Capitalism – crisis and critique

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August 23rd, 2011 · general

On the 22nd August 2011 all the posts here were exported into http://terrywassall.org/blogs/notes/ Working Notes

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John Holloway’s ‘Crack Capitalism’

May 12th, 2011 · general

This is a brief summary of the Leverhulme Lecture John Holloway gave on the 11th of May at Leeds University. The lecture focussed mainly on the ideas developed in his book, Crack Capitalism.  John spoke for over an hour (though it didn’t feel like it!) so this summary will no doubt do some violence to what he said but hopefully others there will correct these brief impressions and perhaps fill in any important gaps I have left. In due course a video will be made available on-line. He structured his talk round a number of key points and this is a set of notes on the ones I can remember and that made a particular impression.

Generally John avoids prescription but there are two things he was adamant about. Our understanding and action has to start from a concept of capitalism and from struggle rather than seeking domination. The two are related.

We look for enemies. We look for who is to blame so we have a target and adversary. We blame the government because they run the State; we blame the corporations, the capitalists, the bankers, or empire, or patriarchy. But all this is to miss the point. Behind all of these is the impersonal system that is capitalism. It is a system that has a life of its own, controlled by nobody, not State institutions and apparatus, not corporations, and not capitalists. Certainly some massively benefit more than others and some have more sway than others but the system that is capital holds all in its strangling embrace. Behind all our bogey men is the totalising (but not totalitarian) impersonal force of capitalism.

So it is necessary to understand what we mean by capitalism as an impersonal system. The key thing here is that it is a system that structures the social relations that make up society. John spent some time on this. We can understand the system fundamentally in terms of the social relations and social cohesion it produces, seen as a triumvirate of equivalences – capital, money, labour. It is this system that engulfs us in a “tsunami of social determinations”. We are obliged to work and live within the money economy to survive. This reduces (or attempts to reduce) our social relationships to monetised relationships and transforms our activity into labour that reproduces the system and provides the engine of capital accumulation. But there are cracks in capitalism that allow us to push against this current and take some opportunities and the responsibility to say “no”, to refuse to fit into the pattern of capitalist social relations. We can engage in different types of doing that are within, against and in some instances beyond capitalist social relations and the spaces we can do this in are everywhere, in many respects quite everyday and ordinary. These possibilities are the result of a fundamental weakness in the capitalist system: it depends on us and our labour to meet its need for accumulation and to reproduce the form of social cohesion the system requires. It is dependent on those it dominates. This is the key to the possibility and actuality of our resistance.

Living in the cracks in social relations and activities that deny and resist the social determinations of capitalism is not the old failed agenda of trying to take control of the state in order to build a new society from the top. It is not a project to seek domination via the State. Resistance and change need to start on the ground by subverting the forms of social relationships that the system depends on. John gave many examples of cracks in capitalism, spaces where literally or metaphorically signs at the edges announce that capitalist social relations are not welcome and do not operate here. He instanced, among others, the Zapatistas, the  Really Open University and the students taking the MA in Activism and Social Change at Leeds University he is currently working with. Other excellent examples are the Social Science Centre at Lincoln and the Roundhouse Journal.

The cracks and their forms of relations and activities are fluid and dynamic. To some extent they come and go. But there is evidence of proliferation and confluence.

This, I think, is the gist of John’s argument. The questions from the predominantly student audience were impressive and homed in unerringly on what John himself admitted was a potential weakness in his position. Early on in his lecture John characterised capitalism as a dynamic and developing system driven by the necessity to handle its dependency on labour and its disrupting potentialities. Resistance tends to be neutralised and absorbed, even sometimes commodified and swallowed into the system of capitalist relations. The problem of this feature of the capitalist system seemed to be the context of nearly all the questions. One question was concerned that the many instances of cracks would not necessarily join up and coalesce into a total transformative movement to overcome and replace capitalism. Just as likely would be that they would remain isolated and fail ultimately to be transformative. How would the ‘confluence’ that John alluded to occur? Surely it would need some sort of organised cohesion, some forms of overarching leadership? John’s response was to say that institutions do not work. Inevitably hierarchical and vertical structures and relations develop. Distinctions begin to be made between roles, between part-time and full-time, more or less committed, and so on. Gradually forms of domination and distinction emerge and solidify reproducing in many respects the forms of social relations that were being resisted. But how, if not through organisation and leadership will the confluence of cracks occur? John gave as an example the forms of communication and transition that occurred with the Zapatistas – resonances and echoes created and transmitted through poetry, art, theatre, and forms of non-hierarchical democratic dialogue. No one mentioned the internet at this point, a form of communication that has developed its radical (and to some extent repressive) potential enormously in recent years.

