Posts Tagged ‘crisis theory’

Three Books on Marxist Political Economy (Pt 8)

July 16, 2017

Engels wrote in “Socialism Utopian and Scientific”: “We have seen that the ever-increasing perfectibility of modern machinery is, by the anarchy of social production, turned into a compulsory law that forces the individual industrial capitalist always to improve his machinery, always to increase its productive force. The bare possibility of extending the field of production is transformed for him into a similarly compulsory law. The enormous expansive force of modern industry, compared with which that of gases is mere child’s play, appears to us now as a necessity for expansion, both qualitative and quantitative, that laughs at all resistance. Such resistance is offered by consumption, by sales, by the markets for the products of modern industry. But the capacity for extension, extensive and intensive, of the markets is primarily governed by quite different laws that work much less energetically. The extension of the markets cannot keep pace with the extension of production. The collision becomes inevitable, and as this cannot produce any real solution so long as it does not break in pieces the capitalist mode of production, the collisions become periodic. Capitalist production has begotten another ‘vicious circle.’”

This famous quote was written when Marx was still alive. It passed his muster. Indeed, throughout their long partnership, the founders of scientific socialism described cyclical capitalist crises as crises of the general relative overproduction of commodities. However, most modern Marxist economists reject this idea. Among them is Anwar Shaikh.

Shaikh, in contrast to Marx and Engels, believes that the limit “modern industry” runs into is not the market but the supply of labor power. Marx and Engels believed that securing an adequate quantity of “free labor power” was crucial to the establishment of the capitalist mode of production. This was the big problem early capitalists faced, which was solved by separating the producers, often through force and violence, from their means of production. But once capitalism was firmly established, it has been the limit imposed by the limited ability of the market to grow relative to production that capitalism regularly runs up against.

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Germany and the U.S. Empire (Pt. 3)

December 6, 2015

*Special Statement*

I don’t normally comment on current events unless they are connected to economic events or theories of capitalist economic crises. However, the terrorist acts in Paris that led to the deaths of at least 130 civilians and the injuring of scores of others forces an exception.

I deplore the deaths of civilians in Paris whose only crime was enjoying a night of partying, drinking and music, a “crime” I have been guilty of myself. This follows the terrorist attack in Beirut and the apparent bombing of a Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt causing the deaths of 224 passengers. All these acts seem to be the work of supporters of the Islamic State, also called ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.

The media has shown much more concern about the mostly white Western European victims in Paris than they have for the victims on the Russian plane, not to speak of the victims of Islamic State terror attacks in the Muslim countries such as the recent attack in Beirut. But bad as the carnage caused by the terrorist acts organized or encouraged by the Islamic state have been, it pales before the much greater number of civilians that are being killed not only in Syria but in many other countries being attacked by U.S. imperialism and its satellites such has France.

Even if we count the nearly 3,000 people killed in the Twin Towers attack on September 11, 2001—also innocent bystanders whose only “crime” was showing up at work at the World Trade Center in New York that day—the total number of civilians killed by individual or small-group terrorist actions such as those carried out by the Islamic State or al-Qaeda is still dwarfed by the number of dead resulting from the terrorist war against terror waged by the U.S. government, Israel and the Empire’s imperialist satellite states against the peoples of the Muslim world and beyond. Are the lives of white Parisians more valuable than of “brown” Syrians, Iraqis or Palestinians? I say no! Black and Brown lives matter just as much!

It is also worth noting that the “war on terror” launched by George W. Bush and continued under President Obama has been joined with great enthusiasm by the French government. Paris is hoping the U.S. will allow France to once again become the colonial master in all but name of Syria.

The war on terror is itself being waged with terrorist methods. That is, the government of the U.S. and its satellites are using methods of warfare that in the past were associated with individual and small-group terrorist acts. One famous example is the assassination of Crown Prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalist terrorists in June 1914.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 5)

September 13, 2015

Rudi Dornbusch predicts unending capitalist expansion

“The U.S. economy likely will not see a recession for years to come,” economist Rudi Dornbusch (1942-2001) wrote in 1998. “We don’t want one, we don’t need one, and, as we have the tools to keep the current expansion going, we won’t have one. This expansion will run forever.”

In the late 1990s, the Internet was making rapid progress. Fueled by various technologies including the digital computer, the transistor and electronic circuit board—the “computer on a chip”—and the GNU/Linux computer operating system, world communications were, and are, being revolutionized. And this technological revolution was no illusion.

