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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Agrarian Change in the Lap of Neoliberal Growth: Field perspective from India

If I had to describe three central characteristics of the Indian economy—its three defining features in the neoliberal period—they’d be i) premature de-industrialization and expansion of the services sector, ii) growth in the absence of formal job-creation, and instead an explosion of informality, and iii) the declining share of agriculture in value added even as its share in employment remains sizeable. In June-July 2019, I did intensive fieldwork in Sangli, a village in Rewari district in southern Haryana, to make sense of the ways in which these processes interact with agrarian change and play out for agrarian households, i.e. the contemporary Agrarian Question [1]. 

Sangli is in Haryana, where Green Revolution techniques (high yielding seed varieties, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and agricultural machinery like tractors and threshers) were adopted early on. It also happens to be close to the industrial belt that extends from the national capital Delhi to its surrounding districts, where foreign capital has congregated in the neoliberal era. This makes it an interesting place to study processes of generation and re-investment of agrarian surpluses, and to peer into the relationship between “modernized” agriculture and neoliberal industrial and urban growth that has dwarfed the rural economy.

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Neoliberal capitalism and the commodification of social reproduction, from our home to our classroom

It is official: we are getting ready for another round of industrial action in the UK higher education sector. For those who may be wondering what the current UCU national strike 2021-22 is all about, a short recap may help. Higher education UCU members are striking because of planned pensions cuts that risk pushing academic staff into ‘retirement poverty’; to fight against ever-growing labour casualisation in universities; and because of the growing inequalities of gender, race and class the UK higher education sector has nurtured in the last five decades. Colleagues at Goldsmith – to whom we shall extend all our support – are also fighting against planned mass staff redundancies.

We – higher education workers and students – were on this picket before, so many times, fighting other policies deepening the process of commodification of education. We were on this picket fighting cuts in real wages – which education workers are still experiencing. We were on this picket to fight against the trebling of university fees for our BA students. At SOAS, where I work, we were on this picket to fight against cuts to our library, against Prevent, against the deportation of SOAS cleaners on campus ground – an event which remains the darkest chapter of SOAS industrial relations and for which the university has not yet apologised in recognition of the harm caused to the SOAS 9 and to all our community. We hope the school will acknowledge the need to do so, so that we can move forward, together.

We were at other demonstrations and on other picket  lines, protesting against austerity, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, against climate change, against racism and in support of Black Lives Matter, against gender violence. The picket really is a sort of archive, which can be consulted backward to reconstruct a history of attacks to our rights – at work, at home, or both.

And if we consult this archive, we can clearly see a pattern emerging in the last decades, a pattern which in fact connects neoliberal Britain with many other places in the world economy, which have also experienced processes of neoliberalisation. All the pickets and demonstrations, become a sort of tracing route; we can reconnect the dots spread across a broader canvas. These dots design a specific pattern; that of a systematic attack to life and life-making sectors, realms and spaces.

Neoliberal capitalism, starting from the 1980s, has promoted a process of systematic de-concentration of resources in public sectors, and particularly in so-called ‘socially reproductive sectors’, that is those that regenerate us as people and as workers. This attack has been massively felt in the home, which has become a major battleground for processes of marketization of care and social reproduction. The withdrawal of the state from welfare provisions, the rise and rise of co-production in services (i.e. the incorporation of citizens’ unpaid labour in public service delivery;  a practice further cheapening welfare) –  and processes of partial or full privatisation of service delivery in healthcare and education have generated massive reproductive gaps. These gaps have been filled through outsourcing of life-making to others. Homes have become net users of market-based domestic and care services. The in-sourcing of nannies, au-pairs, and elders carers, from a vast number of countries in the Global south and transition economies have remade the home as a site of production and employment generation, at extremely low costs.

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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 partnership trap in the Indonesian gig economy

In the last three months, there have been three strikes by gig workers in Indonesia. Problems related to harsh working conditions, injustice, and the decline in the welfare of gig workers became the main issues in the three strikes. The biggest strike was carried out by GoKilat couriers (delivery service from the Gojek platform company) for 3 days on 8-10 June 2021 involving nearly 1,500 couriers or almost 80% of active couriers on GoKilat. A day later, couriers from Lala Move went on strike spontaneously for three days by mass deactivating accounts on their platform application.

