Walden Bello

Inside the Deep Divide Roiling Thailand

With popular singers belting out Queen’s “We are the Champions” and John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the enormous protests taking place against Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinwatra’s government have all the cultural luster of a progressive cause. Professional and highly educated people crowd the streets, and young people shout passionately against corruption. Middle class liberals around the world easily find much they can relate to.

Keep reading... Show less

How to Break the International Deadlock on Catastrophic Climate Change

The Bangkok meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ended this week, with no progress among countries to commit to increasing the level of emission reductions for this decade. Why are the climate talks stalemated and what should be done to break the deadlock?

Keep reading... Show less

Sexual Prey in the Saudi Jungle

He was an officer in the Saudi Royal Navy assigned to the strategic Saudi base of Jubail in the Persian Gulf, and he wanted to hire a maid. She was a single mom from Mindanao in the Philippines who saw, like so many others, employment in Saudi Arabia as a route out of poverty. When he picked her up at the Dammam International Airport last June, little did she know she was entering not a brighter chapter of her life but a chamber of horrors from which she would be liberated only after six long months.

Keep reading... Show less

Is Ireland Set to Follow the Asian Tigers Over the Cliff of Globalized Capitalism?

The financial collapse of Ireland, coming as the latest in a string of disasters, hardly shocks global public opinion. For people engaged in the development debate, however, it is resonant with meaning.

Keep reading... Show less

How Hyper-Capitalism May Hobble the Copenhagen Summit

Beginning in the second week of December, representatives to the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen will wrestle with the challenge of climate change. This week, influential actors in the World Trade Organization Seventh Ministerial Conference taking place in Geneva are trying to push for a conclusion to the nine-year-old Doha Round of trade negotiations.

Keep reading... Show less

Less Consumer Spending in America Will Spark Radical Protest in Asia

As goods pile up in wharves from Bangkok to Shanghai, and workers are laid off in record numbers, people in East Asia are beginning to realize they aren't only experiencing an economic downturn but living through the end of an era.

Keep reading... Show less

Is a New Economic Consensus Emerging from the Ashes of the Old?

Not surprisingly, the swift unraveling of the global economy combined with the ascent to the U.S. presidency of an African-American liberal has left millions anticipating that the world is on the threshold of a new era. Some of President-elect Barack Obama's new appointees -- in particular ex-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to lead the National Economic Council, New York Federal Reserve Board chief Tim Geithner to head Treasury, and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk to serve as trade representative -- have certainly elicited some skepticism. But the sense that the old neoliberal formulas are thoroughly discredited have convinced many that the new Democratic leadership in the world's biggest economy will break with the market fundamentalist policies that have reigned since the early 1980s.

Keep reading... Show less

Manufacturing a Food Crisis

When tens of thousands of people staged demonstrations in Mexico last year to protest a 60 percent increase in the price of tortillas, many analysts pointed to biofuel as the culprit. Because of U.S. government subsidies, American farmers were devoting more and more acreage to corn for ethanol than for food, which sparked a steep rise in corn prices. The diversion of corn from tortillas to biofuel was certainly one cause of skyrocketing prices, though speculation on biofuel demand by transnational middlemen may have played a bigger role. However, an intriguing question escaped many observers: how on earth did Mexicans, who live in the land where corn was domesticated, become dependent on U.S. imports in the first place?

The Mexican food crisis cannot be fully understood without taking into account the fact that in the years preceding the tortilla crisis, the homeland of corn had been converted to a corn-importing economy by "free market" policies promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and Washington. The process began with the early 1980s debt crisis. One of the two largest developing-country debtors, Mexico was forced to beg for money from the Bank and IMF to service its debt to international commercial banks. The quid pro quo for a multibillion-dollar bailout was what a member of the World Bank executive board described as "unprecedented thoroughgoing interventionism" designed to eliminate high tariffs, state regulations and government support institutions, which neoliberal doctrine identified as barriers to economic efficiency.

Interest payments rose from 19 percent of total government expenditures in 1982 to 57 percent in 1988, while capital expenditures dropped from an already low 19.3 percent to 4.4 percent. The contraction of government spending translated into the dismantling of state credit, government-subsidized agricultural inputs, price supports, state marketing boards and extension services. Unilateral liberalization of agricultural trade pushed by the IMF and World Bank also contributed to the destabilization of peasant producers.

This blow to peasant agriculture was followed by an even larger one in 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Although NAFTA had a fifteen-year phaseout of tariff protection for agricultural products, including corn, highly subsidized U.S. corn quickly flooded in, reducing prices by half and plunging the corn sector into chronic crisis. Largely as a result of this agreement, Mexico's status as a net food importer has now been firmly established.

