Yanis Vavoufakis On Inequality, Financialisation, And Populism
Many economists have their explanations about where inequality comes from. In this interview, Vavoufakis talks about the role of financialization since the 1970s as the main driver of income inequality.
Many economists have their explanations about where inequality comes from, such as financialization, credit, globalization, technology, and bad policy. When thinking about the causes of inequality in the last thirty years, are there specific areas you think we ought to devote our attention to?
Well, there’s one word that answers your question: financialization. Financialization came on the back of the post-Bretton-Woods drive for completing a surplus society loop, where the United States operated like the world vacuum cleaner, sucking into its territory the net exports of the world on the basis of pushing down wages, lowering inflation, and, of course, Wall Street and the exorbitant power of the dollar. But the tsunami of capital that was going into Wall Street every day to close this loop and to pay for the increasing trade of the US was what shifted the center of gravity of power from industry to finance.
Private credit played a big role in that?
Of course. It’s all private credit. You know, financialization is 99.9 percent private money lending. Consider the financialization of blue-collar workers, in which their homes became the only way of catching up and competing with the Jones’, and since their average earnings were stuck at 1973 levels in real terms, it was only the appreciation of house prices that allowed them to continue the American Dream of rising standards and consumption. And in 2008 that came crashing down, and ever since then, you have a process leading to Trump.
So today’s extreme inequality is due to a very significant class war against the American working class that started at the end of Bretton Woods. And Paul Volker, who recently passed, was central to this. All of this created a new phase in global history: financialized globalization. It pushed inequality back to 1920s levels, financialization collapsed, and then central banks and governments like that of President Obama’s refloated finance, creating socialism for the very few and permanent austerity for everybody else. That’s the answer in a nutshell. That’s my narrative. But, I have to tell you, since your focus is on inequality, I’m one of the very few left-wingers that doesn’t much care about inequality or so much about equality. I don’t consider equality to be such a well-defined term. Equality of what? How do you define it?
What about income inequality?
Inequality is a terrible thing, but it’s a symptom. For me, it’s not the issue. The issue is exploitation. If we have huge levels of exploitation it is because we live in an extractionary economy in which the very few extract value from humans and from nature. Deep down, I’m a liberal, who thinks that liberalism has not served the cause of liberty.
You’re a liberal who thinks that liberalism has not fulfilled its promises.
No, it’s gone completely against its mission, like the Marxism of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union led to a regime that violated every principle of Karl Marx. Similarly, what passes as liberalism has created remarkable illiberties and spread them globally. So what matters to me is freedom from the extractive power of others over you and over nature. Capitalism, through its ever-expanding power, destroys the planet and the air that we need to breathe.
People like Harry Frankfurt argue that what we should care about is not the gap between the rich and the poor, but rather how well off the worst off are doing.
That’s rubbish. This willfully and purposefully neglects the source of the riches of the rich. It is as if it’s a random distribution based on DNA, on ability, and on god-given talents. In the standard debate between John Rawls and Robert Nozick, I was always far more impressed by Nozick than by Rawls because the Rawlsian veil of ignorance is lovely, but the critique of it by Nozick is devastating. He says ‘ok, let’s say we agree with Rawls and we work out what the uniquely just and therefore rational income distribution is. Let’s say we agree, so everybody gets slotted into the income distribution we agreed is uniquely just.’ And then suddenly he’s got this example from basketball, in which one of us becomes very famous for a particular kind of basketballing technique, and people are prepared to pay a lot of money to watch us. Do we ban ourselves from doing this and receiving the money that people are willing to give? Illiberal. Or do we allow ourselves to receive that higher income, in which case we have just proven that the income distribution we decided is uniquely just is not uniquely just?
