Friday, 28 June 2019

Our Pikettian Universe


Earlier this month, in announcing plans to replace the David Cameron-created Social Mobility Commission with a new Social Justice Commission, Jeremy Corbyn made a telling, though seemingly unremarkable, observation: “Social mobility has failed, even on its own terms,” he said “… the greater inequality has become, the more entrenched it has become”.

The evidence is all around. According to the aforementioned Social Mobility Commission, social mobility in the UK “has stagnated over the last four years at virtually all life stages”. Last year the OECD reported that, internationally, social mobility was a “reality” for people born before 1975 but has stalled for those reaching adulthood in the 1990s and after. In the UK, according to the OECD, only around a fifth of children of low income families go on to become high earners and only a quarter of children of parents with manual jobs get managerial positions.

These are the results achieved by the unstinting efforts of successive British governments over decades to raise social mobility and achieve a genuine meritocracy. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition had its ‘social mobility strategy', before then the Blair government vowed to achieve social inclusion, and before then John Major had entered Downing Street promising to create a “classless society”.

Growth and  meritocracy

In Britain, social mobility has all the hallmarks of a secular faith – for people in power at all levels of society a belief in the virtues of social mobility – whatever the evidence – is compulsory, and if it forever seems out of reach, a few policy tweaks, such as adult education or free childcare, will set things on the right course again.

In fact the social mobility faith is remarkably similar to another secular creed – the conviction of the virtues of economic growth. The affinity is most apparent in the fact that belief in them is unshaken by the slight problem that they don’t actually achieve their aims – intergenerational meritocracy in the one case and healthy GDP growth in the other.

LSE anthropologist Jason Hickel, in his book The Divide, correctly observes that “almost the entire economic profession and nearly all politicians” are obsessively focused on raising GDP growth. What he doesn’t go on to note is that this obsession has conspicuously failed to bear fruit. GDP has unquestioningly increased over time, but, as pointed out by the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, the rate of growth, for the world’s industrialised countries, has been trending downwards since at least the mid-1960s.

Since the financial crisis a decade ago, this decline has intensified. For the UK, GDP growth has averaged a mere 1.87% per year since 2010, and for the European Union, the average is even more modest: 1.6%. This is below the 2-3% thought to be essential for profits to be made in the economy and a pale shadow of the 5 or 6% annual growth rates achieved in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Piketty and capitalism

There are several ramifications of low-growth capitalism, one being that debt – corporate, personal and governmental – skyrockets across the board. Another – less noted perhaps – is that low social mobility inevitably follows. In 2014, French economist Thomas Piketty published an almighty tome, Capital in the 21st Century, to general applause and fanfare. Piketty’s central finding was that when returns to capital are greater than economic growth (when r > g), then inequality is bound to intensify. This is what happened, Piketty asserts, during much of the 19th century and has occurred over the last 40 years in industrialised countries. It will also be the default state of affairs, he predicts, during the rest of this century.

What are returns to capital? They are income streams that stem from the ownership of assets, such as share dividends, profits, capital gains, rents, royalties and interest. When economic growth is high, Piketty contends, income from labour – which is the only way those without assets can get richer – can outpace these capital returns. When it isn’t, the opposite is the case.

It is fairly apparent, therefore, to see why, in Piketty’s eyes, inequality should increase in an era of low-growth capitalism, such as this one. But it is also the case that returns to capital, should they increase faster than economic growth, also hamstring social mobility. This is because once these assets are amassed, they are almost always passed on to the asset-holder’s children and also because they become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands over time. Essentially they guarantee wealth immobility and ensure that those who are already rich, not only stay rich, but become much richer.

For Piketty, the decades between 1914 and 1973 were unusual because the rate of economic growth was higher than returns to capital.  Coincidentally, this period – certainly the post-WW2 years when economic growth was conspicuously high – was one in which, according to the OECD, social mobility was a ‘reality’.

