Are we headed for another crisis?

January 28, 2019

David McNally is a veteran socialist and activist, and the author of numerous books, including Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance and Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. He is the new Cullen Distinguished Professor of History and Business at the University of Houston. Ashley Smith interviewed him about the Great Recession, the weak recovery after it, growing signs of crisis in the system, and what it all means for socialists.

THE WARNING signs in the economy seem to be piling up around the world. Are we headed for another recession?

THERE IS no doubt the world economy is heading toward another recession. Of course, the timing cannot be predicted — and political developments could accelerate or retard the process — but there can be little doubt that the cycle of economic expansion since 2010 is winding down.

There are multiple indications of the coming contraction. First, there is the performance of U.S. stock markets over the past six months, as investors start to recognize that profit growth is waning.

A financial trader looks on as stock prices collapse

Secondly, we see a dramatic slowdown in China’s economy. Some experts claim that real economic growth in China last year may have been as low as 2 percent or less.

Even though the days of double-digit growth ended with the Great Recession, China’s economy had still been steadily advancing by more than 6 percent per year. So spooked by signs of recession are China’s leaders that they have launched a new stimulus program.

Thirdly, the warning lights are flashing all around the German economy, the so-called “locomotive” of Europe, where industrial output began contracting last fall.

How severe this coming recession will be cannot be predicted from economic data alone. There are complex interrelations among economic and political factors that will be decisive. For instance, Trump’s corporate tax cuts last year gave the American economy an extra boost, forestalling recessionary tendencies.

But politics can impact in the other direction. For example, an escalating trade war between the U.S. and China could hasten and deepen an economic slump. A Brexit-related crisis in Britain could worsen the slowdown in Europe. And a new wave of protectionism, about which I will say more shortly, could severely damage the entire global system.

Finally, there are new financial fault lines that could trigger another panic in the money market, which could be devastating in the context of a new slump. Since the last recession, the world economy has seen a $75 trillion increase in debt — more than a third of that in the corporate sector.

And much of this business debt is highly leveraged, making it junk or near-junk quality. As a result, there is a great structure of shaky corporate debt — by some estimates greater than subprime mortgage debt before the last crash — that could implode were another full-fledged financial crisis to take hold.

What this all adds up to is a set of scenarios that point to new volatilities — and in some cases to new crashes.

WE HAVE been through a long recovery, but one that has been characterized by sluggish growth. Why is this the case? Is it the unresolved problems that provoked the Great Recession?

THE DECADE since the onset of the Great Recession has been a highly contradictory one for the world economy. Yes, an economic recovery began in 2010, and, it has endured since then, notwithstanding many hiccups.

But in terms of rates of investment and overall growth, the “recovery” has been the most sluggish of the post-Second World War period. The key reason for this has to do with the very success that the world’s central bankers had in preventing a collapse into a wholesale depression in 2008-09.

It can be difficult today recalling the mortal terror that gripped the ruling class in 2008-09 as banks from Wall Street to Germany, from Ireland to Iceland, collapsed, and as it looked like Greece might default on billions of dollars in debt. “I am really scared,” Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson told a confidant. And a Merrill Lynch banker confessed, “Our world is broken.”

Only the most massive global bank bailout in history rescued the situation for the ruling class. The first round of corporate bailouts in the U.S. came with a price tag of $13 trillion. And that was followed by further bailouts and three rounds of “quantitative easing” in the U.S., alongside similar programs in China and Europe.

For a decade, in order to cut costs for business, the world’s central banks have kept interest rates at historically low levels. In Japan, rates are still negative — that is, they are below the rate of inflation.

The central bank interventions prevented a full-scale meltdown of world finance. That was their “success” from a capitalist perspective. But the other thing bailouts and artificially low interest rates did was inhibit the sort of restructuring capitalism needs in order to revitalize itself.

Depressions serve a toxic cleansing function for capitalism. By bankrupting the least efficient companies, they allow others to expand their market share. By driving up unemployment through layoffs and workplace closures, they contribute to pushing down workers’ wages. And by suppressing economic activity, they lead to lower borrowing costs.

