Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

The Golden Age is in us: Dutch doldrums

April 5, 2016

Tomorrow a referendum, grudgingly conceded by authorities, will test the opinion of Dutch voters, alone of any European electorate, on a commercial and political treaty between the EU and Ukraine.

In February, the Dutch government’s communication strategy for the referendum was leaked. So dreary that its authors escaped much embarrassment, the document paired FAQs with approved talking points.

Why should the North Atlantic ecumene of free trade be extended to the marches of Ruthenia?

The Ukrainian population has the right to decide on their country’s own future, as a mature democracy, without the influence of Russia…

Russia is opposed to this agreement and will be happy with a ‘no’ vote. It’s worth keeping in mind that the Russian president Putin hopes to stop this agreement, keeping Ukraine in its sphere of influence and under its control.

Hostility to Moscow is one thing, in a country now accustomed to a more aggressive foreign policy, and where the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 prompted an official day of national mourning, the first since Wilhelmina’s death.

Yet there is little enthusiasm for what plainly is an intra-elite project, of marginal importance to the local population. Polls are unpromising.

Reading the mood, the EU Commission’s president Jean-Claude Juncker recently gave an interview with Dutch newspaper the NRC Handelsblad, and delivered some pointed advice:

I want the Dutch to understand that the importance of this question goes beyond the Netherlands… I don’t believe the Dutch will say no, because it would open the door to a big continental crisis. Russia would reap the fruits of an easy victory…

Watch out, this could tilt the balance in Europe. Not to threaten the citizen, but he must be well aware of his responsibility. The Dutch voter must act on 6 April as a European strategist.




Popular consultation on EU treaties and edicts is, for well-founded reasons of elite prudence, typically avoided. Yet today’s situation in the Netherlands, and the media atmospherics that accompany it, emit a familiar echo of the recent past.

A year ago, in an interview with Dutch newspaper the Volkskrant, Juncker had warned that the continent was becoming ‘ungovernable,’ because centrist parties were increasingly ‘populist.’

Mainstream Dutch parties, aping the irresponsible fringes, were ‘giving space to discontent,’ and ‘appealing to dissatisfaction among voters about politicians’:

I remember very well your referendum in 2005 on the European Constitution. The Labour Party, the Christian Democrats, the Liberals: they refused to conduct a campaign for the Constitution, fearing they’d be associated with the EU.

So it went to hell.

The EU’s biggest problem was ‘the gap between citizens and the Union.’ The institution had become sidetracked by trivial concerns. ‘We must clearly say that the EU is only about the continent’s larger issues, not the many smaller issues that affect the daily lives of citizens.’

2005 voting results

Of course, Juncker’s memory — in 2005 he was president of Luxembourg — is known to be a little unreliable.

Yet eleven years ago, when Dutch voters rejected the proposed EU constitution, consternation had been acute. As in France, which voted one week before the Netherlands, elite opinion on the matter had been as one.

Every Dutch newspaper, mainstream political party, trade union, business group, church and NGO had demanded approval. Retired eminences, including every living prime minister, were rolled out to join the consensus.

Before voting day, with opinion polls unpromising and the French repudiation ringing in their ears, Europe’s elite tried to impress upon the Dutch public the extent of popular responsibility. The moment was not to be trifled with.

The Christian Democrat premier, in an open letter to the Telegraaf, explained that he had visited Auschwitz, Normandy and Yad Vashem. Haunted daily by these images, mindful of their lessons, he wanted the Dutch public to understand that ‘everyone in Europe needs to prevent such things.’

His Justice Minister likewise recommended a ‘yes’ vote, otherwise continental war — Yugoslavia on a European scale — would be risked.

Taking up the theme, a Liberal Party TV advertisement, invoking the national sore point of Srebrenica along with the Judeocide and the Madrid train bombings, reminded voters that ‘danger lurks.’

To ensure peace and safety (‘Never again!’), the EU constitution needed popular ratification at the polling booths.

Following the vote, chastened displays were immediately made in The Hague, Berlin and Brussels. Balkenende, Schröder, Chirac and Prodi declared with humility that the message had been heard and, rest assured, lessons learnt.

Behind the scenes, efforts were in train to circumvent the popular will.

The Labour Party’s leader, Wouter Bos, suggested a new referendum should be held within eighteen months. Repetition would give the Dutch public a chance to correct their mistake.

A constitution, declared the Deputy Prime Minister in the NRC Handelsblad, had not been a fit matter for electoral consultation: ‘We now hold a referendum about a matter on which the population has no idea. This,’ said the minister for economic affairs, ‘creates a bad precedent.’ Before the poll, he had warned that ‘the lights would go out’ in the Netherlands if the EU constitution were rejected.

The Guardian pointed to ‘the perverse streak in the Dutch’, amplified by a momentary ‘surly, rebellious mood.’ In ‘a country that has historically championed internationalism and free trade,’ rejection could be attributed to ‘anti-Muslim sentiment, opposition to EU membership for Turkey and fears over losing control of immigration policy.’

Le Monde Diplomatique explained that ‘hatred’ now dominated Dutch political debate. The ‘no’ vote had been ‘a repeat of the 2002 rightwing populist revolt.’

Conventional opinion thus recognized Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders as demagogic masters of Dutch public opinion.

Here ethno-religious divisions displaced any talk of a breach between rulers and ruled: antagonism between autochtonen and allochtonen (official euphemism for those of Moroccan and Turkish ancestry) was the sole acknowledged principle of political conflict.

Anointed as presumptive kingmaker before the following year’s elections, Wilders in the event secured less than 6 percent of the vote. (The Socialist Party, which has meandered from Maoism to social democracy, scored 17 percent.)

It would take until the 2010 election before Wilders could be hailed as the ‘real winner’, according to Spiegel and the international press.

VVD election ad

Nonetheless, following the murder of Theo van Gogh, the journalist Ian Buruma detected ‘something unhinged about the Netherlands in the winter of 2004’:

Something had changed dramatically in the country of my birth…

‘The country is burning,’ said the announcer on the television news.

In fact, the country wasn’t burning at all. The arsonists in Uden were a bunch of teenagers looking for kicks. The ‘civil war’ that some feared, the pogroms on Muslim areas, the retaliations by newly recruited jihadis, none of this actually happened. Most people kept their cool.

But the constant chatter of politicians, newspaper columnists, television pundits, headline writers, and editorialists in the popular press produced a feverish atmosphere in which the smallest incident, the slightest faux pas, would spark endless rounds of overheated commentary.

That year, a local television poll returned Fortuyn as the greatest Dutch person in history — naturally ahead of Spinoza, Rembrandt, Erasmus, Huygens, De Ruyter, Jan de Witt, Grotius, Multatuli and Van Leeuwenhoek, but worryingly beating even Cruyff.

Why not?

One of several Dutch aspirants to the role of a local Bernard-Henri Levy, the self-promoting philosopher-journalist Yoram Stein, cornered a noted historian of early-modern Europe in a Leiden bookstore. To the latter, Stein attributed the claim that ‘Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an heir of Spinoza.’

Amid national soul-searching, the Dutch public broadcaster dispatched a TV emissary to Princeton to consult with the historian, Jonathan Israel, on contemporary affairs.

What was up with today’s Dutch?

The Dutch deputy prime minister (and minister for Economic Affairs), located the failure in the absence of a bipolar electoral system (as found in the US or Britain). If proportional representation were replaced by a first-past-the-post voting system, the Netherlands could become a ‘normal’ country, in which two responsible, market-friendly parties of the centre-right and centre-left alternated in power.

Thus the most recent Dutch general election was a ‘positive development’ according to the Financial Times.

Defeat of ‘anti-establishment forces’ had ‘given Europe vital breathing space’:

The skies are clearing over Europe. This week Dutch voters injected a much-needed boost of confidence after decisively rejecting eurosceptic voices in a national poll.

The victory of centrist parties supportive of eurozone rescue measures is the first tangible sign that anti-European sentiment may not be as deeply rooted in northern Europe as many had feared.

The outcome, it observed, was ‘greeted with evident relief elsewhere in Europe… with voters shunning eurosceptic candidates on the far right and far left and turning towards mainstream parties.’

In Berlin, the German foreign minister declared that the result ‘marks a strengthening of Europe and a weakening of populists and nationalists.’

To its own evident satisfaction, the FT declared that ‘pragmatism had defeated ideology’, with the poll becoming ‘a two-party contest between the Liberals and Labour.’

Such were the reassuring signs of a stable, respectable polity.

Rutte Samsom

But how typical of broader trends is Europe’s supposed bellwether?

Heine is supposed to have remarked — there exists no record of the quip — that, should the world start coming to an end, he would flee to the Netherlands, since everything happened 50 years later in the Low Countries.

Whether or not the poet’s crack was apocryphal, the fact of Dutch belatedness in Restoration Europe was genuine and striking. What had been the world’s most productive economy — only overtaken by Britain in the late eighteenth century at the earliest, more likely as late as 1820 — now lagged its North Sea peers.

Industrialization in the Netherlands, unlike in newly independent Belgium, did not begin until 1860 or so.

George_Hendrik_Breitner_-_Gezicht_op_de_Dam_te_Amsterdam

This placement in northwestern Europe’s arrière-garde was unfamiliar. Homeland of ‘the first modern economy,’ for two centuries the Dutch Republic had been, in one historian’s words, ‘the great path-finder between Europe’s past and future.’

Bas van Bavel and Robert Brenner have shown that capitalist property relations — assetless wage labourers and leaseholding tenant farmers — first emerged in the dairy farms, herring fisheries, peatlands and polders of maritime Zeeland, Holland and Groningen in the mid-sixteenth century.

More novel still, the reclaimed polders had been born free of any aboriginal class of peasant smallholders.

Van Bavel 1560 land ownership

dutch agriculture

After 1580 Habsburg absolutism had been precociously overthrown. A new high-revenue, warmaking ‘fiscal-military’ Dutch state was formed in the world’s first bourgeois Revolt.

By virtue of its tax resources, long-term public debt and securities market, the entrepôt became an imperial maritime power active from Brazil to the Spice Islands. 

From the 1840s the batig slot from the East Indies contributed around 4 percent of Dutch GDP; as the price of Javanese coffee and sugar boomed, colonial revenue provided up to one-half of the metropolitan state’s total income.

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, per capita income in the Netherlands remained nearly double that in the Yangtze Delta, and Dutch literacy was well above British rates.

Such was for a time ‘the model capitalist nation,’ in Marx’s words.

Van Zanden - tax revenue 1500-1800 Holland England France

Capture of Cochin

Are the Netherlands today Europe’s laggard, precursor, standard bearer or national anomaly? The verdict on this small territory seems to depend on whether European publicists are in a complacent, self-satisfied mood, or inclined to panic.

In one register, the continent is a paragon of moderation, secularism and well-adjusted compromise, host to many faiths and open to all cultures, ‘an inspiration to the world’ which other lands — a glance at the United States or Japan — would do well to emulate.

In another vein, the country is exemplar of a European political order recently derailed by xenophobic backlash against cultural and demographic change: ‘Call them the hipsters of European neurosis. Take any of the anxieties that have lately beset Europe’s politics and you find the Dutch got there first.’

At the 2007 Venice Biennale, the Dutch entry ‘Citizens and Subjects: the Netherlands, for example’ took The Hague as emblematic of developments in the capitalist nation-state since 1989. Governments increasingly treated immigration as an ’emergency’, applying the machinery of coercive force rather than welfare and service provision.

Thus does polite opinion veer between self-congratulation and sensationalism, its outlook episodic. Having celebrated the fair-weather comity of Maastricht, two decades later the pact’s bleak upshot provokes liberal commentators to hand-wringing.

Do those presiding over Dutch society today possess a coherent formula for rule? The answer to this question is a source of either journalistic comfort or despair. The nature of this formula, or the origin of its dysfunction, is rarely examined coolly.

What then are the hallmarks of Dutch society and its political order, and how did they arise?

At the convenience of Dutch manufacturing firms, guestworkers from Turkey and Morocco were brought in to accommodate labour demand in textiles, shipbuilding and mining until 1974.

No longer expedient for Den Uyl’s Labour government as recession hit, the inflow nonetheless continued via family reunions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This movement of people, mostly to the Randstad, coincided with a downturn in investment and slack demand for employees.

Migration - Turkey and Morocco Migration Netherlands

By 1988, just shy of 25 percent of the Amsterdam workforce was unemployed. Over 50 percent of Moroccan-born residents were out of work.

The Wassenaar Agreement confirmed a tilt in distributive power to the advantage of capital: the wage share of GDP fell 10 percentage points. Real wages did not recover their 1980 level for another generation.

A 2006 article in the Cambridge Journal of Economics named Holland as ‘the OECD country where, after 1982, wage restraint was most adamantly pursued at the national level, by labour unions, employers’ associations and government’:

The response to the, by international standards exceptionally high, reduction in real wage growth, that was achieved after 1982, has been disappointing: Dutch GDP growth and productivity growth were lower during 1984–2000 than in the period 1960–80; and while post–1984 GDP growth has been desultory, labour productivity growth has exhibited a clear downward trend, that was much stronger than the OECD average.

Dutch real wages

Dutch profit rate

Profits recovered regardless.

Enormous pension funds — the Dutch system of retirement provision is one of the world’s most privatized — supply a pool of ready savings for the local capital market. Rather than facilitating productive investment, these assets allow Dutch firms to borrow for mergers, acquisitions and divestment.

Neglected for four decades now, the fixed capital stock has become run down and obsolete, while technical change has stagnated. From 2000 until the crash of 2008, private demand was accounted for by residential investment (construction and dwellings improvement).

Capital age Netherlands

Dutch technical change

This peculiar, hollowed-out domestic profile grants the Netherlands its international role: linking the hinterlands of German-centred Mitteleuropa to the broader North Atlantic zone.

Always tightly entwined with London and US financial markets, the Netherlands played an outsized part in gross capital flows within Europe and without in the leadup to the 2007 crisis.

From the late 1990s, foreign ownership of Dutch government bonds rose to wartime levels.

Ownership % Dutch government debt

National territory, dense with people, also accommodates the virtual encampment of corporations.

In 2012 the Netherlands accounted for 15 percent of all foreign profits reported by US multinational enterprises, easily the most of any country in the world (tax havens Ireland, Bermuda and the UK trail far behind).

This haul of loot from the Netherlands — nearly three times as much as is yielded from US affiliates in the UK — is generated by less than one-sixth of the number of employees.

The Netherlands is home to more than 20 000 ‘letterbox companies’, domiciled there for the jurisdiction’s favourable menu of tax exemptions.

In 2009 a White House press release listed the Netherlands as a tax haven, provoking an official démarche from the Dutch embassy in Washington. The so-called ‘Dutch sandwich’ has entered the journalistic lexicon when discussing tax avoidance.

Dutch sandwich

In 2006 the rock group U2 notoriously shifted its operations from Ireland to the more ‘tax competitive’ Dutch jurisdiction. The Rolling Stones had done the same in the 1970s.

Rolling Stones Dutch tax haven

As in other national economies with swollen financial sectors, the country is now exceptionally unequal.

Dutch housewold wealth distribution

The onset of crisis has not helped matters.

Several large firms (Fortis, ABN Amro. Philips, V&D and Nutreco) cut spending or became insolvent. Non-residential fixed capital formation, already low, fell by 16 percent in 2009. Household expenditure has fallen every year since 2007.

Nearly a third of Dutch mortgage holders held negative equity in the their homes, after a fall in house prices of 15% in 2008 was followed by another 6% in 2012.

Net wealth - Netherlands and others

While private spending is constrained, the Dutch government, which saw its credit rating downgraded in November 2013, spends a similarly low amount on social spending to its British and Luxembourg equivalents.

Traditional frugality has not slackened. Having disposed of the uncooperative Wilders, the Liberal prime minister found new partners willing to hike the VAT, cut health subsidies, loosen employment protection and raise the pension age.

After Vestia, a public-housing association, lost €20 million on derivatives deals, the government obliged it to sell residential properties it owned. This left occupants to become tenants of an international investment fund.

Circumstances are such that, eighteen months ago, 1600 people applied for a job working in the cloakroom of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

In the king’s address to parliament that year, Willem-Alexander, as ventriloquist for the prime minister, declared the end of the Dutch welfare state.

Amid this panorama of gaping inequality and social misery, political authority has remained robust.

The Christian Democrat Ruud Lubbers, taking office at the same time as Helmut Kohl, ruled for 12 years; Kok followed for eight years, succeeded by Balkenende for the same span; Rutte is now in his sixth year.

Electoral convulsions, provoking alarm among bien-pensant commentators, have been absorbed without fuss by political operatives themselves. Upheaval at the polls has not been matched by any corresponding fragility at the apex of executive power, or disturbance in the streets and workplaces.

The partisan system is another matter. Differences of label and identity have long outgrown ideological divisions among Dutch political parties. In the 1990s, a pensée unique spawned purple coalitions uniting Labour with liberals in the same enduring, market-friendly ruling cabinets.

To the numbing chorus praising the wonders of markets, efficiency and privatization, an angry counterpoint naturally emerged, drawing attention from a dazed electorate, cast adrift for two decades while wages stagnated and profits surged.

Among the parliamentary blur, how to distinguish friend from foe, sturdy advocate from unprincipled chancer? The old markers of partisan affiliation and programme were henceforth meaningless covers for momentary calculation. Were not shared culture, religion and ‘community’ the only reliable means of securing loyalty and defining boundaries of group membership?

A succession of entrepreneurial figures from within the established scene — Hans Janmaat, the Liberal and former EU commissioner Frits Bolkestein, the Labour Party’s Paul Scheffer, the doyenne of Dutch social democracy, Hilda Verwey-Jonker, and the Freedom Party ideologue Martin Bosma — thus took loud media stands in defence of the Enlightenment, social cohesion and ‘our fundamental values.’

Unique virtues of the Netherlands were threatened by Islam and recent immigrants:

If everyone’s cultural identity is allowed to persist unimpaired, integration will suffer. And integration there must be, because the Turkish and Moroccan immigrants are here to stay. That is now recognized by all.

If integration is officially declared government policy, which cultural values must prevail: those of the non-Muslim majority or those of the Muslim minority?

[…]

Here there can be no compromise and no truck.

In many parts of the Muslim world the principles I have mentioned are not honoured. Islam is not only a religion, it is a way of life. In this, its vision goes counter to the liberal separation of church and state.

In many Islamic countries there is little freedom of expression. The case of Salman Rushdie may be extreme but still indicates how far apart we are on this issue.

The same goes for tolerance and non-discrimination. The way women are treated in the world of Islam is a stain on the reputation of that great religion.

I repeat that on these essential points there can be no compromise. These principles have a value that is not relative but of the essence.

As elsewhere, the Rushdie affair supplied a pretext.

Centre Democrats - Nederland voor de Nederlanders

Centre Democrats

Far from being threatened, authority was stabilized by these unruly entrants. In Fortuyn and Wilders, it found a supplement of charismatic appeal to make a hidebound parliamentary scene more appetizing, without ever risking popular mobilization against the forces of order in Dutch society.

The compensation of ethno-politics now provides solace and distraction for all comers. The tribal heraldly of orange lion and Islamic crescent alike salves the wounds of unkind labour markets, harassment by police, bureaucratic hostility, political remoteness, social displacement and cultural unmooring.

By comparison, the Socialist Party’s program offers thin, meliorist gruel: ‘Human dignity, equality of worth, and solidarity together with our rational analysis of the world.’

The shift in popular priorities was sealed when the Immigration Minister, defying advice from Cruyff and others, grandly rejected the naturalization of a promising Cote d’Ivoire footballer.

Might maintenance of domestic order now interfere with The Hague’s mission abroad? Can international high politics, however sound and responsible, survive a narrowing base of popular support?

Since 1945 the Dutch elite has been ‘doggedly pro-European.’

Together with Belgium’s Paul-Henri Spaak, J.W. Beyen — a Philips and Unilever executive, parachuted into the postwar foreign ministry without so much as membership of a political party to his record — embraced supranational institutions as the best way to secure Dutch influence otherwise diminished by the end of colonialism. Continental integration meant upward national mobility.

Meanwhile, having briefly defied Truman in Indonesia, The Hague was brought to its senses by Acheson’s threat to discontinue NATO and Marshall Plan support. Thenceforth Dutch governments have humbly made amends with loyal Atlanticism. Joseph Luns would become NATO’s longest-serving secretary general.

Little genuine risk to these priorities is posed by the electoral success of Wilders, who welcomed the lynching of Gaddafi, expressed hope for the new Libyan regime, salutes Tel Aviv as ‘the first line of defence for the West,’ and approved the deployment of Dutch F-16s to Syria and Iraq.

In Europe, on the other hand, the Union’s oligarchic structure provides the best insurance against popular truculence.

The EU’s locus of power is vested in obscure bureaucracy, adept at ‘closed-door decisionmaking.’ Matters are occasionally delegated to the wider population when the stakes are sufficiently trivial or voters can be trusted to behave responsibly. Otherwise this ‘collusive enterprise… serves to take the steam out of issues which European politicians find too hot to handle in public.’

Where voters thwart the will of the regenten, no dodge is deemed too high-handed to bypass the obstruction. In 2005 the EU constitutional treaty promoted joint military action, cooperation between intelligence agencies, and compatible immigration statutes. These were matters of importance and, after rejection at the polls, they were swiftly achieved via the Treaty of Lisbon.

What of translatlantic solidarity? Balkenende’s first cabinet, which included representatives from the Pim Fortuyn List, prominently supported Washington’s regime-change operations in Iraq. Its foreign minister, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, so excelled himself that he was recruited as NATO secretary general. There he oversaw the ramping up of military occupation in Afghanistan.

Indeed, during the last 20 years under Kok, Balkenende and Rutte, the country’s armed forces have participated in each war initiated by the US: the Netherlands provides the only example of such devotion outside the core Anglosphere.

Thus has the Dutch state’s militarism abroad erected and furnished the domestic stage on which Fortuyn, Hirsi Ali and Wilders strut. War against one Muslim population after another contributes the emulsifying substance without which their demagogy would crumple.

Bolkestein in 1989, speaking as the Soviet satellite states collapsed, invoked a ‘clash of values’ and ‘universal rights’: Huntington and Ignatieff at once. He thereby introduced into local discourse the mood music that would accompany NATO’s expansion and belligerence in Eastern Europe, Southwest Asia, North Africa and Central Asia over the next 25 years.

Hirsi Ali shuttled easily from the Dutch Labour Party to the Liberals, then to the American Enterprise Institute.

For the most part there has, therefore, been continuity between domestic agenda and international stance. Where conflict does appear, the truth is that the popular will as expressed at the domestic ballot box is not decisive in the formation of any European state’s politico-military policy abroad. Plans are designed and deliberated upon on high. When they do not already correspond to the wishes of a domestic constituency, civic assent — negative compliance, if not positive enthusiasm — can usually be contrived; where not, it is trumped or flouted. However disagreeable to the voter, parliamentary majorities are stitched together.

The brutal reality of West European politics is that no government has successfully defied the wishes of the United States on a matter of strategic importance since the Suez Crisis.

No matter which crass, deliberately tactless parvenu is chosen to occupy the Catshuis in coming years, this binding imperative cannot be shirked by any Dutch ruler.

