18 December 2011

Redistribution is not enough

If the crisis of neoliberalism is a result of the collapse of the system of accumulation that prevailed for the last thirty years, where exactly is the immediate problem? We’ve already isolated productive investment (expanding value), robust demand (realizing value), and efficient technology (circulating value) as the key determinants of growth, so which of these has frozen up?

Demand is the obvious candidate.

09 December 2011

Allowing the Crisis: Europe's Struggle for Discipline

Walker's recent discussion of the European situation is astute and important, especially his account of sovereign debt as an essential part of the continental model of neoliberalism. However, I don't think that it's sufficient to explain why debt is an issue to understand why it's come to a crisis at this moment and led to the kinds of responses we've seen. What I want to emphasize, and what I gestured toward in relation to Scott Walker's putsch in Wisconsin, is that there's been a trading off between the economic crisis and a political crisis. The Eurozone crisis is less about stagnant growth and more about reconfiguring and strengthening institutions of geopolitical discipline. It's not that the problems/solutions are in the political sphere, but that the nature of the crisis is best understood as a political crisis around the economic one.

When I say "discipline" and "political" I am not referring to a class conspiracy, I'm referring to the fact that the crisis is now being played out as a struggle to control the institutions that delimit what is and isn't allowed as opposed to the economic sphere which delimits what is and isn't possible. To be clear I know how problematic that statement is, there are no absolute objective social constraints but under capitalism the economy functions as if it were objective and it's pretty hard to change that.

Consider three moments of the Eurozone crisis: the fact that Italy is running a principal surplus; the installment of technocratic governments in Italy and Greece; and the most recent proposed "deal" to save Europe. At the core of all these is the role that bond markets play in deciding what will be allowed and a strengthening of the relationship between those priorities and the state.

29 November 2011

The crisis of neoliberalism in Europe (2)

Part 2 of 2 | Part 1
Despite the differences between the US and Europe in the average citizen’s experience of life, there have been some striking similarities in the development of deeper structures in the world’s two biggest economies since the advent of neoliberalism. This indicates that the crisis in Europe is not merely a result of “contamination” from the American credit crisis of 2008, as many Europeans initially argued. Yet neither is it a result of solely European problems of excessive spending or lagging competitiveness, as many Germans and Americans believe. It is, rather, a constituent part of the ongoing crisis of global neoliberalism.

25 November 2011

The crisis of neoliberalism in Europe (1)

Part 1 of 2
For many years progressives in the US have looked longingly to the social democratic states of Europe, and with good reason. Europeans enjoy a quality of life significantly higher than Americans, with more leisure time, better healthcare, and massively less social violence. Europe has extended this quality of life far more equitably, and has done so while producing far less environmental destruction. In fact, if the Occupy movement’s demands were actually met, the kind of society we might evolve toward would be basically the kind that Europe already has.

So as the crisis in Europe increasingly appears headed toward global catastrophe, it’s worth realizing that not only is the brutal neoliberalism of the US mired in crisis, so too is the much more pleasant version in Europe. 

22 November 2011

Glossary: Economic growth

The upshot of the argument I’m developing here, but still haven’t actually laid out fully, is that the crisis of neoliberalism is fundamentally a crisis of growth. There are all kinds of mediating factors like the operations of the financial industry or the nature of the eurozone monetary system, but the deeper trigger of serious dysfunction in these realms and in the economy in general is the collapse of the neoliberal growth system. Before I complete this argument, we first have to understand what produces growth.

16 November 2011

Awk-upy: Left Love and Shame

The latest issue of the Hypocrite Reader just went live with the theme "occupation." There are some interesting pieces (I'm personally a big fan of Debbie Hu's and Sam Feldman's) in it and one of my own. So by way of shameless self promotion here the introduction to mine. Also Occupy Elvis:

11 November 2011

The Open Letter to the Occupy Movement

I've been scarce on this blog for a few weeks. I've been busy dealing with Occupy Las Vegas, which is deeply problematic. I'm not going to air the dirty laundry here, not because I don't want to, but because I don't know how. More than being busy, engaging with this movement has been baffling and I've had enormous trouble coming to any analytical conclusions. My initial post about the history of the tactic was mostly just chronicling and name checking, which is easy but does little to move forward our understanding. I don't think that I'm alone in this bewildered speechlessness, and I think the awkwardness between the left and the occupy movement is in fact a crucial object for analysis.

07 November 2011

Politicians have principles too

Facing the Democrats in the age of Occupy
Part 2 of 2 | Part 1
If the portrayal of the Democrats as corporate puppets is too simple, then how can we understand their insouciance in the face of the opportunities offered by the Occupy movement? The approach we’ve been developing on this blog, I think, allows for a more complete explanation. Neoliberal ideas proved appealing to Democrats not simply because they brought campaign contributions along with them, but because up until 2008 they seemed to make sense of the economy better than the progressive alternative and they demonstrated greater efficacy when pursued as policy.

Compare the path of Chicago and Detroit under neoliberalism. Under Fordism, both were thriving industrial manufacturing cities, but the restructuring of the global economy in the 1970s and 1980s undid these economic foundations. Chicago already had an important financial sector that the city’s political and economic elites transformed into the basis of a new, but deeply uneven, prosperity. Detroit had no such economic engine to fall back on and was destroyed.

04 November 2011

Why won't the Democrats exploit Occupy?

Facing the Democrats in the age of Occupy
Part 1 of 2 | Part 2
In general, politicians are first and foremost opportunists. That doesn’t mean they’re without principles or ideology, but it means they tend to be flexible and instrumental about how to accomplish their goals. So the Democrats’ response to the Occupy Wall Street movements is rather mystifying. National Democratic leaders, while claiming sympathy with the protesters, have by and large decided to allow the movement to wither rather than seeking to draw its energy into the election cycle (compare the Republican Party’s response to the Tea Party). At the local level, Democratic mayors – from the far corporate end of the spectrum (Emanuel) to the former-organizer end (Quan) – have been at the forefront of unleashing police repression on the occupations.

This is a stunning repudiation of political advantage. The latest New York Times poll, conducted October 19 to 24, once again demonstrated that the silent majority of our moment supports a liberal-Keynesian approach to the crisis.

27 October 2011

Blog Self-Critique concluded

This started out as a comment, a sort of anti-critique, on Walker’s post, but as I looked at Walker’s post, I realized that the points that I disagreed with were not actually specific to this post, but were more general claims made over the course of this blog.

