Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Only Man in the World Who Knows What Really Went Wrong at JPMorgan Chase

If you were following Nasser's blog and have missed his commentaries, I just posted a conversation with him on my blog. Thought you might want to know.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Note to Friends and Readers

That the posts on this blog have become spotty and less frequent goes without saying. That is because it has become impossible for Nasser to write, if you take “impossible” in its practical and not literal sense.

The fourth and final volume of Speculative Capital is just one impediment. Nasser is determined to complete the manuscript this year. But the manuscript keeps changing. Nasser says that is indicative of a dialectical process. That may be. But rewrites take time, leaving little room for much else.

I realized it was time to take the subject head on after three more translations of Hegel’s Logic arrived at our doorsteps. One was the 700+ page The Science of Logic from Cambridge University, translated by Prof. George di Giovanni of McGill. His opening sentence in the translator’s 70-page introduction says: “Writing an introduction to a translation of Hegel’s Logic is an even more formidable task than the translation itself”. You get the idea.

The other was Henry Stuart Marcan’s 1912 book with the friendly title Doctrine of Formal Logic, Being a Translation of the First Section of the Subjunctive Logic. More than a third of the book’s 300 pages is the translator’s introduction.

The third book was Hegel: Three Studies, translated by Shierry Nicholsen from Theodor Adorno’s 1963 book in German. Adorno writes:
The way in which Hegel’s great systematic works, especially the Science of Logic, resist understanding are qualitatively different from those of other infamous texts. With Hegel the task is not to simply ascertain, through intellectual effort and careful examination of the wording, a meaning of whose existence one has no doubt. Rather, at many points the meaning itself is uncertain, and no hermeneutic art has yet established it indisputably.
No one who reads these books on the sideline and during breaks from his other responsibilities will have much free time. Adab– that Farsi word for politeness, concern and respect – demanded that the blog’s friends and readers were informed.

Why, you may ask, this bookish interest in Hegel from a student of economics/finance in the midst of an economic/financial crisis?

Hegel’s dialectics is the account of the movement of thought in search of Truth. Do not be alarmed by that word. It has a technical meaning that will become clear in Vol. 4. The point is that the compulsion of thought constantly drives the mind to higher phases in search of more satisfying answers. In practical terms, that means going to the root of the problems. And that is the aim of Vol. 4: to go to the root of the problems in economics and finance, beyond incidental tales of events and characters. Hence, the need for the author to master Hegel.

But I must warn you against drawing conclusions about the readability of Vol. 4 by “associating” it with Hegel’s “infamous” texts.

Hegel wrote that “self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness”. The “other” of Hegel’s western philosophy is Jalaludin Rumi’s Eastern philosophy. Hegel’s Western scholars are deprived of the “other”, hence their confusion and difficulties in reading him. Nasser knows them both and thus, indisputably. That translates to a penetration of thought and clarity of writing that is unparalleled.

As proof of that assertion and as a prelude to the book’s release, I have decided to adopt ideas from the manuscript and present them in a new blog called Dialectics of Social Change. I do not have Nasser’s encyclopedic knowledge in economics, finance and politics. But I know his Theory of Speculative Capital and his writing style; I have edited his books. So my writing should offer some continuity of style and content – and keep the bench warm until the man himself returns.

The first entry is ‘No Country for Old Man’. Channel hopping one evening while waiting for Nasser to go to a dinner party, I paused on a movie that was in progress. Nasser came in and recognized the movie. A long conversation that followed on the way and continued during the dinner is the basis for the post.

See what I mean by the inability of the mind to rest on the untruth – its compulsion to seek progressively higher stages of truth.

Sarina Saber

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Saga of Viktor Orban and Hungarian Democracy

I rarely write “follows ups”. Events I discuss on this blog are driven by the irresistible hand of speculative capital, so their outcomes tend to be preordained. Still, on a snowy weekend in New York I thought to take a break from work and give you an update on Viktor Orban’s saga. The information from the Financial Times is in my fingertips and there might be an educational angle to the story. You know Viktor Orban of Hungary, don’t you, from the previous posts here and here.

Pressure mounts on Hungary (Wed, Jan 18)
A simmering battle between Brussels and Budapest intensified yesterday when the European Union’s executive branch ruled that three new Hungarian laws violate EU treaties and began legal proceedings to overturn the measures, one of which officials believe threatens the independence of Hungary’s central bank.

The heightened tensions came as the government of prime minister Viktor Orban continues to seek aid from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. Brussels has said it is unwilling to support such aid until Mr Orban revises the central bank law, which gives the prime minister increased power to appoint senior management at the bank.
Who, then, should appoint the senior management at the central bank of a country?

Orban fights shy of battle with EU critics (Thu, Jan 19)
In a hastily arranged visit to Strasbourg, Viktor Orban sought to reassure critics that the sweeping reforms by his government since its landslide election victory in 2010 were in line with European principles... The EU’s executive arm on Tuesday announced it was taking legal actions against Hungary to reverse measures it believed could compromise the independence of the central bank and judiciary among others.
Landslide victory. Reversing local law. Central bank independence. European values.

European values!

Hungary’s leader ready to back down in EU dispute (Fri, Jan 20)
Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, appeared to back down on a key issue in the country’s dispute with the European Union, increasing market optimism that talks could soon start on a financial support package. Mr Orban told a radio station he was prepared to drop a planned merger of the country’s central bank and financial markets regulator, which had raised concerns over the independence of the central bank... “It is important to accept that there appears to have been a complete turnaround, even a U-turn, in terms of the attitude of the Hungarian administration – and right to the top,” said Tim Ash, head of emerging markets research at RBS.
Game, set, match, then, you say?

Not at all.

Game, perhaps. But set and match are yet to be played. Therein lies the educational aspect of the story that I mentioned.

Yesterday, after the prime minister’s U-turn, Paul Krugman of the New York Times had a guest post titled Hungary, Misunderstood? If you click on it here, you will see it is quite a post, dense with data, graphs, text and obscure references that, unless you are a student of Hungarian history, you would neither know or care about.

What is more, if you search Krugman’s blog for “Hungary”, you will find 10 posts. Here is the page in question. One relatively sympathetic article is from August 10, 2011. The rest, progressively critical, including Hungary’s “hair raising” march towards dictatorship, begin in December 2011.

Why is this man who cannot properly pronounce the name of the capital city of Hungary so suddenly interested in that relatively small country? What gives?

A partial answer is that Krugman is the attack dog of neo-liberalism. He hears the whistle and off he goes. The attacks he leveled on the opponents of NAFTA who said that the treaty would result in destruction of jobs in the US would make Rush Limbaugh blush.

But it is not a matter of one attack dog only. Today, two days after the matter seemed all but settled, came the editorial in the New York Times. Titled Hungary’s Lurch Backward it went for the jugular from the opening sentence: “The soothing words of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, do little to counter his government’s assault on the independence of Hungary’s press, judiciary and central bank”.