For the first time, home computer users could connect to the Internet, which now featured its own graphical user interface called the World Wide Web. No longer was the Internet confined to text but would soon include audio and video files. With such a great technological revolution under way, many capitalist economists—and this was echoed by some Marxists as well—foresaw an era of never-ending capitalist expansion. The Clinton boom of the late 1990s was to be just the beginning.

During the Clinton administration, stocks soared on Wall Street while the rise in the NASDAQ stock index—which lists “high-tech” stocks—seemed to know no limit. Goldman-Sachs economist and financial analyst Abby Joseph Cohen’s (1952- ) predictions of continuing soaring stock market prices drew skepticism from many seasoned stock market veterans, yet she continued to be proved right. Until March 2000, that is. Then things began to go horribly wrong as the NASDAQ index sagged and then crashed.

“Her reputation was further damaged when she failed to foresee the great crash of 2008,” Wikipedia writes. “In December 2007, she predicted the S&P 500 index would rally to 1,675 in 2008. The S&P 500 traded as low as 741 by November 2008, 56% below her prediction. On March 8, 2008, Goldman Sachs announced that Abby Joseph Cohen was being replaced by David Kostin as the bank’s chief forecaster for the U.S. stock market.” Although Internet technology continued to make great strides and stock markets both crashed and soared, the world capitalist economy entered into a period of slow growth—interrupted by the the turn-of-the-century recession that included the NASDAQ crash that Cohen missed and then the much deeper “Great Recession.”

Indeed, the world economy has, since Dornbusch made his prediction of unending capitalist prosperity, seen the worst growth figures since the 1930s Depression. The situation has gotten so bad that some capitalist economists have revived the term “secular stagnation,” last widely used among economists in the late 1930s. What did Cohen and Dornbusch and so many others miss?

They were right about the technological revolution. They left out only one little thing: the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on them. Though both Dornbusch and Cohen were/are highly trained economists, they didn’t learn about the contradictions of capitalism in their university studies. It wasn’t part of their course work. For that, they would have had to turn to the work of Karl Marx, and that they apparently neglected to do.

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 3)

July 19, 2015

Secular stagnation and the Greek crisis

Many on the left have expressed acute disappointment that the Syriza government has agreed to accept more “austerity” in the wake of the No! vote of the Greek people. We must remember that the Syriza government is not a revolutionary socialist government—a dictatorship of the proletariat—and a socialist revolution is not, or rather is not yet, unfolding in Greece or anywhere else in Europe at the moment. The logic of the class struggle does point in the direction of a European socialist revolution, but we are not yet there. This blog will not attempt to lay out strategy and tactics for Greek revolutionaries during the present acute crisis.

Instead, I am interested in another question: Why is the “troika” so unreasonable in its dealings with the Syriza government? The government leaders have made it clear that they are determined to remain within the European Union and the Eurozone. Their program has always been quite modest—an end to the relentless austerity that has led to a depression worse in terms of both the unemployment rate and duration than the early 1930s super-crisis was in the United States or in Germany.

The super-crisis proper of the early 1930s lasted “only” three and a half years in the U.S. and Germany. The Greek crisis has lasted six years. A brief rise in the Greek GDP late last year had already given way to renewed recession before the crisis that shut down the Greek banking system for two weeks. The agreement between Syriza and the troika for still more austerity in exchange for loans that will enable the gradual reopening of the Greek banks threatens to further prolong the Greek slump.

It has been almost 50 years since the May-June 1968 General Strike in France. The French government of the day, headed by General Charles de Gaulle, largely conceded the economic demands of the strikers in order for the ruling class to hold on to power. The French government was prepared to do this through civil war if necessary. De Gaulle’s willingness to wage civil war to uphold capitalist rule combined with a willingness to make concessions in the economic sphere prevented a prolonged social and political crisis in France in 1968 of the type that is now unfolding in Greece. Why isn’t the troika, the de Gaulle of today, following the same policy for Greece that worked so well for de Gaulle and the French capitalists in 1968?

Last week, in a special post on Greece, I explained that behind the hard-line policies pursued by the troika lies the current “tightening” phase of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board monetary policy. This tightening phase is, in turn, rooted in the extraordinary policy of “quantitative easing” that the Fed followed in response to the near collapse of the U.S. banking system in the fall of 2008. But they could not continue this policy indefinitely without incurring a fatal crisis of the dollar system sooner or later.

