The global disorder of capital
Yassamine Mather introduces Alain Badiou’s Notre mal vient de bien loin
Every day we hear new horror stories about the conflict in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. The multinational peace talks in Munich, far from resolving things, have changed nothing and we are witnessing a considerable worsening of the situation. Hospitals have allegedly been targeted by Russia planes in support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey has been shelling Kurdish forces inside Syria, claiming that their association with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) makes them a legitimate target.
Of course, everybody knows that only Russian bombs cause civilian casualties, while US, Turkish, French and (on the rare occasions they have been used) UK military planes are surgically accurate and only ever hit Islamic State fighters, leaders and the like. We are also meant to believe that al Qa’eda’s branch in Syria, al-Nusra, which is supported and financed by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries, should not be bombed because it is part of the ‘moderate opposition’ to Assad.
This week Syria has accused Turkey of violating its sovereignty, repeating accusations that Turkey was backing “al Qa’eda-linked terrorists” in the north. Saudi Arabia has landed planes in Turkey, ready to attack pro-Assad forces, while Syria’s allies, Iran and Russia, have stepped up their rhetoric in support of the Syrian regime. Brigadier general Farzad Esmaili, Iran’s air defence commander, stressed that, if asked by the Syrian government, Iran will “vigorously offer advisory help to the Syrian forces”. Referring to speculation regarding Saudi Arabia’s plans to deploy ground troops to Syria, the commander added: “Any presence in Syria without coordination with the Damascus government will be doomed to failure”.
For ordinary civilians, the situation could not be worse: 35,000 Syrians are on the borders with Turkey, having fled the fierce battle for Aleppo. There are some 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey - tens of thousands have been trying to reach Europe, hundreds losing their lives in the process. While IS or al Qa’eda atrocities usually make the headlines only when the victims are western European or American, the peoples of the region - the inhabitants of Raqqa, Mosul, etc, not forgetting Tripoli - are on the receiving end on a daily basis.
The anti-war movement is, of course, right to point out that the imperialist ‘war on terror’, the invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, military interventions in Syria and Yemen, and the continued occupation of Palestinian lands have exacerbated the situation, creating further regional conflicts. It was correct to oppose all foreign interventions. However, none of this is sufficient to explain the more fundamental, long-term causes of the current situation. Last week both the Socialist Workers Party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty concentrated on Russia’s intervention in Syria.
However, there is more to the current disastrous situation in the Middle East and North Africa than the simplistic arguments put forward by these sections of the British left. The most comprehensive explanation so far has come from Alain Badiou in a pamphlet widely discussed in France - Notre mal vient de bien loin (Our evil comes from afar). Here he presents a brief analysis of the current state of international capital, examining its policies, actions and relations, as well as the consequences of the inequalities we face in the world today.1
Of course, others have made similar comments in the past. The removal of any restrictions on the movement of capital from advanced capitalist countries, where labour was becoming expensive, to countries paying lower rates and allowing fewer labour rights; only to move on a few years later to where labour was even cheaper than in the previous location, leaving behind a landscape of devastation, poverty and mass unemployment; the ability of global capital to transfer the most damaging aspects of successive economic crises to the countries of the periphery; the constantly growing gap between rich and poor on a global scale - all this has been cited many times.
Monopoly capital continues to extract surplus profits from semi-colonies. However, it also benefits from migration, paying low wages in the host country and avoiding costs related to training and education. The use of migrants in this way also plays a significant role in reducing the strength of trade unions and undermining labour rights. The Syrian crisis will no doubt lead to continued substantial migration. However, despite the hysteria of various sections of the rightwing press, this is not a major issue for contemporary capital - just as the complete destruction of large parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and indeed the rise of IS, is of no real concern.
Badiou discusses the consequences of neoliberal capital’s ravages worldwide and what he calls new imperial practices. What follows is my translation of extracts from his article, beginning with the attack in Paris on November 13 2015.
I will deal with this mass murder as one of the many current symptoms of a serious malaise in the contemporary world, of this world as a whole, and I will try to indicate the requirements or the possible ways in which long-term healing of this malaise can be achieved, accepting that the proliferation of such events in the world is particularly violent and has dramatic symptoms.
