Speculate to Accumulate

‘ Up on Housing Project Hill

It’s either fortune or fame

You must pick one or the other

Though neither of them are to be what they claim ‘

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues – Bob Dylan

Speculation and speculators are pejorative terms . But all capitalist enterprise is speculative. Unless that is, it is underwritten by government . Or since the Great Financial Crash of 2008 the enterprise is ‘ too big to fail ‘ the phrase conjured up to justify bailing out financial institutions whose collapse into bankruptcy would supposedly have posed a risk to the financial system as a whole. There was an alternative in that instance which was for the government to take them over as happened in the UK where the government took over RBS as well as engineering the takeover of Halifax which was bankrupt by Lloyds. The British government didn’t go the whole hog and nationalise the banks as it could have done and thereby made banking a public utility for which there is a good case to be made.

Simon Johnson the former Chief Economist of the IMF wrote a widely read piece for the Atlantic magazine soon after GFC in early 2009. He said this about the state of the American banks following the collapse of the system ‘ The challenges the US faces are familiar territory to the people at the IMF . If you hid the name of the country and just showed them the numbers, there is no doubt what old IMF hands would say : nationalise troubled banks and break them up as necessary . ‘ And a little further on in the same piece ‘ Anything that is too big to fail is too big to exist ‘ .

Not only did neither of these things happen further consolidation of those same banks was allowed to take place unchallenged thereby embedding the implicit , if not explicit, guarantee of future bail-outs should the need arise. And remember these banks are not simply retail entities – the type of bank we all depend upon for our everyday financial transactions – but sprawling financial behemoths covering all manner of ‘ investment ‘ activities , many of which weren’t and still aren’t regulated; and it was in these activities that the rot developed that brought down the whole edifice.

And as for the bankers themselves those ‘ masters of the universe ‘ whose profligacy and chicanery that constructed the edifice and paid themselves millions and millions of dollars in the process not one was prosecuted or even suffered the humiliation of being fired .

Fast forward to early 2020 and the outbreak of the Coronavirus and what doing we find ; the American government enacting legislation to enable it to create out-of-thin-air ( aka on a computer ) trillions of dollars for the biggest corporations with virtually no strings attached. That’s the ultimate reach off the neoliberal virus right there . And for the little guy , almost nothing .

Pandemonium

Meaning : Wild and noisy , disorder or confusion, uproar

Pandemic and pandemonium share the prefix ‘ pan ‘ meaning ‘ all ‘ , ‘ of everything ‘ .

Between 1980 and 2019 the neoliberalism virus spread across the world. In the first three months of 2020 the new Coronavirus spread across the world. Both viruses have have caused pandemonium. Or more precisely the adoption by politicians of policies connected to these two viruses have caused pandemonium whatever the ostensible leaning of any particular government – right, left or centre.

Neoliberalism supplanted a diverse range of political approaches to economics over forty years . Lockdown the policy adopted by virtually every government in response to the coronavirus were panicked into thinking that armageddon – so long imagined – had finally arrived in the shape of Covid 19.

The neoliberalism virus spread slowly and stealthily compared to the coronavirus, but unlike the coronavirus which will pass naturally as all natural viruses do the neoliberalism virus showed no sign of passing until April 2020. As the month proceeded and the lockdowns became established worldwide neoliberalism was suddenly put on the back foot at which point the same politicians who had been so ready to embrace and enforce lockdown as a policy found it necessary and essential to use their power to create money at will to prevent a complete collapse of the neoliberal system with varying degrees of seriousness hoping as they did so that a return to the status quo of just a few months earlier would return. Talk of ‘ bouncing back ‘ was widespread across all political circles.

But populations in widely differing cultures perceiving some immediate and positive effects of lockdown like cleaner air , in locations notorious for their poor air quality like Los Angeles and Beijing . Rivers seen as little more than open sewers suddenly had fish swimming through them in fresh water. These were the first examples of a new reality ; a world not dominated by the excess essential for the perpetuation of the neoliberalism virus. Had lockdown not been adopted as government policy across the world overnight no such new reality would have been possible. None of the non-governmental organisations – Greenpeace and the like – have been able to achieve such immediate and unmistakeable positive effects despite decades of campaigning.

So is something else going on here ? Something that wouldn’t have been thought possible had the response to the coronavirus not been so drastic and dramatic and immediate as lockdown. And just where do we go from here ? Have we entered another stage in human evolution of transition from one reality to another ? We cannot go back ; life itself doesn’t have a reverse gear .

So what of the future ? The coronavirus has made possible a potential future of growing, evolving and becoming . The etymology of ‘ potential ‘ is ‘ power’ from potent meaning ‘ being able ‘ . Or to put it another way and quote a recent political cliche a future ‘ for the many not just the few ‘ .

