Tag Archives: Greek Crisis

The Demise of the Liberal Democratic State and the rise of the Corporate State

Francis Fukuyama was wrong the 1990s did not herald the triumph of liberal democracy, but its showy demise. George Bush’s attempt to impose democracy on Iraq by force demonstrated the folly of this premise. Even the democratic programme that he sketched out gave a dominant role to the business corporations that would effectively control the new Iraq. Giving lie the all the claims about remaking Iraq on democratic lines. Prior to the invasion there was a quarrel between two of the main participants in the invasion over the distribution of the spoils  between the victors. British oil companies believed that the post invasion constitution gave too much to American and too little to British oil companies. The chaos of the post invasion Iraq denied the business corporations the influence and income they expected. Although the part of the profitable oil industry that is not under the control of Isis, is run by American oil corporations.

  
Perhaps it is in Europe that the evidence of the new nation state is best demonstrated. What is developing in Europe is a new corporate state, a state which functions primarily for the benefit of the business corporations? The financial crisis of 2008/9 illustrates this all too clearly. Due to irresponsible lending practices the banks failed, even if only a few crashed all threatened by the crash. Rather than let the banks fail the governments of Europe injected cash into the banks to prevent them failing. In Britain the bailout was equivalent to 10% of GDP, although given the huge size of the banking deficit the government was effectively mortgaging the countries assets and wealth to save the banks. It was not the banks that had to pay the price of their failure but the peoples of Europe. Europe wide austerity was regarded as necessary to reassure the banks creditors of the financial worthiness of the nations that were the guarantors  of their debts. A government with small debts would be regarded as a better guarantor of the banks credit than one with large debts. Surprisingly the banks got of almost scot free apart from a demand that they increase their cash reserves to 3% of total liabilities and ring fence retail banking, on which the banks are stalling. The Banks are now asking for the government eforms of an increasingly dysfunctional financial sector. In response to the pleas of the banks the demand to increase their cash reserves to their required total has been constantly put back, nowhere more so than in continental Europe. Despite claiming a government of financial prudence Germany has been one of the worst offenders. Only the other week the government in Britain refused to renew the contract of the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority as the banks had accused him of being to hard on them. In Britain as in Europe, what the banks want the banks get.

There are many serious problems that the government in Britain needs to tackle but one of them is not the reform of the state funded broadcaster the BBC. The agreement under which the BBC is funded is up for renewal soon and the government has used this as an opportunity for root and branch reform of the broadcaster. One of the main backers of the winning Conservative party was News International, the largest shareholder in Sky TV. The directors of this company has long argued for a change in the nature of the BBC, a change that would make it less of a competitor to Sky News. Its former Chief Executive James Murdoch argued for a change that would benefit Sky TV. He said in a lecture that the BBC  had a role as an innovative producer of TV programmes but it was not its role to exploit those innovative programmes. Once those programmes had been developed they should be given to the commercial broadcasters as the role of the BBC was to experiment not create popular TV. Unsurprisingly the main conservative spokesman on the media has echoed these views. He wants to end the BBC’s role of producer of popular programmes that compete with those of Sky TV. There is little doubt that one of the priorities of this government is to repay its corporate sponsors with favours.

Rather than continue with list of items that illustrate the increasing corporatisation of Britain, I want to compare the British governmental system to that of Russia. The Russian system of governance is often referred to as a mafia run oligarchy. All these commentators that do so fail to recognise the similarities between the Russian and British system of governance. Probably the only difference is in the level of criminality of the oligarchs in each country.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 the reformers in charge of the country wanted to adopt the free market of the West, so as to enjoy a similar level of prosperity. However they rushed into privatising their stated owned industries, without realising that the free market economies of the West were only successful because the market operated within a strong legal system that prevented the many abuses that occur in an unregulated market. Given what was literally a ground zero, the oligarchs were able to remake the Soviet economy to their own liking. They bought up the businesses at bargain prices and controlled the various sectors of economy, however for complete control they required control of the governmental system. This they achieved through bribery, intimidation and violence. Now President Putin runs a collective oligarchy, an oligarchy that exploits Russia wealth largely for its own ends. Opposition to the oligarchy is suppressed in ways similar to the former communist system, critics are subject to intimidation, often including violent assaults, and if that fails they are sent either to a mental asylum or camp where the mistreatment continues.

