The debate about growth and economic restructuring in Britain ought to depart from the fundamental transformation of UK capitalism during the last four decades. Britain’s economy is now beholden to big finance. Or to put it more accurately, the UK has become financialised, as has the USA but also Japan and Germany. Financialisation is a deep underlying change, and no set of radical or socialist economic policies would make sense unless that was recognised.
The previous decade has cast light on the transformation:
Finance grew extraordinarily in terms of prices, profits, and volume of transactions, but also in terms of influence and arrogance. By the middle of the decade a vast bubble had been inflated in the USA and the UK, the bursting of which was likely to be devastating.
The expansion of finance represented much more than financial excess. Finance had become pivotal to economic activity and to determining economic policy, but also to organising everyday life. Mature capitalism had become financialised.
In August 2007 the US money market had a heart attack, and in August-September 2008 the global financial system had a near-death experience. Deep recession followed across the world, and then in 2009-2012 the crisis took a further nasty turn. States had become perilously exposed to debt because recession had reduced tax revenues, while rescuing finance had imposed fresh costs on the exchequer. Austerity followed, causing loss of income for working people, unemployment and destruction of welfare. Things became bad enough in the UK, but the impact of austerity in the Eurozone has been catastrophic.
As I argue in my book, Profiting without Producing, published by Verso this November, the crisis has revealed three fundamental trends of financialisation:
First, industrial and commercial enterprises have become increasingly involved in financial operations, often undertaking financial transactions to earn profits. Big business, in particular, relies less on banks, while changing its organisation and investment practices. The ideology of ‘shareholder value’ has become prevalent among large enterprises.
Second, banks have turned toward open financial markets to make profits through financial trading rather than through outright borrowing and lending. They have further turned toward households as a source of profit, often combining trading in open markets with lending to households, or collecting household savings.
Third, households increasingly rely on the private financial system to facilitate access to vital goods and services, including housing, education and health, as well as to hold savings. Everyday life has become financialised.
Financialised capitalism is an economic system of weak and precarious growth, low wages, profound inequality, and deep instability. The ascendancy of finance has resulted in regular financial bubbles, which cause devastation when they burst. Finance first earns enormous profits, and then calls upon society to carry the costs of crisis. Events since 2008, including the imposition of austerity, reflect the enormous influence of financial interests over policy-making, and indicate that financialisation will persist.
On Saturday 2 November I will be speaking at the first conference for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, where I will be discussing ways working people could oppose and reverse financialisation. This is a vital process but it is far from easy. For one thing, it would be necessary to introduce regulation that could prevent financial institutions from engaging in speculative activities. Such regulation must include direct controls on interest rates and on the lending practices of financial institutions, if it is to have an impact. Time is short as yet another bubble is gradually developing, not least in the UK.
But regulation alone would never be enough. Public property over financial institutions must also be introduced as private banks have failed repeatedly, thus causing enormous pain. The UK needs public banks with a fresh spirit of public service that would support investment as well as meeting the financial needs of working people.
More broadly, financialisation of everyday life must also be confronted by reversing the involvement of private financial institutions in housing, education, health and elsewhere. Imaginative, flexible and creative public provision across a range of goods and services would be vital to reversing financialisation.
If financialisation began to be reversed, a healthier basis could be created for pro-growth macroeconomic policies but also for required restructuring of the UK economy to provide secure income and employment. Otherwise, the prospects for working people look far from optimistic.
Class Conference 2013 will take place on Saturday 2 November at TUC Congress House. Tickets can be purchased here