By Greg Godels
November 26, 2021
Fifty years ago, global capitalism came to a crossroads. The enormous costs of the US’s long, costly Asian war produced great debt and pressure on the gold-backed US dollar. The imperialist alliance with Israel brought a disruptive, unprecedented boycott on the part of the oil-producing nations resisting Israel’s occupation of Arab territories. Intense competition between the dominant US economy and the resurgent Euro-Asian economies was shrinking profit margins. Traditional macroeconomic tools failed to meet the challenges of this new situation. The ensuing crisis came to be called the era of stagflation– stagnant economic growth coupled with persistent, intractable inflation.
Stagflation persisted through most of the decade and ended with shock therapy– a radical dose of deregulation, privatization, and market fetishism, a regimen of austerity now prescribed by all mainstream parties.
The crisis of the 1970s bears some similarities with today’s turmoil.
The pandemic, like the oil crisis, has shocked the global economy. The US economy and subordinate economies have been running on the fumes of fiat money and central bank stimulation, exposing remedies that are losing their effectiveness. Despite the lack of even phantom existential threats, the US has conjured costly foreign adventures and an extraordinarily wasteful and large military budget and “security” spending, crowding out social spending and amplifying national indebtedness. Commodity scarcity generates rising prices. And both slow growth and inflation are now reappearing and promise to continue.
Does this mean that we are bound to relive the crisis of the 1970s? Are we seeing a replay?
Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell. But we would be foolish not to study the 1970s to distill the lessons that might apply to today.
Despite the admonitions of the central bankers and financial gurus, inflation seldom self-corrects. It rarely runs its course. Instead, inflation tends to gather momentum because all the economic actors attempt to catch up and get ahead of it.
In the 1970s, it was popular with the capitalist media to blame workers who were demanding cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) to ward off inflation. “Greedy” unions, welfare, senior, and disability advocacy organizations were claimed as the causes of inflation’s persistence and deepening.
Cynically, all were asked to sacrifice equally, while it was monopoly corporations that were raising the prices that constituted the core of inflation. They were using “catching up” as an opportunity to “profit up.” Under the guise of responding to inflation, dominant corporations raised prices beyond their growing costs to expand their profit margins.
Unlike monopoly corporations, small businesses were limited in their ability to raise prices because of intense competition. They were caught in a profit squeeze between their need to remain competitive and the grinding increases in their costs of doing business. They are especially victimized by inflation.
At the same time, inflation cheapened the value of debt, especially corporate debt, while choking new consumer debt with high interest rates.
Today, rising prices are eating up workers’ gains just as they did in the 1970s. Let the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explain it: “From April 2020 to March 2021, the 12-month changes in real average earnings were all increases, between 4.0 percent to 7.4 percent. Prior to that, from January 2017 until March 2020, the over-the-year change in real average weekly earnings ranged from −0.5 percent to 2.0 percent.” But: “Real average weekly earnings of employees on private nonfarm payrolls decreased 1.6 percent from October 2020 to October 2021. In every month from April 2021 to October 2021, the 12-month changes in real average weekly earnings have been decreases, ranging from −0.8 percent to −2.6 percent” [my emphasis].
In other words, real average weekly earnings exploded with the labor shortages induced by the pandemic, but they were wiped out by the five months of over 5% inflation culminating in the 6.2% rise in October, a 31-year high.
It is not workers’ wages that are driving inflation, but something else.
In a revealing article, The Wall Street Journal exposes the real cause of escalating inflation. Inflation Helps Boost Profit Margins: Companies seize rare opportunity to increase prices and outrun their own rising costs [print edition] tells that “[n]early two out of three of the biggest U.S. publicly traded companies have reported fatter profit margins so far this year than they did over the same stretch of 2019… Nearly 100 of these giants have booked profit margins– the share of each dollar of sales a company can pocket– that are at least 50% above 2019 levels” [my emphasis]. The authors note: “Executives are seizing a once in a generation opportunity to raise prices…”
It is apparent from this candid article that monopoly capitalism is leading this profiteering. And it is important to recognize that this profit-taking has and will continue to fuel inflation. Once again, the commanding heights of the US economy– the monopoly corporations– are using the excuse of catching-up to profit-up.
If history’s repeat is not to be farcical, the workers’ movement must avoid the mistakes of the 1970s. It must fight against monopoly price increases and not join the purveyors of common sacrifice, like the silly WIN (Whip Inflation Now) campaign of that period.
The workers’ movement must not follow its false partner, the Democratic Party, down the road of wage and benefit restraint. The inflation-directed restraint of the 1970s gave way to the give-backs of the 1980s and 1990s.
Workers must understand that inflation is not a self-inflicted wound, but a feature of the capitalist system, especially in its finance-dominated, monopoly stage. And it must be contained by attacking the profit-taking that spurs the inflationary spiral.
Further, the working class must bring this understanding to the frightened petty bourgeoisie who feel threatened and are threatened by the scourge of inflation, a stratum that otherwise turns in great numbers to the extreme right for answers.
Of course, this task would be made easier if we had a robust Communist movement in all of the capitalist countries.