The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the global economy, causing havoc and leaving many economies teetering on the brink of economic and social collapse. Moreover, the arrival of a second and now third wave of infections and a further mutation of the virus is driving the economy further into peril and uncertainty. The announcement by Cyril Ramaphosa, back in March 2019, that two of South Africa’s wealthiest families and the pinnacle of big business, the Rupert and Oppenheimer families, would be donating R1 billion each was met with admiration from all corners of the country. These commitments have since been matched by the Motsepe group of companies and Naspers, donating R1.5 billion. To date, the fund has amassed over R3.22 billion in pledges from a wide array of private, public, and political donors.
Responses of this type are understandable when combining the already bleak outlook for the South African economy with a significant and potentially catastrophic supply shock. However, a question that may be playing on many South Africans minds is: why, given the fact that South Africa’s economy has long struggled with growth and several structural issues, is this response from big business only coming now in the face of a global pandemic? An easy answer may be that there has not yet been an event of this magnitude for big business to respond. However, a counter to this argument is that businesses should continuously be re-investing their profits regardless of the economy’s health.
South Africa has a long history of the inefficient use of profits, which favours hording cash and conducting unproductive investments such as mergers and acquisitions. These uses of profits are a direct result of the skewed incentives facing the agents of many large companies. For instance, many CEOs are incentivised through sizeable bonus packages to maximise the shareholders’ value rather than focusing on the long-term health and sustainability of the business. This short-term view causes CEOs to opt to retain earnings rather than embark on risky research, development, and innovation endeavours that often fail but may result in enormous payoffs if they succeed economically and socially. Short-termism is a result of a corruption of the idea of value creation where price is associated too closely with true value, nuturing an entrenched system of extraction that contributrs to worsening economic and social conditions. This is something the professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, and director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Value, Mariana Mazzucato laments in her book The Value of Everything.
When looking at the way contemporary global value chains/global production networks (GVCs/GPNs) and the articulations of globalised capital have been studied, it is clearly visible that the hegemonic power of Multinational Corporations (MNCs) has monopolised the empirical and theoretical analysis. Indeed, their ability to maintain control over the technological, financial and commercial flows through private-led governance has impacted most of the industrial development and underdevelopment of the Global South. Such footloose private operations have often caused undesired consequences such as eroded environmental standards, low wages and scrapped social protection rights. Governments have joined in a race to the bottom on fiscal and labour deregulations in order to attract foreign direct investment in exchange for low and semi-skilled jobs, resulting in very low fiscal revenue, low productivity, balance of payment imbalances and poor social outcomes.
The underpinning theory was that countries should follow their comparative advantages and let the market determine prices of labour (costs) and goods in order to be competitive in the world market and maximise returns. Yet, such losing game has been criticised since the start by heterodox development economists who widely denounced how theories and policies of development forgot the role of the state in history and in the present. In other words, public institutions have always played a key role not only in the quantitative making of capitalist accumulation, but also in its qualitative distributional and developmental outcomes.
Building upon the heritage of such scholarship, and in view of multiple and overwhelming ‘market failures’ in the global South and beyond, a new wave of Marxist-institutionalist inter-disciplinary literature spanning from Geography to International Economics and Finance has been trying to untangle the potential synergies between the public and the private domains by connecting the GVCs/GPNs and Developmental State approach.
In this debate, it has been emphasised that the state should be seen as a facilitator (i.e. assisting firms in smoothing market transactions); a regulator (combined with distributor to mitigate inequality and negative market externalities); a buyer (i.e. public procurement); a producer (i.e. state-owned enterprises) and a financer as a result of state-capital reconfigurations through sovereign wealth funds and development banks. Therefore, such functions should be foregrounded in analyses of development, because they are key to understanding developmental sources and processes within GVCs.Read More »
The coronavirus pandemic has required states to take unprecedented steps to backstop the world capitalist economy. This has included enormous liquidity injections into financial markets, guaranteeing the wages of furloughed workers, and temporarily requisitioning and coordinating parts of the private sector. Yet last year a different threat – not epidemiological but proletarian – similarly forced states to adopt redistributive policies against their wills, albeit on a smaller scale.
From the vantage point of the current uprisings against racist police violence, the empty streets of the early 2020 lockdown appear as a brief exception to the broader trend of mass unrest. In 2019, streets, avenues, and squares in different parts of the world flooded with protestors decrying the pro-rich policies of their respective governments. The scale, endurance, and spectacular disruptiveness of these popular explosions pressed governments from Western Asia to Europe to Latin America to abandon so-called neoliberal fiscal rectitude and reluctantly embrace Keynesian stimulus policies.
In Chile, on the eve of the autumn 2019 revolt, billionaire austerian president Sebastián Piñera invoked a classic metaphor of neoliberal stoicism to explain how he would resist popular opposition to his painful reform programme: ‘Ulysses tied himself to a ship’s mast and put pieces of wax in his ears to avoid falling for the … siren calls’. Less than one month later, this modern Ulysses had broken free from his tethers, announcing increases in the minimum wage, healthcare benefits, pensions, electricity subsidies, and the reform of Chile’s very constitution. There are clear parallels with France’s Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who assumed power in 2017 on a platform of market discipline, only to buckle under the weight of the relentless Gilet Jaunes movement and announce a €17 billion package of concessions.
