Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Terminal Crisis?

Last week I wrote: "It appears that the capitalist system, which necessarily undergoes periodic crises, may have entered its terminal crisis." What could I mean by that? What would it mean for capitalism to be in terminal crisis? (And how equivocal can I be? Appears! May!) It sure sounds like the end of capitalism doesn't it? Does it seem like that's likely? In a comment to that post, Aaron Bady expressed his discomfort with this very rhetoric of "terminal crisis": "Capitalism is such a protean term", he reminds us, "that something capitalist will survive, even if it isn't anything recognizably similar to what we're blessed with now." True. Probably. For all my offline joking about collapse ("we're not even going to have cars in 16 years" being my stock response to the question of Mirah one day learning to drive. . .), I hardly think capitalism is simply going to end. And if it did, it's not as if we're ready for it.

So it's likely that we're going to be embroiled in some version of the capitalist system for the foreseeable future. What about it, then? The point is not to attempt to accurately forecast the demise of one system (as if such a thing were possible), an imaginary in which we end up scraping by in the rabble. The point is how to force a change in a time of possibility, or how to carve out viable, perhaps expandable, alternatives. This is just one reason why events such as the City from Below conference, which I belatedly advertized below, are so important. People coming together, developing ties, trying to figure out ways to, at least, force the hand of capital to resolve the current crisis in a way that doesn't utterly fuck those who are not super-rich.

We had hoped to learn a lot at the conference, meet new people, and so on; unfortunately, we were unable to attend much of it, for a variety of reasons (most of them having something to do with a certain little girl's sleep problems). I did, however, manage to catch the opening panel discussion on Friday night. Gratifyingly, the room (at 2640, of course; where else?) was diverse and packed (and there seemed to be plenty of people in attendance the one other time we made it down to check things out). To give you a little bit of a flavor, the participants in this opening panel were Max Rameau, from Take Back the Land in Miami; Shiri Pasternak, from Toronto; Esther Wang, from CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities in New York; and David Harvey. The first three were unfamiliar to me and all had interesting and inspiring things to say about work they've been doing. You may, for example, have heard about Take Back the Land's work in Florida, placing homeless people in abandoned houses or returning families to their foreclosed homes. Pasternak talked about continuing enclosure among Canada's indigenous communities, as well as abandoned properties more generally, and a proposed "use or lose it" bylaw. Wang reminded us that communities like that of Chinatown in New York--a poor island surrounded on all sides by wealth, Soho, Tribeca, etc--have been facing crisis for some time, which has only been intensified by the particular crisis of the last year. These were just some of the things touched upon; if I can get my act together, perhaps I'll assemble and post some more detailed notes I took during the discussion.

For now, I want to mention a couple of things Harvey said. His opening remarks were in essence a review of the thesis of his valuable book A Brief History of Neoliberalism. He reminded us that the nature of each successive crisis in capitalism depends on how the previous crisis was resolved. The solution to the crisis of the 1970s was the current neoliberal regime.

It so happens that in recent weeks I've been slowly making my way through Harvey's monumental book, The Limits to Capital. I've found it rough going in parts, primarily because, not unlike getting lost in all the Russian names in a Tolstoy novel, I tend to have difficulty keeping straight ideas that go by similar-sounding names (the obvious basic ones being "value", "use value", and "exchange value"), which is only exacerbated by not having time to sit and take detailed notes while reading. In short, Harvey's book is a sort of critical explication of Marx's Capital and his related economic writings, such as the Grundisse, along with critical surveys of the subsequent Marxian and bourgeois analyses of both Marx and various economic concepts in general. Let's face it: this stuff is enormously complicated. Marx defines capital as a process, and keeping track of all of the elements of the process--socially necessary labour time, class struggle, surplus value, accumulation, technological and organizational change, money, credit, finance, circulation, rent, mobility, etc.--and their inherent contradictions isn't easy. For all that, the book has been very helpful; though many of the technical details remain, for now, confusing, the argument as a whole is helping to illuminate much. It was especially interesting reading the chapters on money, credit, and finance in light of current events (and how, with each successive crisis, the financial system necessarily gets more and more rarefied, removed from the production economy, which only makes subsequent crises potentially more dangerous).

In addition, it strikes me as somewhat comical that the self-congratulatory so-called empiricism of Anglo-American intellectuals and bourgeois economists should have essentially dismissed Marx out of hand--after all, merely reading Capital is tantamount to being a communist, isn't it? it's the same as The Communist Manifesto, right? and Stalin was pretty bad, wasn't he?--when you'd think it would be important to try to actually understand how capitalism actually works. But ideology can be a bitch (speaking of which, free market libertarians and Friedmanites really need to read this stuff and stop talking blather about freedom and nature and other such ill-understood bullshit). For my part, I consider this only a first pass at really getting my head wrapped around the contradictory workings of capitalism (adding to what I have been able to glean from works by Ellen Meiksins Wood, other books by Harvey, etc). My plan is still to read Capital, while either watching or listening to Harvey's lecture series on it. Anyway, the point is that I find myself heavily immersed in working out the theoretical problems of capitalism, not so I can smugly tell myself, "well, I've tackled that! time to move on to Finnegans Wake. . .", the acquistion of knowledge for its own sake being perhaps of entertainment value, but little else. No, I want to better understand what it is we--I--could do under the circumstances, other than just sit around waiting for things to happen, in part by better understanding what those circumstances really are.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the other remark made by David Harvey that I'd like to mention here before finishing up. He talked about "the myth of home ownership". This has been a rant-worthy topic of mine for several years ("home ownership is a scam", I'll tell anyone who will listen, which unfortunately for them is usually my wife or my co-workers), so naturally I was pleased to hear him say it. He said that capital started pushing home ownership among the working classes during the Great Depression, which was obviously a time of massive labor unrest. The idea is that "people with mortgages don't go on strike". Truer words have rarely been spoken. It's brilliant, really. More powerful than getting workers to invest in the stock market (how stupid is a 401k? why do I have one? I don't believe in the stock market!). I've been trying to come to some point of action in my own life--selling the house and not buying another is but one potential part of that. But it's not as if renters are secure. This is one reason why an important battle is for rights to the city, rights to the commons, reclaiming the commons, re-establishing the commons, recovering abandoned territory, and so on. In this context, Harvey also mentioned the need for a right to residency (you can't vote if you don't have an address). There is much to do.


Selig said...

Have you read anything by Moishe Postone? If not I recommend it. His Time, Labor, and Social Domination is, in my opinion, extremly valueable. Although it is, at times, very complicated it is absolutly worth it. Check out Rethinking Marx (in a Post-Marxist World) ( for a good introduction. Postone writes from a so called "value form paradigm" (I think its called) that goes at odds with much of traditional marxism.

(Sorry for my bad english.)

Richard said...

Hi Selig. Thanks for the comment and the recommendation. I have not heard of Postone.

Also, your English is fine.