It ended by saying:
Unimpressed by Mr. Orban’s facile promises, the majority parties in the European Parliament now want governmental leaders to consider invoking a clause of the E.U. treaty that would strip Hungary of some voting rights if Mr. Orban continued to flout European law. Europe’s powers to nudge Hungary back from authoritarianism are limited. But to its credit, it has begun wielding them.
If you are not Hungarian and ordinarily do not follow the affairs of the country, I say keep Viktor Orban’s name in the back of your mind. My guess is that you will see it again – and never in a positive light. In fact, that is how you will only hear of his name – until you hear of it no more.

And as a tribute to Hungarians everywhere, get a copy of Marai’s Casanova in Bolzano. Whether you read it on a gloomy winter day in New York or under sunshine in Sao Paulo, you will see it is the most adult, and therefore the most touching, love story ever written!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On the Theory of Knowledge

In yesterday’s post on the EU, I mentioned en passant the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and his demonization in the west after he got between capital and its quest for high rate of returns.

Today, the New York Times had a front page article in the business section on Hungary. Hungary, Once a Star, Loses Its Shine, was the heading. If you can, read the whole piece here. If you read yesterday’s post, you will smile in many places and can even anticipate what is coming next. I was not kidding about the tiresome predictability of the news. Look at this paragraph:
To some critics, the biggest problem with the Hungarian economy is Mr. Orban himself …Backed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, Mr. Orban has passed a flurry of laws that have concentrated power in his hands, weakened competing institutions like the central bank and alienated international lenders as well as an increasing number of Hungarians.
No doubt one of those alienated Hungarians is George Soros.

Note also the reference to “competing institutions”. The Times considers Hungary’s central bank as a competing institution with the government. I could not have said it better myself.

I have a soft spot for Hungarians because of Sandor Marai. His Casanova in Bolzano is the most adult and thus, the most touching, love story I have read. But this is not about Hungary. Rather, I want to make a point about what you know and how you know.

From the short Times paragraph above, we see that Orban has two-thirds majority in the parliament. That is more than you could say for Cameron, Merkel or Sarkozy. Yet, try as you might, you will not find a single article in English anywhere – newspapers or otherwise – explaining Orban’s point of view and his rationale for submitting those laws to the parliament. Nada. Zilch.

There is no centralized command and control center for these media outlets. How could it be that they all say the same thing as if on cue?

Which brings me to Michael Burleigh.

I don’t know who Michael Burleigh is. He must be a piece of shit, judging from where he writes and what he writes. I stumbled upon his writing following news links in relation with the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist. Here is what he wrote:
They [Iranian nuclear scientists] work for a regime that has explicitly threatened Israel (and by implication many ambient Palestinians) with such a weapon. I shall not shed any tears whenever one of these scientists encounters the unforgiving men on motorbikes, men who live in the real world rather than a laboratory or philosophy seminar
I am not concerned with the lie about Iran having nuclear weapons or threatening others with them. Nor do I care about his use of the word "unforgiving". Unless he knows the assassins, he could not possibly know their motive.

What fired me up, though, was his put-down of men studying philosophy. I am one such man, constantly brushing up on my Rumi, Kant and Hegel to use in the upcoming Vol. 4.

The above mentioned shit thinks philosophy has no relation to real life. He is right so far as what he has in mind is philosophy as taught at Harvard and Yale. But real philosophy is real, sufficiently real, in fact, as to be unsettling. You will see.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Epilogue: The Origin of the [Crisis in the] European Union

The idea of a man-made machine escaping his control and becoming a menace is familiar to modern men. It is the fantastic, subjective reflection in his mind of his real-life condition of being subjugated to the unrelenting rhythm of the factory system. The system was firmly in place in Western Europe by the beginning of the 19th century. Shelly published her Frankenstein in 1818.

The rise of large-scale industrialization in the next century and the introduction of the assembly line further intensified the subjugation. Assembly lines break down the manufacturing process into simple, repetitive tasks. Simplicity, as they say, is the killer. It allows for the replacement of skilled labor by the unskilled cheaper labor. In this way, it makes the individual differences irrelevant, reducing men to interchangeable cogs in a mechanical process that dictates the speed and intensity of their work and over which they have no control.

An out-of-control monster lends itself nicely to story-telling and visual presentation, which is why the new medium of film in the 20th century repeatedly visited the subject. Chaplin’s The Modern Times, Kubrik’s 2001 with its homicidal computer, The Blade Runner and The Terminator are perhaps among the better known examples of the genre. Movies exploited the menace of machinery at the same time that they kept it alive in the popular psyche.

But the mechanical aspect was always unconvincing. A physical monster is limited in size, proportion and reach. So its capacity to harm is limited. More to the point, a machine, no matter how intelligent, powerful or sinister, could always be brought under control – or just destroyed – possibilities that all film makers, as well as Shelly herself, had to acknowledge.

If we wanted to make a real menace, we would have to do away with such limitations.

Think of a menace that you could not see!

The invisibility I am talking about here is not a matter of stealthiness. Stealthiness is a property of physical objects and has the same limitations: it could be defeated and destroyed. Think, rather, of a menace that you cannot see because it is per se invisible. Such a menace could not be something physical. It would have to be something conceptual.

Conceptual is different from subjective. A subjective thing is purely mental, with no independent existence outside the mind of the person who is thinking it. Fear is subjective. It exists in a person’s mind only. Even when it arises from something real in the outside world, it can be driven out of thought. That is what Roosevelt was advising with his “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” pronouncement. One could stop fearing.

Force, by contrast, is conceptual and real. It exists in the material world independent of our imagination. Whether we think of gravity or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, it exists and will continue to exist. It cannot be wished away or dispelled by determination and mental prowess.

How do we know that the invisible gravity exists? We know that from its manifestations: because objects fall; because there are two high tides a day; because the moon stays in its orbit around the earth; because the earth stays in its orbit around the sun.

Each manifestation, however, is individual and thus, limited. It cannot make known the full extent of the force because the force is more than – broader than – any of its individual manifestations. No amount of mere observation would lead one to suspect that there was a commonality between an apple falling from a tree, the daily high tides and the structure of the solar system. It is impossible to understand these phenomena and thus, impossible to establish a link between them, unless we understand the force of gravity in its fullness. To understand gravity in its fullness is to understand it as concept.

As a concept, gravity has no physical or temporal boundaries. Hence, the universality of its effects. Because it is nowhere and nowhen, it is invisible.

Capital, too, is a conceptual force, only that it is social. Being social, it is historical: There was a time in the course of the development of societies when capital did not exist. This historical-vs-natural distinction between capital and gravity is no idle erudition. I bring it up because it goes to the heart of understanding capital and our subject of the EU crisis. For, unlike gravity which is a blind force, capital is a live and a conscious force.

In his Doctrine of Notion, Hegel deduces the category of life as “unity in plurality”. Life is a “conception of unity whose whole nature consists solely in its differentiation into the plurality which is subsumed under it, and a plurality whose whole nature consists solely in its forming that unity.”

The “life” in Hegel is not the organic life as we know and understand it. Life’s multitude of dimensions goes beyond the unity-in-plurality attribute. Hegel merely names an abstract category he is deriving after a well-known concept.

