Monthly Archives: October 2018

css.php

(10/24) ERIC LOTT

[lead bloggers: Jason and Pere]

During his talk, Eric Lott addressed the profound imbrication of race, class and revolution, making the case that as categories for analysis, race and class should never be separated. In this regard, Lott pushed back against class fundamentalists, like Adolph Reed Jr., who position race and racism as epiphenomenal to the class structure of societies with capitalist economies—particularly attending to an American context. Furthermore, Lott challenged the notion that race/racism can be understood outside of the scope of economics, cautious to avoid economic determinism by establishing a dialectical relationship between the two categories that is both causal and correlative, each mutually determining the other.

Lott based his thesis, if you will, on a reading of Capital Vol. 1 that described the issue of chattel slavery in America as a specter that continues to haunt the analysis of the “classical” capitalist economic formation (i.e. 19th century industrialized England) the volume presents. For Lott, the ample amount of times in which Marx refers to American slavery within the book counters popular claims that the issue is only addressed briefly in the volume’s final chapter on the working day; it also complicates a reading of capital accumulation that relegates chattel slavery to a primitive stage, making way for free labor once capitalist economic relations are fully developed: an undialectical “error” that Marx is consistently accused of making. Lott raised the following question with regard to how Capital Vol. 1 is read: How can chattel slavery be both an analogy for wage labor and its buttress? Lott suggests that the categories of chattel slavery and wage slavery may not have been clearly distinguished for Marx, each dependent on and interpenetrating the other in Marx’s developing understanding of capital. Lott notes that the issues of chattel slavery and racism in America go undertheorized in the volume, but insists that a close reading of the book shows that these problems and how they are imbricated throughout the burgeoning global capitalist system were never far from Marx’s mind.

Lott referred to what he called an “American Marx” to indicate just how interested Marx was in American affairs at the time of his writing, pointing to his dispatches in American newspapers as the New York Daily Tribune, his interest and correspondence with Lincoln, and his desire to immigrate to Texas in the latter years of his life. Lott emphasized the fact that the first volume of Capital was published shortly after the end of the American Civil War, claiming that this period in American history had a great impact on Marx’s growing understanding capital economic relations as well as that of revolutionary change.

Marx’s enthusiasm for Lincoln’s prosecuting of the war, as well as Marx’s reading of Lincoln’s role in US political and economic history, provide possibilities for an expansion of his theory of revolution. Eric Lott read an excerpt of an article published in Die Presse in 1862 in which Marx wrote, “things are taking a revolutionary turn. Lincoln knows what Europe does not know… New England and the Northwest, which have provided the main body of the army, are determined to force on the government a revolutionary kind of warfare and to inscribe the battle-slogan of ‘Abolition of Slavery!’… So far, we have only witnessed the first act of the Civil War — the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.”

For Marx, the American Civil War was nothing less than a world-transforming step due to what emancipation might mean for the development of a revolutionary proletariat, although he recognized that the slave question was less urgent for Lincoln than the maintenance of the Union—that after the war there could be a consolidation of capitalism. Nevertheless, the Civil War was the manifestation of a whole class, in that of the pseudo-aristocracy of southern planters, losing its privileges, a decisive victory in the class struggle and the history of the construction of a world proletariat.

In sum, Lott argued that Marx was not simply referring to chattel slavery for rhetorical effect to pierce the veil of freedom in wage slavery in Capital Vol. 1. Instead, the issue of chattel slavery in America as well as its racist component were essential to the continuing development of Marx’s understanding of capital. Therefore, contemporary claims that suggest that Marx had little to say about racial oppression as a system of domination are problematic; and here, Lott echoes elements of Kevin Anderson’s work in Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies.

On top of this, we, as young scholars and activists, were charged with the task of thinking through the entanglement of race and class without distinguishing one from the other or making one part of the contradiction primary. That said, we also have to consider what we think about this charge. Thus, we have prepared the following set of questions.

