We already live in a planned economy. Why not make it a democratic one?
By J. W. Mason
Nov 28, 2016
At its most basic level, finance is simply bookkeeping — a record of money obligations and commitments. But finance is also a form of planning — a set of institutions for allocating claims on the social product.
Somehow separating these two functions of the banking system — bookkeeping and planning — is the central thread running through 250 years of monetary reform proposals by bourgeois economists, populists, and cranks. We can trace it from David Hume, who believed a “perfect circulation” was one where gold alone was used for payments, and who doubted whether bank loans should be permitted at all; to the nineteenth-century advocates of a strict gold standard or the real bills doctrine, two competing rules that were supposed to restore automaticity to the creation of bank credit; to Proudhon’s proposals for giving money an objective basis in labor time; to Wicksell’s prescient fears of the instability of an unregulated system of bank money; to the oft-revived proposals for 100 percent reserve banking; to Milton Friedman’s proposals for a strict money-supply growth rule; to today’s orthodoxy that dreams of a central bank following an inviolable “policy rule” that reproduces the “natural interest rate.”
What these all admonitions and proposals have in common is that they seek to restore objectivity to the money system, to legislate into existence the supposedly real values that lie behind money prices. They seek to compel money to actually be what it is imagined to be in ideology: an objective measure of value that reflects the real value of commodities, free of the human judgments of bankers and politicians.
Socialists reject this fantasy. We know that the development of capitalism has from the beginning been a process of “financialization” — of the extension of money claims on human activity, and of the representation of the social world in terms of money payments and commitments.
We know that there was no precapitalist world of production and exchange on which money and then credit were later superimposed: Networks of money claims are the substrate on which commodity production has grown and been organized. And we know that the social surplus under capitalism is not allocated by “markets,” despite the fairy tales of economists. Surplus is allocated by banks and other financial institutions, whose activities are coordinated by planners, not markets.
However decentralized in theory, market production is in fact organized through a highly centralized financial system. And where something like competitive markets do exist, it is usually thanks to extensive state management, from anti-trust laws to all the elaborate machinery set up by the ACA to prop up a rickety market for private health insurance. As both Marx and Keynes recognized, the tendency of capitalism is to develop more social, collective forms of production, enlarging the domain of conscious planning and diminishing the zone of the market. (A point also understood by some smarter, more historically minded liberal economists today.) The preservation of the form of markets becomes an increasingly utopian project, requiring more and more active intervention by government. Think of the enormous public financing, investment, and regulation required for our “private” provision of housing, education, transportation, etc.
In a world where production is guided by conscious planning — public or private — it simply doesn’t make sense to think of money values as reflecting the objective outcome of markets, or of financial claims as simply a record of “real’’ flows of income and expenditure.
But the “illusion of the real,” as Perry Mehrling calls it, is very hard to resist. We must constantly remind ourselves that market values have never been, and can never be, an objective measure of human needs and possibilities. We must remember that values measured in money — prices and quantities, production and consumption — have no existence independent of the market transactions that give them quantitative form.
It follows that socialism cannot be described in terms of the quantity of commodities produced, or the distribution of them. Socialism is liberation from the commodity form. It is defined not by the disposition of things but by the condition of human beings. It is the progressive extension of the domain of human freedom, of that part of our lives governed by love and reason.
There are many critics of finance who see it as the enemy of a more humane or authentic capitalism. They may be managerial reformers (Veblen’s “Soviet of engineers”) who oppose finance as a parasite on productive enterprises; populists who hate finance as the destroyer of their own small capitals; or sincere believers in market competition who see finance as a collector of illegitimate rents. On a practical level there is much common ground between these positions and a socialist program. But we can’t accept the idea that finance is a distortion of some true market values that are natural, objective, or fair.
Finance should be seen as a moment in the capitalist process, integral to it but with two contradictory faces. On the one hand, it is finance (as a concrete institution) that generates and enforces the money claims against social persons of all kinds — human beings, firms, nations — that extend and maintain the logic of commodity production. (Student loans reinforce the discipline of wage labor, sovereign debt upholds the international division of labor.)
