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Posts Tagged ‘Financial Crisis’

Well, what a fascinating debate last night between the two contenders for the US presidency. Both start the evening with the rhetoric of the evil large corporation while both are explicitly articulating strategies to strengthen capital. This much not surprising. But what we did see last night was an open argument about exactly what kind of capitalist strategy ought to be followed – Obama referrring repeatedly to the Great Depression and setting himself up as the neo-Keynesian, McCain spouting the market-market-market line and hinting that his opponent is a communist in disguise.

Fascinating. McCain started fairly early with this tack, indicating Obama’s plan is to ‘take your money so he can spread it around’ – a theme he kept up, in just those terms, throughout the debate. But more, he suggested, “the whole premise of Senator Obama’s plans is class warfare“.

Wow! Now I’m interested! I’ll look up from the Monopoly game (yes, ironic, isn’t it?) I’m playing with Mica to jot this down and turn up the voume so I can take notes as this progresses.

And so goes McCain throughout the debate, suggesting that the fundamental problem with the economy remains that government spending is too high, that the market is not given enough free rein – in short, that the solution to the crisis is more market freedom and less oversight. OK, so this is pretty typical neoconservative stuff. But he’s not even smart about it. Talk about missing the point – as folks are getting thrown out of their homes because the real estate market and the rest of the economy is so driven by speculation and imaginary dollars, McCain actually says that as individual mortgages are sorted out the crisis will be over, not because anything is altered but because, “if homes go up in value, then we’ll be creating wealth”. In other words, imaginary dollars and speculation is the answer to the crisis of imaginary dollars and speculation! Wow – couldn’t make this stuff up! Someone needs to take Economics 101.

OK, so McCain is sticking to traditional laissez-faire with a substantial dose of just-plain-stupidity, and Obama is the great danger because he proposes something smacking of Keynianism – which, though it saved capitalism’s ass in the past, remains to the free-marketeers Marxism through and through. So the focus of the rest of the debate, from McCain’s side, is the radicalism of Barack Obama – his similarities with ‘radical environmentalists’ and the ‘extreme wing of the pro-abortion lobby; his connection to former Weather Undergrounder Bill Ayres, his support of low-income-voter-registration outfit ACORN, and his dubious foreign policy plans. On this front, it’s no longer about Iraq or Afghanistan, but Latin America. Obama, he sputters, won’t support free trade with Colombia, “our best ally in the region, but wants to sit down with Hugo Chavez”. Yup. I’m with armed thugs and partners in the drug-war/ counter-insurgency plan, Obama’s with the new leftism of Latin America. (Oh, and on this, by the way, Obama’s actually pretty good, noting that Colombia kills trade union leaders with impunity and so, no, he won’t enter into a trade agreement with them.)

OK, so McCain’s nuts, we know. But this is interesting because it really is gloves-off on what strategy is best for capital at the present time. And Obama, in response to all of these, doesn’t bother with defending himself anymore, but instead largely accepts the charges against him and simply argues that laissez-faire failed and capital needs a new plan along the lines of the New Deal. Countless times he refers to the Depression, the crisis that brought Keynesianism around in the first place. Countless times he says, yes, the way to rebuild capitalism is to spend, to invest in social and physical infrastructure. In fact, he goes so far as to say that his bottom line is “we need to raise wages”. It is Keynes reincarnated. Speculation don’t work in the long run. You don’t make money from nothing. Get money into workers hands, make sure they’re earning enough to keep the market afloat, and that’s your best way to restore some sustainability to capitalism.

Hmm. A week ago, these guys were talking in code, dancing around questions of the crisis by sticking largely to the specifics of the government bail-out. Now, however, it’s a new game. Now, it’s capital’s right versus capital’s left, laissez-faire vs Keynes, market market market versus a dangerous new socialism. Gettin’ more and more interesting by the day. Especially when you toss in the international side of things, and the latest news that a special summit of the EU is leading to calls for, in the words of the French Prez, “a new form of capitalism“.

Like the politicos across the water, Obama’s no commie, obviously and regrettably. However, he is clearly is a new kind of Keynesian, and though it seems he was afraid to be too open about that up to this point, seems to be he’s getting the sense that the US might just be ready for another New Deal, and he might just be able to survive the red-baiting that comes with the territory. McCain, for his part, obviously thinks the old ‘reds-under-your-beds’ nightmare still gives people the shivers – a notion that so far appears entirely misguided, as he’s getting no traction whatsoever from any of this.

But fascinating. Capitalism is as intriguing a beast as it is brutal, and it’s not often its internal strategic debates get fought out on TV. But that’s what the confluence of election and meltdown has given us, and I increasingly can’t turn away.