The oligarchs in Britain and Russia believe in a similar free market system, that is a free market in any obstacle to the free operation of business enterprise is removed. Obstacles such as trade unions, labour protection legislation and government interference. In Russia there was little too prevent the rise of the oligarch as in a ground zero economy (one in from which the state was largely absent) there could be no effective opposition and by controlling the government they can ensure that none arises. The task for the British oligarchs was much harder they had to create a society that was favourable to the free market (as they saw it). This meant they had to capture government and ensure that it introduced measures to remove all the obstacles to the smooth running of the market. Chief of these is the trade union movement and not surprisingly one of the first measures of this new corporate friendly government is legislation to further emasculate the trade union movement, so as to ensure that it cannot interfere with the smooth running of the market. The proposed legislation will effectively prevent trade unions from striking, so removing the  threat they pose to employers.

There is however one significant difference between Russia and Britain. Elections in the former are largely controlled by the state and there is never any likelihood that the opposition can come to power. In Britain elections are open and fair and the opposition can become the government. However the two main political parties are coming to resemble each other, when the opposition criticises a government policy, it is not so likely that they disagree with the policy as believing that they could implement it better. Increasingly the two main parties are becoming the mirror image of each other, but are committed to the philosophy of Neo-Liberalism. Unfortunately elections are increasingly becoming a competition between the groups  competing to be the representative of corporate Britain. One of the main concerns voiced by competitors for the leadership of the opposition party is that the previous leader was too distant from the corporate interest. Unfortunately too many politicians now see politics means to win a seat on the board.

The recent history of the Greek crisis shows how dominant is the corporate interest in Europe. When the Greek crisis caused by the nations over indebtedness occurred, the European policy makers could have agreed to a restricting of the Greek debt. This restructuring would have either involved pushing debt repayments in some time in the distant future or forcing the nation’s creditor to take a ‘hair cut,’ that is force them to accept a downsizing of the Greek debt. Either of these policies would have hurt the corporate interest, that is the banks would have lost billions of Euros in the ‘write down’ of the loans that they had made to Greece.  Instead the European politicians forced on to the Greek government a programme Neo-Liberal market reforms. These policies were intended to make the Greek economy more competitive and boost exports. The surplus earned on the export trade could be used to pay of the Greek debts. Unfortunately this Neo-Liberal experiment failed and after five years of austerity, economic growth has stalled and GDP is down 25% making it increasingly unlikely the debt will be paid.The International Monetary Fund states that payments on Greek debts should be deferred for thirty years, as only then will the economy have grown sufficiently to enable the Greeks to begin to pay off their debt.  Despite the urging of the USA the European politicians stubbornly support the banks cause and refuse to allow the Greek nation any debt relief.

Quite possibly the triumph of the corporate state is best demonstrated by the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Programme (TTIP). When this treaty comes into force any business corporation that believes government policies have caused it a loss, can refer their case to an international arbitration panel. This means that if government legislation aimed at limiting the harmful effects of tobacco restricts the sale of this product, the tobacco company can go to the panel asking for compensation or a revoking of the act. There is one such dispute between a South American company and an American Tobacco giant. Soon such actions will become common place  and the sovereignty of European governments will be undermined. In Britain at least too many politicians are in favour of this policy, as they believe their support for TTIP will earn that a well paid position with one of the business corporations, they will willing surrender power for cash.

There is one failing of the corporate state and that it is remarkably incompetent, in that it lacks the competence to deal with a major crisis. The banks only survived the crisis of 2008/9 because they were supported by the government. There will be other such financial crisis in which business corporations will only survive with the support of government. There is in Europe the unresolved debt crisis, not the one of popular imagination but the combined private sector banking debt. A debt that in Britain exceeds 400% of GDP and in Germany 324% of GDP.

