The return of the visible hand: How struggles for economic and political dominance turn state capitalism into authoritarian capitalism

budapest-parliament-hungarian-parliament-building-hungary-people-politicians-viktor-orban-hungarianBy Gerhard Schnyder and Dorottya Sallai

The state has made a return with a vengeance in economic matters in the past decade or so. Mainly due to the success of the Chinese model and the – less permanent – strong economic performance of countries like Brazil and Russia, the erstwhile Washington Consensus of the superiority of markets over states as mechanisms of economic coordination has been put in serious doubt.

Scholars have picked up on this trend by increasingly referring to the term (new) ‘state capitalism’. Some consider it an undesirable threat to the existing economic world order, while others show how states can effectively promote development and economic growth.

While the term state capitalism has been useful to bringing the state back in yet again into debates in political economy, the term itself is not unproblematic. Indeed, there is a risk that it perpetuates, rather than surpasses, the sterile debate about the state versus the market. Put bluntly: If there is such a thing as state capitalism, what does non-state capitalism look like?Read More »

The latest significant step in the UK’s development agenda

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By Susan Newman and Sara Stevano

Johnson’s announcement on 16 June that Department for International Development (DfID) would be merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has been met with criticism and condemnation from aid charities, NGOs and humanitarian organisations. By institutionally tying aid to UK foreign policy objectives, the merger would shift humanitarian aid away from the immediate needs for relief and longer-term development.

This latest move to merge the departments should be seen as the latest, and a very significant, step in the restructuring and redefinition of British Official Development Assistance (ODA) to serve the interests of British capital investment abroad, that has been taking place over the last decade. These developments need to be considered within a wider shift in development policy that has been shaped by the demand for new assets by investors in the global North in the context of a global savings glut that has grown out of economic slowdown.Read More »

Structural polarisation and path dependent development models in the EU

The macroeconomic consequences of the CODID-19 pandemic in the EU economy are materializing against the background of underlying structural challenges. Ensuring long-term convergence and stability between EU countries will require coordinated fiscal, wage and industrial policies. This blog post finds that EU countries are stuck on different trajectories in their economic development. Core countries, periphery countries, East European countries and financial hubs have responded differently to increasing European economic integration. This leaves Europe mired in structural polarisation, where political tension relates to diverging economic developments and increasing gaps in the evolution of technological capabilities. As a consequence, counteracting polarisation and promoting convergence requires a coordinated strategy that includes fiscal, wage and industrial policies.

Several EU countries were already on diverging macroeconomic development paths when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but the macroeconomic consequences of the crisis must be expected to further accelerate existing divergences. Even though large parts of the EU experienced an economic upswing in the years running up to the COVID-19 pandemic, this temporary upswing in the business cycle served to mask the underlying tendencies towards structural polarisation in Europe, which will become more apparent over the course of the current crisis.

In a study recently published in the Journal of Evolutionary Economics, I argue with Claudius Gräbner, Jakob Kapeller and Bernhard Schütz that essential factors for explaining the long-term polarisation between EU countries are to be found in the unequal regulatory conditions in the context of the European ‘race for the best location’ (for example, in the areas of labour market, tax and corporate law or financial market regulation), as well as in the different technological capabilities across EU countries.

We show that technological capabilities in EU countries are distributed unequally; EU countries remain structurally polarised, i.e. they are stuck on different developmental trajectories that contradict the political goal of ensuring convergence and stability in the EU. Notwithstanding short- and medium-term cyclical developments, existing differences in technological capabilities will continue to fuel a process of economic disintegration in the EU if policy-makers fail to counteract the polarisation trend by introducing a coordinated policy strategy that should include fiscal, wage and industrial policies.Read More »

Pandemics and the State of Welfare

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In the midst of what might possibly be the worst recession since 2008, and staring down the barrel of overwhelming economic, social and human disaster, there is widespread recognition that increased welfare spending is critical not just to contain the fallout from the pandemic, but also to effectively combat it. By ensuring timely delivery of essentials and basic income support, one can minimise the chances of people venturing outside, and hence contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

There are valid concerns raised as to whether these measures go far enough in helping workers or whether institutional mechanisms will be able to convert announcements into genuine progress on the ground. This blog post analyses the arguments behind the justification of introducing welfare schemes in today’s times, and the underlying economic logic behind them. 

