Crisis as prelude to a new Golden Age

Mary Kaldor
31 October 2008

Underlying the financial crisis is a deeper structural crisis in the real economy. It has to do with the mismatch between our social and political institutions and the profound changes in society wrought by the so-called `new economy.' This is why the solution goes well beyond a bank bail-out. Sustainable economic growth and stability can only be achieved again through a `new deal' at a global level that includes addressing climate change, poverty reduction and human security. Indeed, the present crisis is one of those epochal moments in human affairs. How we act now will have implications far beyond the present turmoil. It will shape the lives of future generations.

Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance at the London School of Economics (LSE), and convenor of the human-security study group that reports to the European Union's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana

Links relating to this article and Mary Kaldor's other columns are available at diigo here.

The best book to explain all this is Carlota Perez Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: the Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages.Perez can be described as a neo-Schumpeterian (a strand of economic thought developed in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex in the 1980s and 1990s, under the inspiration of Christopher Freeman ).

Their argument is based on the idea of long waves in the history of capitalism, as a consequence of the bunching together of technological innovations, which they call a `techno-economic paradigm '. Each wave is characterised by some critical invention that leads to a new set of technologies and infrastructures that all are interlinked, and a new type of `best practice'.

Since 1771, when Arkwright's Mill was opened in Cromford, there have been five great surges of development:

  1. the industrial revolution characterised by the mechanised cotton industry, factory labour, and the spread of canals;

  2. the age of steam and railways;

  3. the age of electricity and steel;

  4. the age of the car and mass production and

  5. our own era the age of information and telecommunications technologies.

Also in openDemocracy on the global financial crisis of 2007-08:

Tony Curzon Price, "Responsible recessions" (3 April 2008)

Willem Buiter, "The end of American capitalism (as we knew it)" (17 September 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The revenge of ideas: Karl Polanyi and Susan Strange" (24 September 2008)

Godfrey Hodgson, "The week that democracy won" (29 September 2008)

Tony Curzon Price, "Unprincipled madness" (1 October 2008)

Grahame Thompson, "Deglobalising the crisis" (3 October 2008)

Will Hutton, "Wanted: a fairer capitalism" (6 October 2008)

Avinash Persaud, "Europe's financial crisis: the integration lesson" (7 October 2008)

Paul Rogers, "A world in flux: crisis to agency" (16 October 2008)

Andrew Dobson & David Hayes, "A politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism" (22 October 2008)

Paul Rogers, "A crisis-opportunity moment" (23 October 2008) Anita Sharma, "The core crisis: standing with the poor" (30 October 2008)

Each era is characterised by some defining moment like Ford's Model T first mass produced in 1908 or the discovery of the microprocessor in 1971; by its own core factor of production such as oil (the age of the automobile) or the chip (the age of information technology). The epoch is also defined by a core economy - Britain in the first three waves with the US and Germany catching up in the third wave, and the US in the two most recent waves, spreading to Europe and Asia.

Each era goes through an installation periodthat ends in a financial collapse and a deployment periodwhen all conditions are there for taking full advantage of the new technologies across the whole economy and the benefits are more evenly spread throughout society. This ends in a phase of maturity and eventually saturation when the techno-economic paradigm is diffused throughout the economy and society and when technological progress slows down, the core factor of production is no longer plentiful and when protest about established ways of doing things develops..

Perez's contribution is two fold. First she demonstrates the importance of the institutional framework. She explains crises and depressions in terms of a mismatch between social and political institutions and the techno-economic paradigm. She accounts for `golden ages' in terms of contrasting periods of harmony.

The depression of the 1930s is explained in terms of the mismatch between financial and regulatory arrangements, which were an expression of the social and political institutions, largely established by Britain in the late nineteenth century and the huge potential for economic expansion resulting from the marriage of oil and mass production pioneered in the United States known as Fordism.

These new technological discoveries had resulted in massive productivity increases that were not matched by the pattern of demand. The `new deal' and the war led to redistribution of income and the construction of the Bretton Woods system, through which sterling was supplanted by the dollar, that enabled the rise and spread of mass consumption in the West (and in the East, mass armaments) and that led to a new Golden Age in the 1950s and 1960s. .

