16 July 2012

Neoliberalism is stealing our time!

The emerging critique of time pressure
Part 2 of 3 | Part 1

When Tim Kreider tries to distinguish between people who have time pressures forced on them and people who choose to put that stress on themselves, he has already lost the means to make sense of why his essay resonated with so many people. If it was just a matter of a few neurotic or self-important people who, against their own best interests, load themselves down with things to do, his critique wouldn’t have been relevant on such a broad scale. But Kreider himself writes, “Almost everyone I know is busy.” When a particular kind of behavior or experience becomes socially general, we can be sure it’s not because of personal idiosyncrasy on a mass scale—which is an oxymoron. Rather, something about society itself is causing that behavior to proliferate.

Today time stress is not simply widespread—it’s hegemonic. It is the normal way of being for everyone in mainstream society. Whether you’re the janitor working three jobs to stave off your family’s hunger, the entrepreneur constantly casting about for capital to fund your project, the college student going to two student group meetings tonight even though you have a 20-page paper due tomorrow, the bodega owner who minds the counter all day long and then does inventory after closing, the corporate lawyer cramming in final preparations to win impunity for the big client, the artist furiously networking at all the parties, the logistics worker forced to move more and more freight every day, the politician making the hundredth call today asking a rich person for money, the food prep worker always coping with short staff—that is, whether on the surface it seems that you have chosen your fate or had it forced upon you—we are all completely overwhelmed.

05 July 2012

The long-overdue reaction against being completely overwhelmed

An emerging critique of time pressure
Part 1 of 3 | Part 2
A burst of high-profile essays has recently sought to grapple with the intensifying time pressures afflicting those fortunate enough to be employed. Each of the authors wants to mount a critique of the increasing demands that our work is placing on us, finally giving some visibility to the deadly serious consequences of the seemingly mundane problem of always being busy. Yet if none of them is able to locate the fundamental source of the problem in the neoliberal organization of society, what are the consequences of such critiques likely to be?

29 February 2012

From Permanent Austerity to Post-Industry: Thoughts on Nevada's future.

Nevada was barely a state under Fordism, the population of the whole state in 1970 was 496,960, yet the state and in particular Las Vegas became the promised land of Neoliberalism. In Las Vegas work was plentiful and housing was cheap, booms in profits were matched with booms in standards of living, and all this happened with a tiny state presence. Sure Las Vegas was dominated by three industries  gambling, construction, and realty  but no one saw any reason to worry. By 2008 the state population had reached 2,738,733 with 72% of those people living in Las Vegas.

The house of cards collapsed with the rest of the global economy. Tourism declined, heavily leveraged construction projects ground to a halt, housing prices plummeted, workers were laid off, people defaulted on their mortgages, and 15,000 people left the city. Ill try and make a more detailed analysis how this crisis unfolded in a later post but suffice to say, its bad.

24 February 2012

Critical(?) Subjectivities: The Greenhorns Part 1

I want to add a different, if perhaps less rigorous (in so far as it takes up the ephemeral), perspective to the conversation. It seems that one issue that has been recurrent through our conversation is current forms of subjectivity and whether they are or not adequate to an overcoming of capitalism, or to a new, more humane regime of accumulation that could better cultivate the conditions for a positive social (as opposed to dystopian asocial) overcoming. But we’ve been debating this issue without much attention to specific current expressions of subjectivity. To begin to fill this lacuna I offer below a close reading of one social movement. I offer my reading less as a definitive statement than as a critically attuned ethnography. It should also be noted that I did absolutely no traditional “reporting.” All the analysis is derived from promotional materials available on the web. Why talk to someone when you can assume they mean what they say?

The object of study is a group I mentioned in a December comment, the Greenhorns, a young farmers’ activist organization. These are not your mom and dad’s farmers. Emerging out of the Berkeley local food movement and now based in the Hudson Valley (elite locales within the foodie world), these are progressive neophytes plugged into social media, producing something that is as much a cultural project as an agricultural one. They eschew hierarchy in a fashion similar to that of the Occupy Movement, and also like Occupy seek to spread in the imitative fashion of a “meme.” Part information-provider, coalition-builder, and social event-organizer, the Greenhorns clearly express the lifestyle politics we’ve come to expect from neoliberalism. The question is, are they, could they be, something more? For while the triumph of lifestyle politics such as this, which advocates non-industrial agriculture, employment, and food for all could very well lead to more a more humane regime of accumulation, it is less clear, but still worth wondering, if it could also point beyond it.

