Apparently the British Left is “fizzing with ideas for a smarter economy” according to the UK Guardian article (May 12, 2019) – The zeitgeist has shifted. Now the left is fizzing with ideas for a smarter economy – written by Will Hutton. I can’t say I sensed an outbreak of fizz. But in the colloquial language from where I come from, the term fizzer means “Something that promised excitement but instead was a disappointment”, Yes, Hutton’s fizzers include promoting the insights of a long-standing (pun intended) critic of employment guarantees, who prefers people to be propped up as consumption units by a UBI, and, yes, surely, if Hutton is involved, reversing the “tragedy” of the democratic choice the British people made to exit the EU. Apparently, “Remain” is the “great progressive social force of the moment” and if Britain was to leave the EU it would “stand in the way of any of it ever being implemented”, where “it” refers to all these ‘left’ fizzers. It is hard getting one’s head around this logic. A restoration of democracy and sovereignty apparently disables the elected government from using its currency-issuing capacity to deliver a progressive program aimed at advancing well-being. But, staying in a corporatist cabal which has embodied neoliberalism in the core legal structure of its existence and allows corporations to sue governments which threaten their profits and is unaccountable to the people is the exemplar of progression. This stuff is in the world of the pixies!
In a few weeks I am off to Britain again to participate in a series of events. Two of these events will be in Scotland where we (Warren and I) will discuss, as outsiders, issues pertaining to the monetary arrangements that might accompany a move to Scottish independence. It is a controversial issue in itself, but, unfortunately, is also intertwined with the vexed issue of EU membership. And the complication then becomes that progressives, who might otherwise be attracted to the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) way of understanding the monetary system, also exhibit the standard misconstrued Europhile view that the EU, neoliberal though it is, can be reformed and that an independent Scotland should be part of that mess. And, in doing so, they then take problematic positions on the currency question. So a sort of ‘nest of vipers’ sort of situation, from the Aesop’s fable – The Farmer and the Viper. As in the Fable, the Europhiles embrace of the EU will always pay them back in grief. Anyway, while I am always cautious discussing the pro and con of situations where I have no direct material stake and a less than full understanding of specific cultural and historical influences that are at work, the Scottish question is interesting and demonstrates many of points that nations should be cogniscant of when discussing monetary sovereignty. And besides I have to get up in Edinburgh and Glasgow in a few weeks so as a researcher I am trained to be prepared and seek the best understanding that I can of the complexity of the situation. I will be writing a few posts on the Scottish issue as I prepare for that speaking tour.
In Part 1, I introduced the discussion about the use of industry policies in the Keynesian period after World War 2. Most nations adopted a mixed planning-market based system for allocating productive resources and the state was always central in setting out planning parameters, direct ownership and employment, and regulation. It was a system that researchers described as being “highly successful”. Two approaches to industrialisation were taken: (a) export-oriented (for example, South Korea); and (b) import-substitution (for example, India), although in most cases, nations used both strategies. As neoliberalism emerged and the fixed exchange rate system broke down in the early 1970s, the IMF, whose purpose was intrinsically tied to providing foreign reserves to nations under the fixed exchange rate system, no longer had a purpose. They reinvented themselves as the neoliberal attack dog for corporations and global capital. They also provided cover for governments who were embracing the Monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman and intent on imposing fiscal austerity. These governments had become captured by corporate interests and by appealing to external demands from bodies such as the IMF, these governments could depoliticise harsh policy shifts away from Keynesian full employment. I used Britain as an example. Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry in 1975. It was rejected at the time by Harold Wilson and Denis Healey, who were intent on imposing fiscal austerity and deregulating. They used the scare that the IMF would have to bailout Britain as a ruse to force their Monetarist ideology onto the British Labour Party. It was no surprise that in an era where governments started abandoning fiscal support to maintain full employment, deregulated labour and financial markets, and abandoned domestic protections for their industries, many industries would go to the wall. The IMF claimed that this shows industry policy focused on import-substitution can never work. But the culprit was not flawed industry policy. Rather, it was the withdrawal of all the accompanying support structures that made it work, but which ran counter to the neoliberal ideology of ‘free markets’. Now the IMF is having a rethink based on the devastation that neoliberalism has caused. On March 26, 2019, the IMF published a new working paper (19/74) – The Return of the Policy That Shall Not Be Named: Principles of Industrial Policy. Now, we are reading that the IMF has conceded that industry policy interventions that were the basis of economic planning in the Keynesian era were highly successful and only stopped being so, in some cases, when fiscal austerity was imposed and trade controls were abandoned in the 1970s. This is Part 2 of the two-part series on this topic.