Wilders, pledging to reclaim ‘sovereignty’ from Brussels, has said little about the overlord in Washington. He is, assures Bloomberg, ‘strongly pro-US and pro-Israel.’ These are the prerequisites for high office.

Should Turkish accession to the EU ever become a strategic necessity, Dutch assent will doubtless be forthcoming. The most recent advance, in 2005, came during The Hague’s previous presidency of the EU Council; that it again occupies the office is no coincidence.

The Netherlands possesses an enthusiastic demographic constituency with straightforward material interests in Turkish membership of the EU. The liberal establishment has long supported Ankara’s entry as a matter of honour. The cavils of a rump right, indulged for the moment while convenient, will not be brooked if necessity demands otherwise.

timmermans erdogan

But for now chauvinism of the Heimat thrives. Nearly a decade of prolonged European stagnation, punctuated by the blowback of violent attentats and displaced populations, has dissolved cooperative dreams.

The deputy prime minister warns Europe that ‘the dykes are in danger of bursting’ due to migration from the continent’s east. The finance minister suggests that refugee inflows might ‘blow up the welfare state.’ He proposes that the Schengen Area be trimmed to the Benelux countries, Germany, Austria and Sweden, explaining that ‘countries must take their own measures to protect their society.’

These are the polite voices of centre-left moderation.

Deplored everywhere as regression by a formerly pragmatic, liberal-minded people, Dutch anti-immigrant ideology lacks a local reservoir of atavistic images, depicting a nation unspoiled before the arrival of aliens.

Historians estimate that foreigners already made up one-third of the Dutch maritime labour market (whaling fleet, naval seamen, herring fisheries and merchant marine, VOC crews to the East and West Indies) during the late seventeenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century, they numbered one half.

The Dutch Republic, moreover, was a loose confederation that bequeathed few unitary institutions to the post-Napoleonic state. The monarchy is a recent contrivance. It was restored largely by force of Prussian, British and Russian arms, its rule arranged behind the scenes at Vienna.

The Golden Age thus supplies no obvious images d’Épinal of the public sphere (as distinct from the private household). How then to exalt a continuous heritage around which national sentiment today might congregate?

Chauvinist pride is unable to fix on a distinct religious foundation or appeal directly to ethnic bonds. Instead it celebrates the Netherlands’ contemporary cultural mores: sexual tolerance, emancipation of lifestyle, domestic customs and conversational candour as the badge of national character. Provos of the 1960s are telescoped backwards to Spinoza and Erasmus, in a fantasy of unbroken Dutch Enlightenment.

Staid, unremarkable centuries of Calvinism, not to mention contemporary sources of frustration, are projected on to achterlijke foreigners, yet to achieve Enlightenment:

I don’t feel like going through the emancipation of women and homosexuals all over again… because of Turkish and Moroccan boys…

I don’t hate Islam. I find it a backward culture. I have travelled in many parts of the world. Wherever Islam rules, it’s simply ghastly. All that ambiguity. They’re a bit like those old Calvinists. Calvinists are always lying.

No slave to consistency, Fortuyn also appealed to nostalgia for the lost Netherlands of the 1950s. In that postwar decade, before the loosening of the 1960s, traditional cultural authority remained intact under the Labour government.

Behind such parades of national self-love, there is compensation for today’s worldly hardship. Smugness offers a surrogate, a displacement of passions that disguises the source of straitened circumstances for many Dutch people.

But the fascination with Dutch ‘norms and values,’ the concern for heritage protection of the national character, has a deeper source.

The capitalist market unleashes powerful homogenizing tendencies, with its ‘convergence criteria,’ standardized products, land clearances, and disdain for tradition as an obstacle to trade and profit. National distinctions in European manners, dress, cuisine, buildings, artistic output, material culture, child-rearing practices and political institutions have all diminished since 1945. Hybrids have formed.

The Netherlands, famously open to exchange with the world beyond its borders, has adulterated or relinquished many national peculiarities, and absorbed others.

Having razed all features from the landscape, however, the market grows tired of uniformity. Announcing a new respect for endangered folkways, it seeks to promote ersatz ‘local’ flavour.

National identity is retrofitted as brand, colour or product feature.

Thus a central business and recreational district, planned by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, was recently completed for the city of Almere. Almere is a polder town reclaimed from the former Zuiderzee, built during the 1970s.

The new city centre was named ‘Dutchtown.’

A nameless, placeless town… The polder was a perfect tabula rasa, without context, without history, without obstacles, and with a topography that would be shaped entirely in accordance with their wishes. Since there was nothing, everything was possible.

A description of Almere, a kind of exurb built on sand, appears at the conclusion of Simon Schama’s brilliant book on Dutch culture, The Embarrassment of Riches.

The new city represents, says Schama, the recovery of one essential ‘temper of Dutch culture’: gezelligheid, or coziness:

Recently, in reaction against the vast anonymous compounds of high-rise buildings that comprise the urban overspills of the Randstad, there has been a turn back to neighborly intimacy…

And for a city that is supposed to house 200 000 people, Almere makes a decent effort to return to the principle of the buurt, the neighbourhood, by arranging its houses around courtyards.

Inevitably these have a somewhat artificial look, so that from the air Almere looks more like a cantonment… than a group of spontaneously clustered houses.

But there is much brick and tile there, sloping roofs and little yards, and the people have responded with their own natural inclinations for the gezellig.

Gemeenschap, or its pastiche, was thus recovered in unlikely circumstances. Where rootless anomie might otherwise be thought to reign, ‘Dutchness’ had been planted.

In his S, M, L, XL, Koolhaas noted how the postmodern ‘Generic City’ simulates reverence for the past:

There is always a quarter called Lipservice, where a minimum of the past is preserved; usually it has an old train/tramway or double-decker bus driving through it, ringing ominous bells — domesticated versions of the Flying Dutchman’s phantom vessel.

Its phone booths are either red and transplanted from London, or equipped with small Chinese roofs. Lipservice — also called Afterthought, Waterfront, Too Late, 42nd Street, simply the Village, or even Underground — is an elaborate mythic operation: it celebrates the past as only the recently conceived can. It is a machine.

The Generic City had a past. In its drive for prominence, large sections of it somehow disappeared, first unlamented — the past apparently was surprisingly unsanitary, even dangerous — then, without warning, relief turned into regret…

In spite of its absence, history is the major preoccupation, even industry, of the Generic City. On the liberated grounds, around the restored hovels, still more hotels are constructed to receive additional tourists in direct proportion to the erasure of the past.

Meanwhile, late-capitalist ‘Junkspace’, said Koolhaas, meant ‘the end of Enlightenment, its resurrection as farce.’

In this, as well, today’s Netherlands is hardly alone.

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If a crime, a very widespread one: Brazil’s tropical Atlanticism

March 23, 2016

A mere 25 years after Flaubert invented a new literary technique for puncturing the daydreams, bêtises and received opinion of the French Second Empire, technology transfer allowed Machado de Assis to release an upgraded version in Brazil.

Machado’s Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881) arrived just as Brazil’s monarchy expired and coffee planters forfeited their human property. Rarely has a novel been so perfectly on the spot to expose ruling delusions at their moment of enunciation. Still relatively obscure behind its lusophone veil, today it remains the national classic.

Towards the novel’s end, its narrating antihero sizes up his brother-in-law, a grotesque ornament of Rio de Janeiro’s mercantile and slave-trading class:

Perhaps Cotrim’s scruples will seem excessive to one who didn’t know that he possessed an extremely honourable character. I myself was unjust with him…

Since he was cold in his manners, he had enemies who even accused him of being a barbarian. The only fact alleged in that particular was his frequent sending of slaves to the dungeon, from where they would emerge dripping with blood.

But, alongside the fact that he only sent recalcitrants and runaways, it so happens that, having been long involved in the smuggling of slaves, he’d become accustomed to a certain way of dealing that was a bit harsher than the business required, and one can’t honestly attribute to the original nature of man what is simply the effect of his social relations.

The proof that Cotrim had pious feelings could be found in his love for his children… He wasn’t perfect, needless to say…

In short, he may have been owing in a few courtesies, but he didn’t owe anyone a penny.

Machado’s late-nineteenth century irony may seem a little heavy: able, surely, to puncture only the crudest and most complacent of elite hypocrisies.

Yet in point of historical fact, self-apology in the Brazilian Empire, the last slave society in the Americas, regularly proceeded in just the manner lampooned.

By 1870 or so, the sense of provincial isolation and national backwardness in the country’s most urbanized, developed districts was stark. Coffee planters in Rio, Minas Gerais and São Paulo, their counter-Abolitionist repertoire now depleted, relied upon diffident and contorted intellectual defences of labour coercion.

With Britain’s Royal Navy having dealt a humiliating slap to Brazilian amour-propre in its own territorial waters, local ideology adopted, as its alibi, the lofty notes of Palmerston’s liberalism in its high era.

Royal Navy 1851 Brazil

How was this done?

In bland oratory before the Chamber of Deputies, lumbering editorial columns in the Jornal do Commercio, and the private diaries and letters of great merchants and landholding families, the awkward details of today’s personal misdeeds were dissolved in a general mist of timeless, universal national failings.

The US South’s ‘our peculiar institution’ had a sheepish Brazilian counterpart. There the contemptuous term for national defects — brasileirice — mitigated the local oligarchy’s gravest enormities, converting them into the merest quirk and bagatelle.

Institutional imperfections, acknowledged as the source of individual misconduct, tempered any undue criticism of either Brazilian notables or society itself.

Cleansed in this bath of tartuffery, mutual self-satisfaction was restored. After a few doleful shrugs, the virtue of planters, politicians and slave traders gleamed anew.

Thus, in his book on Machado, the literary critic Roberto Schwarz quotes a parliamentary address made by the Conservative Party’s then-leader.

In 1850, Eusébio de Queirós sought public exculpation for Brazil’s political corps, following abolition of the transatlantic slave trade:

Let us be frank. In Brazil, the [slave] traffic was linked to the interests, or, more correctly, to the presumed interests of our planters.

And in a country in which agriculture has so much power, it was natural that public opinion… would express itself in favour of the traffic.

Why does it then surprise us that our politicians bowed before that law of necessity? Why is it surprising that all of us — friends or enemies of the traffic — bowed to that necessity?

Gentlemen, if this was a crime, it was a very widespread crime in Brazil. But I maintain that when in a nation all the political parties hold power, when all of its politicians have been called to exercise that power, and all of them agree on one policy, that policy must have been based on very powerful considerations.

It cannot possibly be a crime, and it would be bold to call it a mistake.

The senator for Rio de Janeiro, Queirós was himself born in Angola to a family of slave merchants. He would later remark to parliament: ‘Gentlemen, the great interests, if they do not justify, almost always explain the behaviours which, at first glimpse, are not understood.’

Such, more recently, has been the self-justification proffered by successive Brazilian governments, as corruption scandals consumed the high command of the Workers’ Party (PT).

First came revelations of systematic vote-buying by Lula’s first administration in 2005. More recently a judicial investigation into Petrobras kickbacks, its details gleefully amplified by Globo and the other São Paulo media, has dogged Dilma Rousseff.

Alas, both presidents have declared sombrely, such lack of probity has long been the Brazilian way in public office and business. Contemporary enormities reappear in a flattering light, they explain, when compared to the failings of their predecessors.

When reckoning the moral ledger and comparing eras, must not adjustments be made for inflation?

Such imponderables yield the result that no person convicted of insider trading or other capital-markets crime has ever been imprisoned in Brazil.

After narrow acclamation at the polls in late 2014, the president imposed a ‘fiscal hawk’, nicknamed ‘Scissorhands’, as finance minister. On Dilma’s behalf, Joaquim Levy busied himself ‘cancelling subsidies and cutting handouts.’

The Wall Street Journal made approving note of Dilma’s agile reversal from her electoral platform, with ‘a move to more conservative policymaking’:

During the presidential campaigns, Ms. Rousseff ran campaign ads portraying bankers maniacally laughing as food disappeared from the plates of the poor. Just weeks later, the former Marxist rebel is appointing a banker to her cabinet.

Personal origins, of course, as Brazilian history proves, are no reliable guide to political conduct: Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, was himself once a Marxist sociologist of worldwide fame.

Another scholar, Roberto Unger, renowed theorist of ’empowerment’ at Harvard Law School, briefly became Lula’s minister of Strategic Affairs. (Not the only celebrity appointment: Gilberto Gil was appointed culture minister.)

While in office, Unger oversaw development of a national defence strategy that would, as its main planks, boost industrial capacity in Brasilia’s armaments industry, and plunge Brazil’s armed forces in peacekeeping expeditions abroad.

A few months after the 2014 election, the Economist observed with satisfaction that Dilma’s fiscal and monetary programme was now ‘closer to that of her defeated opponent, Aécio Neves, than to the one she campaigned on.’

Disjunction between spectacle and policy substance remains.

Meanwhile Brazil’s historical pattern of electoral allegiance has been inverted, with the PT now winning voters in the former oligarchic redoubt of the northeast, and disapproval in the traditional urban-industrial centres of the south.

Brazil 2014 presidential election by region

Yet two years of deep recession and the Petrobras scandal now threaten to undo Dilma’s presidency. Brazil’s familiar framework of state-capital relations, erected with Washington’s tutelage in the early 1950s, preserved under the generals, and rejuvenated over the past two decades under PT governments, may yet capsize.

This institutional model was settled upon as a second-best solution when full privatization was not politically acceptable and local credit markets insufficiently deep. Market failures, and the longer time horizons needed for investments in energy and transportation, justified the Brazilian state’s holding a controlling stake in hundreds of firms at national and provincial level.

Today the state holds minority equity positions and provides subsidized credit to local firms via its development bank (BNDES), sovereign wealth fund and pension funds. Rents in oil, mining and utilities, sizeable during the long commodity boom, were shared between government and private owners.

Returns from these high-yield investments funded costly social programmes like the Bolsa Família. Meanwhile disbursement of loans and contracts, and appointment to boards, benefited obedient functionaries and politically connected capitalists (notoriously, Eike Batista and Marcelo Odebrecht).

Thus was a political coalition stitched together.

brazil development bank equity holdings

Into this consensual scene spilled the June 2013 demonstrations, made up largely of the highly educated but tenuously employed. Wrongfooted by negative headlines during the FIFA Confederations Cup, the government responded with a mixture of repression and cosmetic concessions on public services.

To popular discontent was soon added a split in elite ranks.

The following year brought unwinding of the global carry trade, with collapse of the oil price and the emerging-markets asset bubble. Brazil’s currency, government revenue and growth rate fell violently.

In such circumstances, when striking at the nexus between Petrobras, the PT, construction firms, electoral finance and parliamentary clientelism, it suddenly was possible for media and judiciary to challenge longstanding conventions of domestic rule.

Local commentators and international observers now insist that a private-ownership market economy is an all-or-nothing affair. Brazilian firms have become financially constrained since dollar liquidity dried up in 2014. There is no room for coddled favourites or sweetheart deals. State interference in credit allocation must end; government liabilities must be reduced; the double-bottom line of social goals for private enterprises must be replaced by the single objective of profitability.

Since 2011 Dilma has promised much but failed to reform pensions or attack inflation.

The budget deficit and the currency crisis now demand focus on short-term imperatives: restoring creditworthiness of the state and private borrowers, and cutting costs.

The electoral base of the PT — and the constitutionally mandated existence of multiple veto points in the presidency, cabinet, legislature and Party bureaucracy — present obstacles to this project. Painful reforms are too easily thwarted. What is demanded is rule by technocrats insulated from popular accountability.

How to impose such a government, only a year into Dilma’s presidential term, without threatening the entire post-1989 legal framework of civilian rule?

Following his release from detention this week, Lula observed of the PT’s Paulista enemies: ‘with the press leading the investigative process they are going to re-found the republic.’

recent article from the Financial Times summarized the contending perspectives among the local elite leading to Brazil’s ongoing political crisis:

One São Paulo businessman points out that the impeachment of Mr Collor not only relieved the intense pressure within the political system, it also provided the backdrop for important economic reforms — notably the Real Plan that ended hyperinflation…

Most importantly, there is little consensus among the economic, media and political elite about how to resolve the current crisis and considerable anxiety about the consequences of a new impeachment.

Lula’s recent detention may signal the end of the prolonged irresolution. It had, noted the FT, ‘raised hopes among investors that the barriers to political change may be overcome sooner than expected.’

What can be concluded from this scene?

On one hand, since restoration of civilian government in 1985, Brazil has witnessed abrupt reversals in regional growth patterns alongside birth of new political parties. This has produced dramatic swings in electoral affiliation from one ballot to the next (and policy continuity after the new government is sworn in). The 1988 constitution has already been amended more than 70 times.

On the other hand, amid the novelty of social-democratic rule, there seem to persist the perennial national traditions: complaisant acceptance of staggering levels of corruption, deference to authority and respect for social hierarchy.

people 50 most beautiful people 1990

In this huge territory, whose glinting surface announces stillness at one moment and churning disorder the next, what deeper processes are at work?

An exceptionally helpful guide to Brazil’s long-term development from Vargas to Lula can be found in Adalmir Marquetti’s study of Brazil’s macroeconomic performance between 1953 and 2003.

Following the trente glorieuses of postwar industrial development (Kubitschek famously promised 50 years of progress in five years), Brazilian capital accumulation was much slowed after 1980.

Debt repayments to creditors abroad absorbed much of the domestic surplus product. The local propertied classes frittered away most of the rest on luxury displays.

Investment per worker - Brazil

batista car living room

Infrastructure (roads, ports and electricity) consequently languishes in a deplorable state. Only 14 percent of roads in the country are paved. Power rationing regularly looms during summer months.

Paucity of fixed investment, and Brazil’s sectoral shift from manufacturing to less equipment-intensive activities, has also meant a slowdown in mechanization.

Capital-labour ratio Brazil

Lance Taylor has outlined the consequence of policies adopted, by Cardoso and Lula alike, at the behest of the IMF:

Brazil enjoyed GDP growth of about 7.5% per year for more than three decades prior to the international debt crisis triggered by the Mexican default in 1982.

Foreign finance dried up immediately, and to meet debt service obligations Brazil had to transform a trade deficit of 2.2% of GDP in 1980 to a surplus of 5.9% by 1984.

This massive macroeconomic shift required currency devaluation (itself inflationary in an “indexed” economy where most current prices were tied to lagged overall price indexes), demand contraction, and (arguably) steadily rising prices as a means for cutting back on real spending via “forced saving.”

Liberalization-cum-appreciation were associated with de-industrialization. In metropolitan São Paulo, the industrial heart of the country, in 1990 48.7% of private sector workers were employed in industry, with the figure falling to 32% in 1999.

The employment share of services correspondingly increased. Relative service sector as well as skilled wages also rose. In six major metropolitan regions, total unemployment (“open” and “hidden”) went from 10.3% in 1990 to 17.7% in 2000.

As in other countries, demand growth was insufficient to offset faster productivity growth so there was negative net job creation. Informality in the labor market also increased.

Thus growth in domestic labour productivity stalled for two decades, resuming only with Lula’s accession.

Labour productivity Brazil

After falling throughout the 1970s and the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s, Brazil’s output-capital ratio (or ‘capital productivity’, by analogy) recovered in the late 1980s and has since fluctuated with the business cycle.

Labour productivity and capital productivity - Brazil

This result was due less to technical progress, than to the increasing price of output relative to the price of capital goods (equipment, machinery, non-residential buildings). The relative price of capital rose until 1989 then became less costly.

Output-capital ratio Brazil

What, meanwhile, of distributional conflict in notoriously unequal Brazil?

The share of profits in national income, after rising sharply under the dictatorship, fell again from the late 1970s until the mid-1990s. Since the Cardoso administration, the profit share has recovered, with productivity growth mostly outstripping the rise in wages and salaries.

Wage share Brazil - Cardoso and Lula

forbes brazil

Such is the result of drastically unequal bargaining power in the labour market: around 42 percent of non-agricultural employees are informal. Brazil has the greatest number of informal employees of any country besides India.

When combined with stabilization of the output-capital ratio, this favourable distributional climate under Cardoso and Lula has raised the average rate of profit.

Profit rate Brazil - Cardoso and Lula

What by 2007 the world’s journalists hailed as a Brazilian Wirtschaftswunder is nonetheless beset by financial fragility of a familiar sort.

Like other economies that have experienced short-term capital inflow in pursuit of speculative gains, Brazil follows a periodic cycle, at gradually greater amplitudes, of asset-price inflation and exchange-rate appreciation, allowing a consumption boom fuelled by imports and easy liquidity, followed by deindustrialization and a real-estate bubble, and culminating in withdrawal of external funds, currency depreciation and inflation.

Brazil current account to GDP

Brazil exchange rate 2012-2015

Brazil indeed shows evidence of ‘early deindustrialization’: a switching of capital into natural resources and raw materials. Brazilian firms now operate closest to the technological frontier (i.e. approximate the level of the world’s most productive and mechanized firms) in mining, energy and food production.

Brazil labour productivity by manufacturing subgroup

Once more, as though four decades of import substitution had never occurred, the country depends on external suppliers for machinery and consumer goods.

In 1990 Collor, busily dismantling protectionist props for the local steel and automotive industry, joked that ‘Brazil does not produce cars; it builds horse carts.’

Today the rustic image seems apt. Soybeans, sugarcane and iron ore buoy the current account.

Brazil manufacturing industries - trade balance by subgroup

Even as unproductive sectors such as finance and residential construction become more important drivers of growth, since the mid-1990s Brazilian economic output has become increasingly tied to rising carbon dioxide emissions. This is an index of the weight of agricultural and mining activities.

CO2 to GDP ratio Brazil

Brasilia’s external posture follows from this domestic pattern of production. Since the 1990s governments have preoccupied themselves with regional and WTO trade negotiations in which agricultural subsidies might be reduced and the field cleared for Brazil’s ‘national champions’.

What more generally?

Despite the vast size of its population, territory and internal market, and regular overblown promises of its ascent to the ranks of a major power, Brazil has never been a diplomatic or military entity of much significance.

The New York Times complained recently:

While the other three large emerging economies, China, Russia and India, are pursuing muscular foreign policies, under Ms. Rousseff’s watch, Brazil’s voice in the international arena barely registers above a whisper…

American officials saw significant promise in Ms. Rousseff during her early years in office, viewing her as a more pragmatic leader than her predecessor and mentor.

In the United States, misgivings have been voiced that Chinese FDI and Brazilian exports to China make Brasilia a less reliable ally for Washington in the General Assembly.

The odour lingers of Lula’s defiance over Palestine and Ahmadinejad. Brazilian qualms about Obama’s mega-trade agreements irk, without actually endangering a prized US objective.

Yet the facts show Dilma’s government going out of its way to accommodate the State Department. Upon taking office, she immediately embraced the ‘international consensus’ on Tehran, and replaced Lula’s foreign minister with a more amenable nonentity.

The Financial Times noted a ‘growing sense of bonhomie between the two countries’:

For the US, Brazil is looking more than ever like a friendly face in an increasingly multipolar world,  one that is tilting slowly towards east Asia… Brazilian foreign policy has changed subtly under Dilma Rousseff – and become less aggravating to the US…

For ten years Brazil has been nominal head of the US-led military intervention in Haiti. In 2010 Washington and Brasilia signed a military-cooperation agreement governing technology exchange, joint exercises, logistics and intelligence sharing.