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Yes, it is the day after the election. No, I am not going to comment on it. Rather, reflections on an article I read recently that I didn’t particularly agree with but which has had me thinking.

An interesting take on the financial crisis follows below my comments. This comes from a couple of folks who are active with the Midnight Notes Collective – a group of anarchist/ Marxist/ post-structuralist types who publish an occassional magazine and the odd book out of the Boston area. I’m a big fan of Midnight Notes generally, and found this an intriguing read, though I must confess it’s got some major gaps in it, and I’m feeling pretty disappointed.

Basically, here’s the argument. The financial crisis should not be seen as some kind of accident – it is better understood as a strategic move, an attempt by capital to re-assert its control over US workers. Basically, we see here a US-based equivalent of the petro-dollar deal that led into to the Third World Debt Crisis and justified the imposition of structural adjustment and related austerity programs. Extend too much credit, watch the system collapse, as it can be expected to do, transfer public money to the private sector to bail-out the system and use the crisis and the now-public debt as an excuse to cut government expenditures.

OK, a fun little analysis, but one that seems to me lacking any foundation. A few problems. One, if this were a coordinated strategy, it would have to be solving a problem, and the problem would have to be a lack of market discipline among workers – i.e. too many workers doing too little to be productive, and too many workers finding too many ways to resist capital. This clearly has not been a political reality in the US in recent years, and the authors know it. So they surmise that, among other things, it is workers playing the investment game that is the problem. Workers try to make money by speculation rather than by working more, and capital wants them working more. But hang on…Two things here. One, workers are not being successful on the market, as is plain to everyone. By and large working people lose money playing this game, so there is no successful strategy that needs to be countered here. Secondly, the investment game is one of the fundamental ways capital extends the reach of the market, so even if the worker-investment thing were true this would hardly be a ‘problem’ for capitalism, but rather would be an indication of increasing trust in the market.

Next major problem I have with this analysis is that it smacks way-too much of conspiracy theory for my tastes. Now, don’t get me wrong – I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, and I am certainly clear that there are some really vicious bastards out there driving the system. However,  the beauty of capital – and the reason it has been so fucking hard to dis-lodge – is that it doesn’t require this kind of manipulation. It is driven by real people, by a logic which unfolds almost-invisibly, by the celebration of greed, by day to day relationships of work. Crises do not need to be manufactured to be useful to the system. Take the example the authors use – the debt crisis. The debt crisis certainly did lead to all the things they note, and was pivotal in preparing the ground for the neoliberal onslaught. However, I am not convinced that the credit issues leading to that crisis and the flooding of the market with petro-dollars were part some nefarious plan – rather, those things flowed from capital’s logic, the crisis followed, and a bunch of economists and politcal strategists recognized the class dynamics at work and put together a new strategy for capital. So, yes, petro-dollars make way for debt crisis makes way for neoliberalism. Yes, evil evil men pounce on the opportunity to crush workers’ resistance and siphon public money into the market. But planned out from the earliest moments? No. Don’t buy it. The strategy was a response to the crisis, not its genesis. as far as I can tell.

And this time? Definitely class dynamics here we need to unpack. But not, I don’t think, the ones identified below. Workers playing the market? Clearly not. The global expansion of “illegal” migration, poaching, and squatting on public lands by which millions of workers simply remove themselves from the economy altogether? OPK, that part is interesting and I think worth exploring in more depth. But entirely absent in this analysis, and pretty central I’d suggest, are questions about global resistance to US empire, and how these have stretched the system beyond sustainable levels. The trillions being spent to quell revolt in Iraq and Afghanistan; the growing strength of a new left alternative across Latin America; the complete collapse of so many parts of Africa after a century and a half of pillage and plunder. These are the places we see capital forced to use its resources to quell dissent; these are struggles that have forced resources to be moved from the market to counter-insurgency. These are the battles that have stretched the empire’s reach too thin to be sustainable. These are the things I’d suggest we look to if we want to put together a working class read of the crisis, and if we want to really understand where capital is weakest and where resistance is best targetted.

Anyway, here I am now far beyond the brief introduction I intended to write. Point is, this is an argument full of some pretty damn substantial holes.

Nonetheless, I’m posting it because I think it does help to alert us to the possibilities of what may follow. Capital will seek a new strategy to deal with this. And that strategy will involve bail-outs and the massive transfer of funds from the public sector to the private. Not overnight, but over time, we can expect this to take place, unless we can generate a substantial movement in the opposite direction, for more public good, more commons.