With the shutting down of the state marketing agency for corn, distribution of U.S. corn imports and Mexican grain has come to be monopolized by a few transnational traders, like U.S.-owned Cargill and partly U.S.-owned Maseca, operating on both sides of the border. This has given them tremendous power to speculate on trade trends, so that movements in biofuel demand can be manipulated and magnified many times over. At the same time, monopoly control of domestic trade has ensured that a rise in international corn prices does not translate into significantly higher prices paid to small producers.

It has become increasingly difficult for Mexican corn farmers to avoid the fate of many of their fellow corn cultivators and other smallholders in sectors such as rice, beef, poultry and pork, who have gone under because of the advantages conferred by NAFTA on subsidized U.S. producers. According to a 2003 Carnegie Endowment report, imports of U.S. agricultural products threw at least 1.3 million farmers out of work -- many of whom have since found their way to the United States.

Prospects are not good, since the Mexican government continues to be controlled by neoliberals who are systematically dismantling the peasant support system, a key legacy of the Mexican Revolution. As Food First executive director Eric Holt-Giménez sees it, "It will take time and effort to recover smallholder capacity, and there does not appear to be any political will for this -- to say nothing of the fact that NAFTA would have to be renegotiated."

Creating a Rice Crisis in the Philippines

That the global food crisis stems mainly from free-market restructuring of agriculture is clearer in the case of rice. Unlike corn, less than 10 percent of world rice production is traded. Moreover, there has been no diversion of rice from food consumption to biofuels. Yet this year alone, prices nearly tripled, from $380 a ton in January to more than $1,000 in April. Undoubtedly the inflation stems partly from speculation by wholesaler cartels at a time of tightening supplies. However, as with Mexico and corn, the big puzzle is why a number of formerly self-sufficient rice-consuming countries have become severely dependent on imports.

The Philippines provides a grim example of how neoliberal economic restructuring transforms a country from a net food exporter to a net food importer. The Philippines is the world's largest importer of rice. Manila's desperate effort to secure supplies at any price has become front-page news, and pictures of soldiers providing security for rice distribution in poor communities have become emblematic of the global crisis.

The broad contours of the Philippines story are similar to those of Mexico. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos was guilty of many crimes and misdeeds, including failure to follow through on land reform, but one thing he cannot be accused of is starving the agricultural sector. To head off peasant discontent, the regime provided farmers with subsidized fertilizer and seeds, launched credit plans and built rural infrastructure. When Marcos fled the country in 1986, there were 900,000 metric tons of rice in government warehouses.

Paradoxically, the next few years under the new democratic dispensation saw the gutting of government investment capacity. As in Mexico the World Bank and IMF, working on behalf of international creditors, pressured the Corazon Aquino administration to make repayment of the $26 billion foreign debt a priority. Aquino acquiesced, though she was warned by the country's top economists that the "search for a recovery program that is consistent with a debt repayment schedule determined by our creditors is a futile one." Between 1986 and 1993 8 percent to 10 percent of GDP left the Philippines yearly in debt-service payments -- roughly the same proportion as in Mexico. Interest payments as a percentage of expenditures rose from 7 percent in 1980 to 28 percent in 1994; capital expenditures plunged from 26 percent to 16 percent. In short, debt servicing became the national budgetary priority.

Spending on agriculture fell by more than half. The World Bank and its local acolytes were not worried, however, since one purpose of the belt-tightening was to get the private sector to energize the countryside. But agricultural capacity quickly eroded. Irrigation stagnated, and by the end of the 1990s only 17 percent of the Philippines' road network was paved, compared with 82 percent in Thailand and 75 percent in Malaysia. Crop yields were generally anemic, with the average rice yield way below those in China, Vietnam and Thailand, where governments actively promoted rural production. The post-Marcos agrarian reform program shriveled, deprived of funding for support services, which had been the key to successful reforms in Taiwan and South Korea. As in Mexico Filipino peasants were confronted with full-scale retreat of the state as provider of comprehensive support -- a role they had come to depend on.

And the cutback in agricultural programs was followed by trade liberalization, with the Philippines' 1995 entry into the World Trade Organization having the same effect as Mexico's joining NAFTA. WTO membership required the Philippines to eliminate quotas on all agricultural imports except rice and allow a certain amount of each commodity to enter at low tariff rates. While the country was allowed to maintain a quota on rice imports, it nevertheless had to admit the equivalent of 1 to 4 percent of domestic consumption over the next ten years. In fact, because of gravely weakened production resulting from lack of state support, the government imported much more than that to make up for shortfalls. The massive imports depressed the price of rice, discouraging farmers and keeping growth in production at a rate far below that of the country's two top suppliers, Thailand and Vietnam.