The increase in welfare provision is sorely needed in a catastrophic situation such as the one we face. But while the readiness to deploy instruments to achieve this is unprecedented, the measures themselves are not. Much of the welfare measures rolled out by governments are standard income support and welfare packages, larger in scale but with no fundamental changes in their basic design. Much of these measures, moreover, have been advocated by many to deal with fallouts from economic crises in the past, only to be met with middling levels of success and acceptance by the powers that be. The impact of the coronavirus has shown us how quickly governments can turn over the fundamental principles of austerity if they are pushed to do so. 

This post does not simply aim to criticise government policies of the past in light of current actions, but to outline a warning for the future. The problem of economic distress will not go away once the pandemic does, because then we will be dealing with battered economies, high unemployment, and weak to non-existent growth. In such times, when the threat of the virus has ebbed, there will be calls to roll back the welfare measures of the government. These calls will have to be countered stringently, on the grounds that the need to protect welfare and ensure government assistance is not contingent simply on the existence of a virus, but on the inability of the economic machine to provide for welfare.Read More »

The Specter of State Capitalism

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By Adam Dixon and Ilias Alami

Oh, how the righteous have fallen! As the global economy succumbs to COVID-19, we are haunted by the specter of state capitalism. Last week chief economic advisor to the White House, Larry Kudlow, suggested that the US government could take equity stakes in corporations in return for aid. Housing evictions are being postponed. Payroll for employees in some parts of the private sector are to be covered. And the list continues. In the UK, plans are afoot, dare one say, to renationalize the struggling airline sector and other companies.

At the moment, critics of such statist measures are too worried about their own personal health to make a fuss. But as we flatten the curve of the infected and the wheels of the market start turning again, the righteous apostles of the free market will return with a vengeance, and the state capitalists will tumble from their temporary thrones.

As with the last crisis just a decade ago, the state capitalists provided much needed support and took a humble bow (at a profit) when their services were no longer needed. Bailing out General Motors was a good deal for the US taxpayer, as was TARP. Certainly, the same will happen this time around. Or will it?

Since the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK, the prophets of the free market have been decisively pushed out of the halls of power or forced to accept a different religion (typically that of an authoritarian and nationalist form of neoliberalism). National capital comes first!

Without a doubt, Trump and the Brexiteers did not foresee needing state ownership of industry and explicit state direction to achieve their goals. There are plenty of ways the state fosters, guides, and shapes private capital. Capitalism is never without the state, except in some libertarian utopia. State ownership just makes this relationship more explicit.

The embrace of Singapore as a post-Brexit economic model for the UK is telling in that respect. The government of Singapore continues to be a major shareholder of Singaporean industry and commerce, with no plans to change. Why should it? It owns successful and competitive companies. Indeed, state-owned enterprises the world over are demonstrating their competitive prowess. They aren’t the bureaucratic corporate sloths that we are told necessarily come with state ownership. Capital centralized in the hands of the state is resilient and growing for a reason. State-owned enterprises and state-controlled investment vehicles, such as sovereign wealth funds, are multiplying and growing the world over.

For the British elite, Brexit reflected an underlying lament of the sale of British industry (and finance) to foreign owners, even though many became rich that way. They know that restoring such past glory requires explicit action of the state, likely through more centralization of (national) capital. This is a reason behind the refusal to agree to level playing-field provisions with the EU in the future relationship negotiations. But there is more to this than returning to some past glory. Global capital accumulation is driven increasingly by capital centralized in the hands of the state.

The Trump administration’s battle with China (supported implicitly by other Western powers) is not driven by some desire to protect liberal rules-based international order. Rather, it is a battle of national capital. Afterall, China is capitalist.

China’s shift from assembling goods to also designing them, and doing so competitively, has unsettled the hierarchies of the world economy. But China is unwilling to relinquish its development model and its ownership of large swaths of Chinese industry. That is not in the DNA of the Chinese elite. Large state ownership is both necessary to secure the political dominance of the party state at home, and to expand and consolidate the integration of Chinese firms into global supply chains under favorable terms.

