Keynes’ Economic Consequences …

JM Keynes Economic Consequences of the Peace Macmillan 1920.

Influential in convincing people that the Versailles Peace Treaty was too harsh on Germany and Austria, and that the situation was bound to end badly. This was in distinction to the conventional view, that markets would ensure optimal use of resources, so that a sustained under-performance (a depression) was unthinkable. 

“My purpose in this book is to show that the Carthaginian Peace is not practically right or possible. Although the school of thought from which it springs is aware of the economic factor, it overlooks, nevertheless, the deeper economic tendencies which are to govern the future. The clock cannot be set back. You cannot restore Central Europe to 1870 without setting up such strains in the European structure and letting loose such human and spiritual forces as, pushing beyond frontiers and races, will overwhelm not only you and your “guarantees,” but your institutions, and the existing order of your Society.” (III)

I. Introduction

“If the European Civil War is to end with France and Italy abusing their momentary victorious power to destroy Germany and Austria-Hungary now prostrate, they invite their own destruction also, being so deeply and inextricably intertwined with their victims by hidden psychic and economic bonds.”

II. Europe Before the War

III. The Psychology of Society

“Europe was so organized socially and economically as to secure the maximum accumulation of capital. While there was some continuous improvement in the daily conditions of life of the mass of the population, Society was so framed as to throw a great part of the increased income into the control of the class least likely to consume it. The new rich of the nineteenth century were not brought up to large expenditures, and preferred the power which investment gave them to the pleasures of immediate consumption. In fact, it was precisely the inequality of the distribution of wealth which made possible those vast accumulations of fixed wealth and of capital improvements which distinguished that age from all others. Herein lay, in fact, the main justification of the Capitalist System. If the rich had spent their new wealth on their own enjoyments, the world would long ago have found such a régime intolerable. But like bees they saved and accumulated, not less to the advantage of the whole community because they themselves held narrower ends in prospect.”

“Thus this remarkable system depended for its growth on a double bluff or deception. On the one hand the laboring classes accepted from ignorance or powerlessness, or were compelled, persuaded, or cajoled by custom, convention, authority, and the well-established order of Society into accepting, a situation in which they could call their own very little of the cake that they and Nature and the capitalists were co-operating to produce. And on the other hand the capitalist classes were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs and were theoretically free to consume it, on the tacit underlying condition that they consumed very little of it in practice. The duty of “saving” became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion. …  And so the cake increased … . Individuals would be exhorted not so much to abstain as to defer, and to cultivate the pleasures of security and anticipation. Saving was for old age or for your children; but this was only in theory,—the virtue of the cake was that it was never to be consumed, neither by you nor by your children after you.”

III. The Conference

“From the belief that essentially the old order does not change, being based on human nature which is always the same … the policy of France and of Clemenceau followed logically.”

VI. Europe after the Treaty

“Those who sign this Treaty will sign the death sentence of many millions of German men, women and children.

I know of no adequate answer to these words. The indictment is at least as true of the Austrian, as of the German, settlement. This is the fundamental problem in front of us, before which questions of territorial adjustment and the balance of European power are insignificant. Some of the catastrophes of past history, which have thrown back human progress for centuries, have been due to the reactions following on the sudden termination, whether in the course of nature or by the act of man, of temporarily favorable conditions which have permitted the growth of population beyond what could be provided for when the favorable conditions were at an end.”

“But who can say how much is endurable, or in what direction men will seek at last to escape from their misfortunes?”

VII. Remedies

“It is difficult to maintain true perspective in large affairs. … . But in so complex a phenomenon the prognostics do not all point one way; and we may make the error of expecting consequences to follow too swiftly and too inevitably from what perhaps are not all the relevant causes. The blackness of the prospect itself leads us to doubt its accuracy; our imagination is dulled rather than stimulated by too woeful a narration, and our minds rebound from what is felt “too bad to be true.” … “

1. The revision of the treaty

“… If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and the progress of our generation. Even though the result disappoint us, must we not base our actions on better expectations, and believe that the prosperity and happiness of one country promotes that of others, that the solidarity of man is not a fiction, and that nations can still afford to treat other nations as fellow-creatures?”

 2. The Settlement of Inter-Ally Indebtedness

“It is true that the need for European capitalism to find an outlet in the New World has led during the past fifty years, though even now on a relatively modest scale, to such countries as Argentine owing an annual sum to such countries as England. But the system is fragile; and it has only survived because its burden on the paying countries has not so far been oppressive, because this burden is represented by real assets and is bound up with the property system generally, and because the sums already lent are not unduly large in relation to those which it is still hoped to borrow. Bankers are used to this system, and believe it to be a necessary part of the permanent order of society. They are disposed to believe, therefore, by analogy with it, that a comparable system between Governments, on a far vaster and definitely oppressive scale, represented by no real assets, and less closely associated with the property system, is natural and reasonable and in conformity with human nature”

(Conclusion)

“We may still have time to reconsider our courses and to view the world with new eyes. For the immediate future events are taking charge, and the near destiny of Europe is no longer in the hands of any man. The events of the coming year will not be shaped by the deliberate acts of statesmen, but by the hidden currents, flowing continually beneath the surface of political history, of which no one can predict the outcome. In one way only can we influence these hidden currents,—by setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion. The assertion of truth, the unveiling of illusion, the dissipation of hate, the enlargement and instruction of men’s hearts and minds, must be the means.”

Comments

Keynes was preparing his Treatise on Probability for publication at the same time as writing this. One can see how the one underpins the other, with an understanding of when, and when not, it is appropriate to extrapolate from past experience and statistics, how to regard the result of any such estimate, and how it fits into an overall analysis that takes account, not only of immediate forces that are manifestly operative, but also of the ‘deeper’ tendencies and potentialities.

Many of the economic remarks seem to have a relevance to the crash of 2007/8 and subsequent issues.

See Also

Whitehead’s Process and Reality.

Dave Marsay 

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3 Responses to Keynes’ Economic Consequences …

  1. Pingback: GLS Shackle, imagined and deemed possible? « djmarsay

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