The consequences of the Philippines' joining the WTO barreled through the rest of its agriculture like a super-typhoon. Swamped by cheap corn imports -- much of it subsidized U.S. grain -- farmers reduced land devoted to corn from 3.1 million hectares in 1993 to 2.5 million in 2000. Massive importation of chicken parts nearly killed that industry, while surges in imports destabilized the poultry, hog and vegetable industries.

During the 1994 campaign to ratify WTO membership, government economists, coached by their World Bank handlers, promised that losses in corn and other traditional crops would be more than compensated for by the new export industry of "high-value-added" crops like cut flowers, asparagus and broccoli. Little of this materialized. Nor did many of the 500,000 agricultural jobs that were supposed to be created yearly by the magic of the market; instead, agricultural employment dropped from 11.2 million in 1994 to 10.8 million in 2001.

The one-two punch of IMF-imposed adjustment and WTO-imposed trade liberalization swiftly transformed a largely self-sufficient agricultural economy into an import-dependent one as it steadily marginalized farmers. It was a wrenching process, the pain of which was captured by a Filipino government negotiator during a WTO session in Geneva. "Our small producers," he said, "are being slaughtered by the gross unfairness of the international trading environment."

The Great Transformation

The experience of Mexico and the Philippines was paralleled in one country after another subjected to the ministrations of the IMF and the WTO. A study of fourteen countries by the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization found that the levels of food imports in 1995-98 exceeded those in 1990-94. This was not surprising, since one of the main goals of the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture was to open up markets in developing countries so they could absorb surplus production in the North. As then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Block put it in 1986, "The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on U.S. agricultural products, which are available in most cases at lower cost."

What Block did not say was that the lower cost of U.S. products stemmed from subsidies, which became more massive with each passing year despite the fact that the WTO was supposed to phase them out. From $367 billion in 1995, the total amount of agricultural subsidies provided by developed-country governments rose to $388 billion in 2004. Since the late 1990s subsidies have accounted for 40 percent of the value of agricultural production in the European Union and 25 percent in the United States.

The apostles of the free market and the defenders of dumping may seem to be at different ends of the spectrum, but the policies they advocate are bringing about the same result: a globalized capitalist industrial agriculture. Developing countries are being integrated into a system where export-oriented production of meat and grain is dominated by large industrial farms like those run by the Thai multinational CP and where technology is continually upgraded by advances in genetic engineering from firms like Monsanto. And the elimination of tariff and nontariff barriers is facilitating a global agricultural supermarket of elite and middle-class consumers serviced by grain-trading corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland and transnational food retailers like the British-owned Tesco and the French-owned Carrefour.

There is little room for the hundreds of millions of rural and urban poor in this integrated global market. They are confined to giant suburban favelas, where they contend with food prices that are often much higher than the supermarket prices, or to rural reservations, where they are trapped in marginal agricultural activities and increasingly vulnerable to hunger. Indeed, within the same country, famine in the marginalized sector sometimes coexists with prosperity in the globalized sector.

This is not simply the erosion of national food self-sufficiency or food security but what Africanist Deborah Bryceson of Oxford calls "de-peasantization" -- the phasing out of a mode of production to make the countryside a more congenial site for intensive capital accumulation. This transformation is a traumatic one for hundreds of millions of people, since peasant production is not simply an economic activity. It is an ancient way of life, a culture, which is one reason displaced or marginalized peasants in India have taken to committing suicide. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, farmer suicides rose from 233 in 1998 to 2,600 in 2002; in Maharashtra, suicides more than tripled, from 1,083 in 1995 to 3,926 in 2005. One estimate is that some 150,000 Indian farmers have taken their lives. Collapse of prices from trade liberalization and loss of control over seeds to biotech firms is part of a comprehensive problem, says global justice activist Vandana Shiva: "Under globalization, the farmer is losing her/his social, cultural, economic identity as a producer. A farmer is now a 'consumer' of costly seeds and costly chemicals sold by powerful global corporations through powerful landlords and money lenders locally."

African Agriculture: From Compliance to Defiance

De-peasantization is at an advanced state in Latin America and Asia. And if the World Bank has its way, Africa will travel in the same direction. As Bryceson and her colleagues correctly point out in a recent article, the World Development Report for 2008, which touches extensively on agriculture in Africa, is practically a blueprint for the transformation of the continent's peasant-based agriculture into large-scale commercial farming. However, as in many other places today, the Bank's wards are moving from sullen resentment to outright defiance.

At the time of decolonization, in the 1960s, Africa was actually a net food exporter. Today the continent imports 25 percent of its food; almost every country is a net importer. Hunger and famine have become recurrent phenomena, with the past three years alone seeing food emergencies break out in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and Southern and Central Africa.

