Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Jeremy Corbyn is right to demand Britain is in a Custom’s Union with the EU

By Tom O’Leary

The importance of Britain being in a Customs Union with the EU is highlighted by the recent exchange of letters between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May. Jeremy Corbyn has focused on blocking a ‘No Deal’ outcome, which would be extremely negative for jobs and living standards. He has also set out his support for being in a customs union with the EU. Theresa May continues to threaten No Deal and rejects being in a permanent customs union, it being one of her key red lines.

Although there is much else in the exchange of letters which is also important to note, the principal issue examined here will be the one that Jeremy Corbyn raises, which is the vital necessity of being in a Customs Union with the EU.

Corbyn’s letter demands significant changes to the Political Declaration (which offers an outline of the future relationship with the EU) and insists that these changes need to include, “A permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union. This would include alignment with the union customs code, a common external tariff and an agreement on commercial policy that includes a UK say on future EU trade deals. We believe that a customs union is necessary to deliver the frictionless trade that our businesses, workers and consumers need, and is the only viable way to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. As you are aware, a customs union is supported by most businesses and trade unions.”  

The full text of Corbyn’s letter is here. May’s letter rejects this, and falsely claims that the Political Declaration continues the same benefits as the customs union. This is blatantly untrue, as the Political Declaration says only that those same benefits are desired, without any mechanism to achieve that. May’s letter is here.

The nature of the EU

There is no useful purpose, either for serious analysis or promoting the interests of the working class, to suggest that the European Union is anything other than a capitalist club. It is not, as Will Hutton and other propagandists claim a repository of Enlightenment values. First these so called ‘Enlightenment values’ were used to create the greatest colonial Empires the world has ever seen. In the famous words of Gandhi when asked what he thought of Western civilization he replied ‘it would be a good idea’. Today it remains a sickeningly bad joke in light of the EU’s treatment of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean, its treatment of Greece, the imposition of austerity across the Eurozone and much more besides. The false claims as to the EU Enlightenment project also acts increasingly as a cover for an intensification of vile Islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of racism within Europe.

The purpose of the EU is to enhance and develop the interests of capital, most powerfully German capital, across the continent of Europe. But this development is multi-faceted in the way that the development of capitalism is in general. So, a new factory will usually entail increased labour exploitation and environmental degradation. Yet socialists do not stand against the construction of the new factory and do welcome the jobs, but instead argue for the best possible pay and conditions for all the workers in it, for environmental protections, other safeguards, and so on. Where and when it is possible, socialists are in favour of the factory passing into the hands of the workers. 

The nature of a customs union

All goods and services operate in a market, irrespective of whether the producers or consumers understand that as such. For the most advanced manufactured goods in particular that market is increasingly internationalised, even globalised.  

The internationalisation occurs at three different levels.
· First, there is the production of inputs for final production, which is everything from basic raw materials to the most sophisticated machinery, equipment or software.
· Secondly, there is the production of finished goods themselves which can take place at a number of different locations internationally.
· Thirdly, there is the market for the goods themselves, where the size of the market is decisive for the efficiency of the production and the Investment that is required.

The production of many services is less easily internationalised for many reasons, including language barriers and lack of labour mobility, although some services such as finance, travel etc are highly internationalised and increasingly legal and accounting services are also heading in the same direction. Many others, such as entertainment services, some aspects of design and publishing are developing in the same way.

The alternative to the customs union

Because the British economy already participates in the Customs Union with the EU and the Single Market, refusal to have any Customs Union with the EU amounts to a protectionist measure, a reduction in this economy’s openness to international trade. The Brexiteer fantasy that barriers to trade with the EU economy can be compensated by trade deals with other countries is mathematically unlikely as the EU constitutes approximately half all trade in goods. But it also ignores that fact that over 60 trade deals with third countries will in fact be ripped up by no longer being a Member of the EU. Trade deals with those countries, most especially the US, but also Japan, South Korea and other countries will have to be renegotiated from a relatively weaker position.

The increasingly internationalised production of manufactured goods has also become a hot topic in the United States because of Trump’s trade wars and protectionism. But Trump’s protectionism in favour of the autos sector has foundered precisely because so much of the content of US-marque cars that are finished in the US is from Canada, Mexico and other countries. 

However, these ‘American-made’ cars are actually globally-produced. The 2017 Ford Focus, for example, is built in the United States, but only gets 40% of its parts from the U.S. and Canada, according to Federal data. At the other extreme, only 5% of the parts for 2017 BMW 7 Series Sedan were made in the US. The rest was made in Germany. For some time, the leading automakers in the ‘motor city’ of Detroit have been Japanese, outstripping the production of US marques. 

At most, Trump’s protectionist measures (which have been underpinned by huge tax breaks for companies and the rich) have only deferred the further internationalisation of production. Yet the IMF has noted that they could knock $430 billion off global output

Trump once tweeted that trade wars are easy to win for a country which runs sizeable trade deficits:

Of course, if there was one big set of factories in the US producing cars and another set in Canada and Mexico, then his protectionism might possibly have the impact he desires. Instead, his policy simply interrupts the efficient socialisation of production, in favour of a failed attempt to re-organise it on a national basis. By far the most important effect of his policy is to raise the cost of production in the US, which raises prices to US consumers more and therefore increases the competitive threat to US jobs in cars and associated industries.

A key impediment to the development of these fundamental trends is the existence of tariff and non-tariff barriers (which include product standards, local content rules, and other factors which are all subject to inspection regimes). A customs union operates to remove the tariff barriers between two different economies.