These business corporations have only a narrow minded view of the world a view one that is focused on their own self interest. The banks in Britain have been campaigning successfully for an end to restrictions on their less desirabale activities and the government has complied. It has largely passed unnoticed but at a recent City of London banquet the governor of ‘The Bank of England,’ said he saw no reason why banks should not be allowed to increase their assets to 900% of GDP.  The majority of a banks assets are loans which are funded by borrowing from others, so if Mark Carney has his way the debts of British banks will rise to astronomic levels. There will at some time be a crash that in scope will exceed that of 2008/9. A crash of these dimensions would force  a collapse of the corporate state as the government will be no only body with the authority and power to avert the collapse and rebuild the damaged society. One economist Anne Pettifor has written a book called ‘The First Word Debt’ crisis, a book which is ignored by all European politicians. Rather than act on the basis of the precautionary principle, the European politicians seem to act on t’he eyes firmly shut’ principle.

All political systems contain within themselves the seeds of destruction, in the social democratic society of the past it was the conflict between the major business corporations and society. A conflict that the former won. The corporate state is more unstable than other political systems as there is no great vision or commonality of view that unites the community of business corporations. The only commonality is their hostility to any regulation of the free market and in reality they are a number of social units all pursuing their own self interest. This means that the corporate society lacks the strong mechanism for directing society to towards a greater end other than mere self interest, lacking this overarching powerful body, society can only fall apart in the event of being struck by an economic or social tsunami.

The great floods that devastated New Orleans demonstrate how the new corporate state fails to cope with  crisis. Cuts made to the emergency and environmental services made at the behest of a business dominated tax cutting government had left these services unable to respond adequately to the floods and their inaction prior to the flooding worsened the devastation. The levies that protected the town were in a state of disrepair and unable to resist the tidal surge and broke. All the world could do was watch in horror as the American government failed to halt the destruction of New Orleans.

The failure to resolve the Greek crisis points to a future crisis in Europe. Greece is but a small country accounting for but 3% of the European Union’s GDP, yet the European Union struggles to find a solution to its problems. It’s only success is in replacing the various democratically elected governments that are hostile to its austerity programme. Greece only rid itself of the military junta popularly known as the Greek colonels in 1974. The Greek army is the one institution that has not been devastated by the Neo-Liberal reforms imposed by the EU  and it may be the only body that is capable of eventually restoring social order after the havoc caused by the latest austerity and reform programme. Possibly this is the future for us all as the failures of the Neo-Liberal or corporatist state can only result in its replacement by authoritarian state supported by the military. The pro business agenda so having hollowed out the democratic state its institutions lack the resources to respond to a major crisis. This is demonstrated by the financial crash of 2008, the Chancellor of the time commented in a newspaper article that the crash was imminent. Yet despite this knowledge the government and Treasury were incapable of taking any action to avoid the crash, much like a rabbit that is frozen by fear when faced with the headlights of an oncoming car.

Machiavelli and the Madness of Politicians

What puzzles me is why when we have the best educated politicians in history, the governments that they lead are so abysmal. At least one European leader has a doctorate and most were educated at the elite universities in their own countries. Why are these so well educated leaders so awful at the business of government? The only plausible answer that I can find plausible is that they are affected with a degree of madness in that they consistently mistake the world of their fanciful imaginings for reality.

Perhaps this is best demonstrated with the current crisis in Greece. The  leaders of Europe insist on repeating the  changes they have forced on the Greek economy which rather than solve Greece’s debt crisis has worsened it. The programme of imposed austerity and so called structural reforms pushed Greece into a situation which resembles the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939. Obviously a country in suffering an economic recession is less able to pay its debts than one that is booming. Yet the so called Troika (the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund [IMF]) and the European Central Bank) insist that the Greeks must accept even greater levels of austerity if they are to receive the bailout funds necessary to keep their banks open. It is obvious to all that this a policy that won’t work, yet our European rulers insist that it must continue.

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Reading this it seems that there is a hint of madness in the decisions of the European policy makers. They were all the time confusing the world of their imaginings with the Europe of today. Anybody can misunderstand the reality they face yet to consistently do so suggests madness. The IMF has twice produced reports saying that Greece is incapable of repaying its debts, the latest report suggests that Greece should be granted a moratorium of 30 years before it has to repay any of it debts. Yet despite the evidence from the Greek economy demonstrating that the policy forced on it by the Troika has put it into long term decline making it less likely to the economy will ever achieve a level of growth that will enable it to repay its debts, they continue to insist that the policy must not change. While it is possible that the European leaders directing the policy of the European Commission can be deluded as to the effectiveness of their policy, what is most surprising is that Christine Lagarde as managing director of the IMF is supportive of this failed policy when her own organisation is writing the reports stating that the policy is wrong headed. Why this level of delusion, why do these politicians fail to see what is in front of their eyes? Why are so self evidently mad?