Prior to the two strikes above, on April 6, 2021, a strike was carried out by Shopee Express couriers for 1 day in Bandung, Indonesia, involving around 1,000 couriers. The Shopee Express courier strike was motivated by a cut in the payment they received. The new rules reduce courier revenue from 2,500 rupiah (US$0.17)/package to only 1,500 rupiah (US$0.10)/package and that is the only income earned by the couriers. In other words, they did not earn basic income equal to the minimum wage in the province where they work. Moreover, they did not have health insurance, decent working hours, overtime pay, leave /holiday rights, and severance pay. The working conditions were worse due to the fact that the vehicles (motorcycle) used are theirs and they had to pay fuel cost.

With such a wage system, to be able to earn the minimum wage in Bandung City in 2021 of 3,742,267 rupiah (US$263.16) per month for instance, couriers have to deliver 2,495 packages monthly—not including fuel and maintenance costs they have to pay. It means that they would have to deliver about 104 packages per day to the customers. If, on average, a package is delivered in 10 minutes, they need 17 hours per day, far above the decent 8 hours work day. This oppressive work system for gig workers is possible and there is no prohibition from the Indonesian government, due to the courier’s status as an independent contractor ormitra” (partner) for the platform company, instead of labor.

The precarious and uncertain working conditions stem from the misclassification of their employment status. Companies classifies them as “partners”, so that they could avoid the obligation to provide the minimum wage, health insurance, overtime pay, severance pay, 8 working hours per day, and holiday rights if they were labor, although the working relationships between the companies and their couriers represents the employer-employee relationships as there are shift work for the couriers, work control by the companies, requirements in recruitment such as contracts of employment, and the companies unilateral rules established by the companies.

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Neoliberalism and global development before and after the Washington Consensus: Agricultural credit at the World Bank

We’ve witnessed a revival of debates about the Washington Consensus and the future of neoliberalism in recent months. Recent increases in public spending have led several commentators to conclude, or lament, that decades of neoliberal consensus have been shattered. Much of this debate is misguided, rooted in a mistaken dichotomy between ‘states’ and ‘markets’, and a corresponding conception of neoliberalism as primarily involving a reduction in the role of the former. Efforts to rehabilitate the Washington Consensus, meanwhile, rely on flimsy and heavily ideological counterfactuals.

In this post, I want to take up another angle on this question, asking: what is ‘the market’ in practice? In particular, I take a closer look at the emergence of the idea that ‘interest rates should be market-determined’. This was a core tenet of the ‘Washington Consensus’ in John Williamson’s original formulation. It was also, historically, a key argument of neoliberal economists. From the early 1970s, several influential pieces (e.g. McKinnon 1973; Shaw 1973) urged the deregulation of interest rates, arguing that while usury caps were intended to assist small farmers, they wound up forcing banks to concentrate on relatively low-risk loans to government or large-scale industry.

In practice, though, the relatively simple proposition that ‘interest rates should be left to the market’ invited a whole range of difficult questions and political challenges.

In a recent article in New Political Economy tracing the history of World Bank agricultural credit programmes (Bernards 2021), I show how neoliberal approaches to development have never really involved ‘shrinking the state’ and unleashing markets so much as fraught and failure-prone efforts to figure out who and what should be governed by, and how to construct, markets.

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The Techfare State: The ‘New’ Face of Neoliberal State Regulation

By Ali Bhagat and Rachel Phillips

A recent article in the New York Times takes aim at ‘How Big Tech Won the Pandemic’, highlighting how in the last year alone, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook posted a combined revenue of more than $1.2 trillion. While the pandemic has resulted in the loss of both work and life the world over, companies like Amazon have managed to expand their warehouses and their cloud computing infrastructure—and reaped unprecedented profits in the process. As the Times put it, ‘the pandemic created a peculiar economy that benefited some people and industries, including in technology, even as it battered others.’ 