As the quantity of U.S, dollars has begun to grow relatively more scarce than in the years of quantitative easing, there have been a few shocks—for example, the recent Chinese stock market panic. But for now, the crisis in Greece is the most dramatic. So in order to understand the deep roots of the Greek crisis and the troika response to it, we have to understand the causes of the crisis of 2008 and the quantitative easing it led to. The “Great Recession” itself was embedded in a more chronic problem of prolonged slowing economic growth that economist Larry Summers calls “secular stagnation.”

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Capitalist Economists Debate ‘Secular Stagnation’ (Pt 2)

June 21, 2015

Recently, I have been looking at Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Piketty, a French bourgeois economist, created a sensation by pointing out that over the last 45 years a growing proportion of national income—wages plus surplus value in Marxist terms—has been going to profit at the expense of wages. Piketty is alarmed that if this trend isn’t reversed capitalism will be seriously destabilized.

The title of his book is, of course, inspired by Marx’s great work “Capital,” though it predictably rejects Marx’s anti-capitalist revolutionary conclusions. Naturally, I was interested in what Piketty had to say about Marx.

What I found striking was that Piketty did not understand Marx at all. The reason is that he views Marx through marginalist lenses. Essentially, Piketty treats Marx as a fellow marginalist. Marx’s theory of value and surplus value, so completely at odds with the marginalist theory of value and surplus value, is literally beyond Piketty’s comprehension.

In examining the current debate about “secular stagnation” among economists like Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, we must never forget how deep the gulf between their economic theories and Marxism really is. This is true even when their terminology is similar. This month, I will contrast the theories of two economists of the 20th century, Joseph Schumpeter and John Maynard Keynes, regarding capitalist growth and stagnation. Both men were marginalists, even if not the most “orthodox” ones, and therefore had much more in common with each other than with Marx.

Next month, I will begin to contrast their views with Marx and the views I have been developing in this blog. (1) But before we reach the “Marxist mountains” we will have to slog through the plains of modern bourgeois economics. Only when we begin to ascend into the Marxist mountains will we be able to explore whether any of the ideas of Schumpeter can be integrated into Marxism. I have already dealt with Keynes quite extensively in this blog. (See, for example, six-part series beginning here.)

Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) was the most famous marginalist economist to deal with the question of technological changes, or “innovation,” under capitalism. Schumpeter was an Austrian economist in the sense he came from Austria, though he spent his last years in the United States as a professor at Harvard University. He was certainly influenced by the “Austrian economists” as well as other schools of post-classical bourgeois economics current in his day. Like the Austrian economists proper, Schumpeter preferred to communicate his ideas in natural language as opposed to mathematics.

Also like the Austrians, he was a hardcore supporter of capitalism, disliked “socialism”—proposals to reform capitalism in the interest of the workers—and was an opponent of the “Keynesian revolution” in bourgeois economic theory of the 1930s. He was what would be called today a “neo-liberal.” Like the Austrian economists proper, Schumpeter took a dim view of democracy, which he was convinced would inevitably lead to socialism. Yet he was a friend of Paul Sweezy and therefore had a certain influence on the Monthly Review school.

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Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value

March 1, 2015

This March marks the 30th anniversary of the election of Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of general secretary of the then-ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At first, the election of Gorbachev seemed to involve a long overdue shift of power to a new generation of Soviet leaders. As we now know, it involved a lot more.

A process was unleashed that was soon to be called “Perestroika.” In the name of “radical economic reforms,” the Soviet planned economy was progressively dismantled. Perestroika ended not only with the restoration of capitalism but the breakup of what had been the Soviet federation.

The combined process of the restoration of capitalism and breakup of the Soviet federation was accompanied by a massive collapse of both industrial and agricultural production. The living standards and life expectancy of the working class plummeted. A generation later, the economies of not only the Russian federation but the economies of the other former republics are yet to recover.

Perestroika led to a wave of capitalist counterrevolutions that in 1989 swept through eastern Europe with the active support not only of imperialism, as would be expected, but also the Gorbachev government. As part of this process, Germany was reunited on a capitalist basis while staying in NATO. The former socialist countries that had been members of the now dissolved Warsaw Pact joined NATO as did the former Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The Georgia Republic—Stalin’s homeland—is very close to NATO and openly striving to become a formal member, while the new right-wing government in Ukraine has joined NATO in all but name.

Perestroika, therefore, resulted in a massive expansion of the U.S. world empire into the one area of the planet—the Soviet Union and its allies—that remained outside the Empire after World War II.