All the damage inflicted by a depression thus reduces business costs and makes it attractive for the survivors to eventually start investing again. So growth can resume, but only at the cost of enormous destruction and human suffering by way of workplace closures, job loss, poverty, and broken hopes and dreams.

The irony today is that the very financial policies that averted a depression also meant that capitalism’s “creative destruction” was blunted. Record low interest rates enabled inefficient firms to stay in business. But this has blocked the “cleansing” that would otherwise open up new markets for the most profitable companies.

That explains why rates of new investment have been remarkably low throughout the so-called “recovery” phase of the past nine or ten years.

The other side of this is that profit increases have come largely from keeping the squeeze on workers. Precarious conditions of work and union-hostile bosses have meant no meaningful improvements in workers’ living standards since the Great Recession.

Consequently, the vast bulk of new wealth created has flowed to the 1 Percent. And that has profound political implications, to which I shall return.

WHAT WILL be likely impact on politics within countries and geopolitics between countries in the event of a new crisis?

THE FALLOUT from the Great Recession — particularly the reality of massive bailouts for banks and private corporations, alongside job losses and declining wages for the majority — resulted in an explosion of anger toward the parties of the political center that had orchestrated the bailouts.

But because of the weakness of the radical left after 40 years of neoliberalism, that anger often gravitated to forces on the right, more so than those on the left.

But it didn’t entirely bypass the left. To take the U.S. example, political discontent immediately flowed to Occupy as well as to the Tea Party. And during the 2015-16 election cycle, it crystallized around Bernie Sanders as well as around Donald Trump.

In country after country, frustration with increased class inequality moved in two directions, resulting in ever-more polarized politics. This has opened up dangerous space for the growth of the radical right, while also creating new opportunities for the left.

The ascent of Jeremy Corbyn into leadership of the Labour Party in Britain and the election of Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador as Mexico’s president both signify the latter, as does the exciting growth of the Democratic Socialists of America in the U.S., from about 6,000 members in 2016 to over 55,000 today.

This polarization inside countries isn’t isolated from rivalries among capitalist states themselves. Trump’s trade war against China is one symptom of the latter. But so is the growth of economic protectionist policies more generally.

The latter ratchet up all the toxicity of nationalism, feeding the growth of the right in Europe and North America. Shamefully, there are sections of the reformist left that are trying to adapt their policies in national-protectionist and anti-immigrant directions.

But you don’t defeat the right with its own tools. One of the critical challenges everywhere today lies in recognizing that any genuine progress for the left will be on the basis of a resolutely anti-racist, internationalist, pro-immigrant politics.

WHAT DOES this mean for the socialist left and labor movement internationally? What are the challenges and pitfalls that we face, and how should we handle them?

FOR THE labor movement, this new period requires a radical rethinking of union practices.

Why did Occupy inspire so many people? It had to do with the movement’s militancy and insurgence. They didn’t do opinion polling, raise money, launch an ad campaign and lobby some politicians. They seized public space — right outside the doorsteps of Wall Street banks to begin with. In doing so, they captured the imagination of millions.

Why have teachers often been successful during the recent wave of strikes? Because they, too, were insurgent. In many cases their mass strikes have been illegal. But this didn’t deter them.

Their actions have involved militant tactics like mass invasions of state Capitol buildings. They have been based on building community connections with students and parents, and they have turned strikes into festive social upheavals.

We are now in a period like that at the beginning of the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, where working class movements grow because they are exciting, confrontational and inspiring.

The deep-rooted conservatism of most labor leaders is a complete dead end. But there is a new style of working-class organizing in the works — and it must be extended, developed and deepened. It must connect with young workers, workers of color, women workers, queer and trans workers. And it must be a unionism that is driven by a mission to change the world.

Consider as well the success of the International Women’s Strike (IWS) in reconnecting feminism, anti-racism and class struggle.

There were naysayers who claimed that strikes could only be waged by unions. But that is to forget Rosa Luxemburg’s description of “people’s strikes” that become mass outpourings of everyone who is oppressed. By being audacious and innovative, IWS has articulated a politics and a practice of “feminism for the 99 percent” that is hugely resonant in the era of #MeToo and the teachers’ strikes.