It is also true that – contra Piketty – in the last decade income from labour in the UK has risen even more slowly than economic growth, reversing the historical norm. In fact wage levels have, in real terms, contracted, while the economy as whole has grown, albeit weakly. Moreover, overall wage levels hide enormous inequality in remuneration. Corporate chief executives have seen vast increases, while earning levels in the lowest income groups have barely moved at all since the 1990s.

But that does not detract from the fact that income from capital has outpaced economic growth, with all the consequences that that entails.

No more Thatcherism

This ‘Pikettian’ problem explains much about the current travails of the Conservative party. The Conservatives simply cannot bring themselves to accept that Thatcherism doesn’t work anymore. The promise of Thatcherism was that assets – such as shares and council houses – would be distributed throughout society, leading to a genuinely popular capitalism. Privatisation, said Thatcher, represented “the greatest shift of ownership and power away from the state to individuals and their families in any country outside the former communist bloc”. The creation of a ‘share-owning democracy’ was the clarion call of the age.

Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the shift was transitory if it occurred at all. Before Thatcher entered Number 10, individuals owned almost 40% of the shares in British companies. When she died in 2013, that figure had shrunk to under 12%. In reality, large companies are now owned by other large companies – frequently banks – in an interlocking system which the small shareholder has no influence over.

Council houses were swiftly transferred from the people who had bought them under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme to a small coterie of private landlords. Home ownership in general has been in decline since 2003 accompanied by soaring rates of private renting. Governments of all stripes have since the 1980s tried to stoke a perpetual property price boom, mainly by restricting supply and not allowing council or social housing to be built. In these conditions of low-growth capitalism, the main hope of becoming wealthier lay not in a lifetime’s labour but in realising the capital gains (one of Piketty’s returns to capital) from selling your property, possibly numerous times. A route millions took.

The dilemma for the Conservatives (and Blairites) is that high property prices prevent young people from buying homes in the first place, thus ensuring that home ownership becomes more concentrated over time. And because their original promises have proven so hollow, the Conservatives – to save their electoral skin – have resorted to the zero sum game of fuelling a ‘culture war’ and overseeing a no deal Brexit, even at the cost of completely alienating the sector of society – big business – whose interests they exist to protect. ‘Fuck business’ was a retort that came out of Boris Johnson’s mouth, not Jeremy Corbyn’s.

21st century wage slavery

What our Pikettian universe means is that for many millions of people employment is not – as it was for many decades after the Second World War, even up to the 1990s – an escalator out of their current economic situation and into a better one. As the figures on in-work poverty show, it is merely a means of week to week survival and sometimes, given the fact that many people who show up a food banks also have jobs, not even that.

Naturally, it can be pointed out that most people don’t live in poverty and most people have mortgages rather renting their homes from landlords (and given the fact that interest rates are so low have benefitted from the last decade or so). However, even ignoring the fact that more precarious forms of work are mushrooming, the trend is not in favour of those who clearly gain materially from capitalism. Piketty’s prediction of a low growth future seems quite solid, and in those circumstances, the asset poor will slowly but surely close the gap on the asset rich.

This has ramifications for how work is perceived, although ones that Piketty, who dismisses ‘the lazy rhetoric of anti-capitalism’, does not make. If work no longer comes attached with an ulterior motive – that it represents a way to personally progress – then it will increasingly be seen in terms of its bare essentials: that is, the granting of wages in exchange for obedience. In the 19th century (the original epoch, Piketty contends, when returns to capital exceeded economic growth and wages were flat), the concept of wage slavery – the idea that the employee is forced by the pressure of need to rent themselves out to employers and endures, in effect, a form of slavery during their time at work – was common on the Left, even the non-socialist Left (see Henry George). If the 21st century replicates the economic conditions of the 19th (not literally, mass outbreaks of cholera are unlikely), then the idea of wage slavery will grow in popularity because it will reflect most people’s experience.

This situation also means the traditional ameliorative solution of the social democratic Left – redistribution of income through taxation – will no longer have the effect it once did. If income is primarily secured by the ownership of assets, then redistribution has to focus on ownership. This is why the UK Labour party moves in favour of ‘alternative models of ownership’ – such as cooperatives, municipal ownership and democratic forms of national ownership – are significant. These may be too limited  and too slow  – John McDonnell’s ‘inclusive ownership fund’ would see companies transferring shares to their workforce every year but it would take 50 years for these to constitute a majority – and in essence a policy fix for a systemic problem. But at least they presage a necessary change of thinking.