This is met in the US (and to a lesser extent other Western economies) by an increasingly aggressive form of techno-nationalism — a form of economic nationalism in the realms of trade, industrial, and investment policy, that aim at securing exclusive control of key scientific-technological innovations. National elites in the West more generally are realizing that they need state power to compete in the global economy. In reality, they always have. But the cloak of free-market neoliberalism energized their buccaneering self-confidence that they were above it all. That fiction is over.

The extension of state prerogatives by non-Western powers used to fuel all sorts of anxieties among state actors and observers in the West. Now, these very same modalities of state intervention are being called for, if not praised, by commentators across the political spectrum. Some even look with envy at the agility with which non-Western state capitalists are currently managing the crisis. The pace at which this ‘new normal’ is emerging is remarkable. We are all state capitalists now (or we all want to be).

COVID-19 and the generalized economic crisis it has catalyzed may hasten changes toward explicit forms of state capitalism in the West. Yet, a decloaked state at the helm does not necessarily mean a more progressive and just economic system (just like it does not mean a move toward state socialism). Who will bear the brunt of the costs of the current transformations, and who will benefit from the consolidation of the ‘new’ state capitalism, will be the outcome of a tense political process. This much we know.

Adam Dixon is Associate Professor of Globalization and Development at Maastricht University. Ilias Alami is a postdoctoral researcher at Maastricht University.

Photo by Governor Tom Wolf. Pennsylvania Commonwealth microbiologist Kerry Pollard performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus inside the extraction lab at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Friday, March 6, 2020.

 

Finance Damages Democracy – and Brexit Will Make it Worse!

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The ‘do or die’ Brexit deadline this Halloween has come and gone without bringing much certainty about the policy and political landscape going forward. UK voters who hoped for a clear-cut end of the Brexit saga were disappointed as big questions remain unanswered while new ones have been added: What will the December election bring? Will there be a second referendum? A different deal? A further extension? 

There seems, however, one definite outcome of the Brexit process: UK democratic institutions have been hollowed out permanently. Individual politicians have certainly contributed to this outcome. However, it would be too easy to blame the disintegration of democracy in rich countries entirely and exclusively on Johnson, Trump, and the like. Rather more systematic and structural trends are at play, which raise the old question of whether capitalism and democracy are compatible or rather contradictory systems. The claim that capitalism will usher in democracy, since free markets rely on an open societal order, or at least fundamentally weaken authoritarian regimes, has been proven untenable. This is particularly clear as the Chinese Communist Party tightens its grip over social media, using information technology to survey ever-growing parts of Chinese people’s lives.   

It is striking though that among rich countries the crassest examples of democratic disintegration are unravelling in the two Anglo-Saxon economies which have been hailed as economic success stories during the 1990s and early 2000s: the UK and US. Much of their growth spurts over this period was fuelled by the increasing size and influence of their finance industries and so is the current hollowing-out of their democratic institutions. In brief, we are currently experiencing the effects that financialisation has on democracy. Of course, capitalism and democracy are generally difficult to reconcile as convincingly argued by Polanyi. The fact that a democratic order calls for equality of all citizens before the law and provides all of us with the same vote, while our economic order simultaneously introduces a strict hierarchy based on ownership is possibly the clearest illustration of the conflict between democracy and economic order. But it is further stoked under financialisation. This blog post unpacks how financialization affects democracy in a variety of ways, through three examples, namely social provisioning, the Euro crisis, and the Brexit saga.Read More »

Brexit’s Keynesian Lesson: Fundamental Uncertainty Revisited

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“About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.”

An economist’s words but not meant to be a description of where things stand today in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, though they might as well be. These are Keynes’s words from a 1937 article following the publication of his magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936.Read More »

Africa: Time to Rediscover the Economics of Population Density and Development

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By Erik Reinert and Richard Itaman.

At the OECD’s origin, we find the 1947 Marshall Plan that re-industrialised a war-torn Europe. At the very core of the Marshall Plan was a profound understanding of the relationship between a nation’s economic structure and its carrying capacity in terms of population density. We argue that it is necessary to rediscover this theoretical understanding now, in the mutual interest of Africa and Europe.Read More »