[Editor's note: Just because capitalism has crises doesn't mean we are complaining about it. Just because it functions in a manner that wreaks havoc with the world's population doesn't mean it doesn't "work." The following article on the global economic crisis shows exactly just how it "works." So, it is definitely not a matter of "fixing" it or wishing it could be "fixed," or "improved," nor of blaming some party or other for screwing up a perfectly fine economic system.]
[translation of "Drei Anmerkungen zur Japan-Krise," GegenStandpunkt Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 398, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich, 1998]
The Japanese national economy is sliding into recession. It is shrinking instead of growing.
The facts of the case are rather banal, since recession is a periodically recurring "phenomenon" of a capitalistic economy. Capitalistic entrepreneurs, with their investment strategies, extend social production beyond the extent to which their commodity can be profitably sold, attempting to win the competition for revenue and profits. Investment is financed by credit in expectation of future returns. At some point, sales slump and traders and producers run out of cash. Capital advanced no longer yields a profit, credit granted and taken is no longer converted into capital, and debtors go bust, hurting creditors as well. By and large, financial difficulties increasingly occur among firms as well as between firms and banks, raising demand for credit, which is decreasingly met for exactly the same reason, so that difficulties to make payments become general. Production plants, which have been flourishing and expanding up to now, are closed down and the employees depending on them are laid off, because profit can no longer be realized. On the other hand, credit institutions find less and less profitable investments for the money at their disposal and for credits given in expectation of future profits. As a consequence, these sums are in danger of losing their capitalistic use value, so credits which have been written down as assets on balance sheets are converted into uncovered debts. In the end, the failure of businesses and means of business outruns the accumulation of money, and the overall balance sheet of society shows losses. This continues until new growth can be built up on a shrunken foundation of capital, despite a likewise reduced purchasing power — and with that it all starts up again? The fight for market shares together with the credit business brings about the well-known business cycle. On the one hand, capitalistic entrepreneurs are thus set against each other as competitors, related in a negative way. On the other hand, the credit business, which turns all money owners into prospective customers and beneficiaries of someone else's successful business, makes them dependent in a positive way. At the moment, the Japanese economy is at the stage in the business cycle in which the disparity between financial means looking for investments on the one side, and profitable transactions on the other side, necessarily enforces a comprehensive collapse with creditors as well as debtors, a crisis of growth of capital in general. And, according to careful estimates of its Prime Minister, the country will stay in this state of affairs "for at least another one or two years."
Japan's recession is perceived by public pundits to be a consequence of the escalating crisis plaguing the East-Asian "tigers." The breakdown of financial markets and devaluation of the respective means of business there "infects Japan" as well because its traders and investors are the most involved. This means nothing more than that claims made by Japanese capitalists for increasing their capital are no longer serviced. As a consequence, losses occur because the surrounding states have been included in their strategies of growth and reckoned with as a sphere of investment. If the national economy of these countries breaks down to the same degree to which foreign, especially Japanese, capital is withdrawn for lack of sufficient prospects of profit, then the "crisis of growth" is nothing else but a crisis of profitably employing this same capital, which has advanced its accumulation by these "emerging markets." In so doing it has extended its accumulation beyond the limits of purchasing power, found its profit expectations let down, loses its credit in its sphere of investment and writes it off. And if this comparatively tiny failure is followed by such great effects that the Japanese economy is driven into recession — having more than two thirds the GDP of Asia as whole — then Japanese capital in general has plunged into such a state of affairs that itsreturns will no longer service all the demands for future accumulation. As a consequence, credit is ruined for lack of possibilities to make further profit.
Economic theories which explain the events of the crisis as a "spill-over" from Japan's incompetent neighborhood onto the region's leading capitalistic nation turn cause and effect upside down. The ruined national economies of East Asia are nothing more nor less than the first scenes of a crisis that Japanese capital as a whole has worked itself into. Where else could the possibility of such far-reaching results come from? This business has come to such a state because of its own over-accumulation. It has stumbled first in exactly those places where speculation on satisfactory growth rates has been the most demanding and consequently where the reactions to the failure of these growth rates to materialize have been the most critical. This was due to the standards of a successful capitalistic business life dedicated to private moneymaking. It was in no way the result of economic failures which could be blamed on the states affected or on the incompetence of their somewhat corrupt governments.
