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Global Capitalism Heads Back Towards Crisis
Nearly 7 years after the economic crisis that broke out in 2008, storm clouds are gathering again in the capitalist skies. While the famous economic recovery after that crisis has been anything but flamboyant, major international economic institutions (IMF, OECD, etc.) from the end of last summer, continue to revise their “predictions” for growth for 2015 downward, even starting to talk about the risk of relapse of the global economy into crisis, but believe this an unlikely event.
Other smaller organizations not subject to the requirement of not damaging the “confidence” of the “economic operators” in the good health of the global economy or by diplomatic concerns, are more pessimistic; a certain Institute for economic forecasting has even calculated the risk of a plunge into a new global recession in 2015 at 65% (1) – while the IMF estimated the probability of a recession at only 40%, and this only in the euro zone (2).
These figures make one smile. Bourgeois economists are unable to understand and therefore to predict the functioning of the capitalist economy. Despite the continuing avalanche of figures and statistics, all the economic crises that have occurred, beginning with the last, took them by surprise... Therefore we accord no more confidence to those institutions that constantly affirm that everything will improve, as we do to those much less numerous economists who have specialized in the darkest forecasts. But the institutes and other economic organizations have the capacity – this is why they were created! – to register economic evolution.
SLOWDOWN OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
And in the last months they report an international economic slowdown, although this slowdown is variable according to the country and regions. It is the sharpest in Japan, which is the second capitalist country in the world (even if only quantitatively, China, gigantic but backwards from the point of view of capitalist development, is overtaking it) entered into recession since last spring; and figures published in early December indicate that this recession is deepening: GDP (Gross Domestic Product) declined by an almost 2% annual rate in the third quarter, while the decline was only 1.8% in the second. The famous New Economic Policy of Prime Minister Abe (“Abenomics”), which was supposed to lift Japan out of the doldrums (since 2008 the country has not seen any real return to growth), has clearly failed. This decline of the Japanese economy is attributed to the weakness of the internal market and, despite the decline in the yen, and to sluggish exports “because of the stagnation of world trade” (3).
DOWNTURN IN EUROPE
The second weak point in the international economy is the European Union (and in particular the euro zone), which taken alone constitutes the largest global market. The GDP in the area fell in 2012, before resuming laboriously in 2013. A slowdown became noticeable early in 2014, before growth registered a sudden halt in the second quarter. But in reality the situation in Europe is more complex, depending on the country. We have on one side Great Britain, which has not adopted the common currency, not only because its economic and financial ties with the United States are still very strong, but also for fear of diluting the financial center of London in the European ensemble with the renunciation of the pound. It is experiencing significant growth, parallel to that of the United States; while in the Euro area, Germany which saw a sharp slow-down (even experiencing a decline in its GDP in the second quarter of 2014) emerged from the crisis of 2008 with renewed strength: it has practically eliminated its budget deficit, it continues to have a trade surplus, and it has significantly reduced its debt: this puts it in a strong position to demand that its partners “clean up” their economies. For now Germany has officially escaped the recession, as well as France where however GDP growth is little or none. By contrast Italy, the third-largest economy in the euro zone, experienced its third successive year of recession.
Because of divergent economic developments in the different countries that make up the euro zone, the economic crisis has led to considerable tension within it, to the point of momentarily leaving doubt as to its viability. In addition to the case of the Greece, the crisis has had the highest negative consequences on Portugal, Ireland and Spain, which have had to rely on the so-called “troika” (IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission) for “rescue” plans consisting of austerity measures, social cuts, liquidation of unprofitable sectors to restore their accounts, in return for loans with (relatively) low interest rates.
Economists and European political leaders put forward the Spanish case as the demonstration that “austerity works”: the country has indeed resumed growth (as has Ireland), unlike Greece where particularly harsh austerity there has not produced “positive” results. But this growth is relative, Spain is still far from having recovered economically to pre-crisis levels; and above all the price paid by the masses in general and the proletarians in particular in terms of unemployment and falling wages, poverty and insecurity, is obviously not taken into account!
