Laissez-Faire, Laissez Mourir

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The spread of the coronavirus epidemic around the world in the past few weeks has exposed not only differences in the lack of preparedness of various public health systems, but also differences in reactions to the crisis. Some governments imposed an early lockdown in their attempt to ‘flatten the curve’ while others have taken a more gradual approach, proceeding from travel restrictions through limits on non-essential businesses to shelter-in-place regimes. 

As the epicenter of the pandemic shifts from Asia to Europe and the U.S, however, some reactions stand out among the rest in their utter disregard for human life. Federal and state officials in the U.S. have first downplayed the threat two months before it arrived in the country, as well as refused offers for help from the World Health Organization. Now, as the curve in the U.S. is about to get steeper (see the surgeon general’s warning), top levels of government are considering scaling back the moderate measures that have been taken so far, with a view to return to normal activity within a few weeks. While blaming China for not controlling the virus early enough, some officials are contemplating consciously allowing their own citizens to experience a much worse spread of infection and death than China has seen. 

One clear example of this misguided and dangerous ideology can be seen in the pressure put on the U.S. government by corporate lobbyists not to activate the Defense Production Act – which enables the executive branch to order corporations to manufacture the direly-needed medical supplies for testing and treating the virus. Large swaths of the political elite, instead, are relying on the private sector’s voluntary offers to produce such goods. Worse, these same politicians are aching to get the economy back to normal, so as to boost the stock market and their own ratings at the same time. The  lieutenant-governor of Texas even went as far as suggesting that older citizens – the group most prone to dying from the virus – would gladly ‘sacrifice’ themselves in the interest of getting the economy moving again.Read More »

‘Climate Emergency’, COVID-19 and the Australian capitalist state

covid-19-4926456_1920Now is the hour of our collective discontent. In order to pursue the agenda set out for this blog post series, namely: ‘to precisely identify the strategic, structural/epochal, or more contingent factors involved in the emergence of particular state–capital hybrids, as well as the specific institutional, organizational, and legal forms that facilitate such emergence’ (Alami & Dixon, 2019) my contribution examines the Australian state over the summer of 2019-20, into the COVID-19 pandemic. I argue that the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the instability and amenability to capital of our present conjuncture in ways that the bushfire crisis did not. Further, the pandemic renders our present conjuncture potentially far less stable and amenable to capital than declaration of a national ‘climate emergency’ could have, and therefore the left should consider how to force deep reorientations of state-led action (and therefore form and function) while it can.

The need for an adequate state theory

Existing scholarship on neo-Marxian theories of the state are the foundations of an appropriate diagnosis of this moment, though in the heart of an historic conjuncture is not the time to attempt a full synthesis or unified theory. Instead we should begin by using our compounding crises to work through our existing analyses and critiques. In keeping with this research agenda, I will begin with a Poulantzean reading of the state – not the blunt Althusserian structuralism of his earlier work, but his later and more nuanced work on the state theorised as an ever-contingent social relation. The state is thus conceived of as a material condensate of the balance of class struggle, meaning it is possible to isolate points of rupture and work upon and through them to alter the balance of power.

Without a reconfiguration of political and economic power, the crises we face will not resolve, but escalate by orders of magnitude. A neo-Marxian theorisation of the state reframes this political moment with a materialist analysis of the issues confronting our societies. The points of possible rupture have now become more apparent and should guide leftist strategy into and through the COVID-19 pandemic.

From ‘climate emergency’ to global pandemic (from theory to praxis)

Over the 2019-20 summer, Australia burned. Vast swathes of the country were covered in marauding fires; communities were evacuated; homes were destroyed; irreplaceable heritage landscapes were lost forever and millions of animals perished. Those physically distant from the fires were nonetheless impacted by the resulting cloaks of particulate matter draped across the country at levels ‘unmatched in terms of severity, duration and extent’ in Australia’s recent memory.

Much of the resulting political jousting focused on whether or not funding had been cut for core services that would have ameliorated the situation. Over the course of the summer, communities mobilised to meet the relentless blazes, with numerous online fundraising campaigns set up to try and resource volunteer fire services. Rolling demonstrations and protests were held across the country, demanding action from state and federal governments.

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The Specter of State Capitalism

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By Adam Dixon and Ilias Alami

Oh, how the righteous have fallen! As the global economy succumbs to COVID-19, we are haunted by the specter of state capitalism. Last week chief economic advisor to the White House, Larry Kudlow, suggested that the US government could take equity stakes in corporations in return for aid. Housing evictions are being postponed. Payroll for employees in some parts of the private sector are to be covered. And the list continues. In the UK, plans are afoot, dare one say, to renationalize the struggling airline sector and other companies.

