Whose Polycrisis?

‘if God the Father had created things by naming them, Elstir recreated them by removing their names, or by giving them another name’.

Marcel Proust (II, 566)

An emerging consensus originated in the US has declared 2022 as the year of the ‘Polycrisis’, with a view to marking the beginning of an era of turbulence and unrest in the global economy.  Under this conceptualisation, recent events including the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change catastrophes, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rise in energy and food prices are generally postulated as separate crises, which can have an effect on each other but nevertheless have separate origins.  This centrifugal analysis of events predicates on the decline of the uni-polar world order, as well as acknowledging the emergent structural weaknesses in the traditional western powers; all of which can be loosely interpreted as occurring in a period during which power is dispersing and perhaps as a consequence of this dispersion, the current drivers of crisis have multiplied, leading to a multitude of crises, in contrast to preceding historical instances.

In spite of the current use of the term, the origins of the Polycrisis date further and can be more sparsely contextualised. However, there is no doubt that it has now become an important neologism for conventional western media and policy institutes, especially adopted by Bretton Woods Institutions, as well as other leading investors.

Civil society has also used this term as a neat summary, however, theirs is a critical response and is not interchangeable with how powerful International Financial Institutions (IFIs), policy think-tanks and investors use the term.  In this sense, the instrumentalisation of this neologism, seems to have more value than its meaning, with the discernible possibility that any perceived political mileage of the Polycrisis, is a complete transformation away from its intellectual roots. Nonetheless, as an artefact, the intellectual roots and the political role of the Polycrisis merits an integrated analysis beyond its instrumentalisation. 

A remarkable feature of liberal thought is the tendency towards identification of social phenomena through the selective elevation of their key distinguishing features, which are abstract enough to form ‘systems’ and neutral enough to subsume the inherent contradictions of capitalist development. Pandemics, climate breakdown, wars and global deflationary pressures are not mere externalities of the capitalist system but intrinsic to its operations- long predicted by a diverse group of thinkers. That these events converge in time is a political outcome, subject to planetary limits, not abstract systemisation, as the Polycrisis seems to imply.  

Critical responses to the Polycrisis have pointed towards its disregard in accounting for the long and sustained crisis of the capitalist world order and a resort towards ‘brute empiricism’ to conceptualise things as they appear to be,  rather than questioning what is occurring beneath mere appearances. Prima-facie accounts often seek to capture the zeitgeist in the endeavour to simplify things. However, there is a need to differentiate between simplification and reductionism. As a concept, the Polycrisis is simultaneously all-encompassing as well as abstract.

In an attempt to grasp both these aspects, this short blog starts with a focus on three messages of the Polycrisis: a) the qualitative nature of change, b) the drivers or causes of crises and c) the role of Bretton Woods Institutions in adopting the concept. In addition, the blog proposes an alternative way of understanding the contemporary crisis, which hinges on the decline of the western capitalist model, followed by some thoughts on multipolarity and geopolitics. 

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The labor of land

Contemporary land grabs and agricultural investments have generated huge attention. The transformations in land tenure, production and social reproduction in the aftermath of land rushes have generated a rich literature. A central question is about labor, and its implications for structural transformation and agrarian futures.

Extraversion, exports and the labor question

In Senegambia, the intersecting pressures of food, land, and capital were historically linked to the quest for new labor and cash crops (cotton, then groundnut, followed by fresh fruits and vegetables) in frontier markets for Europe. Some of these transformations have been widely documented by Egyptian economist Samir Amin, Senegalese historian Boubacar Barry and American historian Sven Beckert. In 1819, the Ndiaw Treaty between France and the leaders of the Waalo Kingdom (in northern Senegal) was signed, allowing France to set up three agricultural bases in northern Senegal for export. This agricultural colonization project failed mostly because of the resistance of the inhabitants of the Waalo Kingdom (the Waalo-Waalo) and the inability of  French colonial leaders to secure land concessions they thought were automatically and permanently transferred to them through the treaty. The Waalo leaders, who managed the land on behalf of their community, understood otherwise. This conflicting interpretation on how land is governed became a recurrent source of conflict.

