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Silvia Federici is one of the most important political theorists alive today. Her landmark book Caliban and the Witch demonstrated the inextricable link between anti-capitalism and radical feminist politics by digging deep into the actual history of capital’s centuries-long attack on women and the body.
In this essay, originally written in 2008, she follows up on that revelation by laying out her feminist anti-capitalist vision, and how it extends beyond traditional Marxism. This piece is comprehensive – long but far-reaching. At times seeing the truth requires seeing in the dark – acknowledging the true horrors of the world as it currently is manifest.
This essay was updated and published in Silvia’s new anthology Revolution at Point Zero, and I have made a few small additional edits. Enjoy! [alex]
The Reproduction of Labor Power in the Global Economy and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution (2011 edition)
“It is clear that capitalism has led to the super-exploitation of women. This would not offer much consolation if it had only meant heightened misery and oppression, but fortunately it has also provoked resistance. And capitalism has become aware that if it completely ignores or suppresses this resistance it might become more and more radical, eventually turning into a movement for self-reliance and perhaps even the nucleus of a new social order.” – Robert Biel, The New Imperialism (2000)
“The emerging liberative agent in the Third World is the unwaged force of women who are not yet disconnected from the life economy by their work. They serve life not commodity production. They are the hidden underpinning of the world economy and the wage equivalent of their life-serving work is estimated at $16 trillion.” – John McMurtry, The Cancer State of Capitalism (1999)
“The pestle has snapped because of so much pounding. Tomorrow I will go home. Until tomorrow Until tomorrow… Because of so much pounding, tomorrow I will go home.” – Hausa women’s song from Nigeria
This essay is a political reading of the restructuring of the (re)production of labor-power in the global economy, but it is also a feminist critique of Marx that, in different ways, has been developing since the 1970s. This critique was first articulated by activists in the Campaign for Wages For Housework, especially Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Leopoldina Fortunati, among others, and later by Ariel Salleh in Australia and the feminists of the Bielefeld school, Maria Mies, Claudia Von Werlhof, Veronica Benholdt-Thomsen.
At the center of this critique is the argument that Marx’s analysis of capitalism has been hampered by his inability to conceive of value-producing work other than in the form of commodity production and his consequent blindness to the significance of women’s unpaid reproductive work in the process of capitalist accumulation. Ignoring this work has limited Marx’s understanding of the true extent of the capitalist exploitation of labor and the function of the wage in the creation of divisions within the working class, starting with the relation between women and men.
Had Marx recognized that capitalism must rely on both an immense amount of unpaid domestic labor for the reproduction of the workforce, and the devaluation of these reproductive activities in order to cut the cost of labor power, he may have been less inclined to consider capitalist development as inevitable and progressive.
As for us, a century and a half after the publication of Capital, we must challenge the assumption of the necessity and progressivity of capitalism for at least three reasons.
[There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas in this article, as we reflect on the Occupy movement, what it was, what it meant, and where we go from here in our movements against zombie-capitalism and for a better world.
I intend to write much more about my reflections on Occupy, don’t worry. – alex]
Originally posted on Bay of Rage (May 16, 2012) (broken link 5/28).
For those of us in Oakland, “Occupy Wall Street” was always a strange fit. While much of the country sat eerily quiet in the years before the Hot Fall of 2011, a unique rebelliousness that regularly erupted in militant antagonisms with the police was already taking root in the streets of the Bay. From numerous anti-police riots triggered by the execution of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, to the wave of anti-austerity student occupations in late 2009 and early 2010, to the native protest encampment at Glen Cove in 2011, to the the sequence of Anonymous BART disruptions in the month before Occupy Wall Street kicked off, our greater metropolitan area re-emerged in recent years as a primary hub of struggle in this country. The intersection at 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland was, more often than not, “ground zero” for these conflicts.
If we had chosen to follow the specific trajectory prescribed by Adbusters and the Zucotti-based organizers of Occupy Wall Street, we would have staked out our local Occupy camp somewhere in the heart of the capitol of West Coast capital, as a beachhead in the enemy territory of San Francisco’s financial district. Some did this early on, following in the footsteps of the growing list of other encampments scattered across the country like a colorful but confused archipelago of anti-financial indignation. According to this logic, it would make no sense for the epicenter of the movement to emerge in a medium sized, proletarian city on the other side of the bay.
