28 June 2015
People who work for a living face a stark outlook. Due to the acceleration of employment practices such as subcontracting and temporary employment, as well as persistently high unemployment, it has become incredibly difficult for workers to organize and improve their conditions. Simply finding decent work can be incredibly difficult as restructuring of the global economy has created dynamics limiting growth in manufacturing in favor of service jobs. When job growth does occur, it often produces the worst kinds of jobs.
Despite it all, entrepreneurial figures tout disruption—often simply meaning techniques for further eroding the stability and remuneration of employment—and find a rapt audience. Self-help promoters encourage the distraught to take full responsibility for their problems. Advocates of “ethical” consumption tout the environmental and social benefits of buying the right products. How is it that so many buy into narratives that gloss over or even celebrate the worsening of conditions for the great majority? To put it bluntly, why aren’t there riots?
The New Prophets of Capital by Nicole Aschoff offers one way to approach this question by examining the popularity and influence of four “prophets” of the neoliberal capitalist system. Drawing on Weber, Aschoff describes all these prophets as offering a way to live a better life. Their persuasiveness is based in their own ability to accumulate fortunes, but they don’t merely provide a set of rules to live by, they tell a story, a way of making sense of a confusing and hazardous world. Setting apart their stories from those told in days of yore is their ability to find solutions to the problems of the day, such as economic precariousness, intense competition, and brutal inequality, within the capitalist, free market system itself. Could capitalism be the source of and the solution to all of life’s problems?
27 May 2015
As the struggle to break through political malaise and to find an adequate response to the 2008 economic crisis continues, the left seems to have regained a certain amount of vigor. Populism seems to offer a way forward by tapping the pervasive anger towards wide and growing inequality that most mainstream politicians still seem frightened to fully embrace. Policies aimed at national redistribution and strengthening infrastructure would be welcome, of course. But there is as yet no well articulated vision for the future beyond the near-term, leaving open questions of whether a potential populist political movement will remain compatible with the goals of the left. It is important to ask, then, whether the left possesses proposals that might give shape to a wider political vision for the future.
Among the proposals on offer, universal basic income (UBI) is enjoying renewed interest, though it remains well outside of the political mainstream. UBI is generally defined as a cash payment of a certain amount made to every citizen of a nation without regard to income. One of UBI’s strengths is that it seems able to please everyone. Proponents say that it can end poverty by guaranteeing everyone a subsistence. In the USA, such guarantees—if far from perfect—already exist in the form of various entitlement programs from social security to food stamps. UBI, however, removes the burden and inefficiencies of proving need and submitting one’s family to the surveillance of the state. At the same time, UBI would benefit all (like social security without an age restriction) and therefore naturally enjoy a huge base of support.
There is also a more radical perspective that sees UBI as a way of empowering workers by decommodifying labor. In other words, by pushing back at the necessity of waged work just to get the necessities of life, a guaranteed income would allow people to be choosier about the jobs that they would accept. Why do dangerous or excessively hard work when you can use your guaranteed income to hold out for something better? Arguably, the ability to withhold one’s labor would increase the pay for undesirable jobs there is increasingly little reason to accept and increase the control of workers over their own lives. But whether or not the full radical implications of this argument would obtain, there is a solid case to be made that the UBI would increase the economic and political power of workers.
But against these progressive arguments for UBI one should weigh the libertarian and technocratic attractions to it. For some, UBI is meant to perpetuate the status quo in the worst ways. A recent article by Nathan Schneider documents how UBI is seen by some as a technocratic fix for extreme inequality—though certainly not inequality per se—that has the virtue of reducing supposedly wasteful government services. In other words, UBI can be a substitute for other services or benefits the government provides, and might be funded by cuts to them. Noah Gordon’s consideration of the cost of the UBI assumes, “[c]utting all federal and state benefits for low-income Americans.” This perspective explains the wide-ranging support that UBI has received not just from libertarians, but also from neoliberal heroes like Milton Friedman, an era-damaging former President, and outright cranks like Charles Murray1.
12 January 2015
2014 in reviewAs the crisis of neoliberal society grinds on, the question is not whether the dominant social forms of the last 35 years will be overthrown, but whether it will be the left or the right that overthrows them. Beginning in 2011, there was a brief upsurge of progressive protest around the world that, despite its marked limitations, offered some hope of confronting the crisis. That moment seems to be past. Protest continues, of course, but it has moved further and further away from a solid grasp on the sources of its discontent. Increasingly, even those who understand themselves as progressives are supporting reactionary directions for resistance.
The tone for 2014 was set in the first week of January with two unapologetically reactionary assaults on the global neoliberal order: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized Fallujah, its first major conquest, and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a measure prohibiting all gay relationships and all gay organizations. Shortly thereafter, in mid-January, the Egyptian “Revolution” suffered its final humiliation, as the referendum on the military’s new constitution passed with a vote of 98.1 percent in favor.
These were symbolically potent events — direct attacks on cherished neoliberal ideals of open borders, cultural tolerance, and procedural democracy — whose practical impact was limited by their peripheral location in global society. Yet reactionary nationalism grew steadily more powerful in centrally important countries as well during 2014. China’s Xi Jinping is assembling a counterintuitive but potentially powerful amalgam of Confucian “tradition” and Maoist slogans. In India, Narendra Modi won a clear victory in the May general election and is already exploring a fundamental redirection of national identity toward Hindu fundamentalism. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after comfortably winning Turkey’s first popular presidential election in August, has spoken repeatedly against the secular foundations of the state. In Japan, Abe Shinzō presses forward with his institutional remaking of the state and rehabilitation of Japanese militarism, laying the foundations for the revival of aggressive nationalism. The European Parliament elections in May showed strong gains for anti-establishment far-right parties; the UK Independence Party shockingly won the popular vote for the UK delegation, the first time since 1906 that a party other than Labour or the Tories had won in a national poll. In France, where the far right has infiltrated most deeply into domestic politics, the nativist Front National could soon become the second strongest party in the country, and both of the establishment parties are moving steadily toward it in an attempt to stave off its rise.
Most disturbing of all is Russia’s rapid development toward a genuine neofascism. The Ukraine crisis in March and the collapse of the price of oil in December will be remembered — if we are unlucky — primarily for the way in which they accelerated Russia’s movement down this path. In contrast to China, India, Turkey, and Japan, whose leaders maintain an unstable hybrid of neoliberal and neofascist elements in their politics, economic and geopolitical forces have pushed Russia in only one direction. The most credible opposition figure is Alexei Naval’nyi, who is an even stronger and more authentic ethnic chauvinist than Putin.