Easy Money: The Reserve Bank of Australia and the tremors in capital accumulation

NAA- A12111, 1:1967:16:89
NAA: A12111, 1/1967/16/89

On the 2nd of August the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) reduced the cash rate to the historic low of 1.5%. The actions of the central bank often seem either arcane or uninteresting to the vast majority of us – except perhaps for those playing the markets and various gold-bugs, currency cranks and other tin-foil hat aficionados. However we should pay attention to the RBA. The RBA’s action was an attempt to intervene on the level of money in a way to forestall a further decline in the prospects for the capitalist mode of production in Australia and thus dampen any intensification in social conflict or malfunctioning such a decline might contribute to. Therefore it also tells us much about the health of capitalism in Australia on a whole and gives us an insight into the terrain on which our efforts for emancipation play out.

 

It is important to place an understanding of money right in the centre of radical critiques of capitalist society. Money is a coagulant that holds together so much of capitalist society as well as the form in which capital finds its clearest expression. Money dominates our lives. ‘The individual carries his social power, as well as his bonds with society, in his pocket’ (Marx 1993, 157). In our world money is incredibly heavy: ‘the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”…’ and it is our access to money which allows us to access this wealth which is the collective product of our vast creative capacities and their metabolism with the world (Marx 1990, 127). There are very few moments of the day when the amount of money in my pocket, in my bank account and the level of debt on my credit card isn’t on my mind. Yet on the other hand money is now incredibly insubstantial: since the end of the direct linkage of the US dollar to gold and all other currencies to the US dollar money no longer has any other references than itself. This has facilitated a vast and dizzying explosion of liquidity. This contradiction was seen so starkly in the response to the crisis when vast sums of money were either willed into existence by states or appeared as state debts as the financial system was bailed out whilst money for many people evaporated and plunged them into poverty.

 

Anti-capitalists in Australia have not been very good at making sense of money and finance nor popularising this critique. We rely too much on very general arguments about the madness of markets or robotic interpretations of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. We haven’t been very good at explaining the specifics of this crisis or why crises and malfunctions that appear on the level of money are actually products and expressions of much deeper systemic dynamics. This space has been filled by less savoury types: currency cranks, Larouchites, anti-Semites and other species of reactionaries. Part of our collective self-emancipation is demystifying the operations of capital on all levels.

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On Budget Eve: Deflation & The Limits to Privatised Keynesianism

 

NAA- M3130, 81
NAA- M3130, 81

Tuesday 3rd May will see the first budget of the Turnbull-Morrison Coalition government. It is also the date of the Reserve Bank’s next monetary policy decision. So it is an important day for fiscal and monetary policy. Like most people (including the well paid opinion-makers of the commentariat) I have no idea what the budget will contain. It is unlikely that the government will be able to break the impasse facing the state: a general tendency of slowing growth , rising state debt and a pool of sullen and largely inchoate opposition amongst the population to various attempts by the state to address both. The picture is complex. On this blog I have written a lot about ‘Capital’s Plan A’– the stimulation of the economy via infrastructure spending to be financed in part by cuts to social reproduction and through the ‘recycling’ (read privatisation or leasing) of state owned assets. This plan, at a Federal level is stalled, due in part to the 2015 defeat of the Qld LNP government on the question of leasing power assets. However the recent Victorian state budget is built around increased infrastructure spending financed by the leasing of a port and a higher level of debt[i]. Preceding the Federal budget there has been a warning from JPMorgan and from Moody’s about the potential for Australia to lose its AAA rating, projections from Deloitte about the size of the increase in both debt and deficit and,what surprised everyone, the release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of the latest CPI figures showing .2% deflation in the last quarter (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016d, Greber 2016, Janda 2016, Martin 2016). It is this last point I want to look at. What does this latest news tell us about the both the direction of capital accumulation and the tensions and fault-lines of antagonism that constitute capitalist society in Australia?

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Another Day in The Sun: The National Accounts, Growth and Malfunction

australia____land_of_tomorrow_poster
NAA: A434, 1949/3/21685

 

 

The work of the critique of political economy is a thankless task: especially when reality comes and fucks up your theorising. Over the last year on this blog I have been trying to address a number of interrelated phenomena: the end of the mining boom as a symptom of the global recession, rising state debt and the difficulties this presents to facilitating social reproduction and the failure of the Government to implement ‘Plan A’ – the stimulation of the economy via infrastructure spending financed by asset sales and cuts to services. Then the Australian Bureau of Statistics comes along and publishes the National Accounts which detail higher than predicted growth rates for the last quarter: 0.7% trend and 0.6% seasonally adjusted. Calendar year growth is then up to 3.0% rather than the forecasted 2.5% (Scutt 2016).