The best explanation for the behaviour of our contemporary leaders comes from the writings of Machiavelli. In ‘The Prince” there is a chapter in which the following scene is described. The son of one of the Greek tyrants is accompanying his father on a walk. Then as they are walking past a field of wheat, and the son he asks how is it possible to remain in power when their are so many potential enemies in society. Rather than answering his son directly this man picks up a stick and knocks of the heads of the tallest stalks of wheat. European leaders in their dealings with Greece have adopted a similar policy. Whenever a Greek leader appears who might threaten their policy of austerity, they destroy them. The greatest threat the European leaders have faced is Tsiparas  so they had set about undermining him and destroying his power base. In denying the Greek banks access to much needed Euros they have reminded him that they possess the power to close the banks and with that wreak havoc on the Greek economy and society. Rather than risk chaos, Tsiparas has capitulated. The leaders have calculated that the terms that they have forced him to accept will force his eventual resignation and destruction of his radical Syriza party. Not only these politicians cut down the tallest wheat stalk in Greek society, they have made it clear that they will do the same to any other wheat stalks in any other European country that might threaten their authority.

This leadership style that Machiavelli demonstrated is not a style of leadership appropriate for a democratic society, which depends on political dialogue and consensus to function effectively. If the opposition is destroyed or emasculated the political dialogue becomes extremely limited, as all the potential leaders realise that only by following the accepted script can their careers advance. Consequently there is a political echo as what leaders hear from the political dialogue is but an echo of their own views. ‘Yes’ men and women become the vogue in politics, individual thinkers self exclude, as they must pursue careers outside politics as the system penalises individual thinkers.  They  realise if they entered  politics would be marginalised in the political set up or more likely as in the Greek example have their political reputation and  career destroyed by a hostile elite of non thinking conformists, who hate any threat to their authority. This gives leaders a sense of omnipotence as all they ever hear is their words repeated back to them. Political difference is viewed in the words of Christine Lagarde, as not being ‘adult’ and not worth consideration. The views of Tsiparas and the Greek leaders were not worth considering as they were not spoken in the language of the elite. They were children who failed to understand the grown up world of the political elite.

Never having to engage in serious dialogue with your rivals and their alternative views, leads to an arrogance of power. By never facing contradiction these leaders cannot but believe in the rightness of their views. These leaders have been driven mad by power, they believe the acquisition of power sanctities the rightness of their views. What they say is true, anything else is heresy. They are like so many  Kim Jong-uns who don’t have to pay regard to any view but their own. Kim Jong-uns that will resort to any tactic to destroy the reputation and career of rivals.

There is one great failing in Machiavelli’s book ‘The Prince’ he failed  warned leaders that acquisition of power does not equate with greatness of mind. What we have in the West is a series of mediocre leaders who have attained power by Machiavellian means, but who lack the greatness of mind to govern effectively. In Britain and Europe the means to power is also the means by which great individuals are excluded from power.  Mediocre thinkers who have attained power by manipulating the political system overestimate the significance of their success, playing the system well does not equate with greatness. The technocrat governments appointed in many southern European countries are not experts in economic management but timeservers willing to do the bidding of their political masters. The technocrats that Europe will put in charge of the running of the Greek economy, will be no more successful than their predecessors. The misery and damage they inflict on Greek society will be hidden behind a serious of dubious statistics that appear to shw success. Britain and Europe are ruled by a number of petty Napoleons who are blinded by power and in the madness, they believe that their insane visions represent what is best vision for humanity. We are ruled by the self deluding inhabitants of a political madhouse.

Greece and the Sceptical Economist

Three kinds of economics

http://www.neuerope.eu

From a glance at the media it would seem that there is only one economics, usually what is now termed free market or Neo-Liberal economics. People are familiar with the mantras of these economists whether it spoken by them or a politician. Mantras such as a country must live within its means and it must reduce its debts to a sustainable level as is constantly repeated in the debate on Greece. However economics can be divided into three separate schools, Neo-Liberal economics being but the most dominant strand in but one school of economics. What ever school economists belong to will determine their approach to the crisis such as that in the Eurozone and Greece?