The destruction of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc and their planned economies would have been enough if that was all that was involved. But it was not. The capitalists and their spokespeople everywhere pointed to the Soviet collapse as final proof that “socialism had failed.” The result was a wave of demoralization that spread through a workers’ movement that was already in retreat before the neoliberal capitalist offensive symbolized by such political figures as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

National liberation movements were also pushed back, though the hopes of political figures such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush that the old-fashioned colonialism that had dominated the world in 1914 would return—with the difference that the United States and not Britain or France would be the chief colonizer—has not been so easy to achieve.

Between November 7, 1917, when the Bolshevik-led Congress of Soviets seized power, and the election of Gorbachev as general secretary of the CPSU Central Committee in March 1985, the peoples of the oppressed nations got accustomed to the idea that they should be independent and not colonial slaves of the West. Therefore, attempts by the U.S. world empire to push these nations and peoples back into something like pre-1914 colonial relationships have met, to the chagrin of the imperialists, unexpected and growing resistance.

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David Harvey, Michael Roberts, Michael Heinrich and the Crisis Theory Debate

February 1, 2015

Recently David Harvey, the well-known writer on Marxist economics, criticized Marxist economics blogger Michael Roberts’ views on crisis theory. According to Harvey, Roberts has a “monocausal” crisis theory. What Harvey objects to is Roberts’ emphasis on Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (FRP for short) as the underlying cause of capitalist crises.

Harvey goes further than simply criticizing Roberts’ FRP-centered crisis theory. He says that he is skeptical that a tendency of the rate of profit to fall even exists. He indicates that he agrees with the views of the German Marxist economist Michael Heinrich on the invalidity of Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit. Heinrich’s views are developed in “An Introduction of the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital” (Monthly Review Press, 2004). He elaborated them in this article.

In this work, Heinrich tries to demonstrate that Marx himself in the final years of his life moved away from his own theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Heinrich holds that an examination of Marx’s manuscripts that form the basis of Volume III of “Capital” show that Marx had moved toward a theory of crises centered on credit. Heinrich accuses Frederick Engels of editing the manuscripts in such a way as to hide Marx’s alleged movement away from an FRP-centered theory of crises to a credit-centered theory of crises.

In his defense of the falling rate of profit school from the criticism leveled by Harvey, Roberts makes an indirect reference to this blog: “… recently, one Marxist economist from the overproduction school called me a monomaniac in my attachment to Marx’s law of profitability as the main/underlying cause of capitalist crises (see Mike Treen, national director of the New Zealand Unite Union, at the annual conference of the socialist organization Fightback, held in Wellington, May 31-June 1, 2014, and a seminar hosted by Socialist Aotearoa in Auckland in November 10, 2014 http://links.org.au/node/4156).”

Mike Treen, a New Zealand Marxist, is indeed an organizer of the New Zealand trade union Unite (not to be confused with the U.S. trade union of a similar name, UNITE HERE, which also organizes fast food and other low-wage workers). The “overproduction school” Roberts refers to is actually the position of this blog, of which Mike is an editor.

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Russia, Oil, the ‘Strong Dollar’ and the Economic Conjuncture

January 11, 2015

A major feature of the current global economic conjuncture is the financial-economic crisis that has hit Russia.

On Dec. 16, 2014, the central bank of the Russian Federation raised its benchmark interest rate to 17 percent from 10.5 percent. This is a far cry from the zero to .25 percent the U.S. Federal Reserve System maintains for its key interest rate, the federal funds rate. During 2014, the Russian ruble fell 45 percent against the U.S. dollar, while the Russian central bank sold some $80 billion of its foreign reserves in an attempt to halt the fall.

By raising its benchmark interest rate to 17 percent, the Russian central bank hopes to stem the bleeding of its reserves while checking the ruble’s decline. The catch is that such a dramatic and sudden rise in interest rates is almost certain to plunge the Russian economy into recession in 2015, with rising unemployment. As demand contracts within the home market, Russian businesses will be forced to sell more of their national production on the world market and import less of the production of other countries, causing a decline in Russia’s standard of living. Eventually, the balance of trade will swing back in Russia’s favor but on the backs of the Russian working class and other Russian working people.

The current financial-economic crisis in Russia is made worse by the sanctions the U.S. and its West European satellites have imposed on Russia. These sanctions are in response to Russia’s defensive move in the Crimean Peninsula. Responding to widespread demands within Crimea in the wake of the seizure of power by far-right anti-Russian forces in Kiev in February 2014, Russia agreed to allow Crimea to rejoin the Russia Federation. The crisis in Ukraine, which at times reached the level of civil war during 2014, resulted from the U.S.-supported neo-liberal/fascist coup after months of right-wing demonstrations in Kiev.