17 February 2012

The rise and fall of national capital

The threat of a new nationalism (1)
In a previous post, I worried that left populists would prosecute a war against all of neoliberalism’s hegemonic social forms, neglecting the progressive side of neoliberalism and sabotaging the chance for real progress. This may have struck some readers as counterintuitive: those of us pursuing a vision of human equality, solidarity, and true freedom are not used to thinking about neoliberalism as progressive in any way. The rapacity of economic elites freed from all constraints; skyrocketing inequality reshaping work, politics, and culture so that increasingly we are all reconstituted as servants or dependents of the rich; whole populations rendered unsuitable for participation in mainstream life by the economic disintegration of their social ecology; accelerating environmental degradation; intensifying exploitation – these are our associations with neoliberalism.

But neoliberalism is (or was) a social totality: all the dominant forms of the last thirty years were components of neoliberalism as a coherent system. That includes progressive (but not unproblematic) impulses like gender equality, multiculturalism, and skepticism of authority. Because the crisis of neoliberalism has manifested itself primarily in the economic realm, and these forms of consciousness have no clear connection to the economy, they are for the moment secure (what comes after neoliberalism will, however, reshape them – for better or worse). Under much greater immediate threat is one other progressive side of neoliberalism: the erosion of the nation form.

07 February 2012

A Kinder, Gentler, More "Revolution-friendly" Regime of Accumulation?

The object of our efforts is not “inequality” or “the one percent”, but the social totality and the revival of its animating dynamic on a new, more humane basis.” Walker, "Redistribution is not enough" (italics mine)

“Walker's program, though, is precisely to try and shape those new conditions of accumulation, which does require an active politics that seeks to mobilize rather than interiorize the critique of capital. If I recall correctly, when Walker first proposed that the pressing question was not the overcoming of capitalism, but re-establishing it on a more "humane" basis it was on two grounds: 1) it is unclear that the dissolution of capital under current objective and subjective conditions would lead to a more humane society and not our worst dystopian nightmare 2) that capitalism always tends towards crisis and that when "humane capitalism" did reach its crisis point, conditions would be more amenable for a positive overcoming.” AB, comments on the above.

“I think we can all agree (please correct me if I'm wrong) that popular subjectivity is generated by social conditions, and that present-day social conditions make socialism wildly implausible to the overwhelming majority of the world's population.
On that assumption, a Marxian strategy would aim at achieving social conditions that made the overcoming of capital seem a compelling answer to the insoluble problems posed by modern society.” Walker, additional comments on the above.

The above three quotes provide a succinct presentation of what seems like the predominant perspective on this blog. The goal, “try and shape those new conditions of accumulation” on a more "humane" basis” which also creates “social conditions that made(sic) the overcoming of capital seem a compelling answer to the insoluble problems posed by modern society”, has some very loaded presuppositions which I hope to bring out and unpack.

    • The crisis that began in the 1970's can be encapsulated in the concept of Neo-Liberalism as a kind of “regime of accumulation” or maybe better a “regime of the crisis of accumulation previously known as Fordism”.
    • Neo-Liberalism is on its last legs and a new regime of accumulation will automatically come into being, and it will either be more or less humane.
The crisis of valorization that crystallized in the 1970's has not ended. For a new period of valorization to begin we would need to see the destruction of even more capital, including human capital, and a degree of immiseration that would enable new capital, with a higher organic composition and new labor processes, to be implemented on a global scale. There are several strong indicators (and that is all I am referring to these as) that a new cycle of accumulation has not begun. 

25 January 2012

The insignificance of billions of people

In a previous post, I argued that outside the three main value complexes of the global economy – Europe, North America, and East Asia – other parts of the world were essentially irrelevant to the immediate prospects for the expansion (or contraction) of global capital, except for what might happen in the commodities markets. The argument was both empirical – these two-thirds of the global population produce only one-fourth of global output – and conceptual: because the economic activity in these regions is small-scale, fragmented, and technologically backward, they are poor platforms for the accumulation of capital.