But already in the late 1960s the productivity gains of the mass production era began to slow down and workers and students began to rebel against the tedium of mass production routines. The stagflation of the 1970s and 1980s was the result of the maturity of those technologies, when it became harder and harder to innovate within the existing paradigm, when markets became increasingly saturated and when the key factor of production, oil, became much more expensive.

The developed economies revived in the 1990s. Not only was there intense investment in information technology itself which was beginning to weigh more significantly in growth and employment but we also witnessed the modernization of the mass production industries with computerized equipment, the internet and the new organizational models. At the same time and thanks to the global reach of telecommunications, massive production capacity was created across the world, and especially in Asia .

The rapid growth of information and telecommunications technologies and their application to a range of industries in the last two decades has, however, largely taken place within the pattern of demand established during the Fordist era, based on consumption and, to a lesser degree, military spending. Cars and consumer durables have greatly improved. The Internet has made possible cheap air travel. New consumer goods like ipods or video games have been invented. New more precise aircraft, missiles and tanks have been developed in the military sector. Above all, similar patterns of consumption have reached millions of people in places like China or India.

But all the same the new paradigm is coming against limits - limits imposed by existing patterns of income distribution, limits resulting from the saturation of consumer markets in the West and, perhaps most importantly the economic and environmental limits that are the consequence of the dependence of this pattern of growth on carbons, especially oil. What is needed now are a new set of institutions capable of shifting the pattern of demand so as to allow the new paradigm to diffuse through out the global economy in a sustainable way.

Perez's second contribution is to explain the role of finance capital in these great surges of development. Finance is critical for the spread of innovation. Schumpeter defined capitalism as that `kind of private property economy in which innovations are carried out by means of borrowed money.' Each wave is also characterised by financial innovations - joint stock companies in the railway age, hire purchase in the automobile age, or plastic and e-banking or hedge funds in the current era. In the installation phase, finance capital starts to fund the new technologies and big profits are made. Indeed, many of the new financial innovations have made possible the increase in real consumption; for example, credit cards and new types of mortgages. This is the period when deregulation becomes fashionable and when free markets are seen as the mechanism for addressing the sluggishness of the old paradigm.

Snuff Mill, Morden Hall Park, Merton, London.
Severn Trent Railway Steam Engine
Want some chips?


But because the spread of the new paradigm comes up against limits, the installation period ends in a frenzy phase when the `new economy' is not yet large enough for sustained investment but when finance capital has got used to making big profits. `In order to achieve the same high yield from all investments as from the successful new sectors' says Perez `finance capital becomes highly `innovative'. Imagination moves from real estate to paintings, from loans in faraway countries, to pyramid schemes, from hostile takeovers to derivatives or whatever.'

This is the moment when greater risk is licensed and when a mountain of paper wealth is created masking the mismatch between the new economy and the social and political institutions. This is a period of extreme social polarisation when the gains from economic growth are not redistributed. It is a period that celebrates making money, in which selfishness is considered `good'. And it is in this context that financial schemes become increasingly wild.

At the same time, the financial architecture, along with the institutional framework, also inhibits the channelling of capital into productive growth. In each wave, financial architecture has been centred on the core country. The dominant currency was sterling in the first three waves. After Bretton Woods, the dollar became the international currency and the federal reserve the lender of last resort. For the first twenty five years after Bretton Woods, the system, based on fixed exchange rates tied to gold and the dollar, worked rather well; this was a period of harmony, the Golden Age of the automobile era. The United States provided massive economic and military assistance to the rest of the world (except the Communist bloc), which returned to the US in the form of purchases of American goods.

But as other countries caught up, US trade surpluses vanished. The turning point was the high cost of the Vietnam War and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971, the same year that Intel invented the microprocessor. In the subsequent era of floating exchange rates and neo-liberal prescriptions, the dollar remained the dominant currency. But instead of stimulating the rest of the world, the American financial system sucked in money from the rest of the world through massive borrowing. Much of this money came from the so-called emerging markets and oil states via what are known as sovereign wealth funds. But it also came from poor countries who borrowed when economic aid dried up and who continue to be net lenders to the United States. The trillion dollar war in Iraq and the Bush era tax cuts for the rich has taken US borrowing to new heights; as of September 2008, overall US debt was 350% of American GDP.

