“Capital and capitalists will continue to be nannied by the states they control, unless the crisis intensifies the struggles of workers and peasants to change this horrendously unjust and murderous social and political order. Nor will borrowers of recapitalized banks or the insured of the US company AIG benefit from lower interest rates, better access to credit or insurance or less discriminatory insurance rates. The new managers will be busy guarding the capital of their respective managed entities. Unless the rulers are made to see that money market instruments are not the proper vehicles to deliver affordable credit or insurance to the poor and are forced to carry out the structural changes needed to embody that perspective in practice, the old order will continue when the recession subsides.”
Radical Notes: Can you explain the nature of the current crisis and how it developed?
Amiya Kumar Bagchi (AKB): A full explanation of the current crisis will be a book-length study. The immediate causes of the crisis can be put as follows: (a) unbridled financial liberalization, the most significant components of which have been the further elaboration of derivatives, including securitized products, increasing the non-transparency of the financial market, (b) the effective demolition of the distinction between deposit banks specializing in loans and investment banks, (c) conversion of the dollar into virtually the sole source of global liquidity, even while keeping a major fraction of the world’s economies in a condition of endemic deficiency of effective demand and (d) the rapid emergence of housing and related markets as sectors of the most intense speculative activity.
Radical Notes: As an economic historian, do you find any uniqueness in the present crisis in comparison to the past ones?
AKB: Capitalism has been racked by speculative crises, almost from the moment of its birth. One of the earliest of such crises was the Tulip Mania in the Netherlands in the 1630s. The second speculative crisis in order of occurrence was the crisis of 1720-21 centring around the so-called Mississippi project in France and the South Sea Company in England: this crisis threatened to engulf much of Western Europe at the time. If we take England only, there were severe banking crises in almost every decade from the 1820s , with the Baring Crisis of 1890-91, characterizing the last decade. In that crisis, the inability of Baring Bros to meet its obligations arising out of its over-exposure to loans to the Argentine government threatened to involve the whole British financial system. That is arguably the first time that the Bank of England acted as the lender of last resort. (Baring Bros collapsed in 1995, as a result of Nick Leeson, its bureau chief in Singapore, losing his bet on movements of Nekkei and the firm’s capital of £800 million disappeared). Then you have the biggest financial crisis of the twentieth century, namely, the Great Depression of the 1930s, which really ended with the onset of World War II that saw the stepping up of military and other public expenditure to unprecedented heights.
But as any student of history knows, you never step into the same stream twice. Capitalism in particular has been like a super-chameleon, transforming not only its colour but also its apparent structural relations every few decades. The changes preceding the current crisis are no exception. The uniqueness of the crisis can probably be described as a situation in which governments, so-called specialists in finance not only ignored the totally non-transparent manner in which banks, investment brokers and non-bank financial institutions carried on their business, but positively cheered them in the belief that this was the way to create wealth. One of the most ironic symbols of this atmosphere is the compilation and celebration of the growth of wealth of the ‘High Net Value Individuals’ (HNVIs) by Merrill Lynch, a firm that had to merge with Bank of America in order to stave off bankruptcy.
Radical Notes: Can we understand the present crisis as a crisis of imperialism and the US hegemony?
AKB: Yes, we can. But we must remember that other G7 countries are also implicated in the US hegemony, and even China’s current pattern of growth is symbiotically related to US hegemony. Whether the crisis will lead to a decline in the murderousness of the US military operations remains an open question. As I have argued earlier, capital wants to win in competition, if necessary in the last instance by using armed conflict. The prospect of a USA threatened with the loss of hegemony using its fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction is mind-numbing.
Radical Notes: How do you assess the impact of the crisis on the developing countries?
AKB: In many developing countries, there are no real stock markets and even if there are, their operations do not have much of an impact on firms which are often too small to be able to raise money in the stock market. In many of them, earlier depredations of imperialism, its domestic collaborators and its agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank have led to the exclusion of most economic agents from formal credit markets. The so-called success of micro-credit agencies in Bangladesh, for example, was built not only on loans extended by foreign lenders but also on the destruction of public sector banking by local businessmen defaulting on their loans. Organizations blessed by the World Bank and foreign donors fished in such turbid waters.
The direct effect of the present crisis on such countries may not be great. But they will suffer through the further decline in the demand for their output in foreign and domestic markets because of the global recession. The countries, which have depended greatly on foreign capital for stimulation of their economies such as India, will also suffer through minor or major currency crises and the downsizing of the transactional enterprises operating in those countries and badly affected by the crisis. In the immediate future, the most distressing effect for the common people will continue to be the loss of employment in construction, services and the manufacturing sector and the high cost of food grains, induced by underinvestment in agriculture in developing countries, speculation in commodities by the big finance houses and others and the diversion of cropland to the highly subsidized biofuel in developed market economies, especially the USA.