However, there is a larger problem. Piketty’s central assertion is that low growth capitalism will inevitably lead to inequality intensifying over time. But low growth capitalism is the condition we are told is essential if climate change is to be seriously mitigated. The question is therefore: does averting ecological catastrophe mean entrenching the power of an oligarchy?  I will attempt to provide an answer in a future post.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Capitalism versus the end of the world


“Our choice comes down to this,” George Monbiot concluded in the Guardian newspaper last month. “Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop capitalism to allow life to continue?” Notwithstanding the strong suspicion that if a politician arose promising to stop capitalism he or she would be instantly denounced by the same newspaper as a far left anti-Semitic, misogynist demagogue, it’s an urgent question.

However, despite its urgency, I would suggest no satisfactory answer will be found until two further questions are also addressed. Firstly, what exactly is capitalism? Secondly, what role does capitalism – through its inevitable companion economic growth – play in material progress and poverty reduction?

Capital-ism involves the advancing of money to make more money, the generation (hopefully from the point of view of the capitalist) of a financial return that is invested again, barring some deductions for luxury consumption. That’s the semantic difference between capital and mere money. Thus, the system is inherently expansionary. This accumulation – capital advanced to make more money which is then invested again and so on ad infinitum – drives the process and is the beating heart of the capitalist system. John Maynard Keynes in his now famous 1930 essay The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren explained the transformations in the “standard of life” since the 16th century as the result of a joint process – technological improvements allied to the accumulation of capital.

The accumulation of capital occurs in spite of other strongly held desires that contradict its purposes – it has an imperative and logic of its own, to which other social needs, such as the preservation of a liveable climate or the wish to pursue, in Keynes’ phrase, life’s “non-economic purposes”, are sacrificed. This is not to suggest that many activities related to this accumulative process simply occur without anyone wanting them – the slave trade and slavery, colonialism, the seizure of common lands from the European peasantry will were all consciously willed and carried out. Nor does it mean that everyone benefits from capitalist accumulation or such benefits are evenly spread, geographically or socially. But imperialism, subjection, slavery and exploitation have existed throughout history and the last 400 years have been qualitatively unique in terms of the development of technology and the exploitation of material resources. The reason, I would suggest, is not just due to the thirst for profit but the pressure of accumulated funds.

What this constant build-up of capital does – one contemporary economist has described it as a ‘wall of money’ – is to create an incessant pressure for new outlets for investment. Such outlets might take the form of the extraction of raw materials, privatisation or debt-fuelled financial instruments. It is the hope of enlightened defenders of the system that this glut of capital can be directed towards socially , beneficial, low carbon forms, such as renewable energy or retrofitting the economy. But, as Monbiot notes, this seems a forlorn hope.

It is true that in recent decades investment has increasingly taken ‘fictional’, non-physical forms – financial instruments or property speculation – but, besides the fact that this leaves the system increasing crisis-prone, capital cannot migrate entirely to making money from rents, interests and royalties. It cannot become completely immaterial.

Keynes – erroneously – believed that this accumulative process could, in essence, be called to a halt once it had achieved its social purposes – once the technological developments it spurred had enabled a comfortable life for everyone and we were free to “value ends over means”. He imagined that by 2030 everyone would be working 3 hour days and 15 hour weeks. Monbiot appears to slip into the same delusion. “Like coal,” he writes, “capitalism has brought many benefits. But, like coal, it now causes more harm than good. Just as we have found means of generating useful energy that are better and less damaging than coal, so we need to find means of generating human wellbeing that are better and less damaging than capitalism.”

However, no such voluntary euthanasia on the part of the capitalist system is going to happen. Accumulation and expansion will go on inexorably and will increase hugely in scope thanks to the growth in funds requiring investment which themselves will generate profit demanding a financial return.

