Monday 27 May 2024

The Political Significance of The Beatles


What was the political meaning of the Beatles? I realise this is a rather dilatory question to ask of a band that broke up in 1970. But fascination with them endures and the real answer to this question, is, in my opinion, utterly different from the ones that are usually put forward.

On the surface, the political significance of the Beatles is exactly that, superficial. The company they established, Apple, did not embody, in Paul McCartney’s description, “Western communism”, whatever that was supposed to mean. John Lennon’s utopian, anti-materialist song ‘Imagine’ undoubtedly had, and still has, influence but personally I can’t take seriously someone wondering if I’m able to “imagine no possessions” while playing a grand piano in his stately home (and employing a gardener, a cook, and an art advisor).

As political role models, the Beatles were terrible. They moaned about paying too much tax – which Lennon claimed made them “anti-establishment” – and expected the minions they employed to indulge their every wish. In 1969, their press officer, Derek Taylor, was prompted to wonder why on earth he worked for them:

Whatever the motivation the effect is slavery.  Whatever the Beatles ask is done. I mean, whatever the Beatles ask is tried. A poached egg on the Underground on the Bakerloo Line between Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross? Yes, Paul. A sock full of elephant shit on Otterspool Promenade? Give me ten minutes, Ringo. Two Turkish dwarfs dancing the Charleston on a sideboard? Male or female John? Pubic hair from Sonny Liston? It’s early closing, George (gulp), but give me until noon tomorrow. The only gig I would do after this is the Queen. Their staff are terrified of them, and not without reason. They have fired more people than any comparable employer unit in the world. They make Lord Beaverbrook* look like Jesus.

But despite the egotism, they managed, in their later years, to produce the most innovative, experimental and influential music in pop history, while remaining to quote a phrase – more popular than Jesus. In April 1966, for example, they recorded this and in the same month this ‘song’. In a two month period spanning December 1966 and January 1967, they produced Strawberry Fields Forever and A Day in the Life, which no-one, to this day, has come close to imitating. In the summer of 1967, when a normal band would have been promoting their last ground-breaking album, released a few months before, they took a completely different tack. The following year, the sound changed again and again from month to month. In 1969, they could still knock out classic pop songs while increasing disliking each other. And they probably invented heavy metal, either in 1965 or 1968.

In 1967, they were warned by the press that the Maharishi, the Indian meditation teacher under whose spell they were falling, was “commercial”. To which, Lennon replied, “Well, that’s fine because we’re the most commercial band in the world”, or something like that.

And, in terms of sales and merchandise, they certainly were. But judged by the standard of our current definition of “commercial” – following established trends, playing it safe for maximum sales, not upsetting anyone – the Beatles were anything but.  That determination to innovate, to go against the grain, to not give a damn what anyone else thought – while successfully remaining  at least as popular as during Beatlemania in the early sixties  – is what makes the Beatles historically interesting and politically significant. Their last album, Abbey Road, sold more copies in America than Sgt Pepper which, in turn, sold vastly more copies than the early Beatlemania LPs.

Barry Miles, a friend of the band who, as owner of the Indica bookshop in London introduced them to underground books and trends, said something perceptive about them a few years back. “The interesting thing,” he noted, “is that the Beatles were not only the world’s most commercial band but, at that point, [1966] they were also the world’s most experimental band, which was very unusual”.

“Brian Epstein [their manager] was concerned that they were going too far ahead of their fanbase,” he added. “But they were always very sensible, they wanted to bring the fans along with them. They did want to become some wild, avant-garde band that only 150 people had heard of.”

Back in 2009, the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher spoke about the “cult of minimal variation” – the pervasive compulsion to produce cultural products that are almost indistinguishable from those already successful. But, said Fisher, this ignores what people instinctively desire which is “the strange, the unexpected, the weird”.

“These can only be supplied,” he went on, “by artists and media professionals who are prepared to give people something different from that which already satisfies them; by those, that is to say, prepared to take a certain kind of risk.”

This is precisely what the Beatles, devoted members of the cult of maximum variation, were determined to do, even when it was met with incomprehension or hostility.

To this day, some Beatles fans complain that eight minutes of the White Album is taken up with ‘Revolution No 9’, a non-song consisting of noises and snatches of conversations aimed to paint in sound, in Lennon’s words, “a picture of revolution”.

Whether he succeeded or not (he later thought it was “anti-revolution”), Revolution No 9 became, in author Ian Macdonald’s description, “the world’s most widely distributed avant-garde artefact”. The track was “one of the most striking instances of the communicative power of pop”. Rather than remaining “the preserve of the modernist intelligentsia, Lennon’s sortie into sonic chance was packaged for a mainstream audience which had never heard of its progenitors, let alone been confronted by their work.”

