The Contradictions of Finance


This article originally appeared at and Roar Magazine.

Like much else in economies, finance both enhances the economy's growth and development and undermines it. The balance between these contradictory effects depends on all the other aspects of an economy and society and how they all influence financial contradictions. From its first entrance into the economy -- that part of society concerned with the production and distribution of goods and services -- money has been contradictory. On the one hand it enabled trade and exchange far beyond the limits of barter and other pre-money systems. On the other hand, money introduced all sorts of new instabilities.

The role of finance and its contradictions changed especially after the 1970s. The old centers of capitalism (western Europe, north America and Japan) lost major parts of their global primacy. A combination of computer-related automation, political shifts and relocation of production to low-wage areas -- particularly in Asia and Latin America -- brought economic decline to most of the old centers' people. In effect, employers in the old center obtained access to a vast new, lower-waged labor force and the profit gains associated with it. The employers could relocate to where the new cheaper labor became available or else bring that labor into the old centers as immigrants. Most old center countries did both. The result nearly everywhere in capitalism's old centers was stagnation or decline of real wages coupled with sharply worsened inequalities of income and wealth.

Ironically, the post-war period had enabled the resurgence of a capitalism that had been hobbled by the Great Depression and the war. Coupled with the social-democratic gains achieved during the 1930s and 1940s, the years from 1945 to 1975 witnessed a decades-long celebration of rising standards of mass consumption paid for by rising real wages.

Indeed, depicted as the emergence of a comfortable "middle class," rising consumption was celebrated by capitalism's ideological champions as the system's great achievement and justification. Product advertising exploded alongside rising consumption, intruding into every corner of modern life. One key result was to make rising levels of consumption more than ever the measure -- the very definition -- of each individual's success in life. In the US, parents promised one another and their children an American dream of ever-rising consumption financed by ever-rising real wages.

The arrival and continuance of stagnant or declining real wages after the 1970s made the realization of that dream impossible. Yet it was so deeply internalized and desired by Americans, so ingrained in their expectations, that they were determined to achieve it even without the rising wages to pay for it. They would sustain rising consumption otherwise, partly by borrowing. The latter provided a new profit opportunity for financial capitalists: lending to consumers to enable their rising consumption.

Families determined to consume more usually turned first to sending more household members out to do more hours of work as real hourly wages stagnated. When those extra hours proved insufficient, borrowing remained as the only way to pay for rising consumption. In profit-driven response, the financial sector invented new forms of consumer credit extension (especially credit cards and later student loans) and greatly expanded old forms (mortgages and car loans). Banks bundled all these forms of consumer debt into asset-backed securities, enabling them profitably to tap globally dispersed sources of loanable funds.

Credit crucially supported the booms of the 1980s and 1990s into the new century, yet it also spread globally the risks that the huge new supplies of consumer debt instruments might not pay off. The spurt of financialization after the 1970s also included major new loans to corporations and governments. When the credit default crisis broke in 2008, it included all three types of loans: consumer, corporate and public. Financialization had yielded large new profits and the expansion of the financial sector relative to all the other sectors of capitalist economies around the world. It had also yielded their global collapse.

The financial expansion phase is often followed by its contradictory other, the contraction phase. The crash of 2008 proved to be the turning point this time between the phases. Bailouts, bail-ins and a wide variety of other monetary (and some fiscal) policies have been tried to "manage" the crash and its consequences with, at best, mixed results to date. Where some "recovery" has occurred it largely bypassed huge portions of the population. Recovery's impacts on the top 1 percent and 10 percent of enterprises and individuals also proved uneven.

Financialization facilitated the historic relocation of capitalism from its old to its new centers. Because this relocation was driven by the profit gains of capitalists moving from high to low-wage production, the result was a supply-demand imbalance. Lowered global wages rendered effective demand deficient. In this situation, debt could temporarily remedy the imbalance. Global finance thus profited in multiple ways from the globalization it promoted. Yet it also over-reached, took excessive risks, and eventually imploded. Its survival became dependent on state intervention and support.

