A Critique of the Critique of Finance: Critics of neoliberal capitalism rarely recognize the productive power of speculation

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 24/02/2018 - 12:46am in

by Martijn Konings

If there is one theme that unites the various critiques of contemporary finance, it is the emphasis on its speculative character. Financial growth is said to be driven not by the logic of efficient markets, but rather by irrational sentiment, “animal spirits” that do not respect fundamental values.
Emphasizing the role of volatility in contemporary capitalism (evident at the time of writing, as the stock market is experiencing a downturn) is important as an antidote to notions of market efficiency and equilibrium. But it is a mistake to think that it provides a sufficient basis for effective critique. Predictions regarding the limits or collapse of neoliberal finance have simply not enjoyed a good track record. Over and over, the contemporary financial system has proven capable of sustaining higher levels of speculative activity than anticipated. This has certainly been true of the past decade. Capital and Time: For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason is my attempt to make sense of this—that is, to understand what might be wrong or missing in the existing heterodox critique of speculation, and to advance a more accurate understanding of the role of uncertainty, risk, and speculation in contemporary capitalism.
Capital and Time For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason KONINGSAt the heart of the critique of speculation we find a distinction between real and fictitious forms of value. Although “essentialist” (or “foundationalist”) modes of explanation have been under fire across the social sciences for several decades now, when it comes to the critique of finance they have had considerable staying-power: without a notion of real value, it often seems, we lose any objective standard against which to assess the speculative gyrations of capitalist markets.
Capital and Time asks what kind of critical theory we might develop if we bracket the anxious attachment to a notion of fundamental value. To that end, it turns to the work of economist Hyman Minsky. Although Minsky has been popularized precisely as a critic of speculation, he in fact insisted that almost all value judgments and investments were to some degree speculative—their success or failure would be determined in an unknown future. For him, the key economic question is how order emerges in a world that offers no guarantees, how more or less stable standards and norms arise amidst uncertainty.
Of course, the “endogenous” origin of financial standards is a well-rehearsed theme in heterodox economics—indeed, it is a staple of the “post-Keynesian” literature that claims Minsky’s legacy. But such perspectives have never been able to break with the idea that financial stability is at its core dependent on external interventions that suppress speculative impulses. For Minsky, however, this is to miss the point about endogeneity. To his mind, there was no clear dividing line between financial practices and their governance: central banks and other public authorities are no more able to see into the future and to transcend uncertainty than private investors are.
Minsky was therefore highly skeptical about official claims of discretionary precision management: financial governance is always embroiled in the very risk logic that it is charged with managing. That also means that financial policy can appear quite ordinary, even banal: at the heart of capitalist financial management is a logic of backstopping and bailout that responds to the possibility that the failure of an institution may take down wider financial structures.
The stability of the post-New Deal financial system is often attributed to the Glass-Steagall separation of the stock market and commercial banking. But Minsky tended to view Glass-Steagall as one of several measures to direct bank credit away from the stock market towards other, no less speculative ends, notably consumer and mortgage financing. To his mind, the stability of the post-war period derived rather from the creation of an extensive financial safety net (which included, for instance, deposit insurance, which removed the rationale behind bank runs) that served to socialize risk.
This institutional arrangement turned out to have a significant drawback: a pattern of chronic inflation emerged that, by the late 1970s, was widely perceived as a major problem. Minsky’s lack of faith in the possibility of cleanly staged external interventions led him to feel that that there was no real way out of this predicament. Monetarist doctrines, ascendant during the 1970s under the influence of Milton Friedman, relied on exactly the belief in an arbitrarily defined monetary standard that Minsky rejected as naïve. Muddling through, it seemed, was the price of avoiding another financial crash and depression.
The Volcker shock of 1979 changed this dynamic in a way that Minsky had not foreseen but that is comprehensible when seen through the lens he provided us with. Paul Volcker looked to monetarism not as a means to enforce an external limit or standard on the financial system, but as a politically expedient way to break with accommodating policies and to proactively engage the endogenous dynamics of finance. The consequences of the Volcker shock were predictable (which is exactly why the Federal Reserve had been reluctant to pursue similar policies in previous years): inflation gave way to instability and crisis. Inflation was conquered as jobs were lost and wages stagnated. And, far from money being returned to its neutral exchange function, opportunities for speculation multiplied.
The American state was never going to sit idly by as the financial system returned to dynamics of boom and bust: when instability took the form of systemic threats, authorities would bail out the institutions that had overextended themselves. Of course, Volcker would not have been able to predict the specific features of the too-big-to-fail regime as it emerged during the 1980s and evolved subsequently; but the very point of the neoliberal turn in financial management that he had overseen was to create a context where risk could be socialized in ways that were more selective and therefore did not entail generalized inflation.
The inflation of asset values that has been such a marked feature of the past four decades has always been premised centrally on the willingness of authorities to view the “moral hazard” of the too-big-to-fail logic as a policy instrument—even if they may have decried it officially as a regrettable corruption of market principles. Spectacular bailouts, mundane policies to protect the key nodes of the payment systems, the “Greenspan put”, the different iterations of quantitative easing—these are all variations on that basic too-important-to-fail logic.
Existing critical perspectives tend to view crisis and the need for bank bailouts as manifesting the essential incoherence of neoliberal finance, its lack of solid foundations and the irrationality of speculation. Capital and Time breaks with such moralistic assessments. The way deepening inequality and the speculative growth of asset values continue to feed off each other is troubling for any number of reasons, but there is nothing inherently “unsustainable” about it—the process does not have a natural or objective limit.
At this point in time, the critique of speculation does little more than lend credibility to official discourses that present crises as preventable and bailouts as one-off, never-to-be-repeated interventions. In that way, it prevents us from critically relating to a neoliberal reality that has been shaped to its core by the speculative exploitation of risk and uncertainty, and in which regressive risk socialization serves as the everyday logic of financial governance.
* Martijn Konings is Associate Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is the author of The Emotional Logic of Capitalism and Capital and time: For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason. This post originally appeared on the Stanford University Press blog

