Aside from Keynes, no economist seems to have benefitted so much from the financial crisis of 2007-08 as the late Hyman Minsky. The collapse of the sub-prime market in August 2007 has been widely labeled a “Minsky moment,” and many view the subsequent implosion of the financial system and deep recession as confirming Minsky’s “financial instability hypothesis” regarding economic crisis in capitalist economies.…Recognition of Minsky’s intellectual contribution is welcome and deserved. Minsky was a deeply insightful theorist about the proclivity of capitalist economies to experience financially driven booms and busts, and the crisis has confirmed many of his insights. That said, the current article argues that his theory only provides a partial and incomplete account of the current crisis.
Global Economic Crisis
In an article entitled “Listen, Keynesians!,” published in January 1983 in Monthly Review, Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy argued that the radical break that John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) represented for orthodox economics lay in the fact that “For the first time the possibility was frankly faced, indeed placed at the very center of the analysis, that breakdowns of the accumulation process, the heart and soul of economic growth, might be built into the system and non-self correcting.”… In November 1982, only two months before the publication of “Listen, Keynesians!,” Magdoff and Sweezy had pointed out in “Financial Instability: Where Will it All End?” that the question as to whether a major financial crisis (on the scale of 1929) could propel the economy into a deep downturn, approaching the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s, was still an open one. They were responding here to Hyman Minsky, a proud Keynesian (albeit with socialist leanings), “whose views,” they claimed, were “especially worthy of attention precisely because over the years he has been the American economist who has done more than any other to focus on the crucially important destabilizing role of the financial system in advanced capitalist countries.”
This month marks the eightieth anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash that precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ironically, this comes at the very moment that the capitalist system is celebrating having narrowly escaped falling into a similar abyss. The financial crash and the decline in output a year ago, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, was as steep as at the beginning of the Great Depression. “For a while,” Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times in August, “key economic indicators — world trade, world industrial production, even stock prices—were falling as fast or faster than they did in 1929-30. But in the 1930s the trend lines kept heading down. This time, the plunge appears to be ending after just one terrible year.” Big government, through the federal bailout and stimulus, as well as the shock-absorber effects of the continued payouts of unemployment and Social Security benefits, Medicare, etc., slowed the descent and helped the economy to level off, albeit at a point well below previous output.
Renowned political economist Samir Amin, engaged in a unique lifelong effort both to narrate and affect the human condition on a global scale, brings his analysis up to the present—the world of 2013. The key events of our times—financial crisis, the emerging nations, globalization, financialization, political Islam, Euro–zone implosion—are related in a coherent, historically based, account.
In 2006–08, food shortages became a global reality, with the prices of commodities spiraling beyond the reach of vast numbers of people. International agencies were caught flatfooted, with the World Food Program warning that its rapidly diminishing food stocks might not be able to deal with the emergency.
As the first tremors of the looming financial crisis ripped through Wall Street, with the meltdown of the subprime mortgage market in the summer of 2007, the dollar plunged sharply. Perversely however, even as some financial pundits were foretelling its collapse, the deepening of the crisis following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 actually saw the dollar gain ground sharply (for the first time since the steady decline that began in 2002.
In referring in my title here to “A Failed System” I do not of course mean that capitalism as a system is in any sense at an end. Rather I mean by “failed system” a global economic and social order that increasingly exhibits a fatal contradiction between reality and reason—to the point, in our time, where it threatens not only human welfare but also the continuation of most sentient forms of life on the planet. Three critical contradictions make up the contemporary world crisis emanating from capitalist development: (1) the current Great Financial Crisis and stagnation/depression; (2) the growing threat of planetary ecological collapse; and (3) the emergence of global imperial instability associated with shifting world hegemony and the struggle for resources. Such structural weaknesses of the system, as Joseph Schumpeter might have said, are the product of capitalism’s past successes, but they raise catastrophic problems and failures in the present nonetheless. How we choose to act today in response to this failed system is therefore the most critical question that humanity has ever faced.
In the Notes from the Editors for the September issue of Monthly Review (written in late July) we asked why, with the United States bailing out the financial sector of the economy to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, there was no public outrage. As we observed at that time, “In the end there seems to be no satisfactory explanation for lack of popular protest over a series of ad hoc grants showering hundreds of billions of dollars of public money on the masters of finance, collectively the richest group of capitalists on the planet. And that raises the question: Is this outrage present nonetheless, growing underground, unheard and unseen? Will it suddenly burst forth, like some old mole, unforeseen and in ways unimagined?” The collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, the resulting freezing up of credit markets, U.S. Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson’s emergency plan for a $700 billion bailout of financial firms, offering “cash for trash,” i.e., proposing to buy up the toxic waste of virtually worthless mortgage-backed securities at taxpayer expense—quickly answered our question. When the U.S. Treasury got into the act with its bailout proposal, requiring Congressional authorization (previously the Federal Reserve had led the way in bailouts, to the point that treasury securities had sunk to just over half of the Fed’s assets, as we explained in September), all hell finally broke loose. Suddenly, the public outrage that had been growing beneath the surface burst forth. The U.S. capitalist class was abruptly confronted with a major political as well as economic crisis
This essay examines aspects of the global political economy that I hope will inform progressive governments and movements for social change. It evaluates the constraints and opportunities presented in the current conjuncture of world capitalist development by analyzing four areas of crisis in the contemporary world capitalist system. These are not the only contradictory elements in the contemporary conjuncture, but they are, in my view, the most salient
Just over a year since the beginning of the worst U.S. financial crisis since the Great Depression, and only six months after the federal bailout of Bear Stearns, the seizing up of credit markets continues. The failure of eight U.S. banks this year, including IndyMac, and the recent instability that struck the two government-sponsored mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, requiring a special government rescue operation, has had the entire financial world on edge. Mortgage-related losses by themselves “could cause a trillion dollars in credit to vaporize,” according to a special July 28, 2008,Business Week report. The downside effects of financial leveraging (the magnification of results associated with borrowed money) mean that each dollar lost by financial institutions could lead to reductions in lending of fifteen dollars or more, creating a shockwave so massive that it could reveal structural weaknesses throughout the economy. Already the economy is reeling, with faltering growth, a deep slump in housing, massive job losses, rapidly rising oil and consumer goods prices, and a falling dollar
The days of boom and bubble are over, and the time has come to understand the long-term economic reality. Although the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, hopes for a new phase of rapid economic expansion were quickly dashed. Instead, growth has been slow, unemployment has remained high, wages and benefits have seen little improvement, poverty has increased, and the trend toward more inequality of incomes and wealth has continued. It appears that the Great Recession has given way to a period of long-term anemic growth, which Foster and McChesney aptly term the Great Stagnation. This incisive and timely book traces the origins of economic stagnation and explains what it means for a clear understanding of our current situation.
The first third of 2008 should have been a wake-up call to those who, in the short-lived days of capitalist triumphalism, were inclined to lose sight of the immediacy of the internal contradictions of capitalism and of the resistance that the system continuously regenerates. The enormous extent of today’s combined world food-and-economic crisis is now patently obvious. Anti-imperialist and anticapitalist initiatives are once again mushrooming around the globe.