Therefore, a "growth crisis" affecting only the Asian "tigers" has not come to pass, despite all attempts to limit the business collapse to its first victims, and to buy freedom from crisis for its real originators and sponsors. This was the intention behind the billions of IMF credits, created by the world's leading economic powers in their joint action, distributed by the IMF, with additional resources provided directly by the Japanese state. These sums were aimed at limiting the effects to what would be a temporary setback in the development of East Asian "emerging markets." They have indeed prevented one or another Japanese trader or speculator from losing funds, and have probably interrupted one or another chain of cause and effect from the insolvency of Thai or Indonesian clients to the same for Japanese businessmen. The political effect, which was surely achieved, was to commit the governments of the crisis states to unconditionally surrender their national economy to foreign capitalistic interests. But what's the use, really, if Japanese capital, through its projects in neighboring countries, bumps into the barriers of its own further profitable employment, which had been extended to a tiny degree by setting these countries up as a sphere of investment. It is no use to overall profitability if one or another business has come to a happy conclusion thanks to credits on account at the Japanese state.
Instead, the crucial national business cycle is generalized and escalates by the collapse of profitable businesses on the one hand, and by the creation of national credit on a huge scale on the other. The credits issued by the state do not bring about any new profitable transactions, but serve only to limit the damage. The "markets" start doubting the value of the yen, the money in which all national equities are issued. The cabal of international money and currency traders — in Japan as well — settles accounts with the economic power of Japan. A decreasing exchange rate certifies in practice that the yen consists of debts which will never be paid, are therefore valueless and have to be written off, rather than credit by which money has been successfully made. This practical judgement against the national means of business reduces the value of capital denominated in yen and as a consequence brings about a destruction of capital which cannot be undone simply by politically creating new credit money. The stuff out of which the capitalistic wealth of nations is made is itself damaged.
And this damage does not remain limited to the Japanese nation.
From the point of view of the western national economies the Japanese state is a competitor. Its successes on the world market preclude their own from time to time. They are aware of this negative dependency from the success of capitalistic endeavors promoted by Japan, which brings them to critical admiration. The way the Japanese state handles its credit, the industrialists, or the workers is viewed as a shining example or as a failure, depending upon the stage of the business cycle the Far East economic miracle finds itself in. So the other nations occasionally feel compelled to realize — in the face of their own business cycles — that a Japanese economic policy — especially then when it is successful — belongs under the heading "unfair competition," leading to a theft of shares in the global economy others are supposedly entitled to.
But Japan is also a partner for the western national economies. Competition in the world market is all about acquiring parts of the worldwide purchasing power. Money and credit made in Japan — in which are combined the successes and failures of this Far Eastern national economy — are an indispensable part of it. They provide the possibility of taking credit or making investments out of which the business world, committed to the money of other great economic nations, makes a profit as well. Accumulating money in other financial locales is partly founded on accumulating money in Japan. Perceiving this positive dependency causes critical worries concerning the success and failure of good government and the pursuit of profit in Japan.
Nationalism is quite active in this sympathetic view of Asia's great economic power. Economic journalists, whose expertise puts them in agreement with business representatives, chancellors and ministers, have compiled an arsenal of perceptive clichés for viewing the special character of Japanese success. Applied to the present recession the following exemplary diagnosis emerges:
"Not long ago, foreigners flocked to Japan to see how things were done. The Japanese economy was the envy of the world, and its financial markets the source of stupendous wealth. Countries scrambled for Japanese investment. Much of it poured into America — to buy bonds, property and companies, and to build factories for Japanese manufacturers who had reinvented entire industries, such as consumer electronics and automobiles. Japanese firms were studied as models of efficiency and innovation. — How things change. Nowadays few foreigners travel to Japan in search of answers They worry that Japan's sluggishness threatens — to drag down a large part of the world's economy with it. How, they ask, could so many talented people make such a mess of things in so short a time? That is the Japan puzzle." (The Economist, March 98) "The invisible hand is giving Japan an almighty whack. First to feel the pain were the country's banks. Having lent immoderately large sums to just about anyone that wanted the money, they have been on the ropes ever since the collapse of stock and land prices earlier this decade." ( The Economist, April 98)
"The possibility for the Japanese super-ministry MITI to steer the economy has been much admired by European industrial planners, the model of the Far East capitalism-by-consent having been discussed as an economic ideal. Meanwhile Götterdämmerung [twilight of the gods] is rampant in the Pacific. All the world is shocked that the Asiatic economic miracle, for so long gazed at in wonder, ends up in a crisis of such proportions. Homemade causes as well as global economic changes have contributed to it, economic failures as well as political ones have played a role. It is a crisis of growth of a region in which foreign and local investors and financiers as well as local politicians have lost the ability to see clearly. State direction of the economy, cronyism and corruption have prevented a timely adaptation. The invisible hand of the market has hit back here as well.
