Tag Archives: Capitalism

The Myth of Micro Finance

Nirmalya Biswas, writing in Mainstream, explains the ‘micro finance’ model has been touted in recent years as a means of poverty ‘alleviation’ is in fact another means to exploit the poor. Neo- liberalism, the contemporary face of capitalism, tries to solve the problems it creates by the same factors that cause its crisis. On the one hand, there is a surplus of capital, on the other hand there is a surplus of the poor. Micro financing apparently tries to solve the problems of the poor but in reality is just another means of multiplying the return on capital.

Similar too is the recent interest expressed by the Tatas and others to create housing for the poor in Mumbai.

Micro Credit appears to be pro-poor in form but in content it is actually anti-poor to the core. The adverse clauses of the loan agreement are carefully kept hidden in a ‘sugar-coated’ loan package. The ‘ever-trusted’ media censors certain pertinent information in fear of full disclosure of the evils of Micro Credit. The penniless poor listens to no reason but gracefully accepts the loan offer to avail the ‘cash inflow’ and solve the present crisis temporarily. The taste of its bitterness becomes palpable only when the installments fall due.
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What is the People’s History of the World?

British writer Chris Harman, author of A People’s History of the World (2008) explains in an interview about why he wrote the book at the blog Grits & Roses

I wrote the book out of frustration at the fact that although there were many radical accounts of particular episodes and phases in history, mainly influenced by the insights of Marx and Engels, there was not over-reaching account. In the earlier part of the book the major influence was the Australian archaeologists of the first half of the 20th Century, Gordon Childe. But his account had to be updated to take into account new research by archaeologists and radical anthropologists like Richard Lee and Eleanor Leacock since his death in 1957. For the Roman period there was the writing of St Croix, for India the work of D D Kosambi, Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar, for the rise of slavery, Eric Williams and CLR James, for Britain that of Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson, for the French revolution Albert Soboul and Andre Guerin,…and so on.
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“I have found a flaw in free markets”. Wow

It is almost like live blogging as history is being made right in front of our eyes- today we have Allen Greenspan admitting that that he has finally found a flaw in the free- market system that he has believed to be working exceptionally well for the last 40 years.

It is one thing when the heathen criticize the neo- liberal assault, another when the gods themselves begin to doubt the divine.

Allen Greenspan: “I have found a flaw

“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” Mr. Greenspan said.

Referring to his free-market ideology, Mr. Greenspan added: “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.”
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Capitalism: A system built to fail

Professor, Richard Wolff of the University of Massachusetts explains in this superb lecture, why the financial crisis is the biggest crisis of capitalism in his, and our, lifetime. Listen till the end, because that is where the symphony’s crescendo is.

Click here to watch the video (38mins). Link via Lenin’s Tomb

[and WordPress- I hate you, for once, because I can't embed a google video in the post].

Read also Prof Wolff’s recent articles in MR.

Capitalism happens.  When and where it does, capitalism casts its own special shadow: a self-critique of capitalism’s basic flaws that says modern society can do better by establishing very different, post-capitalist economic systems.  This critical shadow rises up to terrify capitalism when — in crisis periods such as now — capitalism hits the fan.  Karl Marx poetically called that shadow the specter that haunts capitalism.

This one is on the so- called distinction between the main street and wall Street, or regulated and un- regulated capitalism. Capitalism is capitalism, in whatever form in comes. The main street leads to the Wall Street.

Capitalism has everywhere oscillated between private and public phases.  Private capitalism minimized government interventions and mostly kept state officials off boards of directors.  In capitalism’s public phases, governments intervened and sometimes replaced private with public members of boards of directors.  Crises of one phase often provoked transition to the other.

‘Bailouts': Socialism (and Capitalism) on its head

John Lanchester, writing in the LRB has one of the finest writings from the left on the financial crisis (no, unlike the fall of ‘socialism’, it is a mere crisis, not the ‘End of History’!). Lanchester also ends with the general pessimism on the left regarding the lack of a left alternative despite the optimism generated by the vindication of its theoretical criticism of capitalism in general and the neo- liberal led globalization in particular.

Perhaps, Francis Fukuyama was right and it indeed is the end of history.

The invention which made it possible for the lending to become so reckless was securitisation: the process by which loans were added together and sold on to other institutions as packages of debt. This had the effect of making the initial lender indifferent to whether or not the loan could be repaid – he’d already sold the debt to someone else, so he didn’t need to care. These packages of debt were then sold on and resold in the form of horrendously complex and sophisticated financial instruments, and it is these which are the basis of the global jamming-up of capital markets.

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Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation and the Wall Street Crisis

Dr Girish Mishra has a very informative piece on Karl Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation (1944). Polanyi’s name has figured in a quite a few places of late in light (or the shadow!) of the Wall Street financial crisis. As neo- liberalism recedes- its most articulate proponents now reduced to a tiny die- hard group of ostriches, it is pertinent to speculate on how things will shape now. Lessons from history may not provide recipes, but help in providing a perspective. The concluding words from the article indicate a much desired possibility, at least on the medium to long term.

