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11/15/09

Michael Moore's 'Capitalism: A Love Story', Review-Part II

Ironically, the argument that the government could not do anything was proven time again by Republican mismanagement of the economy, the budget, national emergencies, etc. Indeed, it was to be expected, if you believe that government cannot do things right and you are in charge of government the result will be bad government. Thus, in their quest to reduce the size of government, the right and eventually the left increasingly privatized more and more of governments responsibilities leading to perverse incentives and bad outcomes; something that Moore showed effectively with the ‘PA Child Care’ example. Arguably, the Republican’s purposefully engaged in mass deficit spending so that the next government would have to cut spending, ergo, cut off the remaining remnants of the ‘New Deal’, which would then have the effect of further lowering taxes on the rich. The greatest effort was Bush’s effort to privatize social security, FDR’s greatest achievement, so that Wall St. could get trillions of dollars of new money to move around, unproductively. Since raising taxes in the United States was increasingly not an option for Republicans or Democrats, the only option--politically--was to cut spending. Herein lies the another defeat of the left in the United States. It occurred when the left, via Bill Clinton’s triangulation, accepted the meaning of the ‘government’ as defined by the right; as Slavoj Žižek argues: “The true victory...occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one's specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy” (Žižek 2007).

This is where Moore’s movie really makes a difference, it finally puts ‘capitalism’ into contention in the American political arena. This is crucially important, because it creates the conditions for real change. The right created those conditions in the 1970s and 1980s by making the term ‘government’ contentious, or what Ernesto Laclau calls a ‘floating signifier’; meaning that the content of the term is contested between different antagonistic camps in a hegemonic battle that structures the political. Throughout the movie Moore parodies and attacks the very idea that capitalism is a benevolent system that it is still somehow presented as being the same system, as imagined by Adam Smith of small firms that cannot influence prices, sentiments and are constrained by competition--premises effectively destroyed by Marx, Veblen, Sraffa, Harvey, Nitzan, etc. Moore then makes the case that capitalism proper is a system in which greed, avarice and anti-social behaviour ‘cannot be regulated’, because capitalism is what nurtures those sentiments in teh first place--it ‘retroactively’ creates its own presuppositions.

However, the weakness in Moore’s movie is that he is actually not asking for the destruction of the capitalist system, while at the same time seeking to destroy it--it reminds one of the eternal crisis of Social Democrats during the interwar period. In reality, Moore’s message is reformist, Moore wants to bring about a social democracy in the United States. Indeed, Moore used FDR’s rousing speech on the ‘Second Bill of Rights’, where FDR emphasized the importance of having positive rights along with negative rights, using FDR’s speech as a rallying point of his movement. FDR was a reformer that greatly improved the lives of millions of Americans, but he was still a capitalist--meaning he supported the essential social system of exploitation based on private property and private appropriation of the social surplus; the market system, as the superior means by which one allocates resources; and the existence of inequality and exploitation and domination of labour by the bourgeois, albeit certainly not to the same morally unacceptable extent that currently exists. Moore points to Italy, Germany and Japan’s constitutions where elements of FDR’s ideas were incorporated and uses them as examples of how society should look like, but they are still capitalist states themselves.

The thrust of Moore’s movie is, in reality, an argument against neoliberalism, against the concentration of society’s productive assets into fewer and fewer hands through the process of what David Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession’ and ‘spatio-temporal fixes’--best exemplified by Flint, Michigan. In addition, it is an argument against the justificatory discourse of neoliberalism that ‘greed is good’, there is no ‘we’ just ‘I’, and that profit motive--code for bourgeois income--is the be-all-end-all of our socio-economic existence; indeed, the best parody in the movie was Moore using Jesus Christ as a hack for the profit motive. Neoliberalism enabled this to occur by eroding the regulations, particularly financial regulations, and the social compact that enabled the stabilization of capitalism during the ‘golden era’. Moore’s compelling case is that capitalists depended on the exploitation of labour, land and capital in a certain place at a certain time to become rich and once that particular social arraignment no longer serves their interests they destroy that very socio-economic infrastructure, leaving those who created that wealth with nothing but misery, unemployment, debt and eventually abject poverty. Thus, what Moore is pointing to is that there is a unpaid ‘social debt’ that if left unpaid, could create a serious backlash against the system. Something even Citibank in its ‘plutonomy’ article noted:


Furthermore, the rising wealth gap between the rich and poor will probably at some point lead to a political backlash. Whilst the rich are getting a greater share of the wealth, and the poor a lesser share, political enfrachisement remains as was – one person, one vote (in the plutonomies). At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich. This could be felt through higher taxation (on the rich or indirectly though higher corporate taxes/regulation) or through trying to protect indigenous laborers, in a push-back on globalization – either anti-immigration, or protectionism. We don’t see this happening yet, though there are signs of rising political tensions. However we are keeping a close eye on developments (10).

