Even if capitalist markets do have an inclusive aspect, open to exchange with anyone…as long as it is profitable, capitalism as a whole is predominantly and inherently a system of social exclusion, dividing people by property and excluding the non-profitable. a system of this kind is, of course, incapable of allowing the capabilities of all humankind to be realized. and currently the the system looks well fortified, even though new critical currents are hitting against it.
Carefully looking at the Brechtian article and unstitching it, herein lies the pence (this is reproduced via an email exchange and hence is too very basic in arguments!!):
Peripheral markets may be defined as markets which generate only a small proportion of their financial inflows from local business and investors, but which attract the interest of ‘global’ investors. Emerging markets and markets for financial exotica such as financial derivatives are examples of such peripheral markets. Because emerging markets are largely dependent upon attracting international funds in order to generate increases in securities prices and capital gains which will attract further funds, they are particularly good examples of the principles of Ponzi finance at work in securities markets.
A common characteristic feature of peripheral markets is that they have no history of returns to financial investment on the scale on which finance is drawn to those markets in a time of capital market inflation. Such returns in the future have to be inferred on the basis of conjecture and fragmentary information. Investment decisions are therefore more dependent on sentiment, rather than reason. Any optimism is quickly justified by the rapid increase in asset prices in response to even a modest excess net inflow of money into such a market.
Emerging markets illustrate this very clearly. Such markets exist in developing and semi-industrialized countries with relatively undeveloped pensions and insurance institutions, principally because only a small proportion of households earn enough to be able to put aside long-term savings. The first fund manager comes upon such a market in the conviction that a change of government or government policy, or some temporary change in commodity prices, has opened a cornucopia of profitable opportunities and therefore warrants the dismissal of a history of economic, financial and political instability. If he or she is able with buying and enthusiasm to attract other speculators and fund managers to enter the market, they may drive up asset prices and make the largest capital gains. The second and third fund managers to buy into that market also make capital gains. The emulatory competition of trading on reputation while competing for returns makes international investment managers especially prone to this kind of ‘herd’ investment.
For a while such capital inflows into the market make everyone happy: international fund managers are able to show good returns from the funds in their care; finance theorists can reassure themselves that greater financial risks are compensated by higher returns; the government of the country in which the emerging market is located can sell its bonds and public sector enterprises to willing foreign investors and use the proceeds to balance its budget and repay its debts; the watchdogs of financial prudence in the International Monetary Fund can hail the revival of finance, the government’s commitment to private enterprise and apparent fiscal responsibility; state enterprises, hitherto stagnating because of under-investment by over-indebted governments, suddenly find themselves in the private sector commanding seemingly limitless opportunities for raising finance; the country’s currency after years of depreciation acquires a gilt-edged stability as dollars (the principal currency of international investment) flow in to be exchanged for local currency with which to buy local securities; the central bank accumulates dollars in exchange for the local currency that it issues to enable foreign investors to invest in the local markets and, with larger reserves, secures a new ease in managing its foreign liabilities; the indigenous middle and professional classes who buy financial and property (real estate) assets in time for the boom are enriched and for once cease their perennial grumbling at the sordid reality of life in a poor country. In this conjuncture the most banal shibboleths of enterprise and economic progress under capitalism appear like the very essence of worldly wisdom.
Only in such a situation of capital market inflation are the supposed benefits of foreign direct investment realized. Such investment by multinational companies is widely held to improve the ‘quality’ or productivity of local labour, management and technical know-how in less developed countries, whose technology and organization of labour lags behind that of the more industrialized countries. But only the most doltish and ignorant peasant would not have his or her productivity increased by being set to work with a machine of relatively recent vintage under the guidance of a manager familiar with that machine and the kind of work organization that it requires. It is more doubtful whether the initial increase in productivity can be realized without a corresponding increase in the export market (developing countries have relatively small home markets). It is even more doubtful if the productivity increase can be repeated without the replacement of the machinery by even newer machinery.
The favourable conjuncture in the capital markets of developing countries can be even more temporary. There are limits on the extent to which even private sector companies may take on financial liabilities and privatization is merely a system for transferring such liabilities from the government to the private sector without increasing the financial resources of the companies privatized. But to sustain capital gains in the emerging stock market, additional funds have to continue to flow in buying new liabilities of the government or the private sector, or buying out local investors. When new securities cease to attract international fund managers, the inflow stops. Sometimes this happens when the government privatization drive pauses, because the government runs out of attractive state enterprises or there are political and procedural difficulties in selling them. A fall in the proceeds from privatization may reveal the government’s underlying fiscal deficit, causing the pundits of international finance to sense the odour of financial unsoundness. More commonly rising imports and general price inflation, due to the economic boom set off by the inflow of foreign funds, arouse just such an odour in the noses of those pundits. Such financial soundness is a subjective view. Even if nothing is wrong in the country concerned, the prospective capital gain and yield in some other market need only rise above the expected inflation and yield of the country, to cause a capital outflow which will usually be justified in retrospect by an appeal to perceived, if not actual, financial disequilibrium.
