Neoliberalism, financialization and contemporary capitalism

tradução para o português

Colunas [“Columns”], Tom Vieira

Today I want to talk about the nature of contemporary capitalism. Before getting on with it, I have two preliminary remarks which reflect difficulties that are set by this task. The first and most important is that contemporary capitalism is immensely complicated — it does not present itself as a single thing. On the other hand, I would argue, if not here, that capitalism has always been global and that, in being so, it has become more so and more obviously so — with the two very different sorts of crises that we unavoidably face making this rather obvious. One of these are the environmental crises, slowly but unremittingly, making themselves felt chronically across the globe; and the other is the Covid pandemic, acute and yet pervasive in incidence and wide-ranging in economic and social effects.

So, whilst contemporary capitalism is global, it is far from uniform, the same everywhere and over time. Indeed, it is highly diverse, so much so that even attempts to put some order upon it are more or less doomed to failure. Think of the Brics — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, a grouping of countries together that are vastly different from one another. And those differences apply equally within the individual countries involved. Yet, these countries do seem to share some things in common, most notably not so much growth as being susceptible to crises as well as vast and generally increasing levels of inequality in wealth, income and access to the means of social and individual well-being. So, any discussion of contemporary capitalism and, indeed, of capitalism in the past, needs to be able to address the co-existence and mutual determination of both diversities and uniformities.

My second difficulty is very different from the first. It begins by observing, right or wrong, progressive or reactionary, that the classic understandings of capitalism, especially from political economy and even from the narrow confines of mainstream economics, have always involved abstract theory even if grounded inductively to a greater or lesser extent in empirical observation. This is true of Adam Smith and the invisible hand, the value theory of David Ricardo, the accumulation of capital on the basis of an exploitative class mode of production of Karl Marx, the harmonious interaction of supply and demand to forge an equilibrium of neoclassical economics and its dependence upon homo economicus, and Keynes notions of aggregate effective demand. Even though monetarism in various guises has dominated the mainstream since the 1970s, significantly there is no consensus at the moment around grand theory amongst orthodoxy, especially one that can guide policy as was the case with the Keynesian response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. This is despite the crises previously mentioned.

Even so, grand theory is essential in understanding the nature of contemporary capitalism. But this is not the place to undertake a corresponding presentation. Instead, let me just suggest that my presentation is deeply theoretically informed and implicit in what follows, especially concerning the nature of capitalism in general and why it is as it is today. In short, theory is really important and it is worth recalling that Lenin took time off in 1917 to write his classic work, Imperialism, characterising the capitalism of his own time as the stage of monopoly capitalism, in seeking to understand why the globe should be in the midst of the first world war and what were the prospects for revolution!

In lieu of theory, my entry point in specifying the nature of contemporary capitalism will be to understand it as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has itself, though, been understood in numbers of ways. First, and most popular, has probably been as an ideology, favouring laissez-faire, leaving things to the market as much as possible and minimizing the role of the state. This is complemented by the ideology that neoliberalism favours individual liberty. Yet, we also know that neoliberalism is associated with the most authoritarian of regimes, and that as a period of capitalism, such authoritarianism has grown at the expense of democratic and progressive forms of government. In short, ideology does a poor job in specifying let alone explaining neoliberalism, and its own diversities and uniformities are something that have themselves to be explained.

Alternatively, neoliberalism has been specified as a concerted assault upon the wages and living conditions of working people and their families, not least as a means by which to restore profitability following the stagflationary crisis of the 1970s. But we have a few centuries of experience of such assaults upon working people and this cannot be distinctive of contemporary capitalism as neoliberalism, severe though current assaults may be. More compelling might be the idea of neoliberalism as a distinct set of policy measures around privatization, commericialisation, redistribution and austerity. But this has the drawback of suggesting neoliberalism is only as permanent and globally embedded as these policies which could simply be changed with a change of government — when this has happened with good intent, as in successfully elected progressive governments, more deeply embedded economic, political and ideological, and possibly global, forces seem to suggest otherwise as policy reversals have been limited and short-lived.

