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Feudal Gestures: Bailout Lords and Their Modern Peons
Feudal Gestures: Bailout Lords and Their Modern Peons
Banks' Debt becomes Citizens' Debt—How is that fair?
by Chris Floyd
Friday, 27 February 2009
In broad daylight, financial elites are taking a gargantuan catastrophe – for which they are to blame, and for which everyone rightly and angrily blames them – and they are using it to further entrench their power and privilege.
Following the example of Arthur Silber, today we look to the work of Professor Michael Hudson to cut through the bewildering thicket of cant, con and deliberate deceit that surrounds the various "solutions" to the economic crisis. In his latest Counterpunch piece, Hudson addresses the seemingly counterintuitive spectacle of watching Alan Greenspan, the Arch-Druid of the "free market" cult, calling for nationalization of the nation's banks:
How is it that Alan Greenspan, free-market lobbyist for Wall Street, recently announced that he favored nationalization of America’s banks – and indeed, mainly the biggest and most powerful? Has the old disciple of Ayn Rand gone Red in the night? Surely not.
The answer is that the rhetoric of “free markets,” “nationalization” and even “socialism” (as in “socializing the losses”) has been turned into the language of deception to help the financial sector mobilize government power to support its own special privileges. Having undermined the economy at large, Wall Street’s public relations think tanks are now dismantling the language itself.
Exactly what does “a free market” mean? Is it what the classical economists advocated – a market free from monopoly power, business fraud, political insider dealing and special privileges for vested interests – a market protected by the rise in public regulation from the Sherman Anti-Trust law of 1890 to the Glass-Steagall Act and other New Deal legislation? Or is it a market free for predators to exploit victims without public regulation or economic policemen – the kind of free-for-all market that the Federal Reserve and Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) have created over the past decade or so? It seems incredible that people should accept today’s neoliberal idea of “market freedom” in the sense of neutering government watchdogs, Alan Greenspan-style, letting Angelo Mozilo at Countrywide, Hank Greenberg at AIG, Bernie Madoff, Citibank, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers loot without hindrance or sanction, plunge the economy into crisis and then use Treasury bailout money to pay the highest salaries and bonuses in U.S. history.
Terms that are the antithesis of “free market” also are being turned into the opposite of what they historically have meant. Take today’s discussions about nationalizing the banks. For over a century nationalization has meant public takeover of monopolies or other sectors to operate them in the public interest rather than leaving them so special interests. But when neoliberals use the word “nationalization” they mean a bailout, a government giveaway to the financial interests.
In the mind-boggling bailouts and other "reforms" being pushed by Western states to "save" the financial system from itself, Hudson sees something deeper than a panicky reaction to an immediate crisis. Instead, what we are witnessing is a "surge" in a long campaign to roll back, dismantle and destroy advancements in the common good made grudgingly -- with much toil and blood and many disastrous defeats -- over the couse of many centuries:
Today’s clash of civilization is not really with the Orient; it is with our own past, with the Enlightenment itself and its evolution into classical political economy and Progressive Era social reforms aimed at freeing society from the surviving trammels of European feudalism. What we are seeing is propaganda designed to deceive, to distract attention from economic reality so as to promote the property and financial interests from whose predatory grasp classical economists set out to free the world. What is being attempted is nothing less than an attempt to destroy the intellectual and moral edifice of what took Western civilization eight centuries to develop, from the 12th century Schoolmen discussing Just Price through 19th and 20th century classical economic value theory.
Any idea of “socialism from above,” in the sense of “socializing the risk,” is old-fashioned oligarchy – kleptocratic statism from above.
And as Hudson notes, the most effective way -- the only way, really -- to impose this kind of feudalism on a society is through lies, repression and violence:
Economic writers from the 16th through 20th centuries recognized that free markets required government oversight to prevent monopoly pricing and other charges levied by special privilege. By contrast, today’s neoliberal ideologues are public relations advocates for vested interests to depict a “free market” is one free of government regulation, “free” of anti-trust protection, and even of protection against fraud, as evidenced by the SEC’s refusal to move against Madoff, Enron, Citibank et al.). The neoliberal ideal of free markets is thus basically that of a bank robber or embezzler, wishing for a world without police so as to be sufficiently free to siphon off other peoples’ money without constraint.
The Chicago Boys in Chile realized that markets free for predatory finance and insider privatization could only be imposed at gunpoint. These free-marketers closed down every economics department in Chile, every social science department outside of the Catholic University where the Chicago Boys held sway. Operation Condor arrested, exiled or murdered tens of thousands of academics, intellectuals, labor leaders and artists. Only by totalitarian control over the academic curriculum and public media backed by an active secret police and army could “free markets” neoliberal style be imposed. The resulting privatization at gunpoint became an exercise in what Marx called “primitive accumulation” – seizure of the public domain by political elites backed by force. It is a free market William-the-Conqueror or Yeltsin-kleptocrat style, with property parceled out to the companions of the political or military leader.
All this was just the opposite of the kind of free markets that Adam Smith had in mind when he warned that businessmen rarely get together but to plot ways to fix markets to their advantage.
Further on, Hudson notes how so-called liberals and progressives have also expunged and distorted the history of "their side;" i.e., the debates on how best to transform the violent oligarchies:
The argument between Progressive Era reformers, socialists, anarchists and individualists thus turned on the political strategy of how best to free markets from debt and rent. Where they differed was on the best political means to achieve it, above all the role of the state. There was broad agreement that the state was controlled by vested interests inherited from feudal Europe’s military conquests and the world that was colonized by European military force. The political question at the turn of the 20th century was whether peaceful democratic reform could overcome the political and even military resistance wielded by the Old Regime using violence to retain its “rights.” The ensuing political revolutions were grounded in the Enlightenment, in the legal philosophy of men such as John Locke, political economists such as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Marx. Power was to be used to free markets from the predatory property and financial systems inherited from feudalism. Markets were to be free of privilege and free lunches, so that people would obtain income and wealth only by their own labor and enterprise. This was the essence of the labor theory of value and its complement, the concept of economic rent as the excess of market price over socially necessary cost-value.
