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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.