FRANCE AND ITALY
In addition to these countries, the economic situation in France and Italy, respectively the second and third economies in the euro zone, is raising concerns among international capitalists (which caused the lowering of their “credit rating” by international “rating” agencies carrying out analyses of the economic risk of individual economies). Despite the optimistic rhetoric of the government, the French economy is stagnant; it continues to lose market share to its competitors and it is unable to reduce its trade deficit, its budget deficit or public debt.
Despite the important pro-business steps already taken, both German officials, the European Commission and the MEDEF (the employers organization) asked the French government to implement its commitments in budget measures and engage more decisively in “reforms” (read: anti-worker attacks), savings (read: reduction in public spending, especially pensions, unemployment benefits, etc.) and austerity. The Hollande government is not opposed in principle, no doubt, but it knows that too powerful austerity measures would lead to open recession. It is also concerned that too harsh anti-worker attacks might lead to proletarian reactions which would be difficult to control.
Things are similar for Italy; but the difference is that if the “sovereign debt” is significantly higher (equivalent to 135% of GDP, against 96% for France), which imposes a heavier burden on the budget, Italian industry, more powerful and dynamic than the French, allows the country to maintain and increase its exports, producing a trade surplus and therefore budget revenues.
But given the weakness of the domestic market, the relatively strong performance of exports for the Italian economy (goods and services) is not enough to save it from recession. It’s the reason why the Renzi government, while pursuing an anti-social policy, including in the labor market (the “Jobs Act”), also hesitates to reduce indebtedness; to engage in brutal austerity measures that would have a negative effect on economic activity. Like the French Government it pleads for a European economic recovery effort; of which there are many, like the latest, the so-called “Junker plan”, that is, for a miraculous return of “growth”: the Junker plan is really just so much eye-wash.
SLOWDOWN OF THE “EMERGING” COUNTRIES
The so-called “emerging” countries (using today’s fashionable jargon), are large formerly underdeveloped countries, which in recent years have experienced rapid development and growth. There is nothing surprising in this phenomenon that has been common to all countries, while it was once presented as a demonstration of the “socialist” nature of the USSR and other State capitalist countries: our party devoted many studies to show that these high “Stalinist” growth rates, had once characterized the economy of Japan or the United States...! Once arriving at maturity, the developed capitalist economies experience slower growth rates, even though there are huge masses of capital that are involved in each production cycle.
At the top of the list of the emerging countries are; Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the so-called “BRIC” group), Russia, the former second world power, having been reduced to the level of the emerging countries after the disintegration of the USSR.
If the statistics indicate that India is still growing, this growth is experiencing a particularly severe downturn (growth is half of that before the crisis): around 4.5%, its lowest growth rate since the beginning of this century. The new government of the reactionary Modi, is attempting to revive growth through measures of economic liberalization (which lead to major strikes in the coal industry), while its secret services released a report that attributed the economic difficulties to environmental organizations funded from abroad (4)!
Brazil, by contrast, is clearly in recession now; it is the same with a Russia hit hard by falling prices in oil (of which in 2013 it was probably the largest global producer) and also, though not as severely, by Western sanctions over the Ukraine; Russia should experience a deep recession, minus 4% growth, according to official forecasts, and probably more in reality. The collapse of the ruble, parallel to that of oil, also risks serious damage to Russian financial institutions.
China is experiencing a sharp economic slowdown. Beijing authorities had predicted that the country would reach 7.5% growth in 2014 and indeed official figures released at the end of last year were almost at this level: 7.3% (which would still the lowest figure in 24 years!). But in general China specialists are rather skeptical about the reality of official figures and if some believe there is already zero growth, more and more people are expecting a “brutal” slowdown in China's economy this year, if only because of the risk of the gigantic housing bubble bursting (5). Already the government has been forced to come to the aid of some banks, while the Shanghai stock market has plunged...
