Worldwide Rubicon moments could signal end of capitalism as we know it

Or, as former US Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers writes: The "hinges of history".


One cannot predict when they will be, but this week may go down as one of them. Why do I say this? Because several seemingly unconnected events speak to a broader shift and indeed the Rubicon may have been crossed.

Europe's Hamiltonian moment?


In Europe — on Wednesday — the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen unveiled what, if accepted in even a modest way, will be a previously unthinkable leap forward for European integration. This €2.4 trillion (about R46.6 trillion) budget which includes mass common borrowing on an EU level, grants made directly to member states and raising EU tax revenues centrally is even more remarkable for another point which was predicted in this column several weeks ago.


The EU is proposing to invest directly in businesses which are strategic and important for EU interests. This goes beyond state-centric capitalism to EU level dirigisme. It remains to be seen whether this is Europe's Hamiltonian moment, but it certainly represents a previously unimaginable development.

Re-engineering of German economy


Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is using this opportunity to completely reshape the German economy. With the current crisis as a catalyst, the economic package passed by her cabinet on Monday was in law by the end of last week. 


It puts Merkel in charge of the most dramatic re-engineering of the German economy since post-war reconstruction.


The package, first proposed by German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, has been heavily informed by Chinese state-centric capitalism. It will give Merkel and her ministers the ability to "pick winners" and invest the country's vast surplus into specific industries and companies deemed strategic.


Even in this country, Italy, the Minister of the Economy Roberto Gualtieri announced last week that the state is looking to buy vast stakes of previously privatised businesses, such as the road toll operator Autostrade d'Italia and the stock exchange, Borsa Italiana.

South Africa: Greater state involvement in economy


In South Africa, the Business Day writes that the government is looking to use pension fund money to fund greater state involvement in the economy. It calls for more state intervention across all sectors, including speeding up the creation of a state-owned bank, establishing a state-owned pharmaceutical company to help decrease the price of medicines, and more interventions in mining, manufacturing, energy and other sectors.


However, perhaps the most critical announcement was out of the United States (US). There were several events in the US last week that might be considered seminal: The US death toll passing 100 000; the horrific death of George Floyd and consequent race riots across the country, and then what President Donald Trump would want us to remember, the launch of a manned rocket by a private company. 

Beginning of the end of US corporatism?


However, I would like to flag the Federal Reserve releasing details of what it has been buying through its recent QE programme.


On Friday, the Wall Street Journal wrote that the Fed's first $1.3 billion of purchases of exchange-traded funds include substantial amounts of junk bonds. These ETFs contain corporate debt of companies which have all filed for bankruptcy in recent weeks, such as car rental company Hertz and retailers Neiman Marcus.


This is truly a Rubicon moment: As social unrest spreads and the fabric of society breaks, corporate America is being mutualised by the Fed. 


In a week where Trump might have wanted you to celebrate the power of the American private sector, it may well rather be the beginning of the end of American corporatism.

The end of capitalism as we know it


And therefore all these events – from the lofty European Parliament with even loftier rhetoric, via the German economy ministry's former Prussian estate on the Spree River in Berlin, to finally a seemingly unimportant release by the Federal Reserve, all perhaps spell the end of capitalism as we know it.


Perhaps the eventual effect of the COVID-19 pandemic will be the death of the global liberal democratic capitalist order which existed from the end of the 1980s until the collapse of Lehman Brothers. 

Future looks more centered around state


Instead, the future looks more Chinese, and more state-centric. I will not comment whether that is a good or bad thing, but it is seminal. This may turn out to be the week that the Rubicon was crossed; from here there is no way back.


It is perhaps ironic that capitalism was not defeated by those attacking it from the outside with alternative ideologies, such as Marxism. It simply self-destructed. As TS Eliot wrote, it ended "not with a bang but with a whimper". 


It is too early to say what the effects of all this will be. However, 20th-century experiments with state-directed development suggest that allocating resources via the state tends to be inefficient.


One only needs to look at the 10-year share price performance of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to see proof of this.


And maybe that is our reality. The world will end up resembling one enormous, endlessly dysfunctional RBS.