The coup government has severely restricted civil liberties in Ukraine, forcing Ukrainian working-class parties underground while re-orienting the Ukrainian economy towards Western Europe. In addition, Ukraine has all but in name joined NATO, the main military wing of the U.S. imperialist world empire. Kiev hopes to make its NATO membership official at the earliest possible date.

Rising tension between the U.S. empire and Russia

The move by the U.S. empire to draw Ukraine into its military and economic domain has increased tension between Russia and the U.S. to its highest level since the restoration of capitalism in Russia a quarter of a century ago.

The imperialist media and certain people on the left have pictured present-day Russia as a virtual “second coming” of Nazi Germany. Russia, it is claimed, attacked Ukraine without provocation. As a result, a resurgent Russia is now threatening virtually all the countries of eastern and central Europe and ultimately “the West” itself. Unless something is done to check Putin’s “aggression,” it is claimed by imperialist propagandists, there is a danger of all of Europe falling under the Kremlin’s domination.

Other people on the left have drawn a quite different conclusion. They argue that far from a resurgent Russian imperialism, the U.S. and its European satellites have launched a new “cold war” against Russia.

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World War I—Its Causes and Consequences (pt 2)

August 24, 2014

Wars rarely turn out the way their initiators expect. In our own time, we can point to many examples. George W. Bush and Tony Blair, when they ordered the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, believed that the U.S.-British forces would defeat Iraq’s armed forces—weakened by years of sanctions, continued military attacks, and forced unilateral disarmament—within weeks with hardly any casualties on the side of the invaders. It would then be “mission accomplished.”

But now in August 2014—100 years to the month since the outbreak of the “Great War”—the U.S. has resumed bombing Iraq as the government it created crumbles. The reason this government is failing is that virtually no Iraqi wants to fight and die for it. Why should an Iraqi fight for a foreign-imposed government?

Nor should we forget the war against Afghanistan launched by the Washington war-makers in October 2001 against the Taliban government, which had no modern armed forces, only a militia. Within weeks, U.S. media were writing about that most unequal war in the past tense. But now, 13 years later, the U.S. is still struggling to find a way to exit that war without the return of the Taliban to power. That war didn’t turn out as the Washington war-makers expected either.

Nor has the air war fought by U.S-NATO against Libya in 2011 turned out the way the Obama administration, which launched that war, expected. And the same will probably be true of the most recent war—if it can even be called a war—launched by Israel, with at least the tacit support of the U.S., against the people of tiny Gaza, which has no army, air force or navy.

This August marks not only the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I but also the 50th anniversary of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Incident. If we were to believe the U.S. propaganda of the time, (North) Vietnam’s tiny navy attacked without any provocation the mightiest navy the world had ever seen! This “incident” occurred—or rather didn’t occur—on August 2, 1964, just two days short of the 50th anniversary of the start of the “Great War.”

The U.S. Congress used this faked incident to grant the Johnson administration cart blanche to wage war against Vietnam, which the administration took full advantage of by launching a series of bombing raids on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that August. This gave way to a steady air bombardment of (North) Vietnam—the South had been subject to steady U.S. bombardment for the preceding five years—the following year after Johnson won re-election as the “peace candidate.”

While the Washington war-makers succeeded in killing millions of Vietnamese people and doing incalculable damage to the environment with Agent Orange and other forms of environmental warfare, in the end the war against Vietnam did not turn out the way the war-makers in the White House, the Pentagon and Congress expected. For example, the renaming of Saigon Ho Chi Minh City was probably not part of Washington’s war plans.

Nor did the war against Korea, which is usually seen as beginning in June 1950 but really began when Washington occupied the southern part of Korea in 1945, turn out exactly as the Washington war-makers intended, though they succeeded in killing millions of Korean people and left no multistory building standing in the northern part of the country.

The rule that wars seldom turn out the way those who start them expect was certainly true of the general European war that began exactly a century ago. To the generation that actually fought, it was known as the “Great War” or “the World War,” ”the war to make the world safe for democracy,” or, most ironic of all, “the war to end all wars.” But as a result of unintended consequences of the war, it had to undergo a name change. It was renamed World War I, a mere prelude to the even greater bloodbath of World War II.

‘Before the leaves fall’

When the general European war commenced on August 4, 1914, each warring imperialist power was convinced that it would be a short war and that it would emerge victorious. Or as was said, the war would be over “before the leaves fall.”