Unfortunately, there are romantic notions in left circles in Britain and Europe that would wish away the concrete issues raised by the existence of multinational or even global supply chains. It is unrealistic to believe workers’ control or ‘Lucas plan’ ideas in relation to current, complex manufacturing supply chains that dominate aerospace, cars, pharmaceuticals and other sectors can ignore these realities. As described in a previous article, aerospace and other advanced producers rely on a vast flow of inputs as part of the production process. It would require a vast, entirely unfeasible level of investment to recreate those on national territory, and for a national market that is simply too small to support even the current level of output.

Outside a Customs Union

It is clear that simply to attempt to retain key producers after Brexit, a large increase in public expenditure on subsidies would be required - as this government has already done with Nissan. Even though Ministers attempted to keep the deal with Nissan secret, it was later revealed that is was a subsidy of £80 million. Crucially, with the threat of No Deal still not removed, that subsidy was not enough to get Nissan to meet its commitment to producing new models at its Sunderland plant. As Jeremy Corbyn put it replying to Theresa May in Parliament on 12 February: ‘The Prime Minister has just told members of this House to hold their nerve. Tell that to Nissan workers in Sunderland and the thousands more worried about their job security”.

In the event of No Deal, which means having no Customs Union with the EU, the scale of the compensation needed to offset new tariffs on cars is equivalent to the carmakers’ wage bill. This is untenable over the medium-term as it would be cheaper for government to pay the workers directly. Outside a Custom’s Union with the EU similar these problems would be multiplied in numerous industries.

In general, without the reactionary political interventions from the likes of Trump and the Hard Brexiteers, the underlying economic trends are for greater trans-continental and even global production. A leading Italian transport services provider last year announced the first ever regular roll-on, roll-off route between North America and the Mediterranean. It will be used primarily to connect Turkish to European car production, and then connect the latter to Canada, the US and Mexico. These are the fundamental economic trends the protectionists like Trump and the Hard Brexiteers are attempting to fight.

Marxist theory

Marxism explains these fundamental economic trends. Despite being frequently asserted, it is not the case that Marx begins his analysis of capitalism with analysing only capitalist production. This is for the very good reason that production is not unique to capitalism. It exists in all more primitive societies, feudalism and slavery, and will of course exist under socialism. Production is a given in every form of society.

Marx actually begins ‘Capital’ with what is unique to capitalism, the transformation of commodities into their universal equivalent of money, thus enabling ‘generalised commodity production’. This is decisive in this context if it is recalled that Marx demonstrated that commodities first appear through trade, through exchange. 

So, in concluding Chapter One of Volume 1 of Capital Marx writes,
'As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility'.

Exchange, of which international trade is one large scale form, is central to the production of commodities. Goods only become commodities through that exchange. Not only is it impossible in the modern era to maintain efficient production on a national basis in an economy of Britain’s scale, it is also impossible to produce efficiently without international exchange. Incidentally, it will be even less possible in an advanced socialist society.

Socialists, and a government pursuing progressive socialist policies, have no interest in the political structures of the EU - which are designed to be as little democratic as possible. But they, and the working class of this country, do have an interest in ensuring access to the markets of the EU. That can be gained either through remaining in the EU, for purely economic and not political reasons, or via a custom’s union and ‘close alignment with the single market’.

As Jeremy Corbyn put it in Parliament on 12 February: ‘In order to stop the UK falling into the backstop you need a permanent customs union and a strong single market deal. That is key to maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland. That is key to protecting jobs, industry and living standards in this country.
‘The Prime Minister says there is no need to negotiate a customs union as her deal provides for the benefits of being in one. I’m afraid… that is simply not the case.
‘The deal the Prime Minister negotiated means there will be barriers to trade in goods and there will not be frictionless trade. Putting manufacturers across the country at a huge disadvantage.’

This is why May’s threat of No Deal and refusing a customs union is a deeply damaging policy, and why Jeremy Corbyn is entirely right to insist on a customs union with the EU.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Why Marx would agree with Jeremy Corbyn to totally oppose a No Deal Brexit

By Tom O’Leary

Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, has thrown itself full scale into the struggle to block a No Deal Brexit. The latest step in this was the correct decision not only to put forward Labour’s own proposals but to whip Labour MPs in favour of Yvette Cooper’s Parliamentary amendment - which would have lifted the 29 March deadline to give a period of time for Parliament to change the law to block a No Deal Brexit. Even although this was defeated, because a small number of Labour MPs opposed Corbyn and instead supported the government, it was entirely correct for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to have continued the fight against No Deal - and this will have been overwhelmingly supported by Labour voters, Labour members, and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. For reasons analysed in this article the willingness of the Tories to consider a No Deal Brexit is an attempt to carry out a policy which will constitute an extremely severe attack on the working class and ordinary population.

This fight against a No Deal Brexit is a key part of the current struggle to prevent a severe and enduring attack on living standards. It involves much more serious and damaging issues than short term disruption from No Deal. To understand a No Deal outcome would clearly be a terrible option, involving major loss of jobs and attacks on living standards, it is worth examining it in detail and from a fundamental aspect. This shows why the struggle to block a No Deal Brexit is not merely tactically correct but flows from fundamental features of Marxism.

No Deal fundamentals 

The small minority of economists who advocate a Hard Brexit or No Deal have recently begun to address the question from a fundamental viewpoint. This is largely in response to the risks that some major international manufacturers may be forced to leave Britain if No Deal is enacted. Other companies have already begun to halt, close, or relocate operations. These include among others, Jaguar Land Rover, Honda, AirBus and of course Dyson, despite its founder being a prominent supporter of Brexit.

Unfortunately, the response of the Brexit-supporting economists to the clash between their plans and the reality of fundamental economics is to seek to abolish the latter. So, prominent Brexiteer economist Roger Bootle was reported as saying he was: “Fed up with businesses talking about their supply chains as if preserving their businesses were the most important thing in the Brexit negotiations.”