Whatever the cause, the slowing-down of the Chinese economy, the world's largest exporter, is the logical consequence of the weakness of the international market. Indeed its domestic market is still too little developed to absorb the goods that it produces and overproduction is evident in most of the industrial sectors as well as in real estate. It cannot therefore in any way serve as a locomotive for the world economy, which used to be stated repeatedly not so long ago...
DRUGGED AMERICAN GROWTH
Compared to that of the countries that we have reviewed so far, the situation of the United States seems brilliant. Bourgeois commentators continue to point towards the sound example of the homeland of economic liberalism, as against a “sclerotic” Europe where the workers stubbornly oppose “reforms” that too soft politicians lack the courage to impose: liberalize the labor market, remove the social measures that impede entrepreneurship, and the economy will recover just as in America! This refrain is sung to the proletarians in all the languages of Europe (and outside Europe).
It is undeniable that the United States is experiencing growth that is the envy of the other major countries. The latest published statistics indicate that in third quarter of 2014, the rate of growth of the GDP had been the highest since 2003 and the unemployment rate had continued to fall (5.6% in December, the lowest level since June 2008): the United States has created nearly 3 million jobs in 2014 (6); the budget deficit fell below 3% of GDP, the trade deficit was slightly reduced (US trade has been in deficit since 1976), industrial production, uniquely among the states of the “G7” has exceeded the pre-crisis level (helped by the boom in shale gas), profits remain high. Does the United States then qualify as the much sought-after engine of the global economy?
This is not the opinion of the World Bank; in its forecasts published at the beginning of this year, while not speaking of recession, it still lowers its forecast of international growth, which, according to its report, is facing “major risks”; it estimates that the global economy is functioning on a single engine, the U.S. engine, which is fraught with dangers (7).
Some economists make a parallel with the beginning of this century, where the rest of the world was already in recession or severe slowdown while the United States, driven by the boom of “new technologies” and the internet, ignoring this situation, seemed to head towards growth records. We now know better: what occurred instead was the collapse of the stock market “bubble” in 2001 and their ensuing plunge into recession which they only came out of by widespread use of the “credit economy” and military expenditures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2008 crisis broke out in full force when the most “risky” credits (the famous “subprimes”) could not be repaid given the new economic slowdown in the United States, resulting in the collapse of banks and financial institutions that had issued them on a large scale.
It took massive State intervention to first stop the financial system from collapsing and then to restart the economy by increasing public debt; this debt has reached new peacetime highs, but with mixed results, including in the United States. The former head of the Fed (the Federal Reserve, the US Central Bank), Alan Greenspan, an astute observer if there is any, thinks that if “the United States are better off than the rest of the world”, “our economy still idling "(8). And in fact, US growth was directly dependent on the injection of hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy by the Fed (the policy of so-called “quantitative easing”, which amounts to printing money and bringing down interest rates to zero or almost zero).
This liquidity would be used to stimulate economic recovery by making even more credit available – actually it is estimated for example that the recovery in the US auto market is linked to widespread loans at very low interest rates to buyers, including “risky” loans of the “subprime” style; but as the engorgement of the markets made it difficult to find profitable investment opportunities in the so-called “real economy", it was also used to power various speculations and the artificial growth of the stock market that threaten to lead one day or another to a crash. As Marx wrote, “the credit system can figure as the main lever of over-production and commercial superspeculation” because it tends to maximize the reproduction of capital; accelerating the material development of the productive forces, “credit at the same time accelerates violent explosions [“of the contradictory nature of capitalist production”], crises and thus the elements that dissolve the old mode of production” (9).
The total debt of the United States was 1.9 times GDP in 1980 (on the eve of the 1981-82 crisis) and has increased sharply since; it was 4.6 times GDP in 2007 and today it is 5.2 times greater than GDP (10): the figures show that the massive use of debt is key to the economy's growth which threatens to fall into a coma if the dose of this drug is restricted. But living on credit, it becomes more fragile and prone to crisis...