The borrowing was, of course, a stimulus to the world economy. China and India grew dramatically through exporting to the indebted West. But both because of exchange rates and because there were no limits to US borrowing, most of the current account surpluses ended up inflating Western assets rather than improving infrastructure and reducing poverty. As long as the world had confidence in the United States (and Britain) and as long as assets continued to inflate thus generating high returns from lending, the debt could keep growing.

The current crisis is the end of the frenzy phase of installation -the moment when the bubble has burst. Of course the immediate crisis is the consequence of short term factors (weak financial regulation, securitisation, excessive risk-taking, etc.) whereas the underlying structural problems are long-term. While the argument about the mismatch between institutions and the techno-economic paradigm suggests that a crisis is inevitable, the theory cannot predict when the crisis will happen or how.

The risk is that ameliorative measures are taken now to restore trust in the financial sector without addressing the long term structural problems that result from the dismantling of many of the institutions of the automobile era, through deregulation, and the absence of an appropriate institutional framework for the new information era. The problem is that patterns of demand and the habits formed by political and social institutions tend to be much more resistant to change than economies. Or to put it in another way, economic change is a consequence of market relations, whereas institutions and culture change through various forms of social and political contestation. In previous eras, it has taken war and revolution as well as prolonged depression before a new institutional framework was established. After all, the Wall Street crash took place in 1929 and it was only after the war and fascism, that the conditions for a new golden age of the automobile era were established.

The point, of course, is that the crisis is a turning point when the challenge is to establish a new global regulatory framework that can channel the new innovations into economically and environmentally sustainable economic growth. We need a new global financial architecture-, based on a combination of the dollar, the euro and the yen and a new exchange rate mechanism - in short, a new Bretton Woods. We need new methods of financial regulation as well as access to liquidity for poor countries. But above all, we need a new global stimulus package that will facilitate the spread of the information era and the growth of productive capital in sustainable ways so that lending does not continually increase debt but also creates sufficient income based on productive work to repay debt. Otherwise, the global economy is likely to limp along and we are likely to face more crises (both economic and political) in the future.

Such a package could involve large-scale redistribution to developing countries , allowing them to build the critical infrastructures of the information era, and to increase the consumption of poor people by providing jobs so that consumption is financed by productive income rather than debt. But it would also need to involve energy saving innovation, recycling especially waste, and the development of renewables, especially solar power, so that increased economic growth does not come up against the limits that could result from the high price of carbons and environmental degradation including global warming. It must be possible to spread the benefits of development without killing the planet.

The package would also need to involve a restructuring of the security sector away from the Fordist preoccupations with state security and sophisticated weapons platforms powered by combustion engines to providing the everyday security that could enable economic development in large parts of the world relying on to a much greater extent on improved communications than improved weapons. This is what is needed to initiate the transition from installation to full deployment, to promote the golden age of the information era.

In many of the commentaries on the crisis, there are calls for a new Keynes. Others insist that Keynsianism never worked and that neoliberalism should not be abandoned. What these two views fail to take into account is that the appropriate remedies depend on the phase of the long cycle. In the installation period, liberalisation frees up finance capital to invest in the new paradigm and to finance big increases in productivity. But in the deployment phase, some sort of stimulus is needed to channel finance into sustainable outlets and to develop appropriate markets.

The new Keynes has to be a Neo-Schumpeterian. Neo-Schumpeterianism is both supply side and demand side; it is about matching the social and institutional framework to the techno-economic paradigm. Keynes thought it was enough to dig holes within a national context if that would stimulate the economy and, indeed, that was the solution in a mass production era. But in the current era, any stimulus has to be directed towards structural sustainability on a global basis. This is Keynsian in the sense of stimulating demand but it is neo-Schumpeterian in so far as it matters how money is spent, in the insistence that any stimulus must provide a sustainable outlet for the extraordinary gains in technological know-how of the last thirty years.

A global effort to eradicate poverty and tackle climate change world-wide would be the best way to overcome the limits to productive and environmentally sustainable growth and spread the new techno-economic paradigm.

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