Here Come the Commies: Marxism Goes on the Attack

A quote that’s often ascribed to Karl Marx has been popping up a lot lately:

“Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalized, and the State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism.”

– Karl Marx, 1867, Das Kapital

That quote is almost assuredly bogus. We haven’t tormented ourselves by re-reading sections of Das Kapital. Once in college was enough. This quote, though, has been making the rounds on the Internet, as if Marx and his minions somehow knew all this was coming.

Whether the analysis is accurate is a separate question from whether Marx ever wrote it. German is a torturous language to read in translation, full of compound sentences and words. And it’s highly unlikely, writing in the late 19th century, that Marx would have referred to the working class buying houses and technology. The horseless carriage hadn’t even been invented yet, much less the iPod, the BlueRay, or the George Foreman grill.

Nope. This is a clever bit of revisionism by some unemployed Marxist student or tenured professor trying to discredit the free market while rehabilitating the Marxist playbook. Marx did indeed say capitalism would eventually evolve into socialism and finally communism. He claimed it was riddled by contradictions which made the system inherently unstable.

But his theory was evolutionary, based on his views of human nature and a rational “homo economicus.” Like Adam Smith, Marx was a materialist who defined wealth in terms of physical goods. Thus, his view of human nature is rather material too, which explains his atheism.

In any event, the Austrians (especially Rothbard) would point out that the boom-bust feature of capitalist economies is not inherent in the system, but is actually a product of the government’s manipulation of interest rates. This changes the price of money and causes risk-taking entrepreneurs to miscalculate the underlying demand for their production.

Thus, you get a massive, credit-induced production bubble, global in scale with resources devoted to supplying a fictional demand. It happened with residential real estate in the U.S. and Europe. It’s happened with commercial real estate in China. And it probably happened all along the commodity supply chain, as raw material demand increased for the production of finished goods made in China for Americans who bought on credit.

That isn’t to say you wouldn’t have normal cycles of growth and recession in an economy with natural interest rates. But in an economy with natural interest rates, the cost of capital would go up during a recession. Bankers would get more prudent with their lending as the market place sorted out which lending resulted in productive new enterprise and which businesses failed.

The bad investments would be written down and eventually new demand for capital from entrepreneurs would resume. At least, that’s how the Austrians drew it up. Today, of course, we are engaged in the great global project of trying to prop up investments gone bad, whether they be in residential American real estate or the collateralised bonds based on that real estate that currently reside like dead weight on balance sheets all over the globe.

No amount of rearranging is going to improve the quality of those debts. But that won’t keep political busy bodies from trying—and wasting even more time and capital.

Stocks in the U.S. were up overnight. Here in Australia, the blind are following where the deaf boldly lead. But is anyone listening? Or is everyone too busy hoping?

What we’re talking about are Ben Bernanke’s comments. The news headlines read that he predicted the recession will end later this year and the American economy will recover in 2010. But that’s not exactly what he said.

Here exactly is what he said, “If actions taken by the Administration, the Congress, and the Federal Reserve are successful in restoring some measure of financial stabilityand only if that is the case, in my viewthere is a reasonable prospect that the current recession will end in 2009 and that 2010 will be a year of recovery.”

If you wanted to put it another way, it might go like this: If our plan is successful to solve all the problems, then all the problems will have been successfully solved according to the plan.

How inspiring is that? Does it give you confidence that these guys have any idea what they’re doing?

What the system needs is more instability, not less. That is, prices and asset values need to fall to their real level to restore confidence. In this sense, a proper recession is the cure for uncertainty and instability.

Yes, we know this is in direct contradiction to what elected officials are telling you. But think for a moment of a man who’s done nothing but eat greasy and fatty foods for a year. He’s on his deathbed. His arteries are clogged with fat and cholesterol.

Now you couldn’t improve the man’s health by telling him to feel better about himself. “C’mon big fella. Buck up! Have another cheeseburger. With bacon. And avocado. This whole being morbidly obese and killing yourself thing is all in your head. You gotta get your mind right!”

You could tell him all that. But it would be bad medical advice. In the same way, our financial mal-practitioners have mis-diagnosed the economy. Confidence is not the problem. Bad credits and loans are the problem.
You restore confidence when you directly address the problem. Investors get out of cash and back into shares or property when they have demonstrable proof that the banks aren’t hiding/lying any longer.

Or, as Murray Rothbard puts it in America’s Great Depression, “The completion of liquidation removes the uncertainties of impending bankruptcy and ends the borrowers’ scramble for cash. A rapid unhampered fall in prices, both in general, and in particularly in goods of higher orders (adjusting to the mal-investments of the boom) will speedily end the realignment processes and remove expectations of further declines.”

But instead of realigning with economic reality, our policy makers are acting as if it is possible to sustain all the bad investments made during the credit boom. They want to save homeowners, shareholders, bondholders, and pretty much anyone who stands to lose from the risks gone bad.

That is not possible. Someone has to pay for the bad bets made in subprime loans, Eastern Europe, or the developing world. That someone is probably a) the guy who took out the mortgage he can’t repay, b) the bank who made the loan to the guy who took out the mortgage he can’t repay, c) the investor who bought the bond sold by the bank who made the loan to the guy who took out the mortgage he can’t repay.

Evading responsibility for one’s actions doesn’t solve anything. Making other people pay for them doesn’t help much either. Of course we’re all going to pay for it one way or another, through more bailouts or the general contraction in credit and growth that has to come during the “realignment process.”

But those appear to be the two choices: allow failure, which allocates resources from the bad debts and losers to those who can produce real wealth. Or, try to “stabilise” any inherently unstable situation (perpetuating asset values after the credit spigot has been turned off).

Not that we’re absolving market institutions for getting us into the problem. The credit ratings agencies essentially sold investment grade ratings on issues they didn’t or couldn’t understand. AIG sold default insurance on CDOs to make an easy buck. It’s now become a black hole for taxpayer capital.

But that is fictitious financial capitalism at work, or at waste if you prefer. That kind of financial capitalism is dead, and good riddance. But don’t mistake that episode of mismanagement and theft for conclusive proof that “capitalism” has failed. That would be a big mistake.

But the commies are feeling their oats these days. Yes, the commies are back in the DR mailbox. They’re in the paper. They’re even on TV. We saw a report on them last night and how their explanation of the financial crisis validates what they’ve been saying all along.

Dan Denning

February 26, 2009