The conception of society that the blog tends to claim exists in neoliberalism
The historical specificity of anti-Semitic populist movements

22 October 2011

Soaring corporate profits presage disaster for corporations

This graph is nothing less than stunning. After-tax corporate profits as a share of the economy have now skyrocketed far above any level in the last fifty years.

Many people on the left view the profit surge thru the lens of class war  that is, the rich are prosecuting a war against everyone else, pillaging the wealth we all produce jointly and taking it for themselves alone. The wits among us will respond that it’s not really a war when one side does all the killing and the other side all the dying. Much of the outrage finally finding expression in Occupy Wall Street and the other occupations that have swept the country is based on this way of seeing things.
As this chart shows quite graphically, such a formulation isn’t wrong. How else can we explain former Bank of America CEO John Thain’s notorious office renovation, which included two guest chairs for $87,000 and a $1400 trash can? Or the market for $6400 luxury toilets? Or the regularity of million-dollar+ birthday parties? All while millions of people, in the US alone, go without food or shelter or healthcare on a daily basis?

So this understanding captures one facet of our society: rich people are greedy bastards. But it misses a more fundamental dynamic of capitalist life, so it remains a one-sided understanding. This leaves us incapable of grasping the nature of the unfolding crisis of neoliberalism and understanding the tasks that will be necessary to overcome it.

15 October 2011

Resurrection of the liberals?

Two polls that have come out in the last couple days give us a snapshot of where Americans stand on some of the issues we’ve been discussing here. They demonstrate the broad outlines of two very different popular constituencies: those that have been mobilized by the Tea Party and Republican Party operatives and funders organizing it, and those that are sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street and a broadly liberal-Keynesian response to the crisis. The Democratic Party has chosen not to mobilize the second (larger) group, and the efforts of unions and community groups have either been too limited or simply ineffective. This is the “silent majority” of our time. Could it play a historical role analogous to that of Nixon’s reactionary silent majority, providing the popular basis for a politics capable of overcoming the crisis?

12 October 2011

Blog Self-Critique

This started out as a comment, a sort of anti-critique, on Walker’s post, but as I looked at Walker’s post, I realized that the points that I disagreed with were not actually specific to this post, but were more general claims made over the course of this blog. It extended too long for one post and so has become a number of shorter ones.

In this post I would like to address two issues, for the sake of space but I will post other parts of this anti-critique over the course of a week or two. Those themes are:
I. The opposition between working class and capitalist
II. The use of the category “working class identity politics”

08 October 2011

Is Occupy Wall Street progressive?

We got a good debate going in Earl’s last post on the limitations and possibilities of the Occupy Wall Street movement. A lot of attention rightly focused on the inadequacy of the critique embodied by the protesters, I won’t take issue there. The question I want to raise is whether this is a force we should work with or not, which is a very different question.

We can get a better feel for the occupiers’ position by reading the “Declaration of the Occupation of Wall Street”, which was passed by consensus at the occupation. Contrary to the impression left by slogans like “the 99 percent against the 1 percent” or the symbolism of occupying Wall Street, the targets here are not restricted to bankers or finance capital or rich people. It’s the power of large corporations in general, over all aspects of life, that is opposed.

06 October 2011

The dysfunctions of neoliberalism: Productivity

In an earlier post, I put forward an outline of the underlying causes of the crisis of neoliberalism in the United States. I argued that, in order to maintain healthy profit levels, neoliberalism has required an increasing level of exploitation of the workforce, leaving wages stagnant despite increasing productivity. The outcome was a widening gap between the output of the economy and the purchasing power of consumers, a gap that was for many years bridged by rising levels of consumer and government debt. It was only a matter of time, however, before this transparently unsustainable fix to the insoluble contradictions of neoliberalism came crashing down, which it finally did with the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008. Subsequent attempts to revive the economy have failed to address any of the underlying dysfunctions of neoliberalism, and we now face either gradual or abrupt economic decline — stagnation or renewed crisis.

Curiously, an earlier configuration of capitalism — that of postwar Fordism — seems not to have suffered from this contradiction between maintaining profits and paying workers enough to purchase the output of the economy.

04 October 2011


When I watched this video back in 2009 I lost hope for the "occupation movement." When anarchist grad students in California (I know that's not entirely accurate) took up the mantel I thought it was neat, but silly. Then Tahrir happened. Then Madison happened. Then Madrid happened. Then Occupy Wall Street happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. And this is about to happen. Now I'm confused.

30 September 2011

Political Sadness: Mourning Troy Davis

At 11:08pm EST on September 21st 2011 the State of Georgia killed Troy Davis. It was his fourth execution date and after a four hours reprieve by the US Supreme Court. This act marked the close of a beautiful chapter of struggle, thousands signed petitions, attended rallies, wrote letters to elected officials, made phone calls to public officers, or followed news of the case closely. None of this could stop the iron will of the State of Georgia in what at times felt like a calculated attempt to prove activists their efforts were futile. Ann Coulter's analysis perhaps provides the best metaphor. She equated Troy Davis with a baby seal, one more thing that bleeding heart liberals attempt to save through "hysterical crying." If the state can bend to such collective displays of affect that where's it's authority. At 11:08pm EST on September 21st 2011 the State of Georgia turned to those hysterical thousands and said, "no you can't." It announced the impotence of collective action and proclaimed the glory of the established forms of authority.

Such an act and the affects it induced, grief, outrage, fear, hopelessness, were not mere private drama. They were and are being experienced collectively. For those who took Davis' struggle as their own these emotions are felt with and supported by the thousands in the movement. Our affect divides us from them, they articulate an indisputable wrong, they are felt arm-in-arm with our comrades who struggled. All this means one thing: they are political.

22 September 2011

Gáspár Miklós Tamás at University of Illinois at Chicago Monday, September 26, 2-4 PM

Gáspár Miklós Tamás: The Failure of Liberal Democracy in Eastern Europe and Everywhere Else
Monday, September 26, 2-4 PM • 2028 University Hall • University of Illinois at Chicago

You can find an interview with him here.

A leading dissident under Communism, liberal parliamentarian and head of the Institute of Philosophy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in the early 1990s, and now a dissident once again, Gáspár Miklós Tamás is one of the most important thinkers of the post-Soviet era. He has held visiting professorships at several US universities, and his work has been translated into fourteen languages.

