“Under pressure”: negotiating competing demands and desires in a time of precarious earnings

A few years ago, during a year of ethnographic fieldwork with young un(der)employed men in a poor shack settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg, I found myself sitting in Senzo’s one-room shack on a foldout camping chair. It was a hot Wednesday afternoon. Popular R&B music was blaring into the air from the nearby tavern. Senzo sat on his double bed. Soon after I arrived, Senzo handed me an ornate invitation with gold foil on the sides and his name on it. It was an invitation to the wedding of his cousin that was set to take place the following weekend. I asked Senzo if he planned to go. “I’m not going”, he told me, explaining that he had declined the invitation because, as he put it, “I don’t want to put more pressure on myself” describing the difficulties he already had paying rent, keeping up with outstanding debts, and supporting his girlfriend and children. Going to the wedding would require him to buy a fancy suit and a gift for the couple. This required money he didn’t have. The “pressure” Senzo described was not just the monetary cost of attending the wedding. It was also the feeling (what Senzo called “stress”) of being overburdened by competing demands on his money including buying consumer items, sending his children to good schools, and supporting family members. To understand the continuous “pressure” young men like Senzo face requires we give attention to the changing nature of work and the changing world of families in contemporary South Africa. As I show below the pressures young black un(der)employed men experience are at once economic and social given the pressure they face to not only “provide” for themselves and their families exists alongside a pressure to improve or “upgrade” their lives. As such, I show how the   “income-demands gap” (a key catalyst of “pressure”) in young men’s lives is produced in and through specific (increasingly temporary rather than enduring) social relations and ties. 

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The Agrarian Crisis in Punjab and the Making of the Anti-Farm Law Protests

The protests in Punjab are happening at a time when the agrarian economy is under stress. With increasing uncertainty, previously antagonistic groups across classes, castes & gender are coming closer, building a broader base for the agitation & beyond.

Punjab’s farmers have been unrelenting in their opposition to the new farm laws passed in September. Their sustained and creative opposition continues to make headlines. The central government too remains adamant and increasingly belligerent about sustaining the laws in their current form. The political pressure of the farmers has led the Punjab government, in a symbolic gesture, to pass legislation rejecting the centre’s farm laws. The past weeks have witnessed bitter stand-offs: farmers blocking rail tracks, the railways suspending services to Punjab for a period, and the state’s power plants starved of coal. A march of thousands of farmers to Delhi earlier this week to register their opposition to these laws is faced police barricades, water cannons, and tear gas shells.

In the face of the unpopularity of the farm laws, the central government has found refuge in different kinds of arguments in favour of the reforms. It has sought to discredit the protests by arguing that the agitation is driven by exploitative middlemen, and that small and marginal farmers are happy with these laws. The opposition to the new laws is portrayed as coming from large, prosperous, and politically powerful farmers, who dominate Punjab’s farmers unions and who benefited the most from the old system.

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Economic Sovereignty for Developing Countries: What Role for Modern Money Theory?

With modern money theory (MMT) receiving impressive attention, the implications this theory has for developing countries have also been discussed more intensely. Emphasizing both its strengths and gaps provides a great chance to further develop macroeconomic strategies for poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.

In brief, the theory starts from the statement that money is issued by the government and brought into circulation via its expenditures. The government does not rely on taxes to fund expenditures when it is itself the source of money. Therefore, money can be created upon demand, is not limited, and can be used by the government to finance all expenditures it considers necessary to achieve policy goals such as full employment or a Green New Deal. The reason why agents in the economy accepts this money only consisting of numbers without any intrinsic value is the obligation to pay taxes. Since the state has the power to impose taxes, individuals need to get hold of money as this is the only way to meet their obligations; this is how the currency is accepted as a means of payments. The government thus has the power to run unlimited deficits because the fact that money is needed to pay taxes guarantees its acceptance even if those taxes do not cover expenditures. In fact, the government should run deficits because it creates the demand required for full employment while a balanced budget constrains it. The government cannot go bankrupt because there is no lack of currency it issues itself. The conditions identified by MMT for the system to work are the following: 1) the country must be sovereign of its own currency and 2) inflation needs to be kept under control. Once the latter starts accelerating due to increased nominal demand stemming from government expenditures, taxes can be increased in order to withdraw money from circulation. However, as long as full employment is not achieved, prices are argued to remain stable.

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Does India’s Gender Budget Need a Rethink?

India was a pioneering country when it first introduced a Gender Budget in 2001 as part of its annual Financial Year Budget. Gender Budgeting (GB) highlights the inherently different experiences in receiving financial and welfare support from the state due to their differing needs, priorities and access and serves to ameliorate the barriers to economic inclusion faced by women through a plethora of state financing. 

India’s Gender Budget Statement (GBS) has been released in two parts since 2005. Each ministry highlights allocations that are – women specific allocations where 100% of the budget for a specific scheme is assigned to women and a ‘pro-women’s’ allocation, where at least 30% of the budget for a specific scheme has been assigned to women to enhance affirmative action.

