Capitalism – Forever blowing bubbles


Capitalism – Forever blowing bubbles

Peter Taaffe reviews the “Bubbles and bankruptcy: Financial crises in Britain since 1700”, free exhibition at the British Museum, Room 69a, until 5 May.

The connection between the British Museum and the ideas of scientific socialism as formulated by Karl Marx lies in his use of the British Library’s considerable facilities – which used to be on the same site as the museum itself – to write such epochal works as Capital. The British Library has been at its new, separate site since 1998.

This small but interesting exhibition indicates, in a sense, a return of Marx’s ideas, in his analysis of the workings of capitalism to the place where they were first formulated. This of course is not the intention of the exhibition organisers. But it cannot be entirely accidental that squeezed between exhibits showing the influence of Greece on Rome – and the achievements of the Etruscans – this exhibition is put on at this time.

It indicates a renewed interest in discovering the historical roots of the present financial crisis. It is clearly connected to the present devastating crisis of world capitalism. Moreover, it shows clearly that there is nothing new in the present situation.

The world has seen it all before but not on the scale that we witness today. The tulip mania in the Netherlands of 1637 – described as “the first speculative boom” – ended in tears and anticipated what has been repeated many times since.

This was followed by another ‘disaster’ in 1697 involving land in Panama which left “Scotland financially ruined”. Marx drew on such experiences to explain the credit system which firstly expands capitalism beyond its ‘limits’ but which then generates financial bubbles accompanied by “the pleasant company of swindlers”: reckless financial gamblers.

This was followed by the famous “South Sea Bubble” also described as the first major speculative boom. This in turn generated popular satires – beautifully illustrated here – such as “The Bubble Melody” and the “South Sea Ballad”. The 19th century also saw the ‘railway mania’ with massive debts piled up, which resulted in an economic crash.

Convict of the Exchequer

Even a Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Aislabie – the equivalent of George Osborne today – was involved in speculation and ended up in prison. There is a tremendous cartoon showing the Bank of England – “the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street” – lecturing naughty boys, obviously meant to represent the capitalists and the bankers, who behind their backs hold playing cards.

Little has changed today it seems; the governor of the Bank of England, with Ed Miliband in the supporting cast, admonishes the banks and the capitalists for not behaving more ‘responsibly’. In vain!

The exhibition closes with badges, symbols and photographs of the ‘Occupy’ movement in London. While providing no answers, this exhibition nevertheless is very useful as well as entertaining in a sometimes vivid form. It also shows that capitalism and speculation go together like peaches and cream. It should teach those who visit it that we need a more rational system than archaic capitalism.