Questions:

  1. In The Invention of the White Race, Ted Allen performs extensive archival research to demonstrate how race was created in America via legislation as a divide and conquer strategy, pitting newly labeled “white” indentured servants against their “black” counterparts in the late 1600s in Virginia. This strategy constructed poor “whites” as a buffer between the wealthy planter class and “black” slaves in order to prevent what would now be considered multiracial unity between the two oppressed groups, which had resulted in a series of revolts that threatened the then class-based system of dominance. When considering the relationship between race and class in America, might only focusing on chattel slavery as a starting point, and not the system of indentured servitude that gave rise to it historically, lend itself to readings of the race/class dialectic that see both sides of the contradiction as mutually determining without recognizing that the latter does seem to have given rise to the former? How might seeing the invention of race as a “divide and conquer” strategy either challenge or complicate the ways in which we are trying to think race and class together?
  2. With regard to practical application, thinking race and class together in the way that Lott proposed, suggests that to be anti-capitalist is to also be anti-racist and vice versa. The examples Lott provided to illustrate the problems associated with thinking one without the other, which he acknowledged were poor, were Berny Sanders, whose program for reform was class-based without much acknowledgement of racial disparity, and Hillary Clinton, who lacked a class analysis, but at least in her rhetoric and television spots, appeared (big difference between appearance and essence: #dialectics) to pay attention to the interests of “black” voters.

Of course, we know that the relationship between anti-capitalist and anti-racist programs cuts much deeper throughout the history of left activism than the example of the contradictions between two bourgeois politicians offers. A couple of things that immediately come to mind are the old CP USA’s Black Belt thesis and Black Nationalist politics. Does ensuring that we always think race and class together immediately call forth a critique of nationalism in favor of multiracial working class unity against a common oppressor and an exploitative economic system? What do we gain when we stress commonality between workers of all races in America in our theory and our political practice? What do we lose?

  1. Marx recognized that slavery “existed among all nations since the beginning of the world” (Marx, “From letter written in French to Pavel Vassilyevich Annenkov”) but the slavery that paved the way for the emergence of Western capitalism had a unique quality that differentiated it from other slave systems in other societies of the past. Why slavery under capitalism is different to slavery in other societies and periods? What are the racial and economic new conceptions?
  2. As Marx’s writings on the American Civil War show, his political agenda and his theory were not limited on the emancipation of the white working class from factory work. Marx’s priority was a large-scale human emancipation, nevertheless, he used the concept of the class because of its relational character with the means of production and because he thought that it could bring together the greatest number of individuals to struggle against capitalism. What can we learn from the misunderstanding of the class concept? How can we reduce the tensions and disagreements in the left?
  3. As show works as Sidney W. Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, the plantation and the factory encompassed a single economic system. Global commerce in slaves and the commodities produced the rise of new industries and to wage-labor in the eighteenth century. Could you show the relationship between the slave trade and the creation of the modern finance system? What are the differences on both sides of the Atlantic?

10/16 Cindi Katz #2

[Lead bloggers: Erin, Megan, Austin]

Cindi Katz’s second presentation continued to address a significant lacuna in Marx´s work; that of the unwaged labor of social reproduction, which she introduced in the first presentation. She has also called this the “hidden abode of capitalism” and as in the preceding presentation, considered the centrality of this unwaged, so-called non-productive sphere to the functioning of capitalism and called on us to think about its potential as a center for oppositional practice.

In this week’s presentation Katz discussed what she calls “crisis of social reproduction” to express the expulsion of more and more people from employment and conditions of work and survival made increasingly precarious in recent decades. Katz encouraged us to consider how this has affected the practices and promises of social reproduction. With global capitalism, laborers have been vacated from the traditional workplace on a mass scale. The disintegration of certain markets and sites of production in global capitalism produces insecurity and competition, in turn producing migration on a national and international scale. Migration, where workers are reproduced in one territory and then produce in another, enables uneven capitalist accumulation and development to occur. This process also cheapens migrant labor as the labor is reproduced elsewhere with less regulation.

This week, Katz again facilitated questions from the audience to guide the lecture. One question was on workplaces that are sites where social reproduction has been commodified. Restaurants, babysitting, transportation, and education are all sites that straddle production and reproduction, making resistance in those locations especially multivalent. An example given by an audience member was fast food workers striking for better pay, or thinking about what kind of food they would like to feed their community. Katz pointed to Dalla Costa and James´ critique of traditional Marxism which has always imagined social reproduction as contained in the home.

The “crises of social reproduction” Katz invokes also involve the idea of disposability. In the “spatial fix” of global capitalism, extensively theorized by David Harvey, whole populations are increasingly expelled from employment, thus devalued, and deemed disposable. Katz discussed how the production of disposable populations involves dispossession, including the imposition of food insecurity on communities that had previously achieved food sovereignty though subsistence farming, with the new condition of food insecurity introduces competition among laboring populations and labor migration on a vast scale.

