Show Hide image

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

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain