(paper prepared for the American Sociological Association Meetings in Atlanta, August 16th, 2010)
There are many explanations for the crisis of capital that began in 2007. But the one thing missing is an understanding of “systemic risks.” I was alerted to this when Her Majesty the Queen visited the London School of Economics and asked the prestigious economists there how come they had not seen the crisis coming. Being a feudal monarch rather than an ordinary mortal, the economists felt impelled to answer. After six months of reflection the economic gurus of the British Academy submitted their conclusions. The gist was that many intelligent and dedicated economists had worked assiduously and hard on understanding the micro-processes. But everyone had somehow missed “systemic risk.” A year later, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund said “we sort of know vaguely what systemic risk is and what factors might relate to it. But to argue that it is a well-developed science at this point is overstating the fact.” In a formal paper, the IMF described the study of systemic risk as “in its infancy.”[1. Schneider, H., 2010, “’Systemic risk’ is the new buzz word as officials try to prevent another bubble,” Washington Post, July 26, 2010.] In Marxian theory (as opposed to myopic neoclassical or financial theory), “systemic risk” translates into the fundamental contradictions of capital accumulation. The IMF might save itself a lot of trouble by studying them. So how, then, can we put Marx’s theorization of the internal contradictions of capitalism to work to understand the roots of our contemporary dilemmas? Continue reading
Reshaping Economic Geography: The World Development Report 2009
Dec 15 2009 4:15AM Development and Change 40(6):1269–1277 (2009). Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. Published by Blackwell Publishing. Download article as PDF
Something ominous began to happen in 2006. The rate of foreclosures in low-income areas of older US cities began to increase. Officialdom and the media took very little notice because, as had happened many years before in the early stages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the communities affected were low-income, mainly African-American or immigrant (Hispanics), in cities like Cleveland and Detroit that were in any case already blighted and deteriorated. It was only in mid-2007, when the foreclosure wave had spread to white middle class areas as well as to the US South (Florida in particular) and Southwest (California), where new housing tract developments, often in peripheral areas, were becoming vulnerable, that officialdom started to take notice and the mainstream press began to comment. By the end of that year, nearly 2 million people had lost their homes and estimates began to emerge that another 4 or perhaps 6 million more might be lost before it was all over. By the autumn of 2008, the phenomenon of the ‘sub-prime mortgage crisis’ had led to the demise of all the major Wall Street Investment Banks, either through change of status or through forced mergers, and the outright bankruptcy of Lehman that triggered a worldwide collapse of confidence in financial institutions. The contagion then spread outwards from banking to the major holders of mortgage debt (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) along with insurance giants like AIG, before hitting the rest of the economy big- time towards the end of 2008. By early 2009 the export-led industrialization model that had generated such spectacular growth in East and Southeast Asia was contracting at an alarming rate; at the same time, many icons of American capitalism, such as General Motors, were moving closer to bankruptcy.
Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition
Talk given at the World Social Forum 2010
The historical geography of capitalist development is at a key inflexion point in which the geographical configurations of power are rapidly shifting at the very moment when the temporal dynamic is facing very serious constraints. Three percent compound growth (generally considered the minimum satisfactory growth rate for a healthy capitalist economy) is becoming less and less feasible to sustain without resort to all manner of fictions (such as those that have characterized asset markets and financial affairs over the last two decades). There are good reasons to believe that there is no alternative to a new global order of governance that will eventually have to manage the transition to a zero growth economy. If that is to be done in an equitable way, then there is no alternative to socialism or communism. Since the late 1990s, the World Social Forum became the center for articulating the theme “another world is possible.” It must now take up the task of defining how another socialism or communism is possible and how the transition to these alternatives are to be accomplished. The current crisis offers a window of opportunity to reflect on what might be involved.
The Crisis and the Consolidation of Class Power
David Harvey interviewed by Marco Berlinguer and Hilary Wainwright on December 13th, 2008.
Available at Red Pepper
Does this crisis signal the end of neoliberalism? My answer is that it depends what you mean by neoliberalism. My interpretation is that it’s a class project, now masked by a lot of rhetoric about individual freedom, liberty, personal responsibility, privatisation and the free market. That rhetoric was a means towards the restoration and consolidation of class power, and that neoliberal project has been fairly successful… Read the rest of this article at Red Pepper.
The real mystery here is the arrogance of the economists in the face of a catastrophic situation. I would have thought that in a profession dominated by neoclassical and increasingly neoliberal theory these last thirty years, that there might have appeared at least some sliver of humility. They have collectively provided us with no guidance on how to avoid the current mess and now, when faced with a crisis, they can only say, as Marx long ago presciently noted, that things would not be so if the economy only performed according to their textbooks. Maybe it is time to revise if not change the textbooks.
The charge that I have neither read nor understood DeLong’s canonical writings is the usual technocratic hubris deployed by economists when they have nothing to say. I might as well reply that DeLong has neither read nor understood his Marx (I have a remedial course on line) and in any case I don’t see why I should go back to Friedman rather than to Galbraith, Hicks rather than Joan Robinson and why it is that he presumes that Dobb, Sweezy, Glyn, Itoh and Morishima have nothing to say of relevance to our current difficulties because neoclassical economics is a God-given truth beyond contestation?
Much is to be gained by viewing the contemporary crisis as a surface eruption generated out of deep tectonic shifts in the spatio-temporal disposition of capitalist development. The tectonic plates are now accelerating their motion and the likelihood of more frequent and more violent crises of the sort that have been occurring since 1980 or so will almost certainly increase. The manner, form, spatiality and time of these surface disruptions are almost impossible to predict, but that they will occur with greater frequency and depth is almost certain. The events of 2008 have therefore to be situated in the context of a deeper pattern. Since these stresses are internal to the capitalist dynamic (which does not preclude some seemingly external disruptive event like a catastrophic pandemic also occurring), then what better argument could there be, as Marx once put it, “for capitalism to be gone and to make way for some alternative and more rational mode of production.”