Yet on the other hand, the financial system is also where conscious planning takes its most fully developed form under capitalism. Banks are, in Schumpeter’s phrase, the private equivalent of Gosplan, the Soviet planning agency. Their lending decisions determine what new projects will get a share of society’s resources, and suspend — or enforce — the “judgment of the market” on money-losing enterprises.
A socialist program must respond to both these faces of finance. We oppose the power of finance if we want to progressively reduce the extent to which human life is organized around the accumulation of money. We embrace the planning already inherent in finance because we want to expand the domain of conscious choice, and reduce the domain of blind necessity.
The development of finance reveals the progressive displacement of market coordination by planning. Capitalism means production for profit; but in concrete reality profit criteria are always subordinate to financial criteria. The judgment of the market has force only insofar as it is executed by finance. The world is full of businesses whose revenues exceed their costs, but are forced to scale back or shut down because of the financial claims against them. The world is also full of businesses that operate for years, or indefinitely, with costs in excess of their revenues, thanks to their access to finance. And the institutions that make these financing decisions do so based on their own subjective judgment, constrained ultimately not by some objective criteria of value, but by the terms set by the central bank.
There is a basic contradiction between the principles of competition and finance. Competition is supposed to be a form of natural selection: Firms that make profits reinvest them and thus grow, while firms that make losses can’t invest and must shrink and eventually disappear. This is supposed to be a great advantage of markets over planning. But the whole point of finance is to break this link between profits yesterday and investment today. The surplus paid out as dividends and interest is available for investment anywhere in the economy, not just where it was generated.
Conversely, entrepreneurs can undertake new projects that have never been profitable in the past, if they can convince someone to bankroll them. Competition looks backward: The resources you have today depend on how you’ve performed in the past. Finance looks forward: The resources you have today depend on how you’re expected (by someone!) to perform in the future. So, contrary to the idea of firms rising and falling through natural selection, finance’s darlings — from Amazon to Uber and the whole unicorn herd — can invest and grow indefinitely without ever showing a profit. This is also supposed to be a great advantage of markets.
In the frictionless world imagined by economists, the supercession of competition by finance is already carried to its limit. Firms do not control or depend on their own surplus. All surplus is allocated centrally, by financial markets. All funds for investment come from financial markets and all profits immediately return in money form to these markets. This has two contradictory implications. On the one hand, it eliminates any awareness of the firm as a social organism, of the activity the firm carries out to reproduce itself, of its pursuit of ends other than maximum profit for its “owners.”
The firm, in effect, is born new each day by the grace of those financing it. But by the same token, the logic of profit maximization loses its objective basis. The quasi-evolutionary process of competition ceases to operate if the firm’s own profits are no longer its source of investment finance, but instead flow into a common pool. In this world, which firms grow and which shrink depends on the decisions of the financial planners who allocate capital between them.
The contradiction between market production and socialized finance becomes more acute as the pools of finance themselves combine or become more homogenous. This was a key point for turn-of-the-last-century Marxists like Hilferding (and Lenin), but it’s also behind the recent fuss in the business press over the rise of index funds. These funds hold all shares of all corporations listed on a given stock index; unlike actively managed funds they make no effort to pick winners, but hold shares in multiple competing firms.
Per one recent study, “The probability that two randomly selected firms in the same industry from the S&P 1500 have a common shareholder with at least 5% stakes in both firms increased from less than 20% in 1999 to around 90% in 2014.” The problem is obvious: If corporations work for their shareholders, then why would they compete against each other if their shares are held by the same funds?
Naturally, one proposed solution is more state intervention to preserve the form of markets, by limiting or disfavoring stock ownership via broad funds. Another, and perhaps more logical, response is: If we are already trusting corporate managers to be faithful agents of the rentier class as a whole, why not take the next step and make them agents of society in general?
