Posts Tagged ‘Marx’

 

“Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” has become the rallying cry for the pandemic rent-strike movement.

As it turns out, back in 1974, Italian Marxist author Dario Fo wrote one of his most famous plays, Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga! It was soon translated into English, with the title Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! 

There’s an obvious connection between the current movement and Fo’s political farce. Antonia and Margherita, two working-class housewives, stagger in with goods they have stolen from the supermarket as part of a protest by local women against rising prices. Antonia is terrified that her husband Giovanni, a Communist factory-worker, will force her to return her booty. He notices Margherita’s bulging coat and is told she’s pregnant. He is dismayed that some workers refused to pay for the overpriced food in the cafeteria and warns Antonia not to take part in the supermarket protest. When the police search the flat, Margherita pretends to be in labor and is carried to an ambulance. Margherita’s husband Luigi is surprised to learn that he is about to become a father and goes off in search of her. When a truck overturns in the street, Giovanni and Luigi, who have just learned they are losing their jobs, steal sacks of sugar. An Inspector, checking on the two women who have now returned home, believes he has been blinded for his disbelief when their electricity is cut off, bangs his head in the dark, and passes out. The women confess to the men they have been stealing, and the men admit to their theft. When he recovers, the Inspector is so relieved he can see, he leaves happy.

In the midst of the pandemic, the problem is not supermarket prices, but housing rents—especially as workers in the United States have had to confront tens of millions of furloughs, layoffs, shortened hours, and pay cuts. They were having trouble paying rent before, and now it’s gotten much worse.

rentals

According to data from the American Community Survey, as compiled by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the number of cost-burdened renter households—households that pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing—stood at 20.5 million in 2017. That’s almost half (47.4 percent) of all renter households. And about one quarter of all renters—some 10.7 million households—faced severe housing cost burdens, because they had to pay 50 percent or more of their incomes in rent.

It should come as no surprise, low-income households are even more cost-burdened. Indeed, the share of cost-burdened renter households earning less than $15,000 a year was 82.8 percent in 2017, and almost three-quarters (71.9 percent) of these renters were severely burdened. Cost-burden rates were also elevated among renters higher up the income scale. For example, the rate of those with incomes in the $30,000-44,999 range was more than half (53.3 percent).

The cost-burden rates for minority households were significantly higher than for white households. The share is highest among black renters at 54.9 percent, followed closely by Hispanics at 53.5 percent. The rates for Asians and other minorities are noticeably lower at 45.7 percent, but still above the white share of 42.6 percent.

These rates are significant, for two reasons: First, as the Federal Reserve (pdf) recently reported, 39 percent of workers who had a job in February with a household income below $40 thousand had already reported a job loss in March. (That percentage has undoubtedly increased since then.) Moreover, Black and Latino workers experienced larger employment declines than white workers between February and April. A Washington Post-Ipsos national poll from late April and early May found that 20 percent of Hispanic adults and 16 percent of Black adults reported being laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, compared to 11 percent of white adults and 12 percent of adults of other races and ethnicities.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor [ht: ja] recently explained,

The crisis of stagnant wages and rising rents certainly predates covid-19. . .

Now thousands more will join the ranks of the rent-burdened and the financially distressed. Some landlords, recognizing the enormity of the crisis, have tried to work with their tenants, but others have used the vulnerability of sudden unemployment and housing insecurity to manipulate them.

Meanwhile, the absence of any serious attention to the dire straits of renting households at the state and federal levels—which provided some relief (for example, for federally subsidized low-income housing) but no across-the-board eviction and foreclosure moratorium nor any enforcement mechanism—”could result, by late summer, in hundreds of thousands of evictions and foreclosures, which would trigger a new wave of infection and illness.”

In the absence of government protection, the only alternative available to American working-class households, like the characters in Fo’s play, is to steal what they need—in the form of a rent strike.

Dashboard 1

While there have been many calls for such a strike, and rent payments are indeed down from last year, it’s still amazing that, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, 87.7 percent of apartment households had made a full or partial rent payment by 13 May.

Of course, they had to—or face eviction. Just as Fo’s characters, who had stolen some food, were hounded by the Inspector.

Historically, there haven’t been as many successful rent strikes as one might expect. Editorial Segadores and Col·lectiu Bauma, in Catalunya, have collected and analyzed the shared characteristics of some of them, from the De Freyne Estate in Roscommon County, Ireland in 1901 to the Parkdale neighborhood in Toronto in 2017-18. In their view, successful rent strikes require three elements:

  1. Shared dissatisfaction. At the beginning, even if neighbors haven’t collectivized their demands, it’s necessary that many of them perceive the situation in more or less the same way: that it is outrageous or intolerable, that they run the risk of losing access to their housing, and that they don’t trust the established channels to provide justice.
  2. Outreach. As we’ll see below, the vast majority of rent strikes begin with a relatively small group of people and grow from there. Therefore, they need the means to spread their call to action, communicate their complaints, and ask for support and solidarity. In many cases, strikers can win with only a third of the renters of a property participating in a rent strike, but sufficient outreach is necessary to get to these numbers and to make the threat that the strike will spread convincing.
  3. Support. Those who go on strike need support. They need legal support for court procedures, housing support for those who lose their homes, physical support to fight evictions, and strategic support to face repression on a larger scale. In many cases, especially in large strikes, striking renters have found all the support they require within their own ranks, supporting one another and creating the necessary structures to survive. In other cases, strikers have turned to existing organizations for support. But the initiative for the strike always comes from the renters who dare to start it.