We intentionally chose a different path based on a longer trajectory and rooted in a set of shared experiences that emerged directly from recent struggles. Vague populist slogans about the 99%, savvy use of social networking, shady figures running around in Guy Fawkes masks, none of this played any kind of significant role in bringing us to the forefront of the Occupy movement. In the rebel town of Oakland, we built a camp that was not so much the emergence of a new social movement, but the unprecedented convergence of preexisting local movements and antagonistic tendencies all looking for a fight with capital and the state while learning to take care of each other and our city in the most radical ways possible.
This is what we began to call The Oakland Commune; that dense network of new found affinity and rebelliousness that sliced through seemingly impenetrable social barriers like never before. Our “war machine and our care machine” as one comrade put it. No cops, no politicians, plenty of “autonomous actions”; the Commune materialized for one month in liberated Oscar Grant Plaza at the corner of 14th & Broadway. Here we fed each other, lived together and began to learn how to actually care for one another while launching unmediated assaults on our enemies: local government, the downtown business elite and transnational capital. These attacks culminated with the General Strike of November 2 and subsequent West Coast Port Blockade.
A timely and valuable article by one of the facilitators of the Occupy Wall St. process, David Graeber. I was there for the occupation’s humble beginnings last Saturday, but since then it has become a sensation among the conscious and concerned population of this country. Why? Because finally there is an ongoing, unignorable, and vibrant manifestation against the Wall St. crooks who quite blatantly stole trillions of dollars from us.
Whether the occupation on Lower Manhattan lasts, or grows, or dies in the coming weeks, the global upheaval will continue and become an ever-present feature of the 21st Century. Our theory is that capitalism has entered a crisis from which it will never recover. The youth can feel it, we know we have no future within the existing system. The only question is, what alternative models can we move to, when everything feels so bleak?
The Wall St. occupiers have followed the examples of Egypt, Greece, and Spain in using the direct democratic process of the “general assembly.” This means thousands of young people are having their first exhilarating taste of their voice being part of the actual exercise of power – participating in a movement. In truth, this is our best hope, so spread it and bring that exhilaration to your friends and family.
If we have a general assembly in every town, every workplace, every school, then capitalism is over for real. [alex]
“Occupy Wall St. Rediscovers the Radical Imagination”
by David Graeber
Originally published the The Guardian UK, September 25, 2011.
The young people protesting in Wall Street and beyond reject this vain economic order. They have come to reclaim the future.
Why are people occupying Wall Street? Why has the occupation – despite the latest police crackdown – sent out sparks across America, within days, inspiring hundreds of people to send pizzas, money, equipment and, now, to start their own movements called OccupyChicago, OccupyFlorida, in OccupyDenver or OccupyLA?
There are obvious reasons. We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt. Most, I found, were of working-class or otherwise modest backgrounds, kids who did exactly what they were told they should: studied, got into college, and are now not just being punished for it, but humiliated – faced with a life of being treated as deadbeats, moral reprobates.
Is it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?
Just as in Europe, we are seeing the results of colossal social failure. The occupiers are the very sort of people, brimming with ideas, whose energies a healthy society would be marshaling to improve life for everyone. Instead, they are using it to envision ways to bring the whole system down. Read the rest of this entry »
“To me, the struggle is a healing process. If the struggle itself is not a healing process, it’s not worth it! There’s something wrong with it. You struggle because you need to liberate yourself. If the struggle does not liberate you, if it doesnt carry that hope, why bother?”
On March 3 and 4, 2011, acclaimed radical feminist theorist Silvia Federici gave two talks in Philadelphia. On the 3rd, she spoke at the Wooden Shoe anarchist bookstore about her book, Caliban and the Witch, on “The True Nature of Capitalism.” That event literally overflowed with an audience eager to connect the pieces of the historical violence against women, and the ongoing crisis of capitalism.
The next night, on March 4, Silvia spoke at Studio 34 Yoga in West Philly to another packed crowd, on the subject of “Our Struggles, Ourselves: Rethinking Healing Work.” This was a more personal, and in many ways a much deeper talk, which touched on a multitude of subjects from capitalism’s attacks on humanity and the Earth, to how to build self-reproducing movements that avoid the mistakes of past generations.
Today I am posting the audio recording from that amazing event!
One of Silvia’s most powerful insights that continues to work its way through my brain was the distinction between “suffering,” which may be necessary in movement work, and “sacrifice,” which ultimately harms the movement because it harms us as individuals. She makes it clear that there should be no place for sacrifice in a movement for our liberation:
“What do we mean when we say sacrifice? Because, it’s very true, in many ways, when we say, ‘I’m not going to go into this career, and instead I’ll do the struggle. I’ll be poor, but eh!’ It may sound like sacrifice. But I would like to say that it’s not!
[Sacrifice] means that I’m taking away something vital from my life, something that I need, and then give it up for the struggle…
It doesn’t mean that the struggle does not make you suffer. But suffering is not sacrifice. It’s really different. There may be pain that comes too. But maybe it’s a pain that is better than the pain you would have if you didn’t struggle.
Maybe it’s a pain that prevents you from dying. Because we can die from numbness, irrelevance, wasting your life in triviality, despair, inertia, passivity, from giving up whatever creativity you have in yourself. So, sometimes it’s worth suffering not to see that in yourself. But i wouldn’t call that sacrifice.”
I am very proud to post this inspiring discussion, including the Question and Answer period, which we recorded in audio format. There are 2 video recordings which were also made, 1 of each of the talks, and I look forward to making those videos available in the near future. For now, please enjoy the audio!
This is a 2-hour recording, so you might want to download it and put it on your mp3 player or computer. There is a LOT here, so it may not be possible to get through it all in one sitting!
Also, here I’ll post some notes I’ve taken while re-listening to Silvia’s talk:
At 4 minutes – How can we build movements of resistance without destroying ourselves? How can we build self-reproducing movements?
5:15 – Thesis: We cannot liberate our individual selves without changing the world. At the same time, we cannot change the world without liberating ourselves. Read the rest of this entry »
As the “democracy uprising” spreads from Tunisia, to Egypt, and now to Wisconsin, it seems the whole world is starting to look a little more like Latin America. Social movements “south of the border” have been pumping out progressive change, and winning, for a couple decades now. This victorious and active Latin left goes back at least to the Venezuelan “Caracazo” of 1989, an uprising very similar to what we’ve been watching lately in Tahrir Square, Cairo. This was long before Chavez showed up on the scene, you may notice.
As the following interview of Ben Dangl highlights, leftist states such as Venezuela are not by themselves particularly revolutionary, and in fact often play a counter-revolutionary role. Democratic, participatory, grassroots social movements have always been the real engine of change. Political leaders can choose to follow those movements (“lead by obeying” in Zapatista language), or they can choose to be largely a facade for neoliberalism and reaction. The question is not the quality of the leader, but the quality of the movement holding that leader’s feet to the fire.
This is the reason President Obama has been largely a flop. As FDR said to labor organizers in 1932, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Real leadership comes from below.
Let’s hope we can follow the examples of Bolivia, Egypt, and Madison, WI and continue to work towards a global movement for justice. [alex]
Dancing with Dynamite in Latin America
by Nikolas Kozloff
Originally published by Huffington Post.
February 11, 2011.
Recently, I sat down with Benjamin Dangl, author of the recently released Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, for an interview.
NK: You’ve written an extremely ambitious book which takes the reader all across South America. One of the most impressive things about the work is that it is largely based on your own personal interviews with political participants at the grassroots as opposed to mere secondary research. How long did it take to research and what was the most fascinating country that you worked in?
BD: The book is the result of over eight years of research, traveling and interviewing across Latin America. This period of time coincided with the rise to power of most of the region’s current leftist leaders, and so the interviews I draw from in the book reflect a lot of the initial hope and subsequent disappointment among many social movements. The most interesting place I’ve worked in is definitely Bolivia, where the power of the grassroots movements is the strongest, and the impressive relationship between these movements and the government of Evo Morales is constantly changing.
NK: It can be tough in many ways to conduct research in South America. What prompted your interest in the subject matter and what were some of the obstacles that you encountered along the way?
BD: The main things that drew me to writing about politics and social issues in Latin America were the impact US foreign policy and corporate activity had on the region, and the hopeful and relatively under-reported social struggles going on. On the one hand, the connection to the US in the so-called war on drugs, and the corporate looting of natural resources, were all issues I thought more readers of English-based media in the US should know about. And the sophisticated organizing tactics, grassroots strategies and victories of social movements in the region were stories I wanted to help amplify and spread in the US, for the sake of awareness, solidarity and lessons to be learned. The main obstacle in doing this research is the actual cost of the traveling. I’ve worked all kinds of odd jobs over the years, in construction, farming, and various kinds of manual labor, to pay for the plane tickets to get to Latin America in order to conduct research and writing on the ground.
NK: Here in the U.S., many on the left idealize Chávez and the like, yet you suggest that many ostensibly leftist regimes may sap the energy of today’s social movements. How has this happened, and could one say, therefore, that “Pink Tide” regimes may ultimately exert a counter-productive or even pernicious effect upon local politics in their respective countries?