Katz posed the critical questions: how are these processes of expelling and making populations disposable invisibilized? As such, we would like to extend this question as to how regimes of visibility and invisibility serve to further disempower and enclose expelled populations.

As these processes of dispossession and expulsion become greater than the industrial reserve labor, such processes cut across classes and populations (while, as Katz discussed, also producing and naturalizing difference to make alliances unimaginable). Katz considered how the widening of the precarious expelled populations introduces the technocratic need to “manage” these populations. State strategies of managing the expelled populations approximates realms of “slow death” and “necropolitics” written about by other social theorists such as Achille Mbembe. Katz addressed a number of techniques used to manage crises in social reproduction:

  1. Increased investment in prisons and carceral institutions — state money spent on policing and incarcerating expelled populations; involves the further militarization of public spaces, neighborhoods, schools, etc. and administration of social death
  2. Increased investment in the military — increased investment in the military in order to absorb excess populations and to secure borders
  3. Migration — strategy for imbalances in labor populations; Katz discussed the role of gang labor in migration and what it means when viable labor is not found in the new site
  4. Space-time expansion and excessive commutes — globalization has produced a “space-time expansion” in which the working day and week is extended; one way people managed to be employed is by making excessive commutes, which Katz discussed as taking more time on a certain kind of social reproduction.
  5. Working multiple contingent jobs — people manage to be employed in precarious conditions by working multiple contingent jobs; the cutting of benefits and the general movement of laborers from the formal wage economy to the informal economy decreases the social wage; the general shift to informal economies as jobs and wage labor becomes a less secure source of income.
  6. The dual spectrum of managing how children grow up as managing security within precarity — on one hand, the packing of resources into time (e.g. piano lessons, sports) with hopes of increasing life chances as life’s work value decreases; happens along a class spectrum; while on the other hand the carceral state’s criminalization of youth and children from expelled populations as “waste” thus prematurely dimming their future possibilities through unequal access to education, health care, and jobs, often tragically resulting in premature death or imprisonment, due to the policing and militarization of such communities.
  7. Managing who gets access to resources through borders and bureaucracy — producing and denying ‘illegal alien,’ undocumented populations. The sinister allegiance of detention centers with the carceral state to detain undocumented migrants; often resulting in extreme human rights violations such as sexual abuse, violence and torture occurring within the actual detention centers. The lack of access to the judicial system to review migrant cases; wherein they seek asylum from persecution from war, religious discrimination, extreme forms of gender and sexuality discrimination involving violence and community expulsion, dispossession, human trafficking, and indentured servitude in the form of sex work.

Katz asked us how we can think dialectically about questions of social reproduction so that we are not managing conditions of social death but instead mobilizing resources to prefigure a world we want to live in by engaging the sphere of social reproduction as a generative source of practical and pedagogical  alternatives to ¨capitalism´s¨ exclusions and violences. We would like to raise this question again here.

Finally, Katz discussed the environmental aspect of social reproduction and social reproduction as a materialist question. This entails thinking about the environment not as “free gifts of nature” but as resources mobilized and the physical setting for social reproduction. Katz discussed the degradation of the built environment as capital moves from one site of production to another (Katz described this as “vagabond capitalism”) and things like overfishing, water crises, and climate change as crises in social reproduction. We can think about how this degradation relates to the process of dispossession we discussed. Katz mentioned, for example, the appropriation of land from subsistence farmers and indigenous farmers that forces them into the cash economy. The arenas of social reproduction also include disinvestment in the environment and the mobility of labor.

Discussion questions:

  1. How is the theme of invisible labor in what Katz calls the hidden abode of capitalism, a source of convergence or divergence between feminist and Marxist concepts of space?
  2. How can we think dialectically about questions of social reproduction rather than “managing” excess populations? What are ways of making the expelling and disposal of excess populations visible?
  3. As Katz mentioned, Dalla Costa and James state that “Capitalism is the only system where the children of the working class are educated with the interest of the ruling class in mind.” How can we think of social reproduction (or Marx’s superstructure) as a site for the staging of subversions of the social order of capital?
  4. As our construction as “neoliberal” subjects occurs in the realm of social reproduction, how can the realm of social reproduction be used to dismantle and reimagine alternate possibilities for the political economy?  As the realm of social reproduction includes the affective and pedagogical labor to make all the normative codes of society sensible, how can this realm be reappropriated to make these norms insensible?
  5. How does thinking about social reproduction as a materialist question help to join together feminist, Marxist, and environmental justice politics? What are some examples of this kind of political action and what can they tell us about the challenges and potential of organizing around social reproduction?