Thus if we are serious about finding a “means of generating human wellbeing that are better and less damaging than capitalism”, this accumulative process must be consciously snuffed out. And to do so requires confronting the immensely wealthy and powerful interests that have developed around this accumulative process and wish, whatever else they wish, that it continues and they remain wealthy and powerful. Moreover, we can’t comfort ourselves with the notion that it is just the 0.1% versus the rest of us. Hundreds of millions of people who aren’t fabulously wealthy also have a stake in the system’s perpetuation through stock market invested pensions funds. The capitalist system, we can be certain, will not go quietly into the night. It won’t depart with its hands aloft because our most sensitive minds have thought of something better.

The paradox of economic growth

The second problem we face relates to the fact that attempts to challenge capitalism often seem to make it stronger. This hinges on the role of economic growth. Capitalism collapses without growth” says Monbiot, “yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.” This is inescapable but at the same time partial. Economic growth, through being transmuted into social spending, money transfers and public provision, has resulted in huge reductions in poverty since the middle of the 20th century. This is not to defend capitalism itself as some miraculous engine of prosperity. It has dispossessed as many people as it lifted out of poverty. But given strong social movements and/or sympathetic governments economic growth can, through taxation, be directed towards socially beneficial ends. The most glaring example is China. The Chinese economy has quadrupled in size since 1978 and per capita income grew fivefold between 1990 and 2010. Coincidentally, poverty has been slashed and the country is thought to be responsible for more than three quarters of world poverty reduction. This has all happened in the context of chronic and lethal air pollution and a major contribution towards global warming.

You might regard China as, until recently, peculiarly benighted as regards the environmental catastrophe we are heading towards. But a similar dilemma afflicts far more enlightened countries. In 2009 Bolivian president Evo Morales said climate change was driven by a western, capitalist “culture of death”. His government contrasted ‘living well’ (vivir bien) with a capitalist insistence on ‘living better’ (vivir mejor) and, in 2012 through the ‘Law of Mother Earth’, became the first state in history to grant rights to nature.

But at the same time, Bolivia’s great strides in poverty reduction – the country is the poorest in South America – have been achieved through redistributing the proceeds from, primarily, gas and oil extraction. Morales nationalised the hyrdocarbons firm YPFB, hiking royalties and taxes and increasing revenues from gas to over $2 billion from a mere $332 million. Over the past 13 years the Bolivian economy has tripled in size and now boasts the highest growth rate in the region – 4.7 per cent.

This is the background to a tripling of the minimum wage, conditional cash transfers to poor families and the creation of a free health service aiming to bring coverage to the 70% of the population who don’t have any. Poverty has been cut in half and the middle class has grown by a million people.

This is far from a painless process, however. As one one sympathetic assessment of the Morales years concludes:

The result is that Bolivia, with the world’s seventh largest tropical forests, now suffers the highest rate of deforestation in South America. In 2015, the MAS government promulgated a law permitting hydrocarbons and mining companies to explore up to 20 million hectares, much of it in protected areas. Large-scale hydro-electric projects, now in the planning stages, would further the goal of turning Bolivia into a regional energy hub. Soy production has roughly doubled since Morales took office ten years ago.

However, it would be the height of arrogance to, from a safe distance, condemn the Morales government for making the wrong choices and maximising the proceeds from economic growth, given its constricted options. Not least because it bears an uncanny resemblance to the way European countries attacked poverty and transformed the life chances of millions of their citizens in the decades after the Second World War.

And that is the nub of the problem. There will, in all likelihood, be many more Chinas and Bolivias in the coming years. Unless zero or minimal economic growth can deliver the same poverty-reducing benefits as taxing high economic growth, the temptation will always be to go for the latter, despite the fatal consequences.

The only way this can happen, I would surmise, is by systematically reducing the cost of basic goods and services – such as housing – to something approaching zero, so that poverty is abolished from the opposite direction so to speak. The pressing need of the vast majority of people to earn a livelihood from selling the labour – the foundation of economic growth – can be ameliorated through a generous basic income which would sever the link between work and existence. However, that basic income would still need funded somehow.

