Why Marxians are getting excited about the credit crisis

Are we all doomed?

Karl Marx knew a thing or two. Only six years after Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species” Marx had worked out that capitalism needed two things to be fit to survive; growth and debt. Profits could only be created if someone, somewhere, borrowed money.

This dependency on debt meant that capitalism, viewed from a Marxist perspective, was doomed to periodic crises as human nature couldn’t self-limit. Credit binges would erupt from time to time, threatening the edifice of debt-fuelled consumption. More to the point each crisis would become larger and larger until, one day, capitalism would implode and the social economy would take its rightful place.

And so it has been since Marx first published “Das Kapital” in 1867: debt has accumulated in the corporate sector, the private sector and, most controversially, at the heart of western governments. Even the United States, supposed to be that most arch of capitalist economies, has racked up debts equal to its national income and now its annual interest bill is rising at an alarming rate.  We in the UK are not immune: soon our fourth largest government expenditure will be the interest we pay on our government debt.

As a Marxian you might even regard this phenomenon with some glee; the crisis of capitalism has passed from the private domain, through the banking system into our central banks and now is gathering within our government finances.  The conspiratorial nature of Marxist analysis even has it that Big Finance bullies government into borrowing, destructively transferring wealth from citizens to capitalists. This paradoxical behavior leads to the conclusion that the biggest enemy of capitalism is not the working classes but capitalism itself.

So Marx would have it that the third wave of the current crisis will be that a well-known national government will renege on its interest payments; someone is going to default as the jargon goes. The logical response would be to start reducing your debts and this is at the heart of those who see austerity as a social cost worth paying to stabilize national finances. But controlling national finances comes with a social cost. Witness the 27 per cent unemployment in Spain and the rioting on the streets of Europe.

So far politicians have tried to appease the markets at the expense of the people. This has worked for a time but now, with their survival instincts at full the throttle, the pressure is rising to change course. The IMF has told the UK coalition government to loosen the girdle it has placed around public finances whilst the first statement by the new Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has been to reverse some of the tax increases meant to control Italy’s chronic debts. Last week Spain decided to take the brakes off deficit reduction and Greece is heading in the direction of requiring another round of forgiveness and do I really have to mention Cyprus? Trouble is brewing at the heart of government finances – marx my words Karl might say….

A bust of Marx. Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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Why I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I'm leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.