Figure 1: Proportion of women’s allocation in India’s Gender Budget

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Developmental Agency under the Radar: Developmental States and Coalitions in Dependent Market Economies and Low-Tech Sectors

In a recent paper co-authored with László Bruszt and published in a Special Issue of Review of International Political Economy, we identify a developmental state in the least likely  of times – the period of hegemonic neoliberalism in the 1990s and early 2000s –  and the least likely of places, namely the post-socialist Central Eastern European (CEE) economies conventionally described as FDI-dependent Dependent Market Economies (DMEs). 

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Separated under the Same Roof: The Revived Relationships of State-Market Institutions. 

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When looking at the way contemporary global value chains/global production networks (GVCs/GPNs) and the articulations of globalised capital have been studied, it is clearly visible that the hegemonic power of Multinational Corporations (MNCs) has monopolised the empirical and theoretical analysis. Indeed, their ability to maintain control over the technological, financial and commercial flows through private-led governance has impacted most of the industrial development and underdevelopment of the Global South. Such footloose private operations have often caused undesired consequences such as eroded environmental standards, low wages and scrapped social protection rights. Governments have joined in a race to the bottom on fiscal and labour deregulations in order to attract foreign direct investment in exchange for low and semi-skilled jobs, resulting in very low fiscal revenue, low productivity, balance of payment imbalances and poor social outcomes. 

The underpinning theory was that countries should follow their comparative advantages and let the market determine prices of labour (costs) and goods in order to be competitive in the world market and maximise returns. Yet, such losing game has been criticised since the start by heterodox development economists who widely denounced how theories and policies of development forgot the role of the state in history and in the present. In other words, public institutions have always played a key role not only in the quantitative making of capitalist accumulation, but also in its qualitative distributional and developmental outcomes. 

Building upon the heritage of such scholarship, and in view of multiple and overwhelming ‘market failures’ in the global South and beyond, a new wave of Marxist-institutionalist inter-disciplinary literature spanning from Geography to International Economics and Finance has been trying to untangle the potential synergies between the public and the private domains by connecting the GVCs/GPNs and Developmental State approach. 

In this debate, it has been emphasised that the state should be seen as a facilitator (i.e. assisting firms in smoothing market transactions); a regulator (combined with distributor to mitigate inequality and negative market externalities); a buyer (i.e. public procurement); a producer (i.e. state-owned enterprises) and a financer as a result of state-capital reconfigurations through sovereign wealth funds and development banks. Therefore, such functions should be foregrounded in analyses of development, because they are key to understanding developmental sources and processes within GVCs. Read More »

A crisis like no other: social reproduction and the regeneration of capitalist life during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Back to work!

As the COVID-19 health crisis deepens, it looks increasingly clear that the short-term collapse in global output is likely to exceed that of any recession in the last 150 years – that is, in the entire history of capitalism. The ILO estimates that the crisis will lead to the destruction of 195 million jobs. Hence, after discussing at length the epidemiology of the COVID-19 pandemic, media attention is now increasingly focused on how to restart the global economic engine. We may still be mourning our dead, but time seems to have come to discuss how we guarantee economic survival that, under capitalism, is based on production and work. Here in the UK, from where I am writing this piece, getting ‘Britain back to work’ is becoming the new mantra for the government, even if its own leader is still recovering from the virus. Similar concerns are debated across the world, as the pandemic has by now clearly turned from a planetary health threat into a planetary economic threat. Yet, getting the world ‘back to workain’t no easy endeavour, whilst maintaining social distancing. Global capitalism is based on social interactions. In fact, its global phase has aimed at erasing social distancing, not just between working people but also between countries, markets, commodities and consumers. But at present, the way in which we are used to regenerate life under capitalism would literally kill us, and this is no small print in explaining the impasse of the COVID-19 crisis. It should be the starting point to analyse it. Ultimately, before turning into a crisis of production, the current pandemic has created a systemic crisis of social reproduction. As argued by Tithi Bhattacharya, the pandemic has shown the centrality of life-making activities for the working of capitalism. Moreover, it has also shown the value of care, as well as the stark ‘care inequalities’ experienced by different communities and individuals across the globe. By all means, this is a reproductive crisis like no other before. Read More »

The Coronavirus and Carceral Capitalism

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From a prison cell in 1930, Antonio Gramsci wrote “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old world is dying and the new cannot yet be born; in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The political economic and biological relevance of Gramsci’s words and the conditions under which they were written extend well beyond historical parallel and literary metaphor. A crisis has metastasized from the micro-biological to the political economic. Now, neoliberalism is dying. In the interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms have appeared: social distancing, crisis policing, death camps, and pandemic labor. Of what disease are these symptoms? Not coronavirus. Carceral capitalism. Read More »