Ponzi financial structures are characterized by ephemeral liquidity. At the time when money is coming into the markets they appear to be just the neo-classical ideal of market perfection, with lots of buyers and sellers scrambling for bargains and arbitrage profits. At the moment when disinvestment takes hold the true nature of peripheral markets and their ephemeral liquidity is revealed as trades which previously sped through in the frantic paper chase for profits are now frustrated. This too is particularly apparent in emerging markets. In order to sell, a buyer is necessary. If the majority of investors in a market also wish to sell, then sales cannot be executed for want of a buyer and the apparently perfect market liquidity dries up. The crash of the emerging stock market is followed by the fall in the exchange value of the local currency. Those international investors that succeeded in selling now have local currency which has to be converted into dollars if the proceeds of the sale are to be repatriated, or invested elsewhere. Exchange through the local banking system may now be frustrated if it has inadequate dollar reserves: a strong possibility if the central bank has been using dollars to service foreign debts. In spite of all the reassurance that this time it will be different because capital inflows are secured on financial instruments issued by the private sector, international investors are at this point as much at the mercy of the central bank and the government of an emerging market as international banks were at the height of the sovereign debt crisis. Moreover, the greater the success of the peripheral market in attracting funds, and hence the greater the boom in prices in that market, the greater is the desired outflow when it comes. With the fall in liquidity of financial markets in developing countries comes a fall in the liquidity of foreign direct investment, making it difficult to secure appropriate local financial support or repatriate profits.
Another factor which contributes to the fragility of peripheral markets is the opaqueness of financial accounting in them, in the sense that however precise and discriminating may be the financial accounting conventions, rules and reporting, they do not provide accurate indicators of the financial prospects of particular investments. In emerging markets this is commonly supposed to be because they lack the accounting regulations and expertise which supports the sophisticated integrated financial markets of the industrialized countries. In those industrialized countries, where accounting procedures are supposed to be much more transparent, peripheral markets such as venture capital and financial futures still suffer from accounting inadequacies because financial innovation introduces liabilities that have no history and which are not included in conventional accounts (notably the so-called ‘off-balance sheet’ liabilities). More important than these gaps in financial reporting is the volatility of profits from financial investment in such peripheral markets, and the absence of any stable relationship between profits from trading in their instruments and the previous history of those instruments or the financial performance of the company issuing them. Thus, even where financial records are comprehensive, accurate and revealed, they are a poor indicator of prospective returns from investments in the securities of peripheral markets.
With more than usually unreliable financial data, trading in those markets is much more based on reputation than on any systematic financial analysis: the second and third investor in such a market is attracted by the reputation of the first and subsequently the second investor. Because of the direct connection between financial inflows and values in securities markets, the more trading takes place on the basis of reputation the less of a guide to prospective returns is afforded by financial analysis. Peripheral markets are therefore much more prone to ‘ramping’ than other markets.
Why would such a crisis of withdrawal not occur, at least not on such a scale, in the more locally integrated capital markets of the advanced industrialised countries? First of all, integrated capital markets such as those of the UK, and the US are the domestic base for international investors. In periods of financial turbulence, they are more likely to have funds repatriated to them than to have funds taken out of them. Second, institutional investors tend to be more responsive to pressure to be ‘responsible investors’ in their home countries. In large measure this is because home securities make up the vast majority of investment fund portfolios. Ultimately, investment institutions will use their liquidity to protect the markets in which most of their portfolio is based. Finally, the locally integrated markets of the advanced industrialized countries have investing institutions with far greater wealth than the developing or semi-industrialized countries. Those markets are home for the pension funds which dominate the world markets. Among their wealth are deposits and other liquid assets which may be easily converted to support a stock market by buying securities. The poorer countries of the world have even poorer pension funds, which could not support their markets against an outflow due to portfolio switches by international investors.
Thus integrated markets are more ‘secure’ in that they are less prone to collapse than emerging or, more generally, peripheral markets. But precisely because of the large amount of trade already concentrated in the integrated markets, prices in them are much less likely to respond to investment fund inflows from abroad. Pension and insurance fund practice is to extrapolate those capital gains into the future for the purposes of determining the solvency of those funds. However, those gains were obtained because of a combination of inflation, the increased scope of funded pensions and the flight of funds from peripheral markets.
The financialization of natural resources is the process of replacing environmental regulation with markets. In order to bring nature under the control of markets, the planet’s natural resources need to be made into commodities that can be bought or sold for a profit. It is a means of transferring the stewardship of our common resources to private business interests. The financialization of nature is not about protecting the environment, rather it is about creating ways for the financial sector to continue to earn high profits. Although the sector has begun to rebound from the financial crisis, it is still below its pre-crisis levels of profit. By pushing into new areas, promoting the creation of new commodities, and exploiting the real threat of climate change for their own ends, financial companies and actors are placing the whole world at the risk of precarity.
A systemic increase in financial speculation on commodities mainly driven by deregulation of derivative markets, increasing involvement of investment banks, hedge funds and other institutional investor in commodity speculation and the emergence of new instruments such as index funds and exchange-traded funds. Financial deregulation over the last one decade has for the first time transformed commodities into financial assets. what we might call ‘financialization’, is thus penetrating all commodity markets and their functioning. Contrary to common sense and what civil society assumes, financial markets are going deeper and deeper into the real economy as a response to the financial crisis, so that speculative capital is structurally being intertwined with productive capital – in this case commodities and natural resources.
Marine ecology as a natural resource isn’t immune to commodification, and an array of financial agents are making it their indispensable destination, thrashing out new types of alliances converging around specific ideas about how maritime and coastal resources should be organized, and to whose benefit, under which terms and to what end? The commodification of marine ecology is what is referred to as Blue Economy, which is converging on the necessity of implementing policies across scales that are conducive to, what in the corridors of those promulgating it, a win-win-win situation in pursuit of ‘sustainable development’, entailing pro-poor, conservation-sensitive blue growth. What one cannot fail to notice here is that Blue Economy is close on heels to what Karl Marx called the necessary prerequisite to capitalism, primitive accumulation. If in the days of industrial revolution and at a time when Marx was writing, natural resources like lands were converted into commercial commodities, then today under the rubric of neoliberalism, the attack is on the natural resources in the form of converting them into speculative capital. But as commercial history has undergone a change, so has the notion of accumulation. Today’s accumulation is through the process of dispossession. In the green-grabbing frame, conservation initiatives have become a key force driving primitive accumulation, although, the form that primitive accumulation through conservation takes is very different from that initially described by Marx, as conservation initiatives involve taking nature out of production – as opposed to bringing them in through the initial enclosures described by Marx. Under such unfoldings, even the notional appropriation undergoes an unfolding, in that, it implies the transfer of ownership, use rights and control over resources that were once publicly or privately owned – or not even the subject of ownership – from the poor (or everyone including the poor) in to the hands of the powerful.