John was asked what his attitude is towards more conventionally ‘reformist’ approaches, for instance the attempt to institute some sort of financial transaction tax to finance welfare measures and/or pay for public services. John’s answer invoked his earlier reference to resistance within, against and beyond. There are different forms of resistance which individuals will be more or less comfortable with. But the bottom-line for him is that capitalism stinks and needs to be completely dismantled. His response echoed that of Slavoj Žižek – of course no one can object to feeding the poor but we should be fundamentally concerned with and focussed on the system that produces and reproduces their poverty. Reformism ultimately supports and reproduces the system of repression and indignity.

One questioner made the powerful point that cracks as characterised are often instrumental for the system. One of John’s examples of a space where relationships and actions do not conform to the pattern of capitalist relations is the family. But historically and still today the family is crucial to the functioning and reproduction of capitalism.

To summarise John’s answers to all the questions, he consistently stated that there are no guarantees, that the possibility of change is uncertain, even that it may be too late. But the hope and potential for change rests in autonomous struggle, not the acquisition of the power and institutions of state. It is the practice, proliferation, propagation and confluence of other ways of doing that resist and subvert the social determination of capitalist relations that we should engage in, promote and nurture.

[This post has been published on the Really Open University (links to post) web site. If you wish to comment or discuss the lecture you may wish to visit the post there where it will probably get a larger readership. Of course, if you prefer, please comment here!].

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Global capitalism and 21st century fascism

May 8th, 2011 · economics

http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/04/201142612714539672.html

Into extract:
The crisis of global capitalism is unprecedented, given its magnitude, its global reach, the extent of ecological degradation and social deterioration, and the scale of the means of violence. We truly face a crisis of humanity. The stakes have never been higher; our very survival is at risk. We have entered into a period of great upheavals and uncertainties, of momentous changes, fraught with dangers – if also opportunities.

I want to discuss here the crisis of global capitalism and the notion of distinct political responses to the crisis, with a focus on the far-right response and the danger of what I refer to as 21st century fascism, particularly in the United States.

Facing the crisis calls for an analysis of the capitalist system, which has undergone restructuring and transformation in recent decades. The current moment involves a qualitatively new transnational or global phase of world capitalism that can be traced back to the 1970s, and is characterised by the rise of truly transnational capital and a transnational capitalist class, or TCC. Transnational capital has been able to break free of nation-state constraints to accumulation beyond the previous epoch, and with it, to shift the correlation of class and social forces worldwide sharply in its favour – and to undercut the strength of popular and working class movements around the world, in the wake of the global rebellions of the 1960s and the 1970s.

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Companies as legal ‘persons’ and the personification of capital

September 4th, 2010 · economics

Heads of cabbage and mouths full of water by Mark Neocleous.  Radical Philosophy Nov/Dec 2003

http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/default.asp?channel_id=2187&editorial_id=14329

“The law which shaped the modern corporation as a new form of legal person has been reluctant to admit that the same persons can commit illegal acts and recognizable harms. The law, in other words, has been structured in a way that is far more accommodating to corporate subjects than to human ones. In this way the ruling class has more or less defined capital as beyond incrimination: the ‘harms’ committed by corporations are treated as the result of a failure to follow regulations and procedures and thus are not ‘crimes’ in the way that laypersons might think. Apropos of right-wing attacks on ‘welfare scroungers’ and ‘the idle poor’, one might say that it is the corporation that has acquired plenty of rights but few responsibilities. Capital has used the corporate form to its advantage by avoiding some of the most obvious disadvantages of being a legal subject, namely responsibility for one’s acts”.