As a result, financial industries are now stronger but also weaker, thereby perpetuating finance's intrinsic contradictory nature. Their longer-term fate now hinges most on what happens to the larger capitalist context. As capitalism declines in its old centers and leaves massive social, economic, ecological and political divisions and destructions in its wake, how far will the resistance there go? Will movements demanding state-financial enterprises to compete with private counterparts gain strength? Will initiatives to go beyond capitalism arise, grow and challenge the established financial institutions? Has that already begun?

In capitalism's new centers, will history repeat there the bitter divisions and working-class struggles that characterized the early development of capitalism's old centers? Might struggles in old and new centers find some common ground and bond to build an effective alliance in opposition to capitalism? Answers to these questions will have more to do with shaping the future of financial industries than the details of their practices.

Showing 18 comments

  • Stefan van den Hout
    commented 2016-10-05 19:48:34 -0400
    Think out of the box…..into the cosmos!!! The mother of all economies is the gift economy. Some probably afraid human being in the past started to ask anything in return of witch he/she was capable of making extra!?! Why? Why ask anything in return? Share and let money or valuemeasuring dissolve!! Out of the box enough?! (The one)
  • Paul Grignon
    commented 2016-10-05 11:59:25 -0400
    At you will find a detailed description of a non-disruptive “beyond money” solution that returns finance to real world production; is inherently self-balancing and socially inclusive; and is incapable of producing the instability that plagues the current system. The proposed solution, which is simply a cutting edge version of “alternative money” that has existed since numbers and writing were invented also solves the inherent mathematical problem of the current system, making it stable as well.

    Many commentators seem to agree that there is no escaping our current situation unless we think outside the box. Outside the box is where I come from.

    My animated movie, Money as Debt (2006) predicted a Crash and an ongoing debt crisis. My two sequels (2009) and 2011) provide both a unique and very radical analysis of the cause (our monopoly concept of money) and a thoroughly thought out solution (parallel forms of money).

    Wishing and hoping for something better, with only vague ideas of how to get there?
    Try evaluating a fully developed proposal and roadmap.
  • Stefan van den Hout
    commented 2016-10-05 08:24:34 -0400
    perhaps double on Sharing as a basic modus to build a (world)economy on, but the gift economy, as we can call this, is the economy of the Sun, the Earth itself. Neither off these `species’ ask money in return for their efforts (and we all actually are living on them/litterally) but sharing gives us the opportunity to build justice and even peace and start to build a whole new civilasation for this is the first big step: `Share togeteher and save the world’. (The one in cooperation with Maitreya) {Please consider sharing as basic modus broadly and with an open mind; thank you sincerely.}
  • Nikhil Kulkarni
    commented 2016-10-05 05:14:50 -0400
    Finally, some word about Money in the first para. Money has its good and evil parts, that doesn’t mean we stick to it. Moving to a moneyless world doesn’t mean we go to the pre-money era. We need to transcend money and the post-money era will have its own good & evil things about it.
    We have to decentralize the power that money has now. Maybe a “Serves” – a decentralized unit, will replace “Money”, what say Prof ? Read here about Serves:
  • Dalya Massachi
    commented 2016-09-28 11:31:47 -0400
    I wonder…Hillary Clinton’s comments in the first debate about profit-sharing: was that the first time that was mentioned by a mainstream presidential candidate? Also, why do Trump supporters think that a dictator in business would somehow work out as a Democratic leader of our country?
  • Stefan van den Hout
    commented 2016-09-23 04:25:18 -0400
    We don’t love money, we love the goods and service we can buy with money! And that’s exacly what money, especially interest and speculation efforts, is destructing on our own Earth!! Strange uh??!!
    Share together and save the world (Maitreya the world teacher) Our only option to last with all of us!!
  • Ted Tripp
    commented 2016-09-22 13:52:32 -0400
    What strikes me about Professor Wolff’s account is the growth of financialization in our economy. Because most of its function is parasitic, enormous resources are wasted on inconsequential activity. Add to that parasitism another parasite, our penchant for domestic and foreign militarization, and we can explain our distressed economy failing most of its citizens.
  • Paul Grignon
    commented 2016-09-22 12:51:02 -0400
    I encourage people to examine money and banking itself as the root of our problems. Consider the following.