FREEFALL OF OIL PRICES
But perhaps some might object that the drop in the price of oil is very good news for real economic growth in the world! This is certainly what political leaders and all the economists tell us, even going as far as calculating the additional percentage points of growth entrained by the fall in the price of oil. Certainly a drop in the value of the raw materials it uses, allows the capitalist enterprise to reduce its production costs and therefore either increase its rate of profit, or to lower its prices in order to conquer new markets. And in one case as in the other to regain health.
But in reality this veritable collapse in oil prices (nearly a 50% decline at the end of 2014 when compared to summer of the same year) is a consequence of the global economic downturn; and therefore the short-term economic gains will be offset by the new crisis it foretells. Indeed, contrary to some assertions, the decline in oil prices is not caused by the will of the Saudis, supposedly to fight against the new US shale gas producers or, under US pressure, to destabilize Russia, Venezuela or Iran, but by overproduction and falling demand.
And besides it is not only oil that has fallen, but a series of raw materials, iron ore having experienced the biggest drop, greater than that of oil, like coal, copper and other metals, and agricultural commodities such as rubber, cotton, sugar, cereals, etc. (11). Countries producing these commodities and especially oil-producing countries for whom it is often their main export resource end up in big trouble. Venezuela, which has the most significant proven resources in the world, is on the verge of default; its president has made, without success, a tour of the producer countries to try to cut back production until oil once again reaches the $100 price necessary not to balance the budget (for that the price would need to reach $160!), but to allow it to honor its financial commitments without difficulty. However, experts now believe that in 2105 the average price will remain around 50 dollars! Similarly Iran would need a $130 price, Iraq $114, and Russia $110 to balance their budgets (12)...
FEAR OF DEFLATION, FEAR OF CRISIS
A new threat haunts European leaders: that of deflation, which is the lowering of prices. The drop in commodity prices strikes directly at the capitalists, while it reduces the cost of living for the workers. Any major economic crisis sees the emergence of deflation because in order to dispose of the goods they can no longer sell, capitalists are forced to lower their prices, cutting down on their profits, the indispensable factor of the capitalist cycle: fear of deflation is therefore nothing other than the fear of the crisis of overproduction. To ward this off the European Central Bank will fully embrace the road followed by the Americans, along which until now it had only taken a few steps: quantitative easing, the creation of cash to make even more credit accessible and to lower the value of the euro, making European goods less expensive than those of their competitors. Faced with this prospect the Swiss National Bank decided unexpectedly on Jan. 15 to abandon its policy of a rate floor for the Swiss franc against the euro, running the risk of plunging the economy into recession and, in the meantime, risking triggering a storm in the foreign exchange markets: within moments the value of the Swiss franc rose by 30% compared to the euro. The SNB was the world's biggest buyer of euros, probably followed by the Central Bank of Japan. The Japanese, who are also facing deflation, have already taken various measures to reduce the value of their currency; this means that we are heading towards an exasperation of competition in a global market already overburdened by overproduction, of which a currency war could be one of the most spectacular manifestations. Korea thus became one of the first victims of the weaker yen, causing it to lose market share as against Japan in various sectors.
ATTACKS AGAINST THE PROLETARIAT
The 2008 crisis resulted in a sharp deterioration of the conditions of the proletariat in the developed capitalist countries. First, of course, came rising unemployment due to bankruptcies and business closures as well as of the “restructuring” variety. The unemployment rate varies from country to country; the figures given by the Eurostat agency earlier this year indicated an unemployment rate of 25.7% for Greece, 23.9% in Spain, 13.9% in Portugal, 13.4% for Italy, 10.3% in France, against only 5% for Germany, 5.9% in Britain (September figures) and 5.8% for the United States.
Looking more closely, we find that much of the decline in unemployment in Britain is due to the “zero hour contracts”: under this type of contract workers are not registered as unemployed but have no guarantee of work in the month, they have no minimum wage, no sick pay or holiday pay and may not work for another employer, they are bound hand and foot to their boss! The number of workers under this type of contract has increased by 137% from 2012 to 2013, there were about 1,400,000 in early 2014; almost half the companies with more than 250 people have had recourse to these “contracts” (13).
