Pause for Thought: Money without Value in a Rapidly Disintegrating World
by Fabio Vighi, 5/20/2022
The tanking economy is the cause of these “misfortunes”. What we are sold as external threats is in fact the ideological projection of the internal limit and ongoing decomposition of capitalist modernity. In systemic terms, emergency addiction keeps the comatose body of capitalism artificially alive.
Pause for Thought: Money without Value in a Rapidly Disintegrating World
By Fabio Vighi
[This article posted on 5/30/2022 is available on the Internet, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/pause-for-thought-money-without-value-in-a-rapidly-disintegrating-world/.]
The acceleration of the “emergency paradigm” since 2020 has a simple yet widely disavowed purpose: to conceal socioeconomic collapse. In today’s metaverse, things are the opposite of what they seem. Inaugurating Davos 2022, IMF director Kristalina Georgieva blamed the pandemic and Putin for the “confluence of calamities” that the world economy is now facing. No surprise there. Davos itself is not a conspiracy hub, but the mouthpiece of the elites’ increasingly panicky reactions to unmanageable systemic contradictions. The Davos crowd are now hiding behind lies like a bunch of nervous children. While they continue to tell us that the coming slump is the effect of global adversities that took the world by surprise (from Covid-19 to Putin-22), the opposite is true: the tanking economy is the cause of these “misfortunes”. What we are sold as external threats is in fact the ideological projection of the internal limit and ongoing decomposition of capitalist modernity. In systemic terms, emergency addiction keeps the comatose body of capitalism artificially alive. Thus, the enemy is no longer constructed to legitimize the expansion of Empire. Instead, it serves to conceal the bankruptcy of our debt-soaked economy.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the deployment of capital’s full potential, also known as globalization, has gradually undermined capital’s own conditions of possibility. Eventually, the response to this implosive trajectory was the unleashing of global emergencies, which must be increasingly durable and supplemented by ever-larger injections of fear, chaos, and propaganda. We all remember how it all started at the turn of the millennium, with Al Qaeda, the “global war on terror”, and Colin Powell’s tiny vial of white powder. This released the Taliban, the Islamic State, Syria, the North Korean missile crisis, the trade war with China, Russia-gate, and finally COVID-19 – in a crescendo of emotions. Now it appears that a new Cold War is in the making, perhaps the mother of all emergencies. The elementary reason for this course of events is that the closer the system gets to collapse, the more it requires exogenous crises to distract and manipulate populations, while deferring its downfall and laying the ground for its authoritarian changeover.
History tells us that when empires are about to fold, they ossify into oppressive regimes of crisis management. It is no coincidence that our age of serial emergencies began with the bursting of the “dot-com bubble” – the first global market crash. By the end of 2001 most tech-heavy companies had gone bust, and by October 2002 the Nasdaq index had fallen by 77%, exposing the structural frailty of a “new economy” powered by debt, creative finance, and the bleeding of the real economy. Since then, the simulation of growth via financial asset inflation has been shielded by the manufacturing of global threats, duly packaged and sold by corporate media. In truth, the rise of the “new economy” in the late 1990s was less about the internet than the creation of an immense apparatus for the simulation of prosperity, which was supposed to function without the mediation of mass labor. As such, it cleared the way for the neoliberal ideology of “jobless growth”– the illusion, enthusiastically embraced by the left, that a financial-bubble economy could ignite a new capitalist Eldorado. While this illusion has now blown up in our faces, nobody seems to have any desire to acknowledge it.
In fact, since Virus stepped in to raise the emergency bar even higher (before being paused and possibly recharged for future re-deployment) we are back to the same old financial shenanigans. While the West’s brand-new infection is called Russia – not least because of its proven historical record (USSR) – it is crucial to appreciate that the haste of enemy-making and fear-mongering is now desperate, based as it is on the aggressive denial of structural failure. Like Virus, the Ukrainian war screens us from the real horror of total social breakdown via debt & stock market crash. This perverse situation must be developed into its proper dialectical conclusion: the only way to put an end to the destructive succession of emergencies is to put an end to the self-destructive capitalist logic that feeds them.