The point is not whether the Beatles experimental work was good or bad (half a century on, I think the jury’s decided that most of it, maybe not ‘Revolution No 9’, was extremely good) but that, in stark contrast to today, they were able to produce it whilst remaining wildly popular. What the Beatles had, in fact, was an out of control popularity, which is why powerful people (like Nixon’s future Vice President Spiro Agnew or the anti-communist John Birch Society) were always trying to ban their songs, often for exceedingly dumb reasons.

Music aside, the Beatles’ influence – popularising meditation, promoting LSD or inspiring Charles Manson – was questionable but it certainly existed as a force and they knew it did. This is why Lennon spent the Beatles’ dying days planting acorns and singing about peace while sitting in bed – because he knew the media would report whatever he did because of who he was.

And there is something inherently subversive about uncontrollable popularity, whether it is used wisely or not. This is while the elites that have power within western societies are fixated on controlling popular opinion. They’ve realised there’s no need to ban radical manifestoes, uncomfortable facts, or avant-garde expression but just make sure that only fringe minorities are exposed to them. Usually this works quite efficiently.

But when elites lose control of the narrative most people consume, that’s when they get desperate. The ‘shock’ 2017 General Election campaign – in which the left-wing, anti-imperialist Jeremy Corbyn got 41% of the vote in reactionary old England – happened in large part because the broadcast media were suddenly legally obliged to report what the socialist Labour party was actually saying, rather than just amplifying smears from the billionaire-owned right-wing (and liberal) press. Everything that has happened since – the blatant lying, the purges, the establishment arrogation of the liberal media, the mysterious algorithm changes, has been about regaining control.

This multi-fanged operation has undoubtedly been successful, at least temporarily. But the genocide in Gaza has revealed that controlling the narrative is more difficult to sustain in era when people have alternatives to legacy media at their fingertips. And the desire to control popular reaction is leading to outright repression, even in esteemed liberal democracies. Whether this impulse will be ratcheted up is a distinct possibility. The Hague Invasion Act, authorising the US President to invade the Netherlands should the International Criminal Court put any of its citizens on trial was passed in 2002 under George Bush but has now been extended to Israel.

Whether faced with overt authoritarianism or the manipulation of opinion (or, as is likely, a combination of the two), the only ‘cure’ is reform of the media to ensure that diverse opinions reach the mass of people: ‘cure’ in the sense that the patient may die in a nuclear conflagration, or endure the slow death of global warming, if this course is not followed. But because of what it will lead to, it will be fought tooth and nail.

In this future conflict, what the Beatles said politically or explicitly represented is really not interesting at all. It’s a total blind alley. What is interesting is that they were able to experiment and reach hundreds of millions of people directly while remaining beyond the grasp of their detractors and conservatives of all stripes. That is the most precious form of power of all.


*Beaverbrook (Max Aitken), a sort of proto-Rupert Murdoch, was the owner of the Daily Express (in addition to being a government minister in Britain in the two world wars) and was famous for sacking journalists whose output was not to his satisfaction.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

A moral (and strategic) collapse


The collective West’s inability to respond to the deepening genocide in Gaza, now replete with mass executions and the deliberate killing of aid workers, is deeply troubling. It betrays a stunning moral degeneration that the British government, supported by His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, cannot even propose stopping arms sales to the Israeli regime.

But this is not just a moral collapse, it is also a political and strategic one. This will not end well. Part of the West’s legitimacy, however much honoured in the breach, relied on projecting ‘soft power’ based on human rights and ‘a rules-based international order’. This is being shredded in real time. It is an insult to our intelligence to insist that Israel is merely trying to release the hostages as it blows up hospitals, universities, and apartment buildings and kills thousands of children.

It is frequently pointed out, with validity, that the US and Britain don’t support Israel because of the malign influence of the Israeli lobby, but because Israel is a strategic ally. It is the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, in the description of 80s secretary of state Alexander Haig, and a nuclear armed US surrogate in a vital region of the world. According to current president Joe Biden, if Israel didn’t exist, it would have to be invented by the US. Hence the mind boggling weapons sales (from mainly the US but also Britain and Germany).

But I can’t be the first to notice that unconditional support for Israel as it commits genocide in full view of the world is not a very clever strategy. Long-term, or even short-term, the result will not be a ‘Greater Israel’ but a moral, and subsequently physical, collapse of the Zionist project. Already, the normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia – the Islamist but pro-Western power in the region – based on erasing Palestine from the map (as Netanyahu showed the UN), has been scuppered because of Gaza.

If Israel is left unhindered, more unbelievable Palestinian suffering will happen. But after that, all bets are off. According to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, “the more oppressive the eliminatory policies are (and it’s terrible to say but it’s true) the less they are able to be covered up as a ‘response’ or ‘retaliation’ and the more they are seen as a brutal genocide policy. Thus, it is less likely that the immunity that Israel enjoys today would continue in the future.