In 1975, Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry. At the time, the Prime Minister and Chancellor were becoming attracted to Monetarism and started framing and implementing the austerity-type fiscal strategies that are common today. Benn opposed this approach, and, instead proposed a far-reaching alternative economic strategy that involved increased industrial planning to revitalise British industry. The growing ‘free market’ orthodoxy at the time, spearheaded by the IMF and the World Bank, which had transformed into neoliberal enforcement agencies, were vehemently opposed to any form of industry policies or state intervention. As a result, Benn was basically shut out of the debate and this helped transform social democratic politics into the mess it is today. Ironically, now the IMF is changing its tune. It has recently rediscovered how effective industry policies of the type Benn was proposed actually can be if supported by coherent policy structures. Irony two is that these supportive policy structures are the opposite to those typically proposed by the IMF. At the time, there were economists (such as yours truly) who knew that the descent into neoliberalism would be a disaster and hamper growth and more equal distributions of wealth and income. But that view was also shut out. Now, without shame, the IMF are basically admitting the decades of insufferable neoliberal policies that they forced onto nations may have been wrong. Industry policy is back in focus. Imagine if they never had seduced the world with their snake oil. British politics, for one, would have been quite different. Brexit could very well happened in 1975 under a Labour government. And more. This is Part 1 of a two-part series which will finish tomorrow.
What editorial control does the UK Guardian exercise on Op Ed pieces? Seemingly none if you read this article (December 24, 2018) – What Labour can learn about Brexit from California: think twice – written by some well-to-do American postgraduate working for DiEM25 in Athens. But when Thomas Fazi and I sought space to discuss our book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, 2017) – or when I have sought space to provide some balance to the usual neoliberal, pro-Europe bias, the result has been no response (yay or nay). We never received a response to our solicitation. Even if we ignore the obvious imbalance in experience and qualifications (track record) of the respective ‘authors’, it seems that the UK Guardian only wants a particular view to be published even if the quality of that view would make the piece unpublishable in any respectable outlet. Go figure. Anyway, I now have read the worst article for 2018. And, I thought that the Remain debate had reached the depths of idiocy but there is obviously scope for more if this Guardian attempt at commentary is anything to go by. And I know the Guardian journalists read this blog – so why not allow Thomas and I to formally respond to all this Remain nonsense?
It is Wednesday, and only a short blog post beckons today. I have restrained myself from commenting on Theresa May’s unbelievable Brexit deal, which has the dirty paws of the European Commission all over it. Regular readers will know that if I had have been a voter in Britain in June 2016, I would have resolutely and happily voted in favour of Brexit. And if I was a British Parliamentarian now I would vote to reject the ‘deal’ and force the Brexit on British terms. I will write a little more about that in a further post. But today, I just want to pass comment on the extraordinary UK Guardian article from Phillip Inman – A leftwing UK post-Brexit is as likely as a socialist Rees-Mogg (November 24 2018) – which summarises the problem quite well. I say ‘well’ because it illustrates the progressive surrender that has allowed the neoliberal era and monstrosities like the European Union to persist. You can see it all over the place – surrender that is. The Democratic obsession with Paygo in the US. The British Labour fiscal rule in Britain. The ‘we will have a bigger surplus’ boast from the Australian Labor Party, when there is around 15 per cent underutilised productive labour. Inman’s article is encouraging the Left in Britain to lie down and surrender to the dictates of the neoliberal, corporatist machine that is the EU. It presents an impoverished vision of the future and a disgustingly vapid depiction of the possibilities that a truly progressive British Labor government could achieve once it jettisons the neoliberal frames.