Still, the plurality-in-unity is an important distinguishing characteristic of organic life. An arm and a leg are what they are by virtue of coming together in an organic unity that is the body. Cut off from the body, they cease to be what they were. They become dead meat. The organism, likewise, has no meaning except as the plurality of its parts.

If capital is a living concept, then it must contain the defining plurality-in-unity attribute. Since as a concept, capital cannot be seen, we must first identify the “body” through which it operates, its sensuous manifestation, so to speak. Only such embodiment will lend itself to our inspection. We thus ask: Life to the human body is like capital is to what?

The answer is: corporation.

Legally, corporation, too, is a concept. But we must focus on the economic angle. Economically, a corporation could be large or small; industrial or financial, domestic or international. How could we tell such varieties from each other? The answer is: balance sheets. Corporations’ balance sheets are where the type of corporation and, with that, the composition of the capital in them, is registered.

Here is a sample balance sheet:


Look at the entries under Assets at the top. They include cash, inventory, plant and machinery, office equipment, etc. What is in common between these disparate items that allow them to be added as “assets”? (In large corporations, where the composition of capital is more complex, the asset items are even more extensive. Look, for example, at IBM’s balance sheet).

You know the “apples with apples, oranges with oranges” adage. Adding presupposes grouping. Grouping presupposes a commonality among the group members. What is the commonality between building, inventory, office furniture and cash?

The answer is that they are the constituting parts of capital the way arms, legs and organs are the constituting parts of the body. This point needs elaborating; the analogy might not be obvious without some background accounting. To that end, let us build a balance sheet from “scratch”. We follow an entrepreneur who believes he can make a good profit producing and selling some “widget”, say, a toy, a pen or a particularly cheap wristwatch. So, he takes out $10 million that he had stashed in a safe place, incorporates a corporation and begins work.

Let us assume that he spends $5,000,000 to build the plant, $1,000,000 for an office from which to run his enterprise and $1,000,000 for the office furniture, supplies, systems,etc. We further assume that he pays $1,500,000 for raw materials and $500,000 in wages to workers to produce 100,000 widgets. The final $1,000,000 he keeps as cash for the day-to-day operation of the plant. The entrepreneur has set the widget price at $25. Since 100,000 widgets are produced, their total price is $2,500,000. In accounting parlance, that is the inventory.

At that point, the company’s assets will look as follows:


Cash                                 $1,000,000
Plant/Equipment            $5,000,000
Office/Supplies               $1,000,000
Building                          $1,000,000
Inventory                       $2,500,000


Note that the assets add up to $10,500,000; $500,000 more than the money our entrepreneur advanced. How this magic is performed does not at present concern us. Our focus is on the conversion of money to capital and its unity-in-plurality.

Beginning with the conversion, note that cash – money – is not capital. Stashed in a mattress or kept in a safe deposit box, it would not multiply; it would not increase by a penny. Our entrepreneur knew that, which is why he took $10 million out of a safe and invested it in the widget venture.

In a like manner, the $1 million cash on the balance sheet is considered “working capital” precisely because it stands with the other components of the widget-producing capital. Taken out of that relationship, it becomes money again. It could be spent as money, but it will never increase in size.

The same reasoning applies to other asset items. The plant, for example, is a component of capital by virtue of being a place where widgets are produced – but only if there is an office from which to manage the production: dispenses cash, hire workers, raw materials, etc. Taken out of that relation, the plant becomes a storage for idle machinery. It eventually crumbles and dies, which is how the decommissioned plants are literally referred to in English. The town such plants once operated become, taking another word that is meaningful with reference to once alive bodies only, ghost towns.

The concept of capital, we see, then, can only be understood as the coming-together of various qualitatively different parts in such a way that the integrated whole is capable of internal growth. That’s how $10,000,000 became $10,500,000. That is the characteristic of an organic entity.

But, as in all organic bodies, it is not all quantity. There is a quantitative relation as well between the parts. A man’s head or heart can grow larger or smaller only so much before the distortion becomes fatal.

The relation between the various asset parts, likewise, must remain within certain quantitative limits. We intuitively grasp that point with regards to the plant or the office space. It would be madness for a small company to build a high-rise headquarter in an expensive downtown lot or a car manufacturer to try to squeeze its assembly line into an area one-half the size of what is necessary.

The relation of cash and inventory to other asset components is less intuitively apparent – because there is a supposition that “more money” can never hurt – but that is precisely when the abnormality in the body capital begins.

Look at the assets above. The company’s inventory is its lifeline. It was produced by workers who were paid $500,000 in wages and used $1,500,000 worth of raw material in the production process. The value of inventory is $2.5 million; $500,000 more than what went for its production. For that profit to be realized and for the process to continue – for which the entrepreneur must order $1,500,000 worth of raw materials set aside $500,000 in wages – the inventory must first be sold. The workers and raw material suppliers do not want widgets. They want money. Selling, converting inventory to money, is vital to the survival of capital. Hence, the pressure on the sales force and the resulting psychosis.

If the widgets cannot be sold at $25 each, they would have to be discounted; offered at say, $20. In that case, the entrepreneur would have advanced $2 million in wages and raw material to withdraw the same $2 million. That would be an absurd and pointless exercise and very discouraging to our entrepreneur. (We ignore depreciation and other such technical considerations that have no effect on our discussion).

If there are still no takers, the discount would have to be deeper; the widgets would have to be offered at say, $15. In that case, the capital would fall below its original $10 million. That would be the destruction of capital.

No sane entrepreneur would tolerate the condition of throwing money into the production circuit only to see it diminish in size. The logical step would be to curtail the production. If the demand for widgets is soft, in the next cycle our entrepreneur will produce only half as many widgets. Consequently, he will need half as much labor and raw material. In that case, two things would happen. First, the demand for labor would fall, with the result that unemployment would rise. That story you know. Second, the cash on the balance sheet would rise.

If our entrepreneur gets $2.5 million from the sale of his inventory but produces half as many widgets as before, he would only need to spend $1 million on labor and raw material, one-half of what he would normally spend on these items. In that case, even if he pockets $500,000 as before, $1 million surplus cash will be added to the balance sheet.

That is what has been happening in the US and the EU. Look, for example, at the “short term investment” in the IBM balance sheet (3rd from top) which is where the company has parked its unused cash. Or check out the balance sheet of GE under “cash only” (2nd from top).

The development is widely reported in the press as “cash hoarding” by corporations. But the labeling itself shows how little the problem is understood.

Look at this Yahoo analysis, for example, under the heading Largest Public Companies Continue to Hoard Cash at Record Levels. The writer complains that companies have “unnecessarily” tied up cash in inventory.

The men and a few women in charge of finances of large corporations are high ranking executives who oversee thousands of staff and billions of dollars of budget. They have bankers, advisers, consultants, traders and portfolio managers who keep them abreast of any change in the market. It is laughable to suggest that they might “unnecessarily” tie-up cash – and do so all at the same time.