Similarly, Julian Jessop Brexiteer and formerly chief economist for the right-wing Institute for Economic Affairs tweeted, “Perhaps we should sometimes question whether it makes sense to prioritise the preservation of complex business models that rely (in the case of Honda's Swindon plant) on 350 lorries delivering 2m components every single day, with just one hour's worth of parts kept on site...?” 

But this model exists independently of Brexit and even of this country. Neither is it a ‘capitalist plot’ – in the sense of an arbitrary subjective decision by capitalists. It simply reflects the current development of modern complex production along lines analysed and foreseen by Marx long ago – the increasing division/socialisation of labour which has necessarily now assumed a globalised form. The Brexiteers cannot abolish the model, any more than the law of gravity can be repealed, their plans can only achieve Britain’s removal from it – with serious damage to production and therefore jobs and living standards.  

This model, of highly complex, integrated supply chains where components arrive just-in-time and where value is added at a series of specialist locations, is simply the modern expression of the most fundamental economic forces analysed in ideas which were first set out with the founding of economics as a science and which were further and most fundamentally developed by Marx.

Division/socialisation of labour

In the opening chapter of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith begins, “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.”

The division of labour encapsulates the process by which an entire complex chain of goods is created through a series of tasks performed separately and distinctly before they become the final finished product. The material expression of those tasks are the inputs of intermediate goods - Honda’s two million parts a day and the supply chains that so antagonise the Brexit-supporting economists. 

In Adam Smith’s famous example, no single individual could or can possibly produce even the simplest product of his day, a pin, without the inputs of a huge number of other industries. The production process, from raw materials, to intermediate goods is just too complex. 

Furthermore, this division of labour long ago passed over national boundaries. Smith himself pointed out that it was as easy then to transport coal from Newcastle to Amsterdam as it was to London (both were done by sea, which was then a far more efficient mode of transport than road). 

In the course of economic development, which has of course been overwhelmingly capitalist development, the division of labour, or what Marx calls more scientifically the ‘socialisation of production’, becomes ever more international, rendering purely national large scale production increasingly obsolete and impractical.   

So, in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels write, “The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrowmindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.” 

The prime example used by Marx and Engels of this development at the time when the Communist Manifesto was written was England. Part of the genius of Marx and Engels was to foresee trends almost uniquely apparent in England at that time, and understand how they expressed the development of the world economy. This was at a time when England’s openness to trade was equivalent to just 13% to 15% of GDP, when currently the most advanced economies have an openness to trade far in excess of that. According to the World Bank world trade as a proportion of world GDP was 56.2% in 2016. The world economy is gripped by the ‘cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country’ foreseen by Marx and Engels 170 years ago. 

The idea that a socialist economy would not aim to make the maximum possible use of the international division/socialisation of Labour therefore has nothing to do with Marx’s analysis but was introduced from Stalin onwards in the USSR. The consequent cutting off of the USSR from participation in the international division of labour was one of the primary reasons for the problems of the Soviet Union’s economy and the final collapse of the USSR. In contrast China’s ‘reform and opening up’ policies, which oriented China to attempt to use to the maximum participation in the international division of labour, were a return to Marx’s analysis, and produced the most rapid growth of a major economy in human history. It is crucial for defence of working-class living standards that the left follows the analysis of Marx and not that of the former USSR.

The effects of No Deal 

This cosmopolitanism in production and consumption, which today is sometimes called globalisation, takes different precise forms in each country. As much as it irritates Brexiteers, the truth is approximately half of all trade in goods to and from Britain is with the EU. The international division of labour that Britain’s economy participates in is primarily with the EU. The US is only a distant second, approximately one-sixth the size in relative importance in trade in goods to the EU. 

With a No Deal Brexit there would be two hammer blows that would severely damage that participation, which is expressed as ‘supply chains’, which are another name for the complex process of creating inputs. The first is the imposition of tariff barriers, which would necessarily occur to any production outside the EU’s customs union. The second are non-tariff barriers, which are largely a function of being outside the Single Market, which has a single, unified regulatory regime including for input goods. 

It is conceivable the effect of increased costs from tariffs could be off-set by lowering costs elsewhere. Some might argue that subsidies to industry in the form of state aid might be worthwhile, even though the World Trade Organisation also has prohibitions on certain types of state aid, as the EU does. If state subsidies of 10% per cent were required to off-set EU tariffs, the resulting cost of £27.5 billion would be in excess of the planned budget for increased public investment for an incoming Labour government.  

Otherwise, the more likely off-setting factor for new tariffs would be a sharp attack on wages. In short state subsidies to offset a no deal Brexit would cost the entire amount by which Labour intends to increase public investment.

A comparison to Turkey 

But it is the non-tariff barriers which could prove even more damaging. Here the practical example of a country at a less developed stage of economic development, and therefore less integrated into modern division of labour, is useful in illustrating the fundamental issues involved - Turkey. Turkey is in a customs union with the EU since the beginning of 1996. The Turkish economy has developed strongly since that time. 

The effect of Customs Union membership has been to give greater access of Turkish goods to the EU Single Market (except agricultural goods), and vice versa because tariff barriers are removed. Over time, it has helped to develop the growth of an important car production sector, including for export to the EU. This is the by-product of the Customs Union. 

But it is not a member of the Single Market. So, non-tariff barriers remain. It is therefore extremely difficult for Turkish car production to become properly integrated into the continent-wide car production of the EU. Instead, production is mostly focused on stand-alone models, niche production or ultra-cheap models. 

Under a No Deal settlement the entire car industry in Britain would be outside both the Single Market and the Customs Union. Under WTO rules, which would apply in case of a No Deal Brexit, a 10% tariff on car exports would apply – making production in Britain uncompetitive in the EU market. A similar process would apply to all production which is highly integrated with European output. It is no accident that that it is AirBus, car makers, advanced manufacturers and pharmaceuticals companies who are most vocal in their opposition to a No Deal outcome. 