Moreover, for David Harvey, states under neoliberalism become increasingly oriented toward attracting foreign direct investment, i.e. specifically actors with the capital to invest whereas all others are overlooked and/or lose out. Central in all of these dimensions is the assumption in market-based neoliberal conservation that “once property rights are established and transaction costs are minimized, voluntary trade in environmental goods and bads will produce optimal, least-cost outcomes with little or no need for state involvement.”. This implies that win-win- win outcomes with benefits on all fronts spanning corporate investors, the local communities, biodiversity, national economies etc., are possible if only the right technocratic policies are put in place. By extension this also means side-stepping intrinsically political questions with reference to effective management through economic rationality informed by cutting-edge ecological science, in turn making the transition to the ‘green economy’ conflict-free as long as the “invisible hand of the market is guided by [neutral] scientific expertise”. While marine and coastal resources may have been largely overlooked in the discussions on green grabbing and neoliberal conservation, a robust, but small, critical literature has been devoted to looking specifically into the political economy of fisheries systems. Focusing on one sector in the outlined ‘blue economy’, this literature uncovers “how capitalist relations and dynamics (in their diverse and varying forms) shape and/or constitute fisheries systems.”
The question then is, how far viable or sustainable are these financial interventions? Financialization produces effects which can create long-term trends (such as those on functional income distribution) but can also change across different periods of economic growth, slowdown and recession. Interpreting the implications of financialization for sustainability, therefore, requires a methodological diverse and empirical dual-track approach which combines different methods of investigations. Even times of prosperity, despite their fragile and vulnerable nature, can endure for several years before collapsing due to high levels of indebtedness, which in turn amplify the real effects of a financial crisis and hinder the economic growth. Things begin to get a bit more complicated when financialization interferes with environment and natural resources, for then the losses are not just merely on a financial platform alone. Financialization has played a significant role in the recent price shocks in food and energy markets, while the wave of speculative investment in natural resources has and is likely to produce perverse environmental and social impact. Moreover, the so-called financialization of environmental conservation tends to enhance the financial value of environmental resources but it is selective: not all stakeholders have the same opportunities and not all uses and values of natural resources and services are accounted for. This mechanism brings new risks and challenges for environmental services and their users that are excluded by official systems of natural capital monetization and accounting. This is exactly the precarity one is staring at when dealing with Blue Economy.
The sense of living in a post-fascist world is not shared by Marxists, of course, who ever since the first appearance of Mussolini’s virulently anti-communist squadrismo have instinctively assumed fascism to be be endemic to capitalism. No matter how much it may appear to be an autonomous force, it is for them inextricably bound up with the defensive reaction of bourgeoisie elites or big business to the attempts by revolutionary socialists to bring about the fundamental changes needed to assure social justice through a radical redistribution of wealth and power. According to which school or current of Marxism is carrying out the analysis, the precise sector or agency within capitalism that is the protagonist or backer of fascism’s elaborate pseudo-revolutionary pre-emptive strike, its degree of independence from the bourgeoisie elements who benefit from it, and the amount of genuine support it can win within the working class varies appreciably. But for all concerned, fascism is a copious taxonomic pot into which is thrown without too much intellectual agonizing over definitional or taxonomic niceties. For them, Brecht’s warning at the end of Arturo Ui has lost none of its topicality: “The womb that produced him is still fertile”.
The fact that two such conflicting perspectives can exist on the same subject can be explained as a consequence of the particular nature of all generic concepts within the human sciences. To go further into this phenomenon means entering a field of studies where philosophy of the social sciences has again proliferated conflicting positions, this time concerning the complex and largely subliminal processes involved in conceptualization and modeling in the pursuit of definite, if not definitive, knowledge. According to Max Weber, terms such as capitalism and socialism are ideal types, heuristic devices created by an act of idealizing abstraction. This cognitive process, which in good social scientific practice is carried out as consciously and scrupulously as possible, extracts a small group of salient features perceived as common to a particular generic phenomenon and assembles them into a definitional minimum which is at bottom a utopia.
The result of idealizing abstraction is a conceptually pure, artificially tidy model which does not correspond exactly to any concrete manifestation of the generic phenomenon being investigated, since in reality these are always inextricably mixed up with features, attributes, and surface details which are not considered definitional or as unique to that example of it. The dominant paradigm of the social sciences at any one time, the hegemonic political values and academic tradition prevailing in a particular geography, the political and moral values of the individual researcher all contribute to determining what common features are regarded as salient or definitional. There is no objective reality or objective definition of any aspect of it, and no simple correspondence between a word and what it means, the signifier and the signified, since it is axiomatic to Weber’s world-view that the human mind attaches significance to an essentially absurd universe and thus literally creates value and meaning, even when attempting to understand the world objectively. The basic question to be asked about any definition of fascism therefore, is not whether it is true, but whether it is heuristically useful: what can be seen or understood about concrete human phenomenon when it is applied that could not otherwise be seen, and what is obscured by it.