It is the structure of the contemporary world, as I see it now, which will obviously help illuminate the challenges we face. In broad terms, we can describe three deeply intertwined themes.
First, it may seem banal, but for 30 years we have witnessed the triumph of globalised capitalism. This triumph is, firstly, most visible in the return of a kind of primitive energy in capitalism - what has been called (be it a questionable name) neoliberalism, which is actually the resurgence and new-found effectiveness of the constitutive ideology of capitalism: namely liberalism. It is not clear that the ‘neo’ is justified - I do not think it is going to be as ‘neo’ as is claimed, when one looks at it closely. In any case, the triumph of global capitalism, the revenue-generating capacity and the undisputed, shameless display of this phenomenon, the way it organises production, trade and eventually whole societies, as well as the way it claims to be the only reasonable way for the historical destiny of humanity, play a part.
Today we have a capitalism installed explicitly on a scale that is global. What defines this globalisation is not only a capitalism that has considerable power, but one that has grown to such an extent that now we can say there is a global structure: capitalism has unchallenged control of the entire planet.
The aggressive character that accompanies this extension of the dominant form of the global market is particularly spectacular. Today, throughout the world we are witnessing the destruction of what capital had previously attempted to create as a measured compromise. What I call ‘measured compromise’ is what was achieved, especially in the period after World War II, between the logic of capital and other logic. The other logic could be that of state control, of concessions to the unions, of reluctance to allow industrial and banking concentration, the logic of partial nationalisation, control measures of certain excesses of private property. There was also the introduction of measures extending social rights to the population, such as giving everyone (in advanced capitalist countries) the ability to access healthcare, or limiting the private practices of the liberal professions, etc, etc.
It should be clear that the objective victory of global capitalism is based on an aggressive, destructive practice, a rational consequence of a particular system of production. We can be concerned about the low levels of resistance against these repeated destructions. In fact this resistance is actually in constant retreat. It is localised, dispersed, often corporatist, sectional, with no overall vision, no strategy and a retreat that has been uninterrupted for 30 years.
We can say that the logic of capital has been freed: liberalism is released. And this release takes two forms: globalisation - that is to say, the continued expansion of capitalism into new territories; and, at the same time, the extraordinary power of the concentration of capital. In this we see the dialectical movement of capital: it extends and, while extending, it focuses. The expansion and concentration are two modalities, absolutely related to each other: the protean (multi-faceted) nature of capital.
The concentrations are therefore continuing at the same time as privatisation and destruction are accelerating. You will all have noticed, because it has a dramatic side, the recent merger of Fnac and Darty, two supermarkets. We have here a fusion: books and fridges. The purely financial goal is clear and characterises capitalist fusion, without any interest for the public. These concentrations create financial power poles - sometimes productive, speculative; always accompanied by corruption. These poles are transnational, so they have a complicated relation to states.
All this explains the nostalgia for the reformist programme of the end of the war, forgetting that, firstly, at the end of a world war the situation was different; secondly, the bourgeoisie did not dare expose its true nature; and, thirdly, there was a powerful Communist Party. Today, none of this exists. And the nostalgia for the social programme of the CNR [Conseil National de la Résistance] is day-dreaming; it is to be in denial about the subjective spectacular victory of global capitalism.
Weakening of states
States are ultimately today local managers of this vast global structure. They are a kind of mediation between what I have described and the particular situation defined by country, coalitions, federations ... Of course, there are also state poles, such as the United States and China.
Moreover, it is very striking that the banks themselves have become so powerful that, according to some, their downfall is impossible: they are “too big to fail”, which is often said about the large US banks. This means that economic imperatives dominate state interest.
That is what I call the weakening of states. Not only have states largely become what Marx thought of them already - namely “proxies of capital” - but there is a growing discrepancy between large-scale firms and states. The power of large industrial, commercial or banking conglomerates do not coincide with the state sphere, nor even that of coalitions of states. This power of capital acts as if it was both independent from and mistress of states.
This brings me to my third point: that is to say, the new imperial practices.
