Matters changed with the Dutch democracy, seeking to win and secure its liberty from Habsburg Spain. The fact that their parliament was to contract permanent public debts on behalf of the state enabled the Low Countries to raise loans to employ mercenaries in an epoch when money and credit were the sinews of war. Access to credit “was accordingly their most powerful weapon in the struggle for their freedom,” Richard Ehrenberg wrote in his Capital and Finance in the Age of the Renaissance (1928): “Anyone who gave credit to a prince knew that the repayment of the debt depended only on his debtor’s capacity and will to pay. The case was very different for the cities, which had power as overlords, but were also corporations, associations of individuals held in common bond. According to the generally accepted law each individual burgher was liable for the debts of the city both with his person and his property.”
The financial achievement of parliamentary government was thus to establish debts that were not merely the personal obligations of princes, but were truly public and binding regardless of who occupied the throne. This is why the first two democratic nations, the Netherlands and Britain after its 1688 revolution, developed the most active capital markets and proceeded to become leading military powers. What is ironic is that it was the need for war financing that promoted democracy, forming a symbiotic trinity between war making, credit and parliamentary democracy which has lasted to this day.
At this time “the legal position of the King qua borrower was obscure, and it was still doubtful whether his creditors had any remedy against him in case of default.” (Charles Wilson, England’s Apprenticeship: 1603-1763: 1965.) The more despotic Spain, Austria and France became, the greater the difficulty they found in financing their military adventures. By the end of the eighteenth century Austria was left “without credit, and consequently without much debt,” the least credit-worthy and worst armed country in Europe, fully dependent on British subsidies and loan guarantees by the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
Finance accommodates itself to democracy, but then pushes for oligarchy
While the nineteenth century’s democratic reforms reduced the power of landed aristocracies to control parliaments, bankers moved flexibly to achieve a symbiotic relationship with nearly every form of government. In France, followers of Saint-Simon promoted the idea of banks acting like mutual funds, extending credit against equity shares in profit. The German state made an alliance with large banking and heavy industry. Marx wrote optimistically about how socialism would make finance productive rather than parasitic. In the United States, regulation of public utilities went hand in hand with guaranteed returns. In China, Sun-Yat-Sen wrote in 1922: “I intend to make all the national industries of China into a Great Trust owned by the Chinese people, and financed with international capital for mutual benefit.”
World War I saw the United States replace Britain as the major creditor nation, and by the end of World War II it had cornered some 80 per cent of the world’s monetary gold. Its diplomats shaped the IMF and World Bank along creditor-oriented lines that financed trade dependency, mainly on the United States. Loans to finance trade and payments deficits were subject to “conditionalities” that shifted economic planning to client oligarchies and military dictatorships. The democratic response to resulting austerity plans squeezing out debt service was unable to go much beyond “IMF riots,” until Argentina rejected its foreign debt.
A similar creditor-oriented austerity is now being imposed on Europe by the European Central Bank (ECB) and EU bureaucracy. Ostensibly social democratic governments have been directed to save the banks rather than reviving economic growth and employment. Losses on bad bank loans and speculations are taken onto the public balance sheet while scaling back public spending and even selling off infrastructure. The response of taxpayers stuck with the resulting debt has been to mount popular protests starting in Iceland and Latvia in January 2009, and more widespread demonstrations in Greece and Spain this autumn to protest their governments’ refusal to hold referendums on these fateful bailouts of foreign bondholders.
Shifting planning away from elected public representatives to bankers
Every economy is planned. This traditionally has been the function of government. Relinquishing this role under the slogan of “free markets” leaves it in the hands of banks. Yet the planning privilege of credit creation and allocation turns out to be even more centralized than that of elected public officials. And to make matters worse, the financial time frame is short-term hit-and-run, ending up as asset stripping. By seeking their own gains, the banks tend to destroy the economy. The surplus ends up being consumed by interest and other financial charges, leaving no revenue for new capital investment or basic social spending.
This is why relinquishing policy control to a creditor class rarely has gone together with economic growth and rising living standards. The tendency for debts to grow faster than the population’s ability to pay has been a basic constant throughout all recorded history. Debts mount up exponentially, absorbing the surplus and reducing much of the population to the equivalent of debt peonage. To restore economic balance, antiquity’s cry for debt cancellation sought what the Bronze Age Near East achieved by royal fiat: to cancel the overgrowth of debts.
In more modern times, democracies have urged a strong state to tax rentier income and wealth, and when called for, to write down debts. This is done most readily when the state itself creates money and credit. It is done least easily when banks translate their gains into political power. When banks are permitted to be self-regulating and given veto power over government regulators, the economy is distorted to permit creditors to indulge in the speculative gambles and outright fraud that have marked the past decade. The fall of the Roman Empire demonstrates what happens when creditor demands are unchecked. Under these conditions the alternative to government planning and regulation of the financial sector becomes a road to debt peonage.
Finance vs. government; oligarchy vs. democracy
Democracy involves subordinating financial dynamics to serve economic balance and growth – and taxing rentier income or keeping basic monopolies in the public domain. Untaxing or privatizing property income “frees” it to be pledged to the banks, to be capitalized into larger loans. Financed by debt leveraging, asset-price inflation increases rentier wealth while indebting the economy at large. The economy shrinks, falling into negative equity.
The financial sector has gained sufficient influence to use such emergencies as an opportunity to convince governments that that the economy will collapse they it do not “save the banks.” In practice this means consolidating their control over policy, which they use in ways that further polarize economies. The basic model is what occurred in ancient Rome, moving from democracy to oligarchy. In fact, giving priority to bankers and leaving economic planning to be dictated by the EU, ECB and IMF threatens to strip the nation-state of the power to coin or print money and levy taxes.
The resulting conflict is pitting financial interests against national self-determination. The idea of an independent central bank being “the hallmark of democracy” is a euphemism for relinquishing the most important policy decision – the ability to create money and credit – to the financial sector. Rather than leaving the policy choice to popular referendums, the rescue of banks organized by the EU and ECB now represents the largest category of rising national debt. The private bank debts taken onto government balance sheets in Ireland and Greece have been turned into taxpayer obligations. The same is true for America’s $13 trillion added since September 2008 (including $5.3 trillion in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bad mortgages taken onto the government’s balance sheet, and $2 trillion of Federal Reserve “cash-for-trash” swaps).