MRZ: “Which traditions of Marxism are you drawing on? Are there any contemporary writers or theories which you find especially useful, compelling, or relevant?
GMT: Several. Even when I was ideologically very remote from Marxism, I did not stop reading some of its literature. I was quite influenced by the early and middle work of Cornelius Castoriadis — I also knew him, an astonishing man — and Karl Korsch. Although I was personally close at one time to many people from the Lukács School, it is only now that I have read him with sustained attention. (His pupils have gone in the opposite direction, e.g., my erstwhile friend Agnes Heller has become a conservative with an increasingly strong Judaic interest, and a cold warrior après coup, who is bizarrely accusing her old friend and colleague, István Mészáros, author of Beyond Capital and guru to Hugo Chávez, of having been expelled from Canada as a Soviet agent — Mészáros is an 1956 political émigré, an emeritus professor at Sussex University with impeccable anti-Stalinist credentials.) I am an avid reader of operaismo and of pre-Empire Negri, and also at the opposite end, the Wertkritik school, in my view the best heirs to Critical Theory (Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, Michael Heinrich, but also the unruly genius, Robert Kurz, and the “cult” periodicals of this tendency, Krisis, Streifzüge, Exit!) as well as authors like Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, David Harvey, Michael Lebowitz, and various Marxists working in England too numerous to mention. The greatest impact came, however, from Moishe Postone’s magnum opus. These choices may seem eclectic, but I don’t belong to any of these currents. I am working on my own stuff and I am learning from all of them.”

21 September 2011

Summing it all up...

Response to “Apprehensions of the social”, part 4 of 4
By Chris Wright

We are after all confronted with a problem. The Enlightenment linked citizenship with humanity and such is the world we lived in. As a result, struggles to be treated as fully human tended to be struggles to be fully incorporated as citizens. (Workers, despite what the revolutionaries generally wanted, and in all but a few instances, and there usually under the least democratic conditions, generally wanted to extend their rights as human beings in this society.) And in turn the extension of citizenship to people without wealth increasingly created a pressure (exerted through social struggles and also at times as part of the rationalization of conditions of accumulation) to provide a minimum of life’s needs to every citizen, hence social welfare, public education, etc.

The workers’ movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, etc. have all sought to further merge citizen and bourgeois, but the split itself cannot be overcome in this society, only through its revolutionary overcoming.

15 September 2011

Inspiration from Bourgeois Economists: Guest Post

We’ve been doing some guest posts these days. It’s a way to broaden the conversation and to reduce our personally necessary labor time in producing this blog .... if only we could make a Critical Theory chat bot to reduce socially necessary labor time. Insurrectionists are way ahead of us on this.


Frank and Earl have each invited me to write something for this blog. I want to introduce two pieces relevant to your conversation. They have a few common features: (1) they are novel proposals — not New Deal nostalgia, nor the ‘capitalism with a conscience’ of fair trade and farmers markets, nor the Labor Party’s ‘Clause IV’ and central planning; (2) they are roughly compatible with the orientation to social theory shared by this blog’s contributors; (3) they are both formulated by unapologetic pro-market economists.

12 September 2011

The GOP as Death Cult

I found this essay by a Congressional staffer about the contemporary Republican Party to be an insightful description of the state of the legislative branch. While his comparisons to the Weimar Republic era Reichstag and to totalitarian governments are a touch overblown, the similarities do need to be taken seriously.

Returning to the politics at hand

Response to “Apprehensions of the social”, part 3 of 4
By Chris Wright

First and foremost, one result of the fragmentation of the production process and the rise of suburbanism is the collapse of working class identity politics. The worker was, along the way into becoming a home owner, integrated into a society of mass consumption. Debord, Adorno, Marcuse, Sam Moss, and more recently others like Hans-Dieter Bahr, all commented on this at length and with great perspicacity.

Secondly, the end of class identity went hand-in-hand with the formation of a consumer-citizen identity among those who benefited from these post-WWII changes most, that is to say, a large portion of the white population which also became the predominant suburban population, a suburban population which as of 2000 became an absolute majority of Americans.

02 September 2011

Demonize the banks

It has been my argument thus far that the illusion of continued global growth is primarily a product of the numerous speculative bubbles that were inflated as a result of the the main response to the crash of 2008, namely a massive injection of liquidity into the global economy. In the US and Europe this primarily took the form of no-strings bank bailouts. The US emerged from the bailouts seemingly unscathed economically (tho not politically) as the banks, having inflated new bubbles, were able to pay back the government; European countries like Iceland and Ireland, having shifted the crushing liabilities of the banks onto the much smaller base of their taxpayers, were economically devastated.

At the time there was an outburst of popular anger against the banks as the collapse of enormous real estate bubbles in the US, UK, Ireland, Spain, and elsewhere crushed millions of lenders while the bankers who had profited so ostentatiously by inflating the bubble were rescued without consequences. Some attempts were made to organize this discontent, one of which I was involved with, but these were notable principally for their failure to galvanize discontent. If any further evidence were needed, this showed conclusively that existing techniques of mobilizing a progressive constituency are hopelessly out of step with the times (discussion here and here).

29 August 2011

Changes in the spatial organization of domination

Response to “Apprehensions of the social”, part 2 of 4
By Chris Wright

We have passed from what Guy Debord called urbanism to what I would call suburbanism. Suburbanism is a new resolution to the spatial problems which arise with capitals main dynamic of separating the producers from the means of production, from each other, and from their products, while then needing to bring them back together in a manner appropriate to valorization. All of the above not only applied to the labor process inside a production facility; it applied to the entire structure of space.

The de-linking of lived space from worked space in the form of workers moving to the suburbs (and not even to the suburbs their job moved to) breaks the relationship between workplace and residents. The effects of this break were visible in many strikes in the 1980s and 90s, where workers in the plants were often white and had fled from the now Black and Latino neighborhoods where the plants were located, undermining any possible unity. The Chicago and Detroit newspaper strikes were an especially stark presentation of this problem.

In the United States in particular, a series of national peculiarities came together to allow a singularly divisive housing policy: suburbanization.

26 August 2011

“SCAB!” Spontaneity and Organization on the Verizon Picket line

The strike is over! This was the largest US strike in four years and seems to be a victory. But it would be a mistake not to learn lessons from it and imagine that this was simply a good strike, and good strikes win. We must draw out the peculiarities of the strike within the larger historical context and use this to raise and push forward important questions about the larger trajectory past capitalism.

The most remarkable images of this strike came from the picket lines, where members of CWA, IBEW, their families and allies taunted, harassed and at times possibly assaulted scabs (for more stories see this Labor Notes article).

23 August 2011

The labor process and consciousness

Response to “Apprehensions of the social”, part 1 of 4
By Chris Wright

I had earlier written a reply to "The Tea Party marching toward oblivion", but I made the mistake of writing it in the comments area and my browser crashed.  It was long, so I have not re-written it, but Walker's post "Apprehensions of the social" once again inspires me to take up the questions presented here.

