Upturns and turnips
The last big film that Peter Sellers made (Being There) featured a
Mr Gardner, an economics expert who offered wise metaphorical comments on
how to care for the American economy like a flower-bed; when to sow and when
to reap, how to tend the shoots, the impact of the seasonal cycle and so
Mr G was feted and made a presidential economic adviser. Then they discovered
that it had all been a bit of a mistake. 'Mr Gardner' really was a gardener,
and a simple-minded one at that, who had only been muttering about his flowers,
weeds and manure all along.
Peter Sellers has been dead for years. But Mr Gardner seems to be alive
and writing simple-minded economic reports and newspaper articles, predicting
an early upturn in Britain and the USA in 1993.
Some of these stories involve spotting the 'green shoots of recovery' within
the compost heap of recession, a garden game which was begun by the Sunday
Times in 1992. Others have latched on to alternative natural images
of economic regeneration.
For instance, a Guardian editorial on the British economy published
in December observed sagely that the temperature below ground is often highest
in mid-winter. Presumably this is supposed to imply that the deeper and
colder the recession gets, the hotter the bonfires of recovery are really
burning. Oh yes, as Mr Gardner or his allotment chum Mr Major might say.
The homegrown rubbish about green shoots, groundfrosts and upturns that
was being spouted at the end of 1992 might have sounded funnier than that
film. Except that this time the joke is at the expense of all those at the
sharp end of the slump.
Economists who ought to stick to gardening have enthused about optimistic
developments that take place in an imaginary economy which only exists on
their computer screens, a world where what matters is not hard cash, but
the ephemeral 'consumer and business confidence'. Meanwhile, in the real
world, things in the real economy get even worse.
The most obvious sign of continuing slump is the rise in unemployment. In
Britain, thousands of redundancies are being announced every week in every
sector from banking and aerospace to shipbuilding and insurance. But this
seems to have little or no bearing on the discussion of the economy. Rising
unemployment is now treated as a separate matter from the prospects for
recovery. Things have reached the point where economists can talk excitedly
about a return to growth, while mentioning in passing that, of course, the
numbers in work will continue to shrink.
The impact which this depression is having on the lives of millions is hardly
an issue in politics today. The slump surrounds us, making its mark on every
aspect of our lives. Yet it is almost like a dirty secret, something nobody
wants to talk about in public.
So the Tories bang on about Maastricht and Europe instead of the economy.
The Labour Party leadership spends less time and effort attacking the government
on the slump than on little scandals like 'Iraqgate'. And, on a day when
another great barrel load of redundancies is announced, the media focus
instead on such big issues as what Norman Lamont was doing in Thresher's,
and what Ms Thrasher was doing in his flat.
All of the bull about 'green shoots' and the diversionary discussions about
the chancellor's credit cards reflect the same thing; none of them can face
up to the facts about how serious this slump really is. Perhaps that should
not be surprising, given that they have no solutions to offer. No party
or expert today can put forward any distinctive economic policies that might
make a significant difference.
The slump is not a seasonal problem that will melt away with the coming
of spring. It is here to stay for the foreseeable future, because it results
from a fundamental flaw at the very heart of the market economy.
Under this system, the point of making anything is to make a profit for capitalists.
When profits are poor, they cannot and will not invest their capital to produce
jobs, goods and services. And the profitability of the major industrial economies
has been on a downward trend for the past 25 years (apart from an upward
blip in the credit-fuelled boom of the eighties).
The slump reflects the cumulative impact of that long, downward economic
curve. In Britain, for example, in October 1992, manufacturing investment
was 20 per cent down on its peak in early 1990. This single figure says loud
and clear that the depression continues. You can have all of the paper 'confidence'
you like, but your industry won't recover if your investors can make more
by keeping their capital in the bank vault.
Because the recession is caused by a basic problem of the market system,
capitalists everywhere are in trouble. But some are in more trouble than
others. The irony of the talk about an Anglo- American upturn is that Britain
and America are both in a worse state than their major foreign competitors.
Britain is now at the bottom of the league of economic powers, its manufacturing
base all but destroyed by a century of declining fortunes. Some analysts
have claimed that the British economy is now in for an 'export-led' industrial
recovery. Yet just about the only major manufacturers capable of making
an impact on foreign markets are the handful of Japanese car factories using
Britain as a stepping stone to Europe.
Sending a few Nissan Micras across the Channel seems unlikely to bridge
the multi-billion pound gap in Britain's trade with the world. And if the
recession and the rows within the EC cut exports to Europe, even those few
Japanese factories might pack up and go elsewhere. So much for the upturn.
What about the turnips?
The British government itself is trying to be careful, and to avoid making
any more rash statements about recovery which could trip it up again. But
the Tories will look idiots soon enough anyway. No matter how carefully
they avoid off-licences and eschew toe-sucking, the combination of economic
depression and their own political exhaustion will drag them down into the
mud again over the next 12 months. The only thing on their side is that
their opponents are such weeds.
Consumers of Living Marxism can be confident that 1993 will be more
the year of the turnip than the year of the upturn. Of course, saying the
slump will continue does not mean that every economic statistic will deteriorate
every month. But it does mean that the general trend will be for things
to get even worse for most of us, and for the government's stock to fall
John Major earned the title of turnip from his own supporters on the Sun
in 1992. In 1993 he looks likely to emerge as a true champion among
root vegetables. Mr Gardner would be proud of him.
Any doubts that the Americans had set up the 'humanitarian' intervention
in Somalia for their own cynical purposes should have been dispelled by
the way they staged the invasion for primetime TV, with marines wading ashore
in the glare of media spotlights.
As argued in this issue of Living Marxism, the famine in Somalia
is no worse than in other African countries of which we hear little. And
the problem of bandits stealing aid in Somalia has also been greatly inflated.
The facts have been twisted to legitimise the US intervention.
This fits into a recent pattern of inventing 'unique' international horrors.
Saddam Hussein is an unexceptional third world dictator, supported and armed
by the West for years. Yet the Western Allies depicted him as 'the new nuclear
Hitler' to justify their war against Iraq. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia
is a civil war, with the deaths and the detention camps which that usually
implies. Yet the West has claimed that there are 'death camps' and 'another
Holocaust', to justify its campaign against Serbia.
The common message behind the horror stories of Iraqi nukes, Serbian holocausts
and Somali bandits is that the West has the moral authority to go in and
sort these people out. Some of the loudest exponents of that message today
are liberals who would once have opposed Western interference in the affairs
of others. That shift of mood is a striking illustration of the interventionist
politics of the New World Order - politics which now pose a mortal danger
to people around the globe.
Those who look to Western intervention to save the world might recall what
has become of the Kurds since the Americans and British carved out 'safe
havens' for them in northern Iraq at the end of the Gulf War. Those havens
have become little more than camps, and the desperate Kurds have been left
exposed to attack. In October 1992, thousands of troops backed by artillery,
tanks and air cover invaded Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. They were from
Turkey, a member of the Nato alliance. And the Western media was not there
to meet them.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993