In a more historical vein, if also tending to seek policy-wise to return to that erstwhile golden age, neoliberalism has been specified by contrast with the Keynesian period that preceded it. This leaves open how to define that earlier period, with my own inclination being to downplay the role of Keynesian policies as such, and to put emphasis upon the internationalization of capital in all its forms — growth of multinational corporations with production straddling national boundaries within their affiliates (now known as global commodity chain [GCC], global value chain [GVC], or global production networks [GPNs]), and corresponding expansion of international trade and finance, as well as extensive state intervention to promote these internationalisations as well as through domestic industrial, including state, enterprises, and social policies to underpin provision of a healthy, educated and productive workforce.

But there are also problems in defining neoliberalism negatively, as not Keynesianism, the most compelling being that neoliberalism is now well into its fifth decade, far longer than the Keynesian period. Neoliberalism needs to be defined on its own terms. But in this, lessons can be gained from the Keynesian period. Here it can be seen that, if unevenly, the economy was characterised by what might be termed as the five highs, mutually supporting and conditioning one another. These are high investment, high productivity, high wages, high employment and high social expenditure. And, as already mentioned, these were brought about by economic reorganisation, what I will call economic reproduction and/or transformation, through the agency of multinational corporations, internationalisation and state intervention. It is the differences in the agencies of such economic restructuring, and later I will add social restructuring, which define one period, era, phase of capitalism as opposed to another alongside how profits are generated and appropriated by which capitalists.

In earlier periods, for example, what might be termed competitive capitalism, it was primarily through extension of work and downward pressure on wages and living conditions. For monopoly capitalism, it was through the factory system with corresponding capacity to bring about productivity increase and improvements in living standards for those involved. But what are the main or, more exactly, distinctive agencies of economic and social reproduction in contemporary capitalism and who are its main beneficiaries?

The answer is relatively simple, and it has been brought to the fore especially following the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). It is finance. Indeed, more than anything else neoliberalism has been characterised by the creeping, growing and then the accelerating power of finance. This has been well captured in the explosive growth of the notion of financialisation over the past decade, especially across the academic literature, conceptualising and empirically tracing the increasing presence and influence of finance across more and more aspects of our lives, from medical fees at birth to pensions until we die; indeed, there is a healthy literature on what is called the financialisation of everyday life, not least with working class wages and social security payments also being incorporated into financialisation through mortgages, credit cards and so on. Perhaps the simplest and most important index of financialisation is the growth in financial assets over the last three decades at three times that of GDP, with corresponding proliferation in types and applications of financial assets. If we made a car, a table, even a mobile phone, with three times as many inputs as previously, this would be an extraordinary indication of going technologically backwards. By contrast, using three times as much finance is a cause of celebration, especially by those of the 1% who are its major beneficiaries. And this is despite the association of financialisation with speculative short-termism of investment in financial assets, rather than long-term, productivity-increasing investment; growing inequality; policy influence leaning towards austerity to preserve the value of financial assets; and this all leading to what I have termed variegated vulnerabilities, increased susceptibility to sharp changes in economic and social prospects, most obviously with the Global Financial Crisis, and no apparent solution other than futile attempts by way of rescue and support to private banks (literally and directly through handouts and even temporary nationalisation and Quantitative Easing, allowing banks unlimited resources at minimal rates of interest). It is a moot point why banks should be supported so much in the hope that they might stimulate the economy, when such funds could be used to support public investment and provision directly, indeed as happened during the post-war boom. As can be neatly put, this has been socialism for the bankers and their big clients, and capitalism for the rest of us.

Now having broadly pinpointed the role of financialisation within contemporary capitalism, I can now attach it to playing the leading role in economic reproduction, most recently in ways in which economic and social infrastructure is being funded and provided, and creeping privatisation of public provisioning where this has not already been accomplished. The contradictions involved in these developments are staggering and not just because of their attachment to the previously mentioned variegated vulnerabilities associated with finance having its fingers, hands, the whole of each arm in every pie.

For, on the one hand, we are being told that the market works well (the unavoidable Global Financial Crisis as evidence to the contrary) and better than the state, and yet that we must use the state’s resources to fund private finance to allow private capital to provide and run our public services and more (and the state’s resources are also used for the ideological purpose of convincing us of the superiority of the market!). On the other hand, capitalism in principle has never had it so good across almost each and every aspect of what ought to make it successful. The Cold War has been won, neoliberalism has triumphed, the balance of class struggle has shifted enormously in its favour with decline of strength and organisation of the working class (in trade unions and otherwise), and then also the weakening of anti-imperial struggle with neo-colonialism, the unprecedented availability of new technologies, moderation in economic and social wages, austerity more or less on demand as and when required, and huge increases in the global labour force not least through the unmistakable shift to capitalist development within China.