In his theory of ideological morphology, the British political scientist Michael Freeden has elaborated a nominalist and hence anti-essentialist approach to the definition of generic ideological terms that is deeply compatible with Weberian heuristics. He distinguishes between the ineliminable attributes or properties with which conventional usage endows them and those adjacent and peripheral to them which vary according to specific national, cultural or historical context. To cite the example he gives, liberalism can be argued to contain axiomatically, and hence at its definitional core, the idea of individual, rationally defensible liberty. however, the precise relationship of such liberty to laissez-faire capitalism, nationalism, the sanctuary, or the right of the state to override individual human rights in the defense of collective liberty or the welfare of the majority is infinitely negotiable and contestable. So are the ideal political institutions and policies that a state should adopt in order to guarantee liberty, which explains why democratic politics can never be fully consensual across a range of issues without there being something seriously wrong. It is the fact that each ideology is a cluster of concepts comprising ineliminable with eliminable ones that accounts for the way ideologies are able to evolve over time while still remaining recognizably the same and why so many variants of the same ideology can arise in different societies and historical contexts. It also explains why every concrete permutation of an ideology is simultaneously unique and the manifestation of the generic “ism”, which may assume radical morphological transformations in its outward appearance without losing its definitional ideological core.
According to the traditional definition, a currency has three main properties: (i) it serves as a medium of exchange, (ii) it is used as a unit of account and (iii) it allows to store value. Along economic history, monies were related to political power. In the beginning, coins were minted in precious metals. Therefore, the value of a coin was intrinsically determined by the value of the metal itself. Later, money was printed in paper bank notes, but its value was linked somewhat to a quantity in gold, guarded in the vault of a central bank. Nation states have been using their political power to regulate the use of currencies and impose one currency (usually the one issued by the same nation state) as legal tender for obligations within their territory. In the twentieth century, a major change took place: abandoning gold standard. The detachment of the currencies (specially the US dollar) from the gold standard meant a recognition that the value of a currency (specially in a world of fractional banking) was not related to its content or representation in gold, but to a broader concept as the confidence in the economy in which such currency is based. In this moment, the value of a currency reflects the best judgment about the monetary policy and the “health” of its economy.
In recent years, a new type of currency, a synthetic one, emerged. We name this new type as “synthetic” because it is not the decision of a nation state, nor represents any underlying asset or tangible wealth source. It appears as a new tradable asset resulting from a private agreement and facilitated by the anonymity of internet. Among this synthetic currencies, Bitcoin (BTC) emerges as the most important one, with a market capitalization of a few hundred million short of $80 billions.
Bitcoin Price Chart from Bitstamp
There are other cryptocurrencies, based on blockchain technology, such as Litecoin (LTC), Ethereum (ETH), Ripple (XRP). The website https://coinmarketcap.com/currencies/ counts up to 641 of such monies. However, as we can observe in the figure below, Bitcoin represents 89% of the capitalization of the market of all cryptocurrencies.
Cryptocurrencies. Share of market capitalization of each currency.
One open question today is if Bitcoin is in fact a, or may be considered as a, currency. Until now, we cannot observe that Bitcoin fulfills the main properties of a standard currency. It is barely (though increasingly so!) accepted as a medium of exchange (e.g. to buy some products online), it is not used as unit of account (there are no financial statements valued in Bitcoins), and we can hardly believe that, given the great swings in price, anyone can consider Bitcoin as a suitable option to store value. Given these characteristics, Bitcoin could fit as an ideal asset for speculative purposes. There is no underlying asset to relate its value to and there is an open platform to operate round the clock.
Bitcoin returns, sampled every 5 hours.
Speculation has a long history and it seems inherent to capitalism. One common feature of speculative assets in history has been the difficulty in valuation. Tulipmania, the South Sea bubble, and more others, reflect on one side human greedy behavior, and on the other side, the difficulty to set an objective value to an asset. All speculative behaviors were reflected in a super-exponential growth of the time series.
Cryptocurrencies can be seen as the libertarian response to central bank failure to manage financial crises, as the one occurred in 2008. Also cryptocurrencies can bypass national restrictions to international transfers, probably at a cheaper cost. Bitcoin was created by a person or group of persons under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The discussion of Bitcoin has several perspectives. The computer science perspective deals with the strengths and weaknesses of blockchain technology. In fact, according to R. Ali et. al., the introduction of a “distributed ledger” is the key innovation. Traditional means of payments (e.g. a credit card), rely on a central clearing house that validate operations, acting as “middleman” between buyer and seller. On contrary, the payment validation system of Bitcoin is decentralized. There is a growing army of miners, who put their computer power at disposal of the network, validating transactions by gathering together blocks, adding them to the ledger and forming a ’block chain’. This work is remunerated by giving the miners Bitcoins, what makes (until now) the validating costs cheaper than in a centralized system. The validation is made by solving some kind of algorithm. With the time solving the algorithm becomes harder, since the whole ledger must be validated. Consequently it takes more time to solve it. Contrary to traditional currencies, the total number of Bitcoins to be issued is beforehand fixed: 21 million. In fact, the issuance rate of Bitcoins is expected to diminish over time. According to Laursen and Kyed, validating the public ledger was initially rewarded with 50 Bitcoins, but the protocol foresaw halving this quantity every four years. At the current pace, the maximum number of Bitcoins will be reached in 2140. Taking into account the decentralized character, Bitcoin transactions seem secure. All transactions are recorded in several computer servers around the world. In order to commit fraud, a person should change and validate (simultaneously) several ledgers, which is almost impossible. Additional, ledgers are public, with encrypted identities of parties, making transactions “pseudonymous, not anonymous”. The legal perspective of Bitcoin is fuzzy. Bitcoin is not issued, nor endorsed by a nation state. It is not an illegal substance. As such, its transaction is not regulated.
