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Good bank, bad bank? Peoples bank!

The European Union (EU) is expected today to approve plans for the Northern Rock bank to be split in two – so-called “good” and “bad” banks. The Rock has been state-owned since the spring of 2008.

This was an early part of New Labour’s attempts to prevent a complete meltdown after customers queued to withdraw their deposits in 2007 when the default rate on sub-prime mortgages in the United States triggered the global credit collapse.

The idea is that the “good” or profitable business will be sold back to the private sector, whilst the “bad” part containing the “toxic” non-performing loans, including the 125% mortgages pressed onto people desperate for housing at any cost, will be retained in the public sector, to be serviced from taxation.

Once EU approval is in place, the principle is likely to be extended to the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds. Supporters of the plan – and there are many from all the main parties – are keen to see wider competition. They want to open the field up to new entrants such as Tesco, Virgin and a range of foreign banks like National Australia Bank – already owner of the Clydesdale and Yorkshire.

The scheme has its roots in the 1930s’ rescue in the United States of a cascade of failing banks. Today’s proponents point to its success in Sweden after the country went through a property market collapse in 1991 which threatened the financial system.

But they choose to ignore the scale of today’s crisis which has engulfed the world’s much more highly-interconnected financial system so critical to the worldwide production and trading activities that underpin the globalised corporations.

The intertwined crises of collapsing consumer demand, shrinking global trade, declining manufacturing and inactive credit markets spell the end of the post-war era of a spiralling growth of commodity production fuelled by cheap labour and mountains of debt.

Plans to restore the financial system to profitability are necessary but not sufficient to restore the capitalist economy to the growth it so badly depends upon for survival.

Throughout its three and a half centuries, the capitalist system has alternated between periods of competitive growth fuelled by the credit that relied on the impossible dreams of ever-increasing profit and the crashes that followed when the interest payments ceased. As the dust clears it reveals the massive overcapacity that must be eliminated before a renewed period of growth can begin. That is the stage of the crisis that we are in now.

The looming impact of the changing climate provides the measure of the damage inflicted on the planet by half a century of profit-motivated credit-fuelled growth. The system of production for profit must be stopped, terminated, replaced. Its replacement can be democratically-determined sustainable production by communities working co-operatively to satisfy their needs and provide opportunities to fulfil individual and collective potential.

This new era will need a system of accounting for exchange and a means of measuring and redistributing the value generated in production to fund development. It won’t need a vast edifice of speculation. Stock and foreign exchange markets can be closed, gambling in the derivatives casino ended.

With democratic control over the finance system, decisions can be made about which debts can be cancelled and which renegotiated. The “good” and “bad” capitalist banks choice is no choice at all. In their place we want genuine people’s banks that protect savings and extend social investment.

It’ll need a social revolution to make these changes, but what’s the alternative?

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
28 October 2009

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