So, I recommend reading this through. I question a good deal of the premise, and I think there are some real leaps here that cannot be supported. But I’m glad that the Midnight Notes folks are talking about strategy here, and are recognizing that these political-economic moments have class meanings and involve class struggles, and are at least opening up the debate. Cause if we are to avoid this becoming a transition to yet a new austerity plan, we need to start by considering where capital might try to go, and putting together ideas and actions to not only resist but to leverage this crisis to move in an entirely different direction.

Enough ranting. The piece follows.

NOTES ON THE WALL STREET “MELTDOWN”

by Silvia Frederici and George Caffentzis

it is important, first, that we realize that the so-called Wall Street “meltdown” is certainly the end, but also the completion of the neoliberal program. Let us be clear about it. To think otherwise is to ignore the lesson taught to us by the event that opened the present capitalist era: the 1973 coup again the Chilean working class experiment with socialism, that led to the victory of strong state backed market economy. Karl Polanyi’s theory that the single most important cause of the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe was the inability to control the financial market after the 1929 crash also resonates here. In other words, we should not read the restructuring taking place as a turn to socialism/Keynesianism, to the extent at least that Keynesianism was an intervention by the state into the economy aimed at increasing the state’s investment in social reproduction, starting with the reproduction of the working class, in exchange for an increase in the social productivity of labor. Despite the adoption of regulatory mechanisms, the operation presently conducted by the US government bears little resemblance to the Keynesian program launched with the New Deal.

Behind the $700 billion bail-out and the many others that will follow–some already in the pipeline– is a massive transfer of funds from the US working class to capital, inevitably leading to an assault on the last remaining entitlements (like Medicare, Social Security) and a general program of austerity the like of which we have not seen yet in a long time. The fact that there is no organized response to this assault makes us fear the worst. For things would never have reached this point if over the last decade the US workers had responded to the repeated thefts of their money and benefits, through the Enron scandal and the many other “crises” that have followed it. That despite the “instability” of the market, despite its usage as a means to expropriate thousands of small/working class investors, US workers continued to trust their livelihoods and future to it is certainly a key factor in what we are presently witnessing and Washington/Wall Street confidence in launching the new austerity program. It is our argument that in the same way as September 11 served the US government to shed the last remains of  “democracy” and move to a model of government where militarization is always around the corner (apparently Representatives were threatened with the proclamation of martial law if they did not pass the bailout bill), so the Wall Street crash will serve to shed the last remaining elements of working class “socialism” in the US political economy, starting with Social Security, Medicare, a thorn in capital’s flesh, but so far demonstrating a great resilience, the last shore for working class struggle in the nation.2. Lessons from the Debt Crisis.
There is a important parallel here, not sufficiently noted, between the present crash and bail-out and the “debt crisis” of the 1980s, which engulfed most Third World nations (except for China) and was the start of the globalization process. Both have been engineered in the same fashion.

The  “debt crisis” was the outcome a financial campaign conducted by Washington and Wall Street, to practically force Third World nations to take cheap development loans –liberally dished out at the lowest interest rates– at a time when capital was refusing to invest in Europe and North America in the face of the most successful working class attack to its profit-rate since the 1920s, and a new generation of Africans, Asians etc. were organizing to d emand a global redistribution of wealth and a program of reparations, that is, in the language of the Bucharest Conference of 1974 : A NEW WORLD ORDER.

Through the lending mechanism, the massive flow of petrodollars that had been amassed in the aftermath of the 1974 embargo (the first attack on US wages, organized through a stiff inflationary wave) was redirected to the coffers of Third World nations, which, attracted by the bait of cheap loans, were soon hooked to the global economy, all dreams of an independent path to development foregone.

In other words, loans at the lowest interest rates were key to the creation of a global debt and the process of primitive accumulation (through structural adjustment) that was imposed on most of the workers of the world.

As we know, within less than a decade, the rise of the interest rates in the US, turned manageable debts into a long-term process of economic and political subordination. Debt became the hook for a massive restructuring of Africa’s, Asia’s Latin America’s political economies, re-establishing a colonial dependency that for three decades has served to promote a massive transfer of funds from the Third to the First World and defeat the organizational efforts of TW nation for an independent road to development.