In particular, given the nonexistence of saving accounts in Bitcoin, and consequently the absense of a Bitcoin interest rate, precludes the idea of studying the price behavior in relation with cash flows generated by Bitcoins. As a consequence, the underlying dynamics of the price signal, finds the Efficient Market Hypothesis as a theoretical framework. The Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) is the cornerstone of financial economics. One of the seminal works on the stochastic dynamics of speculative prices is due to L Bachelier, who in his doctoral thesis developed the first mathematical model concerning the behavior of stock prices. The systematic study of informational efficiency begun in the 1960s, when financial economics was born as a new area within economics. The classical definition due to Eugene Fama (Foundations of Finance_ Portfolio Decisions and Securities Prices 1976-06) says that a market is informationally efficient if it “fully reflects all available information”. Therefore, the key element in assessing efficiency is to determine the appropriate set of information that impels prices. Following Efficient Capital Markets, informational efficiency can be divided into three categories: (i) weak efficiency, if prices reflect the information contained in the past series of prices, (ii) semi-strong efficiency, if prices reflect all public information and (iii) strong efficiency, if prices reflect all public and private information. As a corollary of the EMH, one cannot accept the presence of long memory in financial time series, since its existence would allow a riskless profitable trading strategy. If markets are informationally efficient, arbitrage prevent the possibility of such strategies. If we consider the financial market as a dynamical structure, short term memory can exist (to some extent) without contradicting the EMH. In fact, the presence of some mispriced assets is the necessary stimulus for individuals to trade and reach an (almost) arbitrage free situation. However, the presence of long range memory is at odds with the EMH, because it would allow stable trading rules to beat the market.
The presence of long range dependence in financial time series generates a vivid debate. Whereas the presence of short term memory can stimulate investors to exploit small extra returns, making them disappear, long range correlations poses a challenge to the established financial model. As recognized by Ciaian et. al., Bitcoin price is not driven by macro-financial indicators. Consequently a detailed analysis of the underlying dynamics (Hurst exponent) becomes important to understand its emerging behavior. There are several methods (both parametric and non parametric) to calculate the Hurst exponent, which become a mandatory framework to tackle BTC trading.
The social surplus is a basic concept of classical political economy which has been revived in the post-war period by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. They defined it as
.. the difference between what a society produces and the costs of producing it. The size of a surplus is an index of productivity and wealth, and of how much freedom a society has to accomplish whatever goals it may set for itself. The composition of the surplus shows how it uses that freedom: how much it invests in expanding its productive capacity, how much it consumes in various forms, how much it wastes and in what ways.
The surplus can be calculated in alternative ways. One is to estimate the necessary costs of producing the national product, and to deduct the costs from the national product. This raises the conceptual problem of calculating the necessary costs of production. Some of the outlays recorded as costs by firms (such as outlays for superficial product differentiation and advertising) may be unnecessary from the social viewpoint. Hence the determination of the necessary costs is crucial for this first method. A second method is to estimate the various expenditures absorbing the surplus (non-essential consumption, investment etc.) and to add them up.
The re-elaboration of the surplus concept in the post-war period is connected to the evolution of certain features of capitalism. In Monopoly Capital Baran and Sweezy argued that capitalism had made a transition from a competitive phase to a monopolistic phase in the twentieth century. In their view, the concentration of capital in giant corporations enables them to fix prices, in contrast to nineteenth century capitalists who worked under more intense competition. These giant corporations set their sales prices by adding mark-ups to production costs. Such price setting gives the corporations control over the partition of the value added with their workers. Corporations also strive to increase their profits by reducing their production costs. On the macroeconomic plane, the general endeavour to reduce production costs (inclusive of labor costs) tends to raise the share of the surplus in GDP. This rising surplus can be sustained only if it is absorbed. The consumption of capitalists, the consumption of employees in non-productive activities (e.g. superficial product differentiation, advertising, litigation etc.), investment and some part of government expenditure (e.g. public investment, military outlays) are the main outlets for absorbing the surplus.
As almost sixty years have elapsed since the above framework was formulated, it is legitimate to ask: has the increasing ratio of trade to global output impaired the diagnosis of Baran and Sweezy with regard to the monopolization of capital, and with respect to the inclination for the surplus in GDP to increase? Has increasing trade and integration of markets raised competitive pressures so as to restrict the pricing latitude of industrial conglomerates?
The immediate effect of global trade expansion obviously must be to increase overall competition, as greater numbers of firms would come to compete in formerly segregated markets. But a countervailing effect would emerge when large firms with greater financial resources and organizational advantages eliminate smaller firms (as happens when large transnationals take on firms of peripheral countries in opened markets). Another countervailing trend to the competition-enhancing effect of trade expansion is mergers and acquisitions, on which there is evidence in the core countries. A powerful trend increase in the extent of firm level concentration of global markets share could be observed in industries as diverse as aerospace and defence, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, trucks, power equipment, farm equipment, oil and petrochemicals, mining, pulp and paper, brewing, banking, insurance, advertising, and mass media. Indications are that the competition-enhancing effect of trade is balanced (perhaps even overwhelmed) by the monopolizing effect of the centralization of capital, which may sustain the ability of large corporations to control the market prices of their products.
On the other hand, if mergers and acquisitions imply an increase in the average size of the workforce of corporations, this could stimulate a counterbalance to corporate power by higher unionization and worker militancy. However, the increasing mobility of capital, goods and services on the one hand, and unemployment on the other is weakening unionization in the core countries, and making workers accept temporary employment, part-time employment, flexibility in hiring and dismissing, flexible working days and weeks, and flexibility in assigning tasks in the workplace. Increasing flexibility in labor relations shifts various risks related to the product markets and the associated costs from firms onto workers. Enhanced flexibility cannot but boost gross profits. Hence the trend towards increased flexibility in labor practices clearly implies increased surplus generation for given output in individual countries.
