16 December 2010

Crisis and the Global South

The second session of the conference on the global crisis was entitled, “The Crisis and the global south” after the morning session had already complicated the very fact of there being a crisis in the global south. Ostensibly then the role of the second session was to use the global south as both example and exception. It amounted to an attempt to engage the particular and peculiar in dialogue with the general, universal and total discussed in the first session. The tensions produced seem to my mind raise some of the most significant problems for politicized theory and practice today.

To start off I’ll just go through and give a brief paraphrase of the arguments from each presenter. I didn’t take very detailed notes, so these are mostly sketches.

Ho-fung Hung
My recall of the details of Hung’s arguments is the most weak, but I believe the kernel was basically this. The dominance of US currency is basically as a negotiated currency, i.e. politically determined. As a result the US has had a number of advantages mostly drawing from the fact that its debt is in its own currency. As China gains economic importance the US and China have established themselves as two poles of the global currency markets creating camps of governments around each. However the two economies and thus currencies are so deeply intertwined that they’re ultimately mutually dependent. As a result the global power plays mask a deeper unity, which he coined as “Chimerica.”

I’m worried that this might be totally wrong, so if someone could correct me or fill in better details, that’d be great.

Claudio Lomnitz
He had one major historical point, that the notion of dependency no longer describes the relationship between the global south and north. Dependency characterizes well the period from the 1870s through the crises of the 1980s, but for the last 30 years the political economic character of Latin America has been closer to immediately following independence than the rest of the 20th century.

The terms on which he understands this fact and its ramifications was not along objective lines regarding capital flows and political pressures, but rather, as he put it, understanding the political as a mediating category between the economy and society. Leaving aside what that phrase might precisely mean, his analysis focused on the changing prevalence of political traditions and practices, as well as shifting subjectivities, particularly concerning history. For him dependency has two specific modes of historicizing the present, what he called chronotypes. The first is the classic catch-up model, where the south is “behind” the north and it must industrialize and modernize in order to catch up, effectively conceptualizing the south and the north as being in separate places along a continuum. The second is the counter narrative to this that believes that “underdevelopment is not a lack of development but a form of development.” This position is a claim of radical contemporaneity that places the south and the north along side one-another at this historical present.

A number of fascinating diagnoses and perspectives arose from this type of analysis. In the shift away from dependency as a worldview Lomnitz locates both the return of republican narratives (typified by the highly visible left regimes of Chavez and Morales) and the emergence of grass-roots-globalization narratives that have become popular both in development discourse and in radical anti-globalization discourse (the Zapatistas, or the MST in Brazil being good examples). Both of these for him are grounded in the end of a unified political and economic regime that applied to all of Latin America and the waves of crises felt throughout the 90s. These ruined the sense of certainty about the future and political position of Latin America, which he associates with dependency.

There were lots more examples of interesting examples of common historical conceptions in Latin America and their relationship to neoliberalism, but I think I’ve covered the basic arc of his argument.

Achille Mbebe
Mbebe’s presentation, which he referred to as an “intervetion,” was perhaps the strangest of the three. He began with a discussion of crisis as permanent status of life in South Africa, and therefore cease to be crisis at all, but normalcy. To this extent he also spoke to changes in historicity, now it was the rest of the world that was catching up to Africa.

From there though he went into a long personal discussion of the experience of the World Cup. He went into the promises made by the promoters, of jobs, and national glory etc. But instead of saying, “and the schmucks didn’t deliver,” he basically said they did. Maybe the economic impacts didn’t work, but he said everyone felt really good after the World Cup. He even said that crime went down dramatically during the games, as if all the criminals were off watching the game somewhere.

The experience of the World Cup led him though to a discussion of capitalism from the perspective of dynamics of the subject and the imaginary. He deployed Lacanian language and said that contemporary capitalism is propelled not by hegemony of a ruling class or objective structures, but the fusion of Real, Symbolic and Imaginary and the spaces between them. In other words, the essence of capitalism can be described by reference to the topography of these three realms of the subject. For him capitalism functions around an identity of the Real and Imaginary under an order he coined as “semio-capitalism.” This seems to me to be essentially the Baudrillardian position of the absolute dominance of the simulacrum. He claims therefore that most appropriate way to view capitalism is not in terms of reality and alienation of experience but faith, and the experience of alienation. This in turn changes his view of the political, rather than a question of practical and programmatic engagement with objective structures, it must be a navigation of the Real and Symbolic that constitutes a new kind of faith and joy which might point outside of capitalism.