But as many commentators have pointed out, the explosive growth of the tech giants must also be understood in relation to more overtly political conditions. It may be true that the technology industry has maintained a liberal, progressive, and socially equitable visage throughout the pandemic, even as it has subtly extended its multi-tentacled reach into new physical and digital spaces. Indeed, we know by now, that Big Tech has long thrived on regulatory evasion and the exploitation of legal grey areas and this is a dominant reading within critical political economy which has been at pains to point out how laissez-faire regulatory environments—particularly in the United States—have allowed the tech industry to sniff out and exploit new sources of profit, including those that have arisen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.  

In this literature, then, the tendency is to assume that it is an absence of state intervention that has underpinned the technology industry’s growing economic (and political) power. With our conception of techfare, however, we aim to push beyond these explorations of how Big Tech evades state control. Instead of focusing on state absences, we set out to highlight an equally significant dynamic: how the technology industry has become deeply entwined with the activities of the neoliberal state. 

Our research agenda is centred on one key question: how has the dramatic post-2008 growth of the American technology industry interacted with—and been shaped by—the neoliberal regulatory projects that have prevailed during this time? In pursuing this question, we focus on one pivotal arena of neoliberal statecraft in which Big Tech companies increasingly participate, but where their presence has gone largely unnoticed: the disciplining of the relative surplus population, particularly through consumer debt, policing, and imprisonment. 

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Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions

In the first quarter of 2021, amidst the social and economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the South African Treasury announced, and subsequently defended, its decision to refrain from increasing the country’s extensive social grant payments—which now reach 18 million impoverished citizens—beyond the growth in inflation. Treasury officials have argued that a larger increase in social welfare protection is simply not currently feasible given the country’s rapidly rising public debt—which has now breached 80% of the debt/GDP ratio—and investor demands for fiscal consolidation. This type of fiscal restraint is unfolding in a context of heightened wealth inequality and an official unemployment rate now above 30%.

Those familiar with the financialization scholarship pertaining to developing countries—that strand which portrays the global financial markets as a force that can alter committed policy trajectories on a whim (Koelble, 2004), as well as the more nuanced literature (Mosley, 2000; Hager, 2017; Streeck, 2014; Ansari, 2017)—may recognize the Treasury’s framing of South Africa’s fiscal dilemma. However, as much of the international development literature on industrial upgrading and state policy has noted (Wade, 2018; Alami, 2019; Rodrik, 2006), there is a third option available to policy-makers in developing countries beyond the binary of debt build-up vs. austerity; namely, comprehensive, employment generating state-led development.

This is precisely the case I make in my new book, published by Palgrave (2021), Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions. In addition to documenting the onset of a financialized accumulation regime in post-apartheid South Africa since the democratic transition and the ANC’s adoption of economic liberalization, the monograph also highlights the missed opportunities that could have allowed the country to embark on a self-sustaining path of industrial up-grading, inclusive development, and internal revenue generation. Such missed opportunities include the early rejection by party leaders of the heterodox “Macro-Economic Research Group” (MERG) policy cluster, the removal of the trade unions from broader macro-policy-making processes, the rejection of a modest reconstruction and wealth tax, and the abandonment of much of the “Reconstruction and Development Program” (RDP) platform in favor of the orthodox “Growth, Employment, and Redistribution” (GEAR) package in 1996. Had some of these missed opportunities been pursued, South African state officials would likely be in a much better position to currently adopt expansionary fiscal policies, and perhaps could have lifted their citizens out of poverty via inclusive development instead of cash-transfers.

Yet, as my monograph further documents, since the democratic transition Treasury officials have continued, despite recommendations from other government ministries such as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), to veto or oppose heterodox policy proposals that could potentially offer South Africa a path away from the current neoliberal quagmire. Such proposed polices include capital controls, export taxes on raw materials, the utilization of foreign exchange reserves to capitalize State-Owned-Enterprises (SOEs), and targeting specific industrial sectors for subsidies and state promotion.

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