The United States and the world economy are now experiencing a major economic setback that began in the financial sector with the bursting of the housing bubble, but which can ultimately be traced back to the basic problems of capitalism arising from class-based accumulation (see the Review of the Month in this issue).…Things are clearly much worse, with respect to the general public understanding of these problems, here in the United States, the citadel of capitalism, than elsewhere in the world. We were therefore bemused by an article entitled “Europe’s Philosophy of Failure” by Stefan Theil, Newsweek‘s European economics editor, appearing in the January–February 2008 Foreign Policy. Theil writes of the “prejudice and disinformation” incorporated in French and German secondary school textbooks dealing with economics. Such textbooks he complains “ingrain a serious aversion to capitalism.”
Volume 59, Issue 11 (April)
With the benefit of hindsight, few now doubt that the housing bubble that induced most of the recent growth of the U.S. economy was bound to burst or that a general financial crisis and a global economic slowdown were to be the unavoidable results. Warning signs were evident for years to all of those not taken in by the new financial alchemy of high-risk debt management, and not blinded, as was much of the corporate world, by huge speculative profits. This can be seen in a series of articles that appeared in this space: “The Household Debt Bubble” (May 2006), “The Explosion of Debt and Speculation” (November 2006), “Monopoly-Finance Capital” (December 2006), and “The Financialization of Capitalism” (April 2007).
Until recently, the global capitalist economy has enjoyed a period of comparative tranquility and grown at a relatively rapid pace since the global economic crisis of 2001–02. During this period of global economic expansion there have been several important economic and political developments. First, the United States—the declining hegemonic power but still the leading driving force of the global capitalist economy—has been characterized by growing internal and external financial imbalances. The U.S. economy has experienced a period of debt-financed, consumption-led “expansion” with stagnant wages and employment, and has been running large and rising current account deficits (the current account deficit is a broad measure of the trade deficit). Second, China has become a major player in the global capitalist economy and has been playing an increasingly important role in sustaining global economic growth. Third, global capitalist accumulation is imposing growing pressure on the world’s natural resources and environment. There is increasingly convincing evidence that the global oil production will reach its peak and start to decline in a few years. Fourth, the U.S. imperialist adventure in the Middle East has suffered devastating setbacks and there has been growing resistance to neoliberalism and U.S. imperialism throughout the world.
The July–August 2007 crisis in subprime mortgage markets precipitated the collapse of the market for asset-backed securities, forcing huge write-downs of more than $45 billion on the balance sheets of major banks. In the aftershock, interbank lending dried up. Bond insurers and money market funds were beset by a loss of confidence as the credit squeeze spread. The plunge in stock markets in January 2008 suggests that the repercussions of the collapse of the subprime mortgage market are still working their way through financial markets. With over 170,000 jobs lost and the expected spate of foreclosures, many observers believe that the credit crunch has pushed the economy towards a recession.
Capitalism and market economy are not synonymous, as the dominant political discourse and conventional economists would have one believe. The specific characteristic of capitalism as a system is that it is based on private ownership of the means of production; an ownership which by definition is that of a privileged minority. This private ownership (aside from land ownership) has taken the form of exclusive rights over important equipment associated with modern production technologies, from the first industrial revolution at the close of the eighteenth century to the present day. The majority of non-owners are thus obliged to sell their labor power: capital employs labor; labor has no free use of the means of production. The bourgeois/proletarian divide defines capitalism; the market is only the management form of capital’s social economy.