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The right-wing counter attack – 1971

The early 1970s brought into relief the internal contradictions of the capitalist system of production and distribution. This was never more evident than in Britain at the time. The trade unions, previously illegal had become more powerful and integrated as they defended the rights of their members. The very existence of the union movement exposed the conflictual nature of capitalism. The trade unions caused havoc in Britain in the early 1970s. But before we consider the role of the trade unions, it is important to understand what was happening on the capital side at the time. After the Monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago and beyond had seeped out of the academy into the policy and lobbying circles, it became obvious that capital would mount a major action against the unions and governments that gave them succour. Corporations and big money were far from passive. They didn’t buy the line that the Left has been lured into believing that the state had become increasingly powerless as capitalism became more global. Far from it. They got more organised than ever! The British Labour Party became lambs for the …

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Britain and the 1970s oil shocks – the failure of Monetarism

This blog provides another excerpt in the unfolding story about Britain and the IMF. We pick up yesterday’s story with Britain mired in inflation and rising unemployment as the OPEC oil price rises impact in late 1973. The Tories under the leadership of Edward Heath were trying to deal with internal divisions between the traditional One Nation Conservatists (Heath) and the emerging, right-wing Monetarists. Edward Heath resisted the Monetarists through his term of office and used very traditional ‘Keynesian’ remedies in an attempt to reduce unemployment (for example, the ‘Dash for Growth’) but maintained the usual Tory hostility towards trade unions. His efforts in stimulating growth were stymied by the oil price rises, which spawned a major inflationary outbreak. The Tories blamed the unions and OPEC for the inflation, which, in part, was correct, but then invoked a period of damaging austerity which left the nation in a sorry state. They lost office in February 1974. In this blog, with Harold Wilson back in charge for the second time and his party becoming increasingly infested with Monetarist thinking, we consider the inflation problem in some detail, the lack of any credible evidence to support the Monetarist causality, as a means to understanding how disappointing Prime Minister James Callaghan’s famous 1976 Black Speech to the Labour Party Conference was in terms of maintaining the credibility of the British Labour Party then – and how it opened the way, not only for Margaret Thatcher to wreak havoc, but also for the emergence of the insidious New Labour, which continues to hobble progressive elements in the Party today. It was a major turning point in Left history and needs careful deconstruction.

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The Heath government was not Monetarist – that was left to the Labour Party

This blog provides another excerpt in the unfolding story about Britain and the IMF and the Monetarist sell-out by the British Labour Party once it was reelected in February 1974. As I noted in this blog – The British Monetarist infestation – I am currently working to pin down the historical turning points, which allowed neo-liberalism to take a dominant position in the policy debate. In doing so, I want to demonstrate why the ‘Social Democrat’ or ‘Left’ political parties, who still have pretentions to representing the progressive position (but have, in fact, become ‘austerity-lite’ merchants), were wrong to surrender to the neo-liberal macroeconomic Groupthink. This is a further instalment of my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state. Today, we trace the tensions within the Tory Party during the period 1970 to 1974, when the old school “One National Conservatism” represented by Edward Heath came into conflict with the growing Tory Monetarists, who would eventually be the bulwark of Margaret Thatcher’s pernicious regime later in the 1970s.

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The Monetarism Trap snares the second Wilson Labour Government

This blog provides another excerpt in the unfolding story about Britain and the IMF. As I noted in this blog – The British Monetarist infestation – I am currently working to pin down the historical turning points, which allowed neo-liberalism to take a dominant position in the policy debate. In doing so, I want to demonstrate why the ‘Social Democrat’ or ‘Left’ political parties, who still have pretensions to representing the progressive position (but have, in fact, become ‘austerity-lite’ merchants), were wrong to surrender to the neo-liberal macroeconomic Groupthink. This is a further instalment of my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state, which I am working on with Italian journalist Thomas Fazi. We expect to finalise the manuscript in May 2016. In the last instalment, I traced back and demonstrated that Britain was engulfed in Monetarist thinking long before Margaret Thatcher took over. She really just put the ‘(rancid) cream on the top of the (inedible) cake’. I showed that the British Labour Party were infested with the Monetarist virus in the late 1960s and James Callaghan’s famous 1976 Black Speech to tge Labour Party Conference was just a formal recognition of that disease. It really just consolidated what had been happening over the prior decade. This historical journey also helps us understand that it was not the OPEC oil crisis in the early 1970s that provided the open door for governments to reject Keynesian policy. In Britain, the Treasury and Bank of England had fallen prey to Monetarist ideas following the elevation of Milton Friedman onto the world stage. These subsequent events just helped keep the insurgency moving until total dominance in the contest of ideas was won. Today, we start with the Bank of England’s so-called Competition and Credit Control (CCC), which was introduced in September 1971. This formalised the growing emphasis among the banking sector and economists that the central bank had to ‘control’ the money supply. It failed – but empirical failure doesn’t matter when people are becoming swamped with propaganda that says otherwise.

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The British Monetarist infestation

I have been on the search for historical turning points again today. The famous Mitterand austerity turn in 1983 is one of these points. Another, which I will consider today, was the British Labour Prime Minster James Callaghan’s speech to Labour Party Conference held at Blackpool on September 28, 1976 was laced with pro-Monetarist assertions that have been used by many on the Left as being defining points in the decline of the state to run independent domestic policy aimed at maintaining full employment. This is a further instalment of my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state, which I am working on with Italian journalist Thomas Fazi. We expect to finalise the manuscript in May 2016. Today, I am writing about the background events that turned Britain on to Monetarism. Margaret Thatcher was, in fact, a ‘johnny-come-lately’ in this respect. The British Labour Party were infested with the Monetarist virus in the late 1960s and Callaghan’s 1976 Speech just consolidated what had been happening over the decade prior. Further, it was not the oil crisis in the early 1970s that provided the open door for governments to reject Keynesian policy. In Britain, the Treasury and Bank of England were captivated by the ideas of Milton Friedman some years prior to the OPEC price push.