Neo-Liberal economics derives from the school of economics that sees the economy as an integrated system that when working well maximises the welfare of all. Economists from this school will see their role as to explain how the system works and how to make it work better. Changes such as removing restrictions or impediments that prevent the free market from working at its optimum. This has lead to the emasculation of trade unions and worker protections,as each are seen as an impediment to the smooth working of the free labour market. A loss it is believed that will be offset by higher incomes the now more efficient workforce. Ideally there should be no restrictions on how and where individuals choose to work and how employers choose to use them.

There are other schools of economics within this school that sees the economy as an integrated social system that can be made to work for the benefit of all. Although disregarded by policy makers today, they are the Keynesian economists who believe that through intelligent government intervention the economy can be made to work for the benefit of all. Their concern is ameliorating the damaging effects of the trade cycle, that is the economy goes through a repeated series of bans and busts. In the upswing period they are determined to stop the worst effects of the boom,  which is inflation, by regulating credit; similarly they wish to avoid the worst effects of a recession which is unemployment by using various measures such as increasing public spending to stimulate economic recovery. This school is anathema to the Neo-Liberals who believe that any government intervention in the economy can only have a malign effect.

Next there are a group of economists who see the economy as working for only one privileged group and merely providing the majority with the means of survival. These are the Marxist economists of whom there are few today. At the core of Marxist economics is the labour theory of value. This theory at its simplest states that it is labour that in the production process that adds value to the product, but that added value is skimmed off by their employers the bourgeoise. This group take a disproportionate share of the added value (profit) leaving the worker with only the minimal means of income. Marxist economists advocate measures to reduce or eliminate the power of the bourgeoise to take a disproportionate share of national income to achieve a more equitable sharing of that income.

There is a third school of economics of which I am a member, we are probably the smallest of all the economic schools. These are the sceptical economists who believe that seeing the economy as an integrated social system that works as fallacious. (I use the term sceptic after the sceptical school of philosophy, whose most prominent recent exponent of whom was Nietzsche, from whom I take my understanding of scepticism.) This is not to deny that the economy does not produce goods and services that add to the sum of human welfare, but to see it as working mechanism or a well functioning social system is wrong. There was a film realised  in the 1965 about an air race from London to Paris that took place in 1910.  In it there was song about ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ which included the words if my memory is correct, that these machines fly but I do not know how they stay up in the air. A sceptical economist has this view of the economy, we know that somehow the economy works but not exactly how. Parts of the system we do understand but not the whole, we even doubt if it correct to describe the economy as a system, we only use the term system to imply a something. What we deplore is seeing the economy as a mechanism that is capable of being perfected, that can be made the best of all possible economic systems, as is the claim of Neo-Liberal economists. Not that we don’t believe that changes cannot be made to improve the working of the economy but those changes will have only a limited impact. The revolutionary economics of the Marxists or Neo-Liberals who claim to have the ability to transform society and its human members we see as misguided. Economics is the science of small changes that have been proved to work not the messianic social science promising a better future for all.

Greece and the sceptical economist

Greece provides the perfect example of the fallacious nature of much of economics. When the financial crisis of 2008/9 came it exposed the frail nature of the Greek economy without its over dependence on foreign loans. The European Union (EU), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) provided the loans Greece needed on the condition that it adopted a programme of austerity and embarked on a series of Neo-Liberal reforms. These reforms were to cut welfare spending, remove labour protections and embark on a large scale privatisation of state owned assets. After five years debts have increased to 177% of GDP, youth unemployment has reached 50% and many individuals especially pensioners have been forced into poverty. Despite the disaster that is now the Greek economy the EU insists that Greece most continue to follow the programme of austerity and Neo-Liberal reform. Even the election of a government opposed to austerity and the issuing of an IMF report saying that the continuation of the current policy will make it increasingly unlikely that Greece will ever repay its debts,has failed to make the EU change its policies. The Neo-Liberal politicians and economists that control policy making at the EU believe that in spite of the evidence to the contrary that the Neo-Liberal reforms imposed on Greece will eventually deliver. It is a matter of holy writ for these people that only the truly free market can deliver the best of all possible worlds.