Although we now know that markets and prices, rent and interest, contractual formalities and nearly all the elements of economic enterprise originated in the “mixed economies” of Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC and continued throughout the mixed public/private economies of classical antiquity, the discussion was so politically polarized that the idea of a mixed economy with checks and balances received scant attention a century ago...
All this history of economic thought has been as thoroughly expunged from today’s academic curriculum as it has from popular discussion. Few people remember the great debate at the turn of the 20th century: Would the world progress fairly quickly from Progressive Era reforms to outright socialism – public ownership of basic economic infrastructure, natural monopolies (including the banking system) and the land itself (and to Marxists, of industrial capital as well)? Or, could the liberal reformers of the day – individualists, land taxers, classical economists in the tradition of Mill, and American institutionalists such as Simon Patten – retain capitalism’s basic structure and private property ownership? If they could do so, they recognized that it would have to be in the context of regulating markets and introducing progressive taxation of wealth and income. This was the alternative to outright “state” ownership. Today’s extreme “free market” idea is a dumbed-down caricature of this position.
In any case, the dreams of reformers of every stripe has come to naught in a world that not even the most rapacious robber barons could have dreamed of -- or hoped for -- a century ago, Hudson notes:
Reformists and more radical socialists alike sought to free capitalism of its egregious inequities, above all its legacy from Europe’s Dark Age of military conquest when invading warlords seized lands and imposed an absentee landlord class to receive the rental income, which was used to finance wars of further land acquisition. As matters turned out, hopes that industrial capitalism could reform itself along progressive lines to purge itself of its legacy from feudalism have come crashing down. World War I hit the global economy like a comet, pushing it into a new trajectory and catalyzing its evolution into an unanticipated form of finance capitalism.
It was unanticipated largely because most reformers spent so much effort advocating progressive policies that they neglected what Thorstein Veblen called the vested interests. Their Counter-Enlightenment is creating a world that would have been deemed a dystopia a century ago – something so pessimistic that no futurist dared depict a world run by venal and corrupt bankers, protecting as their prime customers the monopolies, real estate speculators and hedge funds whose economic rent, financial gambling and asset-price inflation is turned into a flow of interest in today’s rentier economy. Instead of industrial capitalism increasing capital formation we are seeing finance capitalism strip capital, and instead of the promised world of leisure we are being drawn into one of debt peonage.
"A world of debt peonage" -- for the peons, of course, not for those who created the crisis. Turning to the present day and the "solutions" being offered by the "progressive" Obama Administration, Hudson notes:
The Treasury’s plan to “socialize” the banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions is simply to step in and take bad loans off their books, shifting the loss onto the public sector. This is the antithesis of true nationalization or “socialization” of the financial system.
The Treasury’s plan to “socialize” the banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions is simply to step in and take bad loans off their books, shifting the loss onto the public sector. This is the antithesis of true nationalization or “socialization” of the financial system. The banks and insurance companies quickly got over their initial knee-jerk fear that a government bailout would occur on terms that would wipe out their bad management, along with the stockholders and bondholders who backed this bad management. The Treasury has assured these mismanagers that “socialism” for them is a free gift. The primacy of finance over the rest of the economy will be affirmed, leaving management in place and giving stockholders a chance to recover by earning more from the economy at large, with yet more tax favoritism. (This means yet heavier taxes shifted onto consumers, raising their living costs accordingly.)
The bulk of wealth under capitalism – as under feudalism –always has come primarily from the public domain, headed by the land and formerly public utilities, capped most recently by the Treasury’s debt-creating power. In effect, the Treasury creates a new asset ($11 trillion of new Treasury bonds and guarantees, e.g. the $5.2 trillion to Fannie and Freddie). Interest on these bonds is to be paid by new levies on labor, not on property.
It is, as always, a win-win game for the monied elite. (For more on this, see another analyst whom Silber has alerted us to, Mike Whitney, in his latest piece: The Geithner Put.) Hudson's grim conclusion seems all too apt:
Neoliberal denunciations of public regulation and taxation as “socialism” is really an attack on classical political economy – the “original” liberalism whose ideal was to free society from the parasitic legacy of feudalism. A truly socialized Treasury policy would be for banks to lend for productive purposes that contribute to real economic growth, not merely to increase overhead and inflate asset prices by enough to extract interest charges. Fiscal policy would aim to minimize rather than maximizing the price of home ownership and doing business, by basing the tax system on collecting the rent that is now being paid out as interest. Shifting the tax burden off wages and profits onto rent and interest was the core of classical political economy in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the Progressive Era and Social Democratic reform movements in the United States and Europe prior to World War I. But this doctrine and its reform program has been buried by the rhetorical smokescreen organized by financial lobbyists seeking to muddy the ideological waters sufficiently to mute popular opposition to today’s power grab by finance capital and monopoly capital. Their alternative to true nationalization and socialization of finance is debt peonage, oligarchy and neo-feudalism. They have called this program “free markets.”
The brass of our financial elites is awe-inspiring, indeed almost sublime. In broad daylight, they are taking a gargantuan catastrophe -- for which they are to blame, and for which everyone rightly and angrily blames them -- and they are using it to further entrench their power and privilege. That sure is one hell of a trick...and there sure enough will be hell to pay -- for us, not them -- if they can pull it off.
Chris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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