Implicit in this quote, one can sense an agitation and apprehension with “political enfranchisement”, a recognition of the incommensurability between democracy and neoliberalism. This does not bode well for the future of our democracy if the rich are unwilling to compromise as social antagonism will certainly increase and both sides of this social antagonism may harden their absolutist positions. Not only that, the advances made by the American working class during the New Deal era have eroded as inequality has gone back up to pre-depression levels through the gradual erosion of the welfare state. The left has failed because it has accepted the socially-constructed pressures of globalization as truth--the ‘Third Way’--, as inevitable conditions of capitalism. Materially, the destruction of the union movement through deindustrialization and regressive tax policies have eroded the institutional means that labour was able to defend its interests against capital.

However, Moore at the same time raises the important question about capitalism proper. The real question embedded in Moore’s polemic is, can this socio-economic crisis be avoided within capitalism? Certainly, the immutable laws of capitalism, accumulation, lead it endemic crises of overaccumulation and underconsumption. Thus, the economic part of the socio-economic equation leaves me with no doubt that, no we cannot avoid crisis within capitalism. However, that alone is not enough to create the sort of systemic crisis that could undermine capitalism as a system. A truly revolutionary and/or hegemonic moment occurs when capitalism is unable to absorb, or ‘transform’ demands within the political system. A well functioning liberal-democratic state was able to ward off the crisis of the Great Depression, because it was able to absorb the demands stemming form the population before those demands manifested into something entirely different. This is Gramscian notion of ‘transformism’ is termed as ‘democratic demands’ by Laclau. What Moore is advocating is for this sort of welfarist, liberal-democracy that can deal with particular demands within a capitalist system, with the added element of worker-democracy. Thus, Moore is ironically trying to save capital from it own avarice and greed and if capital had any vested interest in its long-term existence, it should listen to Moore instead of dismissing him.

If we want to be truly anti-capitalist, then we have to stop believing in it:

While capitalism is resolutely "materialistic" (what ultimately matters is wealth, real power, pleasures, all other things are just "noble lies," chimerae covering up this hard truth), this cynical wisdom itself has to rely on a vast network of belief: the whole capitalist system functions only insofar as one plays the game and "believes" in money, takes it seriously, and practices a fundamental trust in others who are also supposed to participate in the game. Capital markets, now valued at an estimated $83 trillion, exist within a system based purely on self-interest, in which herd behavior, often based on rumors, can inflate or destroy the value of companies —or whole economies —in a matter of hours. (Zizek 303)

11/12/09

Comrade Glenn Beck...well, in another dimension sure

Glenn Beck, the latest media superstar in the United States, represents to liberals a racist, jingoist, parochial, sexist and ignorant person. He—along with his female counterpart, Sarah Palin—have become the personification, a caricature of everything wrong with the right-wing and American politics in general. Glenn’s rants against Obama as a ‘socialist’, ‘Nazi’, ‘fascist’, ‘racist’, etc., sound like the ramblings of a mad-man more than anything, appealing to the very bottom fringes of the American body politic. Beck freely admits that he is a clown, a self-taught man, who merely seeks to ask questions against ‘power’. However, I would not be surprised if given another set of historical circumstances, Glenn Beck would have been a communist, the same type of person he so derides.