“On the basis of sober professional examination,” he says. “I am stating that we are witnessing the end of the Zionist project, there’s no doubt about it.

In the past, the US was able to see Israel as a strategic ally but one that occasionally needed to be restrained. In 1957, threatening behind the scenes the withdrawal of aid and the imposition of sanctions, the US (in the person of Dwight Eisenhower) persuaded Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula it had occupied during the invasion of Egypt. In 1982, Reagan demanded, and got, a ceasefire after Israel had invaded Lebanon. Both these inhibiting actions were carried out by Republican presidents by the way.

But now, beyond bleating and transparent PR exercises, the US government appears powerless to do anything. Despite the presence of legions of strategists, it seems totally beholden to a regime that traces its ideological lineage back to Benito Mussolini, shoots 5 year old children with sniper bullets, and is unable to see the fatal long-term consequences of its actions.

Even if I was a thoroughly amoral Kissingerian national security strategist, I’d see the looming disaster ahead and rationally take steps to avert it.

But maybe the world isn’t rational anymore.

Thursday 7 March 2024

Drag Me to Hell – Why are we so right-wing?


Margaret Thatcher is known for many things – declaring war on trade unions, initiating the mass privatisation of publicly-owned utilities, selling off council houses, deregulating the City of London, cutting taxes on the rich, to name a few. But one thing she is not famous for is being on the Left.

Nonetheless, in 1982, she did something which, in today’s climate, would be seen as left-wing, even ‘far left’. She suspended arms sales to Israel. This was in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which was prompted by the fact that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation had relocated there.

Many civilians were killed and Thatcher’s government took immediate action. An invitation to Israel to attend the British Army Equipment Exhibition was withdrawn and arms sales were stopped. One Foreign Office memo stated, “It would be odd if we were now to conduct bilateral business with the Israelis as though nothing had happened”.

Contrast this with the current British government’s reaction to the genocidal Israeli attack on Gaza, which has already killed far more civilians than the Lebanon War did. In fact, the official number of dead – 30,000 – will be swelled by so far unreported deaths – those dying at home and missing because they are buried under rubble.

Atrocities definitely happened in the 1982 war, most famously in refugee camp massacres. But, as far as I’m aware, deaths from malnutrition did not occur, as they are now. Nor were starving people deliberately massacred by the Israel Defense Force.

Nonetheless, this time Britain is definitely conducting business as though nothing had happened. Arms sales continue, and indeed the “defense relationship” and “growing Israel-UK partnership” is celebrated by the IDF.

Virtually the only person in the UK Parliament to object to this state of affairs is a propagator of ‘far left’ ‘socialism’ who has been cast into out darkness on the patently ridiculous grounds that he enabled antisemitism to flourish when he was leader of the Labour party.

I doubt somehow though that Thatcher is turning in her grave.  She regarded her greatest victory as compelling the Labour party to renounce its mixed economy, social democratic ideology in favour of her right-wing, corporate friendly, anti-worker economic world-view. Something Corbyn, all too briefly, reversed.

The Ultimate Compliment

Present leader Sir Keir Starmer is the perfect compliment to Thatcher’s legacy.  Despite being elected on a promise of upholding Corbyn’s economic policy, he has jettisoned every element of it, leaving a husk of Thatcherite nostrums impeccably attuned to the political and economic establishment which has grown to such dominance in her wake.

For example, in throwing overboard a pledge to spend £28 billion a year on green energy projects, Starmer and de facto deputy Rachel Reeves consciously aped the language of the Cameron-Osborne government employed to justify austerity. They accused the government of “maxing out on the nation’s credit card”. The same mind-numbing phrase cropped up in Starmer’s response to the Budget.

Reeves has, in redoubtably conservative fashion, promised to balance the nation’s books, despite, somewhat hilariously, having her own Parliamentary credit card taken away in 2015 for over-spending on expenses.  She has also promised not to reintroduce a cap on bankers’ bonuses abolished by the Conservatives, as this would mar the charm offensive with the City of London that she and Starmer have methodically deployed over the last few years.

A Different Country

The question that should then be asked is how did British politics get so sclerotically right-wing, especially when, in terms of social attitudes, the diametrically opposite trend has occurred?

Last autumn, for example, the researchers behind British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) proclaimed that Britain had undergone “a near revolution” in terms of social attitudes over the last four decades:

One clear theme emerges. On many social issues, such as sexual relations or whether women with young children should go out to work, there has been a long-run secular change trend towards a more liberal climate of opinion. In what might be thought a near-revolution in the country’s cultural outlook and social norms, Britain has increasingly come to believe that what people do in the bedroom, what kinds of family they live in, and how they combine family life and paid work should be up to them. The job of government is to respect and facilitate the decisions they make rather than try and take those decision[s] for them. 