Another problem was the shortage of labor—the Waalo-Waalo refused forced labor and preferred to cultivate their subsistence crops rather than those for export. This refusal led to the return of clandestine slave trade and related abuses. The insecurity created by Waalo’s neighbors and the resistance of merchant capital added to the failure. These are key to understanding how various historical dynamics have sedimented to make the Senegal River Valley Region (historical Waalo) the site of the land rush that began in 2007-2008, especially for the production of export fresh fruits and vegetables.

Revisiting this rich history offers us a better understanding of relations of exploitation and contemporary resistance to extractivism by a number of communities in this region. It is a reminder of the violence of primitive accumulation, a violence that is ongoing. Tanzanian historian Issa Shivji puts it well:

The early encounter of Africa with Europe was not commercial involving the exchange of commodities, but rather the unilateral looting of human resources. African slavery was neither a trade, nor a mode of production. It was simply a robbery of a people on a continental scale perpetrated over four centuries through force of arms.

Despite the subsequent attempt to develop new crops in 1826 in Saint-Louis, merchant capital eventually prevailed with the failure of agriculture. As a result, post-colonial leaders “inherited a country organized by and for merchant capital” after 1960 as Catherine Boone puts it. In the same vein, Koddenbrock, Kvangraven and Sylla note how merchant capital subsequently established colonial and post-colonial structures of extraction.

Beyond processes of land acquisition, it is important to pay attention to how land becomes capital and how agricultural workers are included, excluded, or rather adversely incorporated into these agri-food networks.For instance, in her 2011 essay on land grabbing in Southern Africa, Ruth Hall provides a useful typology of agricultural transformations from subsistence to capitalist imperatives. Besides models that are based on the displacement of primary producers and the establishment of large export-oriented agricultural estates, Hall emphasizes “commercialization in situ” and “outgrower” schemes whereby petty commodity producers and other land users are incorporated into commercial value chains. This is a further invite to go beyond eurocentrism and methodological nationalism in our analyses of the genealogy of capitalism and of processes of exploitation.

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Dependence and ecology in contemporary Latin America, part 2: Limits to sub-imperial autonomy

Brazilian agribusiness’s fervour for Soybean cultivation has manifested itself domestically as much, if not more so, than externally, with deforestation accelerating as plantations abound with similar velocity in both the Brazilian Amazon and the Paraguayan Chaco. The domestic intensification of Soybean cultivation can, in large part, be attributed to growing demand from China, the world’s primary soybean consumer (Song et al, 2009). China is the largest market for both Paraguayan and Brazilian soy, with both nations essentially relying on continued Chinese imports to balance their trade deficits (Giraudo, 2020). Accordingly, the impact of Chinese demand on Brazilian agriculture, and on other resource sectors across the region (Ganchev, 2020; Oviedo, 2015), replicates many of the dynamics previously mentioned with regards to Brazilian ‘Subimperialism’ in Paraguay.

As soybeans are typically exported with minimal processing, and monocrop agriculture generates comparatively little employment (Giraudo, 2020), few of the benefits of the soybean supply-chain are appropriated within Brazil. Meanwhile, cheap Brazilian soybeans indirectly support the Chinese labour system by lowering the price of staple foods, especially pork, allowing Chinese manufacturers to keep wages low, thereby maintaining the competitiveness of Chinese exports (Wise & Veltmeyer, 2018). With Chinese demand likely to remain high, it seems inconceivable that either the Brazilian or the Paraguayan economies will wean themselves off of soy and will instead remain conditioned by, and dependent on, the whims of the Chinese industrial system

Furthermore, this integration of soybeans into the Chinese industrial economy exacerbates the existing China-Brazil trade imbalance. 98.4% of Chinese exports to Brazil are manufactures, whilst the majority of Brazilian exports to China are primary-resources, with soybeans representing the single most valuable export-commodity (Jenkins, 2012). Low-price Brazilian commodities thereby fuel an industrial system which exports value-added goods back to Brazil, creating a trade-deficit which entrenches the nation’s dependence on the industrialised core, reproducing the fundamental dynamics observed by dependency theorists in the mid-twentieth century (Frank; 1966; Prebisch, 1962).

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Floods in Pakistan: Where is the ‘International Community’ for the imperialized zones of the world-system?