I want to note that as I understood him, much of Mbebe’s theoretical position is indefensible. First because he transhistoricizes the subject and seems to claim that Lacanian categories are natural and are merely arranged in a specific way by capitalism. Second because, as I understand them, to talk about a “fusion” of the three Lacanian axes of the psyche is incoherent since their opposition and synthesis in the subject is the very constitution of the ego. And third, if the Real takes the place of something like the thing-in-itself, that is, the supreme object of desire, inassimilable in any ontological order, then a fusion of the Symbolic and the Real is complete nonsense. I could be wrong both about Mbebe’s position and Lacan’s theory, but this is my first impression.

However I think there’s something else more important about Mbebe’s position. He undergoes a reversal of the position of analysis, from the objective to the subjective. He asks the question, what would happen if we take the subject as our starting point?

This question is similar to the first audience question, which basically ran as follows: “What does it mean that the global south is always positioned as both example and exception? What would it mean to begin our analysis of the totality with the global south? Would it reveal a radically different problematic? And if so, doesn’t this bring into question the epistemology of our general analysis and its affinity to hegemonic discourses?”

These point to a larger problem that I feel the whole panel opened up, what do we do with lived experience, and local practice/reality. One of the constant refrains when dealing with Postone’s reading of Capital goes like this:

Student: But this doesn’t seem to make any sense, what about this counter-example.
Postone: No no, this is on the level of the totality, you can’t think about this with an example like that.

Now I think we all agree that Postone’s view is justified, but it is very frustrating. This is not just about “proving” Marx’s analysis, or using it in empirical research. I think these are difficult but certainly not unanswered questions. What concerns me more is the issue of scale when it comes to political practice, as in, one only ever engages with the particular. If a fairly high level of agency is permissible on the small scale under capitalism, how can we conceptualize agency with respect to History (capital H)? Postone not only problematizes this by deferring the law like character of capitalism away from the small scale and to the totality, but also closing most of the traditional answers, i.e. the historical subject of the Proletariat (capital P). The question of how you can act on the scale of history I think is, after Postone, one of the central questions of the possibility of the political.

15 December 2010

No way out of the crisis?

Yes, but we need more than slogans
The “Global Crisis” conference brought together the people who have spent the most time thinking systematically about the crisis that produced neoliberalism in the 1970s and the crisis that’s bringing it down today. It’s striking that even they have no suggestion as to what might succeed it, save some kind of Spirit (Geist?) that, without concrete plans of even the most rudimentary sort, is still supposedly capable of organizing an egalitarian society. Also, something or other about China.

Each previous configuration of capitalism developed a kind of opposition within itself that targeted its hegemonic institutions and ideologies, providing a coherent critique of the system and offering concrete alternatives. During each crisis of capitalism, elites were then able to draw on these ideas to fashion a new configuration of social relations, institutions, and forms of consciousness that could support a renewal of capitalist accumulation. In the classical liberal period, the socialist and workers movement—emphasizing the need to substitute planning for the chaos of the market, glorifying industrial productionism, and demanding an improvement in the material lives of workers—provided essential components of the Fordist-Keynesian and Fordist-Stalinist syntheses of the 1950s and 1960s. When that system fell into crisis during the 1970s, the neoclassical/monetarist ideas typified by Milton Friedman and the anti-authority lifestyle politics of the counterculture each contributed essential threads to the new regime of free markets and anticonformist consumerism.

But what has neoliberalism left us that can perform a similar role in the current crisis? Postmodernism’s rejection of the very idea of systematic forms? The moralistic individualism of the Tea Party? The relentless parochialism of identity politics? The religious right’s longing for anachronism? The zeal among youth for apolitical volunteer opportunities?

Something about the experience of neoliberalism has made it almost impossible to conceive systematic alternatives. For decades, all of our politics has been small-scale and, in an essential way, fundamentally narcissistic. And not just our politics. From irony as a lifestyle to the search for authenticity, from ethical purchasing and recycling to self-help programs and fad diets, from discovering one’s roots to discovering the best new band, from the evangelicals’ personal relationship with God to the antitax zealots’ personal relationship with “their” money—every big idea has been centered on the self. The two key visions that actually do claim a wider field—market fundamentalism and the anarchistic “Spirit of Porto Alegre” described by Wallerstein—are themselves merely dogmatisms of the self extended to cover the whole of society.