As you know, the old imperialism of the 19th century was entirely under the control of the nation-state. Its global organisation reflected a division of the world between powerful nations, who in meetings such as the one in Berlin in 1885 made decisions about carving up Africa and dividing it like a cake. The imperial powers - France, Britain, Germany - installed metropolitan power in order to direct management of their territories, naturally with the presence of large, predatory firms and the possible complicity of local notables. Now we live in a different era.
I am not claiming that we are at the end of imperial intervention: absolutely not. The issue is the difference in the form of imperial intervention. The question remains what to do to protect ‘our interests’ in distant lands? For example, regarding France’s intervention in Mali, I was reading in a very serious newspaper that this intervention was a success, because we had managed to “protect the interests of the west”. It was said exactly like that, in all innocence. So in Mali the intervention protects the interests of the west - there is no pretence that it protects the interests of the Malians. Moreover, the western military forces cut the country in two and the need for imperial interventions remains pressing, given the dimension of capitalist interests at stake: uranium, oil, diamonds, precious woods, rare metals, cocoa, coffee, bananas, gold, coal, aluminium, gas.
After all, in certain geographical areas filled with dormant riches, we can create free, anarchic zones, where there is no state. In the third world we can choose the kind of state we do business with and in areas where any real state power is gone, where the small world of big firms will operate without control. There will be a sort of semi-anarchy; armed bands, controlled or uncontrolled; but business can still continue, and even better than before. You still have to realise that, contrary to what is said, companies, representatives and general agents of capital, may well negotiate with armed groups, and in some ways this is easier than dealing with constituted states. It is not true that the lawlessness and unimaginable cruelties that accompany such situations are necessarily in formal contradiction to the structure of the world as it is today.
Everyone can see that for a long time there has been talk of crushing Daesh, but in reality, so far, nothing really serious has been done, except by the Kurds who live in the region. For many countries the issue is not that important. After all, Daesh is a market power, a competent and multifaceted business enterprise! It sells oil and works of art, it sells a lot of cotton, it is a big cotton-producing power. The group sells a lot to everyone, because to sell something it takes two: this is not just Daesh, but those who trade with it.
We need to define these new imperial practices - namely the policy of destroying states rather than corrupting or replacing them, and here I suggest the term ‘zoning’. I propose that imperialism no longer needs made-up pseudo-countries in Africa, the Middle East or in parts of Asia: sub-national areas can actually become areas of non-nationalised looting. In these areas, imperialism will probably take military action from time to time, but it will not rely on the support of colonialised states.
We cannot ignore this hypothesis. One wonders, for example, what was the intention of the expedition into Libya? Whose interests were in mind? A state was destroyed completely, an area of anarchy was created and everyone complains or pretends to complain about it, but, after all, the Americans did the same thing in Iraq, and the French in Mali and the Central African Republic. It seems to me that the complete destruction of Yugoslavia, accomplished through western intervention - and the carving up of that country into a dozen pieces, almost all very sick and corrupt - already gave the signal that zoning practices can be beneficial. In some regions, the practice was to destroy states, to replace them with practically nothing, to rely on fragile agreements among minorities, religions, various armed gangs. A Sunni state replaced by Shi’ite, or the other way round , but all these are non-state operations. This is absolutely clear. However, the consequences for the population of these countries are disastrous, and this what we must now examine.
The first striking effect of all that I have mentioned is that unequal development is unprecedented. Even the parliamentary right are sometimes worried. Mainly inequalities are so monstrous that, given the weakening of states, we do not know how to control their effect on people’s lives.
At a certain degree of inequality, it is meaningless to speak of democracy or democratic standard. I recall these figures:
- 1% of the world’s population owns 46% of available resources.
- 10% of the world’s population owns 86% of available resources.
- 50% of the world’s population owns nothing.
The objective conclusion from this, in terms of population, is that we have a global oligarchy that represents about 10% of the population. This oligarchy has, I repeat, 86% of available resources. 10% of the population that corresponds roughly to what was the nobility in the old regime. It is roughly similar. Our world returns, reconfiguring an oligarchic situation known long ago and one we have now come back to.