This would indicated healthy growth rather than malfunctioning – and this is despite the continual end of the mining boom which was the engine that drove capital accumulation in Australia for the last two decades. And GDP growth is, I would attest, a mystified indicator of profitability. If the economy is growing it is because firms are investing; and they are investing because of a sufficient level of profit today and expectations of them tomorrow. So much for declining profitability then, so much for over-accumulation too, so much for looming crisis…

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Australia you’re standing in it part 2: Debt & Social Reproduction

mq1

In part two of Australia You’re Standing In It I’m going to attempt analyse the relationships between state debt and social reproduction. In particular I want to argue that rising debts and continuing deficits provide a challenge to how social reproduction is carried out by the state. This directly flows on from the previous chapter as the core of my argument is that the rising debt and deficit of the Australian state are at least in part a product of the global stagnation of capital accumulation. This manifests in the drop in revenue caused by the winding down of the mining boom.

 

I want to emphasise the stakes of my argument. In mainstream debates in Australia debt is most often framed in one of the following two ways. For the Right debt is a cause, if not the cause, of economic stagnation and crisis. For the Left Australia’s debt levels are unproblematic and the panic over debt is a production of the fetid imagination of the neoliberals and/or a cynical manoeuvre to justify the sort of policies the Right always carry in their back pockets. Here I wish to reject both these arguments. Debt is not the cause of crisis but a particular manifestation or expression of it; but it is a manifestation that has its own contradictions. And debt levels whilst overblown by the Right do present a serious challenge to the state’s abilities to finance and carry out social reproduction. Also a new revelation for me, one often ignored in the debates about debt, but one that is obvious when you think about it, is the role that sovereign debt in the form of state bonds plays in the financial markets. The debate over state debt is also always a debate about securing the value and the profits generated by financial assets.

 

A limitation of my investigation so far is that since my methodology looks at the movements of capital from ‘above’ there is the risk that I can slip into a form of presentation that ignores the class struggle that goes on ‘below’ and throughout capitalism. There is a danger, from Marx on, that our analysis can be too ‘objective’ and not grasp the subjective role struggle plays in the corresponding unfolding of the dynamics of capitalism(Shortall 1994). (Perhaps it is possible to see class struggle as the struggle of humanity against its entrapment in the objective categories of capitalism). My challenge is to express how the ways the state funds social reproduction and the shapes social reproduction take are products and sites of class struggle. Spiralling state debt is an expression of our power – even if it is latent. We need to enlarge our understanding of class struggle beyond a model that sees it primarily happening within the confrontation between labour and capital in the work-place proper, that is move beyond a ‘factory-office-farm’ model (Caffentzis 2013, 242). We need to understand the complex and multifaceted struggles that happen across all of society.

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Short notes on the failures of Capital’s Plan A

Far from being the essence of socialism, planning is a typical feature of capital as it reaches hegemonic maturity (Negri 2014, 295).

Last year I argued here on this blog that capital in Australia had a ‘Plan A’ to deal with the end of the mining boom: a vast wave of investment in infrastructure.[i] My core argument was that this plan would see the rise of an ‘Infrastructure State’ (in the tradition of Negri’s (2005) ‘Planner’ and ‘Crisis’ states) that would enable and often fund or help finance infrastructure spending, shift some of the costs of social reproduction off its books and onto the wage and into the home, and work to dissolve points of opposition. There is a clear alignment between organisations such as the Business Council of Australia and Federal and state governments. Indeed since writing the original piece the volume of arguments for just such a plan have increased. As the government argued in the Mid-Year Economic and Financial Outlook:

 A key component of this Strategy is the continued roll out of over $50 billion of infrastructure investment. These investments have already begun and include major

projects across the nation that will reduce congestion, improve productivity and create jobs. The Government’s investment in infrastructure also includes incentives of

$5 billion through the Asset Recycling Initiative, which will catalyse over $38 billion in new infrastructure. In total, the Infrastructure Growth Package will lead to over $125 billion of new productive infrastructure over the next decade.

(Commonwealth of Australia 2014b, 11)

On a global level both the G20 and the IMF are looking to infrastructure as the solution to flagging demand (International Monetary Fund 2014 , G20 2013). The secretary of the Treasury summarised the logic for infrastructure spending committed to at the Brisbane G20 Leaders Meeting as follows:

G20 members focussed on supporting investment in infrastructure as a means of managing  the short and longer-term challenges of promoting growth while undertaking fiscal  repair. In this regard, they noted the benefits of investing in expenditure are threefold:

  • it supports aggregate demand during construction;

  • if done well, it augments the economy’s supply capacity and boosts                         productivity for the long term; and

  • if priced appropriately, it may even help the fiscal position in the     medium term (Martin Parkinson 2014, 7)

However it now seems that governments on both Federal and state levels has significantly failed to implement this plan – despite the above claims in the MYEFO.[ii] In August it was reported that none of the major planned infrastructure projects which were meant have been started within one year of the Coalition’s election were ‘shovel ready’(Duyn 2014).

How much is this due to the crisis of political authority due to the antipolitical condition of the present (to draw on the work of Left Flank)? How much is this due to the struggle of the class – even if this takes most often sullen and silent forms (to draw on the theoretical legacy of operaismo)?