Under the guise of the “debt crisis,” portrayed as a case of “mismanagement” by backward countries, requiring First World-style fin ancial responsibility, countries across the world were forced to open their books to Washington–via the IMF and World Bank–accept any terms of repayment imposed on them. They were forced to freeze wages, terminate all social spending, open their markets to foreign investors and products, devaluate their currencies and so forth. The consequences of these policies are well known. While Washington and NY built forests of skyscrapers, sucking on the blood of Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, Caribbean people, such levels of impoverishment and expropriation were imposed on the people of the world that millions took the road out of their countries, unable to survive in them, while those remaining witnessed epidemics, elimination of schools, famines, wars, the loss of ancestral lands, waters and forests, brutal wars of privatization, all directly related to the debt.This is history now, though the politics of SAP have set back for decades the project initiated by the anti-colonial struggle, reformulated and reasserted, as I mentioned, at the Bucharest Conference of 1974, where TW nations emboldened by the defeat of the US in Vietnam, demanded a NEW WORLD ORDER, i.e. the redistribution, return of the wealth that Europe and the US have robbed from the colonial world.
With the debt crisis, international capital obtained three major objectives.
i) It disciplined the working class in Europe and the US, by dismantling its manufacturing structure and refusing for years to enga ge in any serious investment in these regions [remember “zero growth”?]

ii) It destroyed the attempt of the former colonial world to escape a dependent/subordinate position, as demanded by the new generation of Africans, Asians, etc., who, infused of the spirit of Fanon, were keen on import substitution schemes, were pressing for REPARATIONS, and pushing for some form of socialism (in Angola and Mozambique).(iii). In addition to defeating revolution in First and Third World, the “debt crisis” built the infrastructure for the new global economy. It forged the mechanisms by which industries and offices could be relocated, companies could run around the globe, the work process could be computerized and streamlined and the working class thereby could be flexibilized and re-divided.

Against this background, we must note some basic similarities between the engineering of the debt crisis and the engineering of the Wall Street crash and must assume these similarities will extend to the social consequences of the crash. The housing bubble was the result of loans made at very low though adjustable credit rates, redirecting the influx of capital coming from abroad (China and other countries) toward the US market.
Is it possible that investment banks, credit rating agencies, the head of the Federal Reserve all FAILED to realize what would be the inevitable result of an “easy credit,” lending policy that reversed decades of reg ulatory principles and rules? Unless we want to revel in the nonsensical tale of a blinding surge in human greed, the answer must be a negative one. Thus, we must stop using the concept of “failure” to describe the absence of regulations and the reasons for the crash. We must rule out that the architects of the housing/mortgage crisis did not know it would end in a financial disaster and cascade of foreclosures for the home owners, in the same way as banks are partly responsible for the debt of the US working class ($45.000 on average per capita).

Continuing with the parallel, we have to conclude that with this 700 billion dollar “bail-out,” coming straight out of our pockets and hides, the “structural adjustment” that since the 1980s has been imposed on countries across the world, is going to be extended to the US territory and the US working class. This time (after many beginnings and many deferrals) we too are being “adjusted.” I will discuss later what adjustment will mean at this time for us. For the moment we only want to stress that we are witnessing not only a financial meltdown, but also a great robbery, a macro-process of expropriation, an immense transfer of labor, this time siphoning funds to the US banking system not only from the Third World, as in the Debt Crisis of the 1980s, but from our households, through the classic maneuver of increasing the national debt. What we are witnessing is a capitalist coup, an exa mple of capital’s historic readiness to destroy itself in order to regain the initiative and defeat resistance to its discipline.3. Where does this resistance come from? How is the collapse of the financial systems a response to it?

We cannot understand the Wall Street crisis unless we read it in class term as a means to negotiate a different class deal and response to class struggle and resistance. However, in dealing with these questions, I also want to distinguish this approach and the growing tendency to view every development in capitalist planning as a realization of working class struggle and demands, the Negrian perspective on capital’s response to class movements.
This perspective is dangerous, because besides turning even defeat into a victory, (such as: we wanted globalization, we wanted flexibilization, etc), it ignores the fact that a capitalist response must use working class demands against themselves, use them to drive part of the working class out of the struggle, turn it against or away from the other half, use them in such a way as to spark off forms of development that decompose the class.Let us look now at the crisis as a disciplinary tools and strategy. There are at least three areas of resistance to the neoliberal accumulation project that the Wall Street collapse has to respond to. I will list them without an attempt to establish an order.

We cannot understand the Wall Street crisis unless we read it in class term as a means to negotiate a different class deal and response to class struggle and resistance. However, in dealing with these questions, I also want to distinguish this approach and the growing tendency to view every development in capitalist planning as a realization of working class struggle and demands, the Negrian perspective on capital’s response to class movements.
This perspective is dangerous, because besides turning even defeat into a victory, (such as: we wanted globalization, we wanted flexibilization, etc), it ignores the fact that a capitalist response must use working class demands against themselves, use them to drive part of the working class out of the struggle, turn it against or away from the other half, use them in such a way as to spark off forms of development that decompose the class.Let us look now at the crisis as a disciplinary tools and strategy. There are at least three areas of resistance to the neoliberal accumulation project that the Wall Street collapse has to respond to. I will list them without an attempt to establish an order.