After the folding of the last period of mass labor mobilization – the post-war Fordist boom – capitalism entered its terminal crisis, where fictitious money is increasingly dissociated from labor-mediated value. Already in the 1980s, the irreversible erosion of capital’s labor-substance, triggered by the Third Industrial Revolution (microelectronics), gave rise to a transnational credit and speculative system that quickly penetrated all forms of money capital. This spectral monetary mass has continued to grow by self-fertilization, to the extent that – as already pointed out, among others, by Robert Kurz –[i] only its artificial expansion enables the mobilization of liquidity in the real world. Economic growth in the 1990s was fueled by a “recycling mechanism”, whereby demand, purchasing power, and the production of goods and services were sustained by fake (speculative) money. The real economy was no longer grounded in labor incomes and revenues; rather, it was driven by price speculations on financial assets – heaps of fictitious money without value substance. This cycle of pseudo-accumulation, based on financial liquidity flowing back into production and consumption, is the defining phenomenon of our debt-driven, inflationary “emergency capitalism”. By necessity, ever-larger amounts of fictitious capital end up supporting production, so that a growing share of real accumulation participates in the speculative process.
The current grotesque overvaluation of all risk assets (stocks, bonds and property) suggests that the elites will continue to use their political playbook to buy more time and postpone the bursting of a debt bubble they began to inflate years before Covid and Putin became favorite scapegoats. The guardians of the capitalist Grail have planned for us a perennial state of fear in a desperate effort to delay the currency devaluation shock that has been brewing for decades. While they do so by increasingly cynical methods, they seem to be the only ones who at least realize that such a shock would bring the world system to its knees. This is why the financial aristocracy are willing to do just about anything in their power to secure the prolongation of our moribund economic model. In doing so, they demonstrate a greater understanding of our condition than those who, in theory, should be better placed to assess it: the so-called post-Marxist intelligentsia together with the postmodern left in all its inconsequential iterations. Regrettably, the “useful idiots” on the left have long betrayed their fundamental mandate to critique political economy, and are thus directly implicated in the unfolding catastrophe.
The technocrats at the helm of the Titanic have more than a hunch that the vessel is accelerating towards the iceberg. Having run out of policy bullets (as in the recent “austerity vs stimulus” debate), they have opted to promote a continuous program of fear and propaganda in a bid to manage the unmanageable. Crucially, they know what to most of us appears counterintuitive: that the breakdown of our obsolete mode of production can only be delayed through 1) A steady stream of global emergencies, 2) The controlled inflationary demolition of the increasingly unproductive real economy, and 3) The authoritarian makeover of liberal democracy.
The sick theater of the Ukrainian war, just like the wickedly hyped-up Covid affair, is therefore a consequence of the elites’ panicked awareness that collapse is now overdue. In fact, today’s managers of “crisis capitalism” know that a breakdown is necessary for a new money system to emerge. Crucially, they also recognize that the breakdown must happen as the planned demolition of the current model, which would allow them to retain and even strengthen their position of power within the impending neo-feudal capitalist normal. Food and energy rationing, mass immiseration, social credit, and monetary control via digital currency, have long been baked into the capitalist pie of the future. Arguably, this scenario is already part of our collective imagination, as we are being persuaded of its ineluctability due to force majeure.
Ukraine provides us with a literal image of the above mechanism. Behind their morality tales, our Western politicians, under pressure from their financial bosses, continue to sabotage diplomacy by sanctioning Russia and pumping tons of weapons into Ukraine, as well as billions in financial aid. Aside for the parallel convenience of shady arms and cash deals, the aim is to deliberately extend a conflict that turns thousands into cannon fodder while fanning the flames of a potential nuclear war. As with Covid, the fear paradigm is essential to beat us into psychological obedience. To add insult to injury, the EU continues to buy Russian gas and oil, which are essential to keep up the appearance of affluence. European leaders, in other words, want to have their cake and eat it: they take with one hand (sanctions), and give back with the other (even in Rubles) to secure energy and other commodities.