 

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Roads to Nowhere – Capital’s Plan A

Australia will be quite different in a few years’ time…
-Tony Abbott(2013)

The tendency is a general schema that takes as its starting point an analysis of the elements that make up a given historical situations. On the basis of that analysis, it defines a method, an orientation, a direction for mass political action (Negri, 2005, p. 27)

What does it mean to think in the conjuncture?(Althusser, 2000, p. 18)

(I have been working on this post for many months now. It has been slow going as I have only been able to commit small amounts of time to research and writing as some pretty major – and excellent – developments in my life have distracted me from my computer: namely the birth of my son who is without a doubt the major focus of my time and energy. I have been eking this piece out in half-an-hour lunch breaks at work and this I think has added to its troubled narrative. Also since becoming a father my ability to successfully construct long sentences has diminished. Perhaps this change will be seen as ‘punchy’ rather than moronic…. I also think since so much of the research of this piece has involved stepping on the terrain of dominant mainstream thought and summarising it that some of the radical elements of the critique of political economy have become muted.
Readers will probably find this piece fairly dry, structurally incoherent, and laborious but I hope useful and I intend to use it as background for more work here and political interventions published at The Word From Struggle Street.
As usual there remain far too many typos for me to be happy about but I wish to get this out in a timely matter.)

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Contradictions of Accumulation in Australia

Edited 25/2/14
In December 2013 I received criticism via twitter from ‪@redlizthompson‬‬ and ‪@Mitropoulos_A‬‬ for my participation in Historical Materialism Australasia 2013. Readers should obviously read this criticism directly if interested but to summarize it runs as follows: since I participated in the conference which was subject to a withdrawal due to the presence of speakers from Solidarity an organization whose National Committee had recently released an internal statement supporting the Socialist Workers Party UK’s cover-up of rape and sexualized violence then I either directly supported the behavior of the SWP/Solidarity or at least my public quietism on the question meant that in practice I supported it whatever my actual thoughts. The absence of a public statement critiquing the SWP/Solidarity effectively meant public support.

Also I was criticized for having friendships and political collaborations with then current members of Solidarity.

I am in two minds about this assertion about the necessity for a public statement. On one hand I find it odd. The vast majority of my political thoughts and opinions are developed with and shared within a very small network of close comrades and friends. The idea of making some general statement to some kind of public seems weird at best. My written work that does exist on the internet is most often an attempt to follow a very specific project or intervene in specific debates largely focused on Qld. In the past I certainly commented on everything and anything but I have tried to reign in this practice as I slowly realized I was often commenting on things I knew little about.

However supporters of the call to withdraw from HM have pointed out that public silence on questions of sexualized violence reproduces the split between public and private that is so bound up as part of the gender relations of the society we live in. That’s a hard point to argue against and I can’t.

Also when I posted the original post bellow I referenced the HM debated but made no statement of my thoughts. This I think was a mistake as the post itself is a public artifact and I should have taken the time to clarify my position on the issues. I don’t believe however that such a need to address the public applies to other HM participants on a whole.
So my thoughts:

• The behavior of the SWP was appalling. It is more evidence for that decades old feminist argument that Left organizations not only continue the patterns of violence and inequality around gender which is part of broader society but organizational cultures often entrench power-relations that facilitate abuse. The following ‘crisis’ is more evidence of the need for feminism to be an integral part of any revolutionary project.
• The statement of Solidarity was horrible and shows how loyalty to a political brand can be so destructive and pathetic
• I don’t and didn’t agree with the withdrawal– It seemed off-target. If the problem was Solidarity why not call for a boycott of working with them in all forums until certain criteria were met? Why call for a boycott of conference in which they were participants but no other spaces they work in? On the basis of these objections I didn’t participate in the boycott.
• Finally I expressed my critique of Solidarity’s statement to my friends and comrades that were at the time members. I didn’t make my friendship with them conditional on them doing anything about what I said. Nor should I have.

Below is the (edited) text of the paper I presented at Historical Materialism Australasia. This year’s conference happened in the context of a serious disagreement around sexual violence prompted in part by the SWP crisis. You can find some material on this here and here.
The below paper is fairly limited and suffers from conceptual and structural problems. However in the spirit of With Sober Senses I am happy to make it available as it functions both as a marker of the progress of my research and also as a fairly functional summary of my work so far.
In the discussion three major issues came out for me, and I thank those who contributed.
1. So far I still conceive of the public service/ state provision of reproduction as being too separate from capital accumulation proper. They are deeply and complexly intermeshed on the molecular and molar level.
2. More work is needed to further investigated how capital ‘thinks’ on the level of society
3. This kind of research needs to be careful that it doesn’t collapse into being a Marxian plan for a better capitalism – there is a tendency to do just that.

For capital there is no problem: restructuring of the system is the condition for the stabilization of the regime, and vice-versa…The interests of the proletariat, are quite the opposite. The proletariat aims at a critical seizure of the nexus between stabilization and restructuring, in order then to attack it.(Negri, 2005, p. 232)

So what I want to do here is fairly simple: I want to trace out what I think are some of the major barriers of capital accumulation in Australia in our present conjuncture and I will do so with a pretty broad brush – apologies to the details and the devils they may contain. I do so because I think these barriers are some of the deep fault-lines of class antagonism in Australia. This will be a summary of the research I have been doing over the first half of this year for the blog With Sober Senses.

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