Last year Dilma, beaming on a visit to the US capital, assured all that she harboured no hard feelings towards Obama for the NSA’s monitoring of her telephone and email conversations, because ‘should he ever need nonpublic information about Brazil, he would just pick up the phone and call me.’

The ‘love affair’ between Lula and Sarkozy sealed deals for Brazil to acquire submarines and Dassault aircraft, tightening relations with one of NATO’s most belligerent members. Buying French weaponry and sensors, with a technology-transfer agreement attached, is a traditional method by which aspiring military powers enhance their strategic reach while remaining safely within the US security umbrella.

Vast dollar reserves, and the march of Brazil’s agricultural frontier to Pará and the remote Amazonian west, have increased commercial and logistic ties with the rest of Latin America.

Brasilia, notes the New York Times, plays ‘a constructive role in the economic and political evolution’ of Cuba as it is reincorporated into the capitalist world-system. BNDES recently funded and the engineering firm Odebrecht built Port Mariel, a Cuban container terminal tricked out with a Special Economic Zone nearby.

Meanwhile, in support of ‘multi-polarity’, Lula embarked on diplomatic and commercial forays across the Atlantic.

The lusophone band stretching intermittently from Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, to São Tomé and Príncipe and Angola, offered Brazil a potential strategic beachhead in the Gulf of Guinea. It has begun to project its navy into the oil-rich maritime seaboard between Senegal to Angola, taking part in US-led anti-piracy exercises off West Africa, and providing equipment and training to local armed forces.

Since 2008, it has conducted joint naval exercises off southern Africa with its Indian and South African counterparts. Lula installed a ‘military advisory team’ in Walvis Bay, and concluded military agreements with South Africa in 2003, Guinea-Bissau (2006), Mozambique (2009), Nigeria (2010), Senegal (2010), Angola (2010), and Equatorial Guinea (2010 and 2013).

Brazilian corps Africa

The bonds of shared culture and ‘South-South’ solidarity aside, geology has supplied Brazilian statecraft with its legitimizing theme.

When Petrobras discovered abundant offshore hydrocarbon deposits in the South Atlantic, Lula hailed it as the second coming of national independence.

His Secretary of the Navy invented the term ‘Blue Amazon’, affirming that ‘the untold riches of the marine space under national jurisdiction also require a Naval Power able to protect them.’ The government’s 2012 military White Paper rebranded Brazil’s offshore Exclusive Economic Zone as an integral part of the national territory.

This strategic novelty was accompanied by textbooks and an educational campaign for the Brazilian public, so patriotic schoolchildren could take appropriate pride in deepwater oil deposits.

 

blue amazon

But offshore ambitions extended far beyond Brazil’s coastal waters.

The 2012 White Paper declared a national interest in controlling South Atlantic trade routes:

The Atlantic Ocean holds some relevant strategic areas, such as the “Atlantic Throat”, the area between the Brazilian Northeast Coast and Western Africa which is vital for world trade. The southern passages, which link the Atlantic to the Pacific, constitute an alternative route to the Panama Canal, mainly for large ships. The Cape of Good Hope’s route, connecting the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, is an alternative to the Suez Canal and also offers better maritime access to Antarctica.

Between the Caribbean and Antarctic, a new gyre of seaborne freight had formed.

Nigerian oil, no longer directed across the Atlantic to North America, was increasingly shipped to East Asia. Tankers skirted the South American coast on their way west through the Drake Passage, Cape Horn and Magellan Straits.

Mindful of events in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, where regional governments operate as Washington’s proxies in its contest against Beijing, Brasilia’s planners warned ‘militarily significant states of other regions’ against interference:

The military presence of these states in the Atlantic Ocean should be reduced and, in future, eliminated. States located in other regions should not project on the South Atlantic any conflicts and rivalries that are alien to it.

Thatcher’s ‘spirit of the South Atlantic’ was to be reclaimed by the locals.

Was this a hopeless velleity? Cool-headed rejection of the internecine logic churning the maritime straits of Southeast Asia – or just another instance of it?

The Brazilian government would equip its navy to undertake patrols and inspections, conduct surveillance and establish reconnaissance facilities, engage in interception and forced boarding, detain crews and seize vessels throughout ‘the region delimited by the 16th parallel north, the west coast of Africa, Antarctica, the East coast of South America and the East coasts of the Lesser Antilles.’

South Atlantic maritime transit
South Atlantic islands

In earlier decades, a few Brazilian strategists had fantasized about dominating the sealanes of the South Atlantic. But for over a century the local elite had not sought a naval domain consonant with the nation’s population, coastline or dependence on seaborne freight.

What now accounted for the change?

Unger, under whom Obama had studied at Harvard, reversed traditional diplomatic verbiage in offering an explanation. Brasilia was not defensively responding to existential threat, but seeking the place in the sun due to any self-respecting rising power:

We are not concerned by the strength of our neighbors, but we are concerned by our own weakness. The national defense strategy is not a circumstantial response to circumstantial problems. It is a far-reaching inflection, a change of course and a change of direction.

His president took the opposite line, pleading Brazil’s territorial vulnerability to imperial plunder.

When the US Navy re-established its Fourth Fleet in 2008, Lula publicly fumed:

The [Brazilian] Navy plays an important role in protecting our sub-salt reserves, because the men of Fourth Fleet are almost there on top of the sub-salt areas…

Our Navy has to be the guardian of our offshore oil platforms to protect our patrimony, because before you know it some wise guy will come along and say: ‘This is mine, it’s at the bottom of the ocean anyway, so it’s mine.’

His defence minister, later revealed to be a sub rosa source of intelligence for the US State Department, went further in playing to national feeling:

Brazil will not allow the Fourth Fleet to enter and operate within the limits of the  territorial sea. This is not a boast, but a warning. If it enters territorial waters, Brazil will have every right to protest and the U.S. will not want a diplomatic incident. Anyway, the reactivation shows an urgent need to re-equip and modernize the Brazilian Navy…

Thus did the public rhetoric of ‘multi-polarity’ prosper last decade. Among sympathetic journalists, it was presented as a counterweight to the unilateralism and bullying of the G.W. Bush administration.

Would not Brazil — a former colony, newly democratic, its multi-ethnic population famously genial and only recently indigent — promote a diplomacy of treaties and consensus, rather than the belligerence and ultimatums favour by the western hemisphere’s long-time overlord, accustomed to getting its way?

Perhaps, duly enlarged with fresh members, the oligarchy of imperial powers might adopt new methods for resolving disputes and mediating claims. Remade to 21st-century specifications, the new security order would preclude the outbreak of destructive, fratricidal conflict, and end the post-1945 subordination of lesser (European and East Asian) capitals to Washington.

Might the gradual development of strategic parity — in which emerging economies like Brazil, playing catch-up, found their ambitions accommodated — create a more peaceful, less anachronistic inter-state system?

Such pieties did not survive Dilma’s first presidential term.

Brazilian aggrandizement does not presage arrival of a Concert of Powers, sharing the world equitably and pacifically. It is a symptom, not a correction, of chronic disproportion in the world’s productive capacity and relations between states.

As propensity to invest within the United States wanes, aspiring powers can leverage great, momentary flares of dollar liquidity. Asset prices are bid up, local firms enjoy huge rents, the Treasury is filled. New spending power allows firms to acquire foreign assets and the government to upgrade military programs and extend its reach abroad.

Once gained, these prizes must be preserved against encroachment from foreign rivals.

Last year came reports that Beijing was negotiating a base at Walvis Bay. Meanwhile Chinese investment in Nigeria, Mozambique, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa has brought in its tow influence in regional palaces and chancelleries.

This, as AFRICOM and its NATO allies discover new missions in stability promotion and counter-terrorism, is the context for Brasilia’s neighbourly approach to anti-piracy drills.

As speculative euphoria within Brazil collapses, Dilma’s fiscal retrenchment has mostly spared weapons programs. If the Planalto’s occupant is not yet judged an automatically loyal second for the White House, Brazil remains a ‘responsible stakeholder’ within the US system of power.

Otherwise, with its debt now rated as junk, Brasilia has little capacity for effective political initiative outside South America.

dilma obama g20

If the armed forces have played an outsized role in national life since the War of the Triple Alliance and founding of the Republic, traditionally the Brazilian elite has neglected to pursue external ambitions.

Brazil’s frontiers abut almost every country in South America. But these border regions are largely impassable jungles, mountains, and arid, sparsely populated badlands. This topography has secured against attack or invasion from abroad, while nurturing a somewhat parochial outlook among the local oligarchy and intellectuals.

More crucially, the unpropitious landscape — Amazon in the west, unforgiving Sertão in the northeast, Cerrado in the interior, and precipitous slums in the urban southeast — has challenged the state’s ability to maintain exclusive authority, knit together an integrated national market and extract an economic surplus from its vast territory.

Rebellions against government authority are met with ferocity: land clearances for dams on the agricultural frontier, special forces rampaging in the favelas.

SISFRON

The sea beyond this territorial cage has often served as a utopian fantasy for Brazilian artists, isolated by language and geography from the rest of Latin America.

‘There’s gold in the sea beyond,’ announces a stricken Geraldo Del Rey, tramping across Brazil’s arid northeast in Black God, White Devil.

‘The sertão will become the sea and the sea the sertão,’ comes the answer from followers of a messianic leader, modelled on the historical figure of Conselheiro. (Conselheiro’s separatist community was brutally razed by the Rio government in 1897. He was later traduced in Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel about the battle of CanudosWar at the End of the World).

In Barravento, Glauber Rocha spins an allegorical picture of Brazilian society out of a Bahia fishing village’s relationship with the sea, and their worship of a sea goddess.

The last decade of placid growth, helped by a benign wind from the east, was said to have lifted Brazil out of its accustomed position, catching it in permanent updraft: in Unger’s words, ‘inflection, a change of course and a change of direction.’

The latest volta do mar has brought one more familiar deluge.

Promises, promises: Turkey as borrower and proxy

December 9, 2014

In 1936, two months after arriving at Istanbul University from Hitler’s Germany, the philologist Erich Auerbach reported back to Walter Benjamin in Paris, offering his first impressions of Kemalist Turkey.

Charmed by his ‘glorious’ new house on the Bosphorus, Auerbach viewed the cultural policies of the ‘sympathetic autocrat’ in Ankara more warily.

Official replacement of Arabic by Latin script, and the ‘purification’ of alien loanwords from the language, seemed to the German scholar to have brought cultural deracination.

The Turkish young had been severed from any link to their Persian, Ottoman and Arabic past:

They have thrown all tradition overboard here, and they want to build a thoroughly rationalized—extreme Turkish nationalist—state of the European sort.

The process is going fantastically and spookily fast: already there is hardly anyone who knows Arabic or Persian, and even Turkish texts of the past century will quickly become incomprehensible since the language is being modernized and at the same time newly oriented on “Ur-Turkish,” and it is being written with Latin characters…

According to official mythology Turks were, indeed, the very originators of human language and spreaders of civilization to the world.

A few months later, Auerbach sketched out the programme of the Kemalist state and its ‘fanatically anti-traditional nationalism’:

Rejection of all existing Islamic cultural heritage, the establishment of a fantastic relation to a primal Turkish identity, technological modernization in the European sense, in order to triumph against a hated and yet admired Europe with its own weapons: hence, the preference for European-educated emigrants as teachers, from whom one can learn without the threat of foreign propaganda.

Result: nationalism in the extreme accompanied by the simultaneous destruction of the historical national character…

Istanbul itself was a ‘a wonderfully situated but also unpleasant and rough city consisting of two different parts’:

The old Stambool, of Greek and Turkish origin, which still preserves much of the patina of its historic landscape, and the “new” Pera, a caricature and completion of the European colonization of the 19th century, now in complete collapse.

A year later Auerbach again complained, this time to Johannes Oeschger, of ‘a purist nationalism that destroys the living tradition, and that bases itself in part on completely fantastical conceptions of ur-times, and in part on modern-rationalist ideas’:

Piety is combated, Islamic culture despised as an alien Arabic infiltration, one wants to be at the same time modern and purely Turkish, and it has gone so far that through the abolition of the old script, through the elimination of Arabic loan words and their replacement by Turkish neologisms and partly by European loan words, the language has been totally destroyed: no young person is any longer able to read the older literature — and there reigns a spiritual lack of direction that is extremely dangerous.

In 1926 Kemal had notoriously imported Mussolini’s penal code from Italy, embracing it as ‘compatible with the needs of our century’.

Abolition of the Caliph, suppression of dervishes, etc., was necessary, Kemal proclaimed, ‘in order to prove that our nation as a whole was no primitive nation, filled with superstitions and prejudice.’ The fez had ‘sat on our heads as a sign of ignorance, of fanaticism, of hatred to progress and civilization.’

Thus spoke the great Gazi (the term itself a religious honorific) in his six-day, 36-hour speech to the Turkish assembly.

He is pictured below at a blackboard marked with the new alphabet.

Kemal 1928 blackboard

By the mid-1930s, placed in European context, Turkish autocracy presented alarming signs to the émigré Auerbach.

What was ‘not yet a certainty for everyone’ in fascist Italy and Germany, ‘steps forth here in complete nakedness’:

The language reform—at once fantastical ur-Turkish (“free” from Arabic and Persian influences) and modern-technical—has made it certain that no one under 25 can any longer understand any sort of religious, literary, or philosophical text more than ten years old and that, under the pressure of the Latin script, which was compulsorily introduced a few years ago, the specific properties of the language are rapidly decaying…

I am more and more convinced that the contemporary world situation is nothing other than the cunning of providence to lead us along a bloody and circuitous route to the Internationale of Triviality and Esperanto culture.

I thought this already in Germany and Italy, especially in the horrifying inauthenticity of Blut und Boden propaganda, but here for the first time it has become a certainty for me.

Such was not merely the familiar tendency of German exiles, easily discomposed, apt to detect worrying similarities to Hitler’s regime in places of refuge.

Across Europe, the invented traditions of late-Victorian nationalism — the ceremony of flags, anthems, rituals and insignia — as well as compulsory schooling in a common language, the fusing of national markets by domestic transport and communication infrastructure, and the assumption by national bureaucracies of administrative and tax-raising power over a henceforth homogenized territorial jurisdiction, had famously converted peasants into Frenchmen.

In both the European metropoles and their colonial possessions, ‘modernization’ proceeded through the dragooning of diverse peoples into a unitary national culture. ‘Annihilate the patois!’ ran the project.

Yet the particular grandiosity and vacuity of Turkish nationalism after 1923 rested on a blank slate, both territorial and cultural, created by erasure and ethnic cleansing.

In the same year that Kemal abolished the Caliphate, launched his Kulturkampf and imposed the Turkish Republic’s enlightened new constitution, he addressed an audience in Adana:

The Armenians have no rights whatsoever in this fertile land. The country belongs to you, the Turks. This country has been Turkish in history, and thus is Turkish and will eternally live as Turkish…

The Armenians and others have no rights in this place. These fertile places are a profoundly and quintessentially Turkish country.

In 1916 the grand vizier Talaat Pasha had issued an edict concerning the ‘Turkification’ of assets confiscated from Armenians deported and killed during the genocide.

Looted wealth was to be assigned to the local Muslim elite, urban merchants and peasantry:

The movable property left by the Armenians should be conserved for long-term preservation, and for the sake of an increase of Muslim businesses in our country, companies need to be established strictly made up of Muslims. Movable property should be given to them under suitable conditions that will guarantee the business’ steady consolidation.

The founder, the management and the representatives should be chosen from honourable leaders and the elite, and to allow tradesmen and agriculturists to participate in its dividends, the vouchers need to be half a lira or one lira and registered to their names to preclude that the capital falls in foreign hands.

The growth of entrepreneurship in the minds of Muslim people needs to be monitored, and this endeavour and the results of its implementation needs to be reported to the Ministry step by step.

The plunder of Armenian property in Anatolia included farms, houses, livestock, factories, workshops, plantations, shops, schools, churches, tools and equipment — all officially designated as ‘abandoned properties’ after the land had been denuded of Armenians, massacred under cover of war.

Confiscated Armenian buildings by province 1Confiscated Armenian buildings by province 2

Under Kemal, agents of genocide were rewarded for services to the fledgling nation, with the president’s own official residence lifted from an Ankara merchant:

[The] family of district governor of Muş, Servet Bey, who in 1915 had annihilated the Armenians of that city, was awarded a composite package of Armenian property.

The family of Cemal Azmi, the murderous governor of Trabzon, was also assigned considerable ‘reparation’, specifically from Armenian properties.

Hafız Abdullah Avni, a hotel owner who had collaborated in the genocide in Erzincan, was executed for his crimes in 1920 by the Istanbul tribunal. His wife, Hatice Hanım, was compensated with a house and a field from the Armenian villages of Şuhe and Kani.

The fanatical district governor of Boğazlıyan, Mehmed Kemal Bey, had left behind a family in Yozgat. They received a large apartment and a house from the available Armenian property in that area.

Dr. Bahaeddin Shakir Bey’s family received a house in the upmarket Şişli district of Istanbul.

The former district governor of Urfa, Mehmed Nusret Bey, had played a key role during the genocide and was executed in 1919 for his crimes. His wife, Hayriye Hanım, was compensated with a shop and a house in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, on Cadde-i Kebîr (the current İstiklâl Caddesi) on numbers 264 and 266. The property was located in the Aznavur Han and originally belonged to a merchant named Bedros.

Cemal Pasha’s heirs and family were compensated with the property of Vicken Hokachian, a merchant in Istanbul. A shop and a strip of land in Beyoğlu across the French cemeteryas large as 1,450 square metres, was assigned to his wife Senice, his daughter Kamran, his sons Ahmed Rüşdü, Hasan Necdet, Hasan Behçet, his big sister Şaziye and little sister Bakire.

The list is long…

All are signed by President Mustafa Kemal Pasha and his cabinet of veteran Young Turks…

Along with the local Turkish population, new Muslim settlers to Anatolia (from the Balkans and Caucasus) picked over the booty left behind in suddenly vacant Armenian villages:

In 1915 the amount of property allocated to settlers was 20 545 buildings, 267 536 acres of land, 76 942 acres of vineyards, 7 812 acres of gardens, 703 491 acres of olive groves, 4 573 acres of mulberry gardens, 97 acres of orange fields, 5 carts, 4 390 animals, 2 912 agricultural implements, 524 788 planting seeds.

Forced expulsion across the Aegean of nearly one million Anatolian Greeks in 1923 was capped off, in 1955, by Istanbul’s anti-Greek pogrom.

The objective, in the words of the Turkish Army in 1922, was that Greek and Armenian ‘material ties to Anatolia will be disconnected.’

By 1924 the non-Muslim population of Anatolia, 20 percent in 1912, was down to 2 percent.

Kemal in Smyrna 1922

Kemal in Smyrna 1922 more

One upshot of this severing was that Turkish nationalism, inheriting razed earth, would be likewise unbound by preexisting constraints or obstacles.

Kemal’s state-led modernization, leaving property relations untouched and making no attempt at agrarian reform, would aim to drive an ethnocultural clean sweep through the smouldering Ottoman ruins.

The fanciful mythology of ur-Turkey, about which Auerbach complained, was both compensation and boast by a new state whose territory had been emptied at birth by the killing of one-tenth of its inhabitants, whose founding act was the expulsion of another tenth, followed by the internal displacement, ‘Turkification’ and bloody repression of Kurds, another one-fifth of the population.

Dersim massacre 1937

While adulation of the national founder remains a mainstay, over the decades other elements of the Kemalist recipe have been trimmed, adapted and discarded according to the exigencies of the hour.

Yet the homogenizing element in the republic’s founding ideology has endured as a bedrock: official pursuit, according to the Interior Minister in 1934, of ‘a country speaking with one language, thinking in the same way and sharing the same sentiment.’

The confessional turn in the electoral scene, most pronounced since the 1980 military coup and the premiership of Turgut Özal, has brought sharp modifications to Turkey’s public life: growing numbers of religious schools, flagrant displays of devoutness, the Crescent rivalling the sword for symbolic preeminence, as a powerful executive branch stamps its mark on all agencies and directorates of the state.

Movement towards EU membership, meanwhile, has obliged some ecumenical gestures and concessions to Kurdish and Alevi cultural rights. Erdoğan lifted the state of emergency in the southeast, and wound back language proscription in 2004.

But the basic formula is unchanged, Copenhagen criteria notwithstanding. Education, bureaucracy and media remain zones free of linguistic or cultural impurity. The Armenian genocide, likewise, is officially a non-topic.

In today’s Turkey, the decidedly post-secular AKP leadership nonetheless vaunts an integralist slogan of ‘one nation, one flag, one religion, one language’, and a notorious penal article that makes ‘insulting Turkishness’ a criminal offence.

This detour through the recent history of Turkish nationalism helps to clarify current arrangements, explaining how matters reached such a pass in the Caucasus, Black Sea and Caspian basin, Cyprus and eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and Levant.

These are the former contested borderlands of Russian tsar, Ottoman sultan and Persian autocracy.

Today, in the words of its prime minister, the AKP’s former foreign minister and eminent grand strategist, Turkey is ‘a country with a close land basin, the epicentre of the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus, the centre of Eurasia in general and is in the middle of the Rimland belt cutting across the Mediterranean to the Pacific.’

Turkey Stratfor

Within elite circles this view, at least publicly, has its detractors.

Turkey, Nicolas Sarkozy once declared on the campaign trail, ‘is in Asia Minor’:

I will not explain to little French school children that the borders of Europe extend to Iraq and Syria.

Once safely installed in the Élysée Palace, Le Pen’s voters having been tossed a few verbal sops, the French president’s pedagogic concerns evaporated.

Sarkozy treated his population to a demonstration of Dassault’s aerial might over North Africa, later striking a triumphant pose atop a Benghazi podium.

His Socialist successor extended the Libyan campaign to Mali and the Central African Republic.

A ‘Europe of values’ (Blair’s oily phrase, found useful by Cameron and Sarkozy) acknowledges few boundaries. If the Maghreb, why not Thrace?

The European continent, the concept a recent invention, may be demarcated however you like. But the frontiers of Christendom are firm. They do not extend to the Euphrates.

Ocean littorals, on the other hand, are free to expand or retreat as required, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization supplemented with whatever ‘add-on’ Washington wishes for its Eurasian beachhead.

Turkey’s frontiers with Syria, Iraq and Iran thus present NATO with a boundless operational vista in the Mashreq and beyond.

Referring to ‘challenges we’re facing in the east and the south’, today’s incoming secretary-general says: ‘NATO has a strong army after all. We can deploy it wherever we want to.’

US Patriot missiles may thus be placed east of Jerusalem in the name of European and North American security. (The US air base at Incirlik is itself built on expropriated Armenian land. The Air Force’s approved history of the site ends discreetly in 1921).

And, if today’s armed conflict in the Levant threatens Ankara’s security, ‘NATO will be there’, says the secretary-general.

The ‘post-Cold War enlargement of NATO and EU’, said the US Vice President earlier this year, ‘is not complete, in my view.’

What task remains undone, what destiny unfulfilled?

To the post-1923 status quo that had prevailed in the Black Sea-Caucasus-Central Asia region following the collapse of Ottoman and tsarist empires, the retrenchment of Moscow’s power since 1991 has threatened disruption.