Neoliberal subjects
(except the flower, altho it should be noted that every
neoliberal subject is a unique, beautiful flower)

(Before I get too carried away with sweeping claims, I should note that environmentalism is perhaps the key exception here—so let me make sweeping claims about that. Environmentalism, too, remains one-sided: it is a critique of consumption that cannot grasp consumption as an attribute of the social totality and, as such, takes the individual as its starting point—even if the final conclusions represent a negation of society and, as in the case of primitivism, seemingly countenance the mass death so modish under a previous type of society that actually could think in collective terms.)

This is not to say that the neoliberal period’s one-sided obsession with the self has been all bad. It has revived ideas of freedom that had seemed on the verge of being extinguished in the mid-1960s by the Fordist period’s one-sided emphasis on the collective. Of course, the conceptions of freedom that have thrived under neoliberalism—and here I would include the whole range from right to left—are incomplete in the same way that the social was incomplete under Fordism, not to mention their effect of disguising the real source of the social problems we face.

Of more immediate interest, the inability to think the social totality explains the politics of personal responsibility that has structured the right’s response to the crisis, and it explains the alarming failure of the left to come up with any coherent response at all. Since the right’s response is staggeringly inadequate as any kind of solution to the crisis, that means we have no path to recovery whatsoever—good, bad, or otherwise. Curiously, even that handful of left intellectuals, like the ones at the “Global Crisis” conference, who have been able to understand the crisis as an epochal change in capitalism, seem equally incapable of offering concrete alternatives. We could be looking at another decade of stagnation punctuated by sharp deterioration.

The good news is that, since neither Obama nor the right have formulated any way out of the crisis, we have more time to come up with something that doesn’t just revive capitalism but could begin to move beyond it. The bad news is that the left hasn’t even begun to pursue this project. It’s past time that we get started.

09 December 2010

Engaging the current crisis

On Friday Dec. 3, 2010 the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory opened a two-day conference entitled “Global Crisis: Rethinking Economy and Society.” As the goal of the conference was to attempt to grapple with the nature of the 2007-2008 economic crisis and work towards an adequate framework for grasping this moment of change -- one which most likely requires social science to re-appropriate large scale structures and practices as their object of analysis -- it offers an appropriate starting point for considering the nature of the present in which we find ourselves.

Within this framework, the first panel, consisting of David Harvey, Duncan Foley, Beverly Silver, and Immanuel Wallerstein, offered a state-of-the-field view on our understandings of the present crisis with reference to capitalism as an economic system effecting society through the mediation of the political sphere.

A brief, and likely partial, summary of their presentations follows:

Clearly working within his training as a geographer-cum-social theorist Harvey discussed “crisis” as a thing, appearing, disappearing (much like a plague), shifting geographically and within the system of capitalism itself. Here one day in the New York financial markets, gone the next to appear in Greek state finances. He pointed out, however, that “global” is perhaps misapplied to the crisis, as it has not appeared to effect places such as Brazil, Argentina, or Australia, all states that have substantial economic ties to China, which appeared in his talk, as the potential center of an alternative orientation of capital. The crisis, he argued, being a distinctly North American and European problem, is a crisis of joblessness, with a net loss of nearly 20 million, 7.5 million of which were in the US alone. He remarks that the crisis, at one point, economic, demanding state intervention to prevent a complete collapse of financial institutions and markets, has shifted into a political crisis. The significance of this shift is that it means the decisions being made currently about how to address the “crisis,” are not taking place in reference to “economic necessity,” but are political choices. The two possible choices he saw were deficit reduction, a la Cameron in Great Britain, or Keynesian intervention a la China and India. He then proceeded to critique the deficit reduction avenue on the grounds that it was an expression of capital’s long term project to unload the social reproduction costs, which most recently it was forced to bear during the Fordist period. On these grounds he linked today’s political choices to both the fundamental nature of capital to externalize such costs and to the post-1970s rise of “plutocratic politics.” In reference to the latter, he argued that the politics of creating huge deficits (with arms development, military aggression, and tax cuts), has intentionally created the grounds on which to attack the social programs developed during the Fordist period. Quoting Warren Buffett’s claim that there is class warfare, and the rich are waging and winning it, Harvey placed much emphasis on the role of capitalists themselves in both creating the crisis and propagating politics that will continue to impoverish the vast majority of the world’s peoples in order to perpetuate profits. The capitalists are building arks, he said, while it would seems the rest will drown in the coming deluge.