In 1983, half of all respondents said that same sex relationships were “always wrong” compared to just 9% two years ago. Over three quarters of people support a woman’s right to have an abortion, compared to just 37% 40 years ago.

Other seismic changes can be found in attitudes toward premarital sex, having children outside wedlock, and gender roles in the workplace and the home. In 1987, for example, 48% agreed that ‘a man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job is to look after the home and family’. Now only 9% of people do.  Britain “now looks and feels like a different country from 40 years ago”, the BSA says.

These are all welcome changes but in terms of politics, and the attitudes underpinning it, Britain doesn’t “feel like a different country from 40 years ago”. It feels like a worse country.

To go back to the example that introduced this article, in 1982 – when dinosaurian attitudes on social issues held sway – Margaret Thatcher could, with minimal opposition it seems, suspend arms sales to Israel. It is inconceivable that such a policy would be enacted today and if, by some miracle it was, it would be instantly accompanied by howls of antisemitism. 

It may justifiably be pointed out that these changes in social attitudes did not just happen. According to journalist Ian Sinclair, reporting on the BSA survey curiously neglected mentioning the role of “groups like the Women’s Liberation Movement, Stonewall, the Gay Liberation Front and Outrage dealing with violence, threats and abuse in their struggle to win equal rights, changes in the law and shift public opinion.”

But there is no shortage of activist groups – on anti-austerity, public ownership, the rights of disabled claimants, inequality, and corporate taxation for example – trying to shift Britain’s economic policy and politics marginally to the Left. But in this case, barring minor victories on things like the municipalisation of bus services, they have just been banging their heads against a brick wall.

Why is this? Why did activists, admittedly after years of struggle, succeed in prising the door open on gender issues, gay rights, and sexual choice but in terms of politics and economics meet a defiant ‘No Pasaran!” from the elite?

1983 will never die!

I can’t give a definitive answer but one notable feature of British politics over the past four decades has been an innate conservatism in the worst sense of the word. Instead of taking on vested interests, it has opted to protect and preserve them.

In party political terms, we have one side fixated on a perpetual emulation of Thatcher’s epoch-changing 1983 victory facing off against the 1997 Reenactment Society. Rather than changing, as social attitudes obviously have, politics is frozen in aspic, like some endless rerun of Yes Minister (which for those who don’t know was a ‘comedic’ representation of the right-wing Public Choice Theory and obsessed with cutting government waste).

In 2008, our necrophile political system bailed out, with public money, a financial system that had imploded entirely due to its own inner workings. Not only was this an enormous transfer of wealth from poor to rich, it also rescued and further entrenched a sector of the economy that feeds off debt and thus loves conservative economics.  

Finance wants austerity because, as a result, wages are held down and people become even more susceptible to getting into debt and having to make interest payments. For the same reason, it has an aversion to trade unions. Finance is also a prime mover behind the privatisation of public assets, funding the Private Equity groups that often take over public services, like water or health, thus benefitting from the rising user fees that people are compelled to pay to gain access to basic services.

If ‘market failures’ exist and they aren’t being dealt with, you can bet that for some people, invariably extremely well-off, these aren’t failures at all but successes and the source of their wealth.

Hysterical Billionaires

And when the billionaires who run Britain’s mass media organisations ran into some turbulence after revelations of phone hacking, the obedient political class was on hold to limit the fall out. The initial enquiry into unlawful conduct by the newspapers, led by the judge Brian Leveson, was meant to be followed by a second part (‘Leveson 2’) that would have looked into “corporate governance issues”. But this was scrapped by Matt Hancock because of the “significant progress” that had apparently been made.

As a result, rather than clipping their wings, moguls like Rupert Murdoch were emboldened. His News UK launched the right-wing Talk TV station in 2022, emulating the hysterical Fox News in the US despite laws against broadcasting bias in the UK which didn’t seem to make much difference. The fact that Talk TV is soon to become a streaming only service does not denude from its intention to further lock British politics into a right-wing direction.

Its ‘rival’ GB News plays a similar role. The co-owner of the channel is hedge fund billionaire Sir Paul Marshall. In a previous incarnation he funded and edited the 2004 ‘Orange Book’, a collection of free market espousing essays by leading Liberal Democrats which set the tone for their role in the Cameron coalition after 2010.

Marshall, who has been outed for seeming endorsement of far right conspiracy theories, has previously lamented the fact that financiers like him ‘made out like bandits’ as a result of the government’s decade-long Quantitative Easing programme. But despite this honesty, he hasn’t been deterred from putting the money to effective use.

If you create a large coterie of billionaires, as our political system has, you shouldn’t be surprised when they use that enormous wealth to mould public opinion and protect their interests. 