Or look at this Associated Press story which begins this way:
Americans’ wealth last summer suffered its biggest quarterly loss in more than two years as stocks, pension funds and home values lost value. 
At the same time, corporations raised their cash stockpiles to record levels.
There is a relation between the decrease in the wealth of the Americans and stockpiling of cash by corporations, but not because of corporate wickedness, which is what the writer implies. Here is how I would rewrite the opening sentences to make the cause-and-effect relation clear: It is precisely because corporations were forced to raise their cash stockpiles that the wealth of Americans suffered its biggest loss.

Corporations’ cash stockpile has been increasing because they have been curtailing production. They have been curtailing production because their rate of profit has fallen. And this phenomenon has taken place across all industries. Imagine not being able to sell the widgets at $25 and having to reduce the price to $23, $21, $20 and then $17 and $15.

Under that condition, there would be no need for the same number of workers as before, and for the same office space and plant as before. They all must be reduced. The destruction of capital is thus set in motion. Depending on the severity and magnitude of destruction, the result is called a recession or a depression. From the Financial Times of January 9, 2012, under the heading Earnings growth falters for S&P 500:
US corporate earnings grew in the fourth quarter of 2011 at their slowest pace for more than two years … and are expected to slow even more in the first quarter of this year as profits are hit by global economic turbulence. 
The US earnings season begins today with Alcoa, one of the world’s largest aluminum producers, reporting fourth-quarter results after the stock market closes. Expectations of Aloca’s profits have been scaled back sharply in recent months … Alcoa said last week that it would take a charge of $155-$160m in the quarter for the cost of shutting down temporarily or permanently 12 per cent of its smelting capacity as it attempts to cut costs and respond to a weaker aluminum price.
(How about Alcoa’s cash position, you might ask – Alcoa, too? Alcoa, too. Click here and check out the first two asset items.)

Destruction of capital and what follows from it – the rise in unemployment, the rise in corporate cash holding, the fall in interest rates, the rise in the number of unemployed, the factory closings, the savage cuts to government spending, lowering of wages – are all effects of the same cause, namely, the fall in the rate of profit across the industries.

This fall is a “macro”, socio-economic phenomenon. It could not be remedied by the actions of individual governments or corporations. It required a socio-economic solution. The solution was the EU, whose raison d’être is increasing the labor productivity principally through lowering its costs. That is what the EU is fundamentally all about. Everything else about it is incidental.

Why the profit across industries fall is a subject of Vol. 4 of Speculative Capital.

But I took a long detour to touch upon the composition of capital and corporate asset structure to highlight a point that I have made above only implicitly.

Capital is a social, living concept. Its components – workers and communities clearly, but also plants and buildings – are likewise social. They are the parts of body capital.

As long as capital is “alive”, as long as it is humming along and producing an agreeable rate of profit, there is prosperity. Men are employed, there is money to go around, cities are booming and everyone is happy.

When capital is destroyed, when it dies, the components die as well. Plants become idle, corporations go bankrupt, ships rust, towns become ghost towns and men become unemployed, poor and desperate.

To prevent such outcome, one must keep capital alive.

But capital is inherently self-destructive.

Now how do you deal with this menace?

Chekhov’s experience points the way. In his trip to the hellish Siberian penal colony, the perceptive author of Sakhalin Island learned that one must be extremely careful in taking on evil – careful not in the sense of being timid, but in the sense of knowing what to do and how to act. Not infrequently, the solutions which seem obvious on moral or social grounds make matters worse because they flow from the wrong diagnosis of the ills. If you believe, for example, that greed and corruption of bankers and financiers caused the current crisis, your solution would be to put God-fearing Christians and men of good moral standing in charge – men like Gingrich and Santorum.

Hence, the critical role of the theory which helps us see the cause. Theory delivers us from the passive acceptance of events just because they are and allows us to influence them by anticipating where they are heading.

Which brings me to our main subject.

There is a tremendous amount of noise around the EU. If you are following the goings on in your local paper, it is impossible to make head or tail of it. Some of the issues, like the imposition of austerity budgets, pertain to individual countries and local governments. Others, like the possibility of the EU members issuing eurobonds, are technical subjects of concern to only a small minority.Then there is the rumor of Greece going bankrupt. Then, Portugal. Spain, too, perhaps. The euro will survive. Strike in Hungary. The euro will not survive. France downgraded. Cameron blew it. Merkel is resolute. Sarkozy says the point is moot. ECB, Ireland, Draghi, England, Finland, the European Commission, the European Council. (Do you know the difference?)

It is truly confusing, even without the constant stream of nonsense that poltroons in the media and academia produce on the subject.

But, relax, I say! This undulated European phantasmagoria arises from a falling rate of profit and the efforts of capital to check and reverse it. When you see that, the chaos disappears. And that, our theory, has been made easy to see. Substitute the PR approved positive words “growth” and “productivity” for it and you will see it everywhere. From the Financial Times of January 9 under the heading Berlin and Paris move growth to top of agenda:
Germany and France are set to propose measures to revive economic growth in Europe and reduce youth unemployment, including actions to increase cross-border labour mobility, to complement budget discipline and debt reduction in the eurozone…. France wants measures to make it easier for workers to move between countries, for example from Spain, with 40 per cent youth unemployment, to Germany, with falling unemployment and a skills shortage.
(Why is France concerned about Spanish youth finding employment in Germany, you ask, and why youth, when the adult heads of household are unemployed in millions? Because young workers, especially foreign, emigrant, young workers, could be hired at lower wages. In this way, they help reduce the general labor costs, just like women do.)

You want more? Headline from the Financial Times of January 6:

Sarkozy seeks to cut labour costs before election

More, still? Google “labor productivity in the EU” or “labor productivity” in general. You will see!

If you do not know this driving force behind the events, you will get in its way and get crushed. Just ask Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister.

Dimly aware that under the EU mandates the country was losing its sovereignty, he introduced several mild measures to the country’s constitution which included supervision of the central bank by the government. That was a red line. Central bank “independence” is the primary control tool of finance capital as I explained in Vol. 1 of Speculative Capital. The quote from a New York Times editorial which I provided then, with the comment about the audacity of the government thinking of controlling the supply of money captured the gist of the issue. Here it is. For “investors in financial markets” read finance capital.
In May 1997 ... under a descriptive heading, “Divorcing Central Banks and Politics: Independence Helps in Inflation Fight,” [the New York Times] wrote:
In granting more independence to the Bank of England, the new British Government is a later entrant in a trend that has seen nations give increasing autonomy to their central banks, distancing monetary policy from direct political control. The practice has spread across the globe in response to demands from investors in financial markets for proof that governments will remain committed to inflation fighting … The trend toward independence is rapidly eroding the practice, common only a few years ago in nearly all nations except the United States and Germany, of regarding monetary policy as the responsibility and right of the government of the day.
So controlling the supply of money and rate of interest is no longer deemed to be the responsibility of governments! 
But how would a Hungarian know that, fresh from behind the Iron Curtain? He thought he had arrived because Hungary was a NATO member. He thought he had endeared himself to Sarkozy by preventing the plane carrying the Iranian foreign minister to land in Hungary for refueling. See Nicolas, we’re on the same side!