Washington’s objective, laid out unblushingly by its strategists, is to hinder the local powers from reaching convivial terms, and to prevent, at all costs, any state outside its own military alliance structure — Moscow, Tehran, Beijing — from attaining regional predominance.

Brzezinski Turkey Russia Iran

There exists, explained Turkey’s current prime minister Davutoğlu to the US Council on Foreign Relations, ‘a compatibility’ between this need of the United States and Ankara’s ‘unique’ ability, arising from its convenient location.

Washington is a non-Eurasian power that hopes to remain the dominant power on the Eurasian continent. Turkey can help ‘close this gap of geographical discontinuity’:

Turkey is right at the center of Afro-Euro-Asia, having multidimensional characters of geopolitics. Turkey is a European country, an Asian country, a Middle Eastern country, Balkan country, Caucasian country, neighbor to Africa, Black Sea country, Caspian Sea… all these geopolitical challenges are in the agenda of American global strategy…

The United States needs allies in Africa-Eurasia, and Turkey needs a cooperation with a global power.

Thus has Europe’s Eastern Question been resolved, if only temporarily and after a fashion.

To the apparent satisfaction of the continent’s elite and with Washington’s benevolent approval, Ankara’s EU candidature was placed in prolonged abeyance, even as Turkey assumed new regional prominence, becoming NATO’s geographic fulcrum for ‘out of area’ missions in the eastern Mediterranean, Caucasus and West Asia.

On its eastern border, the Turkish state acts as faithful proxy in Syria, seeking to overthrow Assad’s Iran-friendly government. In the Black Sea basin, it facilitates continued thrusts and harassing operations against Moscow.

Washington, seeking to conduct a proxy war at two removes in Syria, has relied on its local agents in Ankara and the Gulf monarchies to supply weapons, funds, training and cross-border transit.

Turkey’s intelligence chief was recorded, in conversation with Davutoğlu, musing over how best to ‘make up a cause of war’ with the Syrian government by staging a false-flag operation against Ankara.

Atmospherics from the US Vice President, aimed plainly at a domestic rather than diplomatic audience, convey the nature of Turkey’s helpful efforts in the Levant:

The Turks, who are great friends — I have a great relationship with Erdoğan , whom I spend a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing?

They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world…

Now they’re sealing their border.

To Ankara’s role as NATO proxy is added that of ’emerging market’ debtor.

Since 2002, under the AKP Turkey has become increasingly dependent on short-term external borrowing, mostly portfolio investment in search of speculative gains. This has increased financial fragility, exposing Turkey to asset-price inflation and the risk of worse if capital is withdrawn.

International borrowing rests ultimately on a promise to pay US dollars. Issues of the Turkish domestic currency are a form of debt: the credibility of the borrower depends on its ability to pay the ‘best’ money: the liabilities of the global hegemon.

hierarchy of money

Should Turkish growth founder, capital inflow cease, and local banks become unable to refinance their debts, international creditors will no doubt be found in a compassionate mood. A stabilization loan, arriving swiftly, will come attached with less onerous conditions than those applied to Cyprus.

Turkey, as a ‘geopolitical pivot,’ is too important for the IMF (behind it the US Treasury) to countenance domestic upheaval on any great scale.

Just as credibility of the Turkish lira rests on a promise to pay US dollars (the ultimate international means of settling debts), behind Turkish arms Washington sits in poised reserve, ready to back up its NATO proxy whenever Ankara’s Ostpolitik in the Mediterranean and Levant goes awry.

In NATO parlance, this is known as ‘extended deterrence.’ US solicitude is manifested in the form of radar installations (since 2011) and (since 1961) nuclear missiles deployed on Turkish territory, aimed at Russia and Iran.

On this foundation, grandiose regional ambitions flourish. The latter focus on Turkey’s strategic potential as an energy corridor, reducing Moscow’s bargaining power in Europe.

Turkey is Iraq’s ‘gateway to the European Union’, Davutoğlu has noted. And ‘Erbil is our gateway to Basra.’

In Istanbul, three months ago, the World Economic Forum held a Special Meeting on Unlocking Resources for Regional Development, the Turkish president and prime minister contributing to that noble cause by demanding, in keynote addresses, armed overthrow over the Syrian government.

There an Emirati oil CEO, with investments centred on Iraqi Kurdistan, suggested that ‘if Turkey became a price-setting centre for the region [that] could really bring on much more supply from Middle East resources, which would not only meet Turkish needs, but go on to meet European needs as well.’

Ankara’s energy minister deplored political difficulties in Iraq and Iran: ‘You can’t have a growing economy and a shrinking energy sector.’

A fortnight ago the Atlantic Council held its Energy and Economics Summit in Istanbul.

There the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, long touted by the Energy Ministry as ‘the natural direction for exports of hydrocarbons from the region [of Iraqi Kurdistan] to the world’s market’, received a boost.

Alongside President Erdoğan in Ankara, the Russian leader announced that Gazprom’s planned South Stream pipeline was to be abandoned, after EU thwarting efforts and US sanctions.

The US Vice President was on hand to salute the news, calling for ‘development of a strategic pipeline from Basra to Ceyhan.’

The Turkish state, its line of strategic credit secure in Washington, has leveraged its momentary good fortune to pursue regional initiatives otherwise beyond its reach. A permanent military presence in Cyprus has been declared not negotiable. EU accession, less urgent, has been allowed patiently to simmer, safe for another day.

Yet what realities lie behind the salesmanship about ‘Anatolian Tigers’ and a ‘boom on the Bosphorus’?

In the past three decades, the Turkish economy’s capital-labour ratio, or capital intensity, rose at a distinctly lower rate (6.6% annually from 1964-1978, compared to an average of 3.7% over the next thirty years).

Capital intensity Turkey

Taking account of the business cycle, there has been a steady fall in the output-capital ratio, or what may be termed ‘capital productivity.’

Capital productivity - Turkey

Technical change has followed a labour-saving, capital-using pattern familiar elsewhere.

Labour productivity and output-capital ratio in Turkey

Turkey’s development, all in all, has been modest. Agriculture retains a high share of employment (24%); female labour-force participation is abysmal (29%, below Sudan and well below Armenia).

State-led modernization by a republic descended from one of Europe’s largest imperial powers, with a population greater than France or Britain at its disposal, has produced unscintillating results.

Not needing to displace a landlord class in any agrarian revolution (small independent farms long predominated), nor did industrialization of the classical modernizing sort follow.

The Turkish army — the most numerous in Europe besides Russia’s, and occupying Cyprus since 1974 — and a traditionally hefty state officialdom absorb much of the investible surplus. The familiar features of the externally indebted economy — credit expansion, consumption growth, speculative bubbles in real estate and asset prices — further discourage productive expenditure. Patronage networks and political clientelism siphon the residue, all impeding local formation of a substantial capital-goods sector.

Small wonder, amid such frustrations, that the consoling appeal of religion plays a growing part in Turkish electoral politics.

Yet not every plan has gone awry.

Kemal’s language reforms were recently described as a ‘catastrophic success’. A linguist noted, amid the general poverty of Turkish expression, that a mere 26 years after it was delivered, Kemal’s great speech already needed to be ‘translated into the present-day language’ so that it could be intelligible to the young.

The body shop

July 11, 2014

From a feature article in last Sunday’s New York Times:

In an era of globalization, the market for children crosses national borders; witness the longtime flow of Americans who have gone overseas to adopt babies from South Korea, China, Russia and Guatemala.

Other than the United States, only a few countries — among them India, Thailand, Ukraine and Mexico — allow paid surrogacy. As a result, there is an increasing flow in the opposite direction, with the United States drawing affluent couples from Europe, Asia and Australia. Indeed, many large surrogacy agencies in the United States say international clients — gay, straight, married or single — provide the bulk of their business…

Together, domestic and international couples will have more than 2,000 babies through gestational surrogacy in the United States this year, almost three times as many as a decade ago.

What, if anything, is to be made of such developments?

A little more than a decade back, a succession of startling innovations in biotech, the turn of a new millennium and Clinton’s ‘New Economy’ boom together spawned a potboiling genre of fanciful prognoses, fretful futurology and journalistic speculation on the fate of the ‘body’, marriage and parenthood, and human reproduction.

This was a publishing bubble of airport literature and Kulturkritik, which various eminences did not eschew.

Habermas Future of Human Nature

Around the same time, Foucault’s ‘biopolitics’ was rediscovered by the Anglophone academy, a narrow seam contributing another rich source of mischief and vapidity for cultural studies.

In the midst of this scene, in 2001 Duncan Foley delivered a clear-eyed scholarly lecture on economic growth and demography. In it, he anticipated the new century bringing ‘opportunities and pressures’ for what he termed ‘reproductive arbitrage’.

The latter, he suggested, would ensue in a world where sub-replacement fertility prevailed in the ageing metropolitan economies, alongside a demographic floodtide of human misery elsewhere, as much of the globe experienced industrial growth insufficient to absorb its massive, stagnant ranks of young and prime-age people into employment.

karachi

Planet of Slums - Mike Davis

This reproductive arbitrage — a ‘global market for children’, buying where cheap and selling where coveted, at a premium — would, he pointed out, be something novel.

It was to be distinguished from the traditional migration of underutilized reserves of labour from remote hinterlands to the industrial centre.

The twentieth-first century, at its dawn, heralded a ‘sharp polarization between countries with rich ageing populations which cannot reproduce themselves and countries with poor, younger populations which are growing’:

Productive arbitrage opportunities will arise because the rich countries will have chronic shortages of labour and surpluses of capital, while poor countries will have chronic shortages of capital and surpluses of labour. Arbitrage suggests either the movement of capital to the poor countries through foreign investment, or the movement of labour to the rich countries through migration…

Reproductive arbitrage opportunities will arise because of the tendency for poor countries to specialize in producing children, as the rich countries specialize in producing wealth. Thus, we can expect an explosive growth in the trade in reproduction and its associated services like surrogate parenthood, adoption, and the provision of child-care services between older, richer countries and younger, poorer countries. We have also begun to see the early stages of this phenomenon already.

As its clients have multiplied, treatment of the gestational-surrogacy market by the popular media has been equivocal.

Amid warm applause for the realization of parental dreams long held, misgivings are voiced, shortcomings admitted. Queasiness rarely rises, however, to the level of outright reproach, rejection or, least of all, investigation of underlying causes.

Prurience of the ‘Octomom’ variety carries its share of denunciation and spite, of course. But few right-thinking people would see fit to deny that the technology and ‘bioethics’ of assisted reproductive procedures are the chief matters at stake: philosophy, of a sort, rather than politics.

‘Regulation’, by vigilant international NGOs if not local authorities, is the prescribed salve.

(Not yet accustomed to the ways of the world, earlier journalistic treatment of ‘traditional’ surrogacy [insemination with sperm rather than embryo] was, in the 1980s and 1990s, rather more stringent in its scrutiny of market participants and their claims.)

Typically less given to delicate euphemism, the gurus and think tanks of the libertarian right have maintained a cautious silence on surrogacy’s cosmopolitan turn. Perhaps wary of upsetting a precarious apple cart, they are more likely to have found intervention unnecessary.

Inferences can, however, be drawn from past forthright statements.

In 1977, Judge Richard Posner notoriously proposed ‘legalizing a market for babies’. Affecting bemusement at the outraged response that greeted this calculated provocation, Posner observed in his own defence, and with some justification, ‘we have legal baby selling today… I simply think it should be regulated less stringently than today.’

The University of Chicago’s Richard Epstein, in a 1995 paper on surrogacy and contract law, complained that ‘condemnation of any transaction as “baby-selling” is all too often treated as a conversation stopper’.

A more phlegmatic outlook was called for.

Surrogacy’s ‘commercial aspects’ were ‘a regrettable but necessary part of transactions that yield enormous nonquantifiable benefits to the biological father and his wife, and to their friends and family who have comforted them during their years of anxiety and distress’:

The ability of individuals to handle these transactions with sensitivity and discretion is not precluded because money changes hands. Indeed the success of the venture may be aided if the money allows skilled professionals to ease the transition of both sides.

Meanwhile the industry of international adoption receives promotional services from the likes of Harvard Law School’s Elizabeth Bartholet.

Foley’s remarks were little more than an aside, to which, as the phenomenon he identified has since grown, detail can be added.

What circumstances underpin the global specialization of reproductive tasks, linked increasingly by commercial transactions undertaken for profit?

Relative prices and jurisdictional peculiarities play their part (an Indian surrogate at the most internationally renowned clinic in Gujarat is fortunate to receive a fee of $6500, some others as little as $800, while their North American counterparts fetch around $30 000. Merely donating ova, if their source is an Ivy League graduate, itself attracts $20 000).

Fertility rates are inversely related to female labour-force participation (and per capita output), lifetime births per woman being highest where female paid employment is least, and the costs of child rearing (education, medical care, foregone wages) smallest.

Malnutrition causes half of all Indian women to be anaemic. Nearly half of all Indian children under three are underweight and undersized, and maternal mortality (around 200 per 100 000 live births) is estimated to kill 80 000 Indian women each year, contributing with Nigeria around a third of the world’s annual maternal deaths (most from anaemia, haemorrhage or uterine rupture, eclampsia and septic abortion).

A bare half of all Indian childbirths are attended by skilled health personnel (the figure is around 80% for Indonesia, and 99% for China).

Why is it that ‘poor countries’, seemingly so ill-suited for the task, should today have come to ‘specialize in producing children’ for the industrially developed zones of the planet?

‘Reproduction’ arises as a topic in classical political economy (Smith, Ricardo, Marx) because of the peculiar character of that productive input known as human labour.

The latter is not (as are capital goods) produced as a direct commodity via the capitalist system of production; nor (like land, minerals and similar resources) garnered freely from nature; but must instead be born, reared, trained and socialized, in the domestic household or elsewhere, before it can be hired on the market as employable labour-power.

Thus, in the view of classical political economy, labour supply is induced by demand, growing or shrinking according to demand for employees at a given real wage, caused by variation in productive investment.

Over a few decades, labour supply is flexible or elastic, because employers seeking workers may tap in to external sources (idle pools abroad drawn in as immigrants) or underutilized domestic sources (the unemployed, housebound women, etc.).

Conditions in the slums and shanty towns of today’s Delhi, Jakarta, Lagos, São Paulo, Karachi, Kinshasa, Dhaka, Istanbul and Cairo may thus be compared to those of Henry Mayhew’s London.

In early Victorian times, Britain’s industrial revolution had breached Malthusian limits, detonating population growth and urbanization that, for the moment, outstripped the pace of fixed-capital accumulation and demand for employees.

The London streets of 1840 therefore teemed with petty vendors and sole proprietors (fruit sellers, flower stalls, artisans, prostitutes) whose meagre inventories and simple tools of the trade were of a scale measly enough to be owned by a single precariously placed individual or family, hawked and peddled by day and carried home at night.

With the available workforce more plentiful than the needs of capital owners required, human life came cheaply and the necessities of subsistence were procured in haphazard, opportunistic fashion, as described vividly by Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor, and captured in the crowded tenements of Dickens’s fiction.

Despite rapid growth in productivity, British real wages remained stagnant throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, its urban hordes preserving slack in the labour market.

The Rookery St. Giles's 1851

Nearly two centuries later, in today’s Britain and other advanced economies, shrinking working-age cohorts (15-64 years) support relatively large economically inactive cohorts of the elderly and infirm.

In this metropolitan core, most strikingly in Europe and Japan, mechanization of production has caused output-capital ratios eventually to fall, as the stock of factories and equipment accumulates more rapidly than the number of available employees.

Labour productivity and output-capital ratios in the OECD

Labour productivity over time (US) and space (world)

Beyond the frontiers of the OECD, however, in the less industrially developed countries whose populations comprise the overwhelming majority of the world, Mayhew’s vista of scrounged livings now predominates.

In today’s official lexicon, it is designated as the ‘informal economy’.

Ninety-three percent of the Indian workforce, and 85 percent of the non-farm workforce, is deployed outside the organized corporate or state-owned sector in tiny household enterprises.

These marginal hundreds of millions of South Asian ‘self-employed’ and sub-contractors, whose low business revenue and few tangible assets makes them uncreditworthy to formal lending sources, provide the social infrastructure for those microfinance initiatives that so capture the hopes of well-meaning left-liberals abroad.

More importantly, such vast pools of urban misery — propelled out of the countryside by the Green Revolution, into cities where insufficient investment exists to draw them into paid employment — form a latent reserve of potential employees, thus keeping a ceiling on wage growth.

In Africa, South Asia, Latin America, West and Southeast Asia, low labour productivity corresponds to lesser capital intensity (fewer tangible assets used per worker), high output-capital ratios and a younger population.

Indian agricultural, construction, pottery and textile workers thus perform manual labour whilst their more productive counterparts abroad are assisted by machinery and equipment.

The capital-labour ratio in India is less than one-tenth its level in the United States. The resulting difference in labour productivity yields a stark income divergence: India’s average real wage is one-twentieth that of the USA.

In these circumstances, with the postcolonial prospect of secular ‘development’ and improved living standards having long since receded, those offering otherworldly salvation and similar religious consolations have naturally thrived.

In India, appeals to the devout, and invocations of Hindutva, have multiplied under the impeccably business-minded administrations of Rao, Manmohan Singh and Modi. BJP and Congress alike truckle to local piety while catering to foreign creditors.

Typically backed as an anti-left bulwark by the local security apparatus, favoured as a counterweight to unruly secular nationalism by imperialist intelligence services, and firmly planted in the soil of matrimonial and sexual conservatism, such confessional movements, of whatever stripe, have not looked favourably upon the entry of women to paid employment, female enrolment in public schooling and other novel social roles.

Along with these superstitious revivals, the persistence of archaic social relations  debt bondage, small farms and petty proprietorships, landlordism and sharecropping, patriarchal tyranny, hereditary caste occupation, and various other forms of labour tying  tends to encourage precocious marriage sealed by dowry, relatively early age of first pregnancy, reduced spacing of births and high birth rates.

Nearly half the female Indian population is illiterate; fewer than half receive secondary education.

The wealthier Indian states  Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat, Punjab — have the most imbalanced sex ratios, with sex-selective foetal reduction facilitated by imaging technology. The practice of female-specific abortion therefore increased from the 1990s.

Yet the origin of commercial surrogacy in India, Thailand and the former Soviet republics is not simply the penury and devastation internal to these countries, enormous though these are.

The ‘market for children’ depends upon economic and jurisprudential developments pioneered in the advanced regions of North America, Europe, Northeast Asia and the Antipodes.

Trails of commodification are blazed in California.

There, the presence of an advanced biomedical-university complex, a favourable judicial environment, and cultural deregulation to make the rest of the United States blush, have placed the state at the forefront of proprietary and contractual developments governing human somatic material, as well as probate and family law (disputes over inheritance and parental rights).

Efforts by universities and research hospitals to secure intellectual-property claims to their research findings, and to patent the research tools (including biological material) used in obtaining them, have spurred the process.

Moore v Regents of the University of California (1990)  establishing that a patient or donor had no claim to profits derived from use by recipients of his or her own harvested or extracted tissues, cells or gametes  encouraged resort to sperm and ovum donations, and sped development of the ‘oocyte economy.’

The ruling in this case explicitly referred, as a foremost consideration, to its implications for biomedical research, the judges dutifully genuflecting before the needs of industry.

Similarly, to facilitate the practice of IVF, sperm donors are legally held to have relinquished parental rights over biological offspring born as a result of artificial insemination. Californian judges have found that gestational hosts do likewise, in order that surrogacy arrangements should proceed without a hitch.

It is in Sacramento, rather than Ahmedabad, that authorities have been asked to rule on the ownership and disposition of frozen embryos.

And it is in the beating heart of world capitalism that a 1996 article in a legal journal could announce that gestational surrogacy had brought about the ‘demise of the unitary biological mother’. (Its author is now a ‘philanthropy consultant’ who ‘helps charities and brands secure celebrity support for cause-marketing campaigns and fundraising events.’)

Ivy League egg donors

moorepatent

This image of divided maternity (‘demise of the unitary mother’) furnishes an almost parodic example of the fragmentation that follows from commodification or rationalization, as described in the Marxist and Weberian traditions.

Once an activity (such as human sexual reproduction) is drawn into the sphere of production for the market, or a need is supplied as a commodity, the division of labour splits it apart into its specialized aspects or components.

‘Reproductive arbitrage’ and the ‘market for children’, therefore, are symptoms of what Arlie Hochschild calls the ever-advancing commodity frontier, the encroachment of commodity production and the capitalist sector upon ever more elements of human life.

Activities once performed by individuals or households for their own use, for satisfaction of their own needs with both the labour and its output free of monetary cost — become services available for purchase on the market, in return for payment.

The ‘relinquishing of family functions to the market realm’ is hardly novel. The role of the domestic household as a production unit that self-provisions has ebbed for several centuries, its scope annexed and chiselled away since at least Britain’s Agricultural Revolution.

Few households now cultivate their own crops, educate their own children, spin and weave their own textiles, or construct their own houses. Responsibility for all these activities has been transferred to the capitalist sector or the state.

A few residual tasks remain for unpaid housework: the final stages of food preparation, childcare for infants and preschoolers, some custodial care of school-age children, cleaning of residential premises, etc.

The waning role of the domestic sector  and the transfer of production to a capitalist sector that can introduce efficient new techniques, raise productivity and realize economies of scale  has meant a degree of liberation from isolation and household drudgery, freeing up women for paid employment and other social roles.

Yet Hochschild, since The Managed Heart (1993), has drawn attention to recent new incursions by the market into the domestic household, in the fields of emotional intimacy, affective display and attachment.

With supply of these to customers now yielding a profitable return, employees, especially in ‘hospitality’ or service occupations, are obliged to convincingly demonstrate emotion: the solicitousness of the waiter, the empathy of the care worker, the conviviality of the flight attendant, the cheerful verve of the tour guide.

Emotional labour ‘requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.’

Such transactions may be extended, Hochschild has noted, to ‘outsourcing’ (from independent contractors or employees) family functions traditionally performed by women, as mothers and wives, within the domestic household: cook, teacher, nurse, nanny, but also provider of emotional support, companionship and sexual partnership.

Intimacy may be purchased either in spot markets or by entering into long-term bilateral arrangements, with previous methods of attracting mates and forming pair-bonds having now dissolved or become too time-consuming,

A ‘familial role’ is ‘shown to be divisible into slivers, a whole separated into parts.’

Here, too, efficiency gains are made from turning tasks over to dedicated specialists:

Especially in its more recent incarnation, the commercial substitutes for family activities often turn out to be better than the “real” thing. Just as the French bakery may make bread better than mother ever did, and the cleaning service may clean the house more thoroughly, so therapists may recognize feelings more accurately. Even child care workers, while no ultimate substitute, may prove more warm and even–tempered than parents sometimes are.

Thus, in a sense, capitalism isn’t competing with itself, one company against another. Capitalism is competing with the family, and particularly with the role of the wife and mother.

Recoil, if it occurs here, is surely inspired not just by dread of the ersatz, but from threatened fulfilment of the bleakest Frankfurt School visions of the ‘exchange principle’ making human beings fungible and interchangeable.