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The impossibility theorem that beguiles the Left

Some years ago (June 27, 2007), Harvard economist Dani Rodrik outlined what he called his “impossibility theorem”, which said that “democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full”. In his brief article – The inescapable trilemma of the world economy – he made the case that “deep economic integration required we eliminate all transaction costs … in … cross-border dealings” and that “Nation-states are a fundamental source of such transaction costs”. Ergo, if you want ‘deep’ integration then the Nation-state has to surrender. His “trilemma” guides his view of how the “international economic system” should be reformed. He think that if “want more globalization, we must either give up some democracy or some national sovereignty”. This view has been adopted by political parties as if the conceptual framework is in some way binding. The trilemma has been skillfully sold as a narrative by right-wing think tanks and others who serve the interests of capital. The so-called progressive politicians have fallen into the trap and have shifted their political parties closer and closer to their right-wing opponents, such that now it is hard to distinguish between the major parties in most nations. The reality is that while the impossibility theorem beguiles the Left – its applicability as a binding constraint on government is limited. It is as vapid as the statements made by these career politicians on both sides of politics that they serve the people.

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Ultimately, real resource availability constrains prosperity

There are many misconceptions about what a government who understands the capacity it has as the currency-issuer can do. As Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) becomes more visible in the public arena, it is evident that people still do not fully grasp the constraints facing such a government. At the more popularist end of the MMT blogosphere you will read statements such that if only the government understood that it can run fiscal deficits with impunity then all would be well in the world. In this blog I want to set a few of those misconceptions straight. The discussion that follows is a continuation of my recent examination of external constraints on governments who seek to maintain full employment. It specifically focuses on less-developed countries and the options that a currency-issuing government might face in such a nation, where essentials like food and energy have to be imported. While there are some general statements that can be made with respect to MMT that apply to any nation where the government issues its own currency, floats its exchange rate, and does not incur foreign currency-denominated debt, we also have to acknowledge special cases that need special policy attention. In the latter case, the specific problems facing a nation cannot be easily overcome just by increasing fiscal deficits. That is not to say that these governments should fall prey to the IMF austerity line. In all likelihood they will still have to run fiscal deficits but that will not be enough to sustain the population. We are about to consider the bottom line here – the real resource constraint. I have written about this before but the message still seems to get lost.

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Balance of payments constraints

The late Canadian economist Harry Johnson, who came at the subject from the Monetarist persuasion, was correct when he wrote in 1969 (reference below) that “The adoption of flexible exchange rates would have the great advantage of freeing governments to use their instruments of domestic policy for the pursuit of domestic objectives, while at the same time removing the pressures to intervene in international trade and payments for balance-of-payments reasons.” How does this square with those who believe that even currency-issuing governments are constrained in their fiscal flexibility by an alleged balance of payments constraint. So-called progressive economists, particularly, are enamoured with the idea that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is flawed because it doesn’t recognise the fiscal limits imposed by the need to maintain a stable external balance. In this blog, we trace the arguments.

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Is exchange rate depreciation inflationary?

One of the first things that conservatives (and most economists which is typically a highly overlapping set) raise when Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents suggest that increased deficits are essential to reduce mass unemployment is the so-called balance of payments constraint. Accordingly, we are told that the capacity of a nation to increase domestic employment is limited by the external sector. And these constraints have become more severe in this age of multinational firms with their global supply chains and the increased volume of global capital flows. I will address the specific issue of a balance of payments constraint on real GDP growth (that is, the limits of fiscal stimulus) in a future blog. But today I want to consider the so-called Exchange Rate Pass-Through (ERPT) effects of that are part of the balance of payments constraint story. The mainstream narrative goes like this. Higher wage demands associated with full employment and/or stronger imports associated with higher fiscal deficits lead to external imbalances due to rising imports and loss of competitiveness in international markets (eroding export potential). In a system of flexible exchange rates, the currency begins to lose value relative to all other currencies and the rising import prices (in terms of the local currency) are passed-through to the domestic price level – with accelerating inflation being the result. If governments persist in pursuing domestic full employment policies the domestic inflation worsens and the hyperinflation is the result, with a chronically depreciated currency. Real standards of living fall and a general malaise overwhelms the nation and its citizens. I am sure you have heard that narrative before – it is almost a constant noise coming from the deficit phobes. Like most of the conservative economic claims and I include the austerity-lite Leftist parties in this group, it turns out that reality is a bit different. Here is some discussion on that issue.

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The capacity of the state and the open economy – Part 1

Wolfgang Merkel wrote in his recent Op Ed (February 5, 2016) – Economy, Culture And Discourse: Social Democracy In A Cosmopolitanism Trap? – that “we are dealing with a partially deliberate, partially careless surrender of the state’s capacity to regulate and intervene in an economy that structurally creates socio-economic inequality and erodes the fundamental democratic principle of political equality”. I highlight, the “partially deliberate, partially careless surrender” description of what has occurred over the last several decades as neo-liberalism has gained traction. Today’s blog continues my series that will form the content for my next book (due out later this year) about the impacts of globalisation on the capacities of the nation state. Our contention (I am writing this with Italian journalist and author Thomas Fazi) is that there has been no diminuition in the power of the state to impact on the domestic economy. The neo-liberal era has seen many commentators deny that proposition, yet, knowingly advocate use of these powers to further advantage capital at the expense of labour. The state is still central to the picture – it just helps capital more and workers less than it did during the full employment period in the Post World War II decades.

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