First, before we delve into that, what is Beck actually trying to say? The criticism that Beck elucidates is anger against a lost, puritan notion of America, a righteous America that has been taken away from ‘real Americans’—WASPS—and given to undeserving poor, minority, illegal immigrant others. Beck, by necessity, has an essentialist—meaning non-debatable—notion of what America is, and who is a ‘real American’. This is why Beck is a conservative, because he sees the fundamental antagonism in society as an external one. This antagonism comes from outside the totality of what he considers ‘America’, these individuals and ideas are ‘invaders’ into America, seeking to weaken it, these include: blacks; Latinos; homosexuals; feminists; and liberals, generally whites who he considers to be traitors and no longer American. This is not unlike the vision of the Jews in Germany, who were legally German, but simultaneously not ‘German’, or the socialists/communists in Nazi Germany. Thus, when Beck and the 9.12 protesters call Obama a ‘fascist’, a ‘Nazi’, etc., it is clearly a case of projection.

Ironically, in order to prove his point, Beck used television commercials from the 1950s-1970s to remind Americans of a simpler time; importantly, it is what he obfuscated from that ‘simpler time’ that is telling, that was the heavy state and union involvement in the economy and the hegemony of FDR’s liberalist-modernist project rejecting the very thin critiques that Beck uses against the state and Obama. Indeed, it was a simpler time because the state was more wiling to manage and regulate capital in such a way to alleviate the boom and bust cycle of capitalism that we have gotten used to in the post-Reagan era and to redistribute income in a way that enabled a positive feed-back loop of increasing consumption coupled with increased real incomes for all sectors. Yet, it is Obama who is threatening to undermine the capitalist economy by trying to rebalance the economy. Capital itself is victim in all this according to the corporate apologist Beck who ignores capital’s own dynamics of under-consumption and speculative excess under the guise of the ‘free market’; what is also obfuscated is Bush’s creation of large, unpaid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Medicaid expansion and his regressive multi-trillion dollar tax-cuts that are being paid for with debt. Beck goes further and suggests that Obama is also trying to undermine the Constitution—how exactly, no one knows—, even though Bush did more than any president in history to do that, i.e. the Patriot Act, domestic wiretapping/surveillance of ordinary people, torture, etc.

Beck, taking a cue from Ron Paul—le nuveau Goldwater—blames the government for all the ills that America faces today, from economic depression to social and moral decay. The free market, competition, the ‘American Way’ has not been tried since Reagan and that is why the United States is a proverbial ship without a sail, it has lost its moral compass and is adrift in the sea of Marxist-relativism. American democracy, as it currently exists, is a sham, because ACORN, Marxists, certain un-liked corporations have captured it; the real loser here are the ‘real Americans’ and the tradition of the ‘founders’.

The solution? More capitalism, not less; more exclusion, not less; more war, not less. We have to go back to the ideals expressed in the ‘Constitution’, assuming that the content of the constitution is fixed and is not itself a ‘floating signifier’. However, like in Eastern Europe, who is facing its own disillusionment with capitalism—as per my previous post—the right’s critique is totally misguided. As Zizek argues in an article for the New York Times on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall:

The new anti-Communism provides a simple answer to the question: “If capitalism is really so much better than Socialism, why are our lives still miserable?” It is because, many believe, we are not really in capitalism: we do not yet have true democracy but only its deceiving mask, the same dark forces still pull the threads of power, a narrow sect of former Communists disguised as new owners and managers — nothing’s really changed so we need another purge, the revolution has to be repeated ... What these belated anti Communists fail to realize is that the image they provide of their society comes uncannily close to the most abused traditional leftist image of capitalism: a society in which formal democracy merely conceals the reign of a wealthy minority. In other words, the newly born anti-Communists don’t get that what they are denouncing as perverted pseudo-capitalism simply is capitalism.

This is why I say Beck, at a different historical moment, could have actually been a communist. The critique that Beck offers, stripped of all its reactionary nonsense, is essentially a critique of capitalism itself and the fa├žade of liberal-democracy in its neoliberal, ‘consensual’ frame of the post-political Presidency of Barack Obama—Obama is NOT a leftist. The problem is that discourse in the Untied States, in large part due to the surrender of the left during the Cold War to the universal language of the right, viz., socialism is evil, and in much of the world today, rejects the left alternative a priori. The result is Glenn Beck and the 9.12 movement, the Fox News network and Paulista’s, many of whom are actually from the left.

The importance of Beck can be summarized in thie quote from Zizek’s book, In Defence of Lost Causes: “What the new populist Right and the Left share is just one thing; the awareness that politics proper is still alive”. The problem is, there is no more left—although, that is not an inevitable condition, it can be reversed—, thus, the solution is either right-wing proto-fascism or what we have now, consensual politics of ever-encroaching corporate power and domination.