In the banalization sought by use of the term ‘sex worker’, there is a caricature that mimics and nullifies the earlier hopes of women’s liberation, in the guise of realizing those aspirations.

To be sure, demands to revise the family, and disrupt standard reproductive arrangements, have long featured as a staple in visions of social transformation.

But surrogacy in a dingy Gujarati basement dormitory, or a gleaming Californian clinic, is far indeed from the sexual and matrimonial innovations proposed for Fourier’s phalanstère, Bacon’s New Atlantis or Campanella’s City of the Sun, let alone Firestone’s utopia of ‘artificial reproduction’ and parthenogenesis.

The relationship of gestational host to client is less novel than supposed, as made clear in an anecdote from Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self:

I didn’t want her to think of me as this big rich American coming in with my money to buy her womb for a while. So I did touch her at some point, I think, her hair or her shoulder. I tried to smile a lot.

Through the interpreter I told her, “I am very glad and grateful you are doing this.” I explained that we’d tried to have a baby but couldn’t. I told her not to worry for herself; she would be taken care of. I asked her about her own child.

She didn’t look at ease. It was not the unease of, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” but more the unease of the subordinate meeting her boss.

Of course, the precise relationship is rather presumptuously misspecified: the surrogate is a commercial subcontractor, not an employee. The contracting parties, holding all cards, are the surrogacy clinic and its commissioning clients.

World capitalism is capable of accommodating, and indeed of promoting, those survivals of domestic servitude and patriarchal terror that assist the growth of its latest production lines. The hereditary dynasty of Nehru, not to speak of the lineages of Bush and Clinton, attest to an official capacity for preserving the atavistic: inherited charisma, or family branding, at the head of the bureaucratic state.

Maintenance of a servile pool of Indian women (contractually denied any right to abortion, etc.) thus serves roughly the same social function as does existence of the idle, squandered two billion or so human beings wasting away, on standby, in the slum workshops of Asia’s informal sector, and in the continent-sized skid row of Africa: exiled from capitalist employment yet useful to employers.

Liberal capitalist societies, in ideal form, prohibit certain market transactions (e.g. the sale and purchase of human beings, contracts of indentured servitude).

They offer thereby a more limited scope for commodity exchange than do slave-owning societies. When the Roman civil code was rediscovered in the High Middle Ages, and used as the foundation for European commercial law, a good deal of antiquated material relating to trade in slaves had perforce to be discarded by the glossators.

However, it is a commonplace of Marxist thought that capitalist property relations tend, by their nature, to expand into every available territory, occupy each vacant line of production, and invade any vulnerable social nook. Commercial transactions, and property rights, thus tend to encompass more domains of existence than ever before.

This may be most apparent in the industries of health, physical embellishment and body transformation: repair, modification, procreation and enhancement.

What types of entities and powers may legitimately be alienated, surrendered under the profit motive, or acquired by payment? What parts of the body, or human capabilities, have recently lapsed into chattel status, and may validly be transacted in the market; which of them are murky?

While the United States’ National Organ Transplant Act (1984) forbids the sale or purchase of vital organs for ‘valuable consideration’, some philosophers have recently advocated legalization of payment for kidney sales; another salutes ‘commodification of human body parts’ and, indeed, ‘universal commodification.’

The attitudes of some, it has elsewhere been remarked, betray ‘an underlying fear of treating the human body, or the cellular material that will develop into a human being, as the personal property equivalent of cars or television sets.’ This, ‘although perhaps justifiable on moral grounds’, is unhelpful. All rights, ultimately, flow from proprietary interests.

Thus speaks the wisdom of the age.

It brings to mind the young Marx’s description of the ‘power of money’, which Adam Smith had said conferred the ‘power to command’ labour and the products of labour.

As the productivity of human labour increases, the fruits of the entire world are brought within the grasp of the wealthy, who can through spending remedy all deficiencies:

That which is for me through the medium of money  that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy)  that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my  the possessor’s  properties and essential powers.

Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.

am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness its deterrent power  is nullified by money.

I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame.

I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest.

I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever?

Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation? It is the coin that really separates as well as the real binding agent.

The right man for the job

June 28, 2014

As Britain’s first postwar batch of Widmerpools rolled off the production line at King’s College, C.S. Lewis delivered the enterprising students a memorial lecture, known now as “The Inner Ring“:

It would be polite and charitable, and in view of your age reasonable too, to suppose that none of you is yet a scoundrel.

On the other hand, by the mere law of averages (I am saying nothing against free will) it is almost certain that at least two or three of you before you die will have become something very like scoundrels. There must be in this room the makings of at least that number of unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless egotists.

The choice is still before you: and I hope you will not take my hard words about your possible future characters as a token of disrespect to your present characters.

Lewis went on to describe a scenario that each young catechumen in his audience should expect to face ‘in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down’:

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear.

Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still — just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig — the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”— and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure — something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face — that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face — turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected.

And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit.

It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

Lewis characteristically declared that the lure of the Inner Ring was a perennial one that dwelt within the heart of all men.

But it’s no accident that his examples of vaulting scoundrelism came from the managerial and liberal professions (academic, ecclesiastic, legal, medical).

After all, the latter’s exalted social position and wage premiums could be explained, according to one subsequent economic theory, by an insider-outsider model.

And, of course, in the service professions  accounting, law, financial services, medical practice  the prevalence back then of business partnership arrangements, now dwindling, nurtured a natural esprit de corps among partners and aspiring salaried associates.

No mundane sociological explanation would have appealed to Lewis, keen as ever to dispense solemnities.

Déformations professionnelles could not crudely be overplayed, as though only some occupations were open to beckoning solicitations from the market.

In 1944, moreover, yuppies were not yet a recognizable social type.

But there is little denying that social position provides some groups with more occasion than others for displaying his vice, i.e. places them more commonly in situations where they might have incentive to follow or indulge the lure of the Inner Ring.

Lewis thus refrained from observing, while nonetheless implying, that an inclination for ‘buying-in’, and related preferences, are fostered and cultivated by the university system. Its ceremonial rites, emblems and incantations form youthful preliminaries in an exclusive order’s sequence of social initiation, one with its own ‘slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation.’

In what manner is this done, and for what purpose?

Managerial and professional workers occupy that portion of the labour market known as the independent primary segment, where there are flexible work rules (autonomy from routines), little direct supervision, higher earnings, motivational alignment with employer goals through internalization and independent initiative, well-defined career ladders (internal labour markets with clear promotional paths), secure tenure, agreeable job amenities and low turnover.

These prebends and perquisites announce, for the upper salaried layers that enjoy them, a rather different method of enforcing the employment contract than is applied to the less tractable bas-fonds.

Suppose the administrative hierarchy of a business enterprise is organized according to the familiar pyramidal structure.

The firm’s shareholders (through the board of directors) appoint senior executives. The latter in turn delegate much of their managerial authority to a lower level of division heads, etc. The job of these managers involves overseeing and supervising those subordinates at the bottom level (productive workers) to whom they must apply extrinsic motivators (sanctions and rewards).

Managers thus directly oversee the behaviour of employees, issuing directives or commands that the latter are compelled to obey. Or they may alter the technical conditions of production (e.g. by introducing machines, networked computers or an assembly line).

In this way employees’ routines are prescribed, their range of possible actions is constrained and performance of certain tasks is ‘automatically’ elicited, they cannot shirk, are constantly spurred to work at pace, and so on. The most powerful of all straitening mechanisms is the threat of unemployment.

Consider Herbert Simon’s model of the ’employment relationship.’ By hiring out his capacity to work, the employee agrees to surrender, for a specified period, disposition over his labour.

The employee must carry out the commands of the employer or managerial agent:

We will say that [the boss] exercises authority over W [the worker] if W permits B to select x [a ‘behaviour,’ i.e., any element of a set of ‘specific actions that W performs on the job (typing and filing certain letters, laying bricks, or what not)’].

That is, W accepts B‘s authority when his behaviour is determined by B’s decision.

In general, W will accept authority only if x0, the x chosen by B, is restricted to some given subset (W’s “area of acceptance”) of all the possible values.

This is the definition of authority that is most generally employed in modem administrative theory.

At higher levels of the enterprise or organization, these formal relations of hierarchy and vertical subordination, and the threat of unemployment, are less important.

Instead, independent decision-making and personal initiative are relied upon.

Yet this poses agency problems.

How is it, asked Simon, that executives and managers are trusted to do something for which they could be expected to have no intrinsic motivation, expending energy in pursuit of some goal that isn’t, initially or by inclination, their own, but that is functional and thus desirable for some group or organization?

Counted by the head, most of the actors in a modern economy are employees, who… are assumed to trade as agents of the firm rather than in their own interest, which might be quite different…

This raises several questions, among them ‘how the employees of a firm are motivated to work for the maximization of the firm’s profit’:

What’s in it for them? How are their utility functions reconciled with those of the firm?… Why do employees often work hard?… In particular, how are employees induced to work more than minimally, and perhaps even with initiative and enthusiasm? Why should employees attempt to maximize the profits of the firm when making the decisions that are delegated to them?…

[Most] producers are employees of firms, not owners. Viewed from the vantage point of classical theory, they have no reason to maximize the profits of firms, except to the extent that they can be controlled by owners…

Employees, especially but not exclusively at managerial and executive levels, are responsible not only for evaluating alternatives and choosing among them but also for recognizing the need for decisions, putting them on the agenda…

To be docile is to be tractable, manageable, and above all, teachable. Docile people tend to adapt their behaviour to norms and pressure of the society… In some contexts, this responsiveness implies motivation to learn or imitate; in other contexts, willingness to obey or conform.

[…]

Docility is used to inculcate individuals with organizational pride and loyalty. These motives are based upon a discrimination between a “we” and a “they.” Identification with the “we,” which may be a family, a company, a city, a nation, or the local baseball team, allows individuals to experience satisfaction (to gain utility) from successes of the unit thus selected. Thus, organizational identification becomes a motivation for employees to work actively for organizational goals.

Of course, identification is not an exclusive source of motivation; it exists side by side with material rewards and enforcement mechanisms that are part of the employment contract. But a realistic picture of how organizations operate must include the importance of identification in the motivations of employees.

Simon’s ‘docility’ here invested with all the dignity of management theory  is a set of attitudinal traits or behavioural dispositions closely resembling those decried by Lewis as ‘the passion for the Inner Ring… most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.’

In Simon’s terms, it involves adding an increasing number of arguments (or independent variables) to the employee’s utility function.

The ideal manager, and the well-socialized scoundrel too, take ever more matters into account as relevant to their personal happiness: responding with sensitivity to external motivators (rewards, sanctions), plus augmenting their own intrinsic wishes with the firm’s objectives (‘organizational identification’).

Put otherwise, and no less neutrally, there is multiplication of what an Epicurean would consider false wants: a proliferation, to the benefit of the employer, of non-necessary, non-basic, if not vain and empty desires.

Simon extols this propensity as being ‘teachable’, not to say impressionable: being susceptible of instruction and prone to aping others. What role does formal instruction play in its development?

Cultivation of these traits through formal education is less a matter of ‘explicit curriculum [than of] the socialization implied by the structure of schooling’. Students rewarded with success are those who display approbativeness, obedience to authority, willingness to join existing research programmes, etc.

Evidence shows that individuals with higher levels of educational attainment (measured by university credentials or years of study) fetch better rewards in the labour market (greater earnings plus occupational status, promotional advancements, etc.).

Investing in additional years of schooling or higher education does accrue a return.

Jacobsen and Skillman - Labour Market and Employment Relationship

Heckman education

But are productive skills (specialized or technical knowledge, or cognitive aptitude measured by IQ or test scores) the main attributes that employers look for and which help to determine labour-market success, and for which a diploma is proxy?

Not according to James Heckman, University of Chicago econometrician, who points out the importance of what he calls non-cognitive, socio-emotional or ‘soft skills’.

The latter include personality traits, attitudes or behavioural dispositions such as prudence, diligence, conscientiousness, patience, perseverance, attention, obedience, motivation, punctuality, agreeableness, self-confidence, sense of personal efficacy, identification with the objectives of others, etc.

Possession of such traits may involve a reduction in the disutility of effort (‘strong work ethic’), greater degree of subservience to managerial authority (‘willingness to follow direction’), increase in the desirability of retaining a job (non-myopic time preference, ‘orientation towards the future’), or high marginal utility of income (‘ambition’).

Beneath the benevolent sheen of doux-commerce, the lesson learnt is how to mind other people’s business for them. Unyielding garde-fou against unruly elements below; pliant custodian to those above.

In the world’s advanced economies, as I’ve mentioned before, a substantial slice of the population (lawyers, public administrators, providers of business and financial ‘services’, real estate, advertising, insurance, managers and supervisors, security guards, etc.) are engaged in activities that, while unproductive themselves, sustain and preserve the existing social structure: enforcing contracts (e.g. the employment relationship) and upholding claims to wealth (i.e. property rights).

US Standard Industrial Classification - productive and unproductive industries

US Standard Industrial Classification - unproductive and productive services

For the private appropriation of social resources isn’t secured merely by the efforts of the propertied classes themselves.

It demands, as described in this New York Times article, a vast technology of extraction (locks, alarms, cameras, weapons, deeds registry) and an army of functionaries (foremen, supervisors, judicial apparatus, asset brokers, commercial lawyers, conveyancers, bankers).

The latter’s size as a proportion of the workforce has grown spectacularly over the past century (in the United States, lawyers per head of population more than doubled between 1950 and 2013; supervisors now make up around 18% of the labour force).

The duty of this contingent, taken as one, is to enforce titles to wealth, transfer holdings between agents, and uphold the various social relationships (employment, independent contracting, credit relationships, etc.) deriving from this distribution of resources.

Jayadev and Bowles - Guard Labor JDE

This social layer, spanning the middle and working classes, thus receives its income and privileges neither as payment in exchange for productive employment, nor as reward for private ownership of assets.

Instead these upper-salaried workers, whose occupations involve preserving the existing distribution of property, capture part of the surplus extracted from other employees (those who perform productive work).

This sharing of the spoils occurs in a variety of ways: artificial shortages of certain skills, sustained through high training costs or guild-created barriers to entry, which raise the rewards fetched by their holders; the granting of sinecures; patronage and clientelism; rent-seeking at the public trough, etc.

In recent decades, the wages paid to supervisory workers have absorbed an increasing proportion of society’s surplus product (net output minus compensation paid to productive employees).

The increase in the rate of surplus value from 1982 to 2001 financed… a change in the weight of supervisory workers (share of employment down by 3.8%, share of hours down by 5.2%, share of wages up by 19.6%).

Thus, almost all of the increase in the rate of exploitation found its way into the labour income of supervisory workers…

Production workers in productive sectors (productive labour) saw a collapse in their relative wage share of some 14.6 percentage points. Just over a third of this shift in share accrued to supervisory workers in productive sectors, and just under two-thirds to supervisory workers in unproductive sectors.

Supervisory workers in productive sectors (a stable proportion of 11–12% of total employment) saw their share of total wages rise by almost a quarter, to 28% of all wages.

Supervisory workers in unproductive sectors increased their share of FTEs [full-time employees] by more than half, albeit from a low base, so that they were still less than 7% of total employment by 2000. However, they more than doubled their wage share to nearly a fifth of all wages.

Most of these increases occurred after 1979…

[For] supervisory workers, annual hourly real wage growth after 1979 is more than half as much again as in the earlier period, and more than 27 times higher than the concurrent annual hourly real wage growth of productive workers…

The growing extraction of surplus value out of productive labour, which is so marked a feature of the US economy after 1979, was appropriated not as corporate profits, but primarily as the labour incomes of supervisory workers.

Full-time employees and wages - productive, unproductive and supervisory workers

What does this imply for our starting point, now seeming more than ever like antediluvian piety?

Lewis’s portrait of middle-class status-seeking, collusion and misfeasance was never exactly politically trenchant. Nor, to be fair, was it intended to be so.

Now smelling mustily of an antiquated commercial society of dense professional networks and family firms, long since past, it needs updating for a postwar capitalism in which, among other changes, most professionals no longer earn partnership income in jointly-owned enterprises, but are salaried employees of corporate bureaucracies. (Meanwhile, deepening the opacity of class positions, capital owners, for tax purposes, increasingly rebadge their dividends and interest revenue as partnership income).

Are not weak interpersonal ties, rather than gentleman’s clubs, more crucial for professional success and recruitment to the social elite?

To postmodern eyes, Lewis’s vision of the Inner Ring may thus appear hackneyed and lurid.

To induce individuals to corruption, professional misconduct or a drop in personal standards of probity, there need not be any conspiracy devised in a smoky boardroom, basement auditorium, wood-panelled Cabinet or party room. There need not be any direct application of pressure, explicit coercion, controlling intelligence or indeed any awareness at the managerial heights.

For example, institutions may simply be designed to reward conformity, the dynamics of which are well known. The psychological mechanisms generating group loyalty via hazing rituals are also understood. Competition for some scarce prize, such as a promotion or bonus, may provoke an escalating arms race, war of attrition or ascending-bid auction of boundary-pushing and rule-bending.

Meanwhile the enormous post-1945 expansion of access to university education, and growth of the new media industries and advertising with their plebianization of culture as entertainment, flattening of the fine-arts hierarchy, and recruitment of a vast new literate and educated public for intellectual products — seem most sharply to divide Lewis’s age from our own.

In fact, however, such developments merely furnish a mass market for that commercially available ‘lifestyle’ (on the bookshelf, prize-winning middlebrow novels left over from college; in the lounge room, relics from the arthouse festival circuit of ‘world cinema’) by which the middle classes hope to distinguish themselves.

Photography and architecture conveniently replace easel painting and belles-lettres in the aesthetic hierarchy, as more outwardly visible, and readily brandished, displays of discernment.

Today’s consumers are increasingly encouraged  through ‘versioning’product differentiation and ‘group pricing’ to sort themselves into differentiated market segments and fine-grained niches based on personal attributes, spurious distinctions in taste, and willingness to pay.

Firms selling information goods attempt to build ‘networks’ or subcultures from which they can extract monopoly rents (e.g. locked-in dedicated Apple users).

Thus, for all that, today’s professionals and managers understand and revel in their wage premiums, and build exclusive claustral enclaves, in much the same fashion as Lewis described in the ‘Inner Ring’.

Boundaries of in-group membership are patrolled, and entrants self-congratulated, by display of positional goods: informal shibboleths, esoteric knowledge and badges of (putative) cultural sophistication.

Fredric Jameson describes, in rather frenzied, overwrought period fashion, how ‘yuppies can find some satisfaction in sheer know-how’:

[It] is no longer exactly profit as such that forms the ideal image of the process (money is merely the external sign of inward election, but fortune and “great wealth” are harder to represent, let alone libidinally to conceptualize, in an epoch in which numbers like billions and trillions are more frequently encountered).

Rather, what is at stake is know-how and knowledge of the system itself: and this is no doubt the “moment of truth” in postindustrial theories of the new primacy of scientific knowledge over profit and production; only the knowledge is not particularly scientific, and “merely” involves initiation into the way the system functions.

But now those in the know are too proud of their lesson and their know-how to tolerate any questions about why it should be like that, or even worth knowing in the first place. This is the insider cultural capital of the nouveaux riches which includes the etiquette and table manners of the system; along with cautionary anecdotes, your enthusiasm — fanned into a veritable frenzy in cultural spinoffs like the cyberpunk corporate fiction already mentioned  has more to do with having the knowledge of the system than it does with the system itself.

The social climbing of the new yuppie in-group knowledge now spreads slowly downward, via the media, to the very zoning boundaries of the underclasses themselves; legitimacy, the legitimation of this particular social order, being secured in advance by a belief in the secrets of the corporate life-style that includes the profit motive as its unspoken “absolute presupposition,” but which you can’t learn and question all at once, any more than you can mentally redesign a sailboat you are doing your first sailing in.

Gratified by journalistic talk about ‘skill-biased technical change,’ members of the liberal professions (certified academics, architects, lawyers, accountants, etc.), together with civil servants and other members of the skilled professional salariat, imagine that the income premium they command, and other privileges, are due to their ‘different genius’ (as in Adam Smith’s parable of the philosopher and the street porter).

Their relatively high earnings (compared to the wages and salaries earned by employees generally) are understood as a just reward for talent.

According to the prevailing economic ideology, the level of payment they fetch in the labour market (or receive as proprietorship or partnership income) is set by the worth of what they contribute as an input to production.

The latter capacity is held to derive either from intrinsic characteristics of the person themselves (superior cognitive skills), or from a provident and well-calculated investment of time and effort in education: foregoing earnings for several years of additional study, bestowing upon them a stock of human capital.

These qualities (so it is believed) also manifest themselves in good taste and discernment in consumption, e.g. the best food, clothes,  furnishings, décor, cultural products, tourist destinations, etc.

Products marketed at this audience thus often contain deliberate signs of ‘quality’, difficulty and seriousness. These are a kind of screening device: consumption of such products is a reliable signal of the consumer’s underlying ‘type’, since it requires a costly investment (e.g. of effort, time or money spent acquiring the taste, knowledge or capacity for appreciation) that most cannot afford (due to lack either of resources or motivation).

Through these products, consumers can thus signal their correct thoughts, depth, sophistication, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.

product differentiation

Long ago, Adam Smith gave expression to this middle-class self-regard, describing the mental atrophy induced by ‘the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people’:

[The] understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging…

In our fallen present, amid the market populism and aesthetic dreck of late capitalism, such reproaches to the demotic have lost their sting.

They bear little meaning for middle classes whose members are themselves, for the most part, now collected into paid employment, barracked inside grotesque office towers, and culturally as far as anyone from the Bildungsbürgertum of old.

Of course, similar consolations are available to those of more modest means, such as office clerks and other predominantly young employees, for whom educational qualifications are necessary, but whose material position and social standing is tenuous, and for which symbolic esteem serves as a surrogate.

Those lacking the purchasing power for true luxury consumption (yachts, antiques, jewellery, fine art) may yet, as compensation, use private consumption choices and leisure activities to flaunt credentials, intelligence and adherence to in-group norms (in the manner satirized by Stuff White People Like).

Outside the true citadels of social power, however, today snobbery and hauteur accompany, as a marketing device, the horizontal distinction of consumer niches, rather than pointing to any vertical differential of standards, now much diluted.

Dispatches from the Grand Hotel Abyss: the Frankfurt School comes to Morningside Heights

April 22, 2014

Christina Stead has had the peculiar fortune among twentieth-century Australian novelists to have enjoyed, at last count, three revivals of critical attention, reissued or newly collected works, and renewed fashionability.

The most recent bubble (they have taken place roughly two decades apart) yielded a biography and publication of Stead’s letters to her husband, William Blake.

Despite the biography’s concessions to contemporary ideological fashion, these letters remind us that all the leading figures in the Australian literary efflorescence of the 1930s (Eleanor Dark, Xavier Herbert, Katherine Susannah Prichard, Jack Lindsay, Dame Mary Gilmore, Vance and Nettie Palmer and their daughters, etc.) were Communist Party members or fellow-travellers of Stalinism.

Stead’s close friendship with the economist Henryk Grossmann features heavily.

‘I had better become a bit more intelligent before my Escort turns up next,’ she joked to Blake about Grossmann in April 1942:

I wonder at my temerity (in private) in going out cheerfully with the world’s leading Marxist, etc. but my Australian brass comes to my aid.