A sceptical economist such as myself might point out to the failure of a similar radical Neo-Liberal programme in the former USSR. This programme of radical reform had such disastrous effects that some Russian nationalists believed that it was a programme implemented to deliberately weaken the Russian economy and nation. There was in the 1990s after the collapse of the communist system, the wholesale privatisation of state run businesses. The least efficient were closed for lack of buyers so creating large scale unemployment and poverty.  Those businesses that were bought were purchased at knock down prices from the state by the oligarchs (often former officers of the KGB), with the result that control of the economy was transferred from the state to the oligarchs to the detriment of the Russian people. Economic reform was introduced by a government that had no real understanding of Western society and economy and into a society that lacked the social institutions to make the reforms work. Instead of the free market reforms creating a new Russian liberal democracy, they created a new authoritarian state. All the old methods of repression are returning, political dissidents are confined to mental institutions or imprisoned. Poverty is still persists and it is no coincidence that Russian men have the lowest life expectancy in Europe.

Perhaps a phrase for describing the policy towards Greece would be Iraqi economics. When George Bush successfully conquered Iraq he ordered the destruction of the existing governmental system. He intended to create a liberal democracy out of the ruins of the old Baathist political system. Instead this overly optimistic programme created a political wasteland which has lead to a decade long period of internecine warfare, as the authoritarian government that existed was replace with nothing more than misplaced optimism that once freed the Iraqis would by themselves create a democratic state. The radical Neo-Liberal economic policies that have introduced to the former USSR and Greece have created an equivalent economic and social wasteland.

At some subconscious level of thought it does seem that the European politicians do seem realise that radical Neo-Liberalism can only be imposed by an authoritarian government. They have been trying to remove the democratically elected Syria government and replace it with one of technocrats that will do their bidding.

What the sceptical economist would have done is to work within the existing political system and with its leaders to adopt a gradual reform programme, consisting of those measures that would bring some amelioration to suffering of the Greek people.  The obvious one is some measure of debt relief, this would mean that the European banks that made irresponsible loans to the Greek government would suffer financial loss as their would the Greeks would be defaulting on their loans. However they would be paying their price for their irresponsible lending, which is what should happen in a free market economy. There would be no ‘big bang’ reform of the economy but a series of negotiated and sensible reforms. Reforms that would be made with the consent of the Greek political leadership and people. There would be sufficient incentive to reform as the downgrading of Greece’s credit status, would make raising international loans difficult and costly until the Greek economy showed signs of recovery. The reforms would be modest in scope, there would be attempt to destroy Greek ‘clientelism’ as it is one of the key elements of the existing society. Reform certainly of its worst features but recognition that it is part of the unique nature of Greek society. No attempt would be made to make it a southern European equivalent of Germany or free market Britain.

What I am trying to say is the politicians and economists of the EU should recognise the limits of their knowledge. They are the last people that should claim to have a knowledge of the ideal society and economy, as people in glass houses should not throw stones. One of the criticisms is that the Greek tax collection system was ineffective, as one writer stated it was as if the state was putting out a collection plate. Yet these European critics are in their own countries encouraging rich individuals and business corporations to avoid tax. Many business corporations locate their head quarters in Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands to avoid tax. Soon the UK will be added to their number as our government is developing new tax avoidance schemes to encourage business to locate in the UK.

The sceptical economist has no one big answer to the problems of managing an economy, instead they have a series of small answers. These small answers are to be tried and if fail to be replaced by alternate measures that might work. What the sceptical economist recognises is the uniqueness of different societies, which come up with different solutions to solve common problems. Is the Greek system of ‘clientelism’ really much worse than the employment practices of the United Kingdom? If clientelism produces over employment, the Anglo Saxon free market produces under employment. Government departments in Greece may have been over staffed with political place men, but British business corporations such as supermarkets are staffed with the under employed, that is workers working on split shifts on low incomes, who desperate for extra hours of work  to boost their incomes. The Greek practice of clientism is far from perfect but so are the practices of the Anglo Saxon free market. What I want but don’t see is a recognition of the fallibility of social institutions and that what might work in one society does not necessarily work in another.