The ideas here are not new.  For what it is worth, Jacques Rancière has already taken up these very categories of the aggregate, the collective, and the individual in his essay "The Hatred of Democracy". Gáspár Tamás has also touched on these themes in his essays on what he calls Post-Fascism, which is focused on "how citizenship is becoming an exclusive privilege."  Gillian Rose also took up these specific concerns in her last works, and it is especially evident in the introduction to Mourning Becomes the Law.  My own work (presented in talks at the first and second US Historical Materialism conferences in New York City in 2010 and 2011) is an attempt to develop a concept adequate to the problems presented here.

The current problems we are seeing I believe have to be understood in relation to significant changes in the labor process and the valorization process, to changes in the spatial and temporal organization of domination.

20 August 2011

The task at hand

In the previous post, AB gave a clear statement of what our goal is: the search for a politics that “might give us a world without the ‘permanent crisis’ of capitalism”. But she then noted that “we seem at times to be strategizing for the next battle against capital rather than overcoming it.”

I think we need to acknowledge that we’re facing two distinct problems here. First, how to resolve the crisis of neoliberalism. Second, how to transcend capitalism. Unfortunately, for precisely the reasons we’ve been discussing, contemporary subjectivity is manifestly inadequate to the project of overcoming capitalism. What’s more, the struggle to overcome capitalism will necessarily be played out on the terrain shaped by the resolution of the crisis of neoliberalism. That terrain might open a path to overcoming capitalism, or it might throw up new, insuperable obstacles.

Can we safely dismiss the idea that spiraling levels of economic dysfunction and intensifying competition over how to divide a steadily decreasing pool of total global wealth will lead us to the transcendence of capitalism? If so, then the urgent task of the present is to formulate a way out of the crisis — that is, a new regime of capitalist accumulation.

Figuring out how to revive accumulation is certainly distasteful, and given the global failure to solve the increasingly acute environmental effects of accumulation, it’s also quite dangerous. But it does give us the opportunity to try to shape the outcome in a way that could generate the preconditions, of both structure and consciousness, for a politics whose explicit goal is the overcoming of capitalism.

This may be controversial, and I’m open to a different approach, if one could be formulated.

18 August 2011

Comments on Apprehensions of the Social; or Revisiting Smith -- why the aggregate is compelling and what the left needs to do

This started out as a comment on "Apprehensions of the social: Aggregate, collective, alienated force; or, Contribution to an explanation for why the left always fails," but it got too long, so I guess it is a separate post.

I think the distinction made in the original post between the aggregate, the collective, and alienated force brings some analytical rigor to the discussion. The aggregate, of course, was the vision of society put forward by political economy, beginning, notoriously, with Mandeville (Fable of the Bees), but achieving its doxic articulation with Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations). It is this classic articulation of the aggregate, which still echoes today, that seems to be causing much of the failure of the collective to gain traction. The question of what is the precise attraction to this articulation of society cannot of course be answered without digging into the layers of mediation between subjectivity and the modes of production under which we live. Which equally suggests that reinvigorating the collective as an alternative mode of subjectity would require a change in the mode of production. We are back to Marx 101.

15 August 2011

London Riots

While the ongoing crisis in the US has taken on the form of a farcical political confrontation over raising the debt ceiling, it has erupted in the much more immediate form of violent riots in England. The common feature of these very different events, and what indelibly marks them as belonging to our present moment, is their tragically frustrated character, that they seem unable to produce any awareness of a path beyond the irresolvable contradictions that constitute our current lived reality.

11 August 2011

What is Wisconsin On?

This has been a busy news cycle, I really want to respond to all the craziness going on but I'll keep myself focused on what makes me most livid: the recall elections in Wisconsin. Democrats gained only two of the necessary three senate seats, which means the republicans maintain their majority in all branches of Wisconsin state government. This is not a victory for the left as some might argue due to the jolly-good-challenge we gave to republicans in their home districts. This is not a victory for the right either. They did effectively nothing. This is a defeat for the left.

09 August 2011

Apprehensions of the social: Aggregate, collective, alienated force; or, Contribution to an explanation for why the left always fails

Earl makes a very interesting observation here: “’Society’ as an abstract entity rarely appears as such in popular consciousness. In Fordism it appeared largely as the state, in Liberalism it was largely national tradition. It doesn't seem like ‘the market’ experienced under neoliberalism is any less a mode of appearance of ‘society’ than either of these.”

My interpretation would be somewhat different, but I think it points us in a productive direction that may also be relevant to the discussion of agency in the comments on Earl’s last post. It may be useful to distinguish between an aggregate, a collective, and an alienated force. These are all one-sided apprehensions of the social totality, but the predominance of one or the other at different historical moments has a decisive impact on the possibilities for political change.

The aggregate represents the sum total of individual decisions, which remain atomized and seemingly unrelated.

06 August 2011

Crisis threatens to blow up again

The crisis of neoliberalism is intensifying. The Tea Party reluctantly gave up its attempt to bring down the global economy when Obama gave in to all their demands, but the withdrawal of government spending has further sapped confidence in the “recovery”. With revised numbers, we now know that the initial economic contraction was deeper than previously thought and the “recovery” more anemic: since growth resumed, it has proceeded no faster than population growth. In other words, the US economy is completely stagnant – and that assumes that the growth we’ve seen has been real rather than an artefact of speculative bubbles, which is by no means a safe assumption. The sole bright spot for the US? The unemployment rate fell by 0.1 percent last month – because 193,000 gave up looking for work and removed themselves from the labor force. The fact that the average duration of unemployment is now twice as long (40.4 weeks) as at any time in the 60 years preceding the crisis explains why they gave up.

Meanwhile, the situation in Europe is deteriorating. The EU’s attempt to staunch the crisis with new terms for Greece quickly proved completely inadequate as Spanish and Italian bond yields soared, threatening to make their public debt burden unsustainable. Thus far only the EU’s small economies – Ireland, Portugal, Greece – have been crushed by the bond markets. If either (or both!) of the much more significant economies of Spain or Italy were brought down, it would take the entire European financial system with it. With the European Central Bank committed to self-defeating neoliberal orthodoxy (bank head Jean-Claude Trichet “beseeched political leaders to speed up efforts to cut their budget deficits and remove impediments to growth, like overly protected labor markets”), and European national leaders at least as baffled as those of the US about what to do, no path out of the debt crisis seems available.