STAGING POWER: MARX, HOBBES AND THE PERSONIFICATION OF CAPITAL by Mark Neocleous.
Law and Critique 14: 147–165, 2003. © 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

“The law which granted the modern corporation fully-fledged status as a juridical person has been reluctant to admit that the same persons can commit illegal acts and recognisable harms; the corporation is a person when it comes to the advantages of law, but a ‘nonperson’ when it comes to crimes seemingly committed by it. The individualizing nature of bourgeois law constructs the corporation as a person but then resists punishing it on the grounds that it is not a person at all but a collective which has no mind per se. The state personalizes capital, but doesn’t punish it as a person. It punishes it (when it does) as capital – as something different to (human) persons. A propos of attacks on ‘welfare scroungers’ and ‘the idle poor’, one might say that it is the corporation that has acquired plenty of rights but few responsibilities. In Marxist terms we might say that the unity of the corporate persona created by the state has helped consolidate the  domination of capital over everyday life. Capital has used the corporate form to its advantage by avoiding some of the most obvious disadvantages of being a legal person, namely responsibility for one’s acts. The outcome has been the tendency to treat ‘crimes’ committed by corporations as mere failure to follow regulations and procedures and thus not ‘crime’ at all: the ruling class has defined capital as beyond incrimination. But then this should not surprise us: as with bourgeois law in general, the corporation is, after all, constituted as a person for purposes of capital accumulation and not for the purposes of justice.

There is a tendency among writers on ‘corporate crime’ to argue that “while . . . the charge of corporate manslaughter remains a highly difficult one to pursue successfully, there are no insuperable problems intrinsic to law to the effective criminalisation of such offences; . . . what is commonly lacking is political will”. Maybe so; but the implication of my argument is that any such ‘political will’ would have to be rooted not in the current structures through which mainstream politics is organized – political parties and reformist groups – but in a movement that would be willing to challenge the whole edifice on which political and social power is structured – the state and the individualizing tendencies of bourgeois law as well as capital itself. Moreover, any such challenge would have to take on board the fact that capital uses the persona in bourgeois law as the veil of its power”.

Both articles via Joss Winn http://stuck.josswinn.org/

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Troubles ahead for world economy

July 29th, 2010 · economics

Troubles ahead for world economy the 7.30 Report. Transcript of interview with Joseph Stiglitz.

Extract:
Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate, a former chief economist of the World Bank and he chaired Bill Clinton’s presidential council of economic advisors.  His latest book, ‘Freefall’, is a worrying critique of the root causes of the Global Financial Crisis, and despite President Obama’s recent banking reforms, he says it could happen again. He’s also predicting another US economic slowdown. The veteran economist is on a lecture tour in Australia and I spoke with him in Brisbane today.

Joseph Stiglitz, if we can start with an up-to-date appraisal of the US economy: what is the state of the economy right now?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ, GLOBAL ECONOMIST: In a single word, weak, ah, and probably going to get weaker.

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Hedge funds accused of gambling with lives

July 19th, 2010 · general

Fermented cocoa beans being dried. Cocoa prices have risen 150% in 18 months – but farmers have not necessarily benefited. Photograph: AlamyHedge funds accused of gambling with lives of the poorest as food prices soar refers to a report on how trading in food commodity derivatives inflates and destabilises food prices with devastating consequences for the poorest communities globally.

Deborah Doane, WDM director, said: “Investment banks, like Goldman Sachs, are making huge profits by gambling on the price of everyday foods. But this is leaving people in the UK out of pocket, and risks the poorest people in the world starving. “Nobody benefits from this kind of reckless gambling except a few City wheeler-dealers. British consumers suffer because it pushes up inflation, because of unpredictable oil and raw material prices, and the world’s poorest people suffer because basic foods become unaffordable.” The group used figures in Goldman Sachs’ annual report to estimate that the bank made a profit of $1bn (£650m) through speculating on food last year.

This report follows the issue blogged on here on July 2nd – How Goldman Sachs gambled on starving the world’s poor – and won.