The Far Eastern Japanese model is out-dated. The feared "Japan, Inc." is deprived of its mystique. Market forces prove to be stronger, market capitalism turns out to be more flexible in the case of Japan as well. Europe can heed the lesson that economic steering, industrial policy ? and a politically controlled banking system are no longer of any use in the age of globalization. What Japan needs are consistent structural reforms, tax reductions, deregulation and the clearing up of its debt position. But does the Japanese government have the power to do so? Would the opposition agree to it? Will Japanese society, which is now endangered by the breakdown of social values, be able to find its way from traditional rules to the morality of the market? — Japan as an important industrial power in Asia and the second greatest industrial power in the world has great responsibilities these days. Will Japan do justice to this responsibility?" ("Götterdämmerung am Pazifik," Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 1998)
The economic development of Japan in the past two years is disapprovingly commented on as a special version of capitalism adverse to the market. In reality, the state of affairs could not be more in accordance with capitalism. In Japan as well — as can be studied from other countries and their economic miracles — state bureaucracy, especially the ministries responsible for industry and international trade, the central bank, corporate banks, industrial conglomerates, and export businesses have intensely acted in combination to bring about an accumulation of capitalistic wealth. That has been achieved so well that powerful investors — by no means from the Japanese political-industrial-financial Mafia alone — have speculated on a continual progress of the national wealth, a corresponding increase in value of financial paper and titles to assets, and have made a lot of money with all that. The speculative increases in value, especially of real estate, have served as collateral for an expanding creation of credit by which the continuation of speculation could be financed. With hindsight, its "dizzy heights" make the same people shake their heads who have until lately celebrated the tripling of German share prices — or those of other denominations — during the last two years. At any rate, Tokyo did not differ. There as well, business-minded investors and fund managers had organized nothing else but a gigantic boom, an accumulation of credit on future businesses and their returns, preceding all real businesses and their returns. Speculation has been stretched far beyond the limit of possibly serving all the amassed claims. This is the way any financial business is done, and the job descriptions of money traders correspond to it. It is only typical then to insist on securities for one's own profit expectations, to mistrust the continuation of speculative increases in value, to refuse further lending, to unexpectedly break off the entire boom in doing so, thereby "revealing" the wealth which had been brought about by speculation and credit as a fictitious one, as a "bubble" of no value.
How they got through all that in Tokyo is a textbook example. So was the previous speculative boom which brought the government into the arena. And even that is entirely normal and typical for the rules of modern capitalistic management in handling a crisis. The government correctly understood its responsibility towards its capitalistic community and as a matter of course did not allow the over-inflated "bubble" to burst. Otherwise, it would have driven the national credit institutions into bankruptcy, and their creditors and debtors into insolvency. That would really not have been in accordance to the spirit of the kind of relation Japan — or any other modern bourgeois state — has established between itself as the "lender of last resort" and the business world which creates and uses credit, and in times of crisis demands refinancing. Rather, the government allows the banks and — as required — makes it possible for them to prolong their credits as part of their assets by issuing central bank money. It does so even if these credits are no longer serviced, cannot be redeemed, and are therefore valueless. In this way not all the speculative riches are rescued, but the system of national credit is saved. The price has been an ongoing explosion of the mass of credit, which only exists and increases for satisfying the claims for profit depending on it, thus certifying their solidity. For years no "invisible hand" has been raised to prevent the Japanese government and its business world from handling their valueless debts in this manner. On the contrary, the free markets have taken up the entire Japanese credit as a good capitalistic commodity, citing reason and necessity, despite its unproductive accumulation. Indeed, they have acknowledged the corresponding means of payment as solid world money, having their capitalistically valid reasons for holding the yen in high esteem, even with its exchange value sinking in relation to the dollar. The doubtful yen credits have been faced — and still are faced ? by massive dollar claims of Japanese creditors against the budget of the numero uno capitalistic world power. Japanese capital credits the national debt of the United States from its excess returns, especially from its American business. It thus protects their capitalistic use value, namely as assets earning interest rates, and certifies the quality of growing gluts of dollars created by the American state as solid money. Also the other way around, the great debtor guarantees the loan of its creditor.