Stead had arrived in New York in 1937 to promote House of All Nations.

She stayed there until 1942, writing The Man Who Loved Children, joining the League of American Writers and describing herself as ‘a good Stalinist’.

Her social circle in wartime New York also included Mike Gold, whom she called a ‘perverse, deep, vain and self-interested man’ who ‘gives speeches without shame, when he has prepared nothing, for the sake of the money.’

Letters Christina Stead and William J Blake

Grossmann likewise spent the years 1937-1947 as an émigré scholar in New York.

Working in solitude  having been spurned by his old Frankfurt School milieu  he was desperate for company, intellectual stimulation and a rapprochement with Stalinist circles.

Stead sought his tutelage, hoping he might provide a fictional model for a character of the revolutionary ‘type’ (Lukács’s concept of novelistic types was then in the air).

She found to her disappointment that ‘psychology does not occur to him at all. He does not think psychologically and what he said was utterly useless.’

Grossmann eventually served as a fictional model for her Jan Kalojan (or Callowjan) in her short story ‘The Azhdanov Tailors.’

When after the war Grossmann accepted a teaching position in the DDR, Blake sought his patronage to win himself an academic place at the University of Leipzig.

In 1950 the US citizen travelled to the DDR, and enthused to Stead of the life they might enjoy under bureaucratic rule:

Like Henryk I was a nobody in America relatively, here I am a Marxian writer, which in Leipzig is the highest honour in the world apart from that of the directors of party policy and actual high administration.

[…]

He lives beautifully, really like a prince. So would we. He lives in a rococo palatial apartment house opposite a beautiful house…

Sadly Blake found Grossmann in hospital, dying of prostate cancer.

Christina Stead NLA

Stead’s letters regarding Grossmann provide a useful resource about Grossmann’s banishment from the Institute for Social Research, located then in New York.

Grossmann’s complaints of ‘sabotage’, related by Stead, show how the personnel and research program of the Frankfurt School, where Grossmann had worked in the 1920s and 1930s, were evolving into their familiar postwar configuration, in which he was no longer welcome.

By purging politically suspect figures like Grossmann, Max Horkheimer established a coherent ‘Frankfurt School’ research program based around himself and T.W. Adorno.

‘Critical Theory’ would be made academically respectable and salonfähig in time for the Cold War and German economic miracle.

Henceforth the Frankfurt School, shorn of any perilous links to classical Marxism, would rival Paris as the intellectual capital of Western Marxism.

While Grossmann lay on his deathbed in Leipzig, Adorno was making a triumphant return to Adenauer’s Federal Republic, where Horkheimer had been appointed rector of the University of Frankfurt.

As Perry Anderson described in Consderations on Western Marxism, the postwar Frankfurt School would be ‘officially feted and patronized’ in what remained ‘the most reactionary major capitalist country in Europe’.

Henryk Grossmann

In The Dialectical Imagination, his history of the Frankfurt School to 1950, Martin Jay wrote how Grossmann’s relationship with the Institute became ‘scarcely more than a formal one’ during the 1930s, leading to a ‘complete break’ during the Second World War:

An enormously learned man with a prodigious knowledge of economic history, Grossmann is remembered by many who knew him as the embodiment of the Central European academic: proper, meticulous, and gentlemanly.

He had, however, absorbed his Marxism in the years when Engels’s and Kautsky’s monistic materialistic views prevailed. He remained firmly committed to this interpretation and thus largely unsympathetic to the dialectical, neo-Hegelian materialism of the younger Institut [for Social Research] members. 

[…]

More orthodox Marxists within the Institut, such as the economist Henryk Grossmann, were always criticized for their overemphasis on the material substructure of society…

[…]

Grossmann’s ideological inflexibility prevented him from having much impact on the Institut’s analysis of Nazism, or on much else in its work for that matter.

Grossmann was author of The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System (1929), a former member of the Polish Communist Party and, before then, secretary of the Galician Bundists.

Unwelcome in Pilsudski’s Poland from 1926, he had become a researcher at the Institute for Social Research, an organization whose charter announced its dedication to the ‘history of socialism and the labour movement.’

The Institute was attached to the University of Frankfurt. Independent of the latter, it was directly answerable to the local Ministry of Culture, which appointed the Institute’s director.

The first director, Carl Grünberg, was an economist and Austro-Marxist, and Grossmann’s supervisor. (Jay later derided his ‘rather undialectical, mechanistic Marxism in the Engels-Kautsky tradition’, and his ‘inductive epistemology… a tone very different from that set after Horkheimer replaced him as director.’)

In June 1924 Grünberg had launched the Institute with the following words:

[In] contrast with the pessimists, there are the optimists.

They neither believe in the collapse of Western culture or of culture in general, nor do they alarm themselves or others with any such prospect. Supported by historical experience, they see, instead of a decaying form of culture, another, more highly developed one approaching. They are confident: magnus ab integro saeculorum nascitur ordo, a new order is being born out of the fullness of time.

And for their part they consciously demand that what is outmoded should stand aside in favour of what is emerging, in order to bring it more speedily to maturity.

Many people, whose numbers and influence are constantly growing, do not merely believe, wish and hope but are firmly, scientifically convinced that the emerging order will be a socialist one, that we are in the midst of the transition from capitalism to socialism and are advancing towards the latter with gathering speed.

According to Rolf Wiggershaus’s history of the Frankfurt School, its founder’s ‘heartfelt wish was… to create a foundation similar to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, equipped with a staff of professors and students, with libraries and archives and one day to present it to a German Soviet Republic.’

Institut group photo

Just a few short years after the aborted Communist insurrection, the Institute’s academics, most of them KPD or Social-Democrat members, were naturally monitored by the Weimar authorities.

In 1926 the Frankfurt Chief of Police confirmed that Grossmann had ‘not actually drawn any attention to himself politically’. He safely ascended to an economics professorship in 1930.

Meanwhile Grünberg’s successor, Max Horkheimer, was appointed director of the Institute in 1930, despite looser ties and lesser academic standing than Grossmann and other members. The Ministry of Culture, it was felt, would deem him less ‘politically suspect’ than these others, and his appointment would be ‘easier to push through’.

Horkheimer, a mediocre scholar, was ‘more trustworthy to his university colleagues’:

With no hope of attaining a professorship in the normal way, Horkheimer was pushing for the post of director, which brought with it the prospect of an accelerated academic career.

In 1931, the Institute ceased to issue the Archives for the History of Socialism and the Workers Movement; its new review was more innocentlv entitled The Journal of Social Research.

To a correspondent, Horkheimer straightforwardly declared himself ‘not interested’ in the traditional topics of socialism, economics or history. Rather, his ambitions lay ‘in a sociological theory appropriate to the society of those years and in the research that would be helpful for this task.’ Those seeking the substance in this vacuous formula were directed to Horkheimer’s inaugural address.

If intended as an accommodating signal of complaisance, this re-badging was of little avail by the early 1930s. Fascist ascendancy soon forced a scattering abroad.

In 1937 Grossmann was invited to New York by Horkheimer, director of an Institute now transplanted to premises on West 117th Street owned by Columbia University.

Like the Institute’s other designated ‘communist’, Karl Wittfogel, Grossmann was also excluded from the ‘Horkheimer circle.’ Without an office, Grossmann worked from home.

Five years into his stay, Horkheimer terminated the Institute’s relationship with Grossmann and trimmed other scholarly personnel from the payroll. In 1941 Grossmann’s work on economic dynamics, Marx and the classical political economists was not published under its auspices.

Grossmann decried all this as ‘sabotage’, and like Erich Fromm threatened to sue the Institute for breach of contract.

Columbia building

Stead’s letters shed some light on these grubby events, which are of broader interest.

Horkheimer’s renovation of the Frankfurt School certainly involved thwarted ambition, baronial intrigue and petty envy. But its consequences were neither trivial nor limited to the direct participants.

The program was one of lustration, with the conditions of exile allowing, ahead of time, the purifying cleanse of postwar liberation.

The churn of staff allowed the director, who boasted of his ‘dictatorship’, to remove those antiquated fogies whose ‘overemphasis on the material substructure of society’ clashed with his favoured research agenda.

As Jay’s history declares openly, what Horkheimer sought to displace from the Institute was a particularly musty, hidebound central European ‘tradition’, traceable to Engels and Kautsky: the ‘relative orthodoxy of the Institut’s Marxism’,  still dimly alive in figures like the Galician Jew Grossmann, ‘the embodiment of the Central European academic.’

The regional, ethnic and generational nature of this turnover in personnel was no accident.

Initially Stead’s letters present the ‘gallant Cracovian’ Grossmann as a pitiable figure, if ‘highly presentable and entertaining’: ‘desperately lonely’, ‘crazy as a bedbug’, a ‘a splendid fellow, though quite a trial as a conversationalist’, ‘a marvellous fellow when he is not in one of his black or silly moods.’

Grossman was covetous of her time (‘I’ve noticed before with the Gallant, that although he may appear to give you a choice or choices, it always veers around in no time to his choice: pertinacious elf.’).

He moaned often to her of his deliberate mistreatment at the hands of Horkheimer and Adorno, and was bewildered by US society (‘All old people, went to bed 9 o’clock, lights out, finally he said, Isn’t there a café here [poor European!] and they said, Yes and showed him. A milk bar. Poor European’).

In 1942 Stead wrote to Blake in San Francisco regarding Grossmann:

He is very lonely. He talked about himself all the time, his past, his successes in Europe, what everyone said about him – what the newspapers said, praise from adversaries, etc. etc. – what is that (in a man of Grossmann’s mind) but utter loneliness!

They do not like him in the Institute – he has a contract with them and if they did not pay him he “would make them a law” [Stead’s rendition of Grossmann’s clumsy English] – but they say he is “genial but they sabotage, they compliment him, we all know Dr. Grossmann and at first he was too stupid, but now he sees it was only to sabotage.” (sabatayge) They want to cut down his work, take out all the parts that are really Grossmann and would make him stand out above them.

Then he sets out to explain Akkumulations-Theorie to muh! Let me tell you one thing – in his atrocious English he makes himself clear and interesting. He is a born expositor and teacher. He regrets most his “workshop”; all the brilliant young men he taught now scattered – where are they – he had letters from Yapan – now at war – a world scattered – what a world for a scholar says he.

And I see it as he speaks – he is tired, I think. It breaks his heart that after all his work in Europe, known and admired by enemies even, that no one even knows he exists here…

Poor lonely scholar. Isn’t it pathetic? I am quite sure that if you would work with him in S.F. he would go there at once – and that is positively all he has in mind.

He is getting rather bowed; very much so, in fact. He reads books about seven hours a day, and works in the evening too.

He is studying – well, he told me all about his work and he made it interesting, which I consider very smart, for it was all about Descartes, his mechanical view of the universe, quite new and revolutionary for the time; and now he is studying all the algebra that every was and mathematical economics – and the question of why the machines didn’t develop before, for it was invented long before – the Greeks had machines but only for toys, and in the fourteenth century they invented the bobbin, etc. but never used it. Why didn’t they need the machine in Greek times? Slave labour, unemployment, due to robbery abroad, etc. etc.

This guy is so clear in his thinking that though he is an abstruse marxist I keep seeing the clearest pictures and getting good ideas for writing from him…

He is simply overwhelmed that the Marxists don’t known him or criticise him here.

What lay behind the ‘sabotage’ Grossmann complained of?

Wiggershaus’s history tells how, in 1937, the double-dip Depression, and an ‘unlucky touch in investments’ in stocks and real estate, had brought a ‘drastic deterioration’ in the Institute’s balance sheet. (Its endowment had been donated by the grain merchant father of Felix Weil.)

Horkheimer elected to cut salaries and research personnel.

Staff were ‘left confused and insecure by more or less secretive hints about the Institute’s impending financial collapse and by obscure reductions in the salaries’:

When the endowment capital began to shrink, from the late 1930s onwards, Horkheimer’s main concern became to reserve a large enough part of the assets early enough to secure his own scholarly work on a long-term basis. Accordingly, Lowenthal – in his capacity as one of the trustees of the ‘foundations’ among which the funds were distributed – was one day asked to transfer $50 000 to a fund with Horkheimer as its sole beneficiary.

First to go was Erich Fromm (whom less successful members apparently resented: T.W. Adorno had once described him as a ‘professional Jew’).

The work of Grossmann, too, was altogether too redolent of Galicia and classical Marxism, with its embarrassing tendency to cite Plekhanov and Rosa Luxemberg, and its talk of capitalist ‘breakdown’:

[Grossmann’s] long, ponderous manuscripts did not meet the expectations of the Institute’s directors at all, and, with a not particularly happy life, he had become a rather difficult character.

Wiggershaus describes a conflict of interest between Horkheimer, Adorno, Leo Lowenthal and Friedrich Pollock on the one hand, and Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann on the other:

With closer incorporation of the Institute into the university [Columbia], the chances of an academic career for Marcuse and Neumann would increase; in contrast, Horkheimer and those basing their hopes on having their material needs supplied by the Institute did not want to see its independence restricted in any way.

The Institute’s co-founder informed Horkheimer that ‘Teddy’ Adorno had ‘one interest in life, to become a minor gentleman of leisure on the west coast as soon as possible’.

By 1943, the only research supported full-time by Institute funding was that of Horkheimer and Adorno. Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann now worked for the OSS, and every other scholar was likewise employed in the US government’s war effort.

In Pacific Palisades, a starstruck Adorno giddily assisted Thomas Mann’s work on Doktor Faustus.

Meanwhile Adorno’s stark Minima Moralia, together with his and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, provided something of a programmatic manifesto for Critical Theory’s new postwar direction. The latter would reject all the aims set out for the Institute in Grünberg’s inaugural address.

Written simultaneously, these books jointly announced, in morose but full-throated tones, the Frankfurt School’s conversion to what Grünberg had called the camp of the ‘pessimists’, taking as their theme ‘the collapse of Western culture or of culture in general.’

With its strictures against ‘positivism’ and famously grim verdict on Francis Bacon and his epigones, Dialectic of Enlightenment provided a remarkable contrast with Grossmann’s history of the Scientific Revolution, also completed during the waning days of the Second World War.

In California, Grossmann’s work would no doubt have been judged as insufficiently ‘mediated.’

Adorno Brentwood residence

After German surrender, the Institute’s return to Europe was funded by the Allied High Commission for Occupied Germany and the City of Frankfurt.

Horkheimer became rector of the University of Frankfurt. With the Institute no longer relying on Weil’s money to fund its operations, Horkheimer appealed to the premier of Hesse.

The solicitation of grants and donations is described by Wiggershaus:

Horkheimer and Adorno sought support, not from the labour movement or from opposition groups, but from the ruling authorities themselves. As Horkheimer put it in a letter of thanks to the Prime Minister of the state of Hesse, Georg August Zinn, they were looking for ‘friends in high places, the sort of friends often hoped for in vain by academics also pursuing the practical goals of genuine education’.

Thus the Cold War Berufsverbot, having been preemptively enacted in exile, would require no more victims, and the Frankfurt School little intellectual defanging.

Henceforth, the long and steady descent to today’s Habermas, an ornament of the establishment — yet a figure, one must remember, of only the second postwar Frankfurt generation, and thus lineal recipient of a virtually pure inheritance from the founders — would proceed smoothly.

Habermas Kosovo

Since the beginning of his career in the 1950s, Habermas had been committed to German Atlanticism, or Westbindung:

The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the great intellectual achievement of the postwar period, of which my generation in particular could be proud…

That opening has been achieved by overcoming precisely the ideology of the center… [the] geopolitical palaver of “the old central position of the Germans in Europe”…

The only patriotism which does not alienate us from the West is a constitutional patriotism.

If, Habermas maintained, the source of all moral and intellectual authority lay in Western benevolence, and any hope of a future ‘cosmopolitan order’ reposed in Washington, then all trace of a German Sonderweg must be erased. After General Clay and John J. Mccoy had departed, the Bonn republic would have to hunt out and destroy any lingering German pretensions to being a bridge linking western and eastern Europe.

What must go, Habermas explained in the 1980s, if one was to ’emphatically defend the Federal Republic’s orientation to the West’, was ‘an ideology of “the middle”‘:

Only since the end of World War II have Germans this side of the Elbe and the Werra considered themselves, as a matter of course, to belong to Western Europe…

What is in dispute is not whether the Federal Republic belongs to Western Europe, but whether or not the option for the West has to be broadly anchored in a renewed national self-consciousness…

For it is only in the unclouded consciousness of a break with our more fateful traditions that the Federal Republic’s unreserved opening to the political culture of the West can mean more than an economically attractive opportunity and politically almost unavoidable choice…

The West integration of the German Federal Republic has taken place step by step: Economically through the Currency Reform and the European Community, politically through the splitting up of the nation and the consolidation of independent states, militarily through rearmament and NATO alliance, and culturally through a slow internationalization of science, literature and art that was not finalized until the late 1950s. These processes took place in the power context of the constellations brought about in Yalta and Potsdam, and later on through the interactions of the super-powers. But from the very beginning, they met with “an extensive pro-Western opinion among the West German population, an opinion nourished by the radical failure of the NS-politics and the repulsive appearance of Communism”.

What exactly was the pedigree disposed of by this Westbindung, with its ‘anchoring’ of Germany in NATO?

Today the once-enormous historical influence and international renown of German culture and language across Mitteleuropa, from the Baltic to the Balkans, can scarcely be imagined.

A figure like Grossmann was emblematic. He was born into the rickety Austrian political institutions of Franz Joseph: heir to the failed revolutions of 1848, with a large, recently emancipated and urbanizing Jewish population, and a residual landowning class, sharing a mostly German-language high culture across central and eastern Europe.

Long nurtured among the cultivated middle classes of the Habsburg, German and Russian imperial monarchies, since 1945 — and especially following the nationalist fragmentation and irredentism that has consumed the region since 1989, crafting monocultural territories out of formally multicultural federations this shared lingua franca has ceased to exist.

While it lasted, however, it provided a setting in which classical Marxism, during the last third of the nineteenth century, emerged and flourished.

Both the custodians and the enemies of this heritage the opponents of ‘Judeobolshevism’ with rather more relish than its embattled practitioners acknowledged this geographical and demographic pattern.

The original Institute for Social Research thus established its firmest international connections with Vienna and Moscow.

Its early members generally partook of that ‘economic determinism’ (sic), which Horkheimer’s Frankfurt leadership would later repudiate as a cardinal and egregious error, a worn-out relic of the Second International and Stalinism.

Yet against this early continental reach can be measured the later national introversion of the postwar Frankfurt School, with its provincial retreat to Kant, Hegel and (with Habermas) a smattering of Anglo-Americans (Mead, Dewey, Parsons).

The upshot of Horkheimer’s victory can be judged by the following anodyne prospectus, setting out the Institute’s postwar research agenda:

Social research, in all its aspects, and particularly in the areas of research on the structure of society, on human relationships and modes of behaviour within the labour process, of opinion research and the practical application of sociological and psychological knowledge in the last few decades, has received a great boost.

Owing to political events, Germany has not been able to participate in this to the extent that might have been desired. The part these disciplines can play today both in Germany’s public life and in the rationalization of its economy can hardly be overestimated, if the experience of other industrial nations is anything to go by.

Social analyses will be able to throw light on many crucial political and social problems of the post-war period, such as the refugee problem. They can provide an important cognitive basis for the reconstruction of cities and industrial areas. Training in the methods of social research can help young people better to grasp the tensions within our own population, as well as those between nations, and thus allow them to make an independent contribution to overcoming them . . .

Last but not least, social research can open the way to a variety of new professions. The demand for scientists trained in the new methods is no less than that for engineers, chemists or doctors, and they are valued no less than those professions are. Not only government administration, and all the opinion-forming media such as the press, film and radio, but also businesses maintain numerous sociological research bodies.

Social research can create the optimal social conditions in their factories, ascertain and calculate in advance what the public needs in their branch of business, and monitor and improve the effectiveness of their advertising. A similar course of development can be expected in Germany as well.

 

Taking candy from a baby?

April 13, 2014

A front-page article in last weekend’s Australian Financial Review spoke darkly of the federal government’s budget preparations ‘pitting one generation against another.’

A tired locution, no doubt, but has the claim any substance, or is it mere journalistic inflation?

Back in 1959, Abba Lerner compared the standard economic treatment of public pensions to a ‘swindle’ or a ‘chain letter’, criticizing it for neglecting transfers between generations living today, in favour of a spurious infinity of mutual benefit:

[The] “new” welfare economics… cannot consider the distribution of the product between younger and older people living at the same time… They are limited to the consideration of the distribution of an individual’s consumption between his working life and his own retirement.

Through ‘the fairy tale of the time-travel of interest-collecting savings… the authorities can pretend that “social security” is not a “socialistic”  tax and give-away program by the government but a “saving” by each worker out of his current income to provide for his old age.’

But, said Lerner:

[From] the social point of view, the pensions of the old can come only out of current output of consumption goods…

The essence of the matter is that the fable of the time-travel of consumption is accepted with implicit faith by the accountants, as guardians of the private point of view of savers who are putting money aside for their old age. It is the duty of economists, as guardians of the social point of view, to explode this fairy tale…

The only real problem from the social point of view is the allocation of current output of consumption goods between current consumers of different age. This can never be achieved by any kind of trading or lending, but only by a one-way transfer of current consumption from some citizens to others with no genuine quid pro quo. It is only a somewhat more sophisticated fable that today’s transfer from workers to pensioners is a “repayment” of yesterday’s transfer from workers to pensioners…

The tax-and-pension is nothing but a device by which today’s pensioners are maintained out of today’s social product, which is, of course, produced by today’s workers.

Lerner derided ‘the accountants who insist on the “solvency” of the Social Security Administration.’ Pre-funding was a red herring: ‘the “new” welfare economics, by limiting comparisons to the utility of the same individual at different dates, fits in fatally with the accountants’ predilection for considering social security as the translation of savings over time.’

Paul Samuelson, against whom Lerner was arguing, had declared with typically folksy glibness:

Outside of social security and family altruism, the aged have no claims on the young: cold and selfish competitive markets will not teleologically respect the old; the aged will get only what supply and demand impute to them…

Once social coercion or contracting is admitted into the picture, the present problem disappears. The reluctance of the young to give to the old what the old can never themselves directly or indirectly repay is overcome. Yet the young never suffer, since their successors come under the same requirement. Everybody ends better off. It is as simple as that.

This Elysian vision depended upon the premise that ‘each and every today is followed by a tomorrow’:

If each man insists on a quid pro quo, we apparently continue until the end of time… Let mankind enter into a Hobbes-Rousseau social contract in which the young are assured of their retirement subsistence if they will today support the aged, such support to be guaranteed by a draft on the yet-unborn.

Yet the future would not last forever, Lerner averred: growth would slow or the day of reckoning arrive. And when it did, Samuelson’s fairy tale of optimal saving, an attempt to legitimize PAYG, would have left Social Security exposed to attack from its enemies: the ‘accountants’ and their backers:

In our society many people feel that social security by redistribution of income by the government is alien to the pure essence of the individualist capitalist system so that, if “social security” has to be provided it should take the form of individual saving for old age. This has led to the belief that a social security system cannot operate honestly unless it has acquired a fund actuarially corresponding to the savings of all those members of society who have paid in their contributions in the past and who will be taking them out as benefits in the future…

[The] fact is that such a fund is completely unnecessary. It is called for only because accountants look on the social security program as old age insurance provided by an enterprise that must accumulate assets to match its contingent liabilities. Such accounting practices are completely justified for a private insurance company, which must be prepared for the eventuality of failing to enrol any new customers and still having to pay the covenanted benefits to its old customers.

Lerner’s objection provided a downbeat and untimely interruption during the postwar golden age of capital accumulation. Samuelson, heedless, could dispatch it with characteristic insouciance: ‘The beauty of social insurance is that it is actuarially unsound… A growing nation is the greatest Ponzi scheme ever devised.’

But, as public retirement provision has come under attack during the last three decades, it has become more congenial for its opponents to acknowledge, and profitable for them to belabour, Lerner’s point that pensions are simply a tax-based income transfer between generations or birth cohorts.

Abruptly, the principle of intergenerational equity has entered the journalistic lexicon (the Stern Review having sped the acquisition).

To its horror, conventional opinion has discovered that the elderly are cosseted, not abiding by Samuelson’s social contract of give-and-take.

Society’s rules are ‘seriously biased against the young.’ This alleged fact is finally discerned just as a looming demographic shock  increased life expectancy and reduced fertility rates —  lowers the natural rate of workforce growth, promising a higher dependency ratio in the advanced economies.

Australia dependency ratio

Samuelson’s roseate vision of mutual benefit no longer fits the bill. ‘Intergenerational catastrophe’ has now taken its place.

As his own generational cohort has been succeeded by the likes of Martin Feldstein, and collegial academic debate given way to ambitious policy programmes, it has been acknowledged (as Milton Friedman once insisted) that retirement income does involve redistributing today’s output between currently living social groups.

Hysterical claims about trillions of dollars worth of unfunded pension liabilities over an infinite horizon have been just one of several tactics used by advocates of  ‘individual saving for old age’.

As I suggested in an earlier post, policy circles have also luridly announced a ‘war’ between young and old, a zero-sum game for scarce resources, in which benefits for one generation can only come at the expense of another: ‘welfare policies have favoured the elderly at the expense of the young.’

David Thomson Selfish Generations

The crudity of this divide-and-rule campaign  pursued with asinine zeal by politicians as well as academics, journalists, media commentators and policy analysts — can scarcely be exaggerated.

This year the Australian treasurer, Joe Hockey, has spoken repeatedly of public spending on pensions as ‘intergenerational theft’. So has his parliamentary secretary, Steven Ciobo.

Looking ahead with trepidation to fifty years of a ‘greying’ population, and invoking Hayek for comfort, minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews has described ‘intergenerational theft… [an act that] picks the pockets of our children who’ll be left to pay the bill. It’s a raid on the future prosperity of young Australians, both born and yet-to-be-born.’ So has his assistant minister, Mitch Fifield.

Josh Frydenberg and Brett Mason, both parliamentary secretaries, have also deployed the term.

Thus the welfare of future cohorts  the youth, our nation’s shining future  provides the satisfyingly elevated creed served up to the mass electorate, a thin gauze veiling a ruthless distributional claim to today’s social product.

At stake is the price of state debt and valuation of the chief asset on the government balance sheet: the discounted present value of all future primary surpluses (net private-sector tax liabilities imposed by the state). State bonds promise their holder a stream of interest payments financed out of tax revenue.

Behind the putative conflict between baby boomers and subsequent generations is, therefore, an elite constituency seeking to sustain, rather than diminish, the value of interest-bearing government debt.

To accomplish this, the claim on future net output represented by the state’s obligations to the elderly, infirm and other dependants must be reduced.

Treasury intergenerational report 2010 - pension forecast

Why, as this goal of the propertied classes finds popular expression, is it embellished as intergenerational conflict? Why risk such strident and incendiary terms, when more decorous evasions, more pious expressions of national harmony, might conceivably be found?

In the first place, electoral mobilization depends increasingly on appeals to narrow demographic groups (the Australian Greens have sought to convert young adults into a vote-bank), with today’s parties lacking the broad social constituencies, and the programmatic variety, of the past.

The increased salience of non-class forms of social classification or ascribed status (ethnicity, race, gender, generational cohort) is also a pacifying factor during recessionary phases of business cycles or more enduring periods of instability.

In Australia, privatization of public pensions (supplemented by a means-tested system of residual relief for the poor) arrived long ago. In other, more stubborn jurisdictions, it has been the desired end-goal (‘one of the most important conservative undertakings of modern times’). In every case the accompanying rhetoric has involved panic over the solvency of a system of unfunded liabilities (‘the current system is heading for an iceberg… That reality needs to be seared into the public consciousness’).

Local talk of an ‘ageing tsunami’ simply partakes of this global idiom.

Finally, the demographic shock, apparent by no later than the mid-1970s, does pose a genuinely epochal challenge to Australia’s state elite. The diminished natural rate of labour growth has called forth an assiduous policy response including mass immigration, pro-natalist subsidies, efforts to increase workforce participation rates through ‘social migration’ of housebound women and disabled people, etc.

Treasury Intergenerational report 2007 - Projected contribution of net inward migration to population growth

McDonald and Temple - Demography and labour supplyRBA - Female labour force participation

Yet the impact in Australia of the demographic shock is broader and deeper still.

Even in the absence of full employment, a less elastic supply of employable labour imposes a constraint on profitable investment, especially when technical change is stunted (as it has been since the 1970s). Slow capital accumulation in recent decades  reducing productivity growth and channelling funds into unproductive and speculative pursuits — has therefore maintained the relative bargaining position of Australian firms in conditions where excessive labour demand might conceivably have raised the bargained wages of employees.

This curtailing of productive investment, involving the diversion of the surplus into residential expenditure, asset markets and luxury consumption, has been the decisive feature of Australian society in the last three decades.

The turn from long-term investment to shareholder value has entailed restructuring of the labour market towards sporadic, tenuous and low-paying employment, a change that has disproportionately affected young adults. Youth, lacking the savings and the borrowing capacity of their elders, and contributing much of the necessary slack in the labour market, then provide an aggrieved constituency for those intent on stoking intergenerational rancour.

oz young unemployment

Keating - Working Nation

War production and investment spending: how many divisions has Putin?

March 19, 2014

For a brief period in the 1920s, compelled by circumstance amid the daunting wreckage of Civil War, the new Soviet state became the world centre of development economics.

In swift order arrived Preobrazhensky’s model of surplus mobilization from agriculture (1926), Feldman’s theory of capital accumulation (1928) and Chayanov’s model of the peasant household (1925).

While the Soviet Union has since received its traumatic quietus, the topic at stake in these discussions — industrialization of a largely rural, middle-income economy, in a territory subject to repeated military incursions — never quite vanished.

Today’s reduced circumstances — notwithstanding recent short-lived bubbles of energy, real estate and stock market — grant it renewed relevance.

When the Tsarist state was shattered by blows from the Hohenzollern Empire, harsh lessons were absorbed by its Bolshevik successors. One result was the theoretical flourishing described above.

With the Stalinist bureaucracy having since succumbed in no less catastrophic fashion — vast tracts of its territory excised and conceded, its population whittled down and industrial capacity reduced — no similar outbreak of reflection has been in evidence.

Yet, with capitalism restored in a diminished Russia, old issues have resurfaced for the Kremlin’s policy elite.

One the one hand, lack of internal macroeconomic development bridles Moscow’s military capacity and curbs its conduct of international statecraft. On the other, lopsided devotion to war industry pilfers resources that might otherwise augment Russia’s stock of capital equipment and infrastructure.

Such is the state of disarray, domestic and external, as NATO presses its forces and weaponry against ex-Soviet borders.

In 1930 Tukhachevsky’s proposal to create a ‘military-planning complex’ was dismissed by Stalin, who greeted it with the accusation of ‘red militarism.’

It was, Stalin said, ‘the result of an entertainment with leftist phrases, the result of a play with paper, bureaucratic maximalism… To carry out such a “plan” would certainly ruin the economy of the country, and the army’.

Tukhachevsky had mused about increasing the number of motorized and mechanized units, combining artillery and tanks with airpower:

The success of our socialist construction, as well as the changes in the countryside, put the whole question of a reorganization of the armed forces on the agenda, due consideration of all the new factors of technology and the possibility of mass-scale production of armaments.

By 1933, he suggested, the Soviet Union could maintain 40 000 operational aircraft and 50 000 tanks, allowing 240 infantry, 50 artillery and 20 cavalry divisions:

These figures characterize (by modest indications) our prospective production capacity in aeroplanes and tanks and call for the appropriate organizational forms of the Red Army, which the Army inevitably must adopt.

Stalin, in his clotted style, responded thus to Tukhachevsky’s ‘super rearmament’:

In his ‘plan’ the essential is lacking, that is, there is no calculation of the realistic possibilities in the economic, financial and cultural dimension. This ‘plan’ definitely distorts any conceivable and permissible proportions between the Army, as one part of the country, and the country, as an entity with limits in the economic and cultural dimension. ‘The plan’ fulfils the views of ‘purely military’ men, who often forget that the army constitutes a derivative of the economic and cultural condition of the country.

In other words, the armed forces did not generate their own surplus for reinvestment, nor cover their own operating expenses.

Instead, they depended in material terms upon subventions from the ‘basic’ industries, which set an upper limit to their size.

Ignoring this binding constraint, and engaging in drastic military expenditure, would eat away at potentially investible resources and prevent formation of the very fixed assets that might otherwise support the Red Army.

In 1930, due to the Soviet Union’s economic underdevelopment, the available surplus above current consumption seemed too meagre to squander on lofty goals of military construction, equipment and munitions procurement, which were starting from a very low base.

Supply bottlenecks obliged the Kremlin to choose between investment in new productive capacity (iron, steel, fuel, mechanized equipment, transport infrastructure) and military spending.

Yet by the end of the second Five-Year Plan in 1938, an armaments industry had been erected that, numerically speaking, met Tukhachevsky’s grandiose hopes: doubling its staff, and tripling its output, in the space of four years.

Once complementary investments had come on-stream, capacity existed to build a war machine.

RW Davis - Planning for mobilization

Mark Harrison - Second five-year plan

During interwar years, of course, this story was hardly unique to the new Soviet Union.

The developmental state in Japan provides the obvious comparison: accumulating a stock of fixed capital (shipyards, blast furnaces, automotive plants) that provided Tokyo with a heavy-industrial base for armaments production.

But after 1945 Japan became a US protectorate. Since then, under Washington’s security umbrella, Japanese militarism has no longer frittered away the investible surplus (nor, after MacArthur’s land reform, have an idle class of unproductive landowners). With the hegemon picking up Cold War military overheads, a high proportion of scientists and engineers became available for R&D in the civilian economy.

Partly as a result, down to the 1980s capital goods used per worker and labour productivity increased more rapidly in Japan than anywhere else in the world.

On the other hand, Russia has constituted a national anomaly. For in this perennial Kampfplatz the issue has reappeared insistently, history having contrived no resolution in the form of a benevolent suzerain.

Consider Engels’s remark in 1890 on the results of the Crimean War:

The war had proved that Russia needed railways, steam engines, modern industry, even on purely military grounds. And thus the government set about breeding a Russian capitalist class…

[The] new development of the bourgeoisie was artificially forced as in a hot-house, by means of railway concessions, protective duties, and other privileges; and thus a complete social revolution was initiated in town and country, which would not allow the spirits once set in motion to return to rest again.

Again and again, Moscow’s status as a Great Power, and the country’s security from external threat, has posed for the Kremlin the ‘conceivable and permissible proportions between the Army, as one part of the country, and the country’.

How should the surplus be divided between military spending (wastefully diverting resources from the civilian economy and thus impeding productivity growth) and accumulating new industrial capacity (investing in fixed assets that provide the economic basis for warfare and peacetime geostrategy)?

At different times, depending on parameter values, military expenditure and fixed-capital formation (and labour productivity) might be complementary, moving in sympathy as under Stalin during the 1930s (when both rose) and the 1990s under Yeltsin (when both collapsed). Or they could conflict, moving inversely as in the late Brezhnev years (again, to unhappy effect).

As Stalin noted, this was a problem of apportioning society’s total workforce and other resources to specific activities and different lines of production.

For any economy, some tradeoff necessarily exists: every society needs to allocate its aggregate labour resources  person-years per year, or simply working-age persons  between particular tasks or occupations.

A capitalist society generally does this by means of price signals: private investment flows into the most profitable lines of production, increasing labour demand and employment in these activities.

During wartime mobilization, however, labour is deployed to the desired tasks by ‘political’ methods: conscription of prime-age males, placement of orders and procurement by state planning boards, and other bureaucratic procedures.

Even during peacetime, resource planning proceeds at its highest level using ‘in-kind’ physical units. The US Defense Department specifies to Boeing or Northrup Grumman how many combat aircraft or jet engines it needs to procure.

RW Davies - Soviet weapon production

nimitz class supercarrier

What about ex ante mobilization by a state preparing to go to war?

A state fighting a prolonged war cannot just myopically allocate all its labour resources to the war-front in the hope of immediate victory. It must prepare and maintain the civilian productive capacity of heavy industry and capital goods  steel production, shipbuilding, aviation, construction, munitions and armaments, chemicals and engineering, vehicles and parts, fuel and power supply  as well as food, clothing, medicine, transport, communication, etc.

Long-term creation of such a military-industrial base, in order to boost war-making potential, is known as ‘armament in depth.’

Under Stalin, much of this industrial base (e.g. Magnitogorsk) was deliberately dispersed eastward beyond the Urals and Siberia, far from European predation from the west and with its own nearby deposits of fuel and minerals (e.g. the Kuznetsk Basin).

Industrial facilities of this sort provide necessary inputs for the armed forces. Alternatively, during peacetime this military-productive base may produce civilian goods for households or firms, while being available to switch to armaments production in the event of mobilization.

During the 1930s, Stalin’s government maintained enormous peacetime spare capacity in its armaments sector. This exchange was recorded at a meeting of officials in the Heavy Industry Commission.

M.M. KAGANOVICH: You have 500 or 600 machine tools tied up with wire.

I.I. PAVLUNOVSKII: It’s not my fault that there is no war. (Laughter). It is better that these machine tools remain tied up. They are mobilization resources, special equipment, and we must base our current estimates on equipment which is actually working.

Factories and equipment did not merely lay idle, but were also used to produce civilian goods. The historian R.W. Davies records:

[A] document about the planned new artillery and ammunition factories proposed that the artillery factories should manufacture refrigerators, compressors, and road construction equipment, shell factories should make machine tools and ball bearings, explosives factories should make bicycles, gramophones, and metal goods, and gunpowder factories should make plastics and artificial leather.

Including this heavy-industrial base, during the Second World War the war economy of the belligerent states directly and indirectly mobilized up to a half of each society’s total workforce.

Harrison - workforce mobilization in WW2

This demanded enormous fiscal outlays: military expenditure absorbed between 50% and 75% of gross output in Germany, Britain and the Soviet Union.

Government borrowing on this unprecedented scale had been made possible by institutional changes during the previous few decades, which had stabilized government finances while improving credit.

In particular the establishment of central banks and collapse of the gold standard allowed liquid markets for state liabilities to develop.

Liberty bonds

Indeed, most Great Powers had already undertaken such changes, which allowed them to appropriate a huge share of economic output, in time for the Great War.

WW1 government spending in national income - Broadberry and Harrison

The United States, something of an imperial laggard, had more than rectified this lack by the 1940s.

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, where the amount of state procurement was decided in physical terms by the planning bureaucracy and then balanced via a turnover tax, military spending rose from 2% of national output in 1928 to 6% in 1937 and 15% in 1940, roughly the same proportion as in Hitler’s Germany.

Harrison - resource mobilization in world wars

Recall that the level and direction of military spending tells us how labour and other resources are distributed, by whatever means, between different sectors and branches of industry. Resources deployed for military purposes thereby become unavailable for alternative uses.

Diverting resources away from these alternatives uses may, as Adam Smith pointed out, be self-defeating for security purposes. A growing military depends on productivity improvements in other sectors (so that resources are freed up for unproductive use on warfare), yet in return technical improvements in the military sector exercise no such beneficial effect on other industries (I’m referring here to final output rather than intermediate products such as engines).

If, due to some technical innovation, farming grows more efficient then food and livestock become cheaper and more peasants, freed from the land, are available to send to the armed front, and once there will be provisioned at lower cost. But if some invention makes cruise missiles cheaper to produce there is no flow-on to make any production process in future periods cheaper. The state can simply afford more of them. A cruise missile, being purely destructive, is like a luxury good in that it doesn’t enter into the production of other goods, either directly or indirectly.

f-16

By 1950 Soviet military spending had declined to 9% of national output. But it spiked again with the Korean War and would subsequently yo-yo obediently over the next 40 years in response to each geopolitical exigency, arms race or change of mood in Washington.

Thus from the early 1970s Brezhnev’s Kremlin dramatically increased the level of R&D devoted to military ends. This, which diverted technical employees (engineers and scientists) away from the civilian economy, helped lead to slower productivity growth in the productive core of the economy.

Coal, oil and steel  the foundation of the Soviet productive base  performed calamitously from 1975 as existing low-cost reserves were depleted and, with technical progress stalled, no adequate replacements found (e.g. the resort to low-quality lignite). The oil price collapse of 1986 would strand hunks of high-cost infrastructure: ageing fields, pipelines and railways littered across West Siberia from Kazakhstan to the Arctic Ocean.

The CIA concluded that by the early 1980s military spending as a proportion of Soviet GDP was around 16%, one-third above its level in the 1960s, and made up one-third of total budget outlays.

A series of RAND Corporation reports claimed that Soviet military clients enjoyed preferential input supply and other priorities that were impeding productivity growth in the civilian economy:

The military R&D sector benefits from a high-powered priority system that overrides the planning network. It receives ample resources and facilities; it has first claim on supplies, specially produced items, and scarce resources. Finally, there are no spillover effects to the civilian economy. This disadvantage stems from secrecy, the need to limit new materials and components, and lack of funds to diffuse the achievements of military R&D.

High-voltage power transmission and oil pipelines from Siberia and Kazakhstan to the country’s west, improved exploration and drilling technology and other projects necessary to maintain and upgrade the Soviet industrial base (and with it the armaments sector) were neglected.

With a falling share of net investment in the plans of the 1970s and 1980s, the immediate needs of the armed forces and those of expanding the country’s productive capacity had entered into sharp conflict.

Robert Allen - Soviet productivity growth by industry 1965-1985

Robert Allen - Soviet TFP 1928-1989

Worse was soon to come after the Kremlin bureaucracy, sensing its moment, opted to restore the old regime.

From 1991, rundown and destruction of the former Soviet Union’s capital stock had the useful result (for Washington) of shrivelling Moscow’s industrial base for military activities.

Absolute deindustrialization would be prolonged and severe. Under Yeltsin, and with technical assistance provided by the US Treasury and Harvard Boys, Russian fixed investment fell by 40% in a single year, reaching an abysmal 12% of GDP in 1999.

With its factories, capital equipment and infrastructure depreciated or sold for scrap, with local savings plundered and assets filched abroad, the Russian state would not rejoin the world market as a peer competitor, but only as supplicant.

Anointed on a glad-handing visit to Washington, and eager to please, a supine Yeltsin agreed to reduce military spending by 15% in a single year.

Yeltsin

Since the ‘recovery’ engendered by the oil-price takeoff after 2001, productive investment has remained feeble, barely reaching levels necessary to cover physical depreciation.

A speculative inflow of liquidity from 2004 channelled funds into Russia’s financial system, prompting appreciation of the ruble and an asset-price bubble in local stocks and real estate.

These financed a consumption splurge as foreign goods became cheaper and borrowing more affordable (credit grew by 36% in 2006-2007). But the high exchange rate made non-oil exports uncompetitive and further hollowed out the industrial base. The crash in 2008 saw GDP fall by 8 percent, amid a chain of bankruptcies and defaults.

Today Russia’s surplus product is dissipated on baubles and kitsch displays, embodied in luxury consumption goods imported from abroad for its rentier class. Under Putin, the latter have grown plump but the territory’s productive capacity wanes.

The surviving stock of capital equipment and buildings is disproportionately old, low quality and economically unviable.

Yeltsin’s procurement cutbacks during the 1990s have meant that Russian military equipment is older still: successive Chechen campaigns revealed heritage trucks, helicopters, weapons and armour to be scarcely operable. The Georgian performance in 2008 provided little reassurance.

Though oil revenues have recently allowed Moscow to commence a modernization drive in military hardware, two decades of atrophy have taken their strategic toll. Force disposition reflects straitened circumstances.

Russian military capability 2013

Local conditions were thereby prepared for NATO’s strategic encroachment on the ex-Soviet space (‘From containment to enlargement’, in the words of Clinton’s National Security Advisor).

Since 1991, the latter has involved territorial dismemberment of the collapsed state across its southern and western perimeters, followed swiftly by NATO’s absorption of ex-Soviet Baltic states.

Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine now provide a cordon sanitaire between Russia and Germany, while extension of NATO’s security alliance to include Romania, Bulgaria and perhaps (long touted) Ukraine allows US domination of the Black Sea and Caspian basin, and thus of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Moscow’s capacity for naval power projection into the Baltic and Mediterranean, and overland links to the Persian Gulf via the Caucasus and Caspian Basin, have been abruptly diminished.

The extent of the ‘peace dividend’ won by Washington was bluntly spelt out by Brzezinski in The Grand Chessboard (1997):

The collapse of the Soviet Union produced a dramatic historical reversal. In the course of merely a few weeks in December 1991, Russia’s Asian space suddenly shrank by about 20 percent, and the population Russia controlled in Asia was cut from 75 million to about 30 million. In addition, another 18 million residents in the Caucasus were also detached from Russia. Making these reversals even more painful to the Russian political elite was the awareness that the economic potential of these areas was now being targeted by foreign interests with the financial means to invest in, develop, and exploit resources that until very recently were accessible to Russia alone.

[…]

The collapse of the Soviet Union produced monumental geopolitical confusion. In the course of a mere fortnight, the Russian people  who, generally speaking, were even less forewarned than the outside world of the Soviet Union’s approaching disintegration  suddenly discovered that they [sic] were no longer the masters of a transcontinental empire but that the frontiers of Russia had been rolled back to where they had been in the Caucasus in the early 1800s, in Central Asia in the mid-1800s, and much more dramatically and painfully  in the West in approximately 1600, soon after the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

[…]

In brief, Russia, until recently the forger of a great territorial empire and the leader of an ideological bloc of satellite states extending into the very heart of Europe and at one point to the South China Sea, had become a troubled national state, without easy geographic access to the outside world and potentially vulnerable to debilitating conflicts with its neighbours on its western, southern, and eastern flanks. Only the uninhabitable and inaccessible northern spaces, almost permanently frozen, seemed geopolitically secure.

Brzezinski former Soviet Union

At this turn of events, Brzezinski, like Clinton, felt the Kremlin’s pain:

Most painful of all, Russia’s international status was significantly degraded, with one of the world’s two superpowers now viewed by many as little more than a Third World regional power, though still possessing a significant but increasingly antiquated nuclear arsenal.