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Foucault: Neoliberalism is not laissez-faire, but permanent vigilance, activity, and intervention

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 29/01/2018 - 3:44pm in

The Birth of BiopoliticsThe following Michel Foucault’s sharp insights on neoliberalism were presented during his lecture series “The Birth of Biopolitics” at the Collège de France in 1979 — a few months before Thatcher and Reagan took power, but several decades after Walter Lippmann, Wilhelm Röpke, Alexander Rüstow, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mise, and Milton Friedman articulated, formulated, and then vigorously disseminated their ideas.
Neo-liberalism is not Adam Smith; neo-liberalism is not market society; neo-liberalism is not the Gulag on the insiduous scale of capitalism.
So, what is this neo-liberalism?… The problem of neo-liberalism was not how to cut out or contrive a free space of the market within an already given political society, as in the liberalism of Adam Smith and the eighteenth century. The problem of neo-liberalism is rather how the overall exercise of political power can be modeled on the principles of a market economy. So it is not a question of freeing an empty space, but of taking the formal principles of a market economy and referring and relating them to, of projecting them on to a general art of government. This, I think, is what is at stake, and I tried to show you that in order to carry out this operation, that is to say, to discover how far and to what extent the formal principles of a market economy can index a general art of government, the neo-liberals had to subject classical liberalism to a number of transformations.

The first of these… was basically that of dissociating the market economy from the political principle of laissez-faire. I think this uncoupling of the market economy and laissez-faire policies was achieved, or was defined,at any rate, its principle was laid down, when the neo-liberals put forward a theory of pure competition in which competition was not presented as in any way a primitive and natural given, the very source and foundation of society that only had to be allowed to rise to the surface and be rediscovered as it were. Far from it being this, competition was a structure with formal properties, [and] it was these formal properties of the competitive structure that assured, and could assure, economic regulation through the price mechanism… Neoliberalism should not therefore be identified with laissez-faire, but rather with permanent vigilance, activity, and intervention.” (Foucault 2008: 131-2)
Foucault, Michel. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979. Palgrave Macmillan.

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NSW Government To Lower House Prices By Making Sydney Unliveable

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 25/01/2018 - 8:18am in



The NSW State Government has announced their housing affordability plan which centers around making the State unliveable for those that earn less than $100,000 per year.

“Let’s face it the exploding population is leading to the demand for housing to go up hence the prices,” said a Government Spokesperson. “So if we drive people away who can’t afford to buy a house, problem solved.”