This relation is endangered now. The value of the yen has collapsed and the business world, which has caused it to do so, predicts that it will continue to do so. Immediately, the unproductive national credit gluts are seen for what they indeed are, a burden for a trustworthy accumulation of capital which has to be removed. And all of a sudden critical pundits disapprove of everything that they had previously declared to be Japan's special way and secret of success, declaring it an un-capitalistic wrong track after all. The picture conjured up of anti-freedom immorality in Japanese business life surely comes close to the real everyday life of long-established globalized profit making and its upkeep by the state. The picture, however, tends toward a ridiculous travesty of both the ideal case of a market economy as well as the "deviant behavior" of the Japanese. One might really doubt the critics' powers of judgement and perceptive faculties, if it were not immediately apparent what all this nonsense stands for. Theorists of the American discontent with the notorious surplus in the balance of trade — to the advantage of its Western Pacific competitor — offer empirical evidence for their dogma that American capitalism would show its intrinsic superiority were it not spoilt by the unfair wheeling and dealing of crypto-socialists or other vicious enemies. Thus, reasons are given for the recommended threats which could ensure more liberality on the other side of the big ocean. In addition, they embrace the case for a strategic joint action of the private business lobby and state bureaucracy on the American side, one which does not differ in the least from what they are accusing the Japanese of. European pundits are more likely to be casting the covetous glances of competitors than turning up their noses at Japan's improving balance of trade. Similar diagnoses serve the purpose of putting down the successes enjoyed by that other great post-war pupil in the Pacific — also raised by the dollar-wielding world power — and of copying them a little if need be. This is admitted when, in the spirit of resentful admiration, they discard yesterday's theory as a delusion. All in all, Japan's foreign friends are well informed about the misdemeanors that Japanese competitors owe their successes to and are justly paying for.
The competitor's defeat does not call for triumph, however. Nor is satisfaction with ones own national virtuousness the last word. The sharp disapproval of Japan's so-called methods of success, which are said to have resulted in the present failures, is telling. Consternation is shown. Worries are expressed not about colleagues far away but about the world markets. Their "invisible hand" is said to have given Japan such a massive whack that their own fate will from now on depend on whether the Japanese government takes up its responsibility for the world economy and on how it will do so. Nor are the complaints concerning the so-called "protection" of the Japanese markets dictated by envy alone, but are rather a tacit admission of how much the rest of the world has been "linked" with Japanese business for so long. A breakdown of literally "protected" markets could not make a difference to the competitors anyway. In fact, all the criticism directed at Japan starts from the assumption that the crisis there puts their own capitalism at risk, affects their own "national economies." And there is a reason for that.
When growth collapses and slides into a deficit in the second largest economic power of the world, when the crisis of credit spreads to the national currency, then a declaration of bankruptcy concerning the fictitious nature of all globally circulating financial capital is in progress. The whole business racket, inflated way beyond all world market limits, starts to "deflate." How and to what extent there is "contagion" from Japan's economic crisis to foreign partners differs depending on the particular way each branch of business is endangered. Someone fears for his sales in Japan, someone else for his position on the Asian or American market, where dumping by Japanese suppliers will have to be expected as a result of the yen devaluation. Yet another registers portfolio losses from yen-denominated bonds or futures on the Nikkei index, while there may of course be someone whose calculations actually come out ahead of the game. Such chains of cause and effect are no longer special cases which might in the end add up to an unpleasant overall result. Rather these are all cases of a general positive dependency of money accumulation in one country on the accumulation in another, a dependency which has been established by the global pushing and shoving of credit all around. The recession in Japan does not only ruin business there. Business is also ruined that financial capital has been relying on and has drawn credit on in anticipation of quite different rates of return. Because of the credit crisis in Japan, its competitors fear for the tenability of their credits, and rightly so. Nor can they feel relieved when considering that the devaluation of credit money — representing purchasing power raised by debts — takes place as a comparison of currencies, which is why the yen is one-sidedly hit for the moment. As stated above, the yen is linked to the dollar in a particular way. All currencies owe their international validity to an act of mutual recognition by which they are related. That is why they all are globally accepted as means of payments. The states that issue credit grant each other credit for their legal means of payment by allowing the free trade in currencies. That means they mutually accredit their own creations as world money. By vouching for the asserted money quality of their currencies they also depend on this circle of mutual recognition. Once one of the important currencies fails, not only the purchasing power of its home country is endangered, but also that of the entire capitalistic world.