Nothing, then, prevents us from joining at least two dots. We have a free-falling economy whose predicament is barely concealed by its debt addiction and astronomical “everything bubbles”. And there is the voyeuristic spectacle of daily massacres, intentionally deprived of any meaningful socio-historical context and fueled by one-sided propaganda. Joining the dots means understanding that the purpose of the Ukrainian emergency is to keep the money printer switched on while blaming Putin for worldwide economic downturn. The war serves the opposite aim of what we are told: not to defend Ukraine but to prolong the conflict and nourish inflation in a bid to defuse cataclysmic risk in the debt market, which would spread like wildfire across the whole financial sector. Let us not forget that the stock market is a sort of derivative of the debt market, which therefore needs to be handled with extreme care. While the “assisted suicide” of the real economy via negative supply shocks exacerbates consumer price inflation, the latter provides temporary relief to the mega debt bubble, thus postponing the crash.
The primary concern of monetary policy in the recent past has been the stabilization of debt, which reduces the risk of an event that would nuke the economy and our societies with it. The ever-increasing debt pressure must be periodically alleviated, and price inflation helps. How? By decompressing the bond market bubble, since inflation reduces the real value of debt. Of course, the danger is that the inflationary dynamic takes on a life of its own (hyperinflation). The point, however, is that our lords are badly snookered: they do not have any other option except depressing the real economy while trying to extend the lifespan of the all-powerful yet dangerously volatile financial sector. What needs to be avoided at all cost is a debt-triggered event. In the current twisted environment, any artificial growth of the debt bubble needs a degree of deflationary relief, which today is guaranteed by war and rising CPI. This perverse logic becomes clear if we look, for instance, at US margin debt, which is borrowed capital used to operate on the stock market. Since October 2021, margin debt has dropped by 14.5%, while the Nasdaq has lost 17.6%. This is why Ukraine is collateral damage.
The sad truth is that “Putin’s war” (like the “war on Covid”) delays the popping of the “everything bubble”, which is why Ukraine is sacrificed to the altar of a protracted massacre for freedom & democracy. The real aim is not to help Ukrainians (nor, for that matter, to destroy Russia) but to exorcise the recurring nightmare of the “Lehman shock”, which today would plunge us into chaos, wiping out the thin veneer of monetary affluence that prevents us from staring into the abyss. The bottom line is that mouse-clicked instant liquidity is the only object that matters to the debt-based financial industry. And by deflating quotas of the debt bubble through the erosion of purchasing power and the compression of demand, the financial elites stealthily set themselves up for more Quantitative Easing programs to further inundate the system with the cash it needs. New QEs, perhaps with a different name, could soon be announced, though they might require the nudge of a controlled accident, serious enough to guarantee immediate printing action. In this respect, the 2018 precedent should not be ignored. Back then, the pretense of Quantitative Tightening (reduction of the Fed’s balance sheet) only lasted a couple of months before being forced into a U-turn. And when the gamble was attempted again in the summer of 2019, the repo market crisis of mid-September reminded everyone of how essential the Central Bank liquidity bazooka is.
The bottom line is that if Central Bank monetary injections were to end, a rapid increase in key interest rates would threaten a market crash, with defaults across the globe. So, either everyone plays according to the script, or the whole show is cancelled, and the system with it. Today we are already seeing the effect of the Fed’s recent 0.5 rate hike on the US real estate market. Interest hikes have pushed up mortgage rates, which depresses the housing market. Yet, if homebuyer sentiment is at historical lows, homebuilder sentiment remains relatively high – which confirms that there is no longer any meaningful correlation between real economic conditions and asset price speculation; for ultimately it is the Federal Reserve that, by buying mortgage-backed securities by the cartload, inflates the real estate bubble when demand is falling. All this is what the monetary surface of extreme crisis management looks like. Yet, if we only scratch the surface, we encounter the fundamental cause of all the geopolitical and propaganda games that are being played: the irredeemable melting away of capital’s value substance.
