The World-System Versus Keynes


The most incredible  modern lie is the one of nation-state sovereignty.  From the left to right,  the relative success of an administration is aways interpreted as a function  of endogenous variables the nation-state can  supposedly control.  In the case of the right wing, they see the perceived failure of their society as related to the government not closing the borders, running high deficits,  or allowing companies to outsource jobs.  From the left’s perspective, the nation-state is simply not running high enough deficits to fund more social programs, not supporting full employment policies, or refusing to raise the minimum wage. Meanwhile, a totalizing world-system pulsates  in all corners of the planet,  with flows of information, commodities,  securities, and dollars  creating a complex system that subsumes the sovereignty of most nation-states.  In the heart of this world-monster,  there is a hierarchy of nation-states, with some states having more influence and control  over the world-system than others.

Recently, with the advent of the Great  Recession in 2008, many people in the left, some of them self-proclaimed socialists, have been doubling down on the myth of national sovereignty.  They see the economic crisis, and the continuous casualization of workers, as an opportunity to administrate the nation-state in the “right way” to reverse these trends. They see themselves as holding secret truths and insights about the economy that neoliberals don’t truly fathom.  Only if these social democrats had the opportunity to apply  the right ideas, ideas that they claim have been pushed out of the political and academic mainstream for venal reasons, they could fix the economy.

What are these right ideas?  In the first half of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes had already developed a toolkit for any eager leftist technocrat to  manipulate in order to attenuate economic crisis.  He, in contrast to the classical economists that preceded him, argued that sometimes the market did not clear, which generated a recession.  By market clearing, I mean that the supply of commodities wasn’t balanced out by  their demand. This is sometimes referred as Say’s Law.  Another important aspect of the failure of Say’s Law is the existence of unemployment, given that there is more supply of labor than demand.  While classical economists argued that economic crises could self-correct themselves and eventually clear, by for example, lowering the wage of workers or cheapening commodities,  Keynes argued that these recessions could persist for a very long time without the aid of governmental fiscal and monetary policy. According to Keynes, some of the reasons the markets fail to clear are: (i) workers will not accept wage cuts, (ii) recession would make investors risk averse, causing them to save their money rather than invest, and (iii) mass unemployment and risk aversion would decrease the buying of commodities.

Keynes thought that the state could  force the market to clear through fiscal and monetary policy.  He argued that in the case of recession, aggregate demand is lower than what it should be, and this in turn, caused negative feedback loops that halted the economic engine (e.g. the underconsumption of commodities). In order to stimulate demand, the state could increase the amount of money in the consumer side by: (a) public spending on infrastructure in order to employ the previously unemployed, (b) lowering taxes so that the consumer has more available money. Meanwhile,  the state could stimulate demand through monetary policy by lowering the interest rate so that consumers and investors can buy an invest through cheap loans and credit.  This monetary policy was thought to cause inflation because it would increase the money supply by allowing low interest/cheap borrowing, but at the same time, this policy was thought to cure the greater diseases, which were mass unemployment and low aggregate demand.   Keynes’ policies often required deficit spending, that is the government spending more than they acquire, usually by accruing debt. Furthermore, Keynesian policies  tend to trigger inflation because they increase the money supply. However the Keynesians thought that this inflation was a necessary evil to cure unemployment.

In the 1970s, however, economic crisis displaced Keynesianism into the fringe.  The rapid increase of the price of oil coupled with a large money supply created a crisis. These high prices discouraged companies from investing, given that production costs were too expensive and inflated. The Keynesian approach to dealing with crises was not applicable since unemployment was coupled with low demand and inflation (stagflation), which ran contrary to the Keynesian consensus of the time. So it seemed that inflationary policies, such as increasing the money supply, wouldn’t solve the stagnation and unemployment problem.  In response to the crisis, some economists, like the monetarist Milton Friedman, claimed   that Keynesian monetary policy was at least partly responsible for the crisis given its inflationary nature.  Friedman argued that in order to cure the recession, governments should reduce the money supply.  Therefore in accordance to Friedman’s prescription, the Fed in the United States sharply increased interest rates, which ran contrary to Keynesian policy. This tightening of the money supply by the Fed is thought to have aided in the resolution of the crisis. The empirical falsification of Keynesianism because of the stagflation crisis, coupled with a protracted cultural war by classical economists such as Hayek, Friedman etc., and the shift of power towards financial speculators,  displaced Keynesianism into the fringe of heterodox economics that exists today.

Nowadays Keynesianism has been rebranded into all sorts of heterodox disciplines that found a place in Left. Keynes became a darling of the Left for three reasons: (i) melancholy for the post-WWII welfare state and cheap credit, (ii) a consumer-side perspective (e.g. focus on aggregate demand) that seems to value working class consumers over capitalist suppliers, and (iii) the idea that capitalism is crisis prone in contrast  to the the neoliberal orthodoxy of economic equilibrium.  Some of these rebranded Keynesian theories go under different names, such as Post-Keynesianism and Modern Monetary Theory.  Although these Post-Keynesian theories are not exactly isomorphic to the original theories and prescriptions set by Keynes, they all roughly agree with the main heuristics, mainly that the state should strongly intervene in the market, and that an increase of money supply and government spending should be used to counter crisis rather than neoliberal austerity.  Finally, all these approaches rely on one particular thing (which I will show later on why it’s flawed), which is the strength of the sovereignty of the nation-state.  I will focus on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as an example given that it is one of the more contemporary iterations of Keynesianism.