It is sometimes argued that the EU would block a fully socialist economic policy. This is true. Britain would be forced out of the EU if it attempted to replace capitalism with socialism. The gains from the introduction of socialism in Britain would be so great that they would more than offset the disadvantages of being forced out of the customs/single market of the EU. 

But while Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are highly progressive, and would significantly take working people and the mass of the population forward, they do not propose to replace capitalism with socialism. Nor should they – neither the objective nor the subjective conditions to bring capitalism to an end and introduce socialism in Britain exist. What Jeremy Corbyn proposes are a series of highly progressive reforms which are in the interests of the population both in Britain and internationally – and that is exactly what should be proposed at present.  

Attempting to implement such progressive changes by a Jeremy Corbyn led government might be blocked by the EU – but this is not at all certain and will be determined by the relation of forces at the time. But if implementing such progressive changes is blocked by the EU then the population will understand why Britain may be forced out of the EU. The same would apply to any country or countries who moved ahead of this country and were themselves replacing capitalism with socialism.

But what is wrong, is against the interests of the working class, and therefore will not be supported by the population, is voluntarily to give up the advantages that flow from participation in the EU’s division of labour – therefore cutting off Britain from the most advantageous participation in EU markets and supply chains.

No benefit from No Deal

The Brexiteers, including the pro-Brexit economists, provide no concrete analysis that can withstand any scrutiny. Instead, they fall back on general expressions of optimism, or complete red herrings.

Crucially, there is the assertion that No Deal or something close to it ‘will allow us to trade with the rest of the world’. On the contrary, this economy already trades with the rest of the world. No Deal will put major barriers in the way of the current trade with the EU, with nothing realistic that could compensate for that – other countries are naturally much more interested in trade with the far larger economy of the EU than with the comparatively small economy of Britain. 

Once again, this is because of fundamental economics. There are three decisive factors that No Deal puts at risk:

· The most competitive access to the current inputs for production of goods and services
· The integration of British production into EU-wide production
· Access to markets

The weight of each of these can be illustrated with reference to one of the most integrated industrial sectors, Britain’s participation in Airbus. Other advanced sectors of production show the same characteristics. Some months ago, when Airbus executives previously highlighted the risks to their business from No Deal, one Tory MEP raged that, “we can build our own Airbus”.

This foolish bluster highlights the level of ignorance about the economy fostered by the Tories. Whether the ignorance is wilful is difficult to say.

For this country to create ‘its own Airbus’, would be an enormous, potentially crippling, and in reality a totally unrealistic undertaking. The market capitalisation of Airbus has fluctuated between €75 billion and €100 billion in recent months. Its great rival, Boeing is currently valued at over $200 billion, having recently been as high as $360 billion.

But this is only an indicator of the type of initial outlays required to create a new Airbus-type company in this country. As shown above, an industrial giant like Airbus requires an enormously complex supply chain. The chart below is from Airbus and highlights this point in relation to just one of its models, the A350.

Fig. 1. The Airbus Supply Chain, Source: Airbus
According to the company, the components made in various countries themselves rely on a supply chain which includes operations all across Europe and beyond, with 4,000 companies and over 100,000 jobs in this country. To overcome the imposition of both tariff and non-tariff barriers arising from No Deal, an entire supply chain would need to be replicated in this country.  

This position is not at all unique to Airbus. In the course of the public debates about the effects of No Deal it was revealed that Jaguar Land Rover uses 25 million components a day in producing 3,000 cars, and that 40% per cent of these come from the EU. Investment in the motor industry already feel by 50% last year, due to the situation created by the threat of Brexit, which will translate into thousands of lost jobs over the medium/long term.

The illusion of the Tory MEP is that all of this would be a massive boost to manufacturing jobs in this country and the wider economy. The fantasy is that Britain, maybe with even bigger cuts to wages and much reduced protections for workers, could compete by replicating these enormous industries on a national scale. Unfortunately, he is not alone in this illusion. 

Production is the first factor. But this is integrated, complex production, not just the finished goods but also all the inputs required for those finished products. There is the cost of establishing an AirBus-type company based in this country, say the equivalent of €100 billion. There would also need to be the creation of a supply in support of that. As Airbus estimates the workforce in the current supply chain for AirBus components in this country is about 7 times greater than the direct workforce employed here, that may indicate the scope of the additional investment needed. And all of these would need a workforce trained in highly specialist manufacturing skills, and an infrastructure, of roads, rail, energy and water services to supply them.

But production is not the only factor. As Marx and Engels wrote, the development of international production was accompanied by the growth of, “….industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe”. A ‘British Airbus’ would require a market.

As the production from all investment is limited by the scope of the market, and the demand for aircraft is a global market, no country of Britain’s size could hope to establish a new large-scale aircraft sector solely or even primarily on a national terrain. British Airbus would therefore have to compete directly with the two dominant global producers, Boeing and Airbus.  

British Airbus would in effect need to make huge investments simply to establish itself as a third competitor to two global rivals who are already engaged in an existential struggle with each other. It would need to be more competitive and efficient than either of these two to win customers, requiring much higher rates of investment. And it would have to attempt prise open new markets in the face of fierce resistance from the US and EU authorities, who already have one of the most bitter and long-running disputes lodged at the World Trade Organisation. The whole project would be a fool’s errand.

The reality is that the advanced manufacturing that does take place in this country is integrated with the world economy, and primarily the EU economy. What is actually required is for large-scale investment to fortify and develop those sectors, one part of which is their deepening integration into the world economy, primarily the EU economy. This is a policy that Labour’s economic policy encourages, and which the Tories resolutely oppose.