The inflation genie that escaped the Covid bottle is now blamed on Putin, including its “apocalyptic” effect on the poor. However, it originates in the creation of immense amounts of “money without value” (i.e., money that is not “covered” by real accumulation) which by flowing into the real economy inevitably devalues the money medium itself. Commodity prices no longer grow in accordance with the market law of supply and demand. Rather, any increase in demand is paid for by money generated out of economic nothingness. While currency devaluation by loose monetary policy is now being exacerbated by negative supply shocks caused by Covid and the Ukrainian war, in truth it is a secular phenomenon rooted in the dissolution of capitalist value.
It is common for empires to suffer a slow and painful death, as they deny the cause of their implosion. The fall of the US-led capitalist world started over half a century ago, and has been delayed only by waves of fake prosperity fueled by money (debt) creation, which have benefited a small elite while burdening the masses with colossal debts and immiseration. Over the last 50 years, US Federal debt has experienced a 75-fold increase (from $400 billion to $30 trillion), while total US debt (private and public) has now passed the $90 trillion mark (53-fold increase). As most currencies have been linked to the dollar since WWII, their devaluation is also inevitable. For over half a century the US has been gradually destroying its hegemonic dollar and related currencies while initiating unprovoked “military operations” abroad. Any temporary illusion of prosperity was bought with war, debt, and printing fake money.
Today’s type of inflationary devaluation first emerged as a qualitatively new phenomenon in the 20th century. Since the start of industrialization, the substantial character of currencies had been safeguarded by its precious metal pegging, which eventually took the form of the gold standard and the central bank systems based on it. The end of the gold standard (15 August 1971) marked the inception of the ultra-financialized economic model that, half a century later, is taking us closer and closer to the redde rationem, in the context of a colossal expansion of credit.
Capital’s global crisis now appears in the form of a new bout of stagflation (stagnant economy with rising inflation), which evokes memories of the 1970s. Current supply bottlenecks and price explosion of raw materials and energy is reminiscent of the oil price shock of 1973, when OPEC cut down on its output in response to the Yom Kippur War. These comparative external factors, however, must be linked to a common internal cause, which has to do with capitalism reaching the end of its internal expansionary potential. The stagflation of the 1970s marked the end of the post-war boom, which coincided with the Third Industrial Revolution and a violent fall of the rate of profit caused by exponential advance in the technological automation of production. The Keynesianism of the time failed because it reacted to economic contraction in its typical way, namely with stimulus programs that only managed to boost inflation further. Accordingly, capitalism entered a new inflationary cycle. Neoliberalism provided a way out of this impasse. It smashed the unions in the 1980s, together with the price-wage correlation and the social-democratic illusion that the capitalist system could be sustained simply through a politics of wealth redistribution – as if capitalist wealth was an eternal and not a historical category, limited by the dialectic of money capital invested in value-productive labor.
In the early 1980s, inflation was fought through the “Volker shock”, i.e., by hiking interest rates (the cost of money) beyond or near the rate of inflation. This triggered recession in the capitalist center and led the periphery of Empire (especially Latin America) into a severe debt crisis. But it saved capitalism from systemic collapse. At the same time, US financial markets rapidly expanded to become dominant, while goods production in the American rust belt declined. The United States evolved from the “workshop of the world” to the “financial center of the world,” a transformation facilitated by the US dollar acting as the world’s reserve currency. Already in the 1970s, then, capitalism had started sinking under the weight of its internal contradiction. Marx called it the “moving contradiction”, by which he meant that wage labor is both the substance of capital and that which needs to be reduced in the competition war between individual enterprises. This contradiction, which is at heart of the anonymous capitalist drive for profit-making, turned openly self-destructive in the 1980s, when debt creation and growth simulation became endemic to make up for fading value production.
Since the 1980s, global debt has been rising much faster than world economic output. Global debt needs to be contextualized: it feeds the fundamental delusion that financial speculation anticipates future capital valorization, which however must be moved further and further into the future as it is not matched by corresponding valorization in the real economy. Today’s financial capitalism is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy, a mechanism based on the creation of ever-increasing amounts of insubstantial money to compensate for rapidly vanishing surplus-value. If the US enjoyed a period of relative growth in the 1990s, despite low wages and rising productivity, it was because consumption was increasingly sustained by credit.