And in any case the terms on which the financial system directs capital are ultimately set by the central bank. Its decisions — monetary policy in the narrow sense, but also the terms on which financial institutions are regulated, and rescued in crises — determine not only the overall pace of credit expansion but the criteria of profitability itself. This is acutely evident in crises, but it’s implicit in routine monetary policy as well. Unless lower interest rates turn some previously unprofitable projects into profitable ones, how are they supposed to work?
At the same time, the legitimacy of the capitalist system — the ideological justification of its obvious injustice and waste — comes from the idea that economic outcomes are determined by “the market,” not by anyone’s choice. So the central bank’s planning role has to be kept out of sight.
Central bankers themselves are quite aware of this aspect of their role. In the early 1980s, when the Fed was changing the main instrument it used for monetary policy, officials there were concerned that their choice preserve the fiction that interest rates were being set by the markets. As Fed governor Wayne Angell put it, it was essential to choose a technique that would “have the camouflage of market forces at work.”
Mainstream economics textbooks explicitly describe the long-term trajectory of capitalist economies in terms of an ideal planner, who is setting output and prices for all eternity in order to maximize the general wellbeing. The contradiction between this macro vision and the ideology of market competition is papered over by the assumption that over the long run this path is the same as the “natural” one that would obtain in a perfect competitive market system without money or banks.
Outside of the academy, it’s harder to sustain faith that the planners at the central bank are infallibly picking the outcomes the market should have arrived at on its own. Central banks’ critics on the right — and many on the left — understand clearly that central banks are engaged in active planning, but see it as inherently illegitimate. Their belief in “natural” market outcomes goes with fantasies of a return to some monetary standard independent of human judgment — gold or bitcoin.
Socialists, who see through central bankers’ facade of neutral expertise and recognize their close association with private finance, may be tempted by similar ideas. But the path toward socialism runs the other way. We don’t seek to organize human life on an objective grid of market values, free of the distorting influence of finance and central banks. We seek rather to bring this already-existing conscious planning into the light, to make it into a terrain of politics, and to direct it toward meeting human needs rather than reinforcing relations of domination. In short: the socialization of finance.
In the US context, this analysis suggests a transitional program perhaps along the following lines.
While there is no way to separate money and markets from finance, that does not mean that the routine functions of the monetary system must be a source of private profit. Shifting responsibility for the basic monetary plumbing of the system to public or quasi-public bodies is a non-reformist reform — it addresses some of the directly visible abuse and instability of the existing monetary system while pointing the way toward more profound transformations.
1. A public payments system.
In the not too distant past, if I wanted to give you some money and you wanted to give me a good or service, we didn’t have to pay a third party for permission to make the trade. But as electronic payments have replaced cash, routine payments have become a source of profit. Interchanges and the rest of the routine plumbing of the payments system should be a public monopoly, just as currency is.
2. Postal banking.
Banking services should similarly be provided through post offices, as in many other countries. Routine transactions accounts (check and saving) are a service that can be straightforwardly provided by the state.
3. Public credit ratings, both for bonds and for individuals.
As information that, to perform its function, must be widely available, credit ratings are a natural object for public provision even within the overarching logic of capitalism. This is also a challenge to the coercive, disciplinary function increasingly performed by private credit ratings in the United States.
4. Public housing finance.
Mortgages for owner-occupied housing are another area where a patina of market transactions is laid over a system that is already substantively public. The thirty-year mortgage market is entirely a creation of regulation, it is maintained by public market-makers, and public bodies are largely and increasingly the ultimate lenders. Socialists have no interest in the cultivation of a hothouse petty bourgeoisie through home ownership; but as long as the state does so, we demand that it be openly and directly rather than disguised as private transactions.
5. Public retirement insurance.
Providing for old age is the other area, along with housing, where the state does the most to foster what Gerald Davis calls the “capital fiction” — the conception of one’s relationship to society in terms of asset ownership.
But here, unlike home ownership, social provision in the guise of financial claims has failed even on its own narrow terms. Many working-class households in the United States and other rich countries do own their own houses, but only a tiny fraction can meet their subsistence needs in old age out of private saving. At the same time, public retirement systems are much more fully developed than public provision of housing. This suggests a program of eliminating existing programs to encourage private retirement saving, and greatly expanding Social Security and similar social insurance systems.