The world’s brief concern for the plight of more than 35 million Pakistanis deprived of their homes, livelihoods and dignity by this summer’s unprecedented monsoon-related floods was summed up in late August by a suitably passionate video appeal by Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Gutierrez. He implored the ‘international community’ to step up and take responsibility; as he rightly noted, Pakistan has contributed a pittance to the global emissions that drive climate change, and it is not ‘just’ for the country’s long suffering people to be left isolated.

Of course the UN does not deploy terms like empire and reparations, which a truly meaningful message would have contained. Mr. Gutierrez subsequently travelled to Pakistan on September 8, presumably to try and sustain what little media and donor attention the floods had garnered. As it turned out, Queen Elizabeth II passed away on the same day. Unsurprisingly, the imperial monarch’s death became a global concern overnight, while Pakistan’s colonial peripheries faded even further from the public eye. Let alone other bilateral and multilateral donors, the UN itself has to date disbursed only a small fraction of the US$160 million that it promised to raise for flood relief in late August.

A spade, as the proverbial saying goes, ought to be called a spade. Over the past two decades, at least some of the underlying structural causes of global warming and climate change have been identified and articulated, time and again, most notably at gatherings of the world’s richest and most powerful people. But even where emissions targets are agreed, the biggest polluters – western imperialist powers – are simply not doing enough. There is now very little chance that we will contain warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and as the Pakistan example demonstrates, there will be more and more hell to pay for the historically imperialized zones of the world-system.

Of course, there is much that is not even acknowledged, nay, spoken of, within the so-called ‘international community’. Like the fact that our political-economic system, the global regime of capital accumulation, is based on the deliberate expropriation of working people and the natural resources that sustain them. In Pakistan, the rest of South Asia and much of postcolonial Africa/Latin America, there is no forest, water body, landed plain or mountainous highland that is safe from violent grabs by a nexus that comprises local big men, state functionaries, ‘development’ practitioners, powerful states (western and increasingly non-western powers like China) and multinational corporations.

That more than half of Pakistan is inundated certainly has to do with unprecedented monsoon rains, particularly in the ethnic peripheries of Sindh and Balochistan. But the fallouts of mega infrastructure like dams, canals and drains, made through WB and ADB monies, and imbued with British-era colonial engineering logics motivated by the desire to conquer nature, are plain to see. As is the fact that real estate moguls and big construction lobbies are running riot across the country, thereby further eroding already fragile eco-systems upon which millions of people rely for their livelihoods. As Rosa Luxemburg said: ‘A natural economy… confronts the requirements of capitalism at every turn with rigid barriers. Capitalism must therefore always and everywhere fight a battle of annihilation against every historical form of natural economy that it encounters’.

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Marx and Colonialism

It is widely believed that Marx did not systematically consider the role of colonialism within the process of capital accumulation. According to David Harvey, Marx concentrated on a self-closed national economy in his main work. Although he did mention colonialism in Part 8 of Capital Volume 1 on the so-called primitive accumulation, this would only belong to a pre-history of capital, not to its everyday development. Based on a similar assumption, some postcolonial scholars criticise Marx for being Eurocentric, even a complicit supporter of Western imperialism, who ignored the agency of non-Western people.

If we read some passages from the Manifesto we could think that they are right. How can we explain otherwise Marx and Engels praising the role of the bourgeoisie drawing even the most barbarian nations into civilisation or the view that the liberation of colonised peoples depended on the victory of the revolution in Europe?

Before I start, let me make a short premise. In my first book I read Marx’s Capital in the light of his writings and articles on Ireland, China, India, Russia, and the American Civil War. At the time I believed that Marx only published a significant, but still limited amount of writings on the colonial question, those available in the Collected Works and in collections like Marx & Colonialism. But then in 2007 I worked at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, contributing to the complete edition of Marx’s and Engels’s writings. I thus “discovered” some of Marx’s 20,000 print page long notebooks (just to give you an idea, the printed notebooks alone would look like a new Collected Works). These writings show that Marx was interested in colonialism all his life, including when he wrote the Manifesto.

