Some commentators have seen the victory of Donald Trump and, prior to that, the Brexit vote as symptoms of a crisis in capitalism. Much of the campaigning in the US election, both by Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left focused on the plight of the poor. Whether the blame was put on immigration, big government, international organisations, the banks, cheap imports undercutting jobs or a lack of social protection, the message was clear: capitalism is failing to improve the lot of the majority. A small elite is getting significantly richer while the majority sees little or no gain in their living standards and a rise in uncertainty.
The articles below look at this crisis. They examine the causes, which they agree go back many years as capitalism has evolved. The financial crash of 2008 and the slow recovery since are symptomatic of the underlying changes in capitalism.
The Friedman article focuses on the slowing growth in technological advance and the problem of aging populations. What technological progress there is is not raising incomes generally, but is benefiting a few entrepreneurs and financiers. General rises in income may eventually come, but it may take decades before robotics, biotechnological advances, e-commerce and other breakthrough technologies filter through to higher incomes for everyone. In the meantime, increased competition through globalisation is depressing the incomes of the poor and economically immobile.
All the articles look at the rise of the rich. The difference with the past is that the people who are gaining the most are not doing so from production but from financial dealing or rental income; they have gained while the real economy has stagnated.
The gains to the rich have come from the rise in the value of assets, such as equities (shares) and property, and from the growth in rental incomes. Only a small fraction of finance is used to fund business investment; the majority is used for lending against existing assets, which then inflates their prices and makes their owners richer. In other words, the capitalist system is moving from driving growth in production to driving the inflation of asset prices and rental incomes.
The process whereby financial markets grow and in turn drive up asset prices is known as ‘financialisation’. Not only is the process moving away from funding productive investment and towards speculative activity, it is leading to a growth in ‘short-termism’. The rewards of senior managers often depend on the price of their companies’ shares. This leads to a focus on short-term profit and a neglect of long-term growth and profitability – to a neglect of investment in R&D and physical capital.
The process of financialisation has been driven by deregulation, financial innovation, the growth in international financial flows and, more recently, by quantitative easing and low interest rates. It has led to a growth in private debt which, in turn, creates more financial instability. The finance industry has become so profitable that even manufacturing companies are moving into the business of finance themselves – often finding it more profitable than their core business. As the Foroohar article states, “the biggest unexplored reason for long-term slower growth is that the financial system has stopped serving the real economy and now serves mainly itself.”
So will the election of Donald Trump, and pressure from populism in other countries too, mean that governments will focus more on production, job creation and poverty reduction? Will there be a movement towards fiscal policy to drive infrastructure spending? Will there be a reining in of loose monetary policy and easy credit?
Or will addressing the problem of financialisation and the crisis of capitalism result in the rich continuing to get richer at the expense of the poor, but this time through more conventional channels, such as increased production and monopoly profits and tax cuts for the rich? Trump supporters from among the poor hope the answer is no. Those who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries think the answer will be yes and that the solution to over financialisation requires more, not less, regulation, a rise in minimum wages and fiscal policies aimed specifically at the poor.
Can Global Capitalism Be Saved? Project Syndicate, Alexander Friedman (11/11/16)
American Capitalism’s Great Crisis Time, Rana Foroohar (12/5/16)
The Corruption of Capitalism by Guy Standing review – work matters less than what you own The Guardian, Katrina Forrester (26/10/16)
- Do you agree that capitalism is in crisis? Explain.
- What is meant by financialisation? Why has it grown?
- Will the policies espoused by Donald Trump help to address the problems caused by financialisation?
- What alternative policies are there to those of Trump for addressing the crisis of capitalism?
- Explain Schumpeter’s analysis of creative destruction.
- What technological innovations that are currently taking place could eventually benefit the poor as well as the rich?
- What disincentives are there for companies investing in R&D and new equipment?
- What are the arguments for and against a substantial rise in the minimum wage?
With the fall of communism in eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, many hailed this as the victory of capitalism.
Even China, which is still governed by the Chinese Communist Party, has embraced the market and accepted growing levels of private ownership of capital. It is only one or two countries, such as North Korea and Cuba, that could be described as communist in the way the term was used to describe the centrally planned economies of eastern Europe before 1990.