Indeed, capitalism has had everything its own way and yet it has experienced the greatest, and irresolvable crisis beyond living memory. It is precisely because of financialisation. For example, in the UK, investment in water in the UK, under what is now primarily financialised privatisation, means that as the water flows in one direction from our taps, as much as 30% of water revenues flow in the opposite direction into globally organised holding companies registered in the Cayman Islands or the like. Meanwhile, shares are now traded in the mythical right not to pollute in the future as corresponding markets are made for speculative carbon trading.

This dominance of finance in the economy is most strikingly evident in the developments around corporate control. It has been shown that just a few hundred multinational corporations, through their own possession of assets and interlocking control and networks with one another, run the world economy. Of these, two-thirds are financial companies. They are often also integrally involved with the state, with China to the fore in this regard although the Chinese state continues to hold considerable control over the use of finance (and directs it to investment rather than speculation). What we are currently witnessing, unevenly and tentatively but on an increasing scale, are attempts for coordinated expansion across the troika of productive and financial capital and the state, often with infrastructure to the fore.

As mentioned, a healthy literature has developed on financialisation over the last two decades, generally from progressive scholars. Its leading thrust is to argue that financialisation depends upon making as many profits as quickly as possible without regard to broader considerations and the longer term. Speculative investment in finance displaces longer-term investments in productive capacity. As a result, there are legions of studies showing that more finance means weaker performance across investment, productivity, growth, inequality, social expenditure and so on. No wonder then that the five highs have predominantly given way to the five lows.

But the reach and impact of financialisation is not confined to the private sector alone. As mentioned, privatisation of state-owned corporations has been to the fore but so has the more general financialisation of state provision or what I previously designated in part as social reproduction.

Consider UK housing. It has suffered a chronic lack of supply as a result of priority to owner-occupation and financialisation of mortgages, the results of which have been transparent in the USA, sparking off the GFC through collapse of subprime mortgages. In addition, in the UK, rather than state provision of good quality social housing for rent, we have seen banks rescued and allowed to borrow at minimal rates of interest without this being used to fund housing supply. Why rescue Northern Rock, formerly a not-for-profit Mortgage Society, with state funds rather than using these to build good quality social housing directly. Indeed, social housing has been cut and the private renting sector has expanded unprecedentedly putting more and more into housing poverty. So those in housing poverty in the UK rose from 7.3% in 2012 to 12.5% in 2015, one in eight of the population, one in seven in an urban environment.

Meanwhile the perverse consequence is a ballooning of housing benefit that feeds the returns to landlords. For example, in the UK in 2009, around two-thirds (64%) of public spending on housing went into housing allowances (benefit) and 36% into building new homes. In 2015, the ratio has shifted even further towards housing allowances. In this year, 85% of all public spending on housing went into housing benefit and only 15% into building new homes. In other words, in order to support the private renting of housing or, more exactly rents for landlords, government is pouring money into subsidising private rents rather than into building houses. A similar story can be told across most of Europe, with social housing suffering at the expense of supporting private ownership that is unaffordable to many as well as the private renting that is the only remaining option for most.

And, in case you thought, planning restrictions were preventing house building as opposed to speculative land banking by construction companies and others, profiting more from increase in the value of property rather than building on it, despite claims of insufficient land for house building, half of the UK’s publicly owned land, 10% of the British land mass, has been sold to private interests! This land is worth “somewhere in the region of £400bn in today’s prices… [it] dwarfs the value of all of Britain’s other, better known, and often bitterly contested, privatisations” which, of course, include all energy, most transport, mail, telecoms and so on. Meanwhile much of the health and other services have been subject to creeping privatisation and commercialisation.

