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.

1 comment:

  1. Hung Ho-fung's article in New Left Review, "America's Head Servant?: The PRC’s Dilemma in the Global Crisis" (2009 Nov-Dec), is well worth reading. He concentrates there on China's course of development and notes a number of interesting contrasts with those of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. The analysis is a fairly conventional class-interests account, but more sophisticated arguments need to start from the descriptive evidence he supplies.

    His conclusion, however, was not been borne out, so he may have changed his views somewhat. He originally expected Obama to pursue dominance in the emerging green industries sector while China remained stuck in the trap of financing American debt to fund US purchase of its exports. Obviously Obama never had any such ambition, while China certainly does.