He must not have been prepared for what followed. From the Financial Times of December 21, 2011:
The International Monetary Fund and European Union have warned Hungary that they will not return to the country to negotiate a new credit facility unless Budapest commits to modifying two draft laws. 
EU and IMF officials broke off preparatory talks with Budapest a day early last week, after Hungary’s government moved to push the laws on central bank reform and fiscal stability through parliament despite negotiators’ concerns. 
One person familiar with the situation told the FT that negotiators had been “explicitly clear to the government” before the talks about their concern... 
In a letter sent to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, by Jose Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, and described to the FT, Mr Barroso “strongly advised” Hungary to withdraw the two draft laws. In unusually blunt language, the commission president observed that Hungary’s domestic policy, and not the broader European debt crisis, were the origin of the country’s financial and economic difficulties.
Look at the message: How dare you enact laws without our permission?

Look at the tone: The unusually blunt language, of the kind one uses to train dogs, to make sure that the Balkan understands the seriousness of the issue.

Look at the attitude: You people are the cause of your own misfortune.

Then the name calling began: Orban the Stalin, Orban the Mao. Orban the tyrant.

Then people came out to warn against the erosion of democracy.

Prime Minster Orban should have known that bargaining with George Soros is a two-way street.

Naturally, he gave in. He had the good sense to realize that fighting against the Soviet tanks in 1956 must have been easier. At least then there was a target one could throw a molotov cocktail at. How do you fight finance capital?

That is why I am nonchalant about events in the EU, which explains why this series has taken 6 months to complete! The almost daily crisis alerts and headlines are not for me. They are for traders to exploit the situation and net a basis point here and there. Or for telegraphing one’s position in upcoming negotiations. Or sending a message to politicians. In all events, they are a sideshow, which is why they leave me unmoved.

The real event is the march of capital towards the higher rate of profit which will continue resolutely, unabatedly and without regards for consequences.

What happens if in the process Greece defaults? Well, what happens if a Sanchez or a Brown dies in a war somewhere in the Middle East? Nothing happens. Life would go on.

What happens if Spain defaults? The same, meaning that nothing happens to the march of capital towards higher rates of return. People will not doubt get hurt but to make omelet you have to break a few eggs.

What if Hungary breaks away from the EU? Let them. They are begging to be made an example of. They will see what it means to pay back euro and Swiss franc debt in worthless forints.

And if euro does not survive? So it won’t. People lived for centuries without the euro.

But surely there is a concern for the EU breaking apart?

No, there is not. There is a fall back plan. We’d go back to the “Anglo-Saxon Model”.

The “Anglo-Saxon” model which the U.S. has adopted is, in a nutshell, based on the principle of refusing to pay for the cow when you could have the milk for free. In practice, that translates to bilateral agreements with individual countries, enabling the US to take advantage of low labors costs there without the hassle of integration. The North American Free Trade Agreement is Exhibit-A in that regard. NAFTA guarantees the free movement of capital across US-Mexico border but actual Mexicans are prevented from coming into the US. A combination of walls, thugs with guns and immigration offices see to that.

That is also the UK’s ideal. Hence its general displeasure with the EU, especially as it puts British manufacturing at a disadvantage compared to Germany’s. Under the circumstances, see how a total Mr. Establishment, in the person of Derek Scott, economic adviser to Tony Blair and the vice-chairman of “Open Europe” writes like a member of Occupy the Wall Street. He wrote in the FT, under the heading Germany is the loser from Greece’s wriggle:
More than 20 years ago, Nicholas Ridley was forced to resign from the British cabinet for describing economic and monetary union as a “German racket” … In so far as Mr Ridley’s “racket” had substance, it reflected the implicit collusion between German manufacturers, bankers and politicians.
At least I do not believe in conspiracies! Hell hath no fury like an Englishman left out of a racket.

So, is the EU a fait accompli?

Yes, it is.

But there is more.

In a scientific experiment, we disturb the natural state of an object and force it to react to new, specifically created conditions. In so reacting, the object reveals new properties and thus, enhances our knowledge of it.

As with objects, so with societies. The EU is an economic end in itself. But it is also a complex project in social engineering, not so much by design but because of the consequence. Like objects, social organisms, too, when disturbed, react to new conditions in ways that were not known, anticipated or contemplated.

We have not heard the last word on the subject.

Stay with me.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Analysis of Psychosis


On the quiet Friday following Thanksgiving, I read the “business life” of Sue Raby in the Financial Times, an Avon saleswoman slugging it out on the outskirts of Liverpool.
Sue Raby, coiffed shoulder-length brown hair, a grey shawl-collar coat, sets off down the road with a wheelie shopping bag full of Avon catalogues. The 52-year old single mother of two girls (22 and 11), sweeps her arm theatrically in the air. “This is one of my streets, this estate is my territory,” she says. This “territory” is a small patch of Formby, an affluent dormitory town for Liverpool, in the northwest of England.
This opening paragraph is not dissimilar to the interview scene in the opening of The Shining. Everything seems good and in order – even slightly uplifting. Sure, the main character calls a small patch of a bedroom community her “territory”, but who among us has not exaggerated the importance of his or her job/role/blog? What matters – the take away as they call it in the corporate parlance, the thing that one has to learn from the story – is that she has options, unlike those women in Afghanistan. A single mother of two driving to work in “her territory”: what was empowering women all about if not this?
If you cut Ms Raby, a former physics teacher, in half, she says, you would find Avon in the middle. The ringtone on her mobile is the sound of a doorbell, a reference to the 1960s advertising campaign catchphrase “Ding Dong, Avon calling.” When driving her silver Vauxhall, which has a pink sign advertising her website on the side, she plays motivational CDs to gee her along. Back at her suburban home, Avon boxes and catalogues are strewn around the sitting room, piled up in the hallway.
If we cut Sue Raby in half, we’d find Avon. Avon the company? Avon’s products? Avon’s certificate of incorporation?

Okay, so the former physics teacher is using poor imagery to say that she has “internalized” Avon. But that, too, does not square with what follows. “Boxes and catalogues strewn around the sitting room and piled up in the hallway” are more like an external intrusion; she, an outstanding example of a worker forced to take her job home.
This morning she is knocking on doors, selling silky-wear lipsticks and face-lifting creams while also on the lookout to recruit new sales reps. She earns 25 per cent commission on direct sales and a percentage of those clinched by reps in her team. The hardest bit, she says, is getting people to the door – “they might think I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, or the council or bailiffs”. If she is working a estate, she says, she wears jeans rather than a skirt, which looks more official. She also tends to steer clear of houses with dogs, although others push catalogues through the letterboxes with a spatula to fend off canine bites.
The “location”, like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, is beginning to reveal things that we did not originally know.

The affluent bedroom community has turned out to be a place where, if you knocked on a door, they would think you were a bailiff or the council; the coiffed Ms Raby has to dress down to even have her knock answered. And her territory, far from being hers, is an open field for an assortment of aggressive and enterprising competitors who brave dogs and who want to eat her lunch.  No wonder she listens to motivational speakers: she needs some stimulus to carry her through the day. Before she could sell, she had to buy into the confidence game of the confidence men selling confidence. It’s a mighty hard time, but I’m on my way, they have no doubt told her to constantly mutter to herself.