The neoliberal global reform agenda also includes measures to increase surplus generation through fiscal and institutional reforms, both in developed and underdeveloped countries. Lowering taxes on corporate profits, capital gains and high incomes; increasing taxes on consumption; raising fees on public services and privatization of these services, of utilities and of social security – all these policies aim at disburdening the high income earners and property owners of contributing to financing essential services for the maintenance of the labor force. These reforms also contribute to increasing the share of surplus in total output.
In brief, in the era of neoliberal policies evidence does not seem to suggest that the tendency for the share of surplus in GDP to rise in individual countries may have waned. If so, what is happening to the surplus generated in international production?
Baran and Sweezy argued that the surplus of underdeveloped countries had been and was being drained away to the centers of the world-system. Their description of core firms‘ overseas activities in Monopoly Capital can be read as a description of offshore outsourcing activities today if one replaces subsidiary with suppliers:
What they [giant multinational corporations] want is monopolistic control over foreign sources of supply and foreign markets, enabling them to buy and sell on specially privileged terms, to shift orders from one subsidiary to another, to favour this country or that depending on which has the most advantageous tax, labour and other policies…
The authors’ view was that imperialism had a two-fold function with respect to the surplus: finding cheap foreign sources of supply (which increases the surplus in the home country), and using other countries‘ markets as outlets (which helps absorb the surplus of the home country). A major motive of transnational companies in their current practice of outsourcing parts of production to underdeveloped countries is to cut production costs, hence to increase gross profits. When the corporation of a core country decides to outsource its production to a peripheral country, or when it shifts its sources of supply of intermediate inputs to a peripheral country, this increases global surplus creation. Global output remains the same, the costs of producing it decline. For the firm, the effect of offshore outsourcing is the same as if it were to reduce its own (in-house) costs of production, or were to outsource to a cheap supplier in the home economy. If the workers in the core country dismissed due to the offshore outsourcing find newly created jobs and continue to produce surplus, then global output increases and surplus creation increases a fortiori. If the workers dismissed due to the outsourcing remain unemployed, then their consumption (provided by family, unemployment benefits etc.) absorbs part of the surplus produced by other workers in employment. Should the supplier in the peripheral country expand her production to meet the order under subcontract, there will also be some increase in surplus creation in the peripheral country. In this case the total increase in surplus may accrue to both countries economies – in indeterminate proportions.
It is worth noting that the effect of offshore outsourcing on productivity in the core economies is ambiguous. The formula
Productivity = (Sales Revenue – Material Input Cost) / Number of Workers
shows that an increase in material input cost (due to the increase in outsourced inputs) and a reduction of the in-house workforce (due to outsourcing) may ultimately affect the outsourcing firm‘s productivity either way. The gains that motivate firms to outsourcing are not gains in labor productivity (which arguably could legitimize outsourcing from a social viewpoint), but gains in gross profits – i.e. in surplus appropriation.
It emerges that the basic tendencies in the production and growth of the social surplus described by Baran and Sweezy have not changed under globalizing capitalism. New economic policies, corporate strategies and international rules of conduct appear to promote increasing surplus transfers from the periphery to the core of the world-system. In order to lift itself out of destitution the periphery is exhorted to remove restrictions on trade and capital flows, and to compete for advantageous positions in global value chains controlled by transnationals by improving quality, reducing costs, innovating etc. The export-led growth economic strategy compels peripheral producers to individually compete for exportation by repressing wages, and conceding much of the surplus produced to their trade partners in the core countries. Part of the surplus accruing to the periphery is consumed by transnational élites imitating the consumption of the well-to-do in the core societies. On the other hand dollarization, capital flight and official reserve accumulation exert downward pressure (a pressure unrelated to trade balances) on the exchange rate of peripheral currencies. The undervaluation of peripheral currencies, reflected in deteriorating terms of trade, translates into a loss of surplus to the core countries, and reduces the capacity of poor countries to import capital goods from the core. The resulting meager per capita fixed capital formation in the underdeveloped countries bodes grim prospects for the welfare of future generations of working people in the periphery. These trends are maintained by the insertion of millions of workers in Asian hinterlands into global production networks, and by the willingness of peripheral states governed by transnational élites to continue free trade and capital transactions policies, and to accumulate foreign exchange reserves. Africa’s poor populations await their turn to be drawn into the world labor market, to eke out a subsistence and produce a surplus, of which a large part will likely flow to the core.
In order to prevent the drift of the victims of globalizing capitalism to irrational reaction (religious or nationalist fanaticism, clash of civilizations etc.) and to focus their attention on the real issues, social scientists and activists should open to debate the social and economic consequences of the export-led growth idea, all the theories and policies that give precedence to global efficiency over national saving and investment, and the social psychology of consumerism. There is pressing need to promote socio-economic programs based on the principle of self-sufficient and self-reliant national development, wherein the people can decide through democratic procedures how they will dispose the social surplus they produce (how they will distribute it, how much they will save, invest, export) under less pressure from world markets dominated by transnational companies, and with less interefence from international institutions and core states. Within the framework of the capitalist world-system, there is little hope for solving the deep social contradictions the system reproduces. The solution, reason shows, lies outside the logic of the system.
Devotion to free markets is a sin??? Nah!!!. Like quantitative induction and philosophical deduction, economics has always had a political purpose, and the purpose has usually been libertarian. Economists are freedom nuts, which is to say that they look with suspicion on lawyerly plans to solve problems with new state compulsions and longer jail sentences. Economics at its philosophical birth, among physiocrats in Paris and moral philosophers in Edinburgh, was in favor of free markets and was suspicious of overblown states. Mostly it still is. Let things be, laissez faire, has been the economists’ cry against intervention. Let the trades begin.