Lecture #5: Social Reproduction and Marxist-Feminism

Definition of social reproduction

Katz defined social reproduction as the “daily and long-term reproduction of the mode of production and the labor power that makes it work,” or as the “messy and fleshy” everyday occurrences and cultural forms that make a mode of production seem sensible and natural. She stressed that social reproduction is an ongoing practice, and one that has lead to considerable struggle throughout history. Specifically, questions of how much capital, the state, or the household should bear the costs of social reproduction have been central to the development of capital. Social reproduction itself is not revolutionary, Katz argues, because its function is to continue divisions and social structures. However, by recognizing its importance and dislodging the point of production from its privileged position in theorizing revolution, analyzing social reproduction opens up a wider field of possibility for political action. This type of theory has been overlooked by masculinist Marxists who often view the cultural forms that social reproduction produces as belonging to the “superstructure,” and ultimately as being determined by the mode of production in a unilateral way.

 

Geographies of social reproduction

Katz stressed that capital has always been global. What we need to think about when we discuss globalization is instead the increasing fluidity of production, compared to the relative fixity of labor. This process creates disparate labor pools with different social wages, pitted against each other, and exerting downward pressure on wages and benefits in the global north. Rather than naturalize this race to the bottom, Katz framed this apparent competition as a strategic project on the part of capital: capital creates the creations in both the north and south, simultaneously producing and preying on cheap labor. The ways this differentiation is naturalized and made common-sense — dividing the workforce along various lines and lubricating both exploitation and circulation — is a key part of the work of social reproduction. Transforming the sphere of social reproduction into a truly revolutionary arena means recognizing the nature and amount of work that goes on there. The role of nature in work becomes literal as Katz briefly touched upon our natural environment. While Marx’s spaces of inquiry typically revolved around the factory and machinery, Katz argues that the involvement of Marxist feminists created linkages between the role of labor in contending with questions of environmental justice.  

 

Marxism, Feminism

A crucial early marxist feminist text that informs Katz’s analysis of social reproduction is Della Costa and James’s 1972 essay “Women and the Subversion of the Community.” Della Costa and James understand capital as necessarily destructive pre-capitalist forms of family, production, and community – this latter which they treat not as any group of people but as specifically communal (and now subverted) forms of being together. With the transformation of production, the role of social reproduction in the household is re-structured to serve “the production of that special kind of commodity, labour power.” And as long as revolutionary action is limited to the site of production and not social reproduction, they argue, those in charge of the latter – viz. housewives – will always be restricted to a supporting role. Della Costa and James challenge the women’s movement of the 1970s to resist a platform of integration into capitalist control and the double shift. “The role of housewife,” they argue, “behind whose isolation is hidden social labour, must be destroyed.”

Katz provided several examples of marxist feminist attempts to intervene in social reproduction. Drawing from Della Costa and James, Katz emphasized that withholding reproductive labor and redirecting it to communal efforts does not in itself stop the reproduction of a fragmented workforce. Similarly, things like the family wage may aid in accounting for the labor of social reproduction, but it banks on patriarchy for its effectiveness. Therefore, Katz asserted that things such as the wages for housework movement should be viewed as a stepping stone rather than endpoint of an anti-capitalist struggle.

 

Discussion questions

Katz discussed the recent US teachers strikes as responses to state disinvestment from education. How might we approach the importance of controlling social reproduction with the ongoing defunding and privatization of its institutions/primary channels?

Many of our previous discussions of anti-capitalist action revolved around actions that occurred outside of private spaces — through organized labor, regulatory practices, or alternative modalities in banking, etc. However, Katz notes that that …”the global and the intimate happen in the arena of social reproduction… it inheres in it the possibility of unmaking since it inheres in us, not outside.” What, then, are the possibilities of anti-capitalist action within the home, among the “messy and fleshy” contradictions of social reproduction?

We discussed withdrawing reproductive labor from the process of maintaining capitalism, and many of the examples were on a local and every day scale. What might global and long term anti-capitalist activity in the realm of reproduction look like?

Katz touched briefly upon the relationship of Marxist-feminism and our natural environment. How can we extend a feminist reading of Marxism into other fields of study, such as the science of climate change?