    People who need money borrow it into existence as a debt-of-itself-on-a-schedule to a bank and people who don’t need money keep it forever or re-lend it as existing money. That makes “stability” (successful repayment in the aggregate) dependent on the rate of creation of new debt-to-banks never decreasing. When it inevitably does decrease, mathematical defaults are the only possible result, the magnitude of the default being the shortage of new bank credit on time multiplied by the number of principal debts dependent on recycling the same principal.

    Ups are always followed by downs and by 2007 the ratio of M2 (total principal debt to banks) to M1 (available money) had reached an unprecedented 5.26 :1. Velocity could not sustain a ratio that is normally functional between 2 and 4 and the Crash happened.

    Much more at
  • Ronald Fischer
    commented 2016-09-21 23:48:46 -0400
    The number of police persons in San Jose, CA is dropping but the city is doing nothing about it. Is this true in other cities? This should be increasing not decreasing.
  • Deborah Andrew
    commented 2016-09-21 11:19:55 -0400
    With great respect for Richard Wolff, I would suggest that the central issue is a moral issue coupled with a practical question: “Is it ‘right’ to profit at the expense of another, the community or the environment?” The practical question: What is it about existing governing structures and methods of decision making that we would be wise to examine and even change?

    While it might be challenging to obtain full agreement regarding the moral question, I offer the following as but one response to the practical question: Sociocracy – decisions made sociocratically are (1) made by consent, (2) consent is obtained through equivalency of voice and exists only after any paramount objects have been understood and satisfactorily overcome (not by force, but by changes in any proposal), (3) All decisions, after being consented to, have an agreed upon date specific for evaluation, and, (4) an agreed upon method of evaluation; (5) at any point after implementation, a concern may be raised and must be considered.

