Tuesday 24 July 2012

Banks and countries going bust? Apocalypse now?

Reading around on the net, I think there is some evidence to suggest that we're moving into a new phase in this drawn-out world economic crisis. No matter how many meetings the politicians from the countries with the largest economies have, they find that both the particular crises of their own countries' banks and their own countries' sovereign debt cannot be solved. I take it that capitalism (or capitalists) don't have a strategy to deal with this because the fundamental motive power of capitalism is competition. This is what has taken finance capital into a territory never known before: many, many trillions of debt. The only question being asked by these major debtors seems to be who is going to lose the most next?

The problem for us lay punters watching all this is that the main media outlets can't and won't run collapse scenarios past us for us to see what might happen. If they did, they would be accused of being apocalyptic or even of bringing on the apocalypse merely by mentioning it. The giveaway seems to be that there are people already 'advising investors' what to do 'when' the system does collapse. These people run a scenario that sees a succession of defaults, banks and countries unable to pay the interest on their loans. The consequence of this, it seems, would be whole sections of the world economy unable to pay wages and unemployment benefits and pensions. Governments have very few options in this scenario:
1. They go on feeding the army and the police enough to try and keep starving, sick people from raiding shops.
2. They establish martial law.
3. They invent new local currencies.
4. They blame the poor, the migrants and the foreigners for what's happened.
5. They draft in favoured oligarchs to run the bits of capitalism still standing which enables them to mop up chunks of the 'failed' bits at knock-down prices.

These five points are of course recognisable as forms of fascism. As I write this from London, UK, this scenario seems highly unlikely. The crisis is presented to us as something happening around the periphery of Europe: Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece and yet the immediate cause of it all is something that came about because of the lending and buying lunacies invented in New York and London. Surely, at some point the Lehman Brothers sequence of events is going to happen again? How can it not? After all, we have to keep reminding ourselves that money has no value. It is a system of trust between participants which enables everything to be made 'equivalent' - a haircut can be made equal to some food, or to a length of time of a particular kind of work, and so on. On the other hand, 'value' (or real worth) lies in our human capacities working on materials and/or the machines and systems we've invented to handle materials and/or finished goods. We have to remind ourselves that these capacities and materials don't change overnight when a bank goes bust. All that's happened is that the system that was invented to regulate those values has stopped working. It's not the values or the worth of things that have changed. All of us (me too) find this really hard to get our heads round because right from the time we could talk, value has been tied to money. This crisis is asking us to reconfigure our way of thinking about all this.

On the other hand, there is immense pressure for us to not reshape, rethink and reconfigure. Again and again, on the media, even in the mouths of honest people like Paul Mason, the crisis is presented to us as if money and value are the same thing. Put it this way, it is only the same thing if we let them tell it that way. In other words, when parts of the money system collapse, they will indeed try to prevent people from working, eating, going to school, using hospitals, collecting pensions and benefits. (That's one way of making money and value mean the same.) Yet, things of value will still be there: the land will still be there, the plant where the stuff we need will still be there, the raw materials will still be in the ground or on trees and millions will be forcibly kept idle, not allowed to get the food or produce the goods that they need in order for them and their dependants to survive. And, most importantly, our powers to think and make and do will still be ther! They will tell us that they have to prevent people from working and getting the things we need is  because 'the banks have failed' or that  'there's no money left' or some such. But money is an illusion, a spectre paraded as something real, a real obstacle. But it will only be a money, which is not real, is just a system of trust between participants.

When they say all that, all they're doing is defending the arrangement that is capitalism. They are saying that this is the only system that can organise our lives - even as it collapses around our ears. There is only one real reason for defending it:  because it delivers untold wealth and power to those that run it. So, even as whole areas sink into the mud, those that benefit the most will fight for it to survive intact.

I'm not privy to anything secret. No one on the inside (wherever that is) has tipped me the wink. I am talking here about what it looks like in July 2012. Maybe capitalism - and the armed force it can hire - can juggle these gargantuan debts long enough, while cutting wages sufficiently,  for production to 'pick up' enough for the system to expand again. Clearly, some politicians seem to think this is possible. Or at least they tell us that they think it's possible.

However, I don't see how the companies and countries in debt to each other on such a vast scale, have the means by which to stop themselves going bust. At which point, it won't be a matter of whether someone might bail them out. Either those who are still rich won't bail them out, or won't be able to bail them out.  That's the point when we see the basic standard of living of most people fall very sharply and when, I guess, those five points start kicking in.

That's when we find out whether people in places all over the world have the strength, resolve and wisdom to go back to the key question of who owns what is made? As long as it's possible to hold us all in thrall to the illusion of money, the answer is always that what we make is owned by those with money - which in itself has no value! In the crisis when money ceases to buy things, we might find it easier to see  we should all own what is made and not allow a tiny minority of people to own most of it.