 

Further reading

Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, & James, Selma. (1972). Women and the Subversion of the Community. Bristol, UK: Falling Wall Press. [PDF]

Katz, Cindi. (2006). Messing with “the Project”. David Harvey: A critical reader, 234-246. [PDF]

Katz, Cindi. (2001). Vagabond capitalism and the necessity of social reproduction. Antipode, 33(4), 709-728. [PDF]

Katz, Cindi. (1996). Towards minor theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 14(4), 487-499. [PDF]

Pratt, Geraldine. (2004). Working feminism. Temple University Press.

Wright, Melissa. (2013). Disposable women and other myths of global capitalism. Routledge.

Lecture #4: Finance Capital and Capitalist Production

[Lead Bloggers: Kathryn, Luca, and Patrick]

This week, David Harvey discussed and elaborated on Marx’s analysis of the role of finance and interest-bearing capital in the broader capitalist mode of production.

The topic had been curiously undertheorized in the Marxist, heterodox, and even mainstream economic literature through most of the 20th century. This absence is particularly odd, given the fundamental centrality of financial instruments to infrastructure construction, long-distance trade, and urbanization.

And yet as debt has increased massively relative to GDP, across the OECD and most recently in China’s consumer-debt-and-concrete urbanization boom, such issues have spurred more attention and analysis. Across the OECD, consumer debt and sovereign/public debt have ballooned to fill the consumption gap created by stagnant real wages and eviscerated corporate taxation since the early 1970s. In the wake of the extend-and-pretend pseudo-resolution of the 2008 financial crisis, the role of finance in capitalist production, circulation, and distribution has become impossible to ignore.

Classical economists often alternated between seeing financial activity as purely epiphenomenal to productive activity, or as parasitic and prone to destabilizing rounds of speculation. Mainstream modern economics, however, has often treated finance as having a neutral effect on the economy, merely facilitating exchange and having little effect on production—an attitude embodied in the fact that most governments did not include financial activities or profits in their GDP calculations until the 1970s. Since then, there have been both glib celebrations and strident critics of the growth of finance, either as one of the “most productive” sectors in the world (according to Lloyd Blankfein), or as an increasing rentier drain on productive investment and a dangerous, casino-style speculation introducing systemic risk that threatens the very “real economy” it supposedly facilitates (see Mazzucato 2018).

Harvey’s primary argument, first laid out at length in 1982’s Limits to Capital, is that finance actually performs necessary functions in smoothing out interruptions in capital circulation, closing gaps in turnover time between industries, and acting as a central nervous system for capital as a whole, ensuring that capital can move more nimbly and quickly where the market feels it’s most needed—i.e. toward the highest profit rate on offer. By unlocking capital trapped in productive or commodity form, and tapping its expected future cash value, finance speeds up turnover of the total capital in society and thus intensifies the aggregate production of surplus value.

Just like merchants and landlords—not to mention states—money lenders existed before capitalism but are tolerated by the productive capitalist class given the specific functional roles they can perform to secure the conditions for expanded capital accumulation. These actors receive a portion of the surplus value produced in production in return for speeding up capital turnover (so industrialists don’t have to wait to find an individual buyer for every product produced before starting another round of production) or by allocating individual plots of land towards their “highest and best use” for capital (by squeezing inefficient producers off the land and redistributing it to more efficient producers whose activities meet the desires of the market).

Finance makes hoards productive, by ensuring that production can begin before a hoard is amassed (as in an industrial loan), that savings can be unlocked from their waiting place (as with interest-bearing savings accounts), that a house or car can be bought long before a worker has saved up the sticker price (realizing the commodity capital more quickly), or that liability for the inevitable risks of long-distance trade or long-turnover projects can be pooled (as with insurance). Finance keeps capital on the move through the circuit by preemptively releasing it from discrepancies in timing—at least until the loan is due.

Financiers receive their share of surplus value in the form of interest, a kind of “price” paid for the time-limited use (i.e. rental) of money. Harvey argues that such functions (again, as with the state provision of infrastructure, courts, and regulation) are not strictly speaking productive of value, just as Marx argues in Volume I of Capital that a machine cannot itself produce value: such investments rather create the facilitating conditions through which workers can produce surplus value at relatively higher rates of productivity.