But let me take up the issue of land in a different context, that of food and its financialisation. Here I want to emphasise a political economy of excess that parallels that of speculative finance itself. First observe though that speculative finance does not always depend upon doing nothing, it can do too much, with much excessive infrastructure being funded for the purposes of the financial sector and, of course, the financialisation of energy markets has led to its excessive expansion and use. In case of food, apart from speculation on futures markets which rebound across different crops and across other speculative markets, such as those for energy, speculative gains are also made in anticipation of expanding production as much as possible, ranging from deforestation and land grabbing through to the increasing processing of food at expense of its quality — pack in as much fat, sugar, salt, air and water as you can into your food, and pay as little wages as possible and employ as few workers as possible, in order to boost short-term profits irrespective of long-term consequences. So, whilst the compulsion to expand profitable production of food does not originate with neoliberalism, financialisation has the effect of intensifying the levels of production of food. And what is produced must be consumed.

So even a casual perusal of social and mass media, let alone scholarly research and commentary from leading international organizations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) as well as national organizations and policymakers, can lead to little doubt that we face an obesity epidemic on a global scale. Over the past three decades, obesity has doubled, with the percentage of those considered so reaching double figures and conjectured to exceed the numbers who suffer under-nutrition on global scale. Highest levels, in the Americas, well exceed a quarter of the population (and a third in the USA to which I will return). Worryingly, though, economic development would appear to bring obesity as one of its first and rapid consequences, with China’s experience particularly telling with a tenth of its population now suffering diabetes, double the rate even of the UK, even though type 2 diabetes (the result primarily of being overweight, not least through consumption of sugar) was practically unknown in China two decades previously. Poor diet is now the leading cause of mortality worldwide, causing 11m deaths, 22% of the global total, in 2017 (GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators, 2019). To repeat, there is more malnutrition from over- than under-eating in today’s world. And, as is well-known, obesity itself, as well as associated medical conditions, is especially damaging to those with Covid-19.

In this light, let me point to a different aspect of neoliberalism, even if previously mentioned. This is its extremely varied effects across sectors and populations, subject to volatilities and vulnerabilities. We cannot say that neoliberalism caused Covid-19 but it is complicit with an accident waiting to happen in a number of ways. First, with the five lows, and competitive pressures through the industrialization of food production, there is increasing scope for contamination across supposedly separate industrial and natural processes. Secondly, those displaced from regular or adequately remunerated employment increasingly seek to exploit other opportunities in eking out their livelihoods. Wet markets is one of the results, with exploitation of wild animals for food being the consequence, paradoxically, of the way in which the industrialization of food has increasingly exposed the food system to non-industrialised threats, in part through the conduits of industrializing the wild and in part through intensifying the commercialization of the wild outside of its industrialised orbit.

This is, however, not just the economy careering out of control. Despite its ideology of non-intervention and reliance upon the market and the freedom of the individual, state intervention has expanded considerably under neo-liberalism. What has changed is for whom and how that intervention takes place. An interesting example is provided by the British train service where denationalization was intended to remove state interference and subsidy. Instead, under privatization, the result was so disastrous in terms of reliability and safety that the state has had to renationalize and, even under privatization, was compelled to fix services and prices far beyond anything experienced under nationalization. All of this to guarantee profits to financialized international infrastructure companies.

But more generally, economic and political control under neoliberalism was first marked by a phase not so much of rolling back the state but of rolling back popular participation in decisionmaking over policy, especially as far as trade unions and other progressive organisations are concerned. This has been followed by a phase of rolling out new forms of control, with financial interests and consultants to the fore, and extreme centralization of authoritarian decisionmaking within the state even if decentralization and devolution is paraded ideologically in principle whereas, in practice, there is limited capacity for lower levels of government to deliver upon their responsibilities given constraints imposed on their available resources.

Let me approach this issue in a different way, harking back to the golden age of Keynesianism once more. At that time, although clearly not everywhere in the world, before neoliberalism took hold, during the post-war boom, the choice of path to be taken seemed to be of one of reform versus revolution. The political issue seemed to be whether the rise and growth of the welfare state and interventionism, the role of nationalised industries, industrial policy and so on represented a sustainable capitalism or the foundation for strategies and tactics around these concessions within capitalism as a means to build a socialist movement to displace it. I do not doubt that there was underestimation of the impoverished natures of actually existing socialisms, the power and reach of USA hegemony where it was not overtly militarily imperialist, and the global reach of capitalism, fiercely contested though these were from time to time, as struggles also prevailed across the extent, direction and forms of state interventionism.