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World War I—Its Causes and Consequences (pt 1)

July 27, 2014

Owing to the author’s and editors’ participation in this weekend’s Gaza protest, the following has been posted a little later on the scheduled publication day than usual.

Almost exactly 100 years ago, on June 28, 1914, shots rang out in the city of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Assassinated on that day were the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Sophie, his wife and Duchess of Hohenberg. Serbians and other “south Slav” nationalists struggling to create a federation of the small south-Slav nations—Yugoslavia, in their language—were held responsible. Within little more than a month, the entire world order as it had existed prior to June 28 completely unraveled. First Europe and eventually the world plunged into what was to become known as World War I.

Among the pillars of the world order that collapsed in 1914 was the international gold standard. Under this system, central banks issued banknotes that were actually promissory notes payable in gold coin of a definite fineness and weight to the bearer on demand. As late as mid-1914, in the imperialist countries, gold coins still circulated side by side with banknotes, which along with bank checks were used for large transactions. Everyday purchases and wages were paid in coins made out of silver or base metals.

The fact that currencies of the imperialist nations were defined as a certain weight of gold of a given fineness meant that there was, within the narrow limits of the “gold points,” fixed rates of exchange among the imperialist countries. In effect, a single currency—gold—existed among the imperialist countries, with pound-sterling, dollars, marks, francs, and rubles merely local names for the universal currency, gold.

The international gold standard encouraged a massive growth of world trade and international investment rivaling today’s “globalization.” Individual countries on the gold standard had to remain on it or their access to the London-based capital markets would be undermined.

Things had not always been this way. In the mid-19th century, currencies of most European countries—with the exception of Britain—were defined in terms of weights of silver, not gold. The Russian ruble was a paper currency and was not convertible into either gold or silver at the state bank. In contrast, the United States defined both a silver and gold dollar, along with a fixed legal rate of exchange between the two. This system was known as bimetallism.

But since the value of gold and silver—the quantity of abstract human labor needed to produce a given weight of gold and silver bullion—constantly changes, it was the “cheaper” dollar that actually circulated. Originally, this had been the silver dollar, but by the middle of the 19th century after the gold dollar was made slightly lighter—in effect devalued—the U.S. was, like Britain, for all practical purposes on the gold standard.

By mid-1914, all these currencies, including the Russian ruble, were on the gold standard. Only the currencies of semi-colonial or colonized countries such as China and Mexico were still defined in terms of weights of silver or were paper currencies. And in 1914, after years of populist resistance to central banking, the U.S. Federal Reserve System began operations establishing the centralized management that the U.S. gold standard had previously lacked.

Before 1914, the U.S. gold standard was managed by a combination of private for-profit bankers, such as J.P. Morgan, and the U.S. Treasury. The flaw in this system was that there was no mechanism to meet a sudden increased demand for currency as a means of payment such as tends to develop during crises. Under the old U.S. national banking system, when a crisis hit, panic-stricken depositors would attempt all at once to convert their deposits into cash. As a result, the crisis would rage unchecked until money capital, in the form of gold bullion eager to take advantage of the sky-high U.S. interest rates caused by the panic, arrived from overseas.

The cyclical crisis of overproduction that hit with full force in the fall of 1907, as had happened periodically during the 19th century, triggered a panicky run on U.S. commercial banks as depositors rushed to convert their deposits into cash. But the changing conditions of the early 20th century made bank runs much more dangerous than they had been earlier.

By 1907, the U.S. had emerged as the world’s leading industrial power. Far fewer of the unemployed could return to their family farms to ride out the crisis like many still could during the 19th century. But there was another factor at work. Because the U.S. had now emerged as the world’s leading industrial as well as agricultural power, a run on the U.S. commercial banking system threatened to crash the entire global capitalist economy. Therefore, a U.S. central banking system had to be created to allow a rapid expansion of the quantity of means of payment in a crisis.

The danger was that if this were not done, during a crisis so much money capital in the form of gold bullion in search of the highest rate of interest would be shipped to the U.S. from Europe and elsewhere that the European central banks would be forced off the gold standard. To protect the international gold standard, it was therefore necessary for the U.S. to create a system of central banking just as the European countries already had done that would make it easy to issue extra dollars in a crisis. The very knowledge by bank deposit owners that extra dollars could be created during a crisis would make bank runs far less likely. When the Federal Reserve System began operations at the beginning of 1914, the international gold standard was now secure. Or so it seemed.

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