The problem for capital as a whole, Harvey argues, is that all of these facilitative powers are inextricable from the same qualities that give them their inherent tendency toward speculative mania and crisis. Without allowing people to own forms of property that allow them to gamble on expected returns and thus “mortgage and foreclose upon the future,” the ability to bridge these gaps will grind to a halt, and capital will have to take much more winding and slow paths through its ever-expanding circuit.

Further, as is clear from the 2008 financial crisis, such functions may pose a whole host of larger problems for a broader economy. The increasing importance of financial activity for productive corporations like General Motors, who finance purchases of their own cars is one example, possibly diverting investment from the “real” economy into such rentier operations. Further, the use of debt as a political tool has as become especially clear: indebted workers may particularly fear to strike and miss payments, unscrupulous lenders may accumulate devalued assets through foreclosure, and states are disciplined toward particular courses of policy action (as with IMF-led structural adjustment programs or the anti-Keynesian architecture of the European Central Bank). Meanwhile, many financial institutions can lend profligately despite significant moral hazard, assured that any risk they take big enough as to be systemic will be covered by a public bailout, nationalizing private losses as public debt.

These developments raise significant questions for anticapitalist strategy, regarding the nature of this mushrooming of financial assets and the balance of class forces given assetization.

Discussion Questions

1. Have increased returns on finance drained investment away from job-creating activity in the “real” productive economy, thus contributing to unemployment and a weak bargaining position for workers? What kind of empirical evidence would we need to determine whether capitalism has been fundamentally transformed by the growth of finance, perhaps shifting the balance of power within capitalist society away from industrial capital and toward financiers? What are the strategic risks of overstating the shift from surplus value production via labor exploitation to “value-grabbing” through debt, rents, and asset seizures? What are the risks of ignoring such transformations if they are happening?

2. The 2009 decision under President Obama to bail out the banks rather than mortgage-holding homeowners stirred considerable debate over alternative ways out of the crisis. Would a more social-democratic or anti-neoliberal government have been able to move toward the democratization of finance and ownership within capitalism from that moment, or would they still be disciplined by international currency markets and “investor confidence”? What kinds of “people’s structural adjustments” are possible through the electoral route, and what are the dangers of such language being co-opted by those who seek to create a simple truce between capital and labor and have abandoned the end goal of a truly democratic control of the economy? In what sense are such interventions anticapitalist? Could any kinds of finance reforms constitute partial, “non-reformist reforms” toward socialism?

3. One of the most pernicious historical forms of right-wing criticism of capitalism has taken the form of attacks limited to the parasitic, amorphous, and world-controlling power of  “banksters”—as though capitalism would be moral, stable, and bountiful for all if it weren’t for Goldman Sachs charging high rates of interest. These anticapitalist analyses, which run back at least to Martin Luther, often let industrial capitalists or “small businesses” off the hook, and see shadowy “foreign” financiers (the “globalists”) as the primary source of economic instability, nation-undermining political interference, and working-class suffering. They have most famously (but not only) taken the form of antisemitic conspiracy theories, as when the Nazis taught children that the horrors of British imperialism were the result of Jewish control of the British state. This web of spooky stories, like 9/11 conspiracy theories and the alt-libertarian “Zeitgeist” movement had a certain currency among some people coming to consciousness during the Occupy Wall Street movement, and are a lot easier to get across to most people, graduate students included, than all three volumes of Capital. How does an anticapitalist movement realistically assess the power of finance capital, resist the draw in our own analysis of fairy tales that make up the “socialism of fools” (as August Bebel defined antisemitism), and—most importantly—ensure that a more structural and less demonological analysis of capitalism can empower capitalism’s victims to understand, organize, and change their situation?

=============================================

Harvey, David. 1982. The Limits to Capital. London and New York: Verso.

Mazzucato, Mariana. 2018. The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. New York City: PublicAffairs.

Week 3 Lecture Notes & Questions

[Lead bloggers: Erik Forman, Miryam Nacimento, Youssef Ramez]

In this week’s lecture, Prof. David Harvey outlined a framework for understanding the development of social relations under capitalism as a totality, and used this framework to described the shift to neoliberalism in the late 1970s.

The framework draws on a footnote in Chapter 15 of Vol. 1 of Capital, in which Marx describes the reciprocally deterministic relationship between technology, nature, production, reproduction, social relationship, and the mental conceptions that hold it all together as the totality of life under capitalism. Harvey adds “institutional arrangements” to this list and dubs these “activity spheres” or “moments.” He describes the relationship between these activity spheres as co-evolutionary, but with each maintaining the possibility of transformations that create contradictions and force change across the system. Transformations in each activity sphere that could result from human agency, tendencies immanent within the system, nature, or other impetus. 

As Harvey writes in Enigmas of Capital, “if, as Marx once averred, our task is not so much to understand the world as to change it, then, it has to be said, capitalism has done a pretty good job of following his advice.” From responses to labor insurgency, to developing technology to increase extraction of surplus value from workers, dominating nature, or creating new forms of social organization, capital has revolutionized itself again and again.

Prof. Harvey gives us a strong case in point– the neoliberal turn in capitalism of the late 1970s. He describes how the protection of the hegemony of the capitalist class from multiple insurgences and economic stagnation required new mental conceptions and institutional arrangements– which economists like Hayek, Friedman, and the Chicago School were happy to provide. Neoliberal economic doctrine called for the retreat of the state from subsidizing social reproduction, privatization of public services, withdrawal of environmental and labor protections, free trade (no tariffs), essentially a return to laissez-faire economic liberalism. After early test cases in Allende’s Chile and New York City after the 1975 fiscal crisis, neoliberal thought became hegemonic in the IMF and other global financial institutions. Neoliberal economic theory was “instatiated” into common sense of how you are supposed to run a government. Harvey cites a cycle of meetings and conferences in the late 1970s bringing together members of the capitalist class as the locus where neoliberalism as a class project was consolidated.

Neoliberalism has endured now for nearly half a century, but it has been fraught with contradictions and conflict the entire time. While neoliberalism mobilized the rhetoric of freedom and choice, in fact it also resulted in an intensification of state repression of social movements and labor, a core paradox. To maintain hegemony, neoliberal elites are forced to rely on undemocratic tools of governance, such as the WTO and other transnational institutions, discipline labor with the threat of international competition, union-busting, and outright violent repression.

Harvey pointed out that neoliberalism often leads to an increase in nationalism as a backlash against the globalization of capital, often in the form of right-wing populism. This was visible already in the mid-1990s in the UK, but appears to be entering a new phase now with Brexit, Trump, and in Germany the AfD.

Economic contradictions are also a source of volatility, as Harvey illustrates in his description of deregulation of capital flows that led to the 2007/2008 Financial Crisis. While some have claimed that the crisis led to the end of neoliberalism, Harvey claims neoliberalism is alive and well, but has lost legitimacy and justification, with the capitalist class turning increasingly to authoritarianism to cement its rule, winning consent for repression through right-wing populism.

Questions

  • Neoliberalism has lost legitimacy without losing power. While a turn to increased authoritarianism to secure the present social relations seems to be in progress, are there other evolutions of the totality we would hope for, and how would we win them?
  • Of the activity spheres that Harvey outlines as constituent of the totally of relations under capitalism, which presents the greatest opportunity for intervention, or is it possible or necessary to construct a project that integrates intervention in all or several? Are there historical examples we can look to for inspiration of efforts to break with capitalist social relations?
  • Why did Marx privilege the proletariat as an agent of change, and is it predisposed to power to intervene in specific activity spheres over others? Are other subjects more likely to be able to leverage change in the world system today? Why or why not?
  • As critics of capitalism, we have a model that describes the totality of capitalist social relations, and can theorize about how events and trends result mutations in the system. In the 1970s, the United States was still close to the zenith of its power, the EU did not yet exist, the state socialist world was “contained” through proxy wars; as a result, the capitalist class was relatively organized and united on a global level and was able to come to a consensus on how to emerge from the crisis of the early 1970s. Today, China has created an alternative set of global financial institutions and arrangements, US hegemony is fading fast, and regional powers are jockeying for position. Capitalism is more global than ever before, but the liberal postwar order has never been weaker and world-systemic chaos is escalating. At this point in history, how and where is capital making decisions, or is history unfolding “behind the backs” of it participants, as Marx would say? What does this mean for efforts to build anti-systemic movements? 
  • How are we to understand the interplay between the neoliberal corporate elite and the state? If neoliberalism is to be understood as a capitalist class project that has been able to capture the state apparatus revealing its authoritarian nature (against its supposed ideals of freedom, equality and liberation), where could strategic anti-capitalist actions take place? what kind of anti-capitalist action does the authoritarian nature of neoliberalism demand?