This situation is well-illustrated by the fate of post-apartheid South Africa, in many ways the last great struggle between reform and revolution coming out of the post-war boom and the settling of accounts with colonialism. This all raises a number of issues, not least in light of what I tend to term the last throw of the 20th century revolutionary dice. For South Africa seemed to offer a dream ticket: colonial liberation struggle; international solidarity; triple alliance of trade unions, broad democratic party, the ANC, and the Communist Party; and an internal mass democratic movement. That this should dissolve into the Zuma farce, and so quickly, needs to be explained if lessons are to be learned.

For, in particular, the last twenty years has witnessed a process of globalisation and financialisation of the South African economy. Hugely powerful domestic conglomerates, the so-called mining houses, have been unbundled and integrated into globally organised multinational operations even if retaining monopolised positions for sectors within the domestic economy. Equally, the South African economy has been financialised, with its financial sector being the fastest growing of all and now making up something in the region of 20% of GDP. Its parasitic character is signalled by the failure to have generated anything other than approximately half of the necessary levels of investment required to generate economic and social development. And, crucially, illegal capital flight that characterised the apartheid period has reached new heights in the post-apartheid period and, left unattended, has equally starved the economy of the resources necessary to generate growth and development. More funds are siphoned out of South Africa, much of it illegally, than is funding overall investment.

Whilst there is not time to go into the South African case in detail, what is striking is the speed and extent to which neoliberalism can take charge. It does so by centralising power, rolling back progressive forms of control and participation, creating revolving doors between economic and political power and personnel, paving the way for corruption, and making economy and society susceptible to swings of populism to the left even if more frequently to the right given who controls the media and the absence of established ways to participate fully and democratically in decision making.

These general observations allow some insight into the current pandemic. But let me first locate it historically in a peculiar way. A century ago, initially prompted by concerns over the quality of the health of recruits to fight in the Boer War, and reinforced by the same conundrum going into the First World War, it was observed in retrospect that:

No observer of political debate in early twentieth-century Britain could have failed to notice the frequency with which the theme of the relationship between Imperial power and public health was discussed. In the aftermath of the Boer War, there was an avalanche of speculation and gloomy prognostication about the causes and likely outcome for the British nation and Empire of the supposed physical deterioration of the British male population. What exercised many politicians and military men was the fact that between forty and sixty percent of recruits for the British Army were turned down as physically unfit for service.

(second emphasis added)

By coincidence or otherwise, the globe was soon to be hit by the Spanish flu pandemic and, possibly, the death toll was worsened by those weakened by chronic under-nutrition and acute wartime conditions.

Jump forward fifty years and we find ourselves, or the USA at least, in the midst of the Vietnam War. At that time, no one was aware of the (US) epidemic of reduced life-expectancy with which it was going to be associated over the last decase or more, due to suicides and drug addiction, (Case & Deaton 2020) but there was a keen awareness of the under-nutrition of many US citizens. As reported in its fiftieth anniversary retrospect, Mande et al (2020, p. 5) recall:

The 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health was a landmark event. Commissioned by President Nixon and chaired by Dr. Jean Mayer, the historic 1969 conference con­vened a diverse group of organizations and dedicated citizens to craft a bipartisan agenda for ending hunger and malnutrition in the USA. The meeting itself, and the report that emerged as a result, had significant and lasting policy impacts: subsequent years saw the expansion of the Food Stamp Program and the National School Lunch Program, the creation of the School Breakfast Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, and the development of dietary guidelines, nutrition education, and standardized food labeling, including the Nutrition Facts label. Of the approximately 1,800 specific recommendations generated by the conference, an estimated 1,650 were later implemented.

Jump forward another fifty years but we find that the 2019 fiftieth anniversary of the White House Conference was not marked by celebrations. The reason for this is as follows:

Today, a half century later, the USA faces a very different set of nutrition challenges: epidemics of diet-related obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases; widening disparities in food access and affordability; food insecurity; and tremendous stresses to the environment, including threats to soils, waterways, oceans, and climate. The burden of chronic illness reduces quality-of-life and life expectan­cy for millions of Americans, and results in healthcare costs that are placing unprecedented strain on the budgets of federal, state and local governments, businesses, and families. Overweight and obesity are threatening our national security by disqualifying young men and women from military service. Meanwhile, environmental degradation caused by global food production is exacerbating climate change and depleting natural resources.

