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.