Small wonder that the world economic powers are busy exchanging diplomatic greetings. Their economic content is plain to see.
Economic powers great and small urge Japan to bring its economic crisis to an end. These appeals of course lose their bite somewhat under the conceit that the collapse of business on the Japanese islands would convict the competitor of gross mismanagement, whereas business is fine and in perfect capitalistic order at home. But this conceit exists in perfect harmony with fears that the Japanese money and credit crisis would bring about serious damage to their own national credits and threaten an economic downturn.
And in fact, some damage has already occurred. "Waves from the Japanese quake are reaching Chile," says a headline in July. The "emerging markets" in Latin America, nearly "recovered" from their own breakdown not so long ago, once again are feeling the "risk awareness" of internationally active investors, on which they depend more than ever. They suffer securities and currency collapses on a massive scale. Serious rumor even has it that the so-called financial crisis in Moscow was caused by "caution" on the side of speculators irritated by the "crisis in Japan." Important stock exchanges, no longer in East Asia alone, have slumped. Pundits from the leading nations of the world economy have corrected their growth forecasts downwards, so also finance ministers in predicting tax revenues. — The financial markets in charge of the effects and consequences of the Far Eastern recession have been active and done their work.
Thus, Tokyo is requested to limit the damage. The competitor is treated as a partner who has to please start improving things for the global economy. In all seriousness, the Japanese government is asked to immediately and simultaneously enact the most contrary measures. It should destroy credit, namely the "bad" debts, so that good money can be made again. It should create new credit, also so that good money can be made again on growth in Japan. It should rescue old credit, so that a lot of money can be made on Japanese financial markets. All in all, it has to revive the monetary resources at its disposal in the way "we" have been used to. Being partners, the Japanese owe so much "responsibility" to "us," the world economy. And "we" are permitted ? against this background — to expect more good conduct from a competitor, whose nation must be "opened up."
These claims collide with a state power which has done everything it could to convert the gluts of unproductive national credit into accumulating capital. Since the ominous credit "bubble" of the '80s burst, which the state neutralized by refinancing the bad debts, Japan has been facing a problem. Although the banks were enabled to roll over their bad debts, they have amassed more and more unproductive credit instead of outgrowing their politically credited mountains of debt and shrinking their valueless paper assets to a sum of minor importance, which could then have been painlessly written off. From the beginning, the public means for refinancing this mountain of debt have not been suitable to put things like balance sheets in order, due to the relation between accumulating claims for interest and meager profit. The state issued credit precisely aimed at "boosting" the economy, to provide new business opportunities for the financial capitalists to an extent comparable to their needs to profitably use their capital. This unpleasant state of affairs — that available credit can no longer be converted into capital — could however not be overcome. How can it be, once capital is suffering from the absurd disease of over-accumulation? Instead, with the help of these monies, the nation has headed into the current crisis, in which the lack of profits, non-serviced debts and collapsing transactions are adding up to a national overdraft.
This result is naturally a political economic challenge for the Japanese state, just like for any other bourgeois democracy. Even without the threats from close friends and allies it has implemented the measures demanded of them. To put the banking sector on its feet again the government prepares for "bad" debts to be written off and even for "over-indebted" banks to be closed down. It issues a considerable glut of new credits to rescue endangered banking clients and to "boost up" the business cycle, runs deficits in its budget, which it in the meantime consolidates again by copying the Maastricht criteria. Even the demands for "opening up" markets are met, foreign banks and fund managers are more easily let into the country. And all is calculated to attract more foreign capital for investment in Japan, to make the national credit and currency crisis-proof by more internationalization. By these efforts, the government admits this much at least, that the crisis of credit, which could not be limited to the neighboring countries damaged in the first wave, will not be stopped so easily. Neither will there be any chance to do so in the home country, nor as far as the global effects are concerned. Even smaller is the chance to turn things around into a boom. The "refutation" of the ongoing creation of credit though the failure to use it profitably is under way.