By blocking effective participation in the most advanced sectors of production thousands and thousands of jobs would be lost directly, the entire economy would be held back and therefore living standards would rise more slowly than possible – at best. Due to this economic setback the pound would almost certainly devalue significantly, creating inflation and a reduction in living standards. In order to attempt to make British capitalism competitive in the new unfavourable circumstances employers would launch an all out attack on workers living standards and rights – the ‘hard Brexiters’ have already made clear their ideal is a low social protection economy of the US type.

It is important to note that there is a set of circumstances under which the above economic factors take second place. If an incoming radical or socialist government were taking measures that were so contrary to the other European governments, they might well take steps to cut off that government from both EU institutions and the European market. But that is the traditional punishment that anti-socialist governments and institutions mete out, the US increasingly so. But it is a punishment. It should not be a policy aim. 

Under those circumstances, the long-term political, social and economic benefits that a socialist government could deliver would far outweigh these serious economic difficulties. But that is not the situation currently, and is not likely to be in the foreseeable future. 

Crashing out with No Deal in this period in reality means the only viable alternative is a trade agreement with Trump and his successors. No-one who thinks about it seriously can actually believe that that outcome would be more favourable to the socialist project. Whether for the reason of defence of the immediate living standards of the population and working class, or for reasons of fundamental Marxist theory, or both, there should be 100% opposition to a No Deal Brexit – and Jeremy Corbyn correctly led total opposition to it.


Finally, if a No Deal Brexit is totally against the interests of the working class, for the reasons outlined by Marxism, what positions are in line with those interests? These have nothing whatever to do with nonsense claims by people from the Labour right, such as Will Hutton. that the EU is progressive representing ‘Enlightenment values’. In fact the ‘Enlightenment values’ were accompanied by the creation of the greatest colonial empires the world has ever seen, oppressing the majority of humanity, dividing the world between them, and culminating in the historic catastrophe of World War I. The EU is a cabal of European imperialists who, compelled to construct a unified European economic structure because modern production has outgrown the European state, set out about creating it in the most undemocratic form possible – with as little power as possible to the European parliament and transnational power concentrated in the non-elected European Commission. The best historical analogy is Bismarck’s Germany – the Germany capitalists, forced economically to create a unified German state, deliberately also created it in the most undemocratic form possible.

There is nothing progressive politically about the EU and therefore socialists should be completely indifferent to whether Britain is part of the political structures of the EU. What is in the interests of the working class in the present situation however, for reasons outlined in this article, is to be able to participate in the economic space of the EU if possible. This could be secured by two mechanisms:

· Labour’s goal in its ‘six tests on Brexit of securing: ‘the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union’.
· Membership of the EU.

Therefore, the bloc of Remainers and supporters of a ‘soft Brexit’, which is the position of the huge majority of Labour voters, Labour Party members, and Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, have a position which fully corresponds to the interests of the working class and the population – which is exactly why it is the majority position among them. It is also a position precisely in line with Marxism.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Transform: Issue #5 | November 2018 | A Journal of the Radical Left

- includes articles by regular SEB contributors John Ross and Tom O'Leary + many more


Get your copy here.

Ten years on from the near-collapse of the global financial system in 2008, there is little sign of capitalist recovery and renewal. The consequences of the austerity policies pursued by so many governments are now playing out: from the destruction of the social and economic gains made by working people over many decades, to the rise of the far right, the crisis of social democracy and the ‘weaponisation’ of racism and Islamophobia.

 Right-wing forces, given succour by an increasingly belligerent Trump White House, have often emerged stronger from the crisis, but left and progressive forces have also challenged for power, posing political and economic alternatives. Unfolding political developments and new mobilisations in Britain and elsewhere demonstrate that the right is being fought and can be defeated.

Transform #5 looks at the continuing economic crisis, with articles on the Lehman crash of 2008 and how we can tackle the power of big finance; Corbyn’s economic policy in the context of the attacks that lie ahead; economic lessons from the left governments in Latin America; and how we can learn from the struggles against neo-liberal globalisation. We also take a look at the big global strategic issues: the implications of Trump’s trashing of the Iran nuclear deal, how the differing approaches of Trump and Xi Jinping are playing out, and an assessment of NATO at 70. The political impact of film propaganda is considered through a case study of Nazi cinema, the latest issue of Socialist Register is reviewed, and we pay tribute to the late, great Samir Amin.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Even the IMF rejects Trump’s false claim that the US economy is growing fast

By John Ross

The new US GDP growth data released by the US last Friday entirely confirms the earlier analysis of ‘US growth under Trump is the slowest under any US President since World War II’ that:

·         Peak US growth under Trump is the slowest under any US president since World War II.

·         US growth during the present business cycle is the slowest in any business cycle since World War II.

Therefore, claims by the Trump administration of ‘historic’ fast US growth are simply a propaganda falsification – what is striking about present US growth is how slow it is by US historical standards.

To show the actual facts of US growth, taking the latest data and showing only US Presidents in the 21stcentury, Table 1and Figure 1show that, using the method by which the US prefers to present data, quarter on quarter growth at an annualised rate:

·         Peak growth under Clinton was 7.5%

·         Peak growth under George W Bush was 7.0%

·         Peak growth under Obama was 5.1%

·         Peak growth under Trump, in the second quarter of 2018, was 4.2%

The latest growth data under Trump, for the third quarter of 2018, shows a decline in the US growth rate to 3.5% – i.e. growth under Trump is already falling from its peak without having attained the levels under previous US presidents.

Detailed data on other US president’s since World War II, prior to the 21stcentury, is given in ‘US growth under Trump is the slowest under any US President since World War II’ and confirms peak US growth under Trump is the lowest under any US president since World War II.

An alternative method of presenting US data, in line with China’s and other countries method of presenting GDP growth, based on real annual average growth is given below – but as will be seen that makes no key difference to the result. The claim of historically rapid US GDP growth under Trump is therefore entirely fraudulent.

