The BRICS Bank and Dollar Hegemony: the Importance of Geopolitics

Michael Hudson and Leo Panitch had a spirited debate at the Real News Network recently that brought to light two different views on the strategies for resisting Capitalism. Watch it hear and follow along with the transcript:

Is the BRICS Bank a Challenge to US Financial Power?

The BRICS Development Bank (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South America) was just announced and is an attempt to subvert America’s dollar hegemony or, what Hudson calls, Super Imperialism. They will make loans outside of the dollar system, which coerces/persuades countries that receive loans from the IMF to keep their currencies pegged to the dollar, and issue loans to countries in their own currencies. This, Hudson believes, will be a major geopolitical move by countries extremely frustrated by the Washington Consensus in America and will provide an alternative to the broken philosophy of neoliberalism and its Trojan Horse policy of forcing countries to accept austerity, privatization, and cheap asset sell-offs to private companies when sovereign countries cannot pay back their debts. Rather than write down debts that cannot be repaid, the IMF and World Bank (who accept and champion the dollar standard) demand “developing countries” who cannot keep up with entrenched global corporations on the world market sell away their natural resources, privatize public services and industry (including pensions and health benefits), and generally accept nation-wide austerity when the interest on the loan bloats the bill too high.

A recent case of this comes from Argentina. Argentina was going to write down its debts so that it could repay without crippling its economy until the “Vulture Firms” who bought up some of its debts at very low, distressed prices and demanded they be relayed in full. A New York judge decided that Argentina must make the Vulture Firms whole, with many big Wall Street Banks owning stakes in these vultures. Such is the logic of debt intoxicating countries under financial imperialism, demanding all debts be repaid. Whole peoples wealth and well-being can be sacrificed, but heaven forbid an investor should not get the full amount of capital returned on his investment!

Leo Panitch, however, believes that the significance of the BRICS Development Bank in combating US led neoliberalism is overblown. These five countries all themselves operate as Capitalist economies, forcing their population into low-waged labor and engaging in land purchases around the globe. Oligarchs dominate Russia, ghettos abound in Brazil, Indian farmers have been committing suicide by the thousands, and everyone must submit to the toil of the work day for their livelihood. These aren’t Socialist countries we’re talking about.

Why is the issuing of loans in the currency of a sovereign nation instead of dollars so important for opposing neoliberalism and, eventually, Capitalism itself?

It depends on how much you think American foreign policy and its war machine is bound up with the character and functioning of global economies – whether they could go Socialist or whether they would still choose by themselves to remain fully Capitalist. Does the “room for maneuver” that Panitch says the BRICS alliance is seeking create a whole new place where countries can more democratically reorganize or are they merely jockeying for more of the Capitalist pie?

Hudson emphasizes the Geopolitical where Panitch emphasizes the social forms; I would like to explain why geopolitics (the position of nations on the Earth, the resources they contain, their strategic location for war and trade routes, etc.) is crucial in determining the course of action that a country can take. Countries’ decisions on how their goods and services will be distributed are not merely internal decisions based on voting or their succumbing to the overarching logic of Capitalism. Monetary flows that are unleashed on markets and colonial histories play a major role in shaping the options a country has in taking on the social form it has at any given time. One might call them “external pressures”, but monetary flows and debt levels operate with fluidity and course through countries boundaries according to policies and decisions made at the IMF, World Bank, and Washington DC. If a new development bank would appear that would be more willing to cancel debts and make low interest rate loans, a fundamental shift could occur that would free up a countries’ ability to change its socials forms. The big question, yet to be answered, is whether the BRICS Development Bank will be willing to cancel/write down debt, i.e. whether the credit that is pumped into global markets will be for the purpose of productive works and projects that people need or for making a return at all any “external” cost. Will they be neoliberal financial parasites by another name?

The blight of austerity ravaging the world, of which there seems no end in sight, is largely driven by American Politics: which has been captured by the financial interests of Too-Big-To-Fail Banks and extractive parasites. Their main weapon is debt and interest. The dollar standard ensures that, internationally, sovereign nations must keep their currencies at a fixed rate to the dollar or else leave those currencies open to crippling currency raids and Short Sells. Here is Ellen Brown:

“[After the dollar was taken off of the gold standard] Currencies were now valued merely by their relative exchange rates in the “free” market. Foreign exchange markets became giant casinos, in which the investors were just betting on the relative positions of different currencies. Smaller countries were left at the mercy of the major players – whether other countries, multinational corporations or multinational banks – which could radically devalue national currencies just by selling them short on the international market in large quantities. These currency manipulations could be so devastating that they could be used to strong-arm concessions from target economies. (Web of Debt, p.207)”

Hudson in The Bubble and Beyond writes about the constraining system set up by the dollar standard:

“A double standard has been implicit in the world’s economic rules since the dollar was decoupled from gold in 1971, when the U.S. trade deficit of $10 billion was the equivalent of more than half the U.S. gold stock. But today there is no gold convertibility and hence no major constraint on U.S. spending abroad or at home. The United States has not subjected itself to any of the distressing fiscal conditions that all other countries feel obliged to follow. What makes this asymmetry so ironic is that it was made possible by what seemed to be a financial defeat for the United States. Once America stopped paying gold, there was not much that other central banks could ask for as they found themselves flooded with dollars obtained by private-sector exporters and asset sellers in excess of their need…

…Now that gold had been demonetized, all that foreign central banks can do with their excess dollars is to send them back to the U.S. Government by buying Treasury bonds. If they do not do this, their currencies will surge against the dollar, threatening to price their manufacturers and food exporters out of foreign markets.” (p.368)

The United States of America is an a unique, privileged position in the geopolitical dynamic of forces: it alone gets to run up its debt without limit and maintain a “balance-of-payment” deficit without ever having to pay its debt back. The interest that it must pay for the Treasury bonds it issues are simply added to the debt pile it already has built up. The U.S. Federal Reserve can keep printing dollars and issuing Treasury bonds to match them (the government must borrow in order to create new money), while other countries must use their dollars to buy more Treasury bonds. The Treasury bond nets its buyers money on interest, but that interest paid out by the U.S. comes from printing more money – issuing more T-Bonds.