Agriculture in Africa is in deep crisis, and the causes range from wars to bad governance, lack of agricultural technology and the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, as in Mexico and the Philippines, an important part of the explanation is the phasing out of government controls and support mechanisms under the IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs imposed as the price for assistance in servicing external debt.

Structural adjustment brought about declining investment, increased unemployment, reduced social spending, reduced consumption and low output. Lifting price controls on fertilizers while simultaneously cutting back on agricultural credit systems simply led to reduced fertilizer use, lower yields and lower investment. Moreover, reality refused to conform to the doctrinal expectation that withdrawal of the state would pave the way for the market to dynamize agriculture. Instead, the private sector, which correctly saw reduced state expenditures as creating more risk, failed to step into the breach. In country after country, the departure of the state "crowded out" rather than "crowded in" private investment. Where private traders did replace the state, noted an Oxfam report, "they have sometimes done so on highly unfavorable terms for poor farmers," leaving "farmers more food insecure, and governments reliant on unpredictable international aid flows." The usually pro-private sector Economist agreed, admitting that "many of the private firms brought in to replace state researchers turned out to be rent-seeking monopolists."

The support that African governments were allowed to muster was channeled by the World Bank toward export agriculture to generate foreign exchange, which states needed to service debt. But, as in Ethiopia during the 1980s famine, this led to the dedication of good land to export crops, with food crops forced into less suitable soil, thus exacerbating food insecurity. Moreover, the World Bank's encouragement of several economies to focus on the same export crops often led to overproduction, triggering price collapses in international markets. For instance, the very success of Ghana's expansion of cocoa production triggered a 48 percent drop in the international price between 1986 and 1989. In 2002-03 a collapse in coffee prices contributed to another food emergency in Ethiopia.

As in Mexico and the Philippines, structural adjustment in Africa was not simply about underinvestment but state divestment. But there was one major difference. In Africa the World Bank and IMF micromanaged, making decisions on how fast subsidies should be phased out, how many civil servants had to be fired and even, as in the case of Malawi, how much of the country's grain reserve should be sold and to whom.

Compounding the negative impact of adjustment were unfair EU and U.S. trade practices. Liberalization allowed subsidized EU beef to drive many West African and South African cattle raisers to ruin. With their subsidies legitimized by the WTO, U.S. growers offloaded cotton on world markets at 20 percent to 55 percent of production cost, thereby bankrupting West and Central African farmers.

According to Oxfam, the number of sub-Saharan Africans living on less than a dollar a day almost doubled, to 313 million, between 1981 and 2001 -- 46 percent of the whole continent. The role of structural adjustment in creating poverty was hard to deny. As the World Bank's chief economist for Africa admitted, "We did not think that the human costs of these programs could be so great, and the economic gains would be so slow in coming."

In 1999 the government of Malawi initiated a program to give each smallholder family a starter pack of free fertilizers and seeds. The result was a national surplus of corn. What came after is a story that should be enshrined as a classic case study of one of the greatest blunders of neoliberal economics. The World Bank and other aid donors forced the scaling down and eventual scrapping of the program, arguing that the subsidy distorted trade. Without the free packs, output plummeted. In the meantime, the IMF insisted that the government sell off a large portion of its grain reserves to enable the food reserve agency to settle its commercial debts. The government complied. When the food crisis turned into a famine in 2001-02, there were hardly any reserves left. About 1,500 people perished. The IMF was unrepentant; in fact, it suspended its disbursements on an adjustment program on the grounds that "the parastatal sector will continue to pose risks to the successful implementation of the 2002/03 budget. Government interventions in the food and other agricultural markets ... [are] crowding out more productive spending."

By the time an even worse food crisis developed in 2005, the government had had enough of World Bank/IMF stupidity. A new president reintroduced the fertilizer subsidy, enabling 2 million households to buy it at a third of the retail price and seeds at a discount. The result: bumper harvests for two years, a million-ton maize surplus and the country transformed into a supplier of corn to Southern Africa.

Malawi's defiance of the World Bank would probably have been an act of heroic but futile resistance a decade ago. The environment is different today, since structural adjustment has been discredited throughout Africa. Even some donor governments and NGOs that used to subscribe to it have distanced themselves from the Bank. Perhaps the motivation is to prevent their influence in the continent from being further eroded by association with a failed approach and unpopular institutions when Chinese aid is emerging as an alternative to World Bank, IMF and Western government aid programs.

Food Sovereignty: An Alternative Paradigm?

