Tagged: capitalism

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Postscript to the National Conventions: “You Didn’t Build That” and the History of American Capitalism

It’s great to be back guest blogging here this month. Thanks to Solangel Maldonado and the other bloggers on Concurring Opinions for making this happen.

Both parties’ national conventions are over, after significant fanfare. And each sought to outdo the other on praise for capitalism. At the Republican National Convention, speakers repeatedly pushed back against Pres. Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark. (By now, everyone knows he wasn’t referring to owners building their businesses, themselves, but instead was talking about the public infrastructure that businesses rely on – right?) At both conventions, speakers time and again lauded the virtues of capitalism, and linked businesses with democracy and freedom.

 I’ve been reading about the historical transition to capitalism for a project on capitalism and families. The historical record at the very least undercuts any easy association among capitalism, democracy, and freedom. It also backs Obama’s point in spades about the critical necessity of government action to support a market economy. A few choice points from historians on these issues:

Capitalism succeeded in spite of — not because of — democracy. As historian Charles Sellers points out in his excellent Market Revolution, until the nineteenth century America was largely an agrarian society, and its path toward industrial capitalism was by no means pre-ordained. Through the first half of the nineteenth century, voters repeatedly sought to halt the progress of capitalism and preserve a subsistence economy. A market economy, they thought, would subvert a focus on the basics in favor of a focus on luxuries; cause citizens to be overly dependent on banks, who would encourage them to borrow in good times, then relentlessly demand payment in hard times; and eat up citizens’ free time by encouraging relentless accumulation. Capitalists found ways to subvert anti-capitalist electoral mandates, including by using the two-party system to focus the public’s interest on other controversies while quietly accomplishing their objectives. (Sound familiar?)

Wage labor was seen as bondage rather than freedom. At the birth of the U.S., owning and working one’s land was equated with freedom and independence; wage work and capitalism were seen as inducing a harmful dependency on others that was considered undesirable in a free and equal country. How the meaning of wage labor became associated with freedom rather than bondage is a complex story, parts of which are laid out both in Joyce Appleby’s Capitalism and a New Social Order and Amy Dru Stanley’s illuminating From Bondage to Contract.

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Alternative Development or Alternatives to Development – II

Since the mid-twentieth century, the idea of “development” has operated as both a cognitive category and a relation of force to remap the terrain marked by the colonial encounter and the condition of post-coloniality. One has to be clear that the grammar of colonialism is in the genetic code of the development project. How could it be otherwise? After all, both capitalism and liberalism, hallmarks of modernity and founts of the development project, were constituted in and through the colonial encounter. Indeed, the very first use of the word “capital,” in the sense of the grounds of capitalism as a new mode of production, was coined in 1766 in the context of capital-intensive though slave-hungry Antillean sugar plantations.

The development project is the latest variant of the 500 year-old project variously called “saving native souls,” “the white ma’s burden,” “manifest destiny,” “the civilizing mission,” and “the historical imperative of progress.” Development is not just a theory about economic development and elimination of poverty, but also an ideological and institutional device to consolidate the domination of the Global North over the Global South.

One can configure the development project as the sum of three gestures. First, it demarcates a site of intervention of power by constituting abnormalities in the anatomy of the Global South. Second, through normalization of development within a knowledge/power matrix, a field of control is demarcated. Social issues are removed from the political realm and relocated as preserves of science to facilitate a regime of truths and norms. Third, institutionalization and professionalization of development at all levels is secured, ranging from international organizations and national planning bodies to local development agencies and NGOs. These institutions – a network of new sites of power – constitute an interlinked global apparatus of development.

We can conceptualize the development project as an institutional apparatus that links forms of knowledge about the Global South with deployment of particular forms of power. Once societies become the targets of these new regimes of power – embodied in endless programs and strategies – their economies and cultures are offered up as new objects of knowledge that, in turn, create new possibilities of assertion of power.

The development project is, above all, a way of thinking. Once consolidated, it determines what can be thought, said, and even imagined. The development project defines a perceptual domain, colonizes reality, and produces particular subjectivities. Development is not only an omni-historical ideological construct and a hegemonic global discourse, it is the primary instrument of cartography of post-colonial imaginary. As a full-service enterprise, with confident notions of time and space, of nature and culture, of society and the individual, of the good and the truth, development is a mechanism through which particular subjects and subjectivities are produced. In the process, and as a result, precluded are other ways of imagining, seeing, doing and living.

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Alternative Development or Alternatives to Development – I

Rio + 20, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held 22-24 June in Brazil, is over. The Conference did not achieve much. With most of the world, particularly the Global North, preoccupied with the aftermath of the 2008 global financial meltdown, no breakthroughs were expected at Rio- + 20. There was perhaps never a better moment to interrogate the concept of “sustainable development” and the general category of “alternative development.” This is what I plan to do in the next few posts.

First, a word about the current conjuncture: The fog of market fundamentalism and the neoliberal consensus has lifted a bit in the wake of the financial meltdown and the lingering economic crisis. Bond market vigilantes are turning even governments in the Global North into debt-collection agencies on behalf of the global oligarchy of finance capital; a fate until now reserved for the Global South. The purported link between capitalism and democracy appears strained if not severed – note Italy and Greece being run by technocrats appointed by the European Central Bank and cities in the United States resorting to declaring “financial martial law” to facilitate gutting labor contracts. “Capitalism with Asian characteristics” complements “socialism with American characteristics” – read public bailouts of private banks. Technocratic governance displaces political government. While the welfare state follows the fate of the development state towards shrinkage and oblivion, the coercive capacity of states, the capacity and willingness to wage wars both within and without, grows unabated. Ubiquitous austerity measures and structural adjustments are yet again transferring wealth from the poor to the rich both within and between polities. Apparently, the only growth industry today, besides privatized prisons, is the production of liminal spaces and subjects at the margins of legal orders and formal economies. All this unmistakably underscores that mythologies of the “free market” notwithstanding, the concert of the hidden hand of the market and the iron fist of the state is indispensable for capitalism, and that accumulation by dispossession is a basic ontological condition of capitalism rather than just its historical precondition.