 
Suddenly she sprints off towards a blonde woman pushing a pram with one hand, grasping a toddler’s arm with the other. Ms Raby is – in the parlance – “buggy bashing”, stopping a young woman in the hope of recruiting her to her sales team. “Would you like to earn some extra money?” Ms Raby enquires tantalizingly.
Why would Ms Raby want to give her own customers to someone who has confessed to being incapable of making a sale? She insists she has spotted a potential “gem”. “You need confidence. I could get Kate up and running.” She knows this from personal experience. “When I first did sales I would go around houses with my one-year old with the catalogues under the buggy. I ran away from the door before anyone saw me. I was that under-confident”.
Forget the recruitment system that is modeled on degenerate cell mutation. I recruit you and you recruit another person who then recruits someone else and before you know it, the entire population of the earth has turned into Avon reps.

Look at buggy bashing, which is in the “parlance”. The FT writer, one Emma Jacobs, defines it as “stopping a young woman”, but she is being intuitively evasive and dishonest. She ignores the word buggy, which is central to the expression. Buggy bashing is recruiting a young woman with an infant. The infant is where the focus is because children elicit sympathy. Ask any beggar in Bangladesh. Better yet, read Oliver Twist, which is culturally closer to Ms Raby. Why, she herself was one such recruit, in her salad days when she was “under-confident”.

And that word: under-confident!

What a word! To know what it really means, you have to know the mentality of the people who have created it, their orientation and angle of vision to life. Both are adequately explained by Alec Baldwin’s character in this clip from Glengarry Glen Ross:



How effective is this kind of talk? It is effective enough to have come to use and stay in use. You saw a variation of it in terms of framing the issues in Part IV of the EU crisis. But it works on any scale. After being pumped up by Ms Raby’s faux can-do and you-need-confidence speech, even Emma Jacobs of the FT chimes in to describe a young nurse as having “confessed” to be “incapable of making a sale”.

She is already talking like Baldwin's character!

The psychosis in the title of this post is not about Ms Raby alone.

(And did you recognize the ABC – Always Be Closing? It is the “ding dong” ringtone of Sue Raby’s cell phone. When her phone rings, it is Avon Calling. But Avon is calling her. It is a reminder that she should always be closing!)
“If I can get Kate up to speed she’ll be doing me a favour. If not, she’ll be off my Christmas card list, and I’ll take my old customers back.”
Here, Sue is creating a “win-win situation”, as she is taught to do in her sales classes. Everything must be framed as a win-win situation.

If Sue Raby can get the under-confident nurse “up to speed”, then she – Sue Raby – will win: she would get a percent of her recruit’s 25% share of a £3 lipstick. Else, she will have one less name on her Christmas card list.

This latter expression – one less name on the Christmas list – Sue Raby has learned in the sales classes. The expression is on one hand allegorical. But at the same time it is very real in the sense that that concept of friendship (and Christmas cards) as means towards closing a sale are the Alpha and Omega of the salesmanship as spelled out by the grand daddy of all salesmen, Dale Carnegie. The Avon Lady is following him to a “t”. I quote from the upcoming Vol. 4:
Given this centrality of sales and its practically limitless sub-specialties in a Capitalist society– in the U.S., one could find hiring ads for “nuclear waste salesman” – it is natural that the subject is deeply embedded – intertwined, really – with culture. Often, it is the driver and creator of the culture, especially in the “Anglo-Saxon” U.S. and U.K., where the influence of businessmen goes further than other nations. The culture in these countries is the culture of a salesman, as it is shaped by the habits, sensibilities, tastes and priorities of salesmen. The influence is in plain view in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. 
The book’s title is precise. It telegraphs the content, so attention must be paid. Carnegie wants to win friends. Why? Because he wants to influence them. But the purpose of this influence is not bringing the newly acquired friends to the righteous path. Carnegie is not an Islamic zealot practicing the Prevention of Vice and the Propagation of Virtues. He wants to influence people in order to sell to them. Friendship is a mere strategy, a means, towards that end. Note the word “win” – not finding friends or making friends but “winning” friends. The purpose is exploitation, after which “friends” become what they always were: people. It is a singularly calculating and cynical title.
But Baldwin’s character in the above clip does not fit the bill of a congenial salesman in search of friends. What gives?

The answer is what links Ms Raby to the EU crisis: the falling rate of profit. From Vol. 4:

When the “conduct” of the salesman changes in a fundamental way, the effects reverberate across the social and cultural spectrum.  
One such fundamental change took place after the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1973. The change which began gradually and continues to date was the intensification of competition due to the falling rates of profit. Coupled with the gradual desensitization and resistance of the population to the advertising pitches, the increased competition made selling a more stressful occupation than it was in the heydays of the U.S. industrial power.  
This gradual, but persistent and grinding trend, forced the salesman be more “productive”; he had to sell more than before in less time than before. But other salesmen faced the same conditions, so it became tough for everyone to make a living. The ensuing stress darkened the salesman’s mood, with the result that passive Willy Loman gave way to the obscenities spewing, conniving and downright criminal salesmen of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. How much can a man take!
We continue.
Cars and phones are dangled in front of them as incentives. Gatherings at countrywide Avon events are said to induce cult-like fervor. Worshiped are the gurus – the high earners. In Britain, there are no bigger stars than Debbie Davis and her partner Dave Carter. Ms Davis turned to Avon after being made redundant from a printing firm. Within three weeks, she had sold almost £19,000 of products and recruited her partner. Now the two have an 8,000-strong team and have turned over £13m in the past seven years.
You probably smiled reading about cars and phones being dangled in front of sales reps as incentives. Alec Baldwin’s character offered a Cadillac Eldorado and steak knives!

The ultimate incentive, though, are the high earners. They are real flesh and blood, people like just us, and they show that it can be done. It is only a matter of confidence and pushing forward and being steadfast in the face of adversity.

But then, there is the math.
Avon now operates in more than 100 countries with more than 6.5 million sales reps around the world (just over half the company’s earnings are from emerging markets). Last year, the company’s revenues were $10bn. Sales in North America account for about 20 per cent of this, while the UK is one of its top five markets.
$10bn in revenues divided by 6.5m sales reps works out to about $1,500 per rep, of which they get 25% commission. So a rep, probably a young mother with a child, can expect to make just under $400 a year.

With that, we go to the final scene in the FT story where Sue Raby has “put on” a “Christmas Party” in her mother’s house, no doubt because her own has no room thanks to Avon catalogues and products. 
That afternoon Ms Raby puts on a Christmas party in her mother’s house, down the street from her own. Plastic holly garlands hang around the fireplace, gold tinsel wraps the light shades and Merry Christmas signs are on the wall. Purple, orange-and-green packaged creams and perfumes are arranged in pyramids on tables. Mini-vanilla slices and bite-size doughnuts defrost in the kitchen. Cups of tea are handed out to the nine female guests who arrive, some with young children, some with their free old-age bus pass, to browse the catalogue.  
Ms Raby is on top form, showing off creams and fixing appointments to visit the guests in their homes. “You get out of it what you put into it,” she comments. 
What does she want to get out of it? “I don’t want to get myself a target as that would limit me. But maybe £80K a year. No, let’s say £100K.
How do you write a modern Gothic story?