True, not all economists are free traders. The non-free traders, often European and disproportionately French, point out that you can make other assumptions about how trade works, A’, and get other conclusions, C’, not so favorable to laissez faire. The free-trade theorem, which sounds so grand, is actually pretty easy to overturn. Suppose a big part of the economy – say the household – is, as the economists put it, “distorted” (e.g., suppose people in households do things for love: you can see that the economists have a somewhat peculiar idea of “distortion”). Then it follows rigorously (that is to say, mathematically) that free trade in other sectors (e.g., manufacturing) will not be the best thing. In fact it can make the average person worse off than restricted, protected, tariffed trade would.
And of course normal people – meaning non-economists – are not persuaded that free trade is always and everywhere a good thing. For example most people think free trade is a bad thing for the product or service they make. But, the reality is to think the need to blockade entry into the profession of being an economist: it is, in all agreement, scandalous that so many unqualified quacks are bilking consumers with adulterated economics.
And very many normal people of leftish views, even after communism, even after numerous disastrous experiments in central planning, think socialism deserves a chance. They think it obvious that socialism is after all fairer than unfettered capitalism. They think it obvious that regulation is after all necessary to restrain monopoly. They don’t realize that free markets have partially broken down inequality (for example, between men and women; “partially”) and partially undermined monopolies (for example, local monopolies in retailing) and have increased the income of the poor over two centuries by a factor of 18. The felony lies in, the lefties think, in exactly its free-market bias.
But, my dearly beloved friends on the left, think, think again. There really is a serious case to be made against government intervention and in favor of markets. Maybe not knockdown; maybe imperfect here or there; let’s chat about it; hmm, a serious case that serious people ought to take seriously. The case in favor of markets is on the contrary populist and egalitarian and person-respecting and bad-institution-breaking libertarianism. Don’t go to government to solve problems, said Adam Smith. As he didn’t say, to do so is to put the fox in charge of the hen house. The golden rule is, those who have the gold rule: so don’t expect a government run by men to help women, or a government run by Enron executives to help Enron employees.
Libertarianism is typical of economics, especially English-speaking economics, and most especially American economics. Most Americans if they can get clear of certain European errors, are radical libertarians under the skin. Give me liberty. Sweet land of liberty. Live free or die. But alas, no time, no time. Libraries of books have been written examining the numerous and weighty arguments for the market and against socialism. Really, that the average literary person believes the first few pages of The Communist Manifesto suffice for knowledge of economics and economic history, in which he professes great interest, is a bit of a scandal. As Cromwell said wearily to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 3 August, 1650, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” Oh, permit one short libertarian riff.
Nor is government obstruction peculiar to the present-day Third World. In one decade in the eighteenth century, according to the Swedish economist and historian Eli Heckscher in his book, Mercantilism, the French government sent tens of thousands of souls to the galleys and executed 16,000 (that’s about 4.4 people a day over the ten years: you see the beauty of statistical thinking) for the hideous crime of… are you ready to hear the appalling evil these enemies of the State committed, fully justifying hanging them all, every damned one of their treasonable skins? … importing printed calico cloth. States do not change much from age to age. In view of How Muches and Oh, My Gods like these – the baleful oomph of governmental intrusions world-wide crushing harmless (indeed, beneficial) exchange, from marijuana to printed calico – perhaps laissez faire does not seem so obviously sinful, does it now? Consider, my dear leftist friends. Read and reflect. I beseech you, think it possible that, like statistics and mathematics, the libertarianism of economics is a virtue.
The complex system approach in finance could be described through the concept of entanglement. The concept of entanglement bears the same features as a definition of a complex system given by a group of physicists working in a field of finance (Stanley et al,). As they defined it – in a complex system all depends upon everything. Just as in the complex system the notion of entanglement is a statement acknowledging interdependence of all the counterparties in financial markets including financial and non-financial corporations, the government and the central bank. How to identify entanglement empirically? Stanley H.E. et al formulated the process of scientific study in finance as a search for patterns. Such a search, going on under the auspices of “econophysics”, could exemplify a thorough analysis of a complex and unstructured assemblage of actual data being finalized in the discovery and experimental validation of an appropriate pattern. On the other side of a spectrum, some patterns underlying the actual processes might be discovered due to synthesizing a vast amount of historical and anecdotal information by applying appropriate reasoning and logical deliberations. The Austrian School of Economic Thought which, in its extreme form, rejects application of any formalized systems, or modeling of any kind, could be viewed as an example. A logical question follows out this comparison: Does there exist any intermediate way of searching for regular patters in finance and economics?
Importantly, patterns could be discovered by developing rather simple models of money and debt interrelationships. Debt cycles were studied extensively by many schools of economic thought (Shiller, Robert J._ Akerlof, George A – Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism). The modern financial system worked by spreading risk, promoting economic efficiency and providing cheap capital. It had been formed during the years as bull markets in shares and bonds originated in the early 1990s. These markets were propelled by abundance of money, falling interest rates and new information technology. Financial markets, by combining debt and derivatives, could originate and distribute huge quantities of risky structurized products and sell them to different investors. Meanwhile, financial sector debt, only a tenth of the size of non-financial-sector debt in 1980, became half as big by the beginning of the credit crunch in 2007. As liquidity grew, banks could buy more assets, borrow more against them, and enjoy their value rose. By 2007 financial services were making 40% of America’s corporate profits while employing only 5% of its private sector workers. Thanks to cheap money, banks could have taken on more debt and, by designing complex structurized products, they were able to make their investment more profitable and risky. Securitization facilitating the emergence of the “shadow banking” system foments, simultaneously, bubbles on different segments of a global financial market.