How are we to grasp the jarring Keynesian U-turns of such cartoonish neoliberal governments in the face of mass protest and pandemic? It is commonly assumed that the neoliberal project represented the shrinking of the state sphere and its replacement by the cold logic of the marketplace. The 2008 bank bailouts appeared to buck this trend, as states were called upon to undertake drastic interventions. But this turned out to be a hiccup in neoliberalism’s larger narrative arc, as austerity quickly took hold. Yet perhaps this latest accumulation of crises will at last force states to reclaim the territory they had ceded to the market. After its ‘strange non-death’, is neoliberalism finally dying?Read More »
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 »
When the majority of Southeast Asian countries began to enact more aggressive responses to the novel coronavirus, Indonesia turned a deaf ear to virus mitigation efforts. As it had no confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of February, Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) government instead kept pushing extensive economic reform agendas. It submitted a 1,028-page Job Creation Omnibus Bill on 12 February, calling the bill the country’s third great structural reform program after the 1998 International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Letter of Intent and the 1967 Foreign Direct Investment Law. Despite criticism from the opposition, the president insisted on this neoliberal agenda, claiming that the objective of the bill is to promote more foreign direct investment (FDI) in the manufacturing sector and thus create more jobs.
What effects do neoliberal policies have on political and economic life in Indonesia and state-capital relations in particular? This blog post follows David Harvey (2006) in taking a historical-geographical approach to investigate this question, with a focus on policies put in place in the current president Jokowi’s second term.For many observers, such a bold move to deregulate the economy signals the resurgence of state-led development in a new form. Put differently, what this article would like to argue is that deregulation, an all-encompassing hegemonic ideology rather than simply a policy, has become some sort of ‘banner to unite under’ for the ruling capitalist class in Indonesia. Read More »
How should one assess a book on economic policy that takes a dim view of the state and redistribution in a country that is home to multiple and intersecting inequalities? Economic inequality and the role of the state in tackling inequality emerged as a major talking point in the last decade and it is likely that it will continue to animate academic and policy debates in the following decade too. Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to evaluate any book on economic policy based on the seriousness with which it engages with inequality and how it imagines state intervention in the economy. This review seeks to do precisely that by unpacking the conventional wisdom about the nature and role of the state presented in the book In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah.Read More »
From Quantitative Easing to neo-mercantilist policies, the renewal of industrial policy, the multiplication of sovereign wealth funds and marketized state-owned enterprises, increased state participation in global value chains and global networks of corporate ownership, the state seems to be ‘back in business’ everywhere. This raises a series of questions:
Are we witnessing a shift to state-led development? A return of ‘state capitalism’ under a globalised and financialized form? Are these processes challenging market ascendance and/or neoliberalism as a global development regime?
Has there been a transformation of the developmental state and of the logics and instruments of ‘catch-up’ development? New tools of state intervention for industrial and innovation policy?
What are the implications of the resurgence of ‘state-capital hybrids’ (state-sponsored investment funds, state-owned enterprises, development banks, etc.) as key actors in development? Are these transforming the global development finance architecture? What is the relationship between, on the one hand, state-owned, state-controlled, and state-directed capital, and on the other hand, private capital?
What are the wider geopolitical and geo-economic shifts in which the rise of the new state capitalism is embedded? What is new about the recent ‘wave’ of state capitalism across the global economy? What are the strategic, structural/epochal, and contingent drivers of its emergence?
What is the progressive potential of these developments, both in the global South and in the global North? What are the limits to the new state capitalism, and the various forms of resistance to it?
Recent transformations in the global economy have sparked renewed interest in the role of the state in capital accumulation. Such transformations include a ‘return’ to various forms of state-led development across the global South since the early 2000s (in China, Russia, and other large emerging economies), extensive state intervention following the 2008 global financial crisis in the global North, and the multiplication of various forms of state-capital entanglements such as sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). For instance, the number of SWFs increased from 50 to 92 between 2005 and 2017, while assets under management grew to over $7.5 trillion worth of assets, which is more than hedge funds and private equity firms combined. According to a recent study, ‘SOEs generate approximately one tenth of world gross domestic product and represent approximately 20% of global equity market value’. SOEs now dwarf even the largest privately-owned transnational corporations, with PetroChina currently leading the list with a market value of more than $1 trillion. Three of the top five companies in the 2018 Fortune Global 500 are Chinese SOEs (State Grid, Sinopec Group, and China National Petroleum Corp). Significantly, these state-capital hybrids have also become increasingly integrated into transnational circuits of capital, including global networks of production, trade, finance, infrastructure and corporate ownership. Does this renewed state activism – and its remarkably outward orientation – indicate a changing role of the state in capital accumulation and the emergence of new political geographies of capital?Read More »