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Breaking the consensus

Even IMF researchers are calling time on free market dogma and the neoliberal orthodoxies of the past 30 years.

What has come over the International Monetary Fund? Not content with playing the good cop to Europe’s bad in the ongoing Greek crisis – in which it has been arguing for debt relief and less austerity – the fund has just published an article in its in-house magazine by three of its leading researchers entitled “Neoliberalism: Oversold?”. Their answer is “yes”.

The article takes aim at two of the most important aspects of the neoliberal economic agenda that has been so influential since the early 1980s. The first is the removal of restrictions on the movement of capital across international borders – so-called capital account liberalisation. Readers of a certain age will recall that 40 years ago there were strict limits on the amount of foreign currency one could buy before going abroad on holiday and companies had to show evidence of the need to import supplies to gain access to the foreign exchange market. Such restrictions were even harsher for international investment – making it almost impossible for institutions in one country to invest in the equity and bond markets of another.

Neoliberal theorists decried this situation as absurd. Rich countries have abundant capital, so the rate of return on it is relatively low, they argued. Poor ones are capital-scarce, so the returns on investment are high. Erecting artificial barriers preventing capital from flowing from rich countries to poor ones was therefore like stopping water from flowing downhill: an unhelpful intervention in the natural order of things, with detrimental consequences for all. During the 1980s and 1990s, international capital controls were thus dismantled worldwide – and often as a precondition for IMF assistance. The scale of private cross-border capital flows rocketed and soon eclipsed those of public-sector lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF itself. 

But while these private capital flows were large, it quickly became obvious that they could also be extremely erratic. Throughout the 1990s, a succession of big developing countries enjoyed huge inflows of money  to be used for financing government spending and infrastructure development. But in each case, the new sources of funding turned out to be fickle, as private investors proved far less tolerant of heterodox economic policy than official funders had been. The result was a succession of crises – in Mexico in 1994, in east Asia in 1997, in Russia in 1998, in Argentina in 2001 – as the newly discovered rivers of capital suddenly began flowing the other way.

The IMF became well known at the time for insisting that these occasional stunning crashes should not derail liberalisation: they were just the price of reforms not fully complete. The new IMF article, in the June edition of Finance & Development magazine, disagrees. After nearly 30 years, it argues, the growing pains have not stopped. Open capital accounts have indeed increased developing countries’ access to capital for development but, strikingly, there is little evidence that this has raised growth rates. And there is no question that it has exaggerated the boom-bust business cycle, increased inequality and raised the odds of periodic financial crises.

Couched as it is in the equivocal language of cost-benefit analysis, this change of tune might sound inconsequential. It is not. Twenty years ago, Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was branded an international pariah for reimposing capital controls to insulate his country from the east Asian financial crisis. The new IMF article concludes that such measures are “a viable, and sometimes the only, option”.

The second plank of the neoliberal agenda at which the IMF article takes aim will be even more familiar to UK readers: curbing the size of the state. In the 1980s and 1990s, the main emphasis on this front was on privatisation. As that agenda began to run its course, emphasis shifted to methods of constraining governments’ abilities to run excessive deficits of spending over revenues – and rules to avoid the accumulation of too much public debt. The Maastricht rules introduced by the eurozone countries in 1993, which mandated annual deficits of no more than 3 per cent of GDP and public debt of no more than 60 per cent, were perhaps the most prominent example.

For most of the 2000s, such self-denying ordinances seemed to be costless virtues.  Then, in 2007, the global economic crisis hit. After a brief flirtation with increased state spending when confronted with the steep recessions of 2008-09, the governments of the eurozone and the UK were converted again to the crucial importance of shrinking public debt and cutting spending. The notion that cutting spending can (or even is necessary to) boost growth – of “expansionary fiscal contraction” – came roaring back into fashion.

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The IMF broached its dissent early in the post-crisis period, with its economists expressing scepticism over the pace and timing of austerity in Europe. Christine Lagarde, the fund’s managing director, and Olivier Blanchard, its chief economist, argued for relaxing spending constraints and turning a blind eye to debt burdens until depressed economies were solidly recovering. 

Gossip-mongers at the World Economic Forum in Davos put it down to the fact that they are both French and therefore constitutional backsliders on matters of fiscal prudence; and policymakers preferred to pick up on pseudo-scientific economic sound bites such as the idea of a public debt tipping-point at 90 per cent of GDP. In reality, however, the IMF was merely stating the clear conclusions of conventional economic models – models that the vast difference since 2009 in the recovery of the US, which did not opt for austerity, and Europe, which did, appears to have proved largely correct.

The new IMF article drives home the point. The “short-run costs of lower output and welfare and higher unemployment”, it concludes, “have been underplayed, and the desirability . . . of simply living with high debt and allowing debt ratios to decline organically through growth is underappreciated”. Austerity is often self-defeating and debt limits by themselves are meaningless.

Is this two-part mea culpa on both capital flows and the size of the state a major landmark in the evolution of the IMF’s thinking – and could this be important in practice, given the intellectual heft that the Washington institutions bring to the international policy debate? It is, and it could.

Will it rehabilitate the IMF as an institution among the populations of the countries it is meant to serve? Here I am more sceptical. There is no question that there was disagreement on policy in east Asia in 1997, for example. But the real problem with the IMF’s intervention had to do not with the correctness of its prescriptions but their legitimacy. The single most enduring image of that painful period was the photo of the then managing director of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, arms folded and frowning like a schoolmaster giving detention, watching over President Suharto of Indonesia as, humiliatingly, Suharto bowed to the inevitable and signed up to the fund’s financing plan.

In many developing countries, memories of unjust colonial domination are raw and if the IMF is to help resolve the growing dissatisfaction of populations with policymaking elites, it will need to do more than just make improvements to its advice – no matter how sincere and welcome such improvements may be. The reality that, in effect, power over its assistance belongs exclusively to a handful of rich economies will have to change. Reforming its governance to give developing countries more control is the place to start.

In the UK, meanwhile, we can have no such complaints. We have no one to blame for taking neoliberalism’s crazier ideas too seriously but ourselves.

Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Vintage)

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind

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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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