So in the end, what really matters is not what you have, it’s what you do in order to have it. That is perfectly Marxist to me. And, as a leftist Marxist, the point where I disagree entirely with Nozick is on his definition of entitlement. In his entitlement theory of justice, he says anything people agree to give you under any circumstances means you have it justly and that you are entitled to it. I say this is nonsense. So if you’re starving and I have some food to give you and your kids, and then I make you become my slave voluntarily, that is as coercive as it would be to point a gun at you. So, the distribution of basic goods according to Rawls is important because, without the minimum basic goods, you volunteer to give me things that I’m extracting from you coercively. That’s the Marxist critique. I’m neither Rawlsian or Nozickian, but the process that Nozick brings into the conversation, as well as Hayek, is crucial. But where we disagree with the right-wing is on what qualifies as, firstly, sustainable process and, secondly, just process.
Would it be fair to say the distinction also comes down to the difference between positive liberty—the capacity to act—and negative liberty— the right to act?
Here I think the theories of the Canadian philosopher CB Macpherson are helpful. He criticized the Isaiah Berlin distinction between positive and negative liberty by asking, very correctly, that if negative liberty is freedom from interference, how do you define interference? If you and I meet in the desert and you are dying of thirst and I have a glass of water and say ‘if you want this, you have to sign a contract saying you pass along all your belongs—your house, your car, and everything’. If you say yes because you are dying of thirst, is this interference? Is this a voluntary transaction? Am I impeding your negative liberty? According to Berlin, I’m not because I’m not forcing you to do anything. You are choosing to give me things for a thing.
In my view, the inequality of access to basic goods like water allows me to exercise extractive exploitation over you and therefore to impede your basic freedom. If you accept the distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty, you end up saying, in the end, ‘we’re only going to accept negative liberty because who gives a damn about positive liberty—it’s too dangerous because it legitimizes all sorts of violations of negative liberty. My model is the following: if instead of negative liberty, you have freedom from extractive power, and instead of positive liberty, you replace it with the notion of developmental freedom—the freedom to develop as a character.
Would you say part of the reason it’s so important to object to high levels of inequality comes down to the fact that, in highly unequal societies, you have very different abilities to participate (e.g. unequal baskets of basic goods)?
When so much of one side doesn’t have enough to live on, then you have exploitative power and extractive power that functions to deny every liberty to the party that doesn’t have access to that basket of basic goods. This is, of course, the original argument by Karl Marx.
Do you think a big component of that comes down to education and access to education?
No, it comes to ownership. As long as we have shareholders, we’re going to live in an illiberal society. What do I mean by shareholders? As long as you have tradable shares and anyone can buy a share in a company in which they don’t work, then you create this situation where the majority of the shares of any company are going to be owned by people who have nothing to do with the company. And once you enter that process, you create an alliance with finance because finance creates the capacity to buy shares and fictitious capital minted out of thin air that allows the oligarchy the right to extract the value of others.
Yet imagine a situation in which we have shares, but it’s one share and one vote for one person. So anybody working in our business has one vote. I think of it as similar to a library card. When you’re enrolled in a university you get a library. Everyone gets one. You can’t trade it. It would be similar, in this model I am proposing. As long as you work, you have your share. And then you have one vote. Imagine if corporations operated along those lines. There would be inequality because we would all vote on bonuses, and not everybody would get the same bonuses because we would collectively decide that a certain person is of high value to us and so this person deserves more of a bonus. But the differences would be much smaller. And that has to do with the way in which property rights are distributed.
Doesn’t this create an incentive for companies to hire fewer people because it would require cutting the company up into thinner slices?
I don’t think that holds water because if you and I create a startup and we add a third person to expand, and the growth rate is higher than the basic wage in our company, then we would do it because it’s in our interests to do it. And the fact that companies would be small and not have more than 300 or 400 people —because you can’t scale this up—is a fantastic thing. We need small companies. The whole point about competition is that you have many small companies competing. Now, we have no competitive markets. So one of my criticisms of capitalism is that it is completely anti-competitive. It’s monopolistic.
So on some level, it’s almost this Polanyi Esque argument about liberalism undermining itself and actually requiring government state intervention in order for it to even continue as liberalism.