So we have a 10% oligarchy, and then we have an impoverished mass of about half of the world’s population - the mass of the poor population, the African masses, the overwhelming majority of the Asian population. The total is about 60%. The remainder is the middle class, which shares, painfully, 14% of global resources. It is a structured vision that is rather significant: a mass of the poor, who make up half of the world population: and an aristocratic oligarchy, so to speak. And then there is the middle class, that pillar of democracy.
This middle class is mainly concentrated in the so-called developed countries. It is a largely a western class. It embodies support for local democratic power, parliamentary powers. A very important goal of this group, which still has access to only a relatively small portion of global resources, a mere 14%, is to keep its status - not to be identified with the huge mass of the poor. This is quite understandable.
That is why this class, as a whole, is porous to racism, xenophobia, in defiance of the poor. These are ominous subjective determinations of this average mass, which defines the west at large, believing in a sense of superiority. It is well known that the western middle class is convinced that the west is, ultimately, the place of the civilised.
When we read everywhere today of the necessity to wage war against the barbarians, it obviously must be done in the name of the civilised - these barbarians form a huge mass, and the middle class does not want to be identified with this group.
All this exposes the very unique position of the middle class, especially that of the European middle class. It faces a sensitive situation. After all, it is constantly threatened by the real capitalists - it faces contradictions between itself, the middle class, and the enormous mass, which is a little distant. And it is this middle class threatened by insecurity that upholds the concept of ‘defending our values’. In reality, it means defending the western way of life of the middle class: that is to say, the ‘civilised section’ of the population sharing 14% of the world’s wealth.
This is one reason why the mass murder we are talking about tonight [the Paris attack of November 13 2015] is significant and traumatic. The act hit France, in some ways the soft underbelly of global capitalism; it struck at the heart of the ‘average’ mass, the middle class, which represents itself as a civilised island in the centre of the world - as opposed to the oligarchy, so small you barely see it, or the great mass of the poor, so far away you don’t notice them, that surround the frames of the greenhouses around the middle class. That is why the disastrous event we experienced is presented as a crisis of civilisation: that is to say, as an attack against something that already, in its historical and natural existence, is threatened by the ongoing development of globalised capitalism, while it is still clinging to it.
Counting for nothing
These are the consequences of the dominance of global capitalism and the way it affects the population . But we must also remember another important fact. In the world today there are just over two billion people who count for nothing. They are not even part of the 50% poor. It is worse: they are counted for nothing by capital, which means that under the structural development of the world, they are nothing, and therefore, strictly speaking, they should not exist. They should not be there. But they are there nonetheless.
Why do they count for nothing? This means that they are neither consumers nor labour. Because, if you do not belong to the oligarchy, there are only two ways to exist for capital: you must be an employee and win some money, then you need to spend this money by consuming the products manufactured by the same capital. Your identity in the eyes of the dominant movement in the world today is a double identity, structured by money, as employee and consumer.
But where does this mass of people, whose contemporary world counts for nothing, exist? To understand this point, we need Marxism. Capital, and therefore its holders, only value the workforce - which means employees, workers in the companies they run - due to the fact that they can make profits. This is what Marx calls in his jargon “extraction of surplus value”. It is never certain that capital can exploit all the available labour force. There have been other periods of mass unemployment, especially in the 30s, after the great crisis of 1929. But today it seems that, even beyond the crisis that began in 2008, this mass unemployment is more structural and permanent. Globalisation may create an inherent inability for capitalism to reach its maximum extension, to enhance the form of profits it derives. And maybe it will get even worse. Maybe the profit system, which is the sole source of the dynamics of capital, faces a barrier created by its own extension, whereby it has the duty to value the entire available labour force and greatly reduce average working hours in order to be able to hire two billion people who remain stranded.
However, it cannot. Why? Because it cannot reduce working hours. And why is it that cannot reduce working hours? Well, simply because of profit production mechanisms: we know that a significant number of working hours gain additional surplus value and that, below this, profits will fall. For capitalism it is necessary to maintain the average length of the working week worldwide, at around 40 hours. At the same time there are two billion people, and probably a little more, who have no work.
