The global elites’ false promise that neoliberal economics would cure all ills through the elixir of endless growth helps explain the angry nationalist movements ripping apart the West’s politics, observes ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.
By Alastair Crooke
Raul Ilargi Meijer, the long-standing economics commentator, has written both succinctly – and provocatively: “It’s over! The entire model our societies have been based on for at least as long as we ourselves have lived, is over! That’s why there’s Trump.
“There is no growth. There hasn’t been any real growth for years. All there is left are empty hollow sunshiny S&P stock market numbers propped up with ultra-cheap debt and buybacks, and employment figures that hide untold millions hiding from the labor force. And most of all there’s debt, public as well as private, that has served to keep an illusion of growth alive and now increasingly no longer can.
“These false growth numbers have one purpose only: for the public to keep the incumbent powers that be in their plush seats. But they could always ever only pull the curtain of Oz [Wizard of Oz] over people’s eyes for so long, and it’s no longer so long.
“That’s what the ascent of Trump means, and Brexit, Le Pen, and all the others. It’s over. What has driven us for all our lives has lost both its direction and its energy.”
Meijer continues: “We are smack in the middle of the most important global development in decades, in some respects arguably even in centuries, a veritable revolution, which will continue to be the most important factor to shape the world for years to come, and I don’t see anybody talking about it. That has me puzzled.
“The development in question is the end of global economic growth, which will lead inexorably to the end of centralization (including globalization). It will also mean the end of the existence of most, and especially the most powerful, international institutions.
“In the same way it will be the end of -almost- all traditional political parties, which have ruled their countries for decades and are already today at or near record low support levels (if you’re not clear on what’s going on, look there, look at Europe!)
“This is not a matter of what anyone, or any group of people, might want or prefer, it’s a matter of ‘forces’ that are beyond our control, that are bigger and more far-reaching than our mere opinions, even though they may be man-made.
“Tons of smart and less smart folks are breaking their heads over where Trump and Brexit and Le Pen and all these ‘new’ and scary things and people and parties originate, and they come up with little but shaky theories about how it’s all about older people, and poorer and racist and bigoted people, stupid people, people who never voted, you name it.
“But nobody seems to really know or understand. Which is odd, because it’s not that hard. That is, this all happens because growth is over. And if growth is over, so are expansion and centralization in all the myriad of shapes and forms they come in.”
Further, Meijer writes: “Global is gone as a main driving force, pan-European is gone, and whether the United States will stay united is far from a done deal. We are moving towards a mass movement of dozens of separate countries and states and societies looking inward. All of which are in some form of -impending- trouble or another.
“What makes the entire situation so hard to grasp for everyone is that nobody wants to acknowledge any of this. Even though tales of often bitter poverty emanate from all the exact same places that Trump and Brexit and Le Pen come from too.
“That the politico-econo-media machine churns out positive growth messages 24/7 goes some way towards explaining the lack of acknowledgement and self-reflection, but only some way. The rest is due to who we ourselves are. We think we deserve eternal growth.”
The End of ‘Growth’
Well, is global “growth over”? Of course Raul Ilargi is talking “aggregate” (and there will be instances of growth within any contraction). But what is clear is that debt-driven investment and low-interest-rate policies are having less and less effect – or no effect at all – in producing growth – either in terms of domestic or trade growth, as Tyler Durden at ZeroHedge writes:
“After almost two years of the quantitative easing program in the Euro Area, economic figures have remained very weak. As GEFIRA details, inflation is still fluctuating near zero, while GDP growth in the region has started to slow down instead of accelerating. According to the ECB data, to generate €1.0 of GDP growth, €18.5 had to be printed in the QE, … This year, the ECB printed nearly €600 billion within the frame of asset purchase programme (QE).”
Central Banks can and do create money, but that is not the same as creating wealth or purchasing power. By channelling their credit creation through the intermediary of banks granting loans to their favored clients, Central Banks grant to one set of entities purchasing power – a purchasing power that must necessarily have been transferred from another set of entities within Europe (i.e. transferred from ordinary Europeans in the case of the ECB), who, of course will have less purchasing power, less discretionary spending income.