There is not an ‘off the shelf’ answer to this question. But we can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. Though nothing is painless, if we are to ‘stop capitalism to allow life to exist’ indulging it to cream off the proceeds for the benefit of the poor must cease to be the only practical option.

Friday, 19 April 2019

The Mystery of the Post-War Boom – or why has economic growth been falling for over half a century?


According to a recent study, economic growth among the industrialised countries of the world has been declining for around sixty years.

“… contrary to what is widely believed,” the report from Geopolitical Economy Research Group (GERG) at the University of Manitoba in Canada states, “this [post-war economic growth of the industrialised North] has fallen continuously, with only brief and limited interruptions, since at least the early 1960s.” The trend includes all major Northern economies “without exception” and shows no sign of ending.

The study includes the usual suspects – the US, Germany, the UK, Japan and France – as well Australia (which isn’t in the Northern hemisphere admittedly) and 10 other countries.

 

Today’s “meagre” growth rates of 3 per cent are treated as evidence of economic success, but fifty years ago – when rates of 6 per cent or more were common – such an economic performance would have been greeted with “alarm and despondency”, the report’s author, economist Alan Freeman points out.

The erroneous widespread belief the report aims to counter is that either economic growth started falling after 1973 (i.e. a decade later than the reality) or – as in common on the Right – that the nadir of the strike-ridden 1970s was banished by the successful attempts of Thatcher, Reagan and others to revitalise Western economies.

And although the report doesn’t speculate as to why economic growth has fallen so drastically it does affirm the original cause – “an historical event, the Second World War, which brought in its wake one of the greatest and most prolonged economic expansions since the Industrial Revolution”.

The post-war enigma

As can be seen below, there are various explanations for the post Second World War boom, an economic expansion which few sentient people deny occurred. The US economy more than doubled in size between 1948 and 1973, while the UK, West Germany and Italy grew fourfold in the same period and the Japanese economy swelled tenfold.

However, the boom is treated very differently on the Left and the Right. For the mainstream Left, it was the consequence of a peculiarly benign set of economic policies, or in the words of the late economist Andrew Glyn, “a unique economic regime”. The so-called Golden Age of capitalism was built on collective bargaining with strong trade unions resulting in wage growth and rising effective demand, restrictions on finance which funnelled investment away from speculation and into physical assets (resulting in rising productivity) and an international economic architecture (the Bretton Woods system) that fixed exchange rates, stopped currency speculation and ensured global economic stability.

For the Right – or those elements on the Right willing to deal with the facts – the post-war boom had nothing to do with correct policies or regulations. Indeed those policies – for example high corporate and personal levels of taxation – may have ‘worked’ in spite of themselves and were exposed as impediments to growth in the stagnation years of the 1970s.

Rather the post-war boom was the result of an inherent, and frequently unnamed, economic vitality that gradually evaporated as the second half of the 20th century wore on. This perspective can be seen in reactions to the inconvenient fact that, although Margaret Thatcher radically changed British society in innumerable ways, she left the rate of economic growth virtually untouched. Or in scepticism towards the advocates of a Basic income.

However, the debate about the post-war boom usually takes as it as read that it concerns capitalist economies only – GERG’s 16 country list solely comprises industrialised capitalist economies. But, there are, in fact, good reasons for including the communist Eastern bloc and the former Soviet Union. Although reliable economic statistics for the Soviet years are hard to come by, the broad outlines are widely accepted – the Soviet Union enjoyed strong economic growth for two decades after World War Two but this growth petered out in the mid-1960s.

Such was the economic optimism, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev boasted in 1961 about leaving the United States far behind in industrial and agricultural output – and was taken seriously. This boasting was based on the fact that output had shot up, towns and cities had been rebuilt, life expectancy had doubled and many infectious diseases conquered. And the ‘socialist’ system was responsible.