It’s not the job of socialists to keep the big casino running smoothly. But as long as private financial institutions exist, we cannot avoid the question of how to regulate them. Historically financial regulation has sometimes taken the form of “financial repression,” in which the types of assets held by financial institutions are substantially dictated by the state.
1. If it isn’t permitted, it’s forbidden.
Effective regulation has always depended on enumerating specific functions for specific institutions, and prohibiting anything else. Otherwise it’s too easy to bypass with something that is formally different but substantively equivalent. And whether or not central banks are going to continue with their role as the main managers of aggregate demand, they also need this kind of regulation to effectively control the flow of credit.
2. Protect functions, not institutions.
The political power of finance comes from the ability to threaten routine social bookkeeping, and the security of small property owners. (“If we don’t bail out the banks, the ATMs will shut down! What about your 401(k)?”)
As long as private financial institutions perform socially necessary functions, policy should focus on preserving those functions themselves, and not the institutions that perform them. This means that interventions should be as close as possible to the nonfinancial end-user, and not on the games banks play among themselves. For example: deposit insurance.
3. Require large holdings of public debt.
The threat of the “bond vigilantes” against the US federal government has been wildly exaggerated, as was demonstrated for instance by the debt-ceiling farce and downgrade of 2012. But for smaller governments — including state and local governments in the United States — bond markets are not so easily ignored. And large holdings of public debt also reduce the frequency and severity of the periodic financial crises which are, perversely, one of the main ways in which finance’s social power is maintained.
4. Control overall debt levels with lower interest rates and higher inflation.
Household leverage in the United States has risen dramatically over the past thirty years; some believe that this is because debt was needed to raise standards of living in the face of stagnant or declining real incomes.
But this isn’t the case; slower income growth has simply meant slower growth in consumption. Rather, the main cause of rising household debt over the past thirty years has been the combination of low inflation and continuing high interest rates for households. Conversely, the most effective way to reduce the burden of debt — for households, and also for governments — is to hold interest rates down while allowing inflation to rise.
As a corollary to financial repression, we can reject any moral claims on behalf of interest income as such. There is no right to exercise a claim on the labor of others through ownership of financial assets. To the extent that the private provision of socially necessary services like insurance and pensions is undermined by low interest rates, that is an argument for moving these services to the public sector, not for increasing the claims of rentiers.
Democratize Central Banks
Central banks have always been central planners. Choices about interest rates, and the terms on which financial institutions will be regulated and rescued, inevitably condition the profitability and the direction as well as level of productive activity. This role has been concealed behind an ideology that imagines the central bank behaving automatically, according to a rule that somehow reproduces the “natural” behavior of markets.
Central banks’ own actions since 2008 have left this ideology in tatters. The immediate response to the crisis have forced central banks to intervene more directly in credit markets, buying a wider range of assets and even replacing private financial institutions to lend directly to nonfinancial businesses. Since then, the failure of conventional monetary policy has forced central banks to inch unwillingly toward a broader range of interventions, directly channeling credit to selected borrowers.
This turn to “credit policy” represents an admission — grudging, but forced by events — that the anarchy of competition is unable to coordinate production. Central banks cannot, as the textbooks imagine, stabilize the capitalist system by turning a single knob labeled “money supply” or “interest rate.” They must substitute their own judgment for market outcomes in a broad and growing range of asset and credit markets.
The challenge now is to politicize central banks — to make them the object of public debate and popular pressure. In Europe, the national central banks — which still perform their old functions, despite the common misperception that the European Central Bank (ECB) is now the central bank of Europe — will be a central terrain of struggle for the next left government that seeks to break with austerity and liberalism.