After months of dismissing the possibility, suddenly analysts are seriously considering the prospect of a “double-dip recession”. But that question, tho of considerable psychological importance, misses the point. Measures of GDP can only approximate the production of value in the economy – the fictitious value of an expanding speculative bubble, for example, exaggerates growth during its expansion, and exaggerates contraction when it bursts. For this reason, there is a very real possibility that, in terms of real value production, the economy has been contracting thruout the so-called recovery. A return to nominal recession would merely reveal this temporarily obscured reality.

The volatility in global stock markets may or may not be the trigger for a new downturn. The bigger question is whether any new, more adequate approaches to confronting the crisis are emerging or not. There are two directions that change could arise from: elite or popular forces. Thus far popular dissatisfaction has been directionless and thus ineffectual (in Europe), misdirected and thus unproductive of a new approach to the crisis (in the Middle East), effectively repressed (in China), or simply unexpressed (in the US and Japan). Political and business elites are split between extreme austerity advocates and those willing to pursue modest stimulus efforts, neither of which looks beyond the limits of neoliberalism. If the crisis accelerates in the coming weeks, we should watch closely for any change in these circumstances.

18 July 2011

Understanding the Debt Clash

The chief difficulty in a crisis, and the purpose of this blog, is to understand what's going on. A crisis is a moment of genuine indeterminacy, where the rules of the game, indeed the whole game, that were present before are no longer valid. This poses a difficult problem for research and is only worse for research meant to intervene in the historical transformations (which is the point of this blog). The challenge is not only to give an account of why one thing or another happens, but to draw lines of significance that can help us in our attempts to position ourselves facing toward a free society.

The American political clash around the debt ceiling provides an excellent example of what makes moments of crisis so difficult.

What Isn't happening:
1) America is not caught in an unsustainable debt trap due to a crash in GDP.

Unlike the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone, America is not swamped under a crisis level of debt. Those crises occurred because the bond markets in Europe became so scared of default that rates began to rise. Thus Greece, Ireland and now Italy have all faced skyrocketing borrowing rates that mean any budget deficit (which necessitate some borrowing) becomes compounded by deadly interest rates. This is very similar to the debt crisis of the global south we saw at the beginning of neoliberalism 20 to 30 years ago (and a chief way neoliberalism established itself globally), where the World Bank and the IMF made borrowing impossible for states that did not get behind radical privatization and free-trade programs.

While it is an anomaly, Italy's situation demonstrates very clearly why America is not caught in these kinds of crisis producing dynamics. Financial Times's investment editor (and my vote for best hair in Britain), James Mackintosh lays this out quite clearly in a recent analysis video. Both Italy and the US have comparable debts, Italy at 120% GDP and the US at just under 100% GDP, but the difference is in the interest rates they can borrow at. In the last few years Eurozone bond markets have become terrified of the less secure national economies, known as the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain). As a result Italy now has to borrow money at 5.5% for 5 year bonds. As a matter of fact, Italy is projected to actually run a small surplus before interest, something unthinkable in the US. America, however, borrows at nearly 0% interest. The uncertainty in the equities and bond market have sent investors fleeing to US Treasury bonds as the safest bet around, plummeting US borrowing rates. This means that, in the short term, it's becoming nearly impossible for Italy to stay afloat, while the US has nothing to worry about. Certainly mounting American debt might be a problem somewhere down the line, but it's not a crisis.

2) There is no mass populist movement for government austerity.

This seems almost common sense. I have a lot of trouble imagining poor and working class folks deciding and fighting en masse for cuts to the government programs that help them get by. But this nonsense is the very image that the Tea Party and Fox News would like us to believe. Unfortunately due to the bankruptcy of American media this narrative has become fairly mainstream. There are plenty of polls that say most Americans do not support cuts to medicare, medicaid, or social security. Even without polls we only have to think back to the confusing scene during the healthcare debate when a woman passionately cried at a town hall for a Democrat to, "lay your hands off my medicare!"

That's not to say the Tea Party does not have a populist character. Their appeals to patriotism, simple financial principles, and social conservatism (to a degree) resonate with large swaths of the American population. But this, as with most populisms, has nothing to do with mass belief in the political program. Instead it seems to be out of fear and desperation. People have been unemployed for dangerous lengths of time, wealth inequality is becoming more egregious and apparent, and many of the basic social traditions like family life and religion that made all this palatable are falling apart. As Walker says the tea party does provide a coherent response to the crisis and there's a populist desire for that regardless of content.

3) There is not a popular collapse of "the social."

Here is where I might be disagreeing with Walker's analysis if he wants to locate the collapse of "the social" in mass popular consciousness. I agree that the Tea Party ideology is an extreme extension of the Thatcherite position that "there is no society," but this is a very abstract and rarefied thought. "Society" as an abstract entity rarely appears as such in popular consciousness. In Fordism it appeared largely as the state, in Liberalism it was largely national tradition. It doesn't seem like "the market" experienced under neoliberalism is any less a mode of appearance of "society" than either of these. The one distinction, and this is crucial, that the market is wholly out of our collective control. The nation is, drawing from Benedict Anderson, an imagined community to which one was a part. The state is subject to one's collective political will. The market however is like the weather, it's hopeless to hope to effect for most people. It's this hopelessness of active participation in society, of truly having any agency in society, that's still gone for most people, and it would take a great deal to change that belief.

How do we think about all this?
Right now I have no hope of giving an account of what is happening, because I don't think we're clear on what kind of account we need. It would be simple to give a journalistic/factual story for how the Tea Party rose to this position of holding the country hostage. But that wouldn't be enough. From that perspective this moment looks like a repeat of 1992, when Newt Gingrich took control of the house, with the stakes raised. But from the perspective of trying to articulate a Left response to this unique moment of crisis, this falls short.

We shouldn't be after a better account of how one thing or another happened in a crisis. All the stable lines of causality that exist in a stable form of accumulation are out the window. Most of the dominoes that were going to fall with any necessity have already fallen, and the rest is radically contingent. Will the Euro survive? Will austerity take hold? Will China become financially hegemonic as well as productively? Even these economic concerns are up for grabs, let alone the cultural and social transformations afoot.

What we need to do instead is try to judge the significance of events. Instead of asking how we got here, ask what "here" means. This means asking questions like what form of accumulation might austerity and tea party politics fit into, or what the conditions of "solution" to the crisis are. It also means that we can't always build up our understanding purely from the facts (if this were ever possible), we have to know what we're looking for. This is why I'm so curious about the responsible business practice discourse, not because it's got any traction, but because it seems to be the kind of thing that could take hold in a moment of crisis. Most importantly, this also means looking for lines of thought and action that might articulate an oppositional or emancipatory politics. It will almost always be provisional, and hypothetical. It takes a great deal of theoretical wagering, hedging and some faith. This all looks like bad science, but we're not doing science in the usual sense.