When asked how they plan to do this the Spokesperson replied: “Well we started with the lock out laws, I mean who wants to live in a State where you can’t buy a bottle of wine after 11pm. When that didn’t have the desired effect we thought let’s muck up the trains. So we’ll see where this goes people, are angry so let’s hope it starts to shift them interstate.”

“Other measures we have planned are over crowded schools, underfunded hospitals and did you see how we’re going to blow two billion on stadiums for rugby league. What a pisser that is, no one ever goes and watches league. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to poke people with a stick as they line up to catch a bus.”

Mark Williamson

You can follow The (un)Australian on twitter or like us on facebook.

NSW Premier Promises To Make The Pokies Run On Time

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/01/2018 - 8:41am in


state, Labor, liberal

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has promised all of the State’s residents that the upcoming train strike will have no effect on the State’s precious gambling industry.

“I assure you all that we will move heaven and earth to make sure that any resident of NSW that wants to play the pokies on January 29th will be able to play the pokies,” said the Premier. “We will be running special charter buses to and from the Casino and any resident who wishes to go to their local RSL to gamble can simply call Transport Minister Andrew Constance directly and he will give them a lift.”

When asked what the Premier would do for those who are unable to get to work or school the Premier replied: “We need to priortise and we all know that in NSW nothing comes before gambling. So to those that can’t get to work take a day off go and play the pokies or maybe some roulette.”

“For those with kids many RSL’s have childcare attached so bring the kiddies along, just don’t leave them in the car.”

NSW Opposition leader Luke Foley when reached for comment on the upcoming train strike said: “This Government needs to do more to keep the trains running. I mean people won’t be able to get to the greyhounds and that is a disgrace.”

“We need to keep greyhound racing strong. Hang on if the train tracks aren’t being used then we could race the dogs along them. Oh that’s an idea who said Luke Foley doesn’t have any policies.”

Mark Williamson

You can follow The (un)Australian on twitter or like us on facebook.

Memory Chemicals (1979)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/10/2017 - 1:14am in

Just as Scarfolk Council demanded control over cultural memories and the historical narrative taught in schools, it also wanted to control individuals' memories.

To ensure a docile, compliant populace, Scarfolk promoted the idea of clumsy townsfolk forever stumbling into situations and seeing and hearing things they shouldn't, and proposed that measures be taken so that citizens only retained information that reflected the official party line at any given time.

Building on the success of the Black Spot Card campaign, potent, neurotoxic chemicals (and, in some cases, a steel truncheon) were employed, according to one leaflet, to: "cleanse unnecessary or redundant memories, so as to unclutter the mind".

The campaign and treatments were so effective that some people became inexplicably afraid not only to go outside but also to go into rooms in their own homes in case they saw or overheard something forbidden.

Those who could still manage to venture into rooms immediately forgot why they were there and, following a deluge of confused calls to the authorities, they had to be reminded that they had forgotten, and should now forget that they had remembered that they had forgotten.

Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/09/2017 - 12:31pm in

by Andrew Kolin*

The task at hand is to place the political economy of repression within the contours of U.S. history and sketch in broad terms how, over time, repression is the product of dynamic and fixed relations between capital and labor. The goal of Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States (2017) is to represent how capital is able to repress labor given essential prerequisites. By identifying how capital and labor interact, it is possible to outline the main features of repression. The intent is not to write a comprehensive history of capital-labor relations, instead it is to select specific points in time that best illustrate how capital represses labor. While this book makes use of important histories of labor, these histories do not address the book’s central themes, how a political economy of repression is produced and reproduced within institutional frameworks often overlooked in standard histories of  labor.
Labor historians often overlook how capital-labor interactions are structured in terms of the production and reproduction of repression, ignoring the bases of repression, grounded in and expressed through institutional exclusion. They also overlook how labor repression can be overcome due to the contradictory nature inherent in a political economy of repression. The first step in outlining the possible liberation of labor from a political economy of repression is to consider the historical conditions that produce the repression of labor in the United States.
Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United StatesThere are notable exceptions to this neglect of class relations in the context of institutional arrangements. This book’s emphasis is on key historical moments that illustrate how labor repression developed in terms of two key variables: first, a dependent variable that operates as institutional exclusion as capital assumes and works to maintain control over the state and the economy, and second, an independent variable, in key historical moments where one can measure the intent of labor repression in terms of the rise and fall of American capitalism.
The dependent variable appearing as institutional exclusion generates various forms of covert repression. For the repression to be covert, it would be built into the functions of the state and the economy in which capital has achieved hegemony. This dependent variable of institutional exclusion occurs as capital achieves a monopoly of ownership over the means of production. In so doing, ownership serves to legitimate the use of covert repression of labor in the workplace. In addition, excluding labor from a primary role as a decision-maker in the state results from elite ownership of state power, which in turn, justifies policies and actions, which recreate the oppression of labor. Frequently omitted from labor histories is this dual institutional exclusion, which makes it possible for elites to monopolize the resources of power, and in so doing, dominate labor. Expressions of overt repression, such as degrees of force and violence operating outside institutional frameworks, are the most visible forms of social control of labor.
Specific events dictate the usefulness of covert and overt repression. In comparing the present to the past, capital has been successful in utilizing with a greater degree of effectiveness covert rather than overt repression, especially in the latter part of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century. A qualification in assessing the use of covert and overt repression is the extent to which labor acknowledges its institutional exclusion, seeking to organize labor so as to be in a better position to achieve limited demands. This means that capital-labor relations and repression are not a zero-sum game. Capital and labor both understand at times the necessity of forging alliances. In specific historical moments, capitalists understand it is to their advantage to seek collective agreements with labor as a means of economizing the use of repression. For labor, it is not a matter of choice. Organized labor seeks inclusion, it seeks to collaborate in order to acquire short-term gains. Having achieved institutional exclusion from decision-making, capital maintains the upper hand in framing collaboration to its own advantage. Whether capital-labor engages in collaboration or labor segments engage in outright conflict in open antagonism is often determined by the economic cycles of American capitalism.
This is not to say there are no limits to labor repression expressed as collaboration and conflict between capital and labor. The inherent contradictions in how capital seeks to repress labor present possible alternatives. To identify alternatives to labor repression is to identify the built-in limitations inherent in a political economy of repression, thus identifying how labor would liberate itself from the dictates of capital. Discussing how labor could create economic and political democracy can include an examination of why repression is essentially self-destructive. Repression of labor by capital contains the seeds of its own destruction. Since the various means utilized to repress labor always out of necessity have to be reproduced, in this process of reproduction, the repression is never finalized and complete. In reproducing repression, labor, in combination with the appropriate historical circumstances, can work toward its liberation. So while the goal is to describe the production and reproduction of labor repression, such repression is always in contradiction to the social needs of labor, that is, the liberation of labor from the domination of capital. This inherent possibility of labor’s liberation is built into the limits of a political economy of repression.
* Andrew Kolin is professor of political science at Hilbert College

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Trump, Bannon & ‘deconstructing the administrative state’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 26/02/2017 - 7:45pm in

Trump Bannon

Donald Trump with Steve Bannon

When Donald Trump’s top two White House officials, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, appeared together at the American Conservative Union’s CPAC conference the other day, Bannon (the big ideas member of the duo) outlined the top three priorities or “lines of work” of the administration:

The first is kind of national security and sovereignty and that’s your intelligence, the Defense Department, Homeland Security. The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism and that is Wilbur Ross at Commerce, Steven Mnuchin at Treasury, Lighthizer at — at Trade, Peter Navarro, Stephen Miller, these people that are rethinking how we’re gonna reconstruct the — our trade arrangements around the world. The third, broadly, line of work is what is deconstruction of the administrative state. [Emphases added]

On the third line of work, which is the subject of this post, Bannon clarified that he meant regulations created by government agencies on behalf of a “progressive Left” that is unable to pass legislation. Bannon referred primarily to business regulations, but Trump’s latest Executive Order initiates a review of regulation across all the functions of government.

What does such radical-sounding language mean? Is it simply a repackaging of exhausted conservative demands for a “small state”? Is it just a partisan attack on left-wing regulation while keeping right-wing state activity safe? Or does it mean something more profound about how the state works? These explanations seem unlikely as Trump has repeatedly promised to defend social security and ensure universal access to healthcare, alongside expanding the military and injecting massive sums into infrastructure.