It is not only defiance from governments like Malawi and dissent from their erstwhile allies that are undermining the IMF and the World Bank. Peasant organizations around the world have become increasingly militant in their resistance to the globalization of industrial agriculture. Indeed, it is because of pressure from farmers' groups that the governments of the South have refused to grant wider access to their agricultural markets and demanded a massive slashing of U.S. and EU agricultural subsidies, which brought the WTO's Doha Round of negotiations to a standstill.

Farmers' groups have networked internationally; one of the most dynamic to emerge is Via Campesina (Peasant's Path). Via not only seeks to get "WTO out of agriculture" and opposes the paradigm of a globalized capitalist industrial agriculture; it also proposes an alternative -- food sovereignty. Food sovereignty means, first of all, the right of a country to determine its production and consumption of food and the exemption of agriculture from global trade regimes like that of the WTO. It also means consolidation of a smallholder-centered agriculture via protection of the domestic market from low-priced imports; remunerative prices for farmers and fisherfolk; abolition of all direct and indirect export subsidies; and the phasing out of domestic subsidies that promote unsustainable agriculture. Via's platform also calls for an end to the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights regime, or TRIPs, which allows corporations to patent plant seeds; opposes agro-technology based on genetic engineering; and demands land reform. In contrast to an integrated global monoculture, Via offers the vision of an international agricultural economy composed of diverse national agricultural economies trading with one another but focused primarily on domestic production.

Once regarded as relics of the pre-industrial era, peasants are now leading the opposition to a capitalist industrial agriculture that would consign them to the dustbin of history. They have become what Karl Marx described as a politically conscious "class for itself," contradicting his predictions about their demise. With the global food crisis, they are moving to center stage -- and they have allies and supporters. For as peasants refuse to go gently into that good night and fight de-peasantization, developments in the twenty-first century are revealing the panacea of globalized capitalist industrial agriculture to be a nightmare. With environmental crises multiplying, the social dysfunctions of urban-industrial life piling up and industrialized agriculture creating greater food insecurity, the farmers' movement increasingly has relevance not only to peasants but to everyone threatened by the catastrophic consequences of global capital's vision for organizing production, community and life itself.

Capitalism in an Apocalyptic Mood

Skyrocketing oil prices, a falling dollar, and collapsing financial markets are the key ingredients in an economic brew that could end up in more than just an ordinary recession. The falling dollar and rising oil prices have been rattling the global economy for sometime. But it is the dramatic implosion of financial markets that is driving the financial elite to panic.

And panic there is. Even as it characterized Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke's deep cuts amounting to a 1.25 points off the prime rate in late January as a sign of panic, the Economist admitted that "there is no doubt that this is a frightening moment." The losses stemming from bad securities tied up with defaulted mortgage loans by "subprime" borrowers are now estimated to be in the range of about $400 billion. But as the Financial Times warned, "the big question is what else is out there" at a time that the global financial system "is wide open to a catastrophic failure." In the last few weeks, for instance, several Swiss, Japanese, and Korean banks have owned up to billions of dollars in subprime-related losses. The globalization of finance was, from the beginning, the cutting edge of the globalization process, and it was always an illusion to think that the subprime crisis could be confined to U.S. financial institutions, as some analysts had thought.

Some key movers and shakers sounded less panicky than resigned to some sort of apocalypse. At the global elite's annual week-long party at Davos in late January, George Soros sounded positively necrological, declaring to one and all that the world was witnessing "the end of an era." World Economic Forum host Klaus Schwab spoke of capitalism getting its just desserts, saying, "We have to pay for the sins of the past." He told the press, "It's not that the pendulum is now swinging back to Marxist socialism, but people are asking themselves, 'What are the boundaries of the capitalist system?' They think the market may not always be the best mechanism for providing solutions."

Ruined Reputations and Policy Failures

While some appear to have lost their nerve, others have seen the financial collapse diminish their stature.

As chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers in 2005, Ben Bernanke attributed the rise in U.S. housing prices to "strong economic fundamentals" instead of speculative activity. So is it any wonder why, as Federal Reserve chairman, he failed to anticipate the housing market's collapse stemming from the subprime mortgage crisis? His predecessor, Alan Greenspan, however, has suffered a bigger hit, moving from iconic status to villain in the eyes of some. They blame the bubble on his aggressively cutting the prime rate to get the United States out of recession in 2003 and restraining it at low levels for over a year. Others say he ignored warnings about aggressive and unscrupulous mortgage originators enticing "subprime" borrowers with mortgage deals they could never afford.