Liberal and progressive opinion in this country has been profoundly shaped by the Whig theory of history, which is convinced that the British story exhibits a steady, if slow, progress towards more liberty and rights. However, the experience of the last 40 years does not bear this out. Progress and reaction can co-exist, each in their own separate sphere of influence. Reality, as opposed to the idealised narrative that exists in our heads, is frequently messy and may point in two contradictory directions at the same time.



Saturday 27 January 2024

Inflation – what a Hout!

As I write, Britain is bombing a former colony – one of the poorest countries on earth, the scene recently of the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” according to the UN, which was caused by a war inflicted by the medieval limb-severing Saudi Arabian regime with British weapons. But trying to stop the genocide in Palestine is crime enough to resume the sorties. And they want ordinary people to actively help out with this never-ending war for civilisation!

But pause for a minute and consider the reason for ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’. The fear is that any continued obstruction to shipping routes in the Red Sea, which accounts for 15% of global sea trade, will reignite inflation, the bogeyman western governments and central banks have been trying to slay for the past two years or more.

I don’t want to minimise the problem of consumer inflation, to give it its proper name, which given that it causes massive rises in the cost of essentials like food involves real misery. This is exacerbated in an era when collective bargaining has been reduced to a rump of the economy so that wages can’t keep up with the price rises.

However, consumer inflation is not the only kind of inflation. Over many years, western countries have also been subject to asset price inflation – basically huge rises in the prices of shares and houses. In Britain, house prices have risen by about 1,000% since the early 1980s. And despite some ups and downs, the stock market across the western world keeps hitting record highs. In America it has enjoyed some of its best returns since the 1880s.

It is a basic axiom of our Thatcherite political mind-set that, in total contrast to consumer inflation, asset-price inflation is not something to dread. Quite the opposite, it is positively benign.

But, as we are now seeing, this is a travesty of the truth.

The inflation we like

So, unlike consumer inflation, the authorities have not tried to fight asset-price inflation. They have, by contrast, endeavoured to boost it at every turn and, if it seems to be flagging, to rekindle it with blatant forms of state intervention (despite the propaganda we don’t live in a ‘free’ market economy).

House prices in Britain have been deliberately stoked by restricting supply. It is a basic law of economics that if the supply of any good is suppressed, its price will increase.  This happened first through Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy and was then reinforced by simply banning local councils from building new council houses. More recently, more direct forms of buttressing house prices have been necessary, for example the government’s ‘Help to Buy’ policy which is a simple subsidy to housebuilders.

The rise in share prices was first underpinned by legalising the process of share buy backs, banned in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. This has led to an internally-generated rise in share prices, caused by companies being pressured by their shareholders to ‘retire’ some of their shares, thus increasing the share price and the dividend payments to existing stock-holders. This practice has now become routine in the corporate world – according to economist Michael Hudson, publicly-listed American companies have, since 1985, retired more stock than they have issued.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, share prices have also been massively boosted by the artificial method of (electronic) money printing known as Quantitative Easing (QE). QE works by creating a huge mass of money, and by reducing the yield on government bonds, ‘incentivising’ investors to place it in the stock market or with other assets such as housing, or financing corporate mergers. According to investment manager, Kate Rogers, at venerable asset manager Cazenove, “Quantitative easing certainly stimulated asset markets. The billions that went from the banks to investors to buy the bonds was soon recycled into more attractively valued equities and property-boosting prices.

This flagrant state intervention, practiced simultaneously in Britain, America, and Europe, is what lies behind the thriving stock market performance of the last decade or more (15% returns compared to an average of 9%). It is nothing to do with a healthy economy pushing up share prices. GDP growth, as we know, has been consistently poor for many years.

Of course, central banks are now pursuing the opposite policy to Quantitative Easing. ‘Quantitative Tightening’ involves selling assets to reduce liquidity in the financial system. This hasn’t (as yet but more on that later) produced a collapse in share prices. The conventional interpretation is that large companies are finally able to stand on their own two feet. But possibly QE under Covid was so huge – the creation of $834 million per hour – that the subsidy is still having an effect.

This is how it feels

The only way in which this asset-price inflation is commonly seen to have a downside is in terms of housing. The enormous rise in house prices – from an average of £26,000 in 1983 to £280,000 today – is regarded as a boon for the majority of people who already ‘own’ houses (or have mortgages on them). They can sit back and see their asset rise in value without having to do anything. But for young people who want to buy their first house – to ‘get on the housing ladder’ in common parlance – it’s a disaster. They frequently can’t even afford the deposit and are forced into permanent renting which, for those who have experienced it, is a distinctly unpleasant and insecure existence, apart from the fact that it soaks up most of your disposable income.

The last time houses were this unaffordable in Britain Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minster.