BD: The way this relationship has played out is different in each country. Some Latin American presidents, upon taking power, have been more willing and able than others to collaborate with the social movements that help bring them into office. The relationships in Venezuela and Bolivia are probably the healthiest in this sense. In other countries, such as Brazil with President Lula and the Landless Farmers Movements, the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the indigenous movements there, the relationship has been more difficult, with the governments repressing, criminalizing and demobilizing movements when possible. Dancing with Dynamite looks at how this relationship, this dance, has played out in seven different countries. It tells a story beyond what the presidents and major politicians have been doing or saying, and focuses more on the history of the past decade from the perspective of the grassroots. And this view from below is something I think more people in the US left would benefit from focusing on, if anything to understand the full picture of what’s been driving these momentous changes over the past ten years.
NK: Of all the South American countries you describe, Bolivia seems to have the most revolutionary potential. Why is this so, and what new radical developments can we expect from Bolivia in the coming years?
Republished by Energy Bulletin, OpEdNews, and Countercurrents, and translated into Turkish for Hafif.org.
The following exchange between Michael Carriere and Alex Knight occurred via email, July 2010. Alex Knight was questioned about the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway.
This is the third part of a four-part interview. This part is a continuation of Alex’s response to the second question. Click here for Part 2A. Scroll to the bottom for links to the other sections.
Part 2B. Social Limits and the Crisis
MC: Capitalism has faced many moments of crisis over time. Is there something different about the present crisis? What makes the end of capitalism a possibility now?
AK: As I described in the last section, the current crisis can be understood as resulting from a massive collision between capitalism’s relentless need for growth and the world’s limits in capacity to sustain that growth. These limits to growth are both ecological and social. In this section I’ll discuss the concept of social limits to growth.
The Extraordinary Power of Social Movements
Social limits to growth function alongside the ecological limits but are drawn from a different source. By social limits we mean the inability, or unwillingness, of human communities, and humankind as a whole, to support the expansion of capitalism. This broadly includes all forms of resistance to capitalism, a resistance that has arguably been increasing around the world through innumerable forms of alternative lifestyles, refusal to cooperate, protest, and outright rebellion.
As a disclaimer it’s important to recognize that not all resistance is progressive. There are right-wing, fundamentalist, and undemocratic forces that also resist capitalism, for example the Taliban, or North Korea. These are not our allies. They do not share progressive values, we cannot condone their attacks on women, or on freedom more generally, and I don’t see anything to be gained by working with them. However it is important to recognize how these forces are aligned against capitalism and U.S. imperialism, in addition to being aware of the danger they present to our own hopes and dreams.
Progressive resistance, on the other hand, has always taken its strength from grassroots social movements. Silvia Federici writes about the immense and varied peasant movements in medieval Europe that fought for religious and sexual freedom, challenging both feudal lords and emerging capitalist elites. I like to think of these rebels as my European ancestors – they were just commoners but they rose up to fight for a better world. This is the nature of social movements. Ordinary folks, daring to pursue their deepest aspirations, interests and dreams, join together with others who share those desires, and thereby create something extraordinary. The magic exists in the joining-together. Isolated individuals lack the power to accomplish what a group can achieve.
We can appreciate this extraordinary power if we look at how social movements have transformed our lives. A century ago, millions of American workers joined the labor movement and won the 8-hour day, Social Security, and workplace safety. Regular folks carried forward the Civil Rights Movement and broke Southern segregation. The feminist and LGBT movements have transformed the way gender and sexuality are viewed all over the world. It’s hard to overstate how dramatically these and other social movements have improved society. While capitalism has invented ways to co-opt social movements and redirect them into outlets that do not challenge the system on a deep level (like the “non-profit industrial complex”), movements have remained alive and vibrant by empowering people to reach towards a different world.
Have social movements limited capitalist oppression recently? To answer this we need to learn the story of the Global Justice Movement.
The Global Justice Movement
David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist, wrote a remarkable essay called “The Shock of Victory” in which he looks at this movement that suddenly flared up at the turn of the millennium and seemed to disappear just as quickly. Although most Americans may not remember the Global Justice Movement, and those who participated in it may feel demoralized by the fact that capitalism still exists, Graeber points out that many of the movement’s ambitious goals were accomplished. Read the rest of this entry »
Also published on The Rag Blog.