The devaluation of purchasing power is not so obvious (no runaway inflation), because all major currencies are devaluing more or less pari passu – and because the authorities periodically steam hammer down the price of gold, so that there is no evident standard by which people can “see” for themselves the extent of their currencies’ joint downward float.
And world trade is grinding down too, as Lambert Strether of Corrente rather elegantly explains: “Back to shipping: I started following shipping … partly because it’s fun, but more because shipping is about stuff, and tracking stuff seemed like a far more attractive way of getting a handle on ‘the economy’ than economics statistics, let alone whatever books the Wall Streeters were talking on any given day. And don’t get me started on Larry Summers.
“So what I noticed was decline, and not downward blips followed by rebounds, but decline, for months and then a year. Decline in rail, even when you back out coal and grain, and decline in demand for freight cars. Decline in trucking, and decline in the demand for trucks. Air freight wobbly. No Christmas bounce at the Pacific ports. And now we have the Hanjin debacle — all that capital tied up in stranded ships, though granted only $12 billion or so — and the universal admission that somehow “we” invested w-a-a-a-a-a-y too much money in big ships and boats, implying (I suppose) that we need to ship a lot less stuff than we thought, at least across the oceans.
“Meanwhile, and in seeming contradiction not only to a slow collapse of global trade, but to the opposition to ‘trade deals,’ warehousing is one of the few real estate bright spots, and supply chain management is an exciting field. It’s disproportionately full of sociopaths, and therefore growing and dynamic!
“And the economics statistics seem to say nothing is wrong. Consumers are the engine of the economy and they are confident. But at the end of the day, people need stuff; life is lived in the material world, even if you think you live it on your device. It’s an enigma! So what I’m seeing is a contradiction: Less stuff is moving, but the numbers say ‘this is fine.’ Am I right, here? So in what follows, I’m going to assume that numbers don’t matter, but stuff does.”
Or, to be more faux-empirical: as Bloomberg notes in A Weaker Currency is no longer the Elixir, It Once Was: “global central banks have cut policy rates 667 times since 2008, according to Bank of America. During that period, the dollar’s 10 main peers have fallen 14%, yet Group-of-Eight economies have grown an average of just 1%. Since the late 1990s, a 10% inflation-adjusted depreciation in currencies of 23 advanced economies boosted net exports by just 0.6% of GDP, according to Goldman Sachs. That compares with 1.3% of GDP in the two decades prior. U.S. trade with all nations slipped to $3.7 trillion in 2015, from $3.9 trillion in 2014.”
With “growth over,” so too is globalization: Even the Financial Times agrees, as its commentator Martin Wolf writes in his comment, The Tide of Globalisation is Turning: “Globalisation has at best stalled. Could it even go into reverse? Yes. It requires peace among the great powers … Does globalisation’s stalling matter? Yes.”
Globalization is stalling – not because of political tensions (a useful “scapegoat”), but because growth is flaccid as a result of a veritable concatenation of factors causing its arrest – and because we have entered into debt deflation that is squeezing what’s left of discretionary, consumption-available, income. But Wolf is right. Ratcheting tensions with Russia and China will not somehow solve America’s weakening command over the global financial system – even if capital flight to the dollar might give the U.S. financial system a transient “high.”
So what might the “turning tide” of globalization actually mean? Does it mean the end of the neo-liberalist, financialized world? That is hard to say. But expect no rapid “u-turn” – and no apologies. The Great Financial Crisis of 2008 – at the time – was thought by many to mark the end to neo-liberalism. But it never happened – instead, a period of fiscal retrenchment and austerity was imposed that contributed to a deepening distrust of the status quo, and a crisis rooted in a widespread, popular sense that “their societies” were headed in the wrong direction.
Neo-liberalism is deeply entrenched – not least in Europe’s Troika and in the Eurogroup that oversees creditor interests, and which, under European Union rules, has come to dominate E.U. financial and tax policy.