But whilst market capitalism seemed to have emerged as the superior system in the 1990s, may are now questioning whether the market capitalism we have today is fit for the 21st century. Today much of the world’s capital in the hands of big business, with financial institutions holding a large proportion of shares in such companies. And the gap between rich and poor is ever widening
The market system of today, is very different from that of 100 years ago. In fact, as John Kay agues in his article “Let’s talk about the market economy” below, it would be wrong to describe it as ‘capitalism’ in the sense the term was used in the debates of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nonetheless, the term is still used and generally refers to the market system we now have. And it is a market system that many see as failing and unfit for purpose. It is a system that coincided with the bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s, the credit crunch of 2007–9 and the recession of 2008/9, now seeming to return as a double-dip recession
With the political and business leaders of the world meeting at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland on 25–29 January 2012, a central theme of the forum has been the future of capitalism and whether it’s fit for the 21st century.
Is there a fairer and more compassionate capitalism that can be fostered? This has been a stated objective of all three political parties in the UK recently. Can we avoid another crisis of capitalism as seen in the late 2000s and which still continues today? What is the role of government in regulating the market system? Does the whole capitalist system need restructuring?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to talk about capitalism. The following webcasts and articles do just that.
Webcasts and podcasts
Davos 2012 – TIME Davos Debate on Capitalism< World Economic Forum (25/01/12)
Can capitalism be ‘responsible’? BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (19/01/12)
Capitalism ‘nothing to do with responsibility’ BBC Newsnight, Eric Hobsbawm (19/01/12)
Are there alternatives to capitalism? BBC Newsnight, Danny Finkelstein, Tristram Hunt and Julie Meyer (19/01/12)
America Beyond Capitalism The Real News on YouTube, Gar Alperovitz (27/12/11)
The future of capitalism CNBC, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (12/11/09)
Capitalism Hits the Fan (excerpt) YouTube, Richard Wolff (2/1/12)
Panel Discussion “20 years after – Future of capitalism in CEE” Erste Group on YouTube, Andreas Treichl, Janusz Kulik, Jacques Chauvet, and media Adrian Sarbu (24/2/11)
The Future of Capitalism: Constructive Competition or Chaos? YouTube, Nathan Goetting, Tony Nelson, Craig Meurlin and Judd Bruce Bettinghaus (24/1/11)
Capitalism in Crisis Financial Times, Various videos (24/1/11)
Bill Gates: Capitalism a ‘phenomenal system’ BBC Today Programme, Bill Gates talks to Evan Davis (25/1/12)
Capitalism (See also) BBC The Bottom Line, Evan Davis and guests (28/1/12)
Meddle with the market at your peril Financial Times, Alan Greenspan (25/1/12)
The world’s hunger for public goods Financial Times, Martin Wolf (24/1/12)
When capitalism and corporate self-interest collide JohnKay.com, John Kay (25/1/12)
Let’s talk about the market economy JohnKay.com, John Kay (11/1/12)
A real market economy ensures that greed is good JohnKay.com, John Kay (18/1/12)
Seven ways to fix the system’s flaws Financial Times, Martin Wolf (22/1/12)
To the barricades, British defenders of open markets! The Economist, Bagehot’s Notebook (26/1/12)
Community reaction to doubts about capitalism in Davos CBC News (26/1/12)
Capitalism saw off USSR, now it needs to change or die The National (UAE), Frank Kane (26/1/12)
Words won’t change capitalism. So be daring and do something Observer, Will Hutton (22/1/12)
A political economy fit for purpose: what the UK could learn from Germany Our Kingdom, Alex Keynes (20/1/12)
Debate on State Capitalism The Economist (24/1/12)
- How has the nature of capitalism changed over recent decades?
- Can capitalism be made more ‘caring’ and, if so, how?
- What do you understand by the term a ‘fair allocation of resources’? Is capitalism fair? Can it be made fairer and, if so, what are the costs of making it so?
- Can greed ever be good?
- How does the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of capitalism differ from the European model?
- What do you understand by the term ‘crony capitalism’? Is crony capitalism on the increase?
- John Kay states that “Modern titans derive their authority and influence from their position in a hierarchy, not their ownership of capital.” Explain what this means and what its implications are for making capitalism meet social goals.
- In what ways can governments control markets? Have these instruments and their effectiveness changed in effectiveness over time?
- What are the costs and benefits to society of the increasing globalisation of capital?
- To what extent was the financial crisis and credit crunch the result of a flawed capitalist system and to what extent was it a failure of government intervention?
- Why is it important for the success of capitalism that companies should be allowed to fail? Consider whether this should also apply to banks. How is the concept of moral hazard relevant to your answer?