Recent defeats of Dutch, Greek and French governing parties show rising opposition to their austerity policies. Across Europe and North America, similar oppositions mount. Bailing out large financial and other corporations with borrowed money has been the almost universal government plan for coping with global capitalist crisis. The result – rising government deficits and debts – was followed by “austerity policies” to reduce those deficits and debts. After suffering a crisis and then bailouts that bypassed them to favor major corporations, people now face austerity cutbacks of government jobs and services to offset the bailouts’ costs. As opposition mounts, will it seek Keynesian “growth” or go beyond capitalism to economic democracy?
Keynesianism (expansionary state economic intervention) never was capitalists’ preferred policy for capitalism’s recurring recessions and depressions. Their Plan A was government borrowing to bail out major financial and other corporations followed by “austerity policies.” Austerity repays the costs of bailouts by siphoning money away from (cutting) government jobs and services. Only when anti-capitalist movements threaten from below, as in the 1930s, do anxious capitalists abandon Plan A and shift to Plan B – eventually formalized as Keynesianism. Via government spending, Keynesian policies claim credit for jobs and income “growth” and aim to keep political control away from anti-capitalist forces. Keynesianism’s dependence on radicals’ pressure from below explains its strength in the 1930s versus its weakness today.
Capitalists prefer austerity for many reasons. Because universal suffrage allows politics to undo capitalism’s consequences such as unequal wealth, income and power distributions, capitalists worry about how far universal suffrage will go. Majorities may, during crises, reject bailouts and austerity. The Greek and French just did. They may then demand Keynesian “growth” via government jobs and income and wealth redistribution. Or they may demand transition beyond capitalism to democratize their economies by socializing means of production, planning the economy and transforming enterprises into self-directed worker collectives. No wonder that conservative mainstream economics (so-called “neoclassical economics”) celebrates capitalism as a self-healing system requiring no government intervention.
Keynesianism also frustrates crisis mechanisms that discipline workers to capitalists’ advantage. Rising unemployment makes worried jobholders accept reduced wages, benefits and job security: good news for employers. As falling wages reduce costs for surviving capitalists, they anticipate rising profit opportunities. They will then invest, renewing growth and prosperity. That’s how most capitalists prefer to “let the market work through” economic crises.
In contrast, Keynesian government spending lessens unemployment and thus slows or prevents falling wages, benefits etc. It also usually requires increased state borrowing, money supply and/or taxes on capitalists and the rich. They oppose such tax increases, balk at lending to ever-more-indebted governments and worry about inflationary risks posed by money supply increases.
“Austerity policies” (capitalists’ Plan A) aim to pay for bailouts while reducing government deficits. They may also include some state charity for the worst victims of crisis. Republicans and Democrats (or, in Europe, conservatives and social democrats) squabble over how much charity to provide alongside the austerity they impose.
Keynesianism is capitalists’ Plan B when radicalized and organized workers demand systematic entitlement, not charity, and threaten capitalism itself. In the US during the 1930s, successful mass unionization by the Congress of Industrial Organizations and mass radicalization by socialist and communist parties built social movements with strong anti-capitalist components. In response, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) offered a deal. Instead of austerity, he would provide unprecedented government services to people (today perhaps called a “growth” plan). He would establish the Social Security and unemployment compensation systems and create and fill over 12 million federal jobs for the unemployed. Despite three times today’s level of unemployment and a worse federal budget crisis, FDR funded greatly expanded government public services. Obama plans to reduce Social Security and never mentions a federal hiring program. Capitalism then faced a powerful threat from below; today it does not (yet).
FDR funded his deal by taxing corporations and the rich and partly by borrowing from them (the lesser evil for them). Many of them agreed because they, too, feared the anti-capitalist opposition. FDR persuaded most of the left, in exchange for expanded state services and jobs, to downplay anti-capitalism. Many abandoned “socialism” as a goal; some redefined it to be what FDR proposed. FDR’s deal built an alliance that won four consecutive presidential elections.
Keynesianism – the formalized theory and policies drawn from John Maynard Keynes’ work in 1930s Britain – developed after FDR’s deal. It prompted a revised understanding of the Great Depression. Attention shifted away from how anti-capitalist and working-class pressure from below reoriented FDR’s policies. Instead, smart economists and astute politicians were depicted using Keynes’ “brilliant new economics” to moderate, manage and exit capitalist crises.
After 1945, corporations and the rich still supported Keynesian government spending (they feared depression’s return), but they got reduced taxes for themselves. They also got some shift in government expenditures from social services to more capitalist-friendly defense and infrastructural improvements. Keynesians also mostly joined neoclassical economists in dismissing Marx’s anti-capitalist economics. Capitalism’s crises, they insisted, were well understood and managed (by Keynesianism). They were mere temporary blips punctuating capitalism’s prosperous growth. Anti-capitalism was theoretically outmoded and politically suspect in cold war times.
Keynesian economics was, for enthusiasts, superior to the mainstream orthodoxy that had always endorsed austerity policies for crises. Keynesianism became the new orthodoxy from the 1930s to the 1970s. Then, a capitalist boom returned dominance to neoclassical economics (renamed neoliberalism). Even after the 2007 crisis hit, Keynesians (e.g., Paul Krugman) have so far failed to regain policy-making dominance
The “great” debate between neoclassical and Keynesian economists is neither great nor much of a debate. Both sides endorse, celebrate and defend capitalism. Their “debate” – between Plans B and A, more or less government intervention to sustain capitalism – periodically revives as a substitute for seriously engaging with critical economic theories, anti-capitalist social movements and their demands for economic democracy. The debate between austerity and growth policies is a sideshow for the main event: capitalism’s weakening battles with its own contradictions and with looming demands for transition beyond capitalism to economic democracy.