Modern Monetary Theory’s basic premise is simple:  a nation-state that issues its own currency cannot go bankrupt given that it can print more of its own money to pay for all necessary goods and services.   Another way of stating this theory is that governments don’t collect taxes for funding programs and services. Rather governments literally spend money into existence, printing money in order to pay for necessary services and goods. Taxes are just the government’s mechanism to control for inflation. In other words, taxes are the valve used to  control the money supply. MMT therefore argues that since money is in the form of fiat currency,  it’s not constrained by scarce commodities such as gold and silver, and therefore it is a flexible social construct. So governments don’t need to cut social programs in order to increase revenue – they could simply spend more money into existence in order to pay for social programs. Furthermore, the government can  enforce full employment by spending jobs into existence  – the state can create jobs through large-scale public works, and then print the necessary money to pay the workers. In a sense, MMT is another iteration of the Keynesian monetary heuristic that increasing the money supply is a good way to solve high unemployment and crisis.

Imagine the potential of MMT for a leftist!  The neoliberals  arguing for austerity and balanced budgets are talking nonsense – the state can simply spend money into existence and therefore pay for welfare and other public services, and also use this new minted money to employ the unemployed! If the increase of money supply triggers inflation, the state can simply tax more, fine-tuning the quantity of money. If only the MMTer would convince the right technocrats, we wouldn’t have to deal with the infernal landscape of austerity.

However, the idealized picture presented by MMT is missing key variables.  Ultimately,  an MMT approach would be  heavily constrained by national production bottlenecks.  In order for MMT approaches to work, the increase of demand caused by the sudden injection of money should be able to be met by the production of  the desired commodities.  In an ideally sovereign nation, society would be able to meet the demand of computers, medicine, or food by simply producing more of these commodities. We may refer to a country’s capacity for producing all the goods it needs as material sovereignty.

However this is where the fundamental achilles hill of MMT (and Post-Keynesianism in general) lies.  Most countries are not materially sovereign at all. Instead, they depend on imports in order to meet their demand on fundamental goods such as technology, fuel, food or medicine.   In the real world, countries have to buy forex currency (e.g. dollars) in order to be able to import necessary goods. The price of the dollar in terms of another currency is not in control of the currency’s issuer. Instead it’s a reflection of the economic and geopolitical standing of that nation amidst the current existing world-system. Whether the dollar is worth 20 or 30 Mexican pesos has to do with Mexico’s  position in the global pecking order, and this exchange rate, if anything, can be made worse by the adoption of Keynesian policies. For example, if Mexico suddenly increases its own currency supply, the Mexican peso would simply be devalued in contrast to the american dollar, making its ability to buy the necessary imports diminished.  This puts a fatal constrain on a nation-states ability to finance itself through simple monetary policy.

The economic castigation of “pro-Keynesian” countries by the world-system is a cliche at this point.  To name some examples:  Allende’s Chile,   Maduro’s Venezuela, or pre-2015 Greece. In the case of Allende, the sudden increase of the money supply by raising the minimum wage created a large unmet demand and also eventually depleted the country’s forex reserves (there was also economic sabotage aided by the United States, but this also reinforces my argument).  In the case of Maduro, Chavez ran large deficits, assuming the high revenues from oil will last long enough. Greece overspent itself through massive welfare and social programs.  Although Greece doesn’t have its own currency, it still engaged in a high deficit fiscal policy that led to its default.   If these countries had their own material sovereignty, such as being able to produce their own food, technology, and other necessary goods, the global order would not have been able to castigate them so harshly. Instead, what ended up happening is that foreign investors pulled out,  the national currency plummeted, and their forex reserves depleted,  making these governments unable to meet the national demand for necessary goods through imports or foreign capital injection.

The above scenario reveals a fundamental truth about capitalism – national economies are functions of global, exogenous variables, rather than only endogenous factors.   Keynesian policy is based on the idea that nation-states are sufficiently sovereign to have economies that depend mostly on endogenous factors. If  the nation-state’s economy depend solely on  national variables, then a Keynesian government could simply manipulate these variables in order to get the desired outcome of  its national economy.  However it turns out nation-states are instead firms embedded in a global market, and their fate ultimately lies in the behaviour of the planetary world-system.  The nation-state firm has to be competitive in the world-system in order to generate profit; this implies that inflationary policies, large debts, and state enforced  “full employment” are not necessarily healthy for the profitability of the firm.   Furthermore, it means that the leftist nationalists that want to, for example, leave the eurozone in order to be able to issue their own currency, are acting from misguided principles.

Given the persistence of the totalitarianism of the world-system, no matter the utopian schemes of leftist nationalists and their fringe hetetodox academics, it’s infuriating to witness how the Left has lost its tradition of internationalism. Instead, the Left, since the advent of WWII, has been pushing for “delinking” of the world-system, whether it’s through national liberation during the 60s, or more recently, by leaving the euro-zone, fomenting balkanization in countries like Spain or the United Kingdom, etc.

The world-system can only be domesticated to pursue social need with the existence of a world socialist government.  Regardless of how politically  unfeasible the program of world government is, its necessity follows formally from the existence of a world system. Only through world government could socialists have sufficient sovereignty in order to manipulate the economy for social need. In fact, the Keynesians indirectly point at this problem through their formalism.  Post-Keynesian theories such as MMT start from the idea of a state having material sovereignty. Yet, the only way for a state to have material sovereignty, and therefore be able to manipulate endogenous variables for its own economic ends, is to subsume the whole planet into some sort of unitary, democratic system.  A planetary government could then manipulate variables across the planet (e.g. both in China and in the United States) to enforce social-democratic measures like full employment or a welfare state, without dealing with the risk of international agents castigating the economy, or having to import goods from “outside”.  But the funny thing is that once we have global. fiscal and monetary policy, Keynesianism becomes irrelevant, given that market signals can be supplanted by a planned economy.

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