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When Keynes went to America

The first Bretton Woods meeting was intended to establish a postwar money regime and secure funds fo

The night the Mount Washington Hotel opened in 1902, its builder, the New Hampshire coal and railroad magnate Joseph Stickney, raised a glass to “the damn fool who built this white elephant”. With its octagonal towers and 300 yards of wooden verandah, its 234 rooms each with its own bath, its telephone and mail system, and its interminable corridors, set in endless New Hampshire wilderness, this colossal monument to the Gilded Age somehow survived the Depression and wartime shortages to its appointment with financial history in July 1944.

As allied armies fought their way into Normandy, some 730 finance ministers, delegates and clerks from all 44 allied countries, including China and the Soviet Union, gathered for three weeks at the Mount Washington to plan the postwar monetary and trading order.

The United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, better known from the hotel's railway stop and mail address as the Bretton Woods conference, established a currency regime and two powerful institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The role of Bretton Woods in the postwar recovery is, as always with economists, disputed but the name still evokes, for men such as Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy, an idea of order in a chaotic financial world.

The gestation of the Bretton Woods conference, as the long-serving US diplomat Dean Acheson put it, "about doubled that of elephants". It arose in the minds of two men of different temper and background but equal brilliance and arrogance: the British economist John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White of the US Treasury. At their backs, like a ghost, was the German banker who served the Nazis till he fell out with Hitler in 1938: Hjalmar Schacht.

The Victorian system for settling international transactions, known as the international gold standard, had come to grief in the Depression of the 1930s. A succession of countries, led by Britain, detached their currencies from gold rather than be forced by a fixed exchange-rate to cut demand and add further to unemployment. Britain erected a trade tariff round the British empire, known as Imperial Preference, while other countries devalued their currencies to export at any price. By the summer of 1941, when Keynes retired to his country house in Sussex to think about a successor to the international gold standard, Britain was in a desperate plight, in debt not just to the US but to the countries playing host to her armies, such as India and Egypt. Without currency controls, Britain was bankrupt.

Keynes envisaged a sort of supernational bank in which trading accounts would be settled not in gold, but in a sort of artificial or bank money that would be available to members as an overdraft facility according to their share of world trade. Behind it would stand the greatest creditor nation, the United States.

As Keynes's biographer, Professor Robert Skidelsky, writes: "Provided all countries were guaranteed sufficient quantities of reserves, it might be possible to dismantle the trade barriers which had grown up in the 1930s and during the war and restore the single world which had vanished in 1914."

In devising this plan, Keynes admitted to drawing on Schacht's ingenious use of bilateral clearing arrangements to permit the Third Reich to continue importing raw materials for its military build-up in the 1930s.

Keynes, desperate to get away and rest, took the meetings at breakneck speed. On

19 July, he collapsed on the hotel stairs

In Washington, Dexter White, director of monetary research at the US Treasury, was also thinking about "future currency arrangements" but from a different viewpoint. From President Roosevelt down, the US could not care less about preserving the British empire. The US wanted currency convertibility and open markets for its exports as soon as possible. The compromise between the Keynes and White plans, which were published in 1943, became known as the Bretton Woods System.

The process began in an atmosphere of mistrust. At his first meeting with Henry Morgenthau, the US treasury secretary, Keynes tactlessly suggested that Britain would use US military aid to build up its cash balances. Keynes and his staff objected to the number of lawyers on the US side and made snide remarks about "rabbinics", by which they meant the precision and subtlety of the Jewish officials at the Treasury such as White and Edward Bernstein.

Eventually, Keynes and White devised a system in which only the US dollar would exchange at a fixed rate into gold. The allies had to make their currencies convertible into these gold dollars within 1 per cent of a fixed rate, but could draw on short-term assistance from a stabilisation fund to which all members subscribed and the US, naturally, subscribed most. In addition to this fund, now christened the International Monetary Fund, White and his staff had devised a bank to finance the rebuilding of war-damaged economies. This International Bank for Reconstruction and Development still forms the core of what is now known as the World Bank.

Lord Keynes was by now ailing and could not bear the thought of working through the Washington summer. With great courtesy, the Americans agreed to hold the drafting meetings in Atlantic City on the New Jersey shore and the main conference in the cool of New Hampshire. Arriving with Keynes by train on 30 June, Lydia Lopokova, the Russian ballerina whom Keynes had married in 1925, found chaos: "The taps run all day, the windows do not close or open, the pipes mend and unmend and no one can get anywhere."

They were lodged in the room above Morgenthau, and for three weeks the US treasury secretary was disturbed by Lady Keynes's dancing exercises.

With much of the main work done, the conference itself consisted mostly of a British rearguard action to delay the convertibility of its debts and much detail of a mind-numbing complexity. Desperate to get away and rest, Keynes took the meetings on the bank at a breakneck pace. As Acheson reported: "Keynes . . . knows this thing inside out so that when anybody says Section 15-C he knows what that is, but before you have an opportunity to turn to Section 15-C and see what he is talking about, he says, 'I hear no objection to that', and it is passed."

On 19 July, Keynes collapsed on the hotel stairs, and word spread that he had had a heart attack. According to Skidelsky, the German newspapers ran adulatory obituaries. On 22 July, Keynes had recovered enough to propose acceptance of the conference's final act. As he left the room, many of the delegates stood and sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow". Within two years, Keynes was dead and White survived only two years longer, bedevilled in his last years by allegations of disloyalty in his dealings with the Soviet Union.

Some economists, such as Milton Friedman, have questioned whether Keynes and White were correct in their analysis and, even if they were, whether Bretton Woods was the solution. Others argue that such measures as the $3.75bn American loan to Britain in 1945, the $13bn Marshall Plan of 1948 and the 30 per cent devaluation of sterling in 1949 did more to revive Europe. The system of semi-fixed exchange rates just about survived the 1960s but the US, under pressure from financing the war in Vietnam, abandoned gold convertibility in 1971. The two Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF and the World Bank, have been criticised for imposing quasi-colonial conditions on third world borrowers. The IMF is also undercapitalised in the face of the current financial crisis.

When Gordon Brown calls for a new Bretton Woods, he is evidently not calling for a currency peg or an infrastructure bank but for a halcyon age of idealism and Anglo-American amity - above all for that ideal or hero of modern times embodied in John Maynard Keynes, the economist as saviour.

James Buchan's latest novel is "The Gate of Air", published by the MacLehose Press

Thirteen things you may not know about John Maynard Keynes

  • He was born the year Karl Marx died, 1883.
  • He was 6ft 6ins tall.
  • When he took civil service exams in 1906, his lowest scores were in economics and maths because, he used to say, he knew more than his examiners.
  • Duncan Grant, with whom Keynes had a long affair, painted him writing a letter asking the US for a loan to continue the 1914-18 war.
  • At the age of 42, he married the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova.
  • A regular investor, he lost, then recovered, a fortune in the 1929 crashing stock market.
  • A close friend of Kingsley Martin, he joined the board of the New Statesman in 1931.
  • He bred pigs at his Sussex home.
  • He amassed one of the largest private collections of 20th-century art, with works by Braque, Cezanne, Degas, Modigliani, Picasso, and Seurat.
  • A director of the British Eugenics Society, he described it in 1945 as the most important branch of sociology.
  • During the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. he suffered a heart attack and German newspapers published his obituary.
  • At the conclusion of Bretton Woods, delegates acknowledged Keynes's achievement by singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow".
  • In 1946, he suffered a second heart attack and died. It was attributed by some to the effort of securing a $3.75bn loan from the US, a negotiation that Keynes himself described as "absolute hell" .

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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