However, with the resumption of consumer inflation and the central banks’ response of raising interest rates, the majority are no longer so content. They are, belatedly, seeing at first hand the malevolent side of asset-price inflation. Because house prices, with official blessing, have risen exponentially for decades, mortgages are a lot more expensive. And when interest rates rise above the minute level they have occupied for years, so do mortgage interest payments. This has resulted in huge increases in mortgage payments for many people. More than anything else, this lies behind the haemorrhaging of Conservative support in Britain. The private renting experience is going viral.

The share-owing oligarchy

What has happened to house prices might have its downsides, a defender of the status quo might argue, but surely there is little to object to in shares rising in value, the other main form of asset-price inflation? In fact there is. Undoubtedly some people benefit but the windfall accrues to a very small minority of share owners, including corporate executives who, these days, are all partially paid in share options. The original Thatcherite promise of a ‘share-owning democracy’ is now just a bad joke.

We now live in a resolutely two-track economy in which the stock market prospers while the real economy flounders. But given that rich people, who own shares, largely control the manufacture of public opinion, this experience doesn’t truly hit home. Thus the official opposition can come out with ludicrous non sequiturs like “when business profits, we all do” and are taken seriously.

The share price boom also comes at the cost of spiralling inequality. Since 2009, as the stock market has enjoyed nearly unprecedented gains, the wealth of the top billionaires in Britain has grown by 281%. In 2021, as actual economic activity was mothballed but massive amounts of QE ensured asset prices went skywards, the planet’s wealthiest people saw their balance sheets swell by $5 trillion. In Britain, since the pandemic, in the midst of the cost of living crisis, the number of billionaires has risen by a fifth.

Another trusted method of ensuring share prices go on rising – share buy backs – also damages the real economy. Because often the money companies use to buy back their shares (thus decreasing their number and raising their price) comes from funds that could otherwise be spent on business investment, they work to enrich their shareholder owners at the expense of wider economic health. Anaemic investment in production is a problem all over the western world.

The share price boom is not a win-win situation. It’s more like they win, you lose.

The economic trapeze

Central bankers – those who twiddle the dials of the world economy – are in a real quandary because of the actions of the Houthis. They believed they had, through historically moderate interest rates rises, solved the problem of the re-emergence of consumer inflation, as prices were heading downwards. They could then return to their prime function – ensuring that asset prices go on rising.

However, if global trade is impaired because of attacks on shipping in the Middle East, consumer inflation may return with a vengeance. If that happens, central bankers might feel they have no choice but to increase interest rates again, risking pricking the multi-asset bubble they have so carefully cultivated for the last decade or more.

It is a little appreciated fact that the 2008 Global Financial Crisis was sparked after a rise in interest rates. In America, they rose, incrementally, from 1 per cent in 2003 to 5.25% in 2007. Really large rises in interest rates do cause recessions, as evidenced by the experience of Britain and America in the early 1980s when, to prepare the ground for the Thatcher and Reagan ‘revolutions’, rates were increased to 17/18% in full knowledge of the carnage that would – and did – follow.

Given that western economies are much more indebted than they ever were when John Lennon was murdered, much more modest rises could have a catastrophic effect. 

According to economist Radhika Desai, if the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to “required levels, the US can expect a recession that will make that of the 1980s seem like a boom”. The alternative to not doing so is, if the projected effect on world trade comes to pass, the return of chronic (consumer) inflation. “Both paths,” she says “will damage working class incomes and wellbeing”.

Thursday 28 December 2023

The Truth about Capitalism


 This is a continuation of an earlier post

The economist John Maynard Keynes, hugely influential in the 20th century, is now seen as a sort of ghostly admonisher, berating us – or rather the elite – for the gross errors that never seem to be corrected by experience. For example, his adage that “you don’t balance a nation’s books by cutting its income” is widely seen as a pithy riposte to the circular austerity logic that we seemed destined to repeat until the end of time.

But it’s seldom noticed how wrong Keynes’ predictions could be. For example, he claimed in 1930 that in a hundred years’ time – i.e. around now – economic progress would mean that we’d all be working 15 hour weeks and three hour days, and our main dilemma would be how to spend our abundant leisure time. In reality, we are busier than ever and the major source of that immersion is the need to work to earn enough to live on, which in many cases still isn’t enough.

Similarly, he thought the major economic problem of the future would stem from the fact that increasing prosperity would lead people to save so much that they wouldn’t spend enough on consumption, thus impeding the ‘circular flow’ of money so vital for economic health. In reality, despite (or perhaps because of) mass consumerism, everyone nowadays – individuals, governments, and corporations alike – is massively in debt. The parent company of the insolvent Thames Water, Kemble, is £18 billion in the red for example. And that’s just one company. Owing money to someone else and having to make regular interest payments to them – rather than saving too much – is the defining characteristic of our age, contrary to what Keynes imagined. Although I suppose you could say that many corporations seem to bring off the counter-intuitive trick of hoarding money and being in debt at the same time.

