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Saturday, 12 September 2015

The Age of Finance Capital—and the Irrelevance of Mainstream Economics

Ismael Hossein-Zadeh

Despite the fact that the manufacturers of ideas have elevated economics to the (contradictory) levels of both a science and a religion, a market theodicy, mainstream economics does not explain much when it comes to an understanding of real world developments. Indeed, as a neatly stylized discipline, economics has evolved into a corrupt, obfuscating and useless—nay, harmful—field of study. Harmful, because instead of explaining and clarifying it tends to mystify and justify.

One of the many flaws of the discipline is its static or a historical character, that is, a grave absence of a historical perspective. Despite significant changes over time in the market structure, the discipline continues to cling to the abstract, idealized model of competitive industrial capitalism of times long past.

Not surprisingly, much of the current economic literature and most economic “experts” still try to explain the recent cycles of financial bubbles and bursts by the outdated traditional theories of economic/business cycles. Accordingly, policy makers at the head of central banks and treasury departments continue to issue monetary prescriptions that, instead of mitigating the frequency and severity of the cycles, tend to make them even more frequent and more gyrating.

This crucially important void of a dynamic, long-term or historic perspective explains why, for example, most mainstream economists fail to see that the financial meltdown of 2008 in the United States, its spread to many other countries around the world, and the consequent global economic stagnation represent more than just another recessionary cycle. More importantly, they represent a structural change, a new phase in the development of capitalism, the age of finance capital.

A number of salient features distinguish the age of finance capital from earlier stages of capitalism, that is, stages when finance capital grew and/or circulated in tandem with industrial capital.

One such distinctive feature of the age of finance capital is that, freed from regulatory constraints, finance capital at this stage can and often does grow independent of industrial or productive capital. Prior to the rise of big finance and the dismantlement of regulatory constraints, the role of finance was considered to be largely greasing the wheels of the economy. Commercial banks consolidated people’s savings as bank deposits and funneled them as credit to manufacturing and commercial enterprises. Under these circumstances, where regulatory standards stipulated the types and quantities of investments that commercial banks and other financial intermediaries could undertake, finance capital largely shadowed industrial capital; they grew or expanded more or less apace.

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