Just two weeks after the Massey Energy coal explosion on April 5 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 more workers. These back-to-back tragedies have brought attention to the fossil fuel industry’s terrible safety record – in both cases there were known safety violations on site, but the government did nothing to prevent disaster from occurring. See the interview below which explains how the federal government approved this BP rig and many more without conducting the environmental review they are legally obligated to.
Unlike the industry executives attempting to shift blame and avoid responsibility, we must look beneath the surface to discover the deeper meaning of these horrible crises.
Is the universe giving us a warning that fossil fuels are going to destroy us? Because if global climate change continues at the rate it has, in the not-too-distant future we will see many thousands, or even millions more deaths as crops dry up, floods destroy coastal wetlands, and diseases migrate to temperate regions. This is no joke. Families and communities are being destroyed so coal and oil corporations can boost their profit margins.
We need to be open to hearing the lessons that are all around us, especially from those who have been silenced and beaten down by capitalism.
Immediately after the Massey explosion and the BP explosion, was Earth Day – April 22. And on this date, indigenous and poor people from around the globe were meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change, a grassroots response to the corporate fraud that was the Copenhagen Summit. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was proclaimed “World Hero of Mother Earth” by the United Nations General Assembly in October, hosted the conference, proclaiming “The capitalist system looks to obtain the maximum possible gain, promoting unlimited growth on a finite planet. Capitalism is the source of asymmetries and imbalance in the world.”
30,000 people from 140 countries convened and approved the “Cochabamba Protocol”, which calls for an International Climate Justice tribunal to prosecute climate criminals, and condemns REDDs which put a price on wild forests and encourage development, along with carbon market schemes. The protocal proposes a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth and demands that industrialized polluting nations cut carbon emissions by 50 percent as part of a new, binding climate agreement.
Global momentum is building towards confronting capitalism in terms of the ecological devastation it is causing. Here in the United States, Rising Tide North America is calling for a “Day of Action, Night of Mourning” this Friday, May 14 to call for BP to pay for all cleanup and long-term ecological effects of their spill, for the abolition of offshore oil drilling, and for “a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels.”
Government Exempted BP from Environmental Review
Video/interview published by Democracy Now!
May 7, 2010
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well now to the Gulf of Mexico where the enormous oil slick in the Gulf continues to expand. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered a 3-week halt to all new offshore drilling permits. Emphasizing that the companies involved had made “major mistakes,” Salazar spoke to reporters Thursday outside BP’s Houston crisis center. He noted that lifting the moratorium on new permits will depend on the outcome of a federal investigation over the Gulf spill and the recommendations to be delivered to President Obama at the end of the month.
- SECRETARY KEN SALAZAR: Minerals Management Service will not be issuing any permits for the construction of new offshore wells. That process will be concluded here on May the 28th. At that point in time, we’ll make decisions about how we plan on moving forward. There is some very major mistakes that were made by companies that were involved. But today is not really the day to deal with those issues. Today and the days ahead really are about trying to get control of the problem.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Secretary Salazar added that the existing offshore oil and natural gas drilling will continue, even as public meetings to discuss new oil drilling off the Virginia coast have been canceled for this month.
AMY GOODMAN: Salazar’s announcement comes on the heel of a Washington Post exposé revealing that the Minerals Management Service had approved BP’s drilling plan in the Gulf of Mexico without any environmental review. The article notes that the agency under Secretary Salazar had quote “categorically excluded” BP’s drilling as well as hundreds of other offshore drilling permits from environmental review. The agency was able to do this using a loophole in the National Environmental Policy Act created for minimally intrusive actions like building outhouses and hiking trails. Well, for more on this story, we’re joined now from Tucson, Arizona by Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. Welcome to DEMOCRACY NOW!, Kieran. Explain this loophole, how you found it, and what it means for the Gulf.
KIERAN SUCKLING: Well, when a federal government is going to approve a project, it has to go through an environmental review. But for projects that have very, very little impact like building an outhouse or a hiking trail, they can use something called a categorical exclusion and say there’s no impact here at all so we don’t need to spend energy or time doing a review. Well, we looked at the oil drilling permits being issued by the Minerals Management Service in the Gulf, and we were shocked to find out that they were approving hundreds of massive oil drilling permits using this categorical exclusion instead of doing a full environmental impact study. And then, we found out that BP’s drilling permit—the very one that exploded—was done under this loophole and so it was never reviewed by the federal government at all. It was just rubber-stamped. Read the rest of this entry »
This is one of the most timely and insightful articles I’ve read in a long time – the editorial from the new issue of Turbulence magazine. They discuss the economic crisis within the frame of the collapse of the neoliberal order that has been the standard-bearer of global capitalism for the last 30-35 years, resulting in a state of “limbo” where no “deal” exists tying the system together. Nevertheless, the system persists like a zombie, dead and discredited but carried forward by sheer momentum and the fact that nothing else has shown itself capable of replacing it. Our job then, is to hold up an alternative way of life (a new “common ground”) that values communities and the planet above narrow profit, and that job becomes easier by studying analysis like this. Thanks, Turbulence! [alex]
Life in Limbo?
