“The Great Financial Crisis—Three Years On” (coauthored with Fred Magdoff), Monthly Review, vol. 62, no. 5 (October 2010): 52-55.
Financial bubbles are invariably symptoms of deeper underlying problems. To focus simply on subprime loans, or even the housing bubble itself, as the real cause of the crisis—as most orthodox economic commentators have done—is thus to mistake the symptom for the disease. If it hadn’t been for the housing bubble in the United States, there would have been another bubble that would have likely led to essentially the same results. Since the 1970s, the economy has seen more and more “credit crunches,” with central banks each time rushing in at the first sign of trouble to bail out failing financial institutions. This, however, has contributed to the growing financial fragility, while the underlying problem of stagnation has remained unaddressed.
Three years since the onset of the Great Financial Crisis, matters have become so serious that Paul Krugman, winner of the Bank of Sweden’s Nobel Memorial Prize in the Economic Sciences, has declared that we are now in (or entering) a Third Depression, i.e., a third period of economic stagnation. This Third Depression, he suggests, resembles both the stagnation that began in Europe and the United States in the 1870s, which he labels the Long Depression, and the stagnation of the 1930s, or the Great Depression. As Krugman writes: “We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost—to the world economy, and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs—will nonetheless be immense.” Krugman contends that “this third depression will be primarily the result of a failure of policy”—the continuation, even in a severe downturn of the neoliberal policy of austerity aimed at erasing government deficits, as opposed to adopting a strong Keynesian stimulus policy as a way out of the crisis.1
It is true that misguided neoliberal deficit-fighting economic policies during a slump will cause further damage to economic prospects. But Keynesian stimulus offers no genuine solution. The real problem, we argue, is not economic policy but capitalist development itself. Our thesis, in the briefest possible terms, is that the advanced capitalist economies are caught in a tendency to stagnation resulting from the dual processes of industrial maturation and monopolistic accumulation. Financialization (the shift in the center of gravity of the capitalist economy from production to finance) is to be regarded as a compensatory mechanism that has helped to lift the economic system under these circumstances, but at the expense of increased fragility. Capitalism is thus caught in what we call a “stagnation-financialization trap.”
All of this is connected to the class structure of monopoly-finance capital, which has produced levels of inequality without precedent in the advanced capitalist world. The so-called “Forbes 400,” the 400 richest Americans, now own about as much wealth as the bottom half of the population, some 150 million people. A number of Citigroup analysts have recently argued that the United States and other rich economies are now so top heavy from the standpoint of wealth and income distribution that they are best described as “plutonomies,” in which small class fractions control increasingly large portions of social wealth.2
To be sure, emerging economies, notably China and India, have not yet acquired the diseases of maturity and monopolization in the sense of the advanced capitalist states and thus are relatively free from the chronic illness that has crippled the countries at the center of the system. But emerging countries are far from being immune to the problems generated. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that they too will be impacted in multiple ways in today’s globalized economy as a result of the weakening of the system at its core. It is worth noting that the Long Depression was followed by a great wave of imperialist expansion leading up to the First World War, while the Great Depression led to the inter-imperialist conflict of the Second World War. The current Third Depression is already pointing ominously to heightened imperial conflict, centered especially in the Persian Gulf, which could potentially lead to devastating consequences for humanity as a whole.
If all this were not enough, the world is now facing an even more serious peril: a rapidly accelerating planetary ecological crisis that threatens, if radical changes are not made in the next decade or two, the eventual collapse of most of the world’s ecosystems, together with human civilization itself.
There is only one possible solution to this all-encompassing planetary crisis, and that is the euthanasia of capitalism, replacing it with a new economy geared to sustainable human development, ecological plenitude, and the cultivation of genuine human community. The sooner we begin to construct this qualitatively new system through our mass struggles, the better the long-term prospects for humanity and the earth will be.
June 30, 2010
[English language version of preface to the Bangla edition of The Great Financial Crisis. Spanish language translation by Alberto Nadal in El Diario Internacional (December 2010). Italian version published by Attac Italia, January 7, 2011, at HYPERLINK” http://www.italia.attac.org/spip/spip.php?article3525″
http://www.italia.attac.org/spip/spip.php?article3525. French translation printed by Le HYPERLINK “http://translate.googleusercontent.com/translate_c?anno=2&hl=en&rurl=translate.google.com&sl=fr&tl=en&u=http://www.cadtm.org/&usg=ALkJrhhASr3MtAqVLKrb5KmngEWMpdgxrA” Comité pour l’Annulation de la Dette du Tiers Monde, December 29, 2010. Galician translation published by Avantar, December 21, 2010, http://www.galizacig.com/avantar/autor/john-bellamy-foster-e-fred-magdoff. Spanish translation by Alberto Nadal in Viento Sur, November 11, 2010. Catalan translation published by En Lluita, HYPERLINK “http://www.enlluita.org/site/?q=node/3150” http://www.enlluita.org/site/?q=node/3150. Turkish translation appears in Kapitalizmin Finansal Krizi, edited by Prof. Dr. Abdullah Ersoy (Ankara, Turkey: Imaj Publishing, 2011), 330pp.]
- ↩ Paul Krugman, “The Third Depression,” New York Times, June 28, 2010.
- ↩ Matthew Miller and Duncan Greenberg, ed., “The Richest People in America” (2009), Forbes, http://forbes.com; Arthur B. Kennickell, “Ponds and Streams: Wealth and Income in the U.S., 1989 to 2007,” Federal Reserve Board Working Paper 2009-13, 2009, 55, 63; Ajay Kapur, Niall Macleod, and Narendra Singh, “Plutonomy: Buying Luxury, Explaining Global Imbalances,” Citigroup Research, October 16, 2005; and “Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Get Richer,” Citigroup Research, March 5, 2006.