Yeah, the Polanyi argument and also the Marx argument. Any attempt to set the state against the market or the market against the state is historically pathetic because the market was created by states. Even the enclosures in Britain that created the circumstances for capital to emerge in Britain would not have happened without the king’s army. To pit the state against the market is historical nonsense.
The only reason capitalism happened in Britain and not in France is that there was a powerful central government in the former but not the latter. And the central government dispatched the army in support of the lords that pushed the peasants off the land and replaced them with sheep. The sheep had the capacity to produce wool which was internationally traded, and suddenly the land had value. Without the king’s army, it wouldn’t have happened.
Your focus is on financialization when explaining inequality since the 1970s, but do you think that technological innovations played a role in that as well? In the Industrial Revolution, you saw rising inequality because of increased productivity but stagnant wages. Today, researchers talk about how modern inequality seems at least partially a consequence of the hollowing out of middle-skill/middle-wage work because innovations automated work in that middle sector.
I don’t think we have seen this yet. I think we probably will see it. The hollowing out of the middle class is evident, but I don’t think it’s because of automation. I think it’s simply a situation whereby two things coalesced. On the one hand, it was the introduction of two billion workers in capitalistic markets after 1991 through the Soviet Union satellite states and the rise of China. Two billion workers came from those countries. There were huge shifts of factories to those countries, whether it was Poland or China. But the proletarianization of former peasants is a standard process that has nothing to do with technology per se. That’s the first dimension. The second dimension is the increasing role and capacity of the financial sector in turbocharging private money minting. Through all the financial derivatives and fast trading, without having to press a button, I can transfer billions at lightning speeds. That technological innovation made a huge difference in shifting and increasing power from the industrial scene into the sphere of finance.
How did that work? I would imagine a lot of the competition would be between investing firms and companies with better algorithms and better technology.
Yes, but between 1980 and 2008, in 1980 dollars there was an average inflow of money into Wall Street every day of between five and six billion, on average. Now, if you give a banker five billion every day, even for ten minutes, they will find ways of multiplying it. It’s called derivatives, options, financialization. Computers helped them create really complicated instruments that totally blew up the multiplier. So from that five billion, they could create a hundred or two hundred trillion in securities, which very soon started to operate like money to the extent that they were mediums of exchange and a source of value. So effectively they created as much value as they wanted. And immediately, political power shifts to Goldman Sachs, and General Motors becomes a hedge fund that produces a few cars that nobody cares about. So that’s what I mean by financialization. And that creates huge inequality because just think of all the bonuses.
And very few people have a stake in the stock market.
Most of this was not in the stock market. The derivatives were traded under the table. And so you have a huge new body of the proletariat coming, factories shifting to china. The Chinese people were coming up very slowly in terms of per capita income, but of course, they lose a lot of the old values—community values, environmental values, cultural identity. And fifteen boys living in one room today might make 15 dollars a day, which in the world bank statistics is a fantastic improvement for them. But maybe their life is far worse than it was when they were in their village milking a cow.
Yuval Noah Harari makes the point that, for many people, even the shift to agriculture from hunter-gatherers resulted in a dramatic decline in standards of living. And the same was certainly true of people in the Industrial Revolution. So how do you reconcile that argument with the notion that all of those innovations resulted in improvements in the standard of living that were eventually felt by everyone?
I simply reject it as uninteresting nonsense. When people say to me, ‘look at the last 200 hundred years and the massive decrease in poverty’, I ask ‘how do you measure poverty?’ Take the Australian Aborigines. When Captain Cook arrived in what is now New South Wales. These people had zero income, but they lived very full and fulfilling lives. Today, an Aborigines person gets a hundred Australian dollars a week from some kind of social security fund, and they are obese, they have diabetes, and they are dying from a number of diseases, if not from police brutality. So you consider that to be an improvement because they went from zero to a hundred dollars?