In the months ahead, we can expect a combination of concerted actions to collectively withhold rent payments—from such groups as Rent Strike 2020 and We Strike Together—and many more individual decisions to not pay landlords rents that are due.

The immediate goal of rent strikes is to bring relief to renters, by postponing payments and preventing evictions, thus changing the existing terms of the renter-landlord relationship. The larger, more political aim is to challenge the precepts of capitalism, whereby individual renters are blamed for nonpayment but still held accountable for paying their rent, regardless of their circumstances. Right now, in the midst of the pandemic-induced economic crisis, the collective of working-class renters, along with many homeowners with mortgages, is imperiled by massive furloughs and lay-offs, shortened hours, and pay cuts.

Some workers will therefore join official rent strikes, and be afforded a certain degree of protection precisely because of their numbers and concerted action. Others will opt, individually, not to pay some or all of the rent that is due.

As Natasha Leonard recently counseled, one way forward is to reframe all forms of nonpayment as a strike, which

is a powerful rejection of the sort of capitalist ethic that accords moral failing to an individual’s inability to pay a landlord.

That’s certainly a discursive and political move Dario Fo would have smiled at and applauded.

Ah, the things we end up doing during the lockdown. . .

I stumbled upon this video while searching for something else on my computer yesterday. It’s a talk I gave, “The New Reading of Marx’s Capital,” at the Lattelecom International Conference on New Strategies in the New World Order in Riga on 13 October 2011. So, because it may have some contemporary relevance, I decided to upload it and share it with readers.

Anyone who is interested can download the Powerpoint presentation I used by clicking on this link.

That I know of, there are only five other Youtube videos in which I appear (from 2000, 2003, 2012, 2016, and 2019).

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Mark Tansey, “Garden” (2006)

Modern Monetary Theorists are having a moment, as governments (many of them run by conservative regimes, such as Donald Trump and the Republicans in the United States) are running gigantic fiscal deficits in order to combat the economic crisis occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic.*

This time, with the $2 trillion CARES Act, the U.S. federal government has taken an additional step down the road of Modern Monetary Theory, by having the Federal Reserve buy an unlimited amount of Treasury bonds and government-backed mortgage bonds — whatever was necessary “to support smooth market functioning”—in other words, by simply creating the necessary money.

But, as Michael Hudson et al. explain, the idea that is being celebrated right now—that running government budget deficits is stabilizing instead of destabilizing—”is in many ways something quite different than the leading MMT advocates have long supported.”

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) was developed to explain the logic of running government budget deficits to increase demand in the economy’s consumption and capital investment sectors so as to maintain full employment. But the enormous U.S. federal budget deficits from the Obama bank bailout after the 2008 crash through the Trump tax cuts and Coronavirus financial bailout have not pumped money into the economy to finance new direct investment, employment, rising wages and living standards. Instead, government money creation and Quantitative Easing have been directed to the finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sectors. The result is a travesty of MMT, not its original aim.

By subsidizing the financial sector and its debt overhead, this policy is deflationary instead of supporting the “real” economy. The effect has been to empower the banking sector, whose product is credit and debt creation that has taken an unproductive and indeed extractive form.

Let me back up for a moment. I’ve been an advocate of Modern Monetary Theory ever since I began to study it (at the prodding of friends [ht: br]), as can be seen in various of my blog posts. In particular, from the perspective of the Marxian critique of political economy, two formulations that represent both critiques of and alternatives to those of mainstream economics are particularly useful: government deficits and bank money.

Perhaps the best known (and, in many ways, most controversial) aspect of Modern Monetary Theory is the logic of running budget deficits. The mainstream view is that the government imposes taxes and then uses the revenues to pay for some portion of government programs. To pay for the rest of its expenditures, the state then borrows money by issuing bonds that investors can purchase (and for which they receive interest payments).** But, neoclassical economists complain, such borrowing has a big downside: budget deficits increase the demand for loans, because the government competes with all the loans that private individuals and businesses want to take on—thus leading, in the short run, to the so-called crowding-out effect and, in the long run, an increase in government debt and the potential for a government default.

Advocates of Modern Monetary Theory dispute both of these conclusions: First, they argue that governments should never have to default so long as the country has a sovereign currency, that is, so long as they issue and control the kind of money they tax and spend (so, e.g., the United States but not Greece). Second, taxes and bonds do not and indeed cannot directly pay for spending. Instead, the government creates money whenever it spends.*** Clearly, this is useful from a left-wing perspective, because it creates room for government spending on programs that benefit the working-class—including, but certainly not limited to, the much-vaunted jobs guarantee.****

The second major contention between mainstream economics and Modern Monetary Theory concerns the role of banks—in particular, the relationship between bank lending and money. As Bill Mitchell explains,

Mainstream economic theory considers banks to be institutions that take in deposits which then provides them with the funds to on-lend at a profit. Accordingly, the ability of private banks to lend is considered to be constrained by the reserves they hold.