This leads to the rather disturbing insight that virtually no-one – including followers of esteemed critics like Keynes – really knows what capitalism, as it exists now, really is. If they did, their predictions and remedies wouldn’t be so wide of the mark.

Puff the Magic Dragon

Take for example the explanation of why “capitalism is good” by German theoretical physicist and science explainer Sabine Hossenfelder. She is a world away from the conspiracy dwelling, propagandising populists who justify current economic arrangements while blaming others – usually immigrants and ‘cultural Marxists’ – for why things are going wrong. But her vindication of capitalism seems to emerge from an alternative universe.

Capitalism, she says, is all about people “sitting on a big pile of money” they “don’t know what to do with”. Seeing that other people need finance to make their business idea a reality (she gives the example of someone with thousands of apples who needs a juice press to turn them into apple juice), the capitalist lends them the money, while expecting “something on top” for the risk they are taking.

“The capitalist is a person or institution who provides capital to those who want to launch a new business, someone who’s able and willing to take the risk that this capital will never have a return on investment,” she says.

This system is “pure genius” and is responsible for the huge social progress that has occurred over the past two centuries although it needs to be set up and regulated properly.

Hossenfelder’s apologia has been justly criticised in the American socialist magazine Jacobin for being “a compendium of common arguments people make in defense of capitalism when they haven’t taken the time to actually hear out any of the system’s critics.” The writer, Ben Burgis, says that in reality capitalism is a system of exploitation “disguised by the legal form of a voluntary agreement between equal parties”.

Social Regress

I completely agree, I’ve even written a book about how the voluntariness of capitalism is a mask that shields its essential compulsion. However, I also think that Hossenfelder’s defence of capitalism ignores something else rather important – that modern capitalism is largely nothing to do with providing finance so that people’s business ideas can be transformed into reality. It is simply a system of using money to make more money in ways that are entirely unrelated to improving production or enabling social progress, and are in fact often harmful to these processes.

The economist Michael Hudson, for example, has pointed out that since the mid-eighties in the USA – the archetypal ‘free market’ system – the number of company shares “retired” has exceeded those created. What this means in plainer English is that companies have bought back more shares than they have issued. The purpose of buying back shares is to raise their price while reducing their overall quantity so that dividends increase for the existing shareholders. The point of issuing new shares is to raise capital investment to expand your business. Companies have been pressured by their shareholders to amass huge debts (IBM is the classic example) in order to buy back (or retire) their shares, thus sacrificing the capital investment that capitalism is supposed to be all about.

So in the heartland of the ‘free market’ over the past 30 years there’s actually been a net reduction in capital funding new business ideas or just plain business expansion. The Dragons’ Den image of capitalism that Hossenfelder takes for reality – and most people share – is revealed to be just propaganda. Although it’s a fascinating insight into the nature of propaganda that this fiction has achieved mass penetration just as the reality it hides has definitively effaced the fantasy.

There are many ways in which really existing capitalism – the compulsion to make more money from the investment of money – is actually detrimental to the creation of wealth and social progress. The 2008 Financial Crisis, the after-effects of which we are still experiencing, was based on capital flooding into pooled mortgages and related ‘insurance’ schemes, which exploded after the real-world US housing market nosedived. This resulted in a huge destruction of wealth and productive capacity, exacerbated by an austerity mania that shows no sign of abating.

Twenty-first century capitalism, by virtue of the huge volume of money seeking returns, also creates shortages of the basic necessities of life where they don’t really exist. In the past 15 years there have been two global food crises, based on betting by hedge funds etc. that the amount of wheat and other foodstuffs available in the world would fall when in fact it didn’t. But the effects on prices were all too real, pushing millions into extreme poverty and even famine.

And then we have private equity, which involves taking over companies by borrowing money, dumping that debt on the company, and maximising pay-outs to investors. As shown in part one, private equity is on the march throughout the Western world despite the fact that the indebted companies it creates, such as Thames Water which may well go bankrupt soon, are incredibly vulnerable to rises in interest rates.

Nothing here involves financing new business ideas or spurring social progress, unless you have a rather strange concept of social progress which entails pumping sewage into rivers or increasing world hunger.

The Wolves of Wall Street (and the City of London and Frankfurt etc.)

The ultimate question is why is this happening? In the past the defenders of capitalism could point to the fact that despite its downsides, the system did increase overall affluence. Today, once you take China out of the equation – which pursues a very different variant of capitalism – that isn’t the case.

Some say that the problem is financialisation. Banks and asset managers, who invariably run private equity funds, aim to devour the lion’s share of society’s income by placing everyone in debt (thus compelling them to pay tribute in the form of interest payments). Their intention is to own, and thus gain a steady income from, assets like corporations, housing or privatised public infrastructure such as water or health services.