The scrutiny of Greenspan's record and the failure of Bernanke's rate cuts so far to reignite bank lending has raised serious doubts about the effectiveness of monetary policy in warding off a recession that is now seen as all but inevitable. Nor will fiscal policy or putting money into the hands of consumers do the trick, according to some weighty voices. The $156 billion stimulus package recently approved by the White House and Congress consists largely of tax rebates, and most of these, according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, will go to those who don't really need them. The tendency will thus be to save rather than spend the rebates in a period of uncertainty, defeating their purpose of stimulating the economy. The specter that now haunts the U.S. economy is Japan's experience of virtually zero annual growth and deflation despite a succession of stimulus packages after Tokyo's great housing bubble deflated in the late 1980s.

The Inevitable Bubble

Even with the finger-pointing in progress, many analysts remind us that if anything, the housing crisis should have been expected all along. The only question was when it would break. As progressive economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research noted in an analysis several years ago, "Like the stock bubble, the housing bubble will burst. Eventually, it must. When it does, the economy will be thrown into a severe recession, and tens of millions of homeowners, who never imagined that house prices could fall, likely will face serious hardship."

The subprime mortgage crisis was not a case of supply outrunning real demand. The "demand" was largely fabricated by speculative mania on the part of developers and financiers that wanted to make great profits from their access to foreign money that flooded the United States in the last decade. Big ticket mortgages were aggressively sold to millions who could not normally afford them by offering low "teaser" interest rates that would later be readjusted to jack up payments from the new homeowners. These assets were then "securitized" with other assets into complex derivative products called "collateralized debt obligations" (CDOs) by the mortgage originators working with different layers of middlemen who understated risk so as to offload them as quickly as possible to other banks and institutional investors. The shooting up of interest rates triggered a wave of defaults, and many of the big name banks and investors -- including Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo -- found themselves with billions of dollars worth of bad assets that had been given the green light by their risk assessment systems.

The Failure of Self-Regulation

The housing bubble is only the latest of some 100 financial crises that have swiftly followed one another ever since the lifting of Depression-era capital controls at the onset of the neoliberal era in the early 1980s. The calls now coming from some quarters for curbs on speculative capital have an air of deja vu. After the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, in particular, there was a strong clamor for capital controls, for a "new global financial architecture." The more radical of these called for currency transactions taxes such as the famed Tobin Tax, which would have slowed down capital movements, or for the creation of some kind of global financial authority that would, among other things, regulate relations between northern creditors and indebted developing countries.

Global finance capital, however, resisted any return to state regulation. Nothing came of the proposals for Tobin taxes. The banks killed even a relatively weak "sovereign debt restructuring mechanism" akin to the U.S. Chapter Eleven to provide some maneuvering room to developing countries undergoing debt repayment problems, even though the proposal came from Ann Krueger, the conservative American deputy managing director of the IMF. Instead, finance capital promoted what came to be known as the Basel II process, described by political economist Robert Wade as steps toward global economic standardization that "maximize [global financial firms'] freedom of geographical and sectoral maneuver while setting collective constraints on their competitive strategies." The emphasis was on private sector self-surveillance and self-policing aimed at greater transparency of financial operations and new standards for capital. Despite the fact that it was finance capital from the industrialized countries that triggered the Asian crisis, the Basel process focused on making developing country financial institutions and processes transparent and standardized along the lines of what Wade calls the "Anglo-American" financial model.

Calls to regulate the proliferation of these new, sophisticated financial instruments, such as derivatives placed on the market by developed country financial institutions, went nowhere. Assessment and regulation of derivatives were left to market players who had access to sophisticated quantitative "risk assessment" models.

Focused on disciplining developing countries, the Basel II process accomplished so little in the way of self-regulation of global financial from the North that even Wall Street banker Robert Rubin, former secretary of treasury under President Clinton, warned in 2003 that "future financial crises are almost surely inevitable and could be even more severe."

As for risk assessment of derivatives such as the "collaterized debt obligations" (CDOs) and "structured investment vehicles" (SIVs) -- the cutting edge of what the Financial Times has described as "the vastly increased complexity of hyperfinance" -- the process collapsed almost completely. The most sophisticated quantitative risk models were left in the dust. The sellers of securities priced risk by one rule only: underestimate the real risk and pass it on to the suckers down the line. In the end, it was difficult to distinguish what was fraudulent, what was poor judgment, what was plain foolish, and what was out of anybody's control. "The U.S. subprime mortgage market was marked by poor underwriting standards and 'some fraudulent practices,'" as one report on the conclusions of a recent meeting of the Group of Seven's Financial Stability Forum put it. "Investors didn't carry out sufficient due diligence when they bought mortgage-backed securities. Banks and other firms managed their financial risks poorly and failed to disclose to the public the dangers on and off their balance sheets. Credit-rating companies did an inadequate job of evaluating the risk of complex securities. And the financial institutions compensated their employees in ways that encouraged excessive risk-taking and insufficient regard to long-term risks."