First, the crash and the bail-out must defeat the attempt of the US working class to circumvent class discipline by using financial markets, rather than struggle, sweat and labor, to increase their wages. While strikes and struggles have died out over the last two decades, workers have tried to increase their income in three ways: investing in the stock market, buying on credit, now even for everyday expenses, getting equity money through housing, and defaulting student loans. These tactics have clearly failed and now millions of workers are now to pay twice for them, in terms of their individual losses and in terms of the losses that will be inflicted on the US proletariat as a class through the bailouts. If successful, these bail-outs will in fact be conducive to a new regime of low wages and zero entitlements the like of which we have not seen since the last part of the 19th century.
The new regime will not be the end of market fundamentalism. It will be a revitalization of market investment through the injection of our social security money, and it will be a revitalization of some parts of American industry now presumably taking advantage of the fact that workers are desperate enough to accept any conditions just to have a job and a roof over their heads. A large part of capital has for a long time been lusting to bring back America to the situation before the New Deal, when employers had the upper hand. The “crisis” is giving them a chance to return to that era.
That this time Social Security is at stake is due to various factors. First, Social Security is the last pot of money available to re-launch the US market, in a context in which workers have no savings and monetary flows from the outside are drying out. It is also the last ‘scandal” on the list of US capitalists who have relentlessly for years now told us it must go. Most important of all, Social Security affects primarily the old, the retired, and it is therefore an easier target than entitlements affecting the whole working class.

So far workers in the US have resisted the privatization of Social Security despite many governmental attempts. But cuts in pensions have already gone a long way in the private sector, where employers have given stocks of their companies to workers, or stopped putting any money in their pension funds. The present crisis will extend that to government backed pensions. And the road to it has been cleared by years of false statements to the effect that Social Security is unsustainable. Though it is a colossal lie, younger generations have, however, accepted it. By cutting Social Security, capital undoubtedly hopes to pit the young against the old, who (as in Africa today) are being pictured as a crew of selfish gerontocrats sucking up the funds the young need to build their future.

The second target of the attack is the global resistance to capital’s appropriation of natural resources beginning with oil and gas extraction. The defeat in Iraq is the peak of it. To this day, despite an immense expenditure in war funding, the US has not been able to put its hands on Iraqi oil. Resistance to international capital control over global energy resources has also come from Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Many more countries are also refusing the neoliberal packet, especially in Latin America. These refusals, not peak oil, are the true limits to capital’s energy plans.

There have also been bottlenecks in the exploitation of forests, waters, minerals, and lands which structural adjustment was to remove. A new “rurban” peasant movement has been growing that is fighting independently of unions, parties, ”civil society” and NGOs, using direct action tactics, to re-appropriate the lands and resources of which it has been robbed —poaching, harvesting timber or produce in commercial plantations, mining diamonds and gold “illegally,” or farming in the very lands from which they have been “legally” excluded. When they move to the cities they squat on urban land and take over land not used, private or public to farm it for their needs. It is a vast re-appropriation movement that is redefining the fundamentals of social reproduction globally. It has put globalizers and adjusters out of government, it has forced the nationalization of local resources, and has redistributed wealth and political power, putting the World Bank and IMF almost=2 0out of business in Latin America. It has defeated the attempt to completely liberalize the economies of the TW through the rule of the World Trade organization. Though not sitting at the table, the specter of the rural/urban peasants of the world has guided the refusal of TW representative to comply.Third, global migration has developed in ways that make it difficult for governments to use it as a regulatory mechanism for the labor market. Far from being an easy device for driving wages down, migration is now an autonomous uncontrollable phenomenon, with a logic of its own that is not reducible to the needs of the labor market. It is important however to stress (against the idealization of the migrant and of Exit, Exodus, Flight as a the highest form of struggle) that the struggle of the migrants is not superior to the struggle of those who remain. In fact, migration can lead to the dissolution of local organizations, it can create new divisions among the locals, separating those benefiting from remittances and those deprived of them, it can boost the cost of living in the area of origin by the influx of new money and hook local economies more strongly to the international monetary system, fostering the expansion of monetary relations. These, of course, are not inevitable results. Actually, migrants have been able to use the wage against the wage, to refuse impoverishment, to create transnational networks, to move from country to country seeking a better deal and nullifying national boundaries and borders.

The attacks on immigrants of recent months, which have seen the most massive factory raids and deportations ever in the US, are response to this autonomy. They are part of the attempt to create a population of rightless workers, to function as a safety valve for the labor market. Only if they have no rights can immigrants function as regulatory mechanism for the labor market (in the same way as mass incarceration and expansion of unpaid labor do). The redefinition of immigrant workers as outlaws and the criminalization of working class–historically a key strategy to devalue labor power–will continue to be a tool of the world order we will see emerging from the crisis. But the crash will intensify the divisions between “natives” and migrants, attack the organizational strength of migrant organizations, unless there is strong opposition to this strategy.The Politics of the Financial Crisis and Our Response.

