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.


  1. Why not? Why can't the neoliberal see history? And if your claims are to be as self-evident as you seem to think that they are, why aren't people thinking differently? And with all due respect, what gives you the perspective?

    I do not know what you mean by individual choices being produced. At least in this context, I would be careful with your terms, unless you really do mean that they are produced in the same way as other things (like value, whatever that this).

    I have a resistance to doomsday. Why? Because it's been said many times before, and things have continued on. You may very well be right, but painting an impossibly desperate picture for the future is unappealing and unpersuasive.

    Because with the painting of a doomsday the knee-jerk reaction is, "Well if it's so bad what are we going to do about it?"

  2. These are all important issues to raise. I'll try to address them one at a time.

    1) Individual choices - are produced socially. We know this because we can locate systematic consistencies of behavior that change systematically over time. If individual choice were in some meaningful sense free then the consistency wouldn't be there. If human nature were causing the consistency, then it wouldn't change as, for instance, behavior changed from Fordism to neoliberalism. It's too complicated to adequately address here how individual choices are produced, but I would put the weight on individuals' experience of the social totality (including its many fetishized forms of appearance) mediated by things like class position or racial identity.

    2) Why can't the neoliberal see history? Because he thinks neoliberal structures are an expression of human nature rather than an artefact of the historical development of capitalism. He can't conceptualize the idea of a systemic crisis of the regime of production - that neoliberalism simply can't reproduce itself anymore - because neoliberalism appears to him transhistorically valid. Part of this is simply misrecognizing the kind of people that neoliberalism tends to produce - self-interested utility maximizers - as the human being per se. But there may be a deeper issue here, which Postone locates in the abstract universal social mediation of the commodity form, which seems to act outside of individual will and so appears as "natural" (Time, labor, and social domination, Ch 4). This is an incredibly important issue that requires much more discussion, but I'll leave it there for now.

    3) My standpoint. I don't take my claims to be self-evident, in fact one of the main argumentative strategies I've been using is to try to explain why most people don't think in the terms I'm laying down. How neoliberalism has produced my own perspective is an interesting question, but not really an urgent issue to explore given the vanishingly small number of people who share it. Rather more important is whether the arguments I'm making are convincing and supported by evidence.

  3. 4) Doomsday. If you don't find the evidence I've laid out for a continuing and deepening crisis convincing, then by all means provide a counterargument. But I'm not predicting doomsday. I've merely identified the collapse of neoliberalism's ability to reproduce itself. This is hardly unprecedented - we know that regimes of production generally collapse once every 40 years or so (the crisis of neoliberalism was right on schedule) and in the process cause huge amounts of suffering and destruction. But at least historically capitalism has managed to refound itself on a new basis and return to healthy accumulation (which also involves plenty of suffering).

    The blog is trying to analyze this process, not cry doomsday. The point is to understand how bad things are, and more than that to understand why things have gone bad, so that we can exercise some control over the process of social transformation that will accompany the birth of a new regime of production.

    5) "Well if it's so bad what are we going to do about it?" Yes, that's the most important thing. I know it's taking those of us writing the blog rather longer than it should to get to the point, but before we get there we need to lay out a viable theory of the crisis. It's made much harder by the fact that so few people are joining me in trying to do this; these things are much easier when there are lively debates going on around them. If there is reason for pessimism then this failure of the left to engage the crisis is surely it. So take that as an invitation to point out any shortcomings in the analysis thus far, or any alternative approaches that make better sense.