You could calculate things in reverse. We could say, given the circumstances, a reasonable world government, concerned about public good, might consider it necessary to decide - as Marx imagined would happen - that the average duration of the global working time must be reduced to 20 hours. Maybe less. Obviously we would have a rapid reduction of this huge mass of people who cannot go to work, cannot become employees. Lowering working time was a central point of the reformist-revolutionary proposals of Marx, because he could see that, to wrest work from the domination of capital, workers’ mass action had to be mobilised for a decrease in working hours.
This explains why whole areas of the world have been delivered to a kind of fascist political gangsterism - a situation that would not happen if billions of people did not count for nothing. If, due to a rational duration of working time, everyone was included in the figures of ordinary social relations, the conditions for banditry and human trafficking would not exist. But the combination of zoning - ie, the destruction of states by predators - and the phenomenon of the existence of millions or billions of people who count for nothing, leads to the existence of vast areas, sometimes a huge country like the Congo, subject to what can be called a gangster type of domination.
What is it about? Every type of armed capitalist firm occupies the vacant places where the state has disappeared, entrapping those left behind, especially children and adolescents, and indulging in an articulated pillage of the global market. This is what we are witnessing when Daesh sells trucks of gasoline to Turkey .
Ah! Religion! Islam! Yes, I will get to this. But I tell you right now: religion has always been a pretext, a rhetorical cover, handled and manipulated by the fascist gangs. And Christianity was never outdone in this regard. Just take Spanish fascism: Franco focused on mass executions, including long after the end of the civil war, but fascism was literally glued to the Catholic religion. Armed bands of Francoites were blessed by the bishops, and there was talk of a great Catholic Spain that would replace the horrible republican Spain.
However, it was actually a question of state power and its relations with the fascists. So, frankly it is not very serious to blame Islam. Above all, the nature of gangs is to occupy a devastated terrain to install a form of profitable gangsterism, which then can appeal to young people in revolt, using colourful, varied, spiritual language. Religions, as indeed many other ideologies (including, alas, those of revolutionaries), have always been able to be combined with mafia practices. The Italian mafia itself was sponsored by and still shows allegiance to Catholicism.
But all this falls on the subjective side of our situation.
I would like to deal with typical subjectivities that have appeared in our time. By ‘typical subjectivities’ I mean forms of belief which are the consequences of the world I refer to. This is not a statement of all possible subjectivities. It is those I consider to be induced or produced by the contemporary world structure.
I think there are three: western subjectivity; the subjectivity of the desire to be of the west (which is not the same as the first one); and the subjectivity that I will call ‘nihilist’. I think these three subjectivities are typical creations of the contemporary state of the world.
Western subjectivity is the subjectivity of those who share the 14% left by the ruling oligarchy. This is the subjectivity of the middle class and is also largely concentrated in the most developed countries. This is where crumbs can be distributed. This subjectivity, in my opinion, works through a contradiction. Its first element is great self-satisfaction - even westerners are very happy with themselves, they really appreciate themselves. Here, of course, there is a history behind the arrogance: not so long ago westerners were the owners of the world. Parts of the world had been conquered by the sheer violence of the French and English, and this meant a carving up of the non-European world as a whole. What remains of this direct and huge imperial power is a representation of that era as the invention and defence of the modern lifestyle.
Where are the other two typical subjectivities? One that comes first to mind is what I call the desire to be of the west: the desire to own, to share what is represented and touted as western affluence. It is trying to mimic middle class consumption without having the means to do so. So it obviously leads to phenomena such as migration flows, as the simplest form of the desire to be part of the west. It is simply a desire to leave the devastated areas to join this famous western world, where everything is so good, where all are happy, living in modern and beautiful ease. And if we cannot go to the west, we can surrender to local dispositions: that is to say, copy, using our miserable resources, western lifestyles. We could talk a lot on this theme of the desire to be of the west, which is fundamental in the world today and has considerable effects - all of them disastrous.
The last subjectivity, the nihilistic, is a desire for revenge and destruction, and, of course, it is coupled with the departure of alienated desire and imitation. This strong desire for revenge and destruction is often expressed, often formalised in reactive mythologies, in a traditionalism that both extols and fights the western lifestyle, at times arms in hand: it is against the wishes of the west.
This is the nihilism of those whose lives count for nothing. This nