by the American government and not used for any productive investment.
Donald Trump is planning a ‘repatriation holiday’ for these multinationals – a discount tax rate of 10% if they bring it all back home. The narrative – as ever with Trump – is that this will create jobs. But the last time it was tried – in 2004 – it actually eliminated nearly 21,000 jobs, despite its proponents claiming it would create 660,000. The money was repatriated but was mainly used for mergers and acquisitions, the perfect rationale for streamlining workforces.
The alternative to Trump’s plan is obvious. Reinstate the pre-1986 penalty and properly tax the trillions of dollars siphoned overseas and doing precisely nothing. Apple alone has over $200 billion. The money could be used for …  just to pluck a few ideas out of the air, creating a single payer health care system, rebuilding infrastructure or instituting a basic income.
Other countries could follow the American lead, triggering a healthy race to the top, rather than the bottom, which is whether global tax competition has led us over the past 40 years. The adoption of such a policy would also have the attractive side effect of stealing the nationalist right’s thunder. Trump is, aside from the misogyny and immigration bans, relentlessly focusing on creating jobs and cajoling corporations into not moving to China. Apart from pointing out the glaring flaws in his plans (see above), the answer cannot be a centrist blank.
The Investment Dilemma
But this policy is, at best, half a solution – because it does not address why private sector investment is so feeble in the first place. If corporations could smell profit on the horizon, they wouldn’t need any encouragement to invest. They wouldn’t need the meaningless inducements of tax cuts or a regulatory cull.
We are, as some economists have noted, in the middle of depression. Global GDP rates are a pale shadow of what they were pre-2008, interest rates remain at rock bottom, companies shun investment and hoard money and global trade is running at less than a quarter of its pre-crisis rate. None of the 20 largest shipping container companies in the world are forecasting a profit.
An economy in such a parlous state clearly has effects. One of the most apparent is that businesses become obsessed with cost-cutting and reducing their overheads. They look to shore up their profit margins, rather than expand production. Part-time, zero hours and other flexible contracts have mushroomed in this environment. Good, stable jobs and adequate pensions rapidly become a memory of the capitalist golden age. Economic insecurity consciously becomes the order of the day.
There are also dire geo-political consequences. The word antisemitism dates back to 1879, not coincidentally in the midst of the long depression of the late 19th century. The Great Depression of the 1930s ushered in Nazism and consolidated totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union. In our time, Trump is threatening trade war with China, which could easily escalate into actual war. Humanity, it was nice knowing you.
So to say that ending the capitalist depression is important is the understatement of the 21st century. But, ignoring the legions of apologists for the system, there is no consensus as to the cause and therefore the way out.
The 21st Century Depression
The most moderate of the critics – in the sense that they often (but not universally) believe that capitalism can be successfully reformed in the public interest – are the Left Keynesians. This is where you’ll find left-wing politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
Left Keynesians hone in on capitalism’s effective demand problem. Through perpetual competition, businesses are compelled to clamp down on costs, including wages – a process eased by the vanquishing of organised labour across the Western world in the 1980s and ‘90s. But, of course, workers, in their other incarnation, are also consumers.  So this is akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. In economic terms, the gap between supply and demand grows dangerously wide. According to a report last summer, the real incomes of around 2/3rds of households in 25 advanced economies were flat or fell between 2005 and 2014.
“The roof might cave in,” American thinker David Schweickart wrote presciently in 2002. “A deep and enduring global depression is a real possibility.”
The obverse is also true. Well paying, stable jobs and pensions that allow consumption not just subsistence living to happen, ensure the equilibrium of the system.
But the difficulty in accepting waning demand as the ultimate cause of global depression is that consumerism – the motor of the economy in industrialised countries for many decades – has not really abated. Still, nine years after the 2008 crash and a ‘lost decade’ of wage (non) growth, consumer spending is the dominant force behind UK economic growth, responsible for 70% of economic activity. The endurance of consumer spending has been called ‘privatised Keynesianism’.
What is true is that this consumerism – founded on personal borrowing – is much more precarious than in the past. A rise in interest rates, as happened in the US in 2007, or a blip in unemployment could cause the roof to cave in once again. But ebbing demand is not, in itself, the problem. You could safely argue that demand would be stronger had wage growth kept pace with previous decades. But in no sense has consumer demand collapsed.
The other solution often proposed by Left Keynesians is that public investment should substitute for moribund private investment. In the UK, Corbyn is proposing £500 billion government spending over 10 years through a National Investment Bank. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis wants a revitalised European Investment Bank to spearhead economic recovery and an end to austerity.
The argument is that when, in Keynes’ words, the ‘animal spirits’ of the private sector are depressed, government should fill the gap. In any case, as interest rates are so low, government borrowing is begging to happen and, most importantly, will ultimately pay for itself through higher economic growth and increased tax receipts.
The flaw is that no convincing reason is given as to why increased public investment will stimulate a revival of private investment. Japan, the world’s third largest economy, has stubbornly resisted the siren song of austerity and invested hugely in infrastructure – planning, in 2013, to outlay over $2 trillion over ten years, with the explicit aim of spurring growth. Yet Japan has not emerged from nearly three decades of anaemic economic performance and its economy actually shrank in the last quarter of 2015.
Interestingly, Japan illustrates how a country can combine huge private and public debt and masses of unused corporate profits. “Japan’s corporate savings glut is unique in scale,” says Martin Wolf of the FT. In common with their counterparts in other countries, Japanese corporations are making high profits and not investing. The country also has the highest debt levels in the world.
So, in order to understand why private investment refuses to budge in response to financial inducement, government investment or Trump-style cajoling, I believe you have to look elsewhere – into the realms of anti-capitalist economics:
The Marxist Dissidents
Karl Marx called the tendency of the rate of profit to fall “the most fundamental law of capitalism’. According to this theory, all profit derives from human labour but as mechanization inevitably spreads through the economy, replacing workers with machines, the overall rate of profit declines. Various counter-tendencies – such as paying workers more, finding new markets or using dirt cheap labour – continually operate and can for a long time eclipse the tendency of profit to fall. But, in the end, this law will reassert itself.
The relevance for my argument is that the decline in the rate of profit first makes itself felt through a slump in investment.  Expectation of profit is the motivation for all private sector investment, and if this expectation is dampened or vanishes, investment won’t happen, or will happen on a much smaller scale. A decline in investment is a sign that a recession or depression is impending.
There is disagreement among Marxists of this kind as to when the decline in the rate of profit started to kick in. Some, such as Andrew Kliman, trace it back to the first recession of the post-war period in 1973. Others, such as Michael Roberts, claim it was postponed until 1997. But all agree it is a fact of life now.
One way of temporarily offsetting the decline in the rate of profit is financial speculation, or a rise in ‘fictitious capital’, as Marx called it. “If the capitalists cannot make enough profit producing commodities, they will try making money betting on the stock exchange or buying various other forms of financial instruments,” says Roberts.
It is a conviction of Marxists of this ilk that capitalism can only be restored to health – rates of investment will rise to support a growing economy – if there is a mass destruction of ‘capital value’.  This means a spiral of bankruptcies and a huge rise in unemployment. The crash of 2008 didn’t involve such destruction; it was arrested and bailed-out. Andrew Kliman thinks we are thus doomed to experience a state of ‘not quite recession’. Another Marxian economist – Roberts – says we are in the midst of an ‘economic winter’, awaiting another crash which will finish the job of 2008.
Under this variant of Marxism (most Marxists reside in the Left Keynesian camp), there is no final apocalypse, no final and irrevocable crisis. The decline of profit is cyclical – if is allowed to play out, levels of profit are restored and the whole process (or ‘crap’ in Marx’s description) can begin afresh. However, given the geo-political events that would be triggered by another crash of capitalism, and one much deeper than 2008, one can assume that the apocalypse will be general, not economic, involving world war and mass physical, human destruction. Kliman thinks that the warlordism afflicting parts of Africa and Asia is likely to become the norm if capitalism persists. The only way to avoid such a scenario is to transcend a profit-driven economy.
However, there are other post-capitalist thinkers who don’t regard capitalism’s travails as cyclical. By contrast, they think its troubles stem from having reached the limits of its technological capacity. And having over-stayed its welcome, the defects of capitalism are now grossly outweighing its benefits.
The Capital Glut
Capitalism epitomises a strange combination of abundance and scarcity. Corporations hoard money, landowners and developers hoard land. But there is also, says economist Harry Shutt, an over-abundance of capital at the summit of society, perpetually seeking financial returns.
This ‘wall of money’ does not merely comprise the profits of corporations. It is also made up of pension funds (a vast number of occupational pensions have been invested on the stock market since the 1980s), insurance companies and other ‘investment’ firms seeking returns for their clients.
And it is in the nature of capital-ism, money used as capital, that the profit made is immediately recycled as new capital seeking fresh returns. “The inevitable consequence of maintaining a high return on the capital stock as a whole,” writes Shutt, “is that yet more investible funds will be generated for which outlets must be found.”
Others, such as the geographer David Harvey, have noted the same expansive logic. “To keep to a satisfactory growth rate right now would mean finding profitable opportunities for an extra $2 trillion compared to the ‘mere’ $6 billion that was needed in 1970,” he writes in Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. “By the time 2030 rolls around, when estimates suggest the global economy should be worth more than $96 trillion, profitable investment opportunities of close to $3 trillion will be needed.”
But, to my knowledge, Shutt is unique in adding another dimension. The pressure to find new investment opportunities to satisfy the perpetually expanding horde of capital has been intensified by a steady decline, since the 1970s, in outlets for fixed investment – investment in physical things such as plants or equipment. Technological change means that capital-intensive industries are becoming rarer (as are labour-intensive factories but that is another story).
Last year’s UNCTAD report hinted at this process (see graph above).  In the leading developed economies (France, the USA, UK, Japan and Germany), the report reveals, fixed capital investment rates fell from over 20% GDP in 1990 to ‘historically low levels’ of less than 16 per cent in 2015.
In 2016, Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, lamented ‘more savings chasing fewer investment opportunities’ – an acknowledgement that there is now ‘too much capital for capitalism to function’.
This pincer movement of declining fixed investment opportunities and an ever-growing mass of money clamouring to be used, means an incessant pressure for financial deregulation and privatisation. This money becomes, in Marx’s description, ‘fictitious capital’. The original rationale for privatisation – loss making state industries requiring the bracing discipline of private investment – has been quietly abandoned.  Profit-making state enterprises – particularly profit-making state enterprises – are now considered the most succulent fruit, as a means of supplying safe outlets for private investment.  In the language of international government bodies like the IMF, the OECD and the Bank of International Settlements, deregulation and privatisation are urgent ‘structural reforms.’
Privatised utilities are one essential source for private investment. Prices and investment strategies, such as London’s ‘Super Sewer’- are now set at a level guaranteeing a high return for private investors. Over-investment is mandatory and set, in Shutt’s words, “on the basis of a hypothetical market rate which effectively guarantees a stream of profit on whatever investment is allowed”.
“For decades,” says one Guardian economics commentator, “they [savers] have bullied governments to release assets for sale that can then be leased back at high returns. In the UK, this is why we have privatised utilities and a swath of other safe, previously state-owned, assets in private hands.”
Opening up public, taxpayer funded assets, such as the NHS, to private sector investment – whether at home or from countries like the US, is now an integral component of government policy. This wall of capital at the summit of society is the main reason why neoliberalism did not die in 2008, despite disparate predictions of its imminent demise.
So under this understanding of the present state of capitalism, its travails are not cyclical. Mass destruction of capital value will naturally abate the pressure on public assets for a while, but the intractable problems of technological advancement, which does not demand huge capital investment as it did in the past, will reassert themselves. Capitalism, as a system, has outlived its usefulness. Its deformities are now front and centre.