IMF data shows the exact opposite of Trump’s claims that US growth will accelerate under his presidency

However, while it is important to understand the latest quarter’s shifts in the US economy, even more important for  successfully dealing with the Trump administration’s trade aggression against China, which is a threat to numerous countries, it is crucial to have an accurate understanding of the underlying dynamics of the US economy – as this both provides the objective context of the Trump administration’s actions and creates objective pressure on it. Such an analysis must:

·         Understand the term long dynamics operating in the US economy which propel the Trump administration’s actions,

·         Analyse the immediate situation within these trends which affect tactics in dealing with US trade aggression.

The earlier article‘US growth under Trump is the slowest under any US President since World War II’  demonstrated that because US growth under Trump is so slow by US historic standards, therefore within  the ‘zero-sum game’ framework currently dominant within the Trump administration, this means that it cannot pursue competition with China via rapid US economic growth, but instead it can only attempt to slow China’s economy. This determines the aggressive approach of the Trump administration and explains its earlier rejection of proposals of ‘win-win’ solutions by China.

As will be seen the present article, within this long-term framework, examines the short-term situation of the US economy and therefore the pressures this creates on the Trump administration. As always in dealing with a serious matter in making such an analysis there is no virtue in ‘optimism’, and no virtue in ‘pessimism’, there is only a virtue in strict realism. Therefore, this analysis is not made using sources biased in favour of China but instead uses the data of the latest survey of the world economy by the IMF – a source which has in the past frequently overestimated US and Western economic growth. Analysis of this data shows in detail that the Trump administration has a temporary ‘window of opportunity’ during which it will benefit from a normal upturn of the US business cycle during the rest of 2018 and early 2019, before the US business cycle will begin to turn down and negative economic pressures will mount on the Trump administration.  This means that in the US trade war, due to strong pressure this economic situation places on the Trump administration to go very rapidly, it is possible the latter’s short-term tactics will be aggressive. However, the negative pressures on the Trump administration will increase with time – that is in this struggle time is on China’s side.

The present analysis of the short term situation of the US economy in the business cycle shows the same pattern as the long term trends analysed in ‘US growth under Trump is the slowest under any US President since World War II’. That is, for propaganda purposes the Trump administration engages in falsification and distortion – of the type which led to President Trump being laughed at by international diplomats in his recent speech to the UN. This method was recently summarised by the US Nobel Prize for Economics winner Paul Krugman: ‘Do you remember political spin? Politicians used to deceive voters by describing their policies in misleading ways… But Republicans no longer bother with deceptive presentations of facts. Instead, they just flat-out lie.’. Faced with an administration which utilises such propaganda methods it is more than ever necessary to pursue the method of ‘seek truth from facts’ – and it is a duty of China’s media to present an accurate picture of the real situation of the US economy.

The latest IMF analysis of the world economy

The IMF’s new publication in October of its projections for the world economy is of particular importance as it covers almost the entire period up to the 2024 US presidential election – the period, therefore, not only of President Trump’s present term but of any possible second term. To be precise the IMF now makes projections from 2018-2023.

These projections are highly significant as although the IMF chooses not to make explicit comparisons of its projections for US growth to the claims of the Trump administration, for obvious reasons, the IMF’s data shows that it gives no credibility to the administration’s claims that it will produce a strategic acceleration in US growth. Indeed, the IMF’s projections, published to accompany its October World Economic Outlook, on the contrary project that the long term slowing of the US economy will continue to worsen under a Trump administration.

To give precise numbers, Trump projected that his presidency would lead to a strong acceleration in US GDP growth – stating, ‘I think you can go to 5 or 6 percent’. In stark contrast the IMF projects that average annual US growth until almost the end of even a second Trump presidency would be only 2.0% – less than half of the growth Trump claimed he would achieve. Furthermore, the long-term average US growth rate will continue to worsen – the 20-year moving average of US annual US growth is projected to drop from 2.4% in 2016, the last year before Trump became President, to only 1.9% by 2023.

It will be shown below that the facts of US economic performance under Trump are far more in in line with the IMF’s projections than those of the claims of the Trump administration – the latter have no factual basis. This article therefore systematically compares the projections of the IMF, and the facts of US economic growth, with the Trump administration’s claims.

Summary of US long term growth

Starting first with the facts of US economic growth under the Trump administration, as already noted the article ‘US growth under Trump is the slowest under any US President since World War II’ showed that far from peak growth under the Trump administration being fast, as it claims, it is slower than under any previous post-World War II US president. This is true whether this is measured by the way the US prefers to present data (a single quarter’s growth presented at an annualised rate) or the way China and other countries prefer to publish growth (actual year on year on year growth measured between the same quarters in two successive years). To briefly summarise data presented in detail in article ‘US growth under Trump is the slowest under any US President since World War II’:

·         Peak US growth under Trump (4.2%), calculated by the US method, was lower than under Obama (5.1%), George W Bush (7.0%), or Clinton (7.5%), let alone presidents such as Nixon (10.3%) or Truman (16.7%). Peak growth under Trump is the lowest for any of the 13 post-World War II presidents.

·         Taking actual year on year growth, the maximum rate achieved under Trump is 3.0%. By this measure growth under Trump is also the slowest of any post-World War II US president – lower than under Obama (3.8%), George W Bush (4.3%), Clinton (5.3%), or, for example, Nixon (7.6%) or Truman (13.4%).

The precise present situation of the US economy will now be analysed within this long-term framework.

The long slowdown of the US economy

The slow US growth by historical standards under Trump is merely one part of the long deceleration of the US economy during the last half century – this long slowdown constituting one of the most fundamental features of the US economy. Taking a 20 year moving average, to remove any effects of short term business cycle fluctuations, Figure 2shows that annual average US growth fell from 4.4% in 1969, to 4.0% in 1978, to 3.3% in 2001, to 2.4% by 2016 – the last year before Trump became president.