The Specter of Overproduction

It is not surprising that the G-7 report sounded very much like the post-mortems of the Asian financial crisis and the dot.com bubble. One financial corporation chief writing in the Financial Times captured the basic problem running through these speculative manias, perhaps unwittingly, when he claimed that "there has been an increasing disconnection between the real and financial economies in the past few years. The real economy has grown ... but nothing like that of the financial economy, which grew even more rapidly -- until it imploded." What his statement does not tell us is that the disconnect between the real and the financial is not accidental, that the financial economy expanded precisely to make up for the stagnation of the real economy.

The stagnation of the real economy stems is related to the condition of overproduction or over-accumulation that has plagued the international economy since the mid-1970s. Stemming from global productive capacity outstripping global demand as a result of deep inequalities, this condition has eroded profitability in the industrial sector. One escape route from this crisis has been "financialization," or the channeling of investment toward financial speculation, where greater profits could be had. This was, however, illusory in the long run since, unlike industry, speculative finance boiled down to an effort to squeeze out more "value" from already created value instead of creating new value.

The disconnect between the real economy and the virtual economy of finance was evident in the dot.com bubble of the 1990s. With profits in the real economy stagnating, the smart money flocked to the financial sector. The workings of this virtual economy were exemplified by the rapid rise in the stock values of Internet firms that, like Amazon.com, had yet to turn a profit. The dot.com phenomenon probably extended the boom of the 1990s by about two years. "Never before in U.S. history," Robert Brenner wrote, "had the stock market played such a direct, and decisive, role in financing non-financial corporations, thereby powering the growth of capital expenditures and in this way the real economy. Never before had a US economic expansion become so dependent upon the stock market's ascent." But the divergence between momentary financial indicators like stock prices and real values could only proceed to a point before reality bit back and enforced a "correction." And the correction came savagely in the dot.com collapse of 2002, which wiped out $7 trillion in investor wealth.

A long recession was avoided, but only because another bubble, the housing bubble, took the place of the dot.com bubble. Here, Greenspan played a key role by cutting the prime rate to a 45-year low of one percent in June 2003, holding it there for a year, then raising it only gradually, in quarter-percentage-increments. As Dean Baker put it, "an unprecedented run-up in the stock market propelled the U.S. economy in the late nineties and now an unprecedented run-up in house prices is propelling the current recovery."

The result was that real estate prices rose by 50 percent in real terms, with the run-ups, according to Baker, being close to 80 percent in the key bubble areas of the West Coast, the East Coast north of Washington, DC, and Florida. Baker estimates that the run-up in house prices "created more than $5 trillion in real estate wealth compared to a scenario where prices follow their normal trend growth path. The wealth effect from house prices is conventionally estimated at five cents to the dollar, which means that annual consumption is approximately $250 billion (2 percent of gross domestic product [GDP]) higher than it would be in the absence of the housing bubble."

The China Factor

The housing bubble fueled U.S. growth, which was exceptional given the stagnation that has gripped most of the global economy in the last few years. During this period, the global economy has been marked by underinvestment and persistent tendencies toward stagnation in most key economic regions apart from the United States, China, India, and a few other places. Weak growth has marked most other regions, notably Japan, which was locked until very recently into a one percent GDP growth rate, and Europe, which grew annually by 1.45 percent in the last few years.

With stagnation in most other areas, the United States has pulled in some 70 percent of all global capital flows. A great deal of this has come from China. Indeed, what marks this current bubble period is the role of China as a source not only of goods for the U.S. market but also capital for speculation. The relationship between the United States and Chinese economies is what I have characterized elsewhere as chain-gang economics. On the one hand, China's economic growth has increasingly depended on the ability of American consumers to continue their debt-financed spending spree to absorb much of the output of China's production. On the other hand, this relationship depends on a massive financial reality: the dependence of U.S. consumption on China's lending the U.S. Treasury and private sector dollars from the reserves it accumulated from its yawning trade surplus with the United States: one trillion dollars so far, according to some estimates. Indeed, a great deal of the tremendous sums China -- and other Asian countries -- lent to American institutions went to finance middle-class spending on housing and other goods and services, prolonging the fragile U.S. economic growth but only by raising consumer indebtedness to dangerous, record heights.