Foley’s talk had three parts: first, he related the current crisis to Marx’s theories of crisis; second, he discussed the last 30-40 years of political economy and macroeconomic policy; third, he speculated about where we will go from here.

In the first part, Foley distinguished between crisis caused by falling rate of profit, which is about upward pressure on wages, and crisis caused by a rising rate of exploitation, which is associated with falling wages. Both, he pointed out, are problems of aggregate demand, which is the necessary counterpart to capitalist production. He identified four major periods of crisis in capitalism -- the 1890s, 1930s, 1970s, and 2007-08. The 1890s and 1970s, he argued, were crises of the falling rate of profit. Those in the 1930s and 2007-08 are crises of the rising rate of exploitation.

The second part of Foley’s presentation discussed how globalization and financialization worked to resolve the crisis of the 1970s. Globalization allowed firms to reduce costs not through advances in productivity, but by relocating production to areas in the world with reduced labor costs. This enabled huge surplus value creation, which in turn fed financialization. Two problems pervaded this system, however. The first was a problem of sufficient world aggregate demand; the second was the pressure on the financial system to transform money into investment. (In concrete terms these seem to be the stagnation/fall in the middle-class standard of living and the increasing complexity and speculative nature of financial instruments. Foley did not concretize them.)

In the last part of the talk, Foley raised three problems for moving forward. The first is the uneveness of the crisis and the problem of world aggregate demand. The second is the dilemma of what will happen with the dollar. As the major reserve currency the US cannot control its own exchange rate, which has hampered its ability to resolve the economic problems it faces. Secondly, floating exchange rates enable competitive devaluation of currencies, which is enabling some states, such as China, to maintain an artificially high share of world demand. The final problem Foley foresees is that of U.S. hegemony. In so far as this hegemony has kept internecine capitalist warfare at bay (and implicitly, kept the system working), he wonders if the U.S. can continue to do so. The appearance of the inevitable decline of the U.S. raises the question of whether the world economic system can operate without a hegemon, and whether a place like China, which again appears as the potential center of a future capitalist system, sufficiently understands the nature of the problems of the capitalist world system so to take on such a role.

Silver’s presentation provided a Braudelian long-duree (500 year) and Schumpeterian short-term (100 year) perspective on the 2007-2008 crisis. Silver presented capitalism as possessing a cyclical rhythm, in which a systemic cycle of accumulation comes into being, rises (going through a golden age), and peaks. Its fall is synchronic with the rise of the preconditions for the next systemic cycle of accumulation. The end of a particular cycle is marked not by a single crisis, but a period of crisis. On this model Silver hypothesized the 1970s as the beginning of the end of the current cycle of accumulation and the crisis of 2007-08 as a potential end-point. This would mean that a new systemic cycle of accumulation is starting, and Silver, like Harvey and Foley sees in China a potential new center of a cycle of accumulation. She was not prescriptive however.

Silver’s Schumpeterian perspective on patterns of crisis emphasized shifts in the cause of crisis and policy responses. She identified the four same moments of crisis as Foley, and noted a pattern of pendulum swings in both the cause and response:
1896: the exploitation of labor was too low from the point of view of capital and the response was the consolidation and centralization of (monopoly) capitalism
1930s: the exploitation of labor was too high from the point of view of capital and the response was the “Global New Deal”
1970s: the exploitation of labor was too low from the point of view of capital and the response was the redistribution of capital
2007-8: the exploitation of labor was too high from the point of view of capital, and we might assume a swing back to state intervention and assistance for labor, but Silver was not deterministic.

Siliver’s Braudelian perspective analyzed the dominant political form of cycles of accumulation. It began with the city-state of Genoa in the fifteenth century, moved through to the Dutch of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth and the ended with the US in the twentieth. Her analysis highlighted that the increasing size and complexity of the dominant political unit in a given cycle, moving from city state, to nation-state, to empire, to a potential “world state,” envisioned, but not achieved, by the US.