A few excerpts:

The mission to create a totally self-regulating market economy is predicated on the assumption that both the human beings and natural environment are turned into pure commodities, that is, they are freely bought and sold.

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Wall Street Crisis and Das Capitalism

One week of the collapse of the New York investment banking network, and its ‘rescue’ by the US federal government speaks louder than any arguments against the “free market”. The stock market, considered the ideal mechanism in identifying winners and losers and thereby contribute to an efficient system in contrast to ostensibly inefficiently run government enterprises, has spoken loudly and clearly. An unbridled, or insufficiently bridled, system where companies run by teams of specialists and accountable to no none but a small base of investors has run amok with the bad bad governments bailing out investment banks in the heart of what Maxim Gorky once called The City of Yellow Devil. The devil has certainly reared its bloody head all over Wall Street last few days with a vengeance.

The $700 billion bailout by the US federal reserves is nearly twice the GDP of the apparently roaring economy of India! While investment banks are in the business of making money out of nowhere, these do have an impact on the real economy since industries depend on investments by what is ultimately speculative finance capital for sustenance and growth. The whole web of finance transactions is said to be so complicated that the bankers themselves have lost track of the sources and direction of transactions.
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Reading Capital with David Harvey

Listening to David Harvey’s lectures on Capital Vol 1 not only gave me a feeling that I was re- reading Capital but also provided a refreshing enthusiasm that I had experienced when first reading the tome. Though the first three chapters are considered to be somewhat intimidating, these three chapters are also the most interesting ones. As Harvery points out, Marx follows different literary techniques in different parts of the book, and the first three are marked not only by philosophical flamboyance but also literary flourishes with copious references to Shakespeare , Schiller and Balzac (the latter, like Harvey, I read much after reading Capital).

If someone were to read Capital, I would now, with the benefit of hindsight recommend that one read it along with Shakespeare, Balzac and Hegel- not necessarily in that order. Again, as Harvery points out, it might be a better idea if one reads some works by Hegel before getting on to Capital- if only because it makes reading Marx much simpler. Similarly, for anyone reading the Communist Manifesto, I’d recommend reading it along with Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education and maybe even Lajos Zilahy’s Hungarian novel set in a similar period- A Century in Scarlet.
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Food in the Time of Crisis

What we are witnessing today is not so much a food crisis, but the question of food in a time of crisis.

Senior Indian ministers have mistakenly attributed the current rise in food prices to the poor consuming more because ‘the economy is growing’.

This fallacy arises when one is blind to both history and the present.

A few days after agriculture minister Sharad Pawar blamed the South Indians for eating more chapatis causing wheat shortage, commerce minister Kamal Nath on Friday said increased food consumption by poor people is a challenge before the government. “We have great supply-side challenges in India at the moment with 15 million people moving from having one meal a day to two meals a day,” Nath said on the the sidelines of a conference in Singapore. (source, via anindianmuslim)

[To be fair, Sharad Pawar has had an afterthought, though he still does not hit the bull's eye:
Pawar said that agriculture was globally faced with serious challenges from factors like climate change, natural calamities and crop failure, diversion of agriculture land for bio fuels and increasing prices of food grain. (source)]

The production this year is estimated to about 227m tons, which is little less than the the current consumption.

It is certainly not a supply side problem, contrary to the minister’s assertions.

Since the food riots of the 1970s, the country, especially its middle classes, have not witnessed a large scale famine or a crisis. However, historically, some of the biggest famines were caused during an earlier phase of globalization- it was then more bluntly called colonization.

In neither case the reason was the insufficiency of food grains. On the contrary, both then as now, the reasons were linked to the vagaries of the world market, ‘free market’ only in name and controlled by financial interests in reality. During the 18th and 19th centuries, for example:

One third of the population of the then province of Bengal, which includes today’s Bangladesh, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and South Assam, were wiped out in the famine of 1770, immediately after Bengal was occupied by the British East India Company, due to their inhuman tax system. According to author Mike Davis, during the famine of 1876, “the newly constructed railroads, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought stricken districts to central depots for hoarding…In Madras city, overwhelmed by 100,000 drought refugees, famished peasants dropped dead in front of the troops guarding pyramids of imported rice.”

Interestingly, “these famines took place at the very same time that annual grain exports from India were increasing.” (source).

Does history teach us anything? Is there anything in common with the present, almost sudden food crisis?

In the 18th and 19th centuries India suffered terribly as millions starved to death, its countless tons of grain were exported to England because the mother country could afford higher prices impoverished Indians couldn’t.

The situation is similar today though the immediate triggers are different. The 19th century crises was caused because of the de- industrialization of India, forcing a movement from the town to the countryside and increasing the pressure on land At the same time there was a dismantling of its traditional grain reserve system. Finally, the focus of crops shifted to growing “cash” crops that were exported to the global market.