The concept of the administrative state is one that some conservative thinkers are promulgating as a critique of modern US “progressivism”, of which Barack Obama is a key exponent. Indeed, Obama introduced more regulations than either of his two predecessors (see graph below). Perhaps most feted among conservative thinkers on this question has been Michael Anton, now part of Trump’s senior national security staff. Before November he wrote a series of widely-discussed articles under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, at the Claremont Review of Books, to make the case that conservatives should support Trump despite the celebrity billionaire’s obvious flaws. See here for the original article and here, here and here for his responses to critics. At the heart of Decius’s line of argument was that Trump (consciously or unconsciously) was laying out a course of action that would save Constitutional government from its subordination to the unelected and unaccountable administrative state. Hillary Clinton’s election, meanwhile, would signal a point of no return in this process.


In broad outline, this conservative critique of the administrative state targets progressivism, which is usually seen as originating with President Woodrow Wilson, and which is defined as a political movement that sees the US Constitution as having reached the limits of its effectiveness so that social progress must now be implemented by technical experts (usually government bureaucrats under the direction of a progressive administration) unencumbered by legislative politics. Thus, under Obama a gridlocked Congress was repeatedly circumvented through court decisions and federal agency policies, regulations and guidelines to extend, redefine and even override existing legislation. In a sense, these conservative thinkers have developed a critique of the modern technocratic turn in politics — of which Obama was unquestionably a practitioner. While they locate it in an ideologically-driven “progressivist” politics, this blog would see technocracy as one way that the political class has dealt with its own declining authority (in the US most spectacularly reflected in declining trust in government, and especially the legislative branch; see Pew and Gallup opinion poll data below).

Pew Trust in government 1958-2015


Trump laid out a similar argument regarding the Supreme Court, although in much less ideological terms, in his book Crippled America:

Candidates for political office always say they’re running on their record. Unfortunately, their records are made up of them talking about what they’re going to do, rather than them getting things done. Our nation’s capital has become the center of gridlock. It seems like these days most of the energy in Washington is being spent deciding whether we’re going to keep the government operating or not. No surprise there: Washington’s been running a going-out-of-business sale for a long time. It’s no wonder that our president and Congress have such low ratings in the polls. No wonder that we’ve lost our influence and the basic respect of both our allies and enemies throughout the world. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has decided in their infinite wisdom to fill the breach by making social policy rather than defending our most precious historic assets, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We have three branches of government, but the trunk of that tree is rotting away.

A controversial case of administrative state action that Trump has rescinded (at least temporarily) is Obama’s 2016 guidance to schools on non-discrimination against transgender kids (including how to manage restroom and locker room access). The guidance claims to rest on a series of court decisions and consequent federal policy statements that interpret anti-discrimination laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act (1972); see endnote 5 of the document for a list of the relevant cases and policies. These laws explicitly oppose discrimination on the basis of sex, but were later reinterpreted by the Supreme Court and federal agencies as opposing discrimination on the basis of gender stereotypes and, later still, gender identity. Thus, over time but with no change in the wording of the law, sex discrimination (i.e. based on biological sex) has morphed into gender identity discrimination (i.e. based on subjective identity).

It is an astounding administrative state solution to a real problem — discrimination against transgender people — that effectively undermines the sex-discrimination laws it rests on. Perhaps more astounding has been the almost complete silence of US feminists on how legal protection against sexism has been undercut by this dramatic reinterpretation of clearly-worded legislation based on well-understood definitions. My point in raising this is not to dismiss the pressing need to address discrimination against trans people, but to outline the problems with the route through which this happened, and the potentially damaging consequences for the interpretation of laws that were won because of mass social struggles for equal rights.

Despite liberal claims that Trump is trying to attack the courts and other parts of the state because he is an authoritarian and/or setting up a pathway to dictatorship, it is more plausible that something else is going on here. On school bathrooms, and other issues, he frequently says these must be dealt with by democratically-elected state legislatures. Similarly, while he publicly excoriated the 9th Circuit District Court for blocking his hard-line seven-country travel ban, he has not rushed to the Supreme Court (as Obama often did) to get that ruling overturned, and instead has gone back to drafting a new Executive Order that will account for the Court’s objections.

In addition, he has nominated Neil Gorsuch to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. While Gorsuch — like Scalia — is a conservative “originalist” (i.e. someone who interprets the Constitution based on what its authors would have intended at the time they originally wrote it), he is considerably more averse to administrative state meddling in civil matters than Scalia was. That is, he tends to uphold the Constitution and laws but is less favourable to regulatory impositions made outside the legislative process, as this perceptive article by CNBC’s Jake Novak points out.

This seems to be how Trump’s anti-political positioning is playing out in the context of now running the executive branch: implementing the program he was elected on is taking precedence and the administrative state is being pared back. I’d argue the two things go together because being seen to deliver on his platform is vital to maintaining enough leverage against his political opponents to avoid being gridlocked himself. It seems clear that this path will set him on a collision course with his own side first, as their preoccupations are decidedly unlike his program, and because the Democrats are in meltdown over the election result which also put them in the minority in both houses of Congress.

Interesting in all this will be whether the more radical sections of the Left can see in Trump’s attack on the administrative state an opportunity to develop some clarity about the problem of the state more generally. Much Marxist thinking these days breaks from Marx’s insistence on replacing the state with an organisation of “freely associated producers” (or a “Commune”), and looks to retaining sections of the capitalist state, although under the control of workers or a “radical Left government”. The growing regulatory reach of state bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency is often celebrated without questioning the growth of technocratic rule.

At a lower level of state action, the Left has fallen in with many administrative state actions without being critical of the way these reflect a retreat from more democratic channels for winning policy change. The reaction to Trump’s action on the bathroom guidance is one example, seen by the Left as unquestionably regressive when in fact things are much more complicated. Similarly, while it is great that same-sex marriage is now legal across the US, there are convincing arguments that the Supreme Court had little legal basis on which to rest its power to institute such a change. The primary problem, of course, was the utter failure of US politicians to legislate for this even though it was patently clear that US society was ahead of them on the matter. Instead, they deferred to the unelected administrative state to do the job for them. The radical Left didn’t seem to pick up on the problem with decisions moving from parts of the state accountable to democratic processes (however limited) to those further from popular influence. Indeed, some improbably saw the decision as a victory for social movements that on any honest account are much weaker and less radical than those which, in the 1960s and 70s, found it much harder to win such rights.

As I alluded to in my last post, devaluation of even minimal direct popular influence over government has been widely accepted by progressives who lack the social base needed to enforce policies on the state. They have often been uncritical of actions by unelected state officials because they happen to align with left-wing policy preferences. Isolated within the Washington establishment, Trump will find it hard to avoid confrontations with the administrative state. If the Left misreads all his moves as merely reactionary and looks to the administrative state as a shortcut to defending progressive causes, it may well find itself supporting further devaluation of democracy in the name of anti-Trumpism.


You can catch me in a panel discussion on Trump, psychopathology and the resistance to his administration, on The Third Rail. Thanks to the host, Sera Mirzabegian, and fellow panellist Steven Glass for such a stimulating discussion.

The post Trump, Bannon & ‘deconstructing the administrative state’ appeared first on Left Flank.

Why better politics can’t make anti-politics go away

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/02/2017 - 9:44am in


A recent think piece by Spiked!’s theoretical guru, Frank Furedi, is an attack on the idea that anti-politics is any kind of solution to the current breakdown in authority of the political system. It’s worth examining Furedi’s case because it aligns with anti-anti-politics arguments currently found on the Left in its softer and more radical variants. It is also worth dissecting to clarify what this blog means by anti-politics, and why attempts to renovate politics are likely to fail.

Furedi correctly notes that for increasing numbers of people the ways of looking at politics that dominated the 20th Century, tied up with party affiliations and traditional social group loyalties, no longer make any sense. Further, while this has been a long-run process, it is not until recently that responses utilised by political elites to manage this decline — for example the technocratic turn of the 1990s — have given way to a more serious popular response rather than the passivity of “TINA” (Margaret Thatcher’s infamous pronouncement that “there is no alternative”).

What is missing is any sense of why politics may have exhausted itself and failed to come up with sustainable new ideas for a revival. Given Furedi’s Marxist roots what is striking is the lack of a social explanation for the decline of the old political order, which was organised around rigid notions of class and nation and divided along a Left/Right continuum.