David Harvey calculates that the global capitalist economy has to aim, for a variety of structural and systemic reasons, for about 3% growth per annum. As a result capital is always looking for forms of investment to achieve this. As one set of opportunities collapses or becomes exhausted – for instance the dot.com boom and bust 1995 to 2000 – capital looked elsewhere. When the dot.com bubble burst capital moved into property eventually leading to the toxic debts underlying the current economic crisis. More recently it has moved into commodity futures, destabilising markets such as energy and food. Regulations to control speculation on food prices were dismantled about 5 years ago spawning the food derivatives industry. Perhaps the latest money spinner for the speculators and casino capitalist will be carbon cap and trade. The full story has a number of components that need investigation – commodification, marketisation and financialisation, deregulation and the development of speculative derivatives markets. All of this is connected with privatisation, the loss of accountability and the erosion of democratic controls.

For a brief history of bubbles and burst see  The Great American Bubble Machine.

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The depersonalisation of capitalism

July 18th, 2010 · general

I have been in email correspondence with my colleague Richard Kilminster following on from some very interesting and constructive comments on a draft article I am writing on critical pedagogy. The discussion concerns various issues around the marxist underpinnings and the normative basis of critical pedagogy as developed from the Frankfurt School Critical Theory and its successors, Habermas for instance. Richard’s main issue is that it all still depends to some extent on Kantian transcendental categories and a prioris that act as founding assumptions rather than empirically substantiated concepts. To this extent sociology generally is still in the thrall of philosophical forms of thinking, to its detriment. Richard strives for a post-philosophical sociology and to this end is developing the work of Norbert Elias who recognised the problem and made significant progress towards this goal.

Richard pointed me towards an article by Godried Van Benthem Van Den Bergh where he demonstrates how in practice  sociological analyses and diagnoses often look for the causes of the state of affairs of interest  in order to produce an explanation and, perhaps, help develop a plan of action or set of policies to alter that state of affairs. Often, in practice, these diagnoses and explanations take the from of  finding something to blame for the condition. This can then lead to a ‘personalisation’ of the causes in a manner not dissimilar to other sorts of pre and non-scientific orientations to the world. From a scientific point of view this is an obstacle to knowledge as this form of attribution of cause and explanation  “implies that one has to isolate the action(s) of one identifiable entity, whether individual, group or reified (and at the same time often personalised) ’cause’, from a complex sequence of events”. He gives examples of ‘capitalism’ and ‘modernisation’ being used in this way. This form of thinking, or at the very least this style of writing, is still prevalent in contemporary sociology. In a forthcoming article Richard gives a number of examples of this quoting from well known and influential current sociologists, for example  -  “modernity ‘is coming of age’ and is now ‘consciously abandoning what it was unconsciously doing”; “Post-modernity may be conceived of as modernity conscious of its true nature – modernity for itself”; ” What happens when modernization, understanding its own excesses and vicious spiral of destructive subjugation begins to take itself as object of reflection”? – and others.

With respect to ‘capitalism’ Richard points out that  ‘capitalistic’ social relations cannot exist without being embedded in “a whole socio-genetic complex of interdependencies that makes them possible. The specifically ‘capitalistic’ aspects may not in fact be the most instrumental in producing what are perceived as the undesirable consequences of contemporary global developments”.

This implies that ‘capitalism’ cannot be a singular foundational unit of analysis based on the notion that ‘it’ is the primary cause of what appear to be, or are assumed to be, ‘its’ effects and consequences. If this is a mistaken orientation than solutions may be misdirected and may exacerbate conditions rather than improve them, amounting to, perhaps at best, an amelioration of the condition rather than changing the system – like an aspirin ‘cures’ a headache without having any transformational effect on the underlying causes. In fact it can make things worse by developing new forms of subjugation, dependence and the reproduction of the very system we are seeking to change.

What is the broader sociological context that must be factored into an analysis of globalising capitalism for activists who want to do something about inequality, exploitation and the destruction of the environment? It will be interesting to see how Norbert Elias’s sociology conceptualises and constructs ‘capitalism’, its apparent contradictions and contemporary neoliberal ideology. If the analysis is too general and too synthetic it may be difficult to draw political and policy conclusions from it. In which case, pragmatically, where do we go?