Marx Knew a Thing or Two

Neoliberalism wasn’t prepared for the coming of the Coronavirus and the country that was least prepared was the United States and why was that ? Because Neoliberalism has destroyed that country’s institutions’ ability to deal with a national emergency. The Neoliberal society ( if it can be called such ) as a collection of individuals all at odds with one another , all seeking to grab a piece of the national pie with those at the very top seeking to grab and hold on to to a bigger and bigger share was never going to produce the collective effort needed in a crisis . Every poor American is propagandised into believing he is a millionaire down on his luck and with just a bit more effort he can propel himself into becoming an actual millionaire. But quite apart from the obvious absurdity and the mathematical impossibility of this proposition the mutation of the Neoliberal virus was well put by the writer Luc Sante several years ago ‘ And then Reagan came in and everything changed. The past was systematically destroyed, and so was our idea of a ( non-capitalist ) future, replaced by a mercantile society in which everything had a value of about five minutes, which corresponded to the limits of collective memory – and that was even before the internet .’

In Volume 1 of Capital Marx gives many examples of unsafe workplaces – factories and mills – which the owners refused to address . He says ‘ What could be more characteristic of the capitalist mode of production than the fact that is necessary, by Act of Parliament, to force upon the capitalists the simplest appliances for maintaining cleanliness and health ? In the potteries the Factory Act of 1864 ‘ has white washed and cleansed upwards of 200 workshops, after a period of abstinence from any such cleaning, in many cases of 20 years, and in some entirely ‘ ( this is the ‘ abstinence ‘ of the capitalist ! ), ‘ in which were employed 27.800 artisans, hitherto breathing through protracted days and often nights of labour, a mephitic atmosphere, and which rendered an otherwise comparatively innocuous occupation, pregnant with disease and death. The Act has improved the ventilation very much.’

Now compare those conditions described by Marx in the 1860’s with those in an Amazon warehouse in the US where no proper provision had been made to protect the workers during the Coronavirus pandemic as described by an engineer – Tim Bray – who resigned in May 2020, disgusted by the failure of the company to address the potentially fatal conditions ‘ Amazon treats humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential . Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done .’

160 years separates these two examples of exploitation . And we talk about progress !

The justification for the existence of the capitalist system is that it has raised the standard of living for millions of people around the world. This is the Big Lie in its most simplistic and dismissive form because the fact is that all material gains experienced by workers since the very beginning of capitalism in the late 18th century have been achieved and are the result from collective demands made by the workers on the capitalists themselves allied with legislation demanded of the governing class to improve working conditions across the board.

The Coronavirus has woken some of us up , in a state of disgust , at the realities of what Luc Sante called ‘ the mercantile society ‘ spread across the world by the Neoliberalism virus; a society found completely wanting in the face of a global crisis .

Is the Coronavirus the Herald of a new System

‘ We’re going all the way till the wheels fall off and burn ‘ Brownsville Girl – Bob Dylan

The Neoliberalism virus has been on life support by governments around the world ever since the Great Financial Crash in 2008. These efforts ‘ to restart the economy ‘ meaning to improve economic growth have foundered and now been rendered null and void by the Coronavirus. The question to be asked is the title of this post. Is it possible that one system of organising society is likely to be replaced by another given the enormity of the disruption the new virus has already caused ?

From even cursory observation there would be some grounds for thinking this might be the case. Where to start ? With the people perhaps. Conversations about the pleasantness of working at home and the saving in travelling costs and time spent commuting long distances to work abound. Might employers whose business can be conducted partially by home working come around to thinking that this is the way forward , saving them large sums of money in fixed overheads – principally the need for buildings big and small and all the attendant services needed to maintain those buildings. It turns out that much work can be done in less time than it takes in the conventional ‘ work environment ‘ and is less stressful. And with many workers working at home comes a greater need for collaboration and co-operation . All of this home working is facilitated by the technology of the computer and the internet without which it would be impossible.

What about those businesses whose employees have to work under one roof ? In order to continue working the work environment has had to be restructured to make it ‘ safe ‘ in regard to the Coronavirus. That restructuring may well bring improvements overall for the workers in those businesses. There are however some businesses, especially in the United States who have not thought it necessary to make positive changes and whose sole motivation is to make the greatest amount of profit regardless of the health of the workers. These companies are reminiscent of the earliest days of capitalist production that Marx describes so vividly and accurately in Volume 1 of Capital. That drive for profit at any price was central to the capitalist mode of production from the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century and in many cases around the world there have been little improvement in working conditions especially those concerned with the safety of workers. The spread and lethal potential of the Coronavirus is causing those conditions to be completely unacceptable.

An early turning point in the progress of industrialisation in the course of the nineteenth century came in 1844 when a group of workers in Rochdale set up what was initially a society of consumers , but which later became a society of producers which showed that ‘ associations of workmen could manage shops, mills, and almost all forms of industry with success, and they immediately improved the condition of the men, but then they did not leave a clear place for masters .’ This observation was made by the philistine ( as Marx called it ) English periodical the Spectator on 26th May 1866. Just a few years after the Rochdale pioneers set up their society Cecil Frances Alexander published her hymn ‘ All Things Bright and Beautiful ‘ which contained the stanza

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

And ordered their estate.

thus sanctifying the inequality of wealth that came to be one of the defining characteristics of capitalist production.