For the radical left, the biggest danger is not grasping the new possibilities of this period. Forty years of defeats and retreats marginalized revolutionaries so badly that some leftists came to idealize their marginality, seeing it as a sign of purity.

But politics is about real social movement and struggle, not splendid isolation. This is a moment for breaking all of our received habits of inwardness. It is a moment for resisting all temptations to be satisfied with talking to ourselves.

We need to expand the vistas of what is possible on the left by setting our sights on making socialism part of mass politics once again.

Of course, after two generations of defeats, the process of revitalizing the socialist left is bound to be full of contradictions. There will be missteps and temptations to seek influence by way of compromise on matters of principle.

For this reason, political education will have to remain central to any perspective for left renewal. People need to understand the history and theory of genuine anti-capitalism if they are to develop effective strategies for changing the world.

And this also requires, as I suggested above, a commitment to a Marxist anti-oppression politics — an uncompromising dedication to all the struggles of the oppressed, from movements of trans people to those of migrant workers storming borders.

HOW DO you view the situation for the left in the U.S. and Canada specifically?

IT IS more difficult to lay out a concrete program for the left in these two nation-states, in part because the political contexts are quite different.

In the Canadian state, the case of Québec is most hopeful. Not only is there an enduring legacy of recent mass student strikes, but there is also a party of the left, Québec solidaire (QS), which has a number of parliamentary deputies. Notwithstanding some political problems and challenges, the existence of QS gives left-wing politics a mass presence in Quebec’s social life.

Beyond that, in officially English-speaking Canada, the left confronts the conundrum of a social-democratic party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), that has not experienced any substantial left renewal and an organized labor movement that is spinning its wheels at best. There are some solid on-the-ground campaigns, like the Fight for $15 and Fairness, and there are promising initiatives around migrant worker activism.

But thus far, the layer of people open to radical socialist politics lacks a vehicle for political action and expression. This means that radical socialists in this area will continue to operate in the preparatory mode of organizing — helping to prepare activist circles, reading groups and socialist collectives for work on a considerably larger stage when circumstances permit.

The situation is different in that regard in the United States, even if we are still in the stage of tenuous first steps. The period immediately after the Great Recession saw critically important upsurges associated with Black Lives Matter and Occupy.

Then the Bernie Sanders campaign captured a chunk of the anger that arose following the bailouts and enabled it to coalesce around the idea of socialism. This was a transformative moment insofar as an idea that had been driven out of mass politics was now reinserted.

More than this, millions of people began to identify themselves with socialism, and to use it as the reference point for their politics. Without denying that my conception of socialism is much more radical than Sanders’ version, it remains the case that his campaign massively expanded the audience for all socialist politics in the U.S.

Of course, those stuck in past ways have failed to take advantage of these new openings. But those who are in tune with the new possibilities must seek out every potential avenue for rebuilding socialism in the U.S. as a mass movement.

Obviously, the growth of the DSA is the clearest left expression of the new political moment in American society. To have a socialist organization in the U.S. that numbers in the tens of thousands — one that has mobilized powerfully against ICE, built solidarity with striking teachers, crafted some compelling electoral campaigns and has become a pole of attraction for tens of thousands of others — represents a step into a new era of activism and organizing.

As I have said, there will be scores of contradictions associated with this rebirth of socialism in the U.S., and these will sometimes require sharp debates. Moreover, all of these developments are young and tenuous.

But everyone who is serious about the building of a new left must engage — and engage deeply — with DSA and its supporters, even if they choose not to join it. And they need to recognize that, as during the upsurge of the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, the growth of an American left will galvanize radicals everywhere.

These are both dangerous and exciting times for socialists. To paraphrase Gramsci, the new left is still “struggling to be born” amidst a “time of monsters.” We know what those monsters look like, and they will raise their ugly heads more viciously with the onset of a new recession.

But after long, bleak years, there is life once again on the left. Knowing that this left is there, struggling to be born as a real social force, ought to inspire hope. And it ought to remind us that activism, education and socialist organizing are truly critical to the future we hope to make.

Further Reading

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