Crises are always a threat and an opportunity as they break down business as usual, and reveal something of the inner workings and nastiness of capitalism. This one is not an exception and we can be sure that what will come out of it will be greatly a result of what people do in response to it. If the Great Depression is an indication, it took more than ten years for capital to organize a different social order. Much can happen in such a period.
The problem for us today is that workers are only organized around electoral politics at best. And many still place more hope in a racist and imperialist stance than in working class solidarity. We certainly don’t have a communist or an anarchist movement organizing rallies of the unemployed, fight against evictions, or organize “penny auctions” of farms as they did during the Great Depression. Nor do we have an anti-capitalist alternative as the Soviet Union was in the eyes of many. We also do not have the kind of solidarity that in the Great Depression led to invention of new commons, like the hobo movement and the creation of “jungle cities.”
Where to start then?  This is what we need to work on in the coming months and years. There is no clear path to this kind of mobilization.  But we need to start somewhere. On two things we can get people to agree with us: First, we better find alternatives, because, as things stand presently, we are so incestually connected with capitalism that its demise threats our own existence. Second, unless we organize to resist government planning, what lies ahead for us, after a cut of more than a trillion dollars of our “entitlements,” looks much more like some variant of fascism than socialism.

With warm greetings,
Silvia and George

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Watching CNN

Ain’t no doubt about it, capital is in a serious global crisis. And are we surprised? There’s only so long you can make money without labour.

But what I’m finding most interesting right now is that the cheerleading is just plain over, full stop. No more hope for markets to rally, for this all to turn around, for folks just to stop panicking and it’ll all be fine, for anyone at all to pretend that the market will work itself out.

I rarely watch TV anymore, but the last couple of days I have been spending some time with CNN, to see how they are talking about all of this. And it’s really quite fascinating.

Anderson Cooper, big-time political commentator, is saying that state and capital have thrown everything they can at this and getting zero traction – nothing is working this time. And Suze Ormon, star financial expert responds to questions of faith in the market like so:

‘We may start seeing breadlines. It is that bad, and we’d better get used to it cause it’s here for a good long while. If you have credit card debt, if banks are foreclosing on your home, if you work in manufacturing or any industry that could see job loss — you’re in trouble. People are moving into their cars.’

And that ain’t the half of it. Suicide rates are up, with unemployed workers and investment bankers alike driven into despair. Yup. The dream is over. The myth has exploded. And the general consensus is that things ain’t getting better any time soon.

Now, of course, there is no structural explanation for this in the general media. Instead, everyone looks around for who’s to blame, the prime target at the moment being AIG – the largest private insurance company n the US – who took an $85 billion dollar bailout, then came back for another $37.8 billion, and yet just blew half a million on a spa weekend for its top agents. But, even without an anti-capitalist analysis, even in a country in which anti-market rhetoric is so anathema, folks know where this all started, and the fingers are pointed squarely upon capital’s greatest, upon the financiers and speculators, upon the state that nurtured them, and upon the idea that war and patriotism are enough to live on.

The death-knell of capitalism? Perhaps not. But the last few years have looked a whole lot like the pre-Depression era. President Calvin Coolidge’s famous pronouncement, “The business of America is business.” The orgy of speculation leading to a massive over-extension of credit, such that by 1924 newspapers were already imagining what was to actually occur five years later – that the mountain of debt would come tumbling down and the system would be thrown into serious crisis.

So this isn’t the first time, by any means, and, yes, capital has weathered such storms before. But rarely has it survived anything this bad without a major overhaul, and without injecting a serious dose of regulation. So at least as far as varieties of capitalist rule are concerned, after watching the neoliberal juggernaut spit and stall at least since the mid 1990s – clearly at the end of its days despite hype to the contrary – that there ain’t much question that it’s ready for the scrap-heap.

Yup, a crisis of capital.

And what that really means is a crisis of capital’s ability to command labour effectively. A crisis in the drive to to extend the power of the market into new spheres of life. And that certainly creates a whole lot of uncertainty and a whole lot of instability and raises a bunch of questions we can’t begin to answer. What comes next? Does this take us even further down the road to barbarism or might some alternative – and I don’t mean Obama – begin to seize the public imagination? No doubt we’ll see a little of both.

There is no doubt human tragedy here. There is no question that for a whole lot of working people, this will translate into personal crisis. And there is no question that a political response is necessary – a housing response, an anti-poverty response.  But in terms of the financial crisis itself? This is a big moment, a paradigm-shifting moment, and a hugely profound crisis not only for the neoconservatives but for the market and for American Empire. And that ain’t something I’m crying over.