Portugal has been held out by the Europhile Left as a demonstration of how progressive policies can manifest in the European Union, even with the Fiscal Compact and the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). In 2015, after the new Socialist government took over with supply guarantees from the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and The Greens (Partido Ecologista “Os Verdes”), it set about challenging the austerity mindset that has blanketed the European continent in stagnation. Things improved in 2016 with increased government spending. But by 2017, the European Commission had reasserted its austerity mindset and the supposed flexibility that the Left were hoping and which Portugal had briefly embraced in 2016 was gone. And we learned that the neoliberal bias of the Eurozone and its fiscal rules dominates any progressive ambitions that a nation state might entertain. Another blow for the Europhile Left. The lesson: start looking at and supporting exit if you are truly serious about restoring a progressive policy agenda in Europe.
I have been reading the new book by Costas Lapavitsas – ‘The Left Case Against the EU’ – which has been recently published. It is solid and clearly explains why the EU is not an institution or structure than anyone on the progressive Left should support or think is capable of reform any time soon. It has become a neoliberal, corporatist state and hierarchical in operation, with Germany at the apex bullying the weaker states into submission. Divergence in outcomes across the geographic spread is the norm. It is also the anathema of our concepts of democracy both in concept and operation. It is more like a cabal of elites who are unelected and, largely unaccountable. By giving their support to this monstrosity, the traditional Left political parties (social democrats, socialists etc) have been increasingly wiped out such is the anger of voters to what has become a massive coup by capital against labour. These are the themes that Thomas Fazi and I also explored in our recent book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, 2017). I also just finished reading an interesting report – Financial Regulation challenged by European Trade Policy – published by the Veblen Institute and Finance Watch (October 2, 2018), which examines “the impact of European trade policy on financial regulation”. It is essential reading for those progressives who still think that Britain should remain in the EU. If they understand the research findings they would change their minds.
This week’s theme seems to be the about how the so-called progressive side of the economic and political debate keeps kicking ‘own goals’ (given a lot of this is happening in Britain where they play soccer) or finding creative ways to ‘face plant’ (moving to Europe where there is more snow). Over the other side of the Atlantic, as America approaches its mid-term elections, so-called progressive forces who give solace to the New Democrats, aka Neoliberal Democrats are railing against fiscal deficits and demanding that the left-liberals in the Democratic Party be pushed out and that the voters be urged to elect candidates who will impose austerity by cutting welfare and health expenditure and more. And then we have progressive think tanks pumping out stuff about banking that you would only find in a mainstream macroeconomic textbook. This is the state of play on the progressive side of politics. The demise of social democratic political movements is continuing and it is because they have become corrupted from within by neoliberals. And then we had a little demonstration in London yesterday of the way in which the British Labour Fiscal Rule will bring the Party grief. The Tories are just warming up on that one.
One of the themes that has emerged in the discussions of the British Labour Party Fiscal Credibility Rule (which should be renamed the Fiscal Incredulous Rule) is when is the right time for a political party to show leadership and start educating the public on new ideas. The Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) project has been, in part, about educating people even if our ideas have been strongly resisted by the mainstream. The mainstream (New Keynesian) paradigm in economics is degenerative (meaning it has little empirical validation) and eventually it will fade into historical obscurity. For many of us that cannot come quickly enough. The defenders of the Rule argue that progressive politicians have to tread carefully or else the amorphous financial markets will turn on them and destroy their initiatives. The problem is that by kowtowing to the City or Wall Street, the progressive political forces become captured and redundant. Witness the electoral demise of social democratic parties over the last several decades. The conditions are ripe (see below) for a courageous head-on attack on these financial market elites and educate the public so that they allow elected governments to legislate for all rather than serving the interests of the elites, which has become the norm over the last several decades. The problem is that progressive political forces are also taking advice from mainstream economists who use the tools of neoliberalism. The upshot is that progressive political leadership is absent but desperately required.