Similar situations are to be found in other countries in (e.g. in Germany, with odd jobs paying only 450 euros per month, without pension contributions: 4.8 million workers have only such contracts to live on!).
In the United States, a significant number of the so-called “discouraged” unemployed are no longer registered in unemployment statistics: this number was estimated at no less than 6 million in December! If they were included, the US unemployment rate would be above 9%...
The wages of workers who still have jobs are also targeted. A study by the International Labor Office, a UN organization (14), shows that wages in Greece have declined by almost 25% from 2007 to 2013! For other countries, taking 100 as the base for the year 2007 which preceded the crisis, wages have decreased by 7% in the UK (a 92.9 level in 2013); in Italy they rested at 94.3, in Spain 96.8, at 98.7 in Japan; there has been small increases in the United States (101.4), France (102.3) and Germany (102.7).
We should immediately clarify that this is the “average” salary. But wage disparities have increased after the crisis according to all international surveys; this is particularly the case in the United States, where the average industrial wage has lowered over a decade (a 4% decrease in average hourly earnings between 2003 and 2013). This means that even when escaping unemployment, the lowest paid part of the proletariat, (whether composed of women, minorities such as blacks in the United States, precarious workers, etc.) experienced a serious deterioration in living conditions, even in the richest capitalist countries.
This situation is not expected to change. Indeed the international economic institutions whose role is to synthesize capitalist aspirations, such as the OECD, the World Bank or the IMF call for the accentuation of measures from the private sector and “reforms” to reduce “structural constraints "and “rigidities in the labor market” which are a “brake on growth”; what this jargon of the bourgeois economists really means, is that it is necessary to make the proletariat further submit to capital’s requirements, notably by attacking such “archaisms” as fixed-term contracts, “too generous” unemployment benefits, pensions which are too large and indexed to the cost of living, early retirement, etc.
In brief: the relapse of the global economy into a new recession will inevitably mean a worsening of attacks against the proletariat. It will be up to the proletariat to take in hand the response to this uninterrupted hail of blows that have struck down upon it for years, through movements dedicated solely to defend its own interests.
As we said in the conclusion of a study done by our party after the 1958 recession:
The workers do not have to choose between a capitalism without crisis and capitalism in crisis; we have to fight – and this struggle does not come into being solely because of the crisis, but through a political force which keeps in its vision the dictatorship, the central point of Marx's discoveries – to put an end to capitalism, with or without a crisis, whether in inflation or in deflation (15)
Only a return to the independent class struggle carried out by proletarian organizations and led by the class party will be able to break the infernal cycle of capitalism which, from crisis to crisis, sows wars and destruction of all types on the planet, leading inexorably toward a third world war.
(1) http://www.lesoir.be/712672/article/economie/2014-11-20/une-recession-mondiale-65-risque. What’s interesting about these kind of pseudo-scientific “predictions" is to show the growing concern in certain bourgeois circles.
(2) “World Economic Outlook”, October 2014. http:// www. imf.org/ external/ french/ pubs/ ft/ weo/ 2014/02/pdf/textf.pdf
(3) Eco Perspectives, BNP Paribas, 4th Quarter 2014.
(6) BBC, 1/11-12 //2015
(9) Marx, Capital, Book III, ch 37. Ed. Sociales 1976 p. 412-413.
(11) Les Echos, 12/30/2014
(12) Financial Times, 11/09/2014. The extraction of oil from Canadian tar sands are profitable at $ 100 a barrel, the deepwater well (Angola, Brazil, Norway, Great Britain) at $ 80; regarding US oil shale gas production costs would range from 40 to 115 dollars a barrel. Consequently the oil industry has strongly decreased its investments and proceeded to thousands of layoffs.
(14) ILO, “Global Wage Report 2014-2105”, p.7
(15) Il Programma Comunista No. 9/1958
International Communist Party
April, 16th 2015
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