11/7/09

On Capitalism's impossibility....

Slavoj Zizek is a very important influence on my thinking and academic work, because he takes it step further, viz., by not compromising with liberal-democracy, than most critical theorists are wiling to go today. One of his  ingenious insights is on how capitalism's own impossibility and inherent contradiction, its own lack of totality is, simultaneously, it's structuring condition. The following passage is a quote from his book and will certainly influence my academic work:

      
  • Recall the classical Marxist account of the overcoming of capitalism: capitalism unleashed the breathtaking dynamics of self-enhancing productivity—in capitalism, "all that is solid melts into air," capitalism is the greatest revolutionizer in the history of humanity; on the other hand, this capitalist dynamic is propelled by its own inner obstacle or antagonism—the ultimate limit of capitalism (of capitalist self-propelling productivity) is Capital itself, that is, capitalism's incessant development and revolutionizing of its own material conditions, the mad dance of its unconditional spiral of productivity, is ultimately nothing but a desperate fuite en avant to escape its own debilitating inherent contradictions . . . Marx's fundamental mistake was here to conclude, from these insights, that a new, higher social order (communism) was possible, an order that would not only maintain, but even raise to a higher degree and fully release the potential of the upward spiral of productivity without it being thwarted by socially destructive economic crises. In short, what Marx overlooked is that, to put it in standard Derridean terms, this inherent obstacle/antagonism as the "condition of impossibility" of the full deployment of the productive forces is simultaneously its "condition of possibility": if we abolish the obstacle, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, we do not get the fully unleashed drive finally freed from its shackles, but rather we lose precisely this very productivity that seemed to be simultaneously generated and stifled by capitalism, for it simply dissipates . . . And it is as if this logic of the "obstacle as a positive condition" which underlay the failure of socialist attempts to overcome capitalism, is now returning with a vengeance in capitalism itself: capitalism can fully thrive not in the unencumbered reign of the market, but only when an obstacle (from minimal welfare-state intervention, up to and including the direct political rule of the Communist Party, as in the case of China) constrains its unimpeded rampage (190).


11/4/09

1989: Twenty-years on, history thrives!

    A recent poll done by Pew Research on the attitudes of Eastern Europeans after two decades of liberal-capitalist reforms suggests that the shine is off the market-utopia.  Indeed, the poll goes much further than I even expected; in it most E.Europeans actually expressed their belief that their economic situation was better under bureaucratic-socialism than under neoliberal capitalism. This flies in the face of all conventional--ideological--wisdom that is propagated here in the West about the inherent superiority of our system.  Here is the actual quote:

  

Majorities or pluralities in six of the eight Eastern European countries surveyed say the     economic situation of most people in their country is worse today than it was under     communism. Hungarians offer the most negative assessments – 72% say most in their     country are worse off today. Majorities in Bulgaria and Ukraine share that view (62%     each), as do about half of Lithuanians and Slovaks (48% each) and 45% of Russians. (40)

    This is actually very telling considering that all these countries, with the exception of the Ukraine, have far surpassed their 1988-89 per capita peak.  Therefore, this suggests that the problem with the capitalist economies is that the gains of that growth have not trickled down, but upwards. This puts into question the very importance of economic growth without equity, indeed, what is the purpose of growth if the people do not benefit. This measure is a very large indictment against the capitalist system, because the persons are saying that they are actually worse off.

    Although, to be fair, the condemnation of the capitalist system is not equal, as the burdens do not fall equally within the capitalist system. There are differences among the generations and sexes. According to the poll:

   

As is the case with opinions about the move from a state-controlled economy to a market economy, women, those who did not attend college and those who are 65 or older are     generally more negative in their assessments of whether most people in their country are     better off or worse off today than they were under communism. The views of those in     urban or rural areas vary slightly, if at all.  (Ibid)

The part about women is instructive, women in the socialist bloc were certainly more free than women in the capitalist West. The socialist states facing severe labour shortages needed women to participate and the state created institutions that allowed women to become ‘breadwinners’, with child-care being largely done by the state, free of charge. Never-mind the large state funded youth-organizations that further enabled women to pursue careers and have more free-time, a luxury that most women in the West do not have. The importance of these organizations were so important that even the East German currency highlighted the importance of family and the state’s provision of child-care as a defining characteristic of its system (http://www.banknotes.com/ddr32.htm)