Instead of ‘ I work for him ‘ being the organising principle of capitalism the worker now had the alternative ‘ I work for me ‘ as the organising principle of the co-operative movement. Instead of the unbridled greed of the capitalist master dominating the workers a system of shared ownership, risk and reward could be taken on by the workers themselves.

Might this not be the pre-dominant organisation of the future .

Who Dares Wins ( Not )

‘ I started a joke

Which started the whole world crying

But if I’d only seen

The joke was on me ‘

Robin, Barry and Maurice Gibb

The Neoliberalism virus mantra that a society arranged as though it were a market would be free and happy was never anything other than a bad joke told by a third rate stand-up comedian . That comedian was Lewis Powell who we started off this blog with as the original source of the Neoliberalism virus. Powell held the naive belief that businessmen could be relied upon to act with integrity and that making money was never their sole objective . His firmly held belief that ‘ the American free enterprise system ‘ was superior to all other systems for the organisation of society including the system in place in England at the time he wrote his memorandum in 1971. That system was usually defined as a ‘ mixed economy ‘ – a combination of economic activity by both the private and public sectors . In fact Powell regarded that system as ‘ socialist ‘ . Powell never saw fit to revise his belief despite the fact that in the twenty seven years between the publication of his memo and his death in 1998 fraud after fraud took place in the American free enterprise system he promoted .The largest of these frauds – the sub-prime mortgage fraud which collapsed in 2008 – would have brought about the collapse of the western banking system had the biggest banks not been bailed out by governments of all the countries involved.

So now when we hear the phrase ‘ free markets ‘ let’s make the correction that Powell failed to make and call them what they are ‘ rigged markets’ which they continue to be because not one top banker was prosecuted after the fraud was exposed in 2008 and the frauds continue in different forms.

Will the Coronavirus be able to penetrate this fraudulent structure ?

Crumbs From the Rich Man’s Table

” There’s class warfare , all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Warren Buffett

” Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable .” John F Kennedy

It is an axiom of the Neoliberalism virus that the already rich should be allowed to become even richer without limit and in the process acquire more power over more people than ever before in human history. And if this means acquiring things held in common by communities wherever they are on the planet – land, water and every type of natural resource – this should be permitted by law, but if the law is a barrier then force may be used to acquire them.

In those countries where additional pressure is needed to allow the acquisitions to occur then pressure may have to be used to bribe ( euphemism: lobby ) lawmakers to concede rights not readily available . In those countries where additional pressure is needed then the barrel of a gun may be the necessary tool. The method makes little difference except to those who are about to be dispossessed ; the goal is the same . No limit should be put on what can be held in private hands by a tiny number of the super rich.

And by the colonisation of our minds by the Neoliberalism virus we have all accepted that this is inevitable and what ‘ freedom ‘ means and we have internalised the need to avert our gaze when some particular example appears to be an acquisition too far. That is until now that the Coronavirus has arrived and demands that we gaze in a different direction ; one where the territory is unknown and the landscape has yet to be mapped .

The Banality of Data

‘ Data ‘ and its collection has become the ultimate justification for the Neoliberalism virus’s existence every other one of its practices having failed. The incremental progress of ‘ digital everything ‘ has been begrudgingly accepted by the population at large as inevitable . Like the sun coming up in the morning. The Coronavirus has stalled this progress for the time being with the extensive disruption it has caused.

Data collection as a means of exercising control over society is nothing new. The societies over which Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin ruled collected data which was used to murderous effect eliminating all those members of society it deemed enemies of the state. Super computers and the Internet have extended the reach of data collection over the last twenty five years. Much of this data is given voluntarily , embedded as it is in consumer society. Primarily this is the province of the Silicon Valley giant corporations – Google, Facebook and the rest for whom data is the raw material which they obtain for free. The contemporary version of an enemy of the state is anyone who does not subscribe to the onward march of digitisation as inevitable. This is a utopian vision in which the human being, indeed consciousness itself is seen as a barrier to progress.

The pause caused by the Coronavirus has enabled an antidote to the computer colonisation of our minds by Data by evoking in us those human and only human characteristics of kindness, altruism and the need for person to person connection that digital control seeks to eliminate as being inimical to its purpose.

Hannah Arendt wrote a book titled The Banality of Evil about the Eichmann trial in 1961. Her thesis was that evil isn’t something outside of time and space, but when anything is taken to excess it becomes evil . Eichmann was unexceptional except for the fact that he possessed considerable organisational skills and oversaw the organisation of the Nazi death camps which required the collection of large amounts of data to be effective.