There certainly is no crisis because of the production, or its possibilities, in not being able to cater to demand. It is not a question of supply versus surging demand. Certainly, demand has increased over the years- though not because, as Kamal Nath would like us to believe “because the poor are eating more”.

It is partly due to the increasing demand from the rising middle classes in Asia (FP edit), and also wastage in the developed world. The structural reforms unleashed over last two decades have led to a general agricultural crisis (impacting food grain production as well):

Between 1996 and 2001, prices of all primary products (cotton, jute, food grains and sugar) fell by 40 to 60 per cent and farmers who had contracted private debts in particular, became insolvent. The syndrome of hopelessly-indebted farmers committing suicides in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab started in 1998 and rapidly spread to other areas where cultivation of cash and export crop was predominant. The crash in pepper, coffee and tea prices came a few years later after 1998 and farmer suicides in Kerala and insolvency of tea estates in West Bengal date from around 2002.

Most recently, rising fuel costs that have shot up to $117 from $50 three years ago, have turned many in the developed world towards bio fuels, which means that instead of grains feeding human stomachs they now feed the cars and vehicles in the rich world.

More immediate is the role of finance speculation in futures trading (which means that future products are purchased in advance), because finance capital has to invest where the returns are the highest and in light of the fuel crises means that bio fuels are promising speculations.

Commodity speculation spread long ago from standard products like oil and gold to anything edible and available for trade on the Chicago Futures Exchange. These days there are futures contracts for everything from wheat to oranges to pork bellies. The futures market is a traditional tool for farmers to sell their harvests ahead of time. In a futures contract, quantities, prices and delivery dates are fixed, sometimes even before crops have been planted. Futures contracts allow farmers and grain wholesalers a measure of protection against adverse weather conditions and excessive price fluctuations. They can also help a farmer plan how much to plant for a given year.

But now speculators are taking advantage of this mechanism. They can buy futures contracts for wheat, for example, at a low price, betting that the price will go up. If the price of the grain rises by the agreed delivery date, they profit.

Some experts now believe these investors have taken over the market, buying futures at unprecedented levels and driving up short-term prices. Since last August, this mechanism has led to a doubling in the price of rice — including the 500,000 tons that the Philippine government plans to buy in early May to address its own shortage. (source)

If railroads were responsible for moving foodgrains from areas of surplus to be sent to the ports for shipping to England instead of to areas of famine, computer networks today provide a lightening speed strike for finance capital to move funds from one sector to another, one country to another, creating sudden imbalances. The rich can afford to pay more for food and so that is where the the direction of flow is.

As Woody Allen commented in one of his movies, “the universe is one big restaurant”, in which everything from stars to the lowly organisms in the food chain on this lonely, and at the same time boisterous planet is busy devouring each other, and are thereby linked to each other. One cannot explain the food crisis without looking at whole picture. The food crisis is linked to the fuel crisis which is linked to the war in Iraq. It is also linked to the sub- prime crisis in the United States and the need for finance to grow and bring increased returns to its investors, which at best constitute not more than 15% of the population in any country, whether in the developed world or the so called ‘emerging world’ or the ‘developing’ world (no one seems to use the phrase ‘under- developed’ nowadays, though- even Haiti is referred to as a developing country).

To cut a long story short, it is not the increased food consumption of the poor, but the cycle of production and the fleeting moods of finance capital and the production and exchange cycle that it increasingly determines and that now flows faster than the sun traverses the world each day, that lies behind the crisis.

In the current context of food availability, one of the more fundamental contradictions of capitalism is coming to the fore- when it starts consuming its own potential consumers, when it is not able to sustain their bare minimum existence.

Much of the media, especially television, focuses on single issue of the day, one day it is Tibet, another Iraq, another day it is rising fuel costs and yet another it is food riots now in Haiti and then in another place. Those like the Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad too err when they stretch the identity issue too far and start looking at globalization and even the British rule as beneficial for Dalits, most of whom are at the receiving end of globalization, whether during the British mis- rule or the contemporary wave of globalization.

A Neo Liberalism Primer

David Harvey, the social theorist known for his work in diverse areas, published his book A Brief History of Neo- Liberalism couple of years back. The book is really short and succinct- I happen to be reading it right now, and hopefully, more will follow on the subject. Meanwhile, here he covers the same issues in an interview.
But here’s the interesting thing: it’s unreasonable to think that actually the US imposed neoliberalization on Mexico. What happened was that the US was putting noeliberalizing pressures on Mexico and an elite inside of Mexico seized the opportunity to say: yes, that’s what we want. So it was a coalition between the elite in Mexico and the US Treasury/IMF that put together the kind of neoliberalization package that came to Mexico in the late 1980s. And actually if you look at the pattern, it’s very rare for there to be a straight imposition of neoliberalizing policies through the IMF or the US. It’s nearly always an alliance between an internal elite, as it had been in Chile, and US forces that put this thing together. And it’s the internal elite who are as much to blame for neoliberalization as the international institutions.