Radical Notes: A recent report says that India and China – which are considered by many as the bulwark of capitalist growth in the 21st century – have witnessed the steepest market declines between December 2007 and September 2008. They “have lost almost 51% of market capitalization, or m-cap, and this figure could be much higher if the declines of the last fortnight are taken into account.” As latest reports indicate, industries in India, especially the aviation industry, have already started shifting the brunt of the crisis on labour, through various means. Do you think these developments are indications toward a full-fledged crisis around the corner?
AKB: As far as China is concerned, the slide in stock prices will not have a major effect on the economy, because stocks traded in the Shanghai market provide finance only to a small fraction of firms in the Chinese economy. But the effect on India is obvious not only from the retrenchments already announced by aviation companies and IT firms but also by the continued outflow of FII funds from India and consequent decline in the value of the Indian rupee. The Indian manufacturing sector was already showing a downward trend in fiscal 2007-08, and that trend has strengthened in recent weeks as shown by the Index of Industrial Production (IIP). It is disingenuous of the Finance Minister to call the IIP “not very reliable” when his government has done so much to massage the official statistics so as to produce a favourable picture of its performance in the economic field.
Radical Notes: The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) too is taking measures to ensure liquidity and boost confidence. As a historian of India’s banking sector, how do you assess India’s financial-structural ability to withstand such crisis at this juncture? How much do you think the neo-liberal policies that subsequent governments have pursued eroded this ability?
AKB: Fortunately, despite all the attempts of successive governments at the Centre since 1991 to force the pace of ‘economic reforms’, the worst of their designs could not be carried through. These include full capital account convertibility, complete privatisation of the banking and insurance sectors, and total abolition of the distinction between banks and non-banking finance companies. Every time either major international crises or electoral compulsions have stayed their hand. In 1997 and this time around, financial crisis in Asia and the global financial crisis have prevented the enforcement of capital account convertibility. The strength of Indian public sector banks compared with their private counterparts is there for all to see. The worst development under the neo-liberal regime is the naked play of money and communalism in determining the positions all major centrist or right-wing parties have adopted. Another major casualty has been the fiscal stance of the state. It will take quite an effort to get the rich to pay their taxes and to stop the indulgence the state has displayed towards punters and hot money merchants in the financial sector. The quality of Indian democracy has been further sullied under the neo-liberal regime. Hence the ability of the regime to handle the resolution of the crisis in national interest has been badly impaired.
Radical Notes: Various commentators have suggested that the bailing out strategies of different governments throughout the world has ultimately brought the state back in. What is the merit of such conclusion? Can we see this return of the state as just a moment, for which Milton Friedman once said the role of government is “to do something that market cannot do for itself”?
AKB: Yes, the state has been brought in but only to save the illegitimate earnings of the crony capitalists. Will Mr Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman Bros, be made to disgorge the nearly $500 million he earned from his stock options and bonuses? In the financial year 2007-08 alone, according to Forbes.com, Fuld earned $71.50 million and in the preceding 5 years he had earned $354 million. When Lehman applied for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Fuld took $22 million from the firm as retirement benefit. What applies to the top managers of Lehman also applies to those of Wachovia and Merrill Lynch, to UBS of Switzerland which is being recapitalized by the Swiss government or Northern Rock, the hosing mortgage bank, which has been bailed out by the Bank of England. In 2004, I published an article with the self-explanatory title, “Nanny state for capital and Social Darwinism for Labour” (Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 47(1), January-March). Capital and capitalists will continue to be nannied by the states they control, unless the crisis intensifies the struggles of workers and peasants to change this horrendously unjust and murderous social and political order. Nor will borrowers of recapitalized banks or the insured of the US company AIG benefit from lower interest rates, better access to credit or insurance or less discriminatory insurance rates. The new managers will be busy guarding the capital of their respective managed entities. Unless the rulers are made to see that money market instruments are not the proper vehicles to deliver affordable credit or insurance to the poor and are forced to carry out the structural changes needed to embody that perspective in practice, the old order will continue when the recession subsides.
Amiya Kumar Bagchi is India’s foremost political economist and economic historian. He is the Director of the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata. He was a member of the State Planning Board until 2005, Government of West Bengal and was recently Chairman of a committee appointed by the Government of West Bengal to report on the finances of the government during the Tenth Five Year Plan period. He acted as the official historian of The State Bank of India until 1997. His recent works include (co-edited with Gary A.Dymski) Capture and Exclude: Developing Economies and the Poor in Global Finance, Tulika, New Delhi, 2007, The Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, USA, 2005, The Developmental State in History and in the Twentieth Century, Regency Publications, New Delhi, 2004, and Capital and Labour Re-defined: India and the Third World, Tulika, New Delhi and Anthem Press, London, 2002.