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
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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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