We are trapped in a state of limbo, neither one thing nor the other. For more than two years, the world has been wracked by a series of interrelated crises, and they show no sign of being resolved anytime soon. The unshakable certainties of neoliberalism, which held us fast for so long, have collapsed. Yet we seem unable to move on. Anger and protest have erupted around different aspects of the crises, but no common or consistent reaction has seemed able to cohere. A general sense of frustration marks the attempts to break free from the morass of a failing world.
There is a crisis of belief in the future, leaving us with the prospect of an endless, deteriorating present that hangs around by sheer inertia. In spite of all this turmoil – this time of ‘crisis’ when it seems like everything could, and should, have changed – it paradoxically feels as though history has stopped. There is an unwillingness, or inability, to face up to the scale of the crisis. Individuals, companies and governments have hunkered down, hoping to ride out the storm until the old world re-emerges in a couple of years. Attempts to wish the ‘green shoots’ of recovery into existence mistake an epochal crisis for a cyclical one; they are little more than wide-eyed boosterism. Yes, astronomical sums of money have prevented the complete collapse of the financial system, but the bailouts have been used to prevent change, not initiate it. We are trapped in a state of limbo.
Crisis in the middle
And yet, something did happen. Recall those frightening yet heady days that began in late 2008, when everything happened so quickly, when the old dogmas fell like autumn leaves? They were real. Something happened there: the tried and tested ways of doings things, well-rehearsed after nearly 30 years of global neoliberalism, started to come unstuck. What had been taken as read no longer made sense. There was a shift in what we call the middle ground: the discourses and practices that define the centre of the political field.
To be sure, the middle ground is not all that there is, but it is what assigns the things in the world around it a greater or lesser degree of relevance, validity or marginality. It constitutes a relatively stable centre against which all else is measured. The farther from the centre an idea, project or practice is, the more likely it is to be ignored, publicly dismissed or disqualified, or in some way suppressed. The closer to it, the more it stands a chance of being incorporated – which in turn will shift the middle more or less. Neither are middle grounds defined ‘from above’, as in some conspiratorial nightmare. They emerge out of different ways of doing and being, thinking and speaking, becoming intertwined in such a way as to reinforce each other individually and as a whole. The more they have become unified ‘from below’ as a middle ground, the more this middle ground acquires the power of unifying ‘from above’. In this sense, the grounds of something like ‘neoliberalism’ were set before something was named as such; but the moment when it was named is a qualitative leap: the point at which relatively disconnected policies, theories and practices became identifiable as forming a whole.
The naming of things like Thatcherism in the UK, or Reaganism in the US, marked such a moment for something that had been constituting itself for some time before, and which has for the past three decades dominated the middle ground: neoliberalism, itself a response to the crisis of the previous middle, Fordism/Keynesianism. The era of the New Deal and its various international equivalents had seen the rise of a powerful working class that had grown used to the idea that its basic needs should be met by the welfare state, that real wages would rise, and that it was always entitled to more. Initially, the centrepiece of the neoliberal project was an attack on this ‘demanding’ working class and the state institutions wherein the old class compromise had been enshrined. Welfare provisions were rolled back, wages held steady or forced downwards, and precariousness increasingly became the general condition of work.
But this attack came at a price. The New Deal had integrated powerful workers’ movements – mass-based trade unions – into the middle ground, helping to stabilise a long period of capitalist growth. And it provided sufficiently high wages to ensure that all the stuff generated by a suddenly vastly more productive industrial system – based on Henry Ford’s assembly line and Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ – could be bought. Bit by bit, the ferocious attack on the working classes of the global North was offset by low interest rates (i.e. cheap credit) and access to cheap commodities, mass-produced in areas where wages were at their lowest (like China). In the global South, the prospect of one day attaining similar living conditions was promised as a possibility. In this sense, neoliberal globalisation was the globalisation of the American dream: get rich or die trying. Read the rest of this entry »