While globalization provided an escape route for the exhausted Fordist mode of production, at the same time it tied itself to the ever-larger pyramids of debt and speculative excesses, making the system increasingly unstable. It is no surprise that the 1990s ended with the formation of the aforementioned first global bubble (the dot.com or Internet bubble). This was followed by the financial crash of 2008, the answer to which was the implementation of QE programs, i.e. more of the same: monetary expansion through Central Bank buying up securities and other assets. Then, the capitalist contradiction reappeared in the form of the European sovereign debt crisis (2009-12) and as a potentially devastating liquidity trap in the Autumn of 2019 (US repo market crisis), which officially inaugurated the era of “emergency capitalism”. The pandemic was used as a global shield for money printing and borrowing at unprecedented levels: under Covid, the Fed printed more fiat money in one year than in all combined QE programs since 2008.
In recent times, we have also been treated to a neoliberal adaptation of Keynesian crisis management through the implementation of extremely low interest rates – the opposite of what was done in the 1970s. Over the past 40 years, after each turbulence interest rates were lowered further to allow fresh liquidity to flood financial markets. However, since 2008 even zero interest rates were no longer sufficient, which is why Central Banks have pulled Quantitative Easing out of their magician’s hat, literally turning into waste dumps for the financial markets. Throwing caution to the wind, they have inundated the economy with fake money using junk paper as collateral, without even bothering to go through the banking system. The downhill slide of the devaluation avalanche that began in autumn 2008 in now unstoppable. Somehow, the world still believes that Central Banks will solve a debt crisis by printing more money.
The Western economies’ final attempt to save their broken system is now failing miserably, as these economies continue to decay in a mixture of currency debasement, deficit, and history’s largest asset bubbles. The choice we are presented with is the same we have seen throughout the history of advanced industrial societies: inflation or deflation. Either money is devalued as a general equivalent (inflation), or the devaluation process affects capital directly, with production (factories and workers) suddenly becoming superfluous. Unlike in the past, however, both inflation and deflation today mean fiat money debasement with the added bonus of systemic breakdown.
As discussed above, the technocrats’ current preference is not to fight inflation but instead use it to inflate away portions of debt via negative real interest rates. This is equivalent to a transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the custodians of the “everything bubble”, for the purchasing power of Main Street gets battered while part of the debt on Wall Street is deflated. Despite this cynical ploy, however, Central Banks continue to drink-drive towards the precipice. Whichever move they make, they lose. If they hike rates significantly and manage to reduce their balance sheet (Quantitative Tightening), the debt bubble will pop, with catastrophic consequences – a possibility anticipated by the rising Credit Default Swaps (CDS) index, i.e., insurance contracts against debt default. If, however, they turn to Quantitative Easing again, inflation will soar at an even faster pace. The choice is between a deflationary debt crisis and stagflation. Both are worse. Stabilizing this scenario is virtually impossible.
In all likelihood, the debt & stock market crisis will continue to be delayed. The grand finale – a biblical crash beyond our wildest imagination, ignited by the explosion of the debt market hyper-bubble – is currently being postponed through the inflationary thumping of the real economy. This means that the “misery index” (combination of inflation and unemployment rate) will grow even further. Central Banks can tame inflation only in words: they know that any tightening of monetary policy is hostage to the opposite necessity to continue to monetize public and private debt, which means creating money out of nowhere. In a certain sense, then, we are heading back to the prehistory of capitalism, once again dealing with the problem of “money without value”. We have almost come full circle. However, the debasement of the money medium today presents itself as the catastrophe of the “work society”, the system of abstract labor mediated by the market. Current bio- and geopolitical violence (Virus, war, and other global emergencies to come) is an integral moment of this self-destructive trajectory; a deliberate attempt to manage implosion by authoritarian means. We only have one real choice: either we begin to emancipate from the commodity, value, and money forms, and thus from the capital form as such, or we will be dragged into a new dark age of violence and regression.
[i] Robert Kurz, Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus. Ein Abgesang auf die Marktwirtschaft (Frankfurt: Eichborn), 2000.