This comes through in Furedi’s critique of identity politics and the Left’s “cultural turn”. He agrees with how the social movements of the 1960s and 70s rejected some “Western” traditions; i.e. “worship of hierarchy, and patriarchal and paternalistic practices”. But he argues they threw the baby out with the bathwater by also attacking “values of loyalty, sovereignty, tolerance and liberty”. It is hard to know from his argument how one would choose which bits of these traditions to keep or eject, except for Furedi’s arbitrary lumping of the second list with the Enlightenment (itself somewhat arbitrary, given the mixed inheritance the Enlightenment bequeathed). Why are these values inherently better than the cultural or identity politics Left’s (alleged) dismissal of them?

While it is certainly true that cultural and identity politics were ways of dealing with the apparent loss of the political system as a place where one would engage to drive social change, it is not clear why an assertion of certain values is any kind of alternative to that loss.

Absent from Furedi is any sense about an anchor that might hook what is progressive and reactionary to something based in social reality.

Indeed, the values Furedi describes hark back to an illusion, the notion that in the past politics itself could drive fundamental social change in a positive sense. Such ideas were acutely criticised by Marx when the Enlightenment was still something of a going concern. Furedi’s “loyalty, sovereignty, tolerance and liberty” correspond closely with what the French revolutionaries called “the rights of man”, or what more recently are recognised as “civil rights”, at least on paper, in liberal democracies. Marx made a searing critique of the limits of such rights in his famous essay “On The Jewish Question”. In setting out the difference between merely “political emancipation” (emancipation in relation to the modern state) and “human emancipation” (genuine human freedom), Marx argued that the very basis for such rights was a society of competing self-interested individuals, which rested on the social basis of (bourgeois) private property, and which necessitated an alienation of individuals’ private lives from their lives as citizens (i.e. part of the political community):

None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society, that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves. (MECW 3: 164)

In effect Furedi is harking back to a world where Enlightenment values only got as far as the limits set by the antagonism between civil society and the state, itself underpinned by the antagonistic “war of all against all” in civil society.

It is this uncritical approach to the opposition between the social and political spheres in modern capitalist society that leads Furedi to attack anti-politics:

It is tempting to think that anti-politics offers a positive alternative to an exhausted, self-serving political establishment. In fact, it merely offers a negative critique of the status quo. Anti-politics is not directed at a particular party or interest but at the very idea of politics. Its premise is that politics as such is futile. It is sceptical of the capacity of citizens to achieve positive results through political mobilisation. It doesn’t only criticise politicians — it indirectly attacks representative democracy and the citizens who operate within it.

For Furedi it is not that there is a fundamental problem with politics but that “political clarity is lagging behind the demands of the [populist] moment” reflected in the UK vote for Brexit and the election of Trump. The problem with Trump is not so much that he is using anti-politics to leverage political power (an understandable product of the moment) but that he is too steeped in the failed politics of recent decades to renovate politics properly. Further, when Furedi contends that anti-politics “indirectly attacks representative democracy and the citizens who operate within it”, he is arguing that social change can only be properly carried out in one approved location — the very circumscribed sphere around the political state.

Furedi’s argument thus connects with two positions increasingly present in left-wing discussion of the crisis of politics. The first, put by some left-wing social democrats and most of the Marxist Left, is that we need a politics that is sufficiently populist and mass-based to have wide appeal and provide the basis for taking state power. It is this view that leads to the interminable squabbles on the Left over exactly which points of unity and which lines of division are need to carve out the correct Left project — whether it be Owen Jones’s calls for a new Left populism to challenge the populism of the Right, or arguments by US Marxists about what kind of socialist organisation is needed in the era of Sanders and Trump. One might think that Greece’s disastrous Syriza experiment (see here, here and here for an obituary) would have chastened them, but one can always argue — as Furedi does in defence of his own version — that the lines of political recomposition were not the correct ones.

The second position, more common on the soft Left, is the demand that politics is properly limited to a narrow field of activity, that of “representative politics”. It could be seen in the Australian Left’s successful campaign to prevent a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, in part justified by the claim that civil rights should be the exclusive preserve of elected representatives and not the voting public. It can also be seen in critiques of the “new populism” (for example the widely-read arguments of Jan-Werner Mueller) which identify liberal democracy as needing to be narrowed down to electing representatives and having unelected sections of the state exert “checks and balances” to restrain the will of the majority, allegedly to protect minority interests.  While Furedi would reject such a narrow a conception of politics, it seems clear this would only be because he wants to revive representative politics with mass participation whereas critics of the new populism are resigned to a lack of mass participation and so want to better insulate representative structures from the public. Furedi’s fellow Spiked! contributor Brendan O’Neill has fleshed out this aspect of argument in a more recent criticism of Trump, written in the form of an open letter to the US leader:

Your pose as the anti-politician, the man who hates the political class, is getting wearisome. It has crossed the line from criticism of the establishment, which is good, into a trashing of politics itself, of the very business of people getting together and talking and voting in order to make things happen. When will your anti-politics shift into a conviction that you alone should decide how things should be run? That’s the logical conclusion to anti-politics, whether it takes the form of demagoguery (you) or technocracy (Hillary).

