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.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's important to think about the need for social realities to mature. What I mean by that is that if we understand a social reality under capitalism as having a certain logic that produces both a regime of accumulation and forms of resistance or overcoming peculiar to it, these two develop and mature in kind. This means a sketchy periodization of the last century groups Bolshevism with pre-depression accumulation, national liberation and 1968 with Fordism, and identity politics and anti-globalization with neoliberalism. It wasn't the crises for these systems that created points of heightened social antagonism, but their flourishing maturity.

    Where that leaves us right now is then extremely tricky. The moment of crisis seems to open the door to historical agency, but the only historically vital forms of politics that exist are historically adequate to a previous age. I think our task then becomes double, first to elaborate what a vital and historically adequate radical politics might looks like, but also to understand the conditions of possibility for doing so in a period of transition.