In the context of this long-term US economic deceleration, the data in the latest IMF projection shows that long-term US growth will continue to decline further, to only 1.9%, by 2023 – i.e. the IMF is projecting that the US long term growth rate, far from accelerating under Trump, will actually fall further.

Projections for US per capita GDP growth

Even more striking in its consequences is the slowdown in US per capita GDP growth which flows from the IMF’s projections which is shown in Figure 3.

Because the US has relatively rapid population growth of 0.7% a year US per capita GDP growth is substantially below its total GDP growth. Figure 3 shows that US long term average annual per capita GDP growth fell from 2.8% in 1969 and 1978, to 2.4% in 2002 to only 1.5% in 2016. By 2023 US per capita GDP growth is projected to fall to only 1.1%.

Such a slowdown in US per capita GDP growth necessarily considerably impacts the domestic US situation – this is particularly the case as recent sharply increasing inequality means that for the majority of the US population living standards rises more slowly than per capita GDP. Whereas in the earlier post-war period more rapid US per capita GDP growth, and greater equality, could sustain US internal political stability, and widespread belief in the ‘American Dream’, the far slower per capita GDP growth of the recent period has necessarily been accompanied by increasing US domestic political tension – which is reflected clearly in the political and social clashes in numerous fields surrounding and following the election of the Trump administration.

US medium term growth

Turning to assess the objective ability of Trump to achieve his claims to lift the US economy to a fundamentally more rapid rate of economic development, with growth rates of 5% or 6%, it is worth first considering the situation facing his administration in light of long-term trends in the US economy.

As data and projections by the IMF are available for seven out of the eight years of a possible two term Trump presidency Figure 4 therefore shows the seven-year moving average of US annual economic growth. This, as with other measures, shows the US economy’s steadily slowing growth rate. On this measure, average annual US growth has fallen from 5.3% in 1968, to 4.4% in 1989, to 4.0% in 2000, to 2.2% in 2016 immediately before Trump came to office. To achieve growth rates of 5-6% over the period of a two-term presidency the Trump administration therefore would have to achieve rates of growth which have not been seen in the US economy for half a century – and in a situation where average US growth rates have been systematically falling for fifty years.

The IMF’s projections show absolutely no confidence in the Trump administration’s claims to be able to lift the fundamental US growth rate. On the contrary, Figure 4 shows that the IMF projects US annual average growth rates falling still further to 2.0% – compared to 2.2% in the last year before President Trump came to office.

As two years of the Trump presidency are already passed it is also useful to consider the IMF’s projections for the next five years – Figure 5 shows this, together with historic data on average US annual average GDP growth over a five year period.

This data again shows the same declining trend of US growth rate as other measures. Taking a five-year moving average US annual economic growth fell from 5.9% in 1966, to 4.6% in 1987, to 4.3% in 2000, to 2.2% in 2016. The IMF projects US average annual growth will fall further, to 1.8% by 2023. Therefore, once again to achieve its claims, the Trump administration would have to achieve growth not seen by US economy for a half a century – the IMF clearly has no confidence in this and, on the contrary projects US economic growth falling further.

Trump and business cycle

Given the extreme divergence between the facts of US economic growth, and the projections of the IMF, compared to the claims of the Trump administration, why can the latter attempt to give any credibility whatever to what are clearly false claims? The answer is that the Trump administration attempts to put forward such false assertions by making claims regarding normal fluctuations in the US business cycle to disguise the real underlying trends in the US economy.

The means used by the Trump administration to attempt to conceal the real state of the US economy may be clearly seen by comparing trends in the US business cycle to US medium/long term economic growth. To demonstrate this Figure 6 therefore shows US year on year growth compared to a 20-year moving average of annual growth. This data confirms that factual trends in the US economy correspond to the analysis predicted by economic theory. That is:

·         There are numerous short-term business cycle economic fluctuations determined by a wide range of fundamental and incidental economic factors (cycles in profitability and economic spare capacity, the situation in other countries, even the weather).

·         But these are oscillations around a long-term growth trend determined by fundamental economic factors – that is the US economy’s growth is periodically oscillating above and below its medium/long term growth rate.

Therefore, to take simply the situation under 21stcentury US presidents, the explanation of the trends outlined earlier is shown clearly in Figure 6. During the 21stcentury the long-term annual average of US GDP growth has progressively fallen from 3.2% in 2000 to 2.2% in 2018. However, above and below this long-term average, which is determined by fundamental structural features of the US economy, there are numerous inevitable upward and downward business cycle fluctuations. This combination of long-term slowdown with cyclical fluctuations produced the declining peak year on year growth rates under US presidents already noted – 5.3% under Clinton, 4.3% under George W Bush, 3.8% under Obama, 3.0% under Trump. Such a combination of a falling underlying growth rate with cyclical oscillations therefore produces the trend of peak growth under each of these presidents being lower than the previous one.

The method of the Trump administration’s propaganda misrepresentation/fraud is to attempt to present purely normal upward short-term business cycle fluctuations as changes in the fundamental US growth rate. To be precise regarding the most recent period, as shown in Figure 6a downward oscillation in US economic growth in the second quarter of 2016 meant year on year GDP growth fell to an extremely low 1.3% – 0.9% below the 20 year moving average of US growth. Merely to maintain the 2.2% moving average of US growth it would therefore be necessary for US growth to rise to rise to approximately 0.9% above the 2.2% long term average – that is US growth could rise to approximately 3.1% without this indicating any fundamental acceleration of the US economy. Therefore, not merely is the  3.0% year on year growth rate under Trump in the  third quarter of 2018 the lowest peak growth under any-US president since World War II but it is not even yet as fast as the approximately 3.1% growth in a quarter that would still indicate no acceleration in the US’s underlying growth rate – indeed growth under Trump could actually rise moderately further from its present level without this indicating any acceleration in medium/long term US growth.

