September 12th, 2005

operesque

The old-fashioned future

If we like something we tend to say that it represents the future and describe any movement towards it as "progress" and "modernization" and "success". We also make sure to call the opposite of the thing we like "conservative" and associate it with the past, and with failure. We describe our liked thing with swishy modern-sounding words like "streamlining" and "efficiency" even when the things being "streamlined" away are people losing their jobs, and it's not quite clear who exactly is benefitting from the "efficiency". Well, actually, it is clear, but we don't choose to dwell on that. It's divisive, you see.

The thing we like, if we're quite a sizeable majority of the press covering the Japanese election yesterday and the reasons leading up to it, is capitalism. Free markets, the international flow of capital, that sort of thing. We love that stuff, and we can't get enough of it. We love it when a politician gets that religion, because it means he's going to start handing over power and money locked up in the public sector to our guys in the private sector. So we call him a "reformist" and a "liberaliser" rather than "a man in the public sector who seems to be cutting off his nose to spite his face by handing power over to the private sector". And because we like him, we portray the conservative party he's in as a radical and liberal party, and his holding onto power as a radical shift in power. Yes, the Japanese people are sick of things as they are, and have spoken up loudly for change! And so the LDP, which has been in power in Japan almost without interruption for the last several decades, has been ousted is still in power! Hurrah for radical change, and hurrah for the-future-not-the-past!

In the past, of course, "reform" used to mean curbing the excesses of capitalism; passing legislation that stopped people employing children in their factories, widening suffrage, limiting working hours, building up adequate public health systems, and so on. But now "reform" means precisely the opposite. It means dismantling public assets and loosening up the legislation that restricts capital in its dealings with labour, the state, and the environment.

Koizumi won a landslide in yesterday's Japanese general election, an election he called in order to consolidate his power after losing a vote to privatize the Japanese post office. The Japanese post office is the world's largest publicly owned savings bank. It's a win-win situation for the government and the people of Japan; people know that because it's backed by the government, they won't lose their savings. And the government has a huge pile of cash with which to finance public building projects: bridges, dams, and so on. These pieces of infrastructure are often described as "unnecessary", but they keep people working and serve communities on remote islands, and so on. As do small post offices which would no doubt be closed down under a privatised system. What Koizumi proposes would simply funnel a lot of the cash being used currently for public projects like bridges into the profits of private shareholders in banks. Why is that "reform"?

So Koizumi lost the vote to privatise the post office in parliament. He then called the election and purged the rebel MPs and is going to do it all again. Why did he win the election? Not because a massive majority of people want postal privatisation, but because he enlisted a bunch of celebrities to replace the excluded rebel MPs. And also because of a vague sense that "modernisation" and "reform" are necessary. But again, what does "reform" mean when it's just a question of syphoning cash out of the public realm into the private one?

Here's a right wing thinktank licking its chops over the prospect of privatisation and explaining exactly who it helps:

"If the Japanese public abandons the caution fostered by unlimited government guarantees and preferential tax treatment for PSS [Postal Savings Bank] deposits, and begins to invest their savings in private banks and other investment vehicles -- the country's economy will never be the same. Huge amounts of pent-up capital would then be moved into private financial markets. This would help to bolster not only Japan's incipient economic recovery but, over time, financial markets around the world."

People (especially people who've read Alex Kerr's book "Dogs and Demons" uncritically) sometimes call Japan a "construction state" and deplore the fact that 97% of all major rivers in Japan are dammed and 100% are lined with concrete, and that 55% of Japan's coastlines are covered in concrete laid down by government programs. Government programs which will cease if the Post Office Savings Bank is privatised. Kerr's arguments are mostly aesthetic; he thinks concrete reinforcements on coasts and rivers are ugly: "The gray concrete of the once-natural beach lines is punctuated by piles of countless concrete and iron tetrapods — four-legged anti-erosion barriers that look like large jacks and are often as large as bulldozers."

But death by drowning is ugly too, as we've seen in New Orleans. Our vision of a future which can only get more and more "liberalized" (in other words, capitalist) might be blocking our view of a future climatologists tell us is now increasingly certain: a future in which global warming causes sea levels to rise and weather patterns to become more extreme. I suspect the people of New Orleans would have been happy to have a bit more "ugly" concrete between them and the sea. Each year Japan is experiencing more and more devastating typhoons, which endanger life by depositing huge amounts of rainfall in very brief periods, making rivers burst their banks. Are the private banks who profit from post office privatisation going to construct barriers against that?

It's not just because I don't like it that I call Kerr's notion that concretisation programs are "unnecessary" completely outdated. Concretization gets ever more necessary with every typhoon. The irony is that the unrestrained economic activity Koizumi thinks is the inevitable future will contribute directly to the rising sea levels. So what we're "progressing" towards is precisely the kind of world where we'll need huge government spending on exactly the things Kerr and Koizumi deplore: massive publicly-funded concretization schemes.

Tell me if you agree or disagree with this statement: "Capitalism prefers instability to stability and cure to prevention. Rather than letting governments prevent disasters by programs of public works, capitalists would prefer disasters to happen periodically, claiming lives, and the survivors be compensated afterwards from insurance schemes... assuming they've signed up for them."

Neo-Marxist theorist Kojin Karatani once described the Japanese system as "capitalist communism". The thinktank I link above uses the word "conservative" to describe the same phenomenon (it also uses the term "retail investor" to describe what I would call a "citizen"):

"The typical Japanese retail investor remains conservative in their outlook. Many confuse investment and speculation and equate the stock market with a casino. As a result, they have preferred the security of guaranteed bank deposits and especially that of the Postal Savings System (PSS), even though this has resulted in annual interest rate returns of less than 1%."

Let's have that again in English:

"The typical Japanese citizen remains somewhat capitalist-communist in attitude. Many correctly realise that if they invest their money in the private banking system it will be used for speculation in that international casino, the stock market, rather than being spent on projects they can see and appreciate in Japan; bridges, dams, post offices near where they live, and so on. As a result they have preferred the security of guaranteed bank deposits and especially that of the Postal Savings System (PSS), even though this has resulted in annual interest rate returns of less than 1%."

Putting security over percentage interest return, putting public works over private profit, putting utility over capitalist "streamlining" and "synergies" (which call themselves "efficiency" without saying who they're efficient for), and thinking of the international capitalist system as a "casino", these are what make the Japanese "communist capitalists". And what Koizumi—caving in with admirable "resolution" to the demands of international capital markets—is doing is trying to make the Japanese "capitalist capitalists". Great, just what the world needs, more capitalism.