    I would also suggest that tying economic decisions to the notion of constant growth appears to me to fly in the face of the fact that resources are not infinite. It seems that we, in particular those in the so-called ‘developed nations’ would be well-advised to examine our values, our aspirations, our goals, our public policy and our foreign policy.
  • Lawrence Olivier
    commented 2016-09-21 03:21:56 -0400
    Richard gives us some issues to consider, however some matters are omitted in Richard’s analysis, descriptions and explanations. I found Richard Koo very helpful in understanding what is going on in economies throughout the world. He uses the concept of a Balance Sheet Recession to explain the massive debt problems and economic crises in Japan and the rest of the world. An economy in a balance sheet recession is a kind of new disease, not explained by current economic theory or found in economics textbooks. The working hypothesis Koo argues is in this context not about profit maximisation but debt minimasation. When Asset bubbles caused by excessive borrowing and lending in the financial sector burst, households and firms balance sheets go underwater – asset prices crash downwards, liabilities exceed assets and equities, net worth, crash. People now focus on repaying their debts.This was experienced in Japan in the period 1995 to 2005, in the USA in the 1930’s and a balance sheet recession can also explain the 2008 financial crisis in the USA and in the rest of the world. Monetary policy / QE / low or 0 interest rates do not work, because people are repairing their balance sheets, paying back their debts, not borrowing and not spending – even though interest rates are zero! However fiscal policy, government spending and deficit spending, helicopter type of money drops, do work (see also the work of Steve Keen, Adair Turner (UK), Minsky, Thomas Pally, Stephany Kelton, Robert Parenteau (USA)). It worked in the USA to sort out the the 1930’s Great Depression – the new deal by the President / the government! In a balance sheet type of recession, disease, government is the only borrower in town and when governments spend more than they collect in taxes this is both necessary and good. Governments do not have to balance their budgets , G = T or run surpluses, whether they do or not depends on the circumstances of the economy and correctly diagnosing the problem – the disease! This is misunderstood by policy makers throughout the world. Richard Koo is easy to access on the www.
  • frank scott
    commented 2016-09-20 22:30:55 -0400
    neither government nor banking nor finance will work for the majority of the people until the people create democracy in deed and not the sham we long as minorities, growing smaller and smaller in number as their private wealth grows larger and larger, are allowed to dominate there is no difference between modern capitalism and ancient egypt..we now tolerate billionaires whose material wealth and power would stagger some phony god/pharaoh and our innumeracy in failing to understand that – how the hell does anyone have a billion dollars while more than a billion humans survive (?) on not much more than a couple of bucks a day? – while we are fed a steady diet of consumerist crap by these rulers can only change when enough of us grow angry enough at what is happening to the planet we live on and most of its people by having it and us treated as products in a goddam free market where nothing is free, all to benefit/profit them while we carry the ever more staggering loss..for openers, do not vote for the lesser evil and then join any and every group opting for change that is systemic and not simply individual..capitalism must end or humanity will.
  • Paul Lebow
    commented 2016-09-20 21:14:20 -0400
    Richard acknowledges that the wealthy have little impact on the economy through their spending in comparison to the 99% who must spend most of their earnings. So why the focus on a symptom, wealth inequality, rather than the source of the problem?
  • Sam Broad
    commented 2016-09-20 21:04:40 -0400
    “On the one hand it enabled trade and exchange far beyond the limits of barter and other pre-money systems”
    David Graeber points out in Debt: the first 5000years; that ‘barter’ has never existed, it is a fabrication of Adam Smith, most pre-money systems were credit based, including the shops that smith used in his period!
  • Michael Wilson
    commented 2016-09-20 20:42:37 -0400
    There is a need for a path to follow out of this financial/political morass to a more democratic reality that addresses the problems of the people of the country instead of merely ensuring the rich get as much as they want or most of everything including all the political power. We need a coming together in the spirit of the constitutional convention that deliberated at the beginning of this country to create a plan for the country to follow into a new beginning.
  • Seyedsepehr Samiei
    commented 2016-09-20 19:21:16 -0400
    In the past century, the tendency of industrial capitalism toward ever more increasing productivity of labor, was the dominant theme of economics. The impact on culture, was the rise of sci-fi epics about a not so distant future (2000, 2010 or so) wherein all necessary work is carried out by machines and people enjoy the free time otherwise they would have to spend to do those works.
    The end of competitive capitalism begetting the rise of monopolies, followed by financialization and globalization, put an end to those dreams. Today, instead of flying trains and robotic butlers, we got iPhones and smart phones. All of those big dreams are summarized in a small device which, by means of intrusive advertisement and promotion, is sold to consumers in prices of at least 10 times more than its real value. Some poor people in third world countries would sell their body parts (e.g. a kidney) to buy an iPhone.
    Still, there are people around who have not woken up from old dreams and see a bright future for their glorious capitalist economic system.
  • Paul Lebow
    commented 2016-09-20 17:58:40 -0400
    It seems that the financial sector is completely divorced from the real economy. It is essentially a self-contained economy that feeds upon itself with no tangible products. To leave decisions regarding the public sector to the private sector makes no sense. A democratic government should decide the priorities needed for a functioning and thriving society and, in conjunction with the private sector, allocate the resources, human and natural, required to achieve those goals. The private sector may serve as a valuable tool but it should not the brain nor the hand guiding that tool.
  • Michael Kaye
    commented 2016-09-20 17:44:13 -0400
    Corporate wealth has infiltrated politics to such a drastic degree that the decisions of the elite CEOs and board members of giant corporations hold far more weight than any decisions of our so-called representatives in congress. In fact, most “representatives” in the two major parties dance to the corporate tunes without care for the unrepresented masses needs and wishes. Other economic views of minority parties/groups/grass routes movements are continuously locked out of the conversation and political process. We cannot wait for economic calamity to be the motivation behind fixing our social/economic/political ills.

Donate to Become a

[email protected]

Monthly Supporter

Customized by

Longleaf Digital