In the United States, we can dispense for good with the idea that monetary policy is a domain of technocratic expertise, and bring into the open its program of keeping unemployment high in order to restrain wage growth and workers’ power. As a positive program, we might demand that the Fed aggressively use its existing legal authority to purchase municipal debt, depriving rentiers of their power over financially constrained local governments as in Detroit and Puerto Rico, and more broadly blunting the power of “the bond markets” as a constraint on popular politics at the state and local level. More broadly, central banks should be held responsible for actively directing credit to socially useful ends.
Really existing capitalism consists of narrow streams of market transactions flowing between vast areas of non-market coordination. A core function of finance is to act as the weapon in the hands of the capitalist class to enforce the logic of value on these non-market structures. The claims of shareholders over nonfinancial businesses, and bondholders over national governments, ensure that all these domains of human activity remain subordinate to the logic of accumulation. We want to see stronger defenses against these claims — not because we have any faith in productive capitalists or national bourgeoisies, but because they occupy the space in which politics is possible.
Specifically we should stand with corporations against shareholders. The corporation, as Marx long ago noted, is “the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself.” Within the corporation, activity is coordinated through plans, not markets; and the orientation of this activity is toward the production of a particular use-value rather than money as such.
“The tendency of big enterprise,” Keynes wrote, “is to socialize itself.” The fundamental political function of finance is to keep this tendency in check. Without the threat of takeovers and the pressure of shareholder activists, the corporation becomes a space where workers and other stakeholders can contest control over production and the surplus it generates — a possibility that capitalists never lose sight of.
Needless to say, this does not imply any attachment to the particular individuals at the top of the corporate hierarchy, who today are most often actual or aspiring rentiers without any organic connection to the production process. Rather, it’s a recognition of the value of the corporation as a social organism; as a space structured by relationships of trust and loyalty, and by intrinsic motivation and “professional conscience”; and as the site of consciously planned production of use-values.
The role of finance with respect to the modern corporation is not to provide it with resources for investment, but to ensure that its conditional orientation toward production as an end in itself is ultimately subordinate to the accumulation of money.
Resisting this pressure is no substitute for other struggles, over the labor process and the division of resources and authority within the corporation. (History gives many examples of production of use values as an end in itself, which is carried out under conditions as coercive and alienated as under production for profit.) But resisting the pressure of finance creates more space for those struggles, and for the evolution of socialism within the corporate form.
Close Borders to Money (and Open Them to People).
Just as shareholder power enforces the logic of accumulation on corporations, capital mobility does the same to states. In the universities, we hear about the supposed efficiency of unrestrained capital flows, but in the political realm we hear more their power to “discipline” national governments. The threat of capital flight and balance of payments crises protects the logic of accumulation against incursions by national governments.
States can be vehicles for conscious control of the economy only insofar as financial claims across borders are limited. In a world where capital flows are large and unrestricted, the concrete activity of production and reproduction must constantly adjust itself to the changing whims of foreign investors.
This is incompatible with any strategy for development of the forces of production at the national level; every successful case of late industrialization has depended on the conscious direction of credit through the national banking system. More than that, the requirement that real activity accommodate cross-border financial flows is incompatible even with the stable reproduction of capitalism in the periphery. We have learned this lesson many times in Latin America and elsewhere in the South, and are now learning it again in Europe.
So a socialist program on finance should include support for efforts of national governments to delink from the global economy, and to maintain or regain control over their financial systems. Today, such efforts are often connected to a politics of racism, nativism, and xenophobia which we must uncompromisingly reject. But it is possible to move toward a world in which national borders pose no barrier to people and ideas, but limit the movement of goods and are impassible barriers to private financial claims.
With respect to the strong states themselves, the markets have no hold except over the imagination. As we’ve seen repeatedly in recent years — most dramatically in the debt-limit vaudeville of 2011-2013 — there are no “bond vigilantes”; the terms on which governments borrow are fully determined by their own monetary authority. All that’s needed to break the bond market’s power here is to recognize that it’s already powerless.
In short, we should reject the idea of finance as an intrusion on a preexisting market order. We should resist the power of finance as an enforcer of the logic of accumulation. And we should reclaim as a site of democratic politics the social planning already carried out through finance.