This was something of a provocation, because one of the noteworthy features of the neoliberal age has been a fascination among many critical and even many uncritical intellectuals with the peripheries and margins of capitalist society. It has often been taken as a progressive political act simply to pay attention to those parts of the world that are economically, and so politically and culturally, insignificant. Simply recognizing that these societies are insignificant is often considered unacceptable.

But their insignificance does not follow from racist or colonialist prejudice (though the existence of these phenomena is certainly bound up with it). Rather, it is a result of their marginality to the central processes of modern global society, above all the production and circulation of value. The inattention of the global media, the lack of representation in transnational organizations, the absence of global influence for their cultural products: these are all reflections of the real insignificance of peripheral countries as measured by the necessarily hegemonic standards of capitalist society.

17 January 2012

The dangers of populism

The reigning metaphor deployed by all contemporary populism, whether of the left or the right, is theft: the government is stealing our earnings, the immigrants are stealing our jobs, the bankers are stealing our houses, the Greeks are stealing our government reserves, the Chinese are stealing our factories.

It’s no surprise that a popular subjectivity conditioned by neoliberalism should fixate on the illegitimate expropriation of value or its stand-in as the source of grievance. The experience of neoliberal society has made the free exchange of equivalent values the hegemonic ethical standard of our time. (Today’s populism, then, needs to be distinguished from that mobilized by Nixon through his racist silent majority. The resentment of the early 1970s backlash was not a response to perceptions of theft but to the existential challenge that the postwar white faced from blacks and student radicals. The abundant polemics (e.g.) that trace an unbroken line from the racist silent majority to today’s nativist and anti-tax right wing obscure this essential change.) For today’s populists, if you’re convinced you’re doing what you’re “supposed to be doing” – namely, working hard and taking responsibility for your own decisions – and things still aren’t going right, it’s only natural to assume it’s because someone is cheating you.

What is actually happening is not that some group of people is violating the ethical order, but that the social order that gave rise to that very ethic is itself breaking down.

08 January 2012

Weak points in the global economy

A dangerous new year, Part 2 of 3

If there is to be an intensification of the crisis in 2012, where is it likely to start? At the moment, implosion in the eurozone seems the most likely possibility. The EU is probably already in a recession, and growth will be further strangled by the increasingly tight grip of austerity as the major economies of Italy and Spain implement the same measures that have already destroyed the Greek economy. With mounting social unrest and the increasing implausibility of recovery in Italy and Spain, investors will once again run for the exits, forcing the ECB and Germany to finally decide whether they will bail out the southern countries or set about drawing and quartering the euro.

05 January 2012

Capital’s global terrain

A dangerous new year, Part 1 of 3

Among commentators, 2011 opened with naive optimism for a strengthening recovery, but developments across the year left that faith in shambles. This was no surprise to those of us writing on this blog. Most mainstream economic analysis is based on an uncritical reading of short-term statistics or transhistorical pseudo-mathematical models that are actually a projection of prevailing economic common sense. Neither approach is adequate when the entire structure of economic thought and practice is in the process of disintegrating.

In contrast, the approach we have been developing situates the ongoing crisis of neoliberalism in a much deeper understanding of capitalism and in the irreducibly historical configurations it assumes in order to sustain accumulation – which condition the operations of the economy and the nature of social life alike. Without access to either the historical or social-cultural dimensions of the economy, policymakers and economists alike still do not grasp the fundamental issue: neoliberalism has collapsed and cannot be revived. A new kind of capitalism would be necessary to revive growth.

This leaves us in a very dangerous position. Since leaders in the US and Europe alike have been busy deepening the crisis rather than pursuing the steps necessary to resolve it, the mainstream neoliberal approach embodied by people like Obama and Merkel faces a precarious future. Any sudden intensification of the crisis could leave it discredited, opening the door to those alternatives that are best organized and capable of presenting the most compelling arguments. Where these forces lead us may not be pleasant at all.