I could begin with a Christmas party:

Plastic holly garlands hung around the fireplace, gold tinsel wrapped the light shades and Merry Christmas signs were on the wall. Purple, orange-and-green packaged creams and perfumes were arranged in pyramids on tables. Mini-vanilla slices and bite-size doughnuts defrosted in the kitchen. Nine female guests, some with young children, some with their free old-age bus pass, had arrived to browse the catalogue. 

You say that this is not per se Gothic, that it could be an O’Henry story about the warm hearts of the poor during Christmas? Perhaps. Try now:

The host, a single mother of two who was made redundant from her job teaching physics one supposes because all the knife wielding Liverpool students had mastered Newtonian mechanics, was taking down guests' name to later visit them in their homes for a sales pitch for lipsticks and facial creams.

Psychosis is, to use a term favored by Sartre, situational. Its dictionary definition is "profound disorganization of mind, personality, or behavior that results from an individual’s inability to tolerate the demands of his social environment whether because of the enormity of the imposed stress or because of primary inadequacy or acquired debility of his organism especially in regard to the central nervous system or because of combinations of these factors and that may be manifested by disorders of perception, thinking, or affect symptoms of neurosis, by criminality, or by any combination of these".

Those weasels at the American Psychiatric Society! How conveniently and cynically they shift the blame from the situational, which is always at least partially social, to individual. 

Inability [of the individual] to tolerate the demands of his social environment either because of the enormity of the imposed stress [on him] or because of primary inadequacy or “acquired debility” of his organism.

Let us define psychosis properly, for what it is:
Psychosis is the breakdown of the individual who, persistently and as a matter of his working condition, is put in a situation where he must perform at levels that the general, controlling conditions, will not allow.
The twin drugs of sermon and motivational speech that are commonly prescribed might at short term delay the onset of the disease – which is why they are commonly prescribed – but in the long run they exacerbate the tension and make its flare-up more violent.

The impossibility of reconciling the contradiction between an individuals particular situation and the general conditions surrounding him is the trigger for the breakdown.

In The Shining, Jack goes mad because he cannot write. The Shining, according to Stephen King, is about writer’s block.

Writer’s block is a modern phenomenon. Billions of people throughout centuries could not write, in the sense that they were bad writers. That was perfectly alright.

Then, modern economic conditions forced some people who could not write into the craft. Here,  force is social.  People are forced into writing for the same reason that they are forced into sales: because they need money and that is the only option. That is the social element in “writer’s block”. In the absence of social force, only those who could would take up writing. Can you imagine a Tolstoy struggling to tell a story or a Hemingway having trouble with a sentence?

What is one to do if he has to write but cannot? His particular situation could offer an escape route. If he has to take care of a young child, for example, or there was an extended illness in the family, he could point to them as circumstances beyond his control standing in the way of completing the work. Everyone would understand and the psychosis might be avoided or at not least not intensified.

But when the situation eliminates all the excuses – think of the quiet setting of a remote hotel for a writer, cut off from any distraction – the tension from the inability to perform finds no outward outlet and turns inward. If the situation persists, the result is psychosis and madness.

Look, now, at the position of Sue Raby. She expects to make £80K a year – no, make it £100k – from selling £3 lipsticks on which she collects 25% commission.  The average rep makes about $400 a year. But some reps make millions, so her goal is not really overly ambitious, is it?

If she cannot reach her goal, it could only be that she was under-confident and incapable of doing what others have done.

“You get out of it what you put into it,” says she, blissfully unaware of what she is saying, for what she has put in, beside some mini-vanilla slices and a few bite-size frozen doughnuts, is her time and labor, which is all but worthless as per educational authorities in Liverpool.

In Cameron’s England, for a 52-year old single mother of two, conditioned to believe in she-believed-she-could-so-she-did bullshit, if that is not the set-up for potential horror to come, I don’t know what is.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Origin of the [crisis in the] European Union – 4: A Refresher on Finance Capital

THE FOLLOWING PART IV OF THE EU CRISIS WAS POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 8, 2011, AT 12:08AM. FOR WHATEVER REASON, IT IS NO LONGER THERE. I AM POSTING IT AGAIN. THE PART TITLED "Capital, as the Union's Main Driver", HAS BEEN DULY CORRECTED TO PART V.

***

Force is a vector. That is physicists’ way of referring to a phenomenon that requires more than one characteristic to be fully and adequately described. A force must have magnitude and direction. With either of these attributes missing, a force is inconceivable.

When Macbeth asks: “Is this a dagger that I see before me?”, we do not know whether he has found a dagger in the street or a mugger is threatening him. Then we get the clue: “its handle towards my hand.” So, there is no threat and the dagger is being “presented” to Macbeth. That is the direction of the force.

As for its magnitude, we intuitively know it. “Just a little”, if we want to scratch our back with a dagger; “a lot”, if we want to stab someone.

The direction of force is singular. It is always one specific direction. It follows, then, that force is incompatible with freedom and negates it, freedom being defined precisely in terms of existence of alternatives. Force is the absence of alternatives. Conversely – and the proposition is convertible – we could say that if there is no alternative, a force must be present.

Now, observe, these sample quotes from the EU crisis:
  • Mr. Barroso [the president of the European Commission] also reinforced calls for Greek politicians to endorse the austerity measures. “If anyone thinks that without the program agreed with the E.U. and the I.M.F. we can still get by somehow, there’s an alternative program, that’s not true. There is no alternative.”
  • In words that recall former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, Mrs. Merkel says there is no alternative to trimming Europe’s entitlement programs.
  • This [Portugal returning to growth] will involve “a very rigorous programme of austerity and structural reforms” covering everything from slashing public deficits and extensive privatizations to shake-ups of justice and education. “There is no alternative,” [the country’s new prime minister] says.
  • Constrained by the unpopularity of bailouts at home, political leaders appear able to act only at the 11th hour, when they have no alternative.
So, a force is acting “on” Europe; there has to be, with so many leaders telling us that there is “no alternative”.

I have showed elsewhere that the force in question is finance capital. The upcoming Vol. 4 of Speculative Capital will explore this point in further detail. I merely note here that acting alongside finance capital is its latest, most advanced form, speculative capital. The two are not different forces but two movements of the same phenomenon; the latter can be explained by the former but cannot be reduced to it.

Finance capital is a force because it causes change. And it is a social force because it changes the social systems and relations. But unlike natural forces whose “purpose” is unknown – no one really knows why electromagnetic force exists –the purpose of finance capital is clear: It wants to maximize its profit. Its direction follows from that purpose. Finance capital pushes in the direction of maximizing its rate of return.

As for the magnitude, it is a function of the resistance it encounters.

In places where finance capital has managed to be an insider and there is little or no resistance, its magnitude is barely perceptible, as when gently scratching one’s back with a dagger. Then finance capital could be said to be “polite”. Like in Cameron’s silly Big Society, it speaks in terms of “initiatives”.