The US business cycle

This fact that the present US growth rate under Trump, far from being exceptionally high, represents merely a normal upturn of the US business cycle of course has a corollary – that the US business cycle will turn down again.  Figure 7 shows this is precisely the IMF’s projection. This calculates that after 2.9% growth in 2018 US growth will fall to 2.5% in 2019, and then 1.8% in 2020 and 1.4% by 2023.

It is, of course, possible to argue with some of the IMF’s detailed projections – for example the IMF’s projected decline of the US 20-year moving average annual growth to 1.9% by 2023, from 2.6% in 2016 before Trump assumed office, may be considered excessively steep and a 20-year growth rate of still slightly above 2% may appear more likely. Nevertheless, such details clearly do not alter the fundamental trend. There is no reason, either from previous trends in the US economy or from its fundamental structural trends, to believe there will be a fundamental upturn in US growth. All that has occurred under Trump is a normal upturn of the business cycle, which will therefore inevitably be followed by a downturn in the US business cycle.

Conclusions for US tactics in its trade aggression

To analyse implications for the US-China‘ trade war’, more accurately US trade aggression against China, IMF projections are fully in line with fundamental economic trends in the US economy – also providing an independent analysis of these. The IMF’s projections clearly totally refute claims by the Trump administration that it has created a fundamental acceleration in US growth and they instead give a clear perspective for the US economy during the period in which it is launching trade aggression against China. Taking individual years, they indicate:

·         During the rest of 2018, due to the normal upswing of the business cycle, US growth should continue to be robust – which, of course, does not exclude disturbances in US financial markets.

·         US growth during 2019 will be slowing compared to 2018 – with the implication that growth will be fast in the first half of 2019 and declining in the second half.

·         By 2020 the US economy will be slowing significantly to only 1.8% growth – which implies per capita GDP growth of only just above 1%.

Taking this economic data in the context of the Trump administration’s trade aggression against China indicates that from a purely tactical viewpoint Trump has well timed the launching of his ‘trade war’ – and is attempting to gain from the purely normal upswing of the US business cycle. This means tactically for the Trump administration:

·         Tariffs against China necessarily increase prices in the US, which puts downward pressure on US living standards, and tariffs and retaliation by other countries will lead to US job losses – as is now well documented by US media. However, the negative consequences of these effects for US living standards will be minimised by the upswing of the US business cycle – therefore allowing Trump to avoid some of the political unpopularity of tariff measures.

·         The Trump administration’s tariffs have negative consequence for US companies – Ford, to take a single example, estimates that the tariffs will cost it a billion dollars. But the upswing of the business cycle while it continues will offset these negative effects.

·         Given the upswing of the business cycle Trump hopes that US share prices will continue to increase – although, as share markets can anticipate economic trends, this is not certain.

·         By misrepresenting the perfectly normal upswing of the US business cycle as an historic acceleration in the US economy the US hopes to be able to tempt other economies to enter into anti-China trade blocs with the US.

The problem for Trump, however, is that because what is occurring is a normal business cycle upswing, the cycle will inevitably turn down in 2019/20. This means that in this downswing of the business cycle:

·         Tariffs will put upward pressure on US inflation – and therefore downward pressure on US living standards.

·         The direct and indirect job losses from tariff increases will no longer be offset by rising employment created by an upswing of the business cycle.

·         The downswing of the business cycle will put downward cyclical pressure on US share prices.

It is for this reason that the Trump administration has only a relatively short period during which the US business cycle will be aiding it. By 2019-2020 trends in the US business cycle will turn against the Trump administration. It is for this reason that the Trump administration is forced to attempt to go fast in its trade aggression against China – therefore time is against Trump, and in favour of China, in terms of trends in the US economy.

It is also for this reason that the Trump administration attempts to carry out systematic false propaganda presenting the purely normal upswing of the business cycle as a fundamental acceleration of the US economy. Given its short favourable window of opportunity it is necessary for the Trump administration to attempt to convey an image of the ‘historic’ growth of the US economy in order to bluff China into surrendering to US demands – therefore the US conceals that growth under Trump is the lowest under any post-World War II US president and that what is occurring at present is merely a normal upturn in what is the slowest business cycle since World War II.

Conclusions for China

In practical dealing with the US trade aggression there are numerous factors known only to those engaged in such discussions. Therefore, this article implies no position on any specific discussions with the US. There are also specifically domestic political factors in the US, such as the November mid-term US elections which are not analysed here. But evidently the fundamental economic situation in the US business cycle has a significant effect on the overall situation of US trade aggression against China. It is clear that:

·         Analysis in China must estimate that at the present, due to the upswing of the business cycle, the US is at the peak of its favourable economic position in the trade war and the US economic position will weaken in 2019-20 as the US business cycle turns down.

·         Due to this situation the Trump administration may adopt aggressive tactics in the short term so as to attempt to gain favourable results before its economic position weakens.

·         It is of both international and domestic importance for China to show the falsity of US propaganda on its supposedly ‘historic’ growth so that – internationally as the US is attempting to lock other countries into trade pacts against China in part by claiming that the US economy is undergoing historically high growth.

For these purposes it is also crucial for China to have an accurate analysis of the state of the US economy. There is, in principle, little obstacle to achieving this. While extremely strong criticism may be made of the false propaganda claims of the Trump administration official US economic statistics are among the world’s most systematic. Similarly, IMF data and predictions are entirely public – which allows systematic comparison of IMF predictions with actual results. That is, the crucial data for analysing US economic trends is all public. Particularly in a time of US trade aggression it is therefore vital for China that its think tanks and research institutes carry out an accurate analysis of trends in the US economy.

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This article was originally published in Chinese.

The above article was published first in English by New Cold War.