What came out of my reading? Let me start with the question of Marx’s field of analysis in Capital Volume 1. To analyse capital reproduction ‘in its integrity, free from all disturbing subsidiary circumstances’, Marx treats the world of commerce as one nation (1976: 727) and presupposes the full worldwide imposition of the capitalist mode of production. Does this mean that Marx analysed a “self-enclosed national economy” as Harvey and others believe? In my view, this abstraction means exactly the opposite. Marx’s positing a coincidence between the national and global levels is a premise for conceptualising the world market, which includes both internal and foreign markets of all nations participating in it. This abstraction makes it possible to include expansionism into the analysis of capital accumulation. In this framework, a country’s economic system is not confined within its national borders but consists of all production branches where capital is freely transferable, including the colonies and dependent economies.

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Sanctions and the changing world Order: Some Views from the Global South

In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, major world powers including the United States and the European Union have introduced sanctions on Russia. These wide ranging sanctions have been approached diversely by states, leading to distinct  bilateral and  multilateral approaches. The marked absence of a global consensus is notable. As the invasion and the sanction regime continues, the global economy is also slowing down with the imminence of a global depression. While the majority of analysis debates the efficacy of the current sanctions, this Q&A with sociologist and author of the A People’s Green New Deal, Max Ajl, political scientist and author of the forthcoming Race, Nature, and Accumulation, Bikrum Gil, and historian and author of Finance in Colonial Zimbabwe: Money, Sanctions and War Economy, Tinashe Nyamunda, analyses the structural and political nature of sanctions situating its modern iteration in a historical light. We ask them about the history of global sanctions, whether they an effective deterrent to wars, why countries in the global south have abstained from the current sanctions, how should we understand the current sanctions in the global order of neoliberalism, and whether sanctions are leading towards a new round of a non-aligned movement.

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(After) Neoliberalism? Rethinking the Return of the State

By Ishan Khurana and John Narayan

A number of commentators have recently suggested neo-liberalism is dead, or is in a process of retreat. During the disruption of global commodity chains caused by the Covid 19-pandemic, free-market policies that have dominated the global economy for the past 40 years appear to have less purchase. Here, authors point to a reversion to a national form of capitalism and protectionism, the questioning of globalization and return of state intervention in the economy. A prime example is the Biden regime’s approach to the US economy, which has turned to deficit driven social spending, expansion of union rights and protectionist measures to public procurement. This hasn’t come out of nowhere – with the neo-liberal global economy being zombie-like since the 2008 global financial crisis.

The fracturing of the global economy along national lines may herald conflict and a new cold war between the US and China. However, the retreat of neo-liberalism also seems to offer a possible opening – through a critique of globalization and a return of the state. Here, a rejuvenated politics of the left may be able to avoid the pitfalls of an emergent authoritarian capitalism and launch a new national form of progressive politics around welfare policies such as the Green New Deal and Universal Basic Income in locations such as the UK and US.

Neo-liberalism is in trouble, but missing from these debates about its demise is a discussion of neo-liberalism in the Global South and, thus, the reality of what the crisis of neo-liberalism means for all rather than simply those within the Global North. 

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The Geopolitics of Financialisation and Development: Interview with Ilias Alami

This interview was originally published in German in the special issue on financialisation and development policies of the journal Peripherie, September 2021, No. 162/163. Frauke Banse and Anil Shah (both based at Kassel University) spoke with political economist Ilias Alami (Maastricht University) about some of his recent work on the relationship between geopolitics, financial flows for development and emerging forms of ‘state capitalism,’ as well as related new imperialist formations. The interview was conducted via email in May 2021.  

The interview covers a series of International Political Economy topics. Ilias first locates the emergence of the Wall Street Consensus in the long and turbulent histories of the relation between finance and development as well as in secular capitalist transformations. He then outlines some of the conceptual tools he’s developed in his work in order to make sense of the contemporary interconnections of money and finance and the reproduction of imperialism and race/coloniality. Next, he situates these interconnections within broader scholarly debates about financialisation and highlights the similarities and differences between ongoing sovereign debt crises in the global South and the so-called 1980s ‘Third World debt crisis.’ Finally, Ilias discusses the recent emergence of new forms of ‘state capitalism’ and their complex relation to the extension and deepening of market-based finance. 

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