Thus the bills presented to the Japanese for payment at home have necessarily been followed by other small, medium, and big bills in the near vicinity or farther away. Pressing claims by the allies have to be answered. They demand "drastic structural reforms" — the current ideological synonym for successful service for the common global good. They ask for "leadership" — the democratic code for successful government. With all their requests, however urgent or firm on principle they might be, the affected competing nations have to admit again and again that they themselves do not know of any successful remedy for the crisis — because there simply is none in a modern "liberalized" world capitalism.
The only thorough cure for their markets one could think of cannot be offered by the world economic powers, namely, the acquisition of promising new areas for business on a sufficient scale. On the contrary, the last contribution to this end, which had been good for a worldwide economic boom, was renovating certain countries into "emerging markets." This has been done so extensively that the current crisis of credit searching for investment has started from these same places. That deviant world power, Russia, which had sometimes been used for anti-cyclical business efforts during the Cold War, is now in no state to play that role, lacking as it does all prerequisites for becoming a new "emerging market." Unbelievably, the capitalistic world is actually speculating on the "communist" national state party of China about the external value of both its currencies, the one in China and the one in Hong Kong. That China's money could be a stabilizing factor in the Far Eastern crisis has to be one of the worst jokes in world history.
By no means do Japan's partners remain idle because of all this. The more important they are, the more they have to confer, to send "signals" to the markets, to organize supportive buying and to calm down financial capital with lots of money. They have a lot to do to prevent the credit crisis from ending up in a general ruin of global credit relations, and the devaluation of the yen from making the entire "world economy" collapse. Nor can the recession in Japan degenerate into a "downward spiral" of global business, currently conjured up as the acutely threatening danger of "deflation," a phrase that had nearly fallen into oblivion. The possibility of declarations of national bankruptcy has to be kept under control. Doubts have to be fended off as to whether the mutual accrediting of the leading currencies can be kept up. All in all, the nations in charge of global capitalism have their hands full.
Meanwhile the leading states face a problem they have had under control for decades, having simply not allowed it come up. Doubts have cropped up as to whether their main instrument for dealing with international credit and payment crises will still work. Will credit issued and distributed via the IMF be suitable any longer as a means for limiting the effects of the ongoing crisis and for preventing it from eventually becoming general? They themselves have their doubts. Neither the recession in Japan nor the devaluation of the yen are "emergency cases" of a kind that could be solved by resorting to as many IMF funds as one can. The institution would have to rescue one of its three most important creditors by using its credit. That is why there is no consideration at all for this kind of absurd intervention, rather quite the reverse. All bets are still on Japan as a source of new credit for local economic programs, albeit with generally doubted prospects. Japan is even expected to provide enormous new credits to the — IMF!. If it comes to it, the next time financial capital settles accounts again with some weaker partners, they could be dealt with in a manner similar to how the defaults of the Far Eastern states were handled. That could even apply to such bottomless pits as post-communist Russia, and could probably interrupt otherwise ruinous chains of reaction, at least as far as the currently definitive opinion and practice is concerned. Nonetheless, that kind of intervention has for the meantime been ruled out, not only by members of congress in the United States, but also by allied finance ministers. According to a governing deutche Mark patriot, the type of problems the fund is in charge of would be misunderstood, and its abilities and means would be over-extended. So whatever else, the resources available to the IMF are not to be increased to the extent urgently proposed by its leading officials. The crisis is coming to a head, and the political directors of world capitalism simply refuse to go on using their power to issue credits to the extent necessary in this new situation, to "buy their way out" of the effects of a crisis.
Intervening by more unproductive credit, or else not intervening at all — both options would be damaging and by no means useful for the tenability of crediting, paying and settling accounts internationally. The capitalistic world powers seem to have come to this forward-looking point of view.