Historical significance is something that is never in fact stable and is almost always post festum. However the desire for a better world means actively attempting to intervene not simply in the world, but in history. We must find ways to do things that are historically significant. Our analysis must not simply tell us what is, but what it means for our larger struggle and semi-blind quest for justice.

15 July 2011

The Tea Party marching toward oblivion

Will the Republican Party really go thru with it, force a national default, and cause a “huge financial calamity” for the world? A few days ago it looked like Obama — following his now well-established playbook — would give in to all the Republican demands and then give some more, effectively sabotaging his reelection, his party, and the economy in one fell swoop. The $4 trillion "grand bargain" he proposed apparently would have included significant (and economically irrational) cuts to the key social insurance programs that are now the only popular thing with which the Democrats can defend themselves. But the Republicans wouldn't bite: their one nonnegotiable demand, far more important than reducing the deficit, has all along been that the extremely wealthy must under no condition share the "shared pain" of cutting the deficit.

If Congress fails to raise the debt limit, the US government will default. This will have immediate and devastating economic consequences simply because the US will have to cut off payment on billions of dollars of obligations to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security recipients, education programs, military contractors, etc, etc. It could also significantly increase the government's cost of borrowing, making it that much harder to get the debt under control.

But beyond that, a US default threatens to jolt global investor confidence. On top of the daily deteriorating situation in Europe, the dangerous credit bubble in Brasil, the continuing stagnation in Japan, and uncertainty in China, a US default could send global investors into a panic. Right now the global economy is only functioning by miraculously sustaining confidence in a whole range of speculative bubbles; any jolt could bring the whole house of cards down.

Republicans don't care:
Instead, many Congressional Republicans seem to be spoiling for a fight, calculating that some level of turmoil caused by a federal default might be what it takes to give them the chance to right the nation’s fiscal ship. “I certainly think you will see some short-term volatility,” said Representative Austin Scott of Georgia, the president of the freshman class. “In the end, the sun is going to come up tomorrow.”
The ignorance on display here is shocking. This is not about protecting the interests of the wealthy — as even a right-wing economist will tell you, forcing the government to default risks tremendous damage to the interests of corporations and investors. And it's not about politics — if the nation defaults, the economic devastation that follows will make the Republicans pariahs to the voters, especially after Obama's offer of even bigger cuts than the Republicans (which would in that case rapidly be reinterpreted as a brilliant tactical maneuver).

No, this is ideology. If the Republicans bring the whole thing down, we'll look back and recognize this moment as the apotheosis of the distinctive Tea Party response to the crisis (still the only coherent response on offer thus far in the US). As I have argued, Tea Party thinking is marked, like most other forms of neoliberal subjectivity, by the incapacity to recognize the social. It is a dogmatism of the individual, which is why the thoughtless comparisons to fascism — or even to the communal racists of the civil rights era — are so misguided.

Once the social relations that found all economic transactions have been rendered invisible, the market appears as a feature of nature or some kind of neutral mediation of human activity. Under capitalism, of course, wealth is produced socially; every individual is interdependent and it's simply incoherent to try to understand the production of wealth outside a complex network of social relations. Distribution of that wealth — income — is determined by one set of those relations, most prominently the amount of bargaining power the individual can bring to bear in the market. But once society has been eliminated from the picture and the market posited as a feature of nature, one's income is easily understood as, in some unmediated sense, "earned". And we thereby come to the Tea Party's founding myth, that the individual is the source of all value.

The trope of taxes or welfare programs as government theft of the individual's earnings has been a consistent feature of neoliberal political discourse. It is not, however, merely a result of selfishness, as widely polemicized on the left. People are more selfish under neoliberalism, but that is itself a social outcome that must be explained. And beyond that, the "anti-big government" political movements — perhaps the only successful mass movements of the era — are founded not on selfishness but on a quintessentially moral intuition: it is wrong to take from those who are deserving and give to those who aren't.

In the 1980s, the Reagan Republicans marched proudly under this banner; theirs was a righteous cause filled with the youthful vigor of a true revolution. Their morality was capable of a "triumphant affirmation of itself" — they had located the source of the rot in America and now strode forth to destroy it. And in fact this liquidation of Fordist vestiges was necessary for neoliberalism to thrive.

The Tea Party is different, driven by rage and ressentiment rather than self-affirming mastery. The revolutionary offensive has run its course, the Tea Party is not its charging vanguard but the tattered remnants of its retreating army, wandering in the Russian wilderness and succumbing to gangrene (too bad we had to burn Moscow to bring them to this!). The social crisis must be explained, but without the concept of society, how can the Tea Party come to terms with the disintegration of the neoliberal project? The old scapegoats, most long vanquished, are the only option.

This has real consequences. In neoliberalism's expansionary moment, the "anti-big government" movement was linked to the dynamism of the economy, clearing obstacles like health and safety regulation that blocked business expansion, opening new realms to entrepreneurialism thru privatization, preventing any defense of labor that could have impeded increasing exploitation, and affirming the ideological basis of neoliberal inequality by trapping the underclass in penury and violence. But the same impulses, in the moment of neoliberalism's crisis, forcibly separate popular consciousness from apprehending the dynamism of the economy.

The crisis is fundamentally a failure of growth: the engine of value-creation has died. Deficits have been severely exacerbated by economic contraction and stagnation, and the massive government debts would quickly be brought under control with a renewal of robust growth. Yet for the Tea Party (and, incidentally, for most of the left) the paralysis of growth is a non-issue. The only question is how to distribute the pain of austerity so that it falls only on those who deserve it.

This in some sense reflects the stagnation of the economy — its dynamism no longer visible, it has receded from popular consciousness. Yet it also ensures continued stagnation, if not further collapse, because only a new formula for growth can end the crisis and address subsidiary issues like the deficit. The only constituency that grasps this — the neoliberal mainstream represented by people like Obama — fundamentally misunderstands the crisis and is therefore incapable of developing an adequate response.

These are the political options that stand before us: immediate collapse or gradual collapse. If we prefer another path, we'll have to find it ourselves.

05 July 2011

Bewildered by history

At his last news conference, Ben Bernanke made a surprisingly frank admission: “We don’t have a precise read on why this slower pace of growth is persisting.”