As the ‘wall fell’ in 1989, those institutions were privatized or simply eliminated. Women did not simultaneously lose their responsibilities as ‘breadwinners’, instead they now had to juggle family and work like their counterparts in the West. The Pew poll goes on to note about the gender gap:

   

As was the case in 1991, women are generally less enthusiastic about the move from a     state-controlled to a market economy. For example, 52% of Hungarian men approve and 38% disapprove of the economic changes that have taken place in their     country since 1989. Hungarian women express more negative views – 41% approve and 45% disapprove of the changes. In Ukraine, just 30% of women approve of their country’s     move to a market economy, while a majority (52%) disapproves; Ukrainian men are nearly     evenly split (44% approve and 41% disapprove).  In Russia, however, the gender gap on     views about economic changes since the collapse of communism has evaporated. In 1991,     Russian men and women were more divided than men and women in any other country     surveyed – 64% of men approved of the changes, compared with 46% of women. Today,     about half of men (49%) and women (50%) express positive views of Russia’s move to a     market economy (38-39).


    Another interesting, although not entirely surprising conclusion, is the rise of nationalism and ethno-centrism in the former socialist bloc. With the erosion of the ideal of socialist-internationalism, the ‘other’, instead of being an ally in the struggle for emancipation, became the competitor for scarce resources. What is interesting is how the Pew poll measures this. They asked Russians if ‘Russia is a naturally imperialistic nation’ in 1991 and today, the results are frightening:


As for the Russians themselves, there has been an upsurge in nationalist sentiment since the     early 1990s. A majority of Russians (54%) agree with the statement “Russia should be for     Russians”; just 26% agreed with that statement in 1991. Moreover, even as they embrace     free market capitalism, fully 58% of Russians agree that “it is a great misfortune that the     Soviet Union no longer exists.” And nearly half (47%) say “it is natural for Russia to have     an empire [up from 37 percent in 1991]” 
(2)

    The collapse of a viable, uncompromising left-alternative throughout the world in the last quarter of the twentieth-century saw the emergence of a reactionary, rightist discourse that re-articulated what it means to be anti-systemic: from anti-capital, for capital; and in a typically fascist twist, obfuscated and denied class by appealing to ethno-centrism. This is the esssence of the left-right distinction put forward by Zizek:



They [the Leftist and Rightist] not only occupy different places within the political space;     each of them perceives the very disposition of the political space differently--a Leftist as     the field that is inherently split by some fundamental antagonism; a Rightist as the organic     unity of a Community disturbed only by foreign intruders (Zizek, 113). 


Anti-establishment can be articulated in both senses, although, only one is truly anti-establishment, the left--that is not to suggest that the left will reach the positive utopian space communism, but it certainly is a progressive force fighting for more not less equality and liberty. However, appealing to the racialized other as the enemy is the time-honoured tradition of the reactionary wing of politics. This aspect of post-modern politics is not limited to the former Soviet bloc, even in the United States, the anti-'illegal immigrant’ mania of CNN’s Lou Dobbs, among others is indicative of this regressive political trend with the collapse of the left--this anti-illegal immigrant position is ironic on many levels, including, but not limited to: the pilgrims were, essentially, ‘illegal’ colonizers; the United States, like Russia, illegally colonized, dispossessed and appropriated the lands that were occupied by the now ‘illegals’. Indeed, the left should be articulating the aforementioned ironies, or founding sins of history, to get over the reactionary logic's of the right and to build bridges between peoples, viz. cosmopolitanism. This can only be accomplished by a left that is unafraid of being a left, that does not accept the terrain of the enemy, for to accept it is to lose the battle before it has even begun.

    If we want a more just society, the left must not be so polite as to assume that antagonism is over and we can have, what Chantal Mouffe calls ‘consensus politics’. All politics, where I agree with Ernesto Laclau, is based on antagonism and, essentially, populism. If we want to build a cosmopolitan era, we must still have an antagonism and that antagonism must within not without, and that antagonism must be capital and all it symbolizes. As the polls from  Russia show, socialist-internationalism was well entrenched in 1991; today, with the logics of liberal-nationalism, we have seen a great regression back into the abyss of reactionary subjectivities.

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