Unfortunately, from the mid-1960s all this went into reverse. Health spending was cut, mortality started rising (by the end of the 1980s the USSR had the worst mortality rates of any industrialised country anywhere in the world) and deaths from heart disease, cancer and respiratory diseases started increasing. Indeed, in 1976, a French demographer, Emmanuel Todd, predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union on the basis of rising infant mortality. The Soviet state stopped collecting these figures in 1974.

So this should not be mistaken for a paean of regret about the unfairly maligned ‘socialist’ economy in the Soviet Union. The Soviet system that emerged from the Second World War was a full ripe Stalinist one, based on terrible repression – the secret police had executed over 680,000 people in 1937-8 alone. Although direct repression significantly abated after Stalin’s death in 1953, this was still a police state and, moreover, one based on the expropriation by a small ‘nomenklatura’ of the wealth created by the mass of people. This nomenklatura – comprising about 1 million people or 0.4 per cent of the population – even had their own health service which was, unsurprisingly, vastly better than the one ordinary people had to rely on. And this property-hungry elite, incidentally, was first in the queue to buy up all the Soviet-era assets when ‘communism’ collapsed in Russia in 1991 and mass privatisation was rushed through by Kremlin decree.

The idea – common in the West after 1991 – that the Soviet system was, economically, profoundly dysfunctional and inefficient, may also have been true. But what was also true, the evidence strongly suggests, is that this dysfunctionality was hidden by – or perhaps overwhelmed by – the vigour of the post-war boom.

 However, if this is true – and we should include the Soviet Union in any analysis of the post-war boom – then none of the explanations for its existence quite fit:

1 Reconstruction after the Second World War made an economic boom all but inevitable

This is the explanation most favoured by the Right because it excludes government policy and a strong labour movement from any credit for what ensued. The immense physical destruction caused by the six years of total war, the argument runs, guaranteed robust economic growth once peace had returned because so much work needed to be done rebuilding cities and repairing physical infrastructures.

This account makes sense for many post-war economies such as Japan (whose GDP grew at 7.8% between 1950 and 1973 but at only 2% from 1973 to 2008), Germany and Italy. It is also very plausible for Western Europe and, to a degree, Britain. And it most certainly works for the territory of the ex-Soviet Union which had been devastated by Nazi invasion at the loss of 20 million lives.

But for other economies which grew strongly in the post-World War Two decades, this rationale is far from convincing. The United States enjoyed robust GDP growth after the Second World War and, although it played a decisive role in its outcome, internally the country was untouched by it. So there was no rebuilding to be done.

True, the United States was pivotal in the rebuilding efforts of other countries – in Europe through the Marshall Plan and in the case of Japan – but were those endeavours sufficient to set its own economy on an upwards trajectory for around two decades? In recent years US companies have made huge investments in China and the country’s largest corporation, Walmart, sources 80% of its products from China. But these connections have not shown up in US GDP growth.

There were also countries in Europe – namely Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland – that enjoyed strong post-war economic growth (and in the case of Spain caught up with the rest of Europe) despite not being involved in the Second World War.

Moreover, the basic premise here – that economies emerging from war always experience impressive economic growth – is dubious. In the years since the post-war boom there have been many devastating wars – wars of independence from colonial control and civil wars – but nothing to compare with the post-Second World War boom. To take one example, the countries of the former Yugoslavia endured a brutal four year civil war from 1991-95, but – despite the devastation – subsequent economic growth has only been marginally better than the EU and global average and pales in comparison with the 20% growth rates achieved in Europe in the post-1945 years.

2. A benign policy environment aligned with powerful labour movements

In contrast to the Right, the mainstream Left (by which I mean Left Keynesians and some Marxists) draws attention, not to the physical environment, but the policy one. Free market capitalism had been thoroughly discredited by the experiences of the 1930s and the rise of Fascism and what emerged from the wreckage of World War Two was a regulated, managed capitalism. There were heavy restrictions on fractional reserve banking – the practice of banks’ inventing money by lending out a multiple of their capital assets – and a stable international exchange rate which nipped currency speculation in the bud.