And nor is potential for war nor pandemic off the agenda. On the one hand, it is reported that, obesity is affecting national security in the USA with 71% of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 failing to qualify for military service and obesity disqualifies 31% of these. These ineligibility rates are a major reason why the US Army has not been on track to meet annual recruitment goals (Maxey, Bishop-Josef & Goodman, 2018).

On the other hand, although it could hardly have anticipated what was occurring when publishing its Report in March, 2020, it was accompanied by the Covid 19 pandemic, one at least as serious as its counterpart a century previously. And, whilst knowledge of the current virus remains limited and evolving, its incidence and severity on those with diabetes is known to be particularly harsh — accounting for one-third of all recorded hospitals deaths as such in the UK at time of writing.

The world, then, in June 2020, is in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The response and impacts within and across different countries have been unprecedented but also diverse. They have had their counterpart in academic and more popular outpourings in terms of causes and consequences, cures and lessons. Within progressive commentary in particular, this has given an ideal opportunity for engaging in generous helpings of I told you so — whatever had been the previous understandings of an era of globalized, neoliberalized, financialized, inegalitarian, intersectional austerities, the pandemic could be read off as its inevitable result with more oppression, impoverishment and exploitation in its wake. Whatever the structures and processes creating dysfunctions under neoliberalism, the pandemic has intensified them.

As a result, first, we do need both to ground the pandemic within the context that has preceded it — the global, neoliberal, etc — as well as to insist upon the politically determined, and often unpredictable, ways in which corresponding relations, structures, agencies and processes have not so much been followed through as suspended in extremely varied ways.

Second, this suspended diversity is a consequence of an enduring feature of the contemporary neoliberal state, both its high degree of centralized, interventionist governance (unevenly deployed) and its strong susceptibility to, even reliance upon, political populism (and more or less concessions to controlled devolution). The government’s slogan in the UK was that it would do whatever it takes to beat the virus (even if late with lockdown, protective clothing and testing) and, indeed, its measures have been extraordinary, and often commendable, in terms of levels of expenditure and support to working people. Almost inevitably, those constituencies that have suffered the most from interventionist neglect in the pandemic are those that did not readily fall within the scope of the centralised institutions of governance and its reach to lower levels. Most notable have been the residents of (and workers in) care homes that had been a site of residualized, commercialized austerity over many years, quite apart from frontline workers who must have been astonished to find themselves in the forefront of popular approval and sympathy (even if without adequate protection).

Third, as indicated, if to reiterate, highly unevenly within and across countries, the suspension of ‘normality’ for whatever needs to be done, to varying degrees across countries, has offered salutary lessons in how much the state continues to retain power and has the capacity to use it for directed goals. This includes monitoring and testing for the virus to contain spread, alongside measures on social distancing, massive expansion and diversion of health resources for the treatment of those who become seriously ill, and economic and social measures in support of those who have been deprived of their livelihoods irrespective of whether victims to the virus themselves or not. All of this has been imperative in the biggest suspension of them all, that of neoliberal ideologues from which, at least initially, there has scarcely been a whimper of protest against the massive resurrection of the interventionist state — although death by lockdown economy as worse than by virus has been widely aired and inevitably gained traction as the pandemic unevenly slackened. Perhaps the worst case, trumping Trump who makes and forgets blunders in a moment, is to be found with Brazil which currently has the rare privilege of having outdone the UK in the severity of its pandemic for reasons that are and were entirely transparent in advance.

Fourth, this is our second major crisis in little over a decade. The GFC after only a momentary breeze of reflation to sustain economic activity gave rise to a continuing period of austerity in the UK and elsewhere with correspondingly limited economic and social progress in deference to the dictates of restoring and promoting the financial sector. The response to the pandemic has clearly been very different even if warnings of the austerity to come (who is going to pay for the bloated state debt) have been commonplace, and the prospects for the developing world are particularly bleak. In this light, lessons from, or coming out of, the GFC may not have been learned but, hopefully, those from the pandemic may be stronger and more wide-ranging, especially if deriving from what was achieved within the crisis itself. In particular, it is worth repeating, the crash brought about by the pandemic prompted massive intervention to save lives and to govern, however much unevenly and successfully, economic and social reproduction by detailed intervention within each and across more or less every sector. The contrast can be drawn not only with the GFC but also with the, almost literally by comparison, slow-burning, environmental crises which are a much greater (potential) source of loss of life and well-being and for which collective, progressive action is so vital.