Bernanke was announcing the end of the Fed's attempt at indirect monetary stimulus, "quantitative easing 2", despite the continuing accumulation of evidence that the expected take-off of the "recovery" is not going to materialize. Jobs and home sales are both heading in the wrong direction. Manufacturing is slowing around the world. The EU did manage to avoid a disaster it nearly brought on itself, by forcing Greece to accept measures that will continue to destroy its economy, but for that very reason the disaster has only been delayed.

Everyone keeps telling themselves that growth will begin in earnest once the "temporary" dislocations - high oil prices, fallout from the Japan earthquake, bad weather - clear up. What they don't mention is that a variety of even more terrifying shocks threaten to make these look like a spring rain: Greek default (or that of Spain, or Ireland, or Portugal), perhaps bringing down the eurozone; an American failure to extend the debt limit, setting off global finanical panic; collapse of the Chinese real estate bubble, which thru its long supply-train connections to the commodity producers of the world, could pull the entire global economy into the abyss.

Bernanke voices the confusion of the entire economic establishment: why aren't things getting better? Undoubtedly Obama and his economic team have been asking themselves the same question for some time now. After all, political cowardice can only go so far in explaining the utter failure of the administration to formulate a response to the crisis. The neoliberal mainstream has now exhausted its conceptual resources and is effectively paralyzed by indecision, leaving it vulnerable to the predations of the rightwing austerity advocates.

This bewilderment is worth exploring further. The explanation I have laid out for the continuing crisis is not particularly complicated, yet it remains unvoiced in the mainstream media, apparently outside the realm of conceptual possibility for neoliberals. The problem is that they understand market forces not as a particular kind of social relation that emerged historically to overcome the breakdown of an earlier configuration of social relations, but as a transhistorical manifestation of human nature. It is this almost metaphysical belief that grounds the universalizing impulses of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO - not the business interests of global financial players and multinational firms featured in so many left critiques. When neoliberalism was healthy, the desire to universalize its forms allowed it to continue expanding. In its crisis, the same policies now intensify its dysfunctions.

To understand this would require an appreciation of the historical constitution of human subjectivities and social structures. For the Tea Party enthusiast there is no society. But the policymaking neoliberal is different; he can produce a pale semblance of the idea of society in his mathematical models of aggregated individual choices. This approach cannot, of course, grasp the far more complex process by which society is constituted and reshaped, an approach that, unlike neoliberal models, can provide an account of how individual choices are produced. But the policymaking neoliberal's fundamental failure is elsewhere: he cannot see history.

13 June 2011

Glossary: Fordism

In its most narrow usage, Fordism refers to Henry Ford's revelation that he could do better business if he paid his workers enough to buy the products of their labor. Of course, Ford's attempt to make good on the slogan in the 1910s completely failed since very few other capitalists were willing to leave behind the liberal period's method of high profits thru high exploitation. And of course, if capitalists actually did pay their workers the full value of their product, there would be nothing left over for profits, so the slogan really can't work in practice under capitalism.

Still, a system that superficially seemed to realize Ford's vision actually did take hold after World War II in the West and Japan, lasting roughly from 1949 to 1973. The architectonic restructuring of the economy that made this possible only emerged, however, thru the desperate struggle to overcome the impersonal violence of the Great Depression and its personalized (tho mechanized) counterpart of the two World Wars.

Both depression and war were symptomatic of the great collapse of the liberal period's mechanisms of self-reproduction, and only a massive restructuring of the global economy could return capitalism to health. The solution that finally emerged after three decades of tortuous conflict was based on the generalization of economic forms of organization that had been developing for many years: large bureaucratic enterprises, assembly-line mass production, rationalization — ie, deskilling — of the work process (Taylorism), production for a consumer mass market, active but domesticated and bureaucratized labor unions, and robust government regulation. All these threads finally came together under the pressures of mobilization for World War II, as the governments of each of the combatants forced reluctant capitalists and workers alike to accept the new system.

The new kind of capitalism was distinguished by a much more balanced and integrated relation among capital, labor, and the state (not to be mistaken, however, for equality). Labor renounced any demand for control over the production process, capital agreed to provide secure jobs with good wages and benefits, the state oversaw the accord and smoothed out its remaining unevenness thru Keynesian regulation and a solid commitment to social insurance and welfare programs. The new regime was also far more focused on the accumulation of capital within national boundaries than the aggressively expansionary capitalism of the late liberal period.

The forms of culture that emerged emphasized homogeneity and conformity. The economic priorities of rationalization, standardization, and planning bled over into all aspects of life, and a vision of steady material progress took hold, projecting a near-term future in which everyone would fit the basic mold of middle-class consumer and producer. This suited a highly bureaucratized economy and society defined by the alliance of big business, big labor, and big government.
In hindsight this culture appears stultifying and narrowly materialistic, but Fordism also had its attractive aspects. In the liberal period a huge section of the population had lived on the margins, suffering severe exploitation in sweatshop factory jobs or, worse, unable to find any kind of employment. Severe racial, ethnic, and class hatreds had flourished between the small bourgeoisie and the working majority, as well as among workers themselves, who battled each other for the scraps extended by the owners. Now the majority finally had access to a basic standard of material welfare, and the dominant culture embraced them rather than denouncing or simply ignoring them. Significant excluded minorities remained — most obviously, blacks in the US — but Fordism seemed to offer the promise of eventual inclusion, even if a mass movement would be required to secure it.

Moreover, Fordism proved extraordinarily successful as an economic system. On every important economic indicator — rates of growth, of employment, of productivity increase, of poverty reduction, and of profits — it performed better than neoliberalism did (even before the crisis). No wonder the 1950s and 1960s are known as the Golden Age of capitalism, even tho — or perhaps because —  market forces had waned to an unprecedented extent.

The same forces that defined Fordism were operative in the so-called Communist countries and other newly independent nations as well. Here the state and nationalism, of necessity, played much larger roles in both reshaping the economy and the culture, as the accumulated capital and disciplined workforce that the advanced countries enjoyed did not yet exist. As in the West and Japan, bureaucracy displaced market forces in the coordination of the economy, and a homogeneous national culture was promoted to replace the myriad divisions and inequalities of the prewar period. As in the advanced economies, economic performance was remarkable, especially in those countries that took these trends to their extremes: the Soviet Union and China.

Despite its success, Fordism generated forms of opposition that leveled fundamental critiques against it — most visibly, the wave of youth rebellion that swept the globe from 1966 to 1968 — as well as economic dysfunctions that finally precipitated its collapse in the protracted economic crisis of the 1970s. There can be no return to Fordism, but understanding it and its relation to neoliberalism may help us find a way out of the current crisis.