This was allied with the acceptance by private owners and capitalists of strong and unyielding trade unions that had to be negotiated with. Welfare and health spending, in conjunction with pension provision, also increased. As result, real wages rose impressively, and because workers were also consumers, effective demand sustained an economic boom. And unlike today, this auspicious economic environment ensured productivity – output per worker – rose healthily, reaching 5% a year on a regular basis. All this without, it seemed, the downside of capitalism: there were no significant recessions for three decades after World War Two.

There are problems with this explanation even if the Soviet Union is not included. These are ones of timing. According to GERG’s figures, economic growth started falling around 1963 or ’64 – well before this benign policy architecture began to be dismantled. The ‘Nixon Shock’ – the refusal of the US allow the conversion of the US dollar to gold, thus effectively ending the Bretton Woods system and paving the way for free floating currencies, took place in 1971. Efforts to “zap labor” (the phrase belongs to Arnold Weber, the head of Nixon’s Prices and Wages Board) gestated in the 1970s but began in practice – in the United States under Reagan and the UK under Thatcher – in the 1980s. And in Germany, hostility to organised labour only really materialised (in the form of the ‘Hartz’ labour market reforms and wage repression) in the first decade of the 21st century.

However, include the Soviet Union, and the ‘unique economic regime’ explanation becomes even less tenable. The Soviet Union was not in any sense a consumerist society and its economy did not depend on effective demand on the part of consumers. Wages were deliberately supressed under Stalin – until the 1950s there were lower in real terms than they were in Tsarist times. They rose somewhat in the post-Stalin era but the economy cannot be said to have been driven by consumer spending. Nor was there any finance sector in the Soviet Union to regulate. There was no need to ensure banks invested in the productive economy in Soviet-era Russia because private banks did not exist. But the country still experienced a post war economic boom.

3. The decline of profitability

This third explanation is definitely less in vogue that the first two – it is far from universally supported even among Marxian economists – but it deserves elucidation nonetheless. According to Marx, ‘the fundamental law’ of capitalism is for profit to decline – profit in the sense of the financial return on the amount of capital initially invested. This is known as the ‘Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall’ – TRPF for short. Barring certain counter-veiling tendencies – such as the opening up of new markets – this will deplete economic growth and lead to a recession. However, contrary to myth, in Marxist theory this is not a terminal problem. If the resulting bust is allowed to play itself out and companies permitted to go bankrupt, the stage is set for a new boom. In Marx-speak, ‘capital value’ has been destroyed and so profitability spikes again, inaugurating a new cycle of economic expansion.

According this group of Marxists, this is exactly what happened in the aftermath of the Great Depression. In the laissez-faire atmosphere of the 1930s, businesses were allowed to go the wall and unemployment to rise inexorably. But this prior destruction is exactly why conditions were ripe for prolonged economic expansion after the Second World War.

However, given the consequences of allowing the Great Depression to unfold without ameliorative action – political radicalisation, the rise of Fascism and World War – governments since then have been determined to stop all economic downturns wreaking the havoc they are bent on. They have been usually been washed away – as in 2008-9 – with bail-outs, stimulus programmes and subsidies. As result, economic downturns have not been nearly as devastating as in the 1930s. But they have also not paved the way for any subsequent boom – precisely because ‘capital value’ has not been destroyed to any great extent.  So economic growth has gradually and inexorably declined, an erosion which, in Freeman’s words, “shows no signs of ending” (the one partial exception since the 1930s to government action arresting economic downturns may well have been the recession of 1980-81, which was exacerbated by the hiking of interest rates in the US and UK and led to a quarter of UK manufacturing industry being wiped out. Coincidentally it was followed by an “8-10 year blip” in the trajectory of slowing growth).

The chronology problems in the second explanation are manageable here. Although there are disputes among TRPF economists about precisely when in the post-war era profit began to fall, one, Michael Roberts, places the tipping point in the mid-1960s.

