Financial Meltdown

After more than a year of increasing “turmoil” throughout the world’s financial markets and banking systems the United States - that champion of the free market - has been obliged to resort to state intervention to avoid “financial meltdown”, i.e. a total collapse of the banks, financial institutions, the stock market and eventually a run on the dollar.

The formal state takeover of America’s two biggest mortgage companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (whose debts were in any case backed by the state) was not enough to bring back that elusive lost confidence in the markets that central bankers the world over are having nightmares about. In the same week that one of the biggest US investment banks was allowed to go to the wall, Hank Paulson, US Treasury secretary, felt obliged to step in with what was termed “the biggest government intervention since the 1930s” to ward off the collapse of an insurance company from fear of the knock-on consequences in the United States and around the world. Behind the scenes central bankers from round the world agreed to borrow billions of dollars to try and stimulate their own credit markets. Stock markets rose, yet no-one it seems is confident that the worst is over. On the contrary, as we write Paulson has announced that he wants Congress to ratify an unprecedented $700 billion rescue plan in order to “stabilise the markets”.

The only explanation capitalist politicians and financial pundits can come up with for the crisis - which if it were not for coordinated state interventions would already have dwarfed the 1929 Wall St crash - are the existence of “corrupt practices” and “greedy speculators”. Their solution now is “tighter regulation”. But everyone knows - and in the USA it is applauded - that capitalist history is dotted with speculators and self-seeking money makers. The real question is why financial speculation in one shape or another should have come to dominate the whole world economy. Why, do the capitalists see that there is more money to be made from financial wheeling and dealing than in productive investment? The answer is not to be found in the practice of short selling of shares (even if some on-the-ball traders made £190m in two minutes selling HBOS shares on the London stock market) or the proliferation of sub-prime mortgages, nor even the obscene city bonuses that have helped to increase the numbers of super-rich, but in the long-running capitalist accumulation crisis which has brought a relative dearth of profitable investment outlets in productive industries, i.e. in industries which create new value the only source of which is workers’ labour. Over the last decades a growing proportion of the enormous pool of wealth generated by the labour of wage workers and which is expropriated by the capitalists in the form of profits and taxes has been channelled into the financial sphere where money, miraculously, appears to make money (but where no real value is created) and where financial profits have been truly unsustainable.

Amid all the talk of “turmoil” few words have been dedicated to those who have lost the only asset with any real value in the subprime affair: the homeless who are living in increasing numbers in tents on the streets of US cities, not limited to Los Angeles. In truth, however, the whole world working class will be expected to pay for this latest lurch downwards in capitalism’s global crisis. Despite their differing working conditions, their lifestyles and standard of living, wage workers everywhere are the ones who feel the real pain. From the higher cost of living to job losses, from more intense working conditions (of intolerable proportions for many) to pay cuts and pension losses or the wiping out of life savings, from the reduction of social and welfare services (the social wage) in the capitalist heartlands to absolute destitution and intolerable living conditions for growing numbers of workers all over the planet.

However much reformists and “good” capitalists with a moral conscience may bemoan the situation the fact remains that for the capitalist system as a whole the welfare of the working class is not an issue. Whilst a relatively well paid, and now an exceptionally indebted, working class has provided a consumer market for capital since the 2nd World War, the fact remains that eventually this always comes up against the fundamental drive for capital to appropriate more and more of the value created by workers’ labour. In times of crisis like this that drive can only mean cuts in real wages and increased levels of exploitation. Today capitalism is much more interested in having an acquiescent working class than a prosperous working class. For one thing is certain: not only has this particular financial crisis some way to run but the deeper, long-running crisis of post-war capital accumulation of which it is part has reached a more dangerous level.

If the boom and bust world of financial speculation is reminiscent of an earlier capitalist epoch of tulip mania or South Sea bubbles, today’s context is quite different. Globalisation notwithstanding, the context of the present crisis is an imperialist world where capitalist competition is at the level of the state and is therefore supplemented and intertwined with political and military rivalries. Where once capitalism could recover from its accumulation problems by a period of bankruptcies and takeovers, history has shown that in the present imperialist epoch the only way capital has of starting a new cycle of accumulation is to turn to war. Today’s crisis is no exception.

The stakes are high for the working class. In the struggles which lie ahead workers everywhere are going to be told to abandon the fight for their own interests because the wider politico-economic situation of the “nation” (or some other euphemism for getting them to tie themselves to the coat tails of capital) is too serious to warrant “disruption”. In the heartlands of capitalism on both sides of the Atlantic it is time for the working class to wake up from its political lethargy and indifferentism, time for those who recognise the enormity of the present situation to join in the first steps towards the formation of a party of a new type. Such a party will have nothing to do with state intervention and “new deals” that ostensibly reconcile the interests of wage workers with those who benefit from the exploitation of wage labour.

For the world’s working class the only solution to this global crisis of historic dimensions is to embark on the revolutionary path for the overthrow of capitalism itself. For that to happen we need to have a party which spans capital’s national boundaries, unified round a revolutionary programme and capable of leading the struggle up to and beyond the overthrow of the capitalist states. It is an ambitious aim but the level of the ambition only matches the gravity of the situation.