Godried Van Benthem Van Den Bergh (1986) The Improvement of Human Means of Orientation: Towards Syntheses in the Social Sciences in Development Studies: Critique and Renewal Eds R Apthorpe and A Krahl

Most, but not all, of this article is available on Google Books

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Austerity drive will hand billions to private sector

July 17th, 2010 · general

Austerity drive will hand billions to private sector guardian.co.uk, Friday 16 July 2010 21.50 BST

This report seems to confirm that the outcome of the ConDem’s budget and economic policy, intentionally or otherwise,  will be the front door, back door and side entrance privatisation of everything the corporations can lay their hands on that will turn a buck for their directors and shareholders. This surely compromises even more the fragile political democracy we still have with more and more services being managed from the unaccountable private sector. This has already taken a hit with the proposed integration of (unelected) business leaders directly into a business friendly and private profit orientated government. Why the former BP boss’s new government job is beyond parody Independent Friday, 2 July 2010.

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Austerity: Why and for Whom? by Rick Wolff

July 16th, 2010 · economics

Austerity: Why and for Whom? by Rick Wolff. On-line article at Commondreams.org. Links austerity programmes across Europe to conditions set by banks lending to governments due to fears of defaults on government debts. For instance the high rates of interest imposed on Greece in return for bail out loans by European banks. If governments default on loans then their credit rating may prevent them borrowing more, the banks will collapse and the Governments will not be able to borrow form banks to bail them out! Is this right? The banks have lent money to governments to bail themselves, the banks, out. Presumabley these are not the same banks – it is the banks not crippled by bad investment (the ‘national’ banks’?) that are lending to governments who then use the money to bail out the failing banks. The public funding cuts are to ensure governments can service these debts to the bank, maintain their credit ratings so that, if necessary, the governments can bail out the banks in the future. If the national banks lent the money to governments to bail out the failing banks, why couldn’t the banks have lent directly to other banks? I assume they want governments, their tax streams and assets, to guarantee the loans. It is generally recognised that European national banks will make significant profits out of lending to Greece as the interest rate is significantly higher than the banks can borrow money themselves.

All this leaves open the question – why do the austerity measures punish the poor and, despite everything, wealth still grows and concentrates? That’s because for the wealthy, every problem is an opportunity. And for the political right, ironically, via neoliberal policies, it is an opportunity to enact barely masked ideologically informed policies. Given the high profits banks will make out of loans to Greece, for instance, this looks like a direct transfer of money from the poor to the financial institutions that got us into the mess in the first place.

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Reading 15-7-01

July 15th, 2010 · economics, general

Considering the importance of liberalism in the current government’s economic and social policies, the restructuring and deficit reductions being undertaken throughout Europe voluntarily it seems and being forced upon less developed countries by the IMF etc. my reading over the last month, and still ongoing, has been an attempt to understand liberalism and how it is being ‘oerationalised’ across the globe in pursuit of state goals in general and the USA’s hegemonic project in particular. Apart from fairly abstract and theoretical readings I have been looking at concrete examples of neoliberal policies in accord with the principle “through their actions shall you know them”. This also looks at ways countries, areas and indigenous peoples have with varying degrees tried to resist the external neoliberal globalising forces. I will post here short reviews and comparisons of these readings in due course.

Currently reading:

Ray Bush (2007) Poverty and Neoliberalism: Persistence and Reproduction in the Global South Pluto Press
G Collier and E Quaratiello (1999) Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas Food First Books
David Harvey (2005) A Brief History of Liberalism OUP
David Harvey (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism Profile Books
John Holloway (2010) Crack Capitalism Plot Press
J Johnston & G Laxer ( 2003) Solidarity in the age of globalization: Lessons from the anti-MAI and Zapatista struggles in Theory and Society 32: 39-91
Mihalis Mentinis (2006) Zapatistas: The Chiapas Revolt and What it Means for Radical Politics Pluto Press

The Johnston and Laxer article is particularly interesting as it focusses on the central role of the Internet for linking national and global communication and resistance and the way that national governments have been unable to control the flow of information as they have in the past.

I will be looking at John Holloway’s other writing when I can get hold of the books. He has written specifically  about the Zapatistas and is referenced in Mentinis’ book.

Suggestions are welcome.

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