As spiked argued in May last year, everyone who believes in the potential of politics to change society for the better should be worried about you being president. What we need now is not cynicism or a ‘saviour’: we need a real, democratic political culture that engages as many people as possible in a debate about the future. Stop sneering at politics; be a proper politician.

For all of Spiked!’s claims to stand for human freedom, this represents a warning against letting the political order break down too much; a defence of the political order against popular sentiments that go too far.

This blog has long maintained that today’s anti-political moment is the product of a breakdown in the social bases of the political order — its parties, institutions, associated organisations and practices. The era of mass politics that started to unravel in the last few decades of the 20th Century had provided the material basis for ideas that people’s social interests could be won within the political sphere (even if, for the most part, they couldn’t). With the decline of civil society organisations (e.g. trade unions, mass parties, civic associations) that provided a social weight to the activities of the political class, that appearance has increasingly broken down, making more obvious the detachment and antagonism between the public and its political representatives.

Three separate but related phenomena become more obvious in such a period. First, the general stance of detachment from and hostility to politics in civil society becomes more widespread and intense, affecting not just those with least to gain from the system but infecting the socially privileged also, who no longer see the system as functional or responsive. Second, politicians emerge who seek to leverage anti-political sentiment for their own political projects. Such players can come from various points along the ideological spectrum (from a right-wing Trump to a centrist Beppe Grillo in Italy to the left-wing Podemos in Spain) but, in the end, they can no more drive serious social change than could the old parties whose decline they take advantage of. Both the first and second phenomena are inescapable features of modern life because of the separation between civil society and state is a permanent feature of capitalism, even if modified during a past era of mass politics. But there is no question they are more prominent now in the wealthy liberal democracies than at any time in living memory.

Third, there is the possibility of social struggles that directly challenge politics itself, by challenging the state’s rule “over against” society. While these have been at best embryonic in recent times (Spain’s 15M movement the clearest example, for all its limitations), they might be considered the beginnings of “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” that Marx and Engels described social revolution as being; that is, a “revolution against the state”.

Only the third phenomenon can be considered to point in a progressive direction, precisely because it is about society asserting itself against the existence of a separate political sphere. To fulfil their promise such struggles would also have to overcome the capitalist social relations that pit individuals in civil society against each other, but that is a discussion for another post.

Furedi argues: “The radical supporters of anti-politics overlook that the flipside of anti-politics is TINA — an acceptance of the world as it is. For without politics people are reduced to passive objects, shaped by fate.” He gives no sense that social forces are needed to profoundly change society, and that political activity underpinned by social passivity simply reproduces the current malaise. Hence he collapses into a tired and unconvincing call for a “battle of ideas” for the values he prefers. More bizarrely he claims that the dead weight of institutions like “schools, universities, popular culture, the media” is more powerful than the countercultural populist surge. Perhaps that argument would’ve rung true 30 years ago, but if the Brexit and Trump votes showed anything it was a lack of deference to the expertise and cultural authority of “schools, universities, popular culture, the media” that was in operation — a fact Furedi acknowledges but quickly forgets.

The problem is not the need for a battle of ideas to shape a better political culture all the better to involve the mass of people, but the need for social forces to move in their own interests — not to reinject the political sphere with some socially-relevant justification, but to end the existence of an alien political sphere altogether. When Furedi argues that people should once more feel that “being a citizen matters”, he is effectively enforcing what Marx called “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right”, where human freedom is reduced to merely political emancipation. This is a formula pitched at the development of a new political class, more sensitive and culturally attuned to the banal capitalist values of the masses it rules over.

It would be a tragedy if future social struggles ended up accepting such profoundly self-limiting strictures.

The post Why better politics can’t make anti-politics go away appeared first on Left Flank.

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