But going back to what you were saying—the hollowing out of the middle class—we should come to that. Given that financialization was based on this exponential growth in fictitious capital that made the very rich exceptionally rich, and at the same time, to have this money coming into Wall Street, you had to have American wages kept very low and below American standards. And this means prices must rise against the home so that people can afford to buy stuff and fill up their garage with rubbish. And then, of course, in 2008 this house of cards comes crashing down. With jobs moving to China and, at the same time, financialization collapsing under the weight of its own hubris, that’s what explains the hollowing out of the middle class. These people initially turned to Barack Obama. He betrayed them. And now they turn to Donald Trump. But AI and automation are going to hit us when we’re down already. I don’t think the hollowing out has to do with automation, but now that the hollowing out has taken place for reasons that don’t have to do with automation, automation will be the second part of the double whammy.
A lot of people are very happy about automation because they believe in its potential to improve productivity. However, if you believe technological change results in significant short-run damages to certain people’s livelihoods, is it worth trying to stop automation?
Automation would be catastrophic. But why would it be catastrophic? It’s a question of nationalizing it and of socializing it. It’s a question of who owns it. Because if the machines are owned by the very few like they are, then those who own them will look at them as a source of personal enrichment, which means there will be a serious crisis by which those machines will be replacing workers who have no access to the returns of that capital. And so they will not be able to buy stuff. So we’re going to have a collapse. But if we all benefit and we all own the robots collectively, we would not have that problem. This is why I keep coming back to questions of ownership. And this is where I find some commonality with the extreme libertarians, because they also put a great deal of emphasis, not so much on income distributions, but on property rights, and I do too. They want to defend the property rights of oligarchy. I want to socialize property so that everybody has equal access to it.
When you think about the recent UK elections and the failure of Jeremy Corbyn and the British left to challenge more traditional and conservative leadership, what do you think about the prospects for a US presidential candidate like Bernie Sanders?
Privilege has a remarkable capacity to reproduce itself and kill any challenge to its reproduction. If the challenger is Bernie, Jeremy, you or me, they will crush us. There’s no doubt about that. When I was elected, I never expected for a moment that I would not be vilified. If I wasn’t, then I would be worried, ‘why are they not vilifying me? Am I doing something wrong? Have I sold out already?’ What I find astonishing is that, in 2016, Bernie Sanders came so close. And he would have won it had he not been robbed by Hilary Clinton. This is what happened yesterday with the Labour Party, which was effectively defeated from within by the extreme center—the Blairites and the hard “remainers” that did everything they could for two years to undermine their own party and to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. Why? Because they were in concert with the privileged classes.
Tactically, what do you make of the primacy of emphasizing cultural issues over economic ones? Do you think the left makes a mistake when it focuses on the culture wars instead of socio-economic challenges?
Yes, the left has been catastrophic. Look, I’m an old Marxist. The economics is always at the base of it. It’s at the base of Brexit. Why did Brexit happen? Because you had a financial sector collapse and you had the rubbish assets of the banks put on the shoulders of taxpayers. But at the same time, the European Central Bank was contracting the money supply and the Bank of England was expanding. And that meant three million continental Europeans went to Britain. And for the country, this was substantial and some people felt they were being pushed out of their own country. So their grievances are economic, even if they don’t consider it clearly as an issue of economics. Whenever we have this kind of economic recession, it’s easy for a fascist to jump on the soapbox and say, ‘I’ll make you proud again by getting rid of foreigners.’ You see this with Salvini or Farage. Why did Trump get elected? He didn’t get elected because of the culture wars. He got elected because half of Americans, for the first time since 1923, could not afford the cheapest car on the market. These people felt betrayed, and here comes a guy who says ‘I’m not the worst person on earth, but there’s a good reason to vote for me: it will annoy the shit out of everybody you hate.’ Of course, the fascists take advantage of these economic grievances and build a narrative by saying that they will make you proud and look after you.