The China-U.S. coupling has had major consequences for the global economy. The massive new productive capacity by American and other foreign investors moving to China has aggravated the persistent problem of overcapacity and overproduction. One indicator of persistent stagnation in the real economy is the aggregate annual global growth rate, which averaged 1.4 percent in the 1980s and 1.1 percent in the 1990s, compared to 3.5 percent in the 1960s and 2.4 percent in the 1970s. Moving to China to take advantage of low wages may shore up profit rates in the short term. But as it adds to overcapacity in a world where a rise in global purchasing power is constrained by growing inequalities, such capital flight erodes profits in the long term. And indeed, the profit rate of the largest 500 U.S. transnational corporations fell drastically from 4.9 percent from 1954-59, to 2.04 percent from 1960-69, to -5.30 percent from 1989-89, to -2.64 percent from 1990-92, and to -1.92 percent from 2000-2002. Behind these figures, notes Philip O'Hara, was the specter of overproduction: "Oversupply of commodities and inadequate demand are the principal corporate anomalies inhibiting performance in the global economy."

The succession of speculative manias in the United States has had the function of absorbing investment that did not find profitable returns in the real economy and thus not only artificially propping up the U.S. economy but also "holding up the world economy," as one IMF document put it. Thus, with the bursting of the housing bubble and the seizing up of credit in almost the whole financial sector, the threat of a global downturn is very real.

Decoupling Chain-Gang Economics?

In this regard, talk about a process of "decoupling" regional economies, especially the Asian economic region, from the United States has been without substance. True, most of the other economies in East and Southeast Asia have been pulled along by the Chinese locomotive. In the case of Japan, for instance, a decade-long stagnation was broken in 2003 by the country's first sustained recovery, fueled by exports to slake China's thirst for capital and technology-intensive goods. Exports shot up by a record 44 percent, or $60 billion. Indeed, China became the main destination for Asia's exports, accounting for 31 percent while Japan's share dropped from 20 to 10 percent. As one account in the Strait Times in 2004 pointed out, "In country-by-country profiles, China is now the overwhelming driver of export growth in Taiwan and the Philippines, and the majority buyer of products from Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Australia."

However, as research by C.P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh and has underlined, China is indeed importing intermediate goods and parts from these countries but only to put them together mainly for export as finished goods to the United States and Europe, not for its domestic market. Thus, "if demand for Chinese exports from the United States and the EU slow down, as will be likely with a U.S. recession, this will not only affect Chinese manufacturing production, but also Chinese demand for imports from these Asian developing countries." Perhaps the more accurate image is that of a chain gang linking not only China and the United States but a host of other satellite economies whose fates are all tied up with the now-deflating balloon of debt-financed middle-class spending in the United States.

New Bubbles to the Rescue?

Do not overestimate the resiliency of capitalism. After the collapse of the dot.com boom and the housing boom, a third line of defense against stagnation owing to overcapacity may yet emerge. For instance, the U.S. government might pull the economy out of the jaws of recession through military spending. And, indeed, the military economy did play a role in bringing the United States out of the 2002 recession, with defense spending in 2003 accounting for 14 percent of GDP growth while representing only 4 percent of the overall U.S. GDP. According to estimates cited by Chalmers Johnson, defense-related expenditures will exceed $1 trillion for the first time in history in 2008.

Stimulus could also come from the related "disaster capitalism complex" so well studied by Naomi Klein: the "full fledged new economy in home land security, privatized war and disaster reconstruction tasked with nothing less than building and running a privatized security state both at home and abroad." Klein says that, in fact, "the economic stimulus of this sweeping initiative proved enough to pick up the slack where globalization and the dot.com booms had left off. Just as the Internet had launched the dot.-com bubble, 9/11 launched the disaster capitalism bubble." This subsidiary bubble to the real-estate bubble appears to have been relatively unharmed so far by the collapse of the latter.

It is not easy to track the sums circulating in the disaster capitalism complex. But one indication of the sums involved is that InVision, a General Electric affiliate producing high-tech bomb-detection devises used in airports and other public spaces, received an astounding $15 billion in Homeland Security contracts between 2001 and 2006.

Whether or not "military Keynesianism" and the disaster capitalism complex can in fact fill the role played by financial bubbles is open to question. To feed them, at least during the Republican administrations, has meant reducing social expenditures. A Dean Baker study cited by Johnson found that after an initial demand stimulus, by about the sixth year, the effect of increased military spending turns negative. After 10 years of increased defense spending, there would be 464,000 fewer jobs than in a scenario of lower defense spending.

A more important limit to military Keynesianism and disaster capitalism is that the military engagements to which they are bound to lead are likely to create quagmires such as Iraq and Afghanistan. And these disasters could trigger a backlash both abroad and at home. Such a backlash would eventually erode the legitimacy of these enterprises, reduce their access to tax dollars, and erode their viability as sources of economic expansion in a contracting economy.

Yes, global capitalism may be resilient. But it looks like its options are increasingly limited. The forces making for the long-term stagnation of the global capitalist economy are now too heavy to be easily shaken off by the economic equivalent of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.