In other words, banks are seen as financial intermediaries, funneling deposits and then (backed by reserves) allocating a multiple of such deposits to the best possible, most efficient uses.

From the perspective of Modern Monetary Theory, private banks don’t operate in this way. Instead, they create money, by making loans—and reserve balances play little if any role.

A bank’s ability to expand its balance sheet is not constrained by the quantity of reserves it holds or any fractional reserve requirements. The bank expands its balance sheet by lending. Loans create deposits which are then backed by reserves after the fact. The process of extending loans (credit) which creates new bank liabilities is unrelated to the reserve position of the bank.

This is exactly the opposite of the mainstream story, with the implication that banks create loans (and therefore money) based on the profitability of making such loans, an activity that has nothing to do with the central bank’s adding more reserves to the system.

Both points—concerning the financing of government spending and endogenous bank money—are well known to anyone who has been exposed (either sympathetically or critically) to Modern Monetary Theory. In my view, they fit usefully and relatively easily into modern Marxian economics, especially in terms of both the theory of the state (e.g., government finances) and the theory of (fiat) money.

The problem, it seems to me, arises in the terms of the major complaint registered by Hudson et al.—namely, that government stimulus plans have mostly been directed to the finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sectors, which are considered unproductive and extractive, and not to the “real” economy, which is not.

Readers who know something about the history of economic thought will recognize that these productive/unproductive and extractive/non-extractive distinctions have a long lineage and can be traced back, first, to the French Physiocrats and, later, to Adam Smith—in other words, to the beginnings of modern mainstream economics.

tableau-économique-quesnay

Using his Tableau Économique, François Quesnay attempted to show that the proprietors and cultivators of land were the only productive members of the economy and society, as against the unproductive class composed of manufacturers and merchants. It follows that the government should promote the interests of the landowners, and not those of the other classes, which were merely parasitic. Smith took up this distinction but then redeployed it, to argue that any labor involved in the production of commodities (whether agricultural or manufacturing) was productive, and the problem was with revenues spent on unproductive labor (such as household servants and landlords). The former led to the accumulation of capital, which increased the wealth of nations, while the latter represented conspicuous consumption, which did not.

Marx criticized both formulations, arguing that the productive/unproductive distinction had to do not with what workers produced, but rather with how they produced. Within capitalism, labor was productive if it resulted in the creation of surplus-value; and, if it didn’t (such as is the case with managers and CEOs who supervise the production of goods and services, as well as all those involved in finance, insurance, and real estate), it was not. So, the Marxian distinction is focused on surplus-value and thus exploitation.

And that, it seems to me, is the major point overlooked in much of Modern Monetary Theory. FIRE is extractive in the sense that it receives a cut of the surplus created elsewhere in the economy. But so are industries outside of finance, insurance, and real estate, since the boards of directors of enterprises in those sectors extract surplus from their own workers. And those different modes of extraction occur whether or not there’s a jobs guarantee provided by the creation of money by governments or banks.

From a Marxian perspective, then, the crucial distinction—both theoretically and for public policy—is not that between FIRE and the so-called real economy, but between classes that appropriate the surplus and otherwise “share in the booty” and the class that actually produces the surplus.

Right now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the class that is working to produce the surplus and provide the commodities we need is the one that is carrying the burden—either because they have been laid off and mostly left to their own devices, without paychecks and healthcare benefits, or been forced to continue to labor under precarious and unsafe conditions.

It’s that class, the American working-class, that is suffering from the ravages of the current economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic. They’re the ones, not their employers (whether in FIRE or the “real” economy), who deserve to be bailed out.

 

*Although this is certainly not the first time Republican administrations have run fiscal deficits, and allowed the public debt to soar—as long as they’re in power. They did it under Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, and long before the pandemic with Trump’s tax cuts. The only time American conservatives seem to worry about deficits and debt is when Democrats hold the reins.

**Wealthy individuals and large corporations long ago determined they prefer to be paid to purchase government debt instead of being taxed.

***So why, then, does the government need to tax at all in Modern Monetary Theory? Best I can figure, there are two major reasons: First, taxation makes sure people in the country use the government-issued currency, because they have to pay taxes in that currency (and not, e.g., in some kind of local or digital currency). Second, taxes are one tool governments can use to control inflation. They can take an amount of money out of the economy, which keeps consumers and corporations from bidding up prices.

****But that’s clearly not a new idea. Back in 1943, Michel Kalecki argued that governments had the ability to use a spending program (e.g., through public investment or subsidizing mass consumption) to achieve full employment. But it would likely be opposed by an alliance of big business and rentier interests based on three reasons:

(i) dislike of government interference in the problem of employment as such; (ii) dislike of the direction of government spending (public investment and subsidizing consumption); (iii) dislike of the social and political changes resulting from the maintenance of full employment.

In other words, capitalists are against both the government’s usurping of their private role as masters of the economy and society and the strengthening of the working-class, for whom “the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure.”

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