But the foreign-policy strategist must keep his head and focus on the prize:

The disintegration late in 1991 of the world’s territorially largest state created a “black hole” in the very center of Eurasia. It was as if the geopoliticians’ “heartland” had been suddenly yanked from the global map.

The collapse of the Russian Empire created a power void in the very heart of Eurasia….

For America, this new and perplexing geopolitical situation poses a crucial challenge… [The] long-range task remains: how to encourage Russia’s democratic transformation and economic recovery while avoiding the reemergence of a Eurasian empire that could obstruct the American geostrategic goal of shaping a larger Euro-Atlantic system to which Russia can then be stably and safely related.

In this project of permanently subjugating an enfeebled Moscow, and reducing its territorial influence to a narrow rump, one (Ruthenian) treasure held particular value:

Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire. Russia without Ukraine can strive for imperial status, but it would then become a predominantly Asian imperial state, more likely to be drawn into debilitating conflicts with aroused Central Asians… However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources as well as its access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia. Ukraine’s loss of independence would have immediate consequences for Central Europe, transforming Poland into the geopolitical pivot on the eastern frontier of a united Europe.

The truth of the matter was crisply put: ‘Now a non-Eurasian power is preeminent in Eurasia — and America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.’

This sober reckoning of respective forces supplies a bracing antidote to today’s Euro-American media consensus, the weight of the political class behind it, for which a ravening Muscovite bear again stalks Eurasia.

Brzezinski - NATO axis 2010

Roemer’s retour à property rights; or, Justice as squareness

February 12, 2014

The Hayekians Tyler Cowen and Peter Boettke have alerted econobloggers to a recent article by John Roemer: ‘Thoughts on arrangements of property rights in productive assets’.

Roemer has kept quiet on this topic for the past 20 years, having proposed a coupon/mutual-fund model of market socialism back in the early 1990s.

Two decades on, what does he have to say about these issues? On the whole, very little.

Roemer market socialism

Roemer’s impatience and waning interest in the subject had been evident back in A Future for Socialism (1994).

In that book, property relations were candidly described as mere means rather than ends in their own right. They were not intrinsically worthy of attention, whether political or theoretical:

[In] Eastern Eu­rope, many different proposals for what to do about the formerly state-owned firms are currently under debate…

My view is that socialists have made a fetish of public ownership… What socialists want are the three equalities [of welfare and self-realization, political influence and social status]; they should be open-minded about what kind of property relations in productive assets would bring about those equalities… The link between state ownership… and the three equalities is tenuous, and I think one does much better to drop the concept from the socialist construction….

Another instance of the fetishism of public ownership is the position common among socialists that the public should decide, presumably through some kind of representative democracy, how to use the economic surplus (or, as economists say, how to determine the rate and sectoral distribution of investment)…

[But if] there were a full set of futures markets, if externalities associated with investment were small, and if people’s preferences were formed under conditions of equal opportunity, I would have little objection to determination of investment by the market…

In sum, I view the choice of property rights over firms and other resources to be an entirely instrumental matter; possibilities for organizing such rights should be evaluated by socialists according to the likelihood that they will induce the three equalities with which socialists are concerned.

Such pragmatic insouciance, while long a feature of Roemer’s work, had not hitherto applied on this fundamental question.

Previously, as late as 1989, he had seemed to think such doctrinal matters were essentially settled and non-negotiable. Revision or amputation of these basic socialist principles, unlike many others, was deemed unnecessary.

Roemer himself still retained the classical enthusiasm for socialized industry, to judge by his article from that year, ‘Public ownership and private property externalities’. There, exhibiting little of the later diffidence, he lined up dutifully behind public ownership, calling for the ‘abolition of capitalist private property… not simply the particular distribution of it that exists in capitalist societies.’

‘Market socialism’, in its 1989 definition, and even later, meant: ‘(a) public ownership of the means of production and (b) private ownership of skills and labour.’

As Mill had once pleaded that the ‘principle of private property has never yet had a fair trial in any country’, and should be judged ‘at its best… not as it is, but as it might be,’ Roemer likewise declared that Stalinism could not constitute the final verdict on socialized property, for the latter had been warped and perverted by its bureaucratic rule.

Yet, as with many other left-wing intellectuals, Roemer’s political beliefs and professional networks were transformed abruptly during five years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Thus, amid the collapse of European Stalinism, Roemer would present his 1994 book as a blueprint for a more ‘feasible socialism’, shorn of outmoded features. With restoration now underway in eastern Europe, might not that region provide a testing-ground for novel projects?

The countries where the opportunity costs of adopting market socialism are the least are, I believe, those that have formed in Eastern/Central Europe and out of the Soviet Union since 1989. These countries face a momentous task of institution building, no matter what kind of market system they will have, and one could argue that the costs of designing a coupon stock market, a bank-centric monitoring system, and constitutions that adequately shelter economic institutions (banks, firms) from state interference would be no greater than the costs of building a capitalist system along Anglo-American lines…

[I]ntroducing the kind of market socialism advocated here in some of these states will perhaps be politically possible in a few years… I think, as well, that this kind of transformation is not out of the question in China or Viet­nam, or perhaps in Cuba.

This was recognizably wishful thinking, and unsurprisingly events did not turn out as Roemer had hoped.

An unkind reader (Jon Elster?) might suggest that Roemer could not candidly admit to himself or his readers how irresistibly the political and ideological wind was blowing in the direction of capitalist restoration, for to do so would have exposed his own work as just one more unexceptional instance in the general market-embracing process.

Roemer’s market-socialist vision did not provide any group with political inspiration, left behind no adherents, and is long forgotten. (It proved itself of momentary use to some. When in 1995 the British Labour Party abandoned its own ‘fetish’ for nationalized industry, two of its house intellectuals, writing in New Left Review, acknowledged Roemer’s coupon model as kin, if not direct inspiration, for Tony Blair’s ‘new politics of ownership’).

Roemer subsequently shifted intellectual territory, devoting himself to innovative work in political science. As a kind of minor post-Rawlsian, he also did some less groundbreaking work on distributive justice

The latter field now provides occasion for him to revisit matters long neglected.

He has contributed to a special journal issue devoted to John Rawls’s idea of ‘property-owning democracy’.

This latter term, vague and short on institutional specifics, was introduced by Rawls as a possible ‘alternative to capitalism.’ It is flexible enough to have been adopted by Margaret Thatcher (indeed, its roots lay in British anti-Labourism). On anyone’s reading, whatever substance the term might have lay in the compound adjective rather than the noun it modified. Lately it has been rediscovered as fertile material for political philosophers, generating much learned commentary.

Roemer starts his new article on familiar old ground. If exploitation arises from asset inequality (differential ownership of productive resources allows the wealthy to appropriate the labour effort of employees) he imagines what would happen if everyone owned his or her per capita share of capital goods:

In thinking about alternatives for the arrangement of property rights in the United States, it is useful to begin with some facts.

In 2007, before the financial crash, the total market capitalization of US stocks was $51 trillion. There are approximately 114 million households, and so if those corporate assets were to be owned in equal shares by households, each would own about $449 000 in corporate equities. The share of capital income (profits, rent, interest and proprietors’ income) in national income is around 25%, but this oscillates over time.

Thus, under an egalitarian distribution of capital assets, and assuming profitability and labour supply remained about the same as now, each household would earn about one-fourth of its income from capital. If we take the average real rate of return on capital to be 4%, then each household would earn about $18 000 per annum from returns on its equity portfolio.

This would, in particular, have a substantial impact on poverty.

In the 1980s Roemer had presented this scenario as ‘people’s capitalism’, in which there was no abolition of private property per se, but only a correction of its unequal distribution.

It is recognizable as Rawls’s model of property-owning democracy, and less so as Roemer’s own blueprint for market socialism.

In the latter scheme, public ownership was, though mutilated beyond recognition, nominally preserved. Roemer had defined his market socialism as ‘a politico-economic mechanism embodying competitive politics, market allocation of most goods, and public ownership.’

(In the conclusion to A Future for Socialism, he repeatedly spoke of ‘nationalization of private assets’ as a step ushering a society towards his market socialism. Elsewhere he emphasized the ‘reorganization of property rights’, rather than simply their redistribution. With Pranab Bardhan he declared: ‘We take public ownership, in a wider sense, to mean that the distribution of the profits of firms is decided by the political democratic process—yet the control of firms might well be in the hands of agents who do not represent the state.’)

It is true that a distinction between the two schemes, Roemer’s market socialism and Rawls’s property-owning democracy, is hard to maintain. In the early 1990s Roemer exerted little effort to deny their practical equivalence. In any case, his own stated views obliged him to carry on as though the precise arrangement of property relations was irrelevant: what mattered were the downstream consequences for egalitarianism.

Thus he declared early in A Future for Socialism: ‘This work was not initiated by the socialist movement but by the publication of John Rawls’s book, A Theory of Justice, in 1971.’

But Rawls, for one, insisted that ‘property-owning democracy’ was something distinct from the market-using economic arrangement he called ‘liberal socialism’.

And Roemer, in 1994, found it both meaningful and congenial to use the appellation ‘market socialism’, and to assert, with some adamance, that ‘socialism remains an ideal worth pursuing’, and moreover worth preserving as a distinct kind of egalitarianism not otherwise provided for.

He continued to refer to himself as a Marxist, not a liberal egalitarian, and did not publicly resile from previous statements like: ‘[The] Marxist negation of “unequal ownership of the means of production” is not “equal but private ownership of the means of production.”‘

Twenty years later, however, the political setting warrants less compunction than before. Roemer thus goes further, saying his vision had, like Rawls’s, simply ‘intended to maintain approximately equal corporate ownership by households.’ In A Future for Socialism he had merely proposed a system of property relations that was ‘what we currently have, except… egalitarian.’

Roemer model - Per capita profit income

Having retrospectively given his scheme the name ‘property-owning democracy’, Roemer now declares himself ‘skeptical of further pursuing the approach I proposed in 1994.’

Tyler Cowen is not quite correct to describe this as Roemer’s recantation. It is instead a peculiar mix of revisionism, confession and apostasy: What I said was not what I claimed to be saying at the time, and anyway I don’t believe it (“Which part?” “None of it!”) any more.

Roemer proceeds thereafter in rambling and discursive fashion, making breezily gnomic assertions about what is feasible and what is desirable, and rarely slowing to provide evidence for his claims:

[There] appear to be three alternatives for the way in which firms can be owned, which might deliver a more egalitarian distribution of income: state ownership, worker ownership, and household ownership.

[…]

The efficiency of state ownership continues to be debated. A number of industries, in a number of countries, have done well under state ownership: steel in Korea, insurance in Germany, oil and railroads in a number of countries, retail liquor in Canada, many sectors in China, and banking in Taiwan and some other countries. The key seems to be to give a good deal of autonomy to the industry, that is to shield it from political interference. As a template for the economy as a whole, it is probably not workable.

[…]

One of the very important developments of the late twentieth century was that the composition of the richest tranche of the US population changed. A very significant portion of the income of the very rich now comes from salaries, not from capital. It is earned income, in IRS terminology.

These people are the upper management of corporations, both financial and industrial, movie stars, some athletes, some highly paid professionals, and I conjecture that, for the most part, the salaries of these individuals are competitively determined. No one would challenge this claim with respect to movie stars or athletes, but many would challenge it for corporate management. I think it may well be true of their salaries as well.

It’s that sort of article. More formal or technical argument may well have been out of place, but it is remarkable that after his long hiatus Roemer did not feel obliged to be more seriously minded about the topic.

Were there no criticisms from the left he might have addressed? Was A Future for Socialism marred only by its author’s excessive political optimism and radical fervour? Do the only ‘problems that one must face if one wants to design a property-owning democracy in which the distribution of ownership of firms remains quite egalitarian’ arise from a ‘culture of greed’ existing in the contemporary United States?

Roemer today is ‘not eager to defend’ A Future for Socialism. Has he outgrown it, or have events rendered its proposals outdated? There are good reasons to imagined him satisfied with its consequences, though the book failed in its explicit aim of ‘designing the next wave of socialist experiments’.

In the late 1980s many left-wing academics found themselves in a professional bind. They had made large Marx-specific investments (the sunk costs incurred in acquiring specialized knowledge about property relations, classes, modes of production, etc.).

The time, effort and money put into this training were designed not for general scholarly purposes. The skills learnt were suited for a particular world in which socialism and social democracy were serious prospects and could be discussed, with people much like themselves, in polite collegial conversation, while also providing opportunities for deployment outside the university.

With the collapse of Stalinism and social democracy/labourism, these dedicated skills were suddenly much less valuable. Such specialized expertise could not easily be redeployed, especially in economics and political science departments. Specific investments could either be written off at a loss, or put to alternative use, if the latter could be found.

Engaging in speculation about market socialism and ‘transitology’ thus served a purpose for people like Roemer. It allowed them to deploy their available skills in an academically respectable manner, smoothing out the switching costs while gradually converting to mainstream social science.

Once this transition was achieved, it became apparent that their preoccupations now lay permanently elsewhere. The topics of the past became the past, no longer meriting sustained concern. What had been a hasty and undignified rush for the exit would henceforth discourage any return to collect belongings or settle arrears.

Income distribution, technical change and foreign policy in Germany since reunification

September 26, 2013

The less than innocuous totems of the Kohl-Schröder-Merkel years Luftwaffe flying combat missions over the Balkans for the first time since 1945, Joschka Fischer’s theatrical turn at the UN, monetary rules devised in Frankfurt acquiring continental sway, Bundeswehr preserving NATO’s client state in Afghanistan, Lisbon Treaty signed under German presidency of the EU  — require some explanation deeper than that offered, typically, by polite journalism.

What, besides momentary calculation of interest and symbolic expediency, has driven the Aussenamt since its return to Berlin?

How, in particular, do the internal features of German society — broadly, the manner in which economic output is generated and the pattern of its distribution between classes  affect Berlin’s external stance?

Influence running in the opposite direction — from world conditions to domestic performance and growth trajectory — is plain enough to see, and widely acknowledged.

With exports making up around 50% of German GDP, the chronic global macroeconomic imbalances of the last 45 years have governed the recent evolution of the German economy more than most.

This post is a quick guide to how and why some of Germany’s key economic variables have changed since 1990.

What, finally, does their trajectory imply for Berlin’s future role in world affairs? Above all, how resilient is German Atlanticism, the keystone in the arch of the postwar Federal Republic, likely to prove?

As Angela Merkel embraces photo opportunities in Afghanistan, and deploys new expeditionary forces to Central and West Africa, are Strobe Talbott and his juniors at the Brookings Institution correct to fret about a fraying of Berlin’s commitment to NATO?

In the 1970s, following the Nixon Shock, West German firms and their Japanese counterparts famously maintained export competitiveness, despite sharp currency appreciation, by switching rapidly to new capital-intensive techniques (those using more capital goods per worker).

Mechanization, for a time, reaped higher levels of labour productivity (output per worker).

To be sure, technical progress during the 1970s and 1980s would be slower than it had been in the previous ‘miraculous’ two decades.

But, under the SPD administrations of Brandt and Schmidt, followed by Kohl’s long reign, the Bonn republic’s annual growth rates (labour productivity at 2.7%; capital intensity at 3.4%) still outpaced those of other advanced economies besides Japan.

Since labour productivity grew faster than real wages, the wage share in West German national income fell steadily from 1974 onwards.

Wage share GDP - West Germany

Yet this capital-deepening approach was no longer feasible by the time of later currency shocks: the 1985 Plaza Accord, the Exchange Rate Mechanism and the 1999 advent of European monetary union.

In the decade following the collapse and annexation of the Stalinist DDR, unfavourable technical conditions prevailed in the Bundesrepublik. The much-decried fiscal burdens of reunification, mesmerizing popular media if not policy elite during Kohl’s prolonged dotage, distracted from this deeper malaise.

By the early 1990s, further accumulation of fixed capital (by German firms switching to more capital intensive techniques) no longer yielded a proportionate rise in labour productivity.

In other words, adding more capital goods per worker did not sufficiently increase output per worker.

It also reduced ‘capital productivity’ (the output-capital ratio, or value-added per D-Mark of capital used).

Labour productivity - Germany

Output-capital ratio - Germany

Labour productivity and capital productivity - Germany

Constrained by declining profitability, fixed investment slowed down.

Capital-labour ratio Germany

How then were German firms, unable to resort to currency devaluation, to retain their export markets against competitors?

Unit labour costs needed to be held downwards, as before. But since labour-saving technical change was exhausted, real wages would tend to rise faster than labour productivity.

A deflationary solution was soon provided.

Following the opening of vast labour reserves in eastern Europe, came the ascent to power of the SPD-Greens coalition in 1998.

In 2002, amid much excitement in the press at delivery of cures long prescribed, Gerhard Schröder unveiled his Hartz/Agenda 2010 ‘reforms’ to the labour market.

To the applause of the Economist and the OECD, German real wages entered a decade of prolonged stagnation and decline, amid the growth of sporadic or intermittent employment (so-called ‘mini-jobs’).

Real wage - Germany

Since labour productivity, though still sluggish, now rose faster than real wages, the share of value-added won by employees fell.

Wage share GDP - Germany

The declining wage share counteracted the fall in the output-capital ratio, allowing profitability to rise.

Profit rate - Germany

In 2005 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Schröder boasted that his government had ‘built up one the best low-wage sectors in Europe.’

The combination of slowing accumulation of fixed capital with greater income inequality (the ratio of non-wage income to wages) has indeed restored the profitability of German firms.

Nonetheless, as the country’s enormous trade surpluses since 2002 show, this has entailed a shortage of domestic spending.

The sum of workers’ consumption, capitalist consumption and private investment, plus government spending is insufficient to absorb Germany’s surplus product domestically.

Instead, locally-owned firms depend for their demand on global liquidity from deficit countries in southern Europe, the United States and Britain (whose propertied classes thereby appropriate a share of the surplus produced by German workers).

Meanwhile Germany’s persistent trade surpluses allow its firms, like those in China and Japan, the opportunity to acquire claims over capital assets in these net debtor countries and elsewhere.

Particularly in the satellite economies of Mitteleuropa  the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, northern Italy, etc.  German firms have acquired title to growing numbers of capital assets: shipping out machinery, factory equipment and outsourced or offshored operations.

Germany’s increasing stock of capital holdings abroad, plus its dependence on export markets sustained by US spending, helps explain Berlin’s strategic posture since 1990.

This may be seen in the remarks of German president Horst Köhler, a former president of the IMF, who in 2010 explained the Bundeswehr’s mission in Afghanistan:

A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that… military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests  for example when it comes to trade routes, for example when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes.

For the moment, German property-owners and the German state rely, for a stable internal social order and the fulfilment of external aspirations, upon the successful functioning and continued growth of a world economy that operates under US leadership.

While an integrated world market is intact and international financial architecture continue to function under US protection, the German ruling elite benefits from access to markets and resources, maintained asset values, custodial military support and access to advanced technology, inward investment and protection of external property holdings.

Berlin, to be sure, has real interests and strategic goals which strongly contradict those of Washington.

Nonetheless it is committed, for the moment, to aiding, sponsoring and materially supporting US hegemony. This subordination is embodied in the post-1945 alliance structure of NATO unified command.

Hence Berlin’s support for (if not always fulsome participation in) successive US military expeditions since the 1990s.

Yet, as the case of Willy Brandt (if not Joschka Fischer) makes clear, the lofty sentiments of German Atlanticism rest on a merely temporary alignment of interests.

The convergence between Berlin and Washington will not survive a systemic breakdown and crisis of international markets and finance capital that stifles international trade and investment flows.

Latent competitive ambitions can be perceived without much effort. Concealed beneath the overtly sterile phrases of contemporary state officials are the same fixations that preoccupied German imperialism in the 1930s.

Recent years saw the formation by BASF, Bayer, ThyssenKrupp, Daimler and other German firms of a Resource Alliance. This lobby aims to ‘secure key raw materials in the face of mounting competition from emerging economies.’

Its website explains that ‘international markets can no longer guarantee the availability of relevant raw materials in the required quantities. Thus, German industry therefore again needs direct access to raw materials through involvement in commodity projects in foreign countries.’

Handelsblatt February 2013

In July this year the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung hosted an Energy Security conference which brought together ‘high-level policy makers, representatives from the energy industry and energy experts from non-governmental organisations.’

Speakers included Deutsche Bank executives and the German environment minister, as well as officials from the oil ministries of Iran, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

They were to ‘focus on political developments in producing countries, particularly the security and geostrategic implications of changing global energy supply routes’:

In the face of growing dependency on oil and gas imports, safeguarding the reliable supply of energy lies at the heart of national and international policy agendas.

The German foreign ministry, its troops placed astride the Oxus river since 2001, touts Central Asia for its ‘as yet untapped gas and crude oil reserves which could be a factor in diversifying Europe’s energy supplies.’

The Central Asian Water Initiative, by which Berlin directs and oversees ‘regional agreement and cooperation on vital resources’, seeks to use the ‘green economy’ to expand its diplomatic influence, while favouring German construction, energy, agriculture and transport firms in the Central Asian marches of the former Soviet Union.

Since 2002, the Termez airbase in Uzbekistan has provided logistical support and a regional footprint.

termez

Finally, one may heed the words of Angela Merkel’s parliamentary spokesman for foreign affairs:

As an open economy closely integrated into the world market, Germany owes much of its prosperity to the stability of the international financial system and open world markets, as the current global economic and financial crisis has so starkly demonstrated…

In addition to this, as a heavily export-oriented economy, we have a great interest in securing maritime trading routes. This is why it is right for the German Navy to be involved in fighting piracy at the Horn of Africa.

Germany’s security depends not least on the most unrestricted possible access to the markets for energy and other raw materials. The German Federal Chancellor has made energy and raw material security an important theme of her chancellorship. The risks that are associated with our heavy dependence on energy supplies from abroad were made abundantly clear by the Russian-Ukrainian gas conflict at the beginning of the year.

Climate protection is closely connected with questions of energy security….

Recently the Handelsblatt was unable to resist characterizing the Desertec project, a North African venture of Deutsche Bank, E.ON and RWE, as a search for Germany’s ‘place in the sun’.

Invoking a ‘hunger for energy’, the business newspaper explicitly recalled the ‘historical precedent’ of the Berlin-Baghdad railway line.

Since the 1960s, and especially since the late 1980s, German and French policymakers have tried with meek persistence to build up an autonomous European military instrument. This would have the capacity to act independently of Washington, projecting power outside Europe in pursuit of their own distinct strategic goals.

The collapse of Stalinist rule in Moscow and Berlin stirred pious hopes that the US-led Cold War security apparatus might also be dissolved.

Instead, European ambitions have again been subordinated to Washington, as NATO has found a new line of business in ‘humanitarian interventions’, peacekeeping operations and the Global War on Terror. Creation of a new supranational political entity, the EU, has not changed matters.

Berlin thus remains reliant, for now, on US cruise missiles and logistics capacity for any expeditionary operations. It cannot openly defy Washington, cut its own deal with energy suppliers, etc.

Yet a prolonged downturn in growth trends, or some other rupture in the capitalist world-system  final annulment or momentary suspension of the postwar practice of interstate benefaction and mutual conviviality of trade — may soon force German rulers to seek a specifically German solution to their problems.