At the moment, critics of such statist measures are too worried about their own personal health to make a fuss. But as we flatten the curve of the infected and the wheels of the market start turning again, the righteous apostles of the free market will return with a vengeance, and the state capitalists will tumble from their temporary thrones.

As with the last crisis just a decade ago, the state capitalists provided much needed support and took a humble bow (at a profit) when their services were no longer needed. Bailing out General Motors was a good deal for the US taxpayer, as was TARP. Certainly, the same will happen this time around. Or will it?

Since the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK, the prophets of the free market have been decisively pushed out of the halls of power or forced to accept a different religion (typically that of an authoritarian and nationalist form of neoliberalism). National capital comes first!

Without a doubt, Trump and the Brexiteers did not foresee needing state ownership of industry and explicit state direction to achieve their goals. There are plenty of ways the state fosters, guides, and shapes private capital. Capitalism is never without the state, except in some libertarian utopia. State ownership just makes this relationship more explicit.

The embrace of Singapore as a post-Brexit economic model for the UK is telling in that respect. The government of Singapore continues to be a major shareholder of Singaporean industry and commerce, with no plans to change. Why should it? It owns successful and competitive companies. Indeed, state-owned enterprises the world over are demonstrating their competitive prowess. They aren’t the bureaucratic corporate sloths that we are told necessarily come with state ownership. Capital centralized in the hands of the state is resilient and growing for a reason. State-owned enterprises and state-controlled investment vehicles, such as sovereign wealth funds, are multiplying and growing the world over.

For the British elite, Brexit reflected an underlying lament of the sale of British industry (and finance) to foreign owners, even though many became rich that way. They know that restoring such past glory requires explicit action of the state, likely through more centralization of (national) capital. This is a reason behind the refusal to agree to level playing-field provisions with the EU in the future relationship negotiations. But there is more to this than returning to some past glory. Global capital accumulation is driven increasingly by capital centralized in the hands of the state.

The Trump administration’s battle with China (supported implicitly by other Western powers) is not driven by some desire to protect liberal rules-based international order. Rather, it is a battle of national capital. Afterall, China is capitalist.

China’s shift from assembling goods to also designing them, and doing so competitively, has unsettled the hierarchies of the world economy. But China is unwilling to relinquish its development model and its ownership of large swaths of Chinese industry. That is not in the DNA of the Chinese elite. Large state ownership is both necessary to secure the political dominance of the party state at home, and to expand and consolidate the integration of Chinese firms into global supply chains under favorable terms.

This is met in the US (and to a lesser extent other Western economies) by an increasingly aggressive form of techno-nationalism — a form of economic nationalism in the realms of trade, industrial, and investment policy, that aim at securing exclusive control of key scientific-technological innovations. National elites in the West more generally are realizing that they need state power to compete in the global economy. In reality, they always have. But the cloak of free-market neoliberalism energized their buccaneering self-confidence that they were above it all. That fiction is over.

The extension of state prerogatives by non-Western powers used to fuel all sorts of anxieties among state actors and observers in the West. Now, these very same modalities of state intervention are being called for, if not praised, by commentators across the political spectrum. Some even look with envy at the agility with which non-Western state capitalists are currently managing the crisis. The pace at which this ‘new normal’ is emerging is remarkable. We are all state capitalists now (or we all want to be).

COVID-19 and the generalized economic crisis it has catalyzed may hasten changes toward explicit forms of state capitalism in the West. Yet, a decloaked state at the helm does not necessarily mean a more progressive and just economic system (just like it does not mean a move toward state socialism). Who will bear the brunt of the costs of the current transformations, and who will benefit from the consolidation of the ‘new’ state capitalism, will be the outcome of a tense political process. This much we know.

Adam Dixon is Associate Professor of Globalization and Development at Maastricht University. Ilias Alami is a postdoctoral researcher at Maastricht University.

Photo by Governor Tom Wolf. Pennsylvania Commonwealth microbiologist Kerry Pollard performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus inside the extraction lab at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Friday, March 6, 2020.

 

The risk of being misled by climate economy models

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This post deconstructs the following statement:

If reducing greenhouse emissions had economic benefits then we would do it anyway without new policy.

The statement above is used by economists to argue against the introduction of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the basis that the costs would outweigh the benefits of reducing climate change. It is part of a wider narrative that regulatory policy can only lead to economic costs. However, the statement is perhaps one of the most perverse conclusions from neoclassical economics. It depends on a raft of assumptions that run contrary to real-world experience. Further, as discussed below, if just one assumption is taken out, the conclusion changes.