The hollowing out of formerly publicly owned health systems, like the National Health Service in Britain, can be directly attributed to the growing and malign influence of private equity ‘investors’. Similarly, the divestment of the major oil companies from fossil fuel extraction is fatally undercut by the fact that these activities are usually sold to PE groups who merrily continue them out of public view.

What these asset managers are not interested in, however, is the longer-term practice of funding capital investment in businesses because it’s too risky and doesn’t produce enough yield in the moment. Hence the term ‘financialisation’ because it involves establishing very profitable, but usually short-term, claims on companies or privatised public assets without stumping up the investment to improve them. The result is astronomic levels of inequality, increased vulnerability to economic crises, unmitigated global warming, and moribund economic growth.

Thus someone like Carolyn Sissoko, who we met in part one, can say that when capital was funnelled into projects like building railways or laying undersea cables (or in today’s world investing in renewable energy we might say), there was a tangible benefit to society. Now, however, when the dominant trend is to place companies in debt and make money from the interest payments and through soaking their customers that mutual benefit has disappeared.

The solution – evinced by people like Michael Hudson – is to radically change public policy. Tax policy needs to be overhauled to, for example, tax interest more than equity investment to return the system to its former purpose of funding growth-enhancing activity. Additionally private banks need to be replaced by publicly-owned ones which can provide basic services at minimum and support capital investment in businesses.

All this is about returning capitalism to its original purpose, much as in its infancy in the 19th century the system needed to be prised away from the power of predatory, unproductive, landowners.

Speculate to Accumulate

However, there is an alternative explanation for our economic tribulations. This position doesn’t dispute the trends highlighted above but says they are a symptom rather than a cause. The cause is the capitalist system itself which is eternally driven by profit making opportunities and thus, given prior technological progress, is more attracted to speculation than tangible investment in making things. This gold mine has been augmented by the investment of pension funds and state sovereign wealth funds.

Heterodox economist Harry Shutt, for example, argues that there has been a drastic decline in the West in the demand for both capital and labour. This has resulted in a “chronic surplus of capital”. In 2012 private equity firm Bain Capital (co-founded by Mitt Romney) estimated that the volume of “global capital” had tripled over the previous two decades to stand at $600 trillion, nearly ten times the value of all the goods and services in the world.  They projected that by 2020, this “capital superabundance” would grow by another third to $900 trillion.

According to Brett Christophers, author of the private equity exposé Our Lives in Their Portfolios, “the simple reason why [asset managers] are so important today … is that they have so much capital at their disposal. In recent decades, the amount of surplus capital in the world has increased dramatically.” And, it might be added, the amount of surplus capital in the world will go on multiplying.

The figures are stupendous. For instance, leading asset manager Black Rock has over $9 trillion under management. Among its partners in crime, Vanguard boasts nearly $8 trillion, Blackstone around $1 trillion, and Macquarie (the former owner of Thames Water) $590 billion. This unimaginable wealth has been acquired at the same time as what in economics-speak is called  “fixed capital” investment – i.e. investment to expand businesses as opposed to simply making money – has fallen dramatically in Western countries, especially in the US.

The nature of capital, as opposed to mere money you might spend on buying groceries, is that it is on an eternal search for investment opportunities. What this means is that, with fewer outlets in things like new factories or offices, the rapidly growing mass of capital has inevitably migrated into making money from privatised assets, from speculation in bank ‘products’ or from pressuring corporations to buy back their shares rather than expand their businesses.

And this is not a process that is ever satiated. There is no golden mean of capital. As shown by the Bain Capital estimates, the amount of capital in the world is destined to increase exponentially. The one thing that could arrest this process is an economic downturn that is allowed to take its natural course but this has never actually happened since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Feed me Seymour

Looked at another way, under this economic system, society is forced to accommodate the appetites of the monster of capital. But the more it is fed, the hungrier the monster gets.

According to Shutt, capital is now objectively “redundant”. The conditions which precipitated, and justified, the rise of the system in the 19th century – innovations demanding “large concentrations of capital which could only be raised under a capitalist economic structure” – no longer exist. However, the compulsion to seek profit, buttressed by legal abetments like limited liability and a eulogisation of wealth creation, is, if anything, stronger than ever. Hence society seems destined to celebrate the very process that undermines its basic habitability without ever realising what the root problem is.

It follows that blaming private equity for the ills of society is like blaming clouds for rainfall. Capital will do what it is born to do. And doubtless it’s possible to interest venture capital groups in funding your nifty new business idea (though I would read the small print carefully first). But to label that process “pure genius” and misconstrue it for what capital-ism is today is just to knit yet more wool to pull over people’s eyes.