In conclusion she observed that to ever get beyond the continuous crises of capitalism the labor reducing and resource consuming tendencies of capital would need to be replaced with labor absorption and resource conservation. This was to say that reversion to the Keynesian model of the mid-twentieth century would not be the solution.

Citing his multiple publications on the topic of capitalism and crisis, Wallerstein summarized the five premises which run through his work and concluded with speculation as to tactics that may move society beyond capitalism.

“All systems have lives.” Systems have properties and relations that determine their normal functioning. This normal functioning runs in cyclical rhythms that are always moving outward from the original point until their reach the point of structural crisis. This is to the say that the normal functioning of any system eventually causes its end.
Endless accumulation drives the capitalist social system. This accumulation is driven by quasi-monopolies supported by states, which are both a necessary feature and self-liquidating. This frameworks firmly ties the fate of states with the fate of capitalism, meaning no state is wholly sovereign, and that favored economic zones are constantly slowly shifting as quasi-monopolies rise and fall. A hegemonic power always work to maximize the benefits of the system to its own economic interests, but “true hegemony” only lasts about 25 years, and is also self-liquifying.
Between 1945 and 1970 the greatest period of global economic expansion ever took place under the ascendency of US hegemony. Since 1970 the shift from production to finance has produced the greatest number of speculative bubbles and levels of indebtedness ever seen. Since 1970 US hegemony has had the “swiftest and most total” decline.
In the political sphere, the revolutions of 1968 marked the rejection of centrist liberalism, which splintered the left and gave rise to a “reinvigorated world right,” that has asserted itself more effectively than the left, and whose objective has been to reduce all the gains of the lower classes.
Chaos is the primary character of structural crisis. Wallerstein described chaos as constant and rapid fluctuations within the parameters of a system; a period in which uncertainty if the defining characteristics of all areas of society, state, and economy. Such uncertainty produces a subjectivity that demands protection, looks for scapegoats, tends towards extremism and thus produces gridlock.

In moving from an analysis of the nature of the crisis of capitalism to its overcoming, Wallerstein warned that in the short term we face only the ability to choose between the lesser of the evils. In the mid-term he argues the world can choose to organize itself either in a the “Spirit of Davos” (site of the meeting of the annual World Economic Forum)or the “Spirit of Puerto Alegre.” Both are potential modes of post-capitalist social organization. The former he argued is a spirit of hierarchy and exploitation; an iron-fist with a homogenizing vertical structure. The latter is a spirit of democracy and egalitarianism. To promote the “Spirit of Alegre” Wallerstein recommended the following tactics:
  • intellectual discussion in an open spirit
  • rejection of economic growth for a goal of decommodification
  • global equalization of standards of living in such a way that emphasizes autonomy of peoples and communities
  • an end to all foreign military bases
  • an end to all social inequalities
The ability of individual action to create change greatly increases, he argued, in the context of chaos, in which all inputs can have a great impact.

03 December 2010

Welcome to the Crisis

On 2008 October 12, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, told the world that the global financial system was on "the brink of systemic meltdown”.  As the crisis evolved from panic to denial ("the recession is over!") to the sinking feeling that nothing had been solved, there has been one persistent thread: a striking lack of serious attempts to understand what is happening to us. From the dogmatic Keynesianism of the handful of surviving liberals to the incoherent outrage of the Tea Party, from the populist condemnation of greedy bankers to the rarefied technical phrasing of the major governments' mutual hypocrisies on the unsteady international currency system, efforts have been concentrated on fixing blame rather than grasping the crisis as a generalized failure of our way of life.

The crisis is a Mexican standoff within the fragmented constellation of our economic relations, cultural practices, and worldviews. This blog was conceived as a collective conversation that will attempt to move us toward an adequate understanding of how the paralysis emerged, what forces are at work in its continued evolution, and how to recognize the good, the bad, and the ugly. Beyond that, we hope to contribute to the development of an emancipatory politics that will be adequate to the world that emerges from the crisis, in the hope that we can end a way of life premised on wandering in the desert searching for gold, in which we're actually digging our own graves.