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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.