More on Fordism:
The rise and fall of national capital
Contrasts in neoliberal and Fordist temporality
Fordism and neoliberalism expressed through their architecture
Fordism: the global political economy of a passive revolution

06 June 2011

End of the "recovery" now in sight

The Financial Times reports that yesterday "[t]he White House denied the US was facing a 'jobless recovery'". The number of people who want a job is actually significantly higher than it was when Obama was inaugurated, so the White House couldn't be taking issue with the "jobless" part. But it seems fully justified to deny that this is a recovery.

As I argued two months ago, the failure to address any of the fundamental dysfunctions that caused the crisis mean the only uncertainty we face is whether our economic decline will be gradual or abrupt. The superficial signs of a return to economic health, which for the last half year have been used to justify loose talk about "recovery", are, one by one, falling apart. In May US job growth slumped sharply and the unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent. The head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that this reflects a “general weakening in job growth” rather than the temporary disruptions that have been such popular scapegoats whenever bad numbers come out. (Funny how "temporary disruptions" never seem to get in the way of a period of strong growth.) Manufacturing is deteriorating in the US, UK, and EU alike. Real estate prices have fallen to a post-crash low. Even the one bright spot over the last two years - speculative asset bubbles - might be heading for a crash. The stock market reacted badly to the recent signs of economic weakness, and bank stocks have taken a big hit recently as the government subsidies and accounting tricks that had returned them to profitability have started to run out.

To see the indisputable failure of the "recovery", one needs only look at this chart:
That's the average duration of unemployment in the US. Now at 40 weeks, it's not only at the highest point since the BLS started keeping track, it's actually almost twice as long as at any previous point in the last 60 years.

The big question now is whether a new round of crisis will blow up soon, or whether the pressures will build up over a number of years and give us something much more devastating. On the one hand, as long as the terminal crisis of neoliberalism is held off, there is still hope of making the transition to a new basis for the global economy thru a planned, gradual process that would be far less destructive than a near-term financial collapse, for instance, would be. On the other hand, if we avoid a crash in the short term but can't assemble the political will to make a conscious transition . . . well, remember World War II?

30 May 2011

Diminishing ourselves to suit the crisis

The economic crisis has been a disaster for recent college graduates. Of course it's been a bigger disaster for young people who have not graduated from college, but that demographic for some reason consistently draws less interest from the media. Still, the collapse in life chances for the college-educated is remarkable. As The New York Times reports
The median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who entered the work force in 2006 to 2008 . . . Of course, these are the lucky ones — the graduates who found a job. Among the members of the class of 2010, just 56 percent had held at least one job by this spring, when the survey was conducted. That compares with 90 percent of graduates from the classes of 2006 and 2007.
As the so-called recovery continues to peter out, those prospects aren't going to get any better. What we're seeing here is the advent of a lost generation.

These people are the innocent victims of a systematic global crisis of capitalism. Yet the letters published in response to this article betrayed no sympathy. The director of one college career counseling office condemned any recognition of the job market’s caprice: “We know how people get jobs, and luck rarely has anything to do with it.” How do people get good jobs? “The hard work of networking early on in a college career, wisely chosen internships, using summers well (which too few students do) and other positioning activities greatly enhance the chance of a good job after graduation.”

A Chicago career counselor advised recent grads to abandon their complacent belief that a degree entitles them to a job – what matters is "how directed candidates are and how they present themselves". Ultimately, "[s]tudents have to prove why they should be hired over others".

A final letter-writer counseled cold realism in response to the new normal: “Engineers, accountants, health care workers, computer scientists and highly skilled craftsmen will have a chance to achieve the American dream, but students double majoring in French and Spanish will be living in Mom’s basement.” “In a just world,” he admonished, “degrees in humanities would carry a warning on the diploma: ‘Earning this degree, while intellectually stimulating, may increase your chances of lifelong poverty and disillusionment.’”

A truly grim vision of “a just world”, this. Rather than demanding a world in which each individual is free to develop his or her potentials and find fulfillment, justice demands that we all succumb to that brutal force beyond our control, “the economy”?

The economy is not a force of nature, but an entity constituted by human beings. Still, the letter writer is right to recognize that it stands above us, outside us. It constrains our potential, fatally restricts our freedom, arbitrarily extinguishes the future of some, the very lives of others, while equally arbitrarily raising some of us – an increasingly small number – to unimaginable heights of wealth and power. What he fails to see is that a just world lies not in diminishing and deforming human beings to serve the needs of the economy, but in finally claiming control over the economy so that it serves human beings.

Yet the experience of neoliberalism seems to have made it nearly impossible for most people to locate our problems in the nature of the economy. Instead we have seen two broad responses to the crisis: first, a determination to adapt to the “new normal” – to discover those strategies of personal conduct (seen, eg, in these letters, and more broadly in the debate over whether a college education is “worth it”) or of public policy (most prominently, by slashing government budgets) that seem to offer efficacy under newly straightened circumstances. There are even those who openly embrace the shrinking possibilities of human society, like those who hope for a purification of society thru austerity. And this is by no means solely a syndrome of the right.

The other response has been resignation or despair. Unlike in the Arab world, where dissatisfied youth have fastened on their authoritarian governments as the source of their troubles, the dysfunctions of neoliberalism are in some ways less mystified in the United States. There is no convenient scapegoat to mobilize against; here we are confronted directly with the arbitrary nature of capitalism. Finding a decent job is “more about luck than anything else”, as one recent college graduate put it.

Yet fewer obstacles to seeing the real problem has not translated into a better understanding of it. Most kinds of subjectivity produced by neoliberalism seem incapable of grasping the social totality, and even less are they able to imagine a world organized on different principles. Incredibly, the crisis of neoliberalism seems to have actually further impoverished the social imaginary. When wealth was expanding, if only for the well-off, it seemed possible to make a better world by redistributing it. With stagnation that possibility is gone. When everyone’s labor was being exploited, renouncing work seemed like a way out. Now that it’s become clear that, under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited, what path is left? (This is a point made nicely by Crimethinc, once one of the worst offenders in the anarchist dissent against neoliberalism, tho they remain somewhat naïve of history.) Hence the paradox that, tho the left critique of neoliberalism has been vindicated with a vengeance, the left seems more helpless than ever.

If there is to be any hope of escaping the crisis, much less of attaining that just world of true freedom in which we control our own fate, we must reject both the narrow immediacy of falsely “realistic” approaches as well as the temptation of despair. But hope cannot be based solely on a negation; it requires an analysis to justify the idea that something different is possible, and it requires the direction provided by concrete steps that hold out the promise of fulfilling that hope. The absence of these is perhaps the left’s greatest failure.