When there is the need to put the impertinent representative of a periphery country in his place, the force magnitude increases, as reported in the Financial Times of June 29:
Olli Rehn is nobody’s idea of hothead. A mild-mannered Finnish economist, he is regarded even by his countrymen as unassuming – verging on dull.

But twice in recent days Mr Rehn, who is the European Union’s senior economic official, has been forced to get angry.

At an emergency meeting of finance ministers a week ago Mr Rehn came down like a ton of bricks on Greece’s Evangelos Venizelos, who had the temerity to suggest reopening talks on the €28bn ($40bn) austerity package that Athens must pass this week to avoid sovereign default.

Those present were taken aback by Mr Rehn’s ferocity, and Mr Venizelos backed down.
It was smart of Venizelos to back down. Otherwise the mild mannered economists might had pulled a knife on him – or threatened his wife. The dull Finn is a trained dolphin at the service of finance capital and performs on its behalf, however much he might be unaware of that role.

Finally, for the rabble that disturbs the peace, the magnitude is ratchet up to crack the skulls.




But where does the magnitude of the force come from? How and where, exactly, does finance capital muster the ability to cow politicians, intimidate ministers and beat the populace in broad daylight, even though it operates in democracies where the majority of the population opposes its diktat? Recall Le Monde Diplomatique’s editorial which I quoted in an earlier part:
How is it that in a democratic system, the people are forced to accept cuts and austerity simply replace one failed government with another just as dedicated to the same shock treatment?
Think about it. People go to the ballot and vote for political leaders who then turn against them and their interests. How could that be?

It is simplistic to assume “corruption” explains everything. Corruption of politicians and the political process, while very real, does not explain this:
Mr. Papandreou went into the historic vote with a five-vote parliamentary majority. But the outcome was not certain, as the austerity plan strikes at the heart of the Socialist Party base.
Why does a party enact austerity measures that strike at its base? One can easily accept that Social Democrats of Papandreou ilk are unprincipled boors who will do everything to stay in power. But then why would they weaken the machinery that is the means of their assuming political power?

The common forms of the corruption of politicians – cheating on expenses, illicit affairs, accepting kickbacks and expensive gifts – are all illegal. They can only take place beneath the surface. When exposed, they must stop.

But the Greek legislators who voted for the crippling cuts and the drastic social re- engineering of the country did so with their heads held high and patriotic tears in their eye:
Most Socialist legislators said they would back the measure, in some cases only grudgingly, and with most stressing that patriotic duty must go before party ideals.

Elsa Papadimitriou, broke ranks with her New Democracy party and voted for the measure. “There is only one act of patriotism: consensus and cooperation,” she said. “Fiscal suicide is not an alternative. “
Nor is the unapologetic, in-your-face short-changing of the citizenry limited to Greece or Europe. Across the Atlantic, the U.S. political landscape offers a treasure trove of Exhibit A's in that regard in every bent.

Everyone knows, for example, that the cost of health care in the US is increasing in double digits year on year.

Everyone knows that a major component of that increase is the rise in the price of prescription drugs.

Everyone knows that the U.S. government is the largest purchaser of the prescription drugs through Medicaid and Medicare.

Everyone knows that wholesales prices are cheaper than retail prices.

Yet, by the act of the same Congress that is obsessed with reducing government spending, the US government is expressly prohibited from negotiating price discounts for prescription drugs.

This is not corruption in the usual sense. Yes, pharmaceutical and insurance companies pay the US legislators and buy their votes. But those are all legal campaign contributions. So the practice goes on in the open view of the public.

Perversion of democracy, you say? No, democracy manifest, I say; the government of the people by the people for the people. The only catch is people, which people misunderstand, because the strong biological/anthropological connotation of the word obfuscates its social/political context. But social/political is precisely what we deal with in talking about people and democracy.

This change in connotation is subtle, the resulting disconnect between the anthropological and political man easy to miss. Even some of the great minds who wrote on the subject fell prey to it.

Consider Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. All three had contempt for democracy; they considered the rabble unfit for the affairs of governing. More to the point, reading them, you will never know that they lived in a slave owning society. There is no mention of salves. People and democracy pertain to free citizens only. Slaves are mere objects.

More than 2000 years later, we run into the same suggestive mentality in the U.S. Constitution. Again, the authors of the document were among the most outstanding citizens the US ever produced. To take Benjamin Franklin as one example, legend has it that he never wasted a minute of his life, which must have been true on the evidence of the astounding body of works that he produced alongside his many activities – and first rate works in that. At merely 23, in A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency, he espoused ideas about the role of money and the nature of value that half a century later Adam Smith used in his magnum opus. (Even the full title of Smith’s book, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations seems to have been inspired by Franklin.)

Yet, a man with such obvious intelligence and experience saw no irony in signing his name to a document that starts with “We the People” and excludes blacks. Nor did any of his compatriots.

The explanation lies in the anthropological/political dichotomy. The Founding Fathers did not doubt that slaves were human. Surely George Washington who fathered a child with a slave servant must have known that.

But they were writing a document in governance and not in biology or anthropology. It is in that sense – with respect to having a say in the running of a republic – that blacks were left out of the Constitution; they were excluded from the political process. So were women, who did not gain the right to vote until 1920. (In Switzerland, it was 1971!) “Not being counted as people” is an inference that followed from that exclusion. But the issue was always political.

The U.S. Constitution is about the rights of property owners. Those rights arise from ownership and not a person’s biological or anthropological attributes. In that context, it did not occur to its authors to recognize slaves and women. That would be absurd, akin to recognizing pets or trees as people.

This calculus of power was on display at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. The Convention elevated blacks to 3/5 of a person for the purpose of distribution of taxes and the apportionment of delegates to the House of Representatives. The arithmetic gerrymandering was a concession to the Southern plantation owners who were demanding more representation and thus, more power, on account of their property which also included slaves. Otherwise, it had nothing to do with the liberty of the black population whose fight for civil rights continues to date. (The Voting Rights Act – notice the name – was not passed until 1965.)

Fast forward to 2011 and we see the same practice in Murdoch’s News Corporation, where one Murdoch family member is counted as 4 regular types. From the Financial Times of July 21, under the heading US fund attacks New Corp’s share structure:
The two-tiered structure that gives the Murdoch family almost 40 per cent of the voting rights in a company where in owns about 12 per cent of the equity was a “corruption of the governance system”, said Anne Simpson, senior portfolio manager, of Calpers Global Equity and its corporate governance chief. “Power should reflect capital at risk”.
Power should reflect capital at risk.

Thank you, Anne Simpson. I could not have said it better myself!


Because at the age of self-destructive speculative capital, capital is everywhere at risk, to reflect that risk, capital moves to assume the position of power everywhere. The power commensurate with global risk is global power. That power is available only at the state and supra-state level.

In this way, finance capital assumes a new, more potent form. It is no longer the petty interests of a neighborhood “boss” enforced by physical violence or the diktat of a strongman enforced by more organized thuggery, but the international and state law, enforced by the machinery of state and international organizations. In this way, we arrive at democracy.