Sadly, economists and (in particular) economic modellers, have played a key role in turning this fallacy into accepted reality. They have done this by using simple optimisation-based approaches that make strong assumptions about human behaviour. Often the modellers do not critically question or even fully understand these assumptions. Read More »

Facing a liquidity tsunami? Profit, risk, and discipline in emerging markets

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In April 2012, at the White House on her first visit to the United States since her election in 2010, Brazilian president Brazil Dilma Rousseff scolded advanced capitalist economies for unleashing a ‘tsunami de liquidez’, a ‘liquidity tsunami’, onto the developing world. The expression liquidity tsunami suggests that the sheer scale and volume of financial capital flows to developing and emerging markets had become an issue. It indicates that these quantities were overwhelming and could trigger devastating damages. 

This in itself is puzzling. Have we not been told by development economists and practitioners that financial capital flowing into the poorer areas of the world economy is something good and desirable? That one of the main causes of underdevelopment is actually the lack of capital and domestic savings in developing countries, and that this should be compensated with foreign capital inflows? Following this line of reasoning, vast swathes of financial capital flowing into emerging markets surely should be seen as a boon.

And there was some truth to that. The capital flow bonanza from the mid-2000s to late 2013 (coupled with the primary commodity super-cycle) did deliver some benefits to emerging markets. It helped governments fund themselves at better conditions. It provided the material basis for significant redistribution via a number of social policies. It contributed to economic growth performances much higher than over the previous decade. It also made a minority of people much richer in a very short period of time. In sum, the capital flow boom temporarily helped deliver some economic and social gains, and this was instrumental in consolidating social contracts between governments and their populations.Read More »

Re-thinking Social Reproduction: Crises, Contradictions, and Variegations 

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A new special issue of Capital & Class, edited by Isabella Bakker and Stephen Gill, sets out to broaden the analysis of social reproduction. Following their earlier volume on social reproduction – Power, Production and Social Reproduction (2003) – Bakker and Gill restate in this issue their commitment to ‘a novel methodological synthesis premised upon the mutual constitution of power, production, and social reproduction’ (2019, p. 510), and reassert the centrality of ‘the unfolding contradiction between the global accumulation of capital and the provision of stable and progressive conditions of social reproduction’ (p. 504) to their analysis. 

The key contribution of this issue, however, is twofold. First, it further develops the theory of social reproduction, advancing a conception of social ontology based around a new concept: variegated social reproduction. Second, it contributes to the analysis of contemporary neoliberalism as a whole – and in particular, to discussions around variegated neoliberalism – mapping out how this latter variegation is internally linked to that of social reproduction. In this post I will briefly review these contributions, focussing on the articles of the special issue that deal with cases outside of Western Europe and North America to highlight different geographies’ contributions to the discussion of social reproduction. Read More »

Lean on me: Development financial struggles and national development banks

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National development banks are back in fashion and here to stay. A number of countries benefited from the global economic boom during the 2000s as exports and commodity revenues surged. These countries’ governments stored some of the current and fiscal account surpluses and used the capital to expand state financial institutions. Two prominent types of institutions have grown rapidly, namely sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) and national development banks (NDBs), which often have financial return and development stimulation as their core mandates, respectively. Much attention has been afforded to how these organisations’ activities have turned into a global force. For example, the Norwegian SWF’s investment spans across 73 countries, including shares in more than 9,000 companies, and China’s NDBs have emerged as the developing world’s leading project backer.

More recently, NDBs have been identified as important agents in funding domestic development projects in a wide range of developing and advanced countries. The perceived role of NDBs is shifting from a reactive counter-cyclical role towards a proactive patient capitalist role. Popularity in NDBs may appear to be obvious due to the rising interest in pursuing state-designed development planning and industrial strategies over the past decade. While many observations have focused on the growing inclination towards state activism as catalyst to NDBs’ expansion around the world, this piece examines three structural challenges incentivising developing countries to mobilise NDBs. Read More »

The Sacrificial Generations of Capitalism

Screenshot 2020-02-11 at 09.28.58In this article I remind readers about the existence of “sacrificial generations” within global capitalist history. By sacrificial generation I mean a group of people at a point in time that experiences suffering with the immanent or intentional effect of changing economic, political or social conditions, which are in turn disproportionately enjoyed by another group of people at a later period in time. I identify four areas in which there systematically exists sacrificial generations:  three stages of capitalist development (state formation, capitalist property rights transition and early industrialization) and a cyclical aspect of capitalism (Polanyian-Marxian cycles). It could also be argued that the future generations which would disproportionately experience the environmental costs of past and present generations’ consumption are “climatic sacrificial generations”, but this will not be explored. Read More »