It is too early to say from whence the economic challenge to prevailing orthodoxy will come, but in Russia there is a group of prominent economists gathered together as the Stolypin Club, who are evincing a renewed interest in that old adversary of Adam Smith, Friedrich List (d. 1846), who evolved a “national system of political economy.” List upheld the (differing interests) of the nation to that of the individual. He gave prominence to the national idea, and insisted on the special requirements of each nation according to its circumstances, and especially to the degree of its development. He famously doubted the sincerity of calls to free trade from developed nations, in particular those by Britain. He was, as it were, the arch anti-globalist.
One can see that this might well fit the current post-globalist mood. List’s acceptance of the need for a national industrial strategy and the reassertion of the role of the state as the final guarantor of social cohesion is not some whimsy pursued by a few Russian economists. It is entering the mainstream. The May government in the U.K. precisely is breaking with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s – and is breaking towards a List-ian approach.Be that as it may (whether this approach swims more widely back into fashion), the very contemporary British professor and political philosopher, John Gray has suggested the key point is: “The resurgence of the state is one of the ways in which the present time differs from the ‘new times’ diagnosed by Martin Jacques and other commentators in the 1980s. Then, it seemed national boundaries were melting away and a global free market was coming into being. It’s a prospect I never found credible.
“A globalised economy existed before 1914, but it rested on a lack of democracy. Unchecked mobility of capital and labour may raise productivity and create wealth on an unprecedented scale, but it is also highly disruptive in its impact on the lives of working people – particularly when capitalism hits one of its periodic crises. When the global market gets into grave trouble, neoliberalism is junked in order to meet a popular demand for security. That is what is happening today.
“If the tension between global capitalism and the nation state was one of the contradictions of Thatcherism, the conflict between globalization and democracy has undone the left. From Bill Clinton and Tony Blair onwards, the center-left embraced the project of a global free market with an enthusiasm as ardent as any on the right. If globalisation was at odds with social cohesion, society had to be re-engineered to become an adjunct of the market. The result was that large sections of the population were left to moulder in stagnation or poverty, some without any prospect of finding a productive place in society.”
If Gray is correct that when globalized economics strikes trouble, people will demand that the state must pay attention to their own parochial, national economic situation (and not to the utopian concerns of the centralizing élite), it suggests that just as globalization is over – so too is centralization (in all its many manifestations).
The E.U., of course, as an icon of introverted centralization, should sit up, and pay attention. Jason Cowley, the editor of the (Leftist) New Statesman says: “In any event … however you define it, [the onset of ‘New Times’] will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.”
The Problem of Self-Delusion
So, to return to Ilargi’s point, that “we are smack in the middle of the most important global development in decades … and I don’t see anybody talking about it. That has me puzzled” and to which he answers that ultimately, the “silence” is due to ourselves: “We think we deserve eternal growth.”
He is surely right that it somehow answers to the Christian meme of linear progress (material here, rather than spiritual); but more pragmatically, doesn’t “growth” underpin the whole Western financialized, global system: “it was about lifting the ‘others’ out of their poverty”?
Recall, Stephen Hadley, the former U.S. National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush, warning plainly that foreign-policy experts rather should pay careful attention to the growing public anger: that “globalization was a mistake” and that “the elites have sleep-walked the [U.S.] into danger.”
“This election isn’t just about Donald Trump,” Hadley argued. “It’s about the discontents of our democracy, and how we are going to address them … whoever is elected, will have to deal with these discontents.”
In short, if globalization is giving way to discontent, the lack of growth can undermine the whole financialized global project. Stiglitz tells us that this has been evident for the past 15 years — last month he noted that he had warned then of: “growing opposition in the developing world to globalizing reforms: It seemed a mystery: people in developing countries had been told that globalization would increase overall wellbeing. So why had so many people become so hostile to it? How can something that our political leaders – and many an economist – said would make everyone better off, be so reviled? One answer occasionally heard from the neoliberal economists who advocated for these policies is that people are better off. They just don’t know it. Their discontent is a matter for psychiatrists, not economists.”
This “new” discontent, Stiglitz now says, is extended into advanced economies. Perhaps this is what Hadley means when he says, “globalization was a mistake.” It is now threatening American financial hegemony, and therefore its political hegemony too.
Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum, which advocates for engagement between political Islam and the West.