However, this explanation applies to capitalist societies. That the Soviet Union was not ‘socialist’ is not in dispute. A self-selecting elite ruled over the mass of society, denying most people any democratic rights or control over their work. It is not widely appreciated how unequal the Stalinist Soviet Union was – a ruling class enjoyed a materially comfortable existence while, in anti-Stalinist revolutionary Victor Serge’s words, “the rest of the population, 85 to 88 per cent lives in primitive conditions, in discomfort, in want, in misery”. Such a society fully deserves to be described as accumulative – a small minority exploited and benefitted from the labour of others. But it wasn’t actually capitalist. Investment decisions were not based on the level of profit they would accrue.

That the ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ did not apply to the Soviet Union can perhaps been seen by what transpired when it collapsed. As noted above, the law is cyclical – if capital value is decimated, then profitability is restored and economic expansion can begin anew. But in 1991-94, in the transition crisis in the former Soviet Union, the conditions for the destruction of capital value were undoubtedly met. Production “fell by almost half in the 1990s” and 80% of the 27,000 Russian state enterprises were privatised. Life expectancy endured the largest falls in modern history outside of war and natural disaster. But Russian economic performance in that decade ranged from terrible to mediocre.

So if gross profit – as opposed to profit share – did not spike in the ex-Soviet Union in the 1990s, one can be fairly sure that rising profit expectations were not behind the economic boom that undoubtedly occurred there in the post-war years.

What does it all mean?

According to the GERG report’s author, Alan Freeman, the findings have “profound implications”. The high growth of the post-war years was the result of a “long historical process”, rather than wise policy decisions, he affirms. The other side of the coin is that the protracted decline of economic growth since the mid-1960s cannot be undone by reversing government policy and replacing austerity with fiscal and monetary stimuli. Such policies may be urgently necessary socially, but they will not transform the economic environment of ‘advanced’ industrialised countries.

Rather – and I’m extrapolating here – if the post-war boom was the consequence of epoch-making events such as the Great Depression and World War Two, for any new boom to occur similarly momentous phenomena have to precede it.

And we have every reason for not wanting this to happen. Firstly, because deep economic downturns and hugely destructive armed conflict are intimately connected – you’d have to try very hard not to see a causal link between the Great Depression and World War Two. Secondly, because the world cannot endure a repeat of the high economic growth of the post-war decades. We are already in a situation where GDP growth levels are causing CO2 emissions to rise year on year when they have to fall drastically and rapidly if a future of submerged cities, huge refugee flows and mass hunger is to be mitigated. And this is happening when the growth levels of industrialised nations are – in historical terms – insipid. The annualised growth of OECD countries (35 industrialised countries, excluding China and India) currently stands at 2.4%. The growth rate of GERG’s 16 Northern industrialised countries is probably just over 2 per cent. Caveats apply about how growth has been outsourced to the Global South and global trade, rather than economic growth per se, drives climate change. However, the “routine” growth rates of the 1950s – 6 per cent and higher – are unthinkable even if, though some miracle, they are achievable.

Logically, therefore, the requirement is for an economic system that provides stability and material assurance to people’s lives whilst at the same time keeping growth at negligible levels. Regardless of the visible effect of austerity policies, declining economic growth clearly has human consequences. Even in the Soviet Union, high economic growth spurred the rebuilding of cities and rising health spending, while economic stagnation produced its opposite.

Therefore the necessity is for an economic system that retains the socially benefits of high and equitable growth without relying on such growth. Such a system will not be capitalism – it will be post-capitalist – and it will negate capitalism’s fundamental characteristic: the accumulation of profit which is then used to reinvest in new profit-making schemes, and so on ad infinitum, thus turning the system into a perpetual growth machine.

We may be nearer to that outcome than we think. The ebbing of the post-war boom in the Soviet Union was accompanied by rising mortality and declining health spending. In the mid-1970s, its demise was predicted, though at the time few were listening, by someone who noticed that infant mortality figures were going up. And in 25 years’ time, that prediction came true.

And, now in the heartland economies of the industrialised North, life expectancy is falling. Granted, in countries such as Britain, this is intimately connected to austerity policies, but it is also apparent in the United States, a country that has shunned austerity, at least at the federal level. The question is, are we a quarter of a century away from the end of capitalism in its heartlands?