Monday, November 21, 2011

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



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.

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