Yet over the past decade this system, or a big part of it, began to lose touch with its ultimate purpose: to reallocate deficit resources in accordance with the social priorities. Instead of writing, managing and trading claims on future cashflows for the rest of the economy, finance became increasingly a game for fees and speculation. Due to disastrously lax regulation, investment banks did not lay aside enough capital in case something went wrong, and, as the crisis began in the middle of 2007, credit markets started to freeze up. Qualitatively, after the spectacular Lehman Brothers disaster in September 2008, laminar flows of financial activity came to an end. Banks began to suffer losses on their holdings of toxic securities and were reluctant to lend to one another that led to shortages of funding system. This only intensified in late 2007 when Nothern Rock, a British mortgage lender, experienced a bank run that started in the money markets. All of a sudden, liquidity became in a short supply, debt was unwound, and investors were forced to sell and write down the assets. For several years, up to now, the market counterparties no longer trust each other. As Walter Bagehot, an authority on bank runs, once wrote:
Every banker knows that if he has to prove that he is worth of credit, however good may be his arguments, in fact his credit is gone.
In an entangled financial system, his axiom should be stretched out to the whole market. And it means, precisely, financial meltdown or the crisis. The most fascinating feature of the post-crisis era on financial markets was the continuation of a ubiquitous liquidity expansion. To fight the market squeeze, all the major central banks have greatly expanded their balance sheets. The latter rose, roughly, from about 10 percent to 25-30 percent of GDP for the appropriate economies. For several years after the credit crunch 2007-09, central banks bought trillions of dollars of toxic and government debts thus increasing, without any precedent in modern history, money issuance. Paradoxically, this enormous credit expansion, though accelerating for several years, has been accompanied by a stagnating and depressed real economy. Yet, until now, central bankers are worried with downside risks and threats of price deflation, mainly. Otherwise, a hectic financial activity that is going on along unbounded credit expansion could be transformed by herding into autocatalytic process that, if being subject to accumulation of a new debt, might drive the entire system at a total collapse. From a financial point of view, this systemic collapse appears to be a natural result of unbounded credit expansion which is ‘supported’ with the zero real resources. Since the wealth of investors, as a whole, becomes nothing but the ‘fool’s gold’, financial process becomes a singular one, and the entire system collapses. In particular, three phases of investors’ behavior – hedge finance, speculation, and the Ponzi game, could be easily identified as a sequence of sub-cycles that unwound ultimately in the total collapse.
The secret to understanding accumulation, lies not in the narrow confines of production and consumption, but in the broader processes and institutions of power. Capital, is neither a material object nor a social relationship embedded in material entities. It is not ‘augmented’ by power. It is, in itself, a symbolic representation of power….
Unlike the elusive liberals, Marxists try to deal with power head on – yet they too end up with a fractured picture. Unable to fit power into Marx’s value analysis, they have split their inquiry into three distinct branches: a neo-Marxian economics that substitutes monopoly for labour values; a cultural analysis whose extreme versions reject the existence of ‘economics’ altogether (and eventually also the existence of any ‘objective’ order); and a state theory that oscillates between two opposite positions – one that prioritizes state power by demoting the ‘laws’ of the economy, and another that endorses the ‘laws’ of the economy by annulling the autonomy of the state. Gradually, each of these branches has developed its own orthodoxies, academic bureaucracies and barriers. And as the fractures have deepened, the capitalist totality that Marx was so keen on uncovering has dissipated….
The commodified structure of capitalism, Marx argues, is anchored in the labour process: the accumulation of capital is denominated in prices; prices reflect labour values; and labour values are determined by the productive labour time necessary to make the commodities. This sequence is intuitively appealing and politically motivating, but it runs into logical and empirical impossibilities at every step of the way. First, it is impossible to differentiate productive from unproductive labour. Second, even if we knew what productive labour was, there would still be no way of knowing how much productive labour goes into a given commodity, and therefore no way of knowing the labour value of that commodity and the amount of surplus value it embodies. And finally, even if labour values were known, there would be no consistent way to convert them into prices and surplus value into profit. So, in the end, Marxism cannot explain the prices of commodities – not in detail and not even approximately. And without a theory of prices, there can be no theory of profit and accumulation and therefore no theory of capitalism….
Modern capitalists are removed from production: they are absentee owners. Their ownership, says Veblen, doesn’t contribute to industry; it merely controls it for profitable ends. And since the owners are absent from industry, the only way for them to exact their profit is by ‘sabotaging’ industry. From this viewpoint, the accumulation of capital is the manifestation not of productive contribution but of organized power.
To be sure, the process by which capitalists ‘translate’ qualitatively different power processes into quantitatively unified measures of earnings and capitalization isn’t very ‘objective’. Filtered through the conventional assessments of accountants and the future speculations of investors, the conversion is deeply inter-subjective. But it is also very real, extremely imposing and, as we shall see, surprisingly well-defined.
These insights can be extended into a broader metaphor of a ‘social hologram’: a framework that integrates the resonating productive interactions of industry with the dissonant power limitations of business. These hologramic spectacles allow us to theorize the power underpinnings of accumulation, explore their historical evolution and understand the ways in which various forms of power are imprinted on and instituted in the corporation…..
Business enterprise diverts and limits industry instead of boosting it; that ‘business as usual’ needs and implies strategic limitation; that most firms are not passive price takers but active price makers, and that their autonomy makes ‘pure’ economics indeterminate; that the ‘normal rate of return’, just like the ancient rate of interest, is a manifestation not of productive yield but of organized power; that the corporation emerged not to enhance productivity but to contain it; that equity and debt have little to do with material wealth and everything to do with systemic power; and, finally, that there is little point talking about the deviations and distortions of ‘financial capital’ simply because there is no ‘productive capital’ to deviate from and distort.