Future policymaking post-pandemic, alongside the political movements and associated cultures, to sustain them need to cover food, health, education, housing, transport, clothing and so much more. In a sense, this is the door against which the previously mentioned White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health (Mande et al, 2020) is already pushing, however forcibly. It is worth quoting at length, to give a flavour of insights and responses to it, even at the expense of reinforcing points already made but also acknowledging that the US is only where the rest of the world will follow unless there are major transformations in global and national economies (p. 13):

Poor diet is now the leading cause of poor health in the USA, causing more than half a million deaths per year. The prevalence of obesity has risen sharply from 15% of adults and 5.5% of children in 1980 to 39.8% of adults and 18.5% of children in 2016. Nearly three in four (71.6%) American adults are either overweight or have obesity. More than 100 million Americans — nearly half of all USA adults — suffer from diabetes or pre-diabetes, while one in three USA children born after 2000 is expected to develop Type 2 diabetes. Cardiovascular disease afflicts about 122 million people and causes roughly 840,000 deaths each year, with rates of coronary heart disease and obesity-related cancers increasing among younger adults. And, for the first time in American history, life expectancies falling, with declines for three consecutive years due in part to significant increases in midlife mortality from diet-related diseases.

So much for the effects, what of the economic costs, p. 14:

The economic costs of this new national nutrition crisis are staggering. Total USA healthcare expenditures have risen from 6.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1970 to 17.9% in 2017. These rising medical costs, dominated by diet-related chronic health conditions, are crushing government budgets and private business growth. Total direct healthcare and indirect economic costs for cardiovascular diseases are estimated at $316 billion per year; for diabetes, at $327 billion per year; and for all obesity-related conditions, at $1.72 trillion per year. These amounts dwarf the annual budgets of many federal agencies, including the budgets of the Departments of Agriculture ($140 billion), Education ($72 billion), Homeland Security ($52 billion), and Justice ($28 billion), as well as the budgets of the National Institutes of Health ($39 billion), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ($11 billion), Environmental Protection Agency ($5.7 billion), and Food and Drug Administration ($5.7 billion)… In summary, governments, businesses, farmers, and individuals all bear the health and environmental burdens of our food system—at massive expense. Globally, the externalities of our food system are estimated to total $12 trillion, an amount greater than the entire food sector’s revenue.

In short, if the Report of fifty years earlier with its 1650 accepted recommendations could turn under- into over-nutrition, we need something similar to deal with today’s problems. What does fiancialised neoliberalism offer? One report in the business pages has a tip for investors — the ‘global fight against obesity’ is hailed as a ‘mega-investment theme’. According to Bank of America, Merrill Lynch thinks that the obesity epidemic will ‘present opportunities for those selling pills, weight-loss programmes or health foods to governments’. Or, as the headlines puts it, ‘Ride the obesity wave and supersize your returns’. In other words, let’s make speculative profits out of both food and out of treating food-related diseases.

What are the alternatives? Otherwise, I am going to close with my favourite quote of all time, not from someone who might be dismissed as a crazy leftist or environmentalist, but from Sir Josiah Stamp, in fact the richest man in Britain at the time he died — in a second world war air raid on London in which he refused in an act of defiance to go with his family into an air-raid shelter. He was Commissioner for London during the Second World War, set up ICI, the UK’s biggest chemical company, served on the board of the Bank of England and headed the Inland Revenue, the UK’s tax service. His eldest son died in the same air raid, leaving uncertain the order of death with the law determining that he should be deemed to have died first, meaning double death duties on his estate — there are some rewarding ironies in life. But here is what he had to say:

Banking was conceived in iniquity and was born in sin. The bankers own the earth. Take it away from them, but leave them the power to create money, and with the flick of the pen they will create enough deposits to buy it back again. However, take it away from them, and all the great fortunes like mine will disappear and they ought to disappear, for this would be a happier and better world to live in. But, if you wish to remain the slaves of bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, let them continue to create money.

I could not say it better, although getting beyond finance, to the policies and control over them that matter, is merely the first step in changing the world, placing economic and social reproduction under popular control to serve people and neither profit nor speculation.