This “recycling process” fuels U.S. National debt and at the same time ensures that other countries keep using dollars that they obtain from selling their exports to America, foreign company buy-outs, and IMF loans. In international finance, America has become a black hole of debt: other nations receive a glut of dollars must “send them back to the U.S. Government by buying Treasury bonds. If they do not do this, their currencies will surge against the dollar, threatening to price their manufacturers and food exporters out of foreign markets” (Hudson, TBaB p.368). These are currency wars performed almost entirely on computer screens and with the frightening threat of falling to the bottom of a hostile world market when your currency becomes over-valued (relative to the dollar and the value of goods). Suddenly all of the work your country has performed to create products and grow food will be un-tradable because it will cost to much for other countries to convert their own currency into yours for the exchange. This is constraining force burdening the “developing countries” (“developing” because they must export to “developed” countries or else face default or the impending hostile military takeover) to use dollars and continue to finance the U.S. and its war machine.

Michael Hudson is one of the few people to understand this mechanism and has been yelling about it since the early seventies. Few others understand it, but when you do, the importance of not using the dollar – freeing up the room to use one’s own currency for receiving loans and trade with other countries not denominated in dollars – becomes a huge move to open up possibilities for economic activity.

David Graeber writes about this mechanism at the end of his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years:

“Because of the United States trade deficits, huge numbers of dollars circulate outside the country; and one effect of Nixon’s floating of the dollar was that foreign central banks have little they can do with these dollars except use them to buy U.S. Treasury bonds. This is what is meant by the dollar becoming the world’s “reserve currency.”…

…The effect, though, is that American imperial power is based on a debt that will never – can never – be repaid…
…At the same time, U.S. policy was to insist that those countries relying on U.S. Treasury bonds as their reserve currency behave in exactly the opposite way as they did: observing tight money policies and scrupulously repaying their debts.” (p.366-7)

Both realize that this is a special position for the U.S. to be in and reinforces imperial authority in a very efficient, monetary way. Capitalism might have spread throughout the globe, with countries and their ruling classes forcing their people into a reserve of cheap labor and the strict adherence to property rights among other coercions, but the method used for getting new countries to accept this state of affairs is an age old tactic: interest and debt. More from Graeber:

“The new global currency is rooted in military power even more firmly than the old was. Debt peonage continues to be the main principle in of recruiting labor globally: either in the literal sense, in much of East Asia or Latin America, or in the subjective sense, whereby most of those working for wages or even salaries feel that they are doing so primarily to pay off interest-bearing loans.” (p.368)

Getting out of the Capitalist trap will involve financial maneuvering in the national-geopolitical landscape as much as labor struggles because the power of the logic of debt is so great, taking its most global and destructive manifestation to date with American Super Imperialism or Dollar Hegemony. The linking of the influence of debt and military might means that whenever a country attempts to get out of the debt/dollar system, the military steps in to enforce U.S. interests. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq stopped trading in dollars and went for euros in 2000 as well as Iran in 2001. As long as dollars are used in the deal America will win, but if anyone steps out of line and rejects the dollar the hammer comes down. This is why only a large block of high producing nations can legitimately challenge dollar hegemony, unless America’s corporate media is so thoroughly corrupt that it can convince its people a war on China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa and India. It is already demonizing Russia and China the best it can, the two largest players…

Both Hudson and Panitch are anti-Capitalist political-economic thinkers. They both wish to see a Socialist government that can restructure economies to stop apocalyptic climate change and promote prosperity absent the dominance of Capital. Hudson, though, is peering deeper into geopolitics and the forces moving and controlling nations to act in certain predictable ways to find a way out of Imperial U.S. led global Capitalism. A new development bank, though not as uplifting and energizing as a revolutionary uprising, is a glimmer of hope that will change the dominant forces operating all around the Earth if the BRICS countries do it right. All that is left is to see if the BRICS Development Bank will use money and credit solely as a means to serve their Capitalist classes vs the U.S.’s or whether the credit they lend will allow countries the means to invest in national infrastructure that will stop climate change and provide for the public health and food security.

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4 thoughts on “The BRICS Bank and Dollar Hegemony: the Importance of Geopolitics

    • Definitely pick up Hudson. The bubble and beyond is extensive, but you can skip around. Read about Super Imperialism (ch.15) for sure and the later chapters. He’s basically saying neo-classical economics has reversed the aim of classical: the taxing away of rent and the end of financial parasitism. Now the parasites have won out and their shitty theories back up extractive rather than productive economies.

      Sometimes it feels like he is trying to remove barriers to growth though; too narrowly focusing on finance and debt without looking at earth-limits like oil and the toil of labor. Heinberg’s End of Growth is another good one.

  1. Pingback: What Is at Stake in the Ukraine: Global Financial Dominance | Critical Fantasies

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