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Last evening Mica and I went down to the local Neighbourhood House to check out their new community gathering – a movie and potluck the last Monday of each month. Tonight’s feature – The Wizard of Oz. Now, as I’m sure we all have, I’ve seen this movie countless times. But tonight was interesting, because I watched the film with new eyes for a number of reasons.

First, this summer Mica and I went to visit my brother David, who lives in Queens, New York. Mica’s been keen to see New York City, and among the must-dos we identified was a Broadway show. Our choice? Wicked, based on Gregory Mcguire’s simply fantastic novel about the back-story to that most infamous of villains, the Wicked Witch of the West. The musical’s a good show – lots of fun and worth seeing. But the book is just fucking incredible. The Wizard is a dictator, using political manipulation, Nazi-esque scape-goating, a network of spies and naked military force to bring the previously-autonomous regions which comprise Oz under his control. The woman we all know as the Witch is Elphaba – a strong-willed young girl who bit by bit begins to uncover just what the Wiz is up to, and enters into a life underground – her mentor an outspoken academic critic assasinated by Oz’ right-hand woman, her lover a freedom-fighter murdered by the Wizard’s guard, her teachers in all things spiritual and ‘witchy’ an ancient order of holy women increasingly self-cloistered to protect themselves and their knowledge. It’s a brilliant novel which not only delves deep into the ways that states manufacture consent to the poiint that governing myths become simply ‘culture’ but which manages to tell a damn-good story too. Needless to say, read through Wicked and you’ll never see the Oz story the same again.

But that’s just the start. A few years back I was in Chicago for a union conference, and went on a fantastic labour history tour that included some awesome mural projects, Haymarket Square – site of the events that inspired the banner at the top of this blog – and the home of Chicago’s Evening Post, the newspaper that employed Oz author Frank L. Baum.

This in a labour history tour? Yup. And why that was appropriate came out in a long story told by the tour leader, based on a thesis that’s been kicking around academic and political circles for a number of years: that The Wizard of Oz is much more than a kids’ story – it’s a parable about America, industrialization, and the political economy of financial markets. Now, whether this is indeed the case is widely-debated. But a concensus begins to be emerging that whether Baum intended the book as such or not is largely irrelevant at this stage. Increasing numbers of people read Oz as a story of nation-building and struggle, and so it means that now, whatever the original vision of its author. OK. That’s a logic I understand, and one I appreciate. So, making no claims to historical truth, here’s the myth that keeps growing in a nutshell.

The whole thing is a parable about the debate over the gold standard. The value of US currency was pegged to gold, whose small world supply was controlled by a small group of bankers and financiers. In the 1890s, a substantial political movement – represented most notably by William Jennings Bryan  – sought to have the dollar pegged to silver, which was plentiful in the American West, in hopes that this might break the political-economic power of the financial elite and give greater clout to the broader mass of the population. At the time, many of the characters and symbols we associate with the Oz story were common devices in editorial cartoons and popular media, representing specific figures or ideas of political import. So, what to us appear products of Baum’s imagination were widely understood in that time as something else entirely.

The cyclone was a common symbol of political upheaval and social revolution at the time, figuring prominently in many a political cartoon.

The Scarecrow is the politically-naive farmer, his common-sense knowledge increasingly eschewed in favour of the bullshit spewing from economists and bankers.

The Tin Woodsman is the industrial worker – alienated, dehumanized, reduced to a cog in the machine.

The Cowardly Lion is Jennings Bryan himself, talking a good game but never willing to go far enough to force the confrontation with big finance that is necessary.

The Wicked Witch represents the money-elite of the West, foreclosing on farmers and destroying the agricultural heart of America. And she is defeated, of course, by water – the rains being the primary protection for small farmers for whom drought so often preceded the eviction notice.

The Wizard himself, of course, is the political manipulator – no individual as much as the machine that is the political system.

The Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard. And where does it lead but the Emerald City, which represents the dollar, and is fundamentally a place of all style and no substance – an imaginaed wealth which has nothing of real value behind it.

And Dorothy? The Everyman/ Everywoman, just trying to make her way in the world. What’s critical here, though, is the slippers. We all immediately fly to images of the ruby shoes, but that was a device of the movie. In the book, Dorothy wears silver slippers – representing, of course, the silver standard proposal at the heart of Jennings Bryan;s campaign, and the only thing that can safely carry America through this land that is all magic and mystification.

Oh, and Oz as title? That’s something we still see today, in gold and cookbooks – shorthand for ‘ounce’.

Again, is all this true? Who knows. Frank L. Baum always maintained that The Wizard of Oz was just a children’s story. But he was a reporter, he fell on the Jennings side of the gold-silver debate, and in later books he was known to mention political figures by name and go hardcore on the offense against massive institutions like Standard Oil. But really, at this stage it just don’t matter. The metaphor is there. It’s been debated extensively, and has taken on a life of its own. Cause books are as much about the readers as the writer.

Well, with all that in the back of my mind, what better day to see The Wizard of Oz again than on a day filled with news about the financial crisis in the States and the House of Representative’s rejection of a $700 billion bailout package for the speculators behind said crisis. As I sit down to the film, all this other Oz-related stuff comes floating back to me, and all I can think about is how much of an Oz-like moment we’re watching unfold. The great Wizard huffs and puffs and casts about for the right combination of smoke and excuses to hide his complete and total failure; the political-economic crisis is mystified as some unforeseen bit of black magic rather than the structural crisis that it is; the screen comes down and the bankruptcy of the market is laid bare for all to see, but so far there’s no Scarecrow to state so plainly, ‘You’re nothing but a humbug!”

Capitalism is fucking amazing. Every few years a crisis. And every few years a state steps in to declare that nothing’s really fundamentally wrong, it’s just a little tweaking, just a little ‘tighten-your-belts-and-pull-up-your-bootstraps’ and somehow, with the smoke and mirrors and flashing lights of ‘freedom freedom freedom’ the state helps capital to pull itself back from the the precipice. Morally bankrupt. Politically-illigitimate. Economically-disastrous. Ecologically-murderous. But that great founding myth, that one that tells us the invisible-hand is some infallible Wizard, that cities of emeralds are worth the sacrifice of munchkins in the fields, that the glory of the state is somehow the glory of us all – it keeps ticking on.

Capital, like Oz, is all about mystification and sleight of hand. That’s the very nature of the market – to mask the real relations of labour and coercion, of theft and murder, in this oh-so-natural exchange of money. You kill some people and take their stuff. You put them to work to feed themselves. And their children go to work. And their children go to work. And after a while no one remembers anymore that this process of going to work to get some cash to buy some food so you can wake up the next day and go back to work – all this began with killing some people and taking their stuff, and that the exchange of money for work is just the carrying on of that same theft and violence by other means. It’s really quite brilliant, really quite magical, how it all works. Cause after a time, all that was stolen appears earned. All these relations of power appear to be timeless and natural. And the real history vanishes in a haze of new explanations magicked out of the air.

When Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City, and finally get their audience with Oz, he thunders at them: “I intend to grant your requests. But first you must prove yourselves worthy.”

And this is indeed capital’s primary message of obfuscation. Everything is possible. Everything is attainable. If you can’t find a job that pays more than minimum wage, if you can’t afford to go to school, if you can’t feed your kids, if the bank forecloses on your home – it’s all down to you. You have not proven yourself worthy. And this, in turn, engenders a culture of delusion-inspired risk. A culture than breeds pyramid schemes, get-rich-quick scams, gambling and the stock market. Cause if you haven’t made it, there’s only two explanations. Either it’s your own damn fault cause you just ain’t good enough, or your horse hasn’t come in yet, and it’s only a matter of time. It can be, it must be, just around the corner. It is magic – it just happens, it will just happen, it must just happen, cause the only other option is to admit that I’m the one to blame for my own improverishment. It’s a mass brainwashing, the greatest of behaviour modification programs.

But every now and then….every once in a while, something happens that belies that notion. Something happens to knock down the screen, and the cracks in the foundation become so apparent, so naked, that it becomes possible to see something else. That maybe it’s not all down to individual failure. That maybe there is something bigger that’s wrong. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a systemic problem here. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something amiss with that great myth we’ve been living by.

And that’s what I’m watching these days. I’m watching the cracks in the order. I’m watching the eyes open up and the fingers start to point and the folks waiting for the bus talking and considering that maybe this ain’t their fault after all. I’m watching the screen go down, and we’re in that moment where Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion pause and look at each other, and begin to wonder if this little old man really is the Wizard he’s claimed, or if instead it is all humbug indeed. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is what’s the most fascinating and the most hopeful.

Will a second round of bailout talks save Oz for another day? I have no doubt. Indeed, Dorothy et al decide, after a few moments, to let the myth live on, and they take tjheir trinkets and smile and thank the Wiz and he floats off into the sky and everything goes back to normal again. Perhaps. Perhaps that is how the story ends. But, once again, how the story ends is only half of it. Cause it’s as much about the readers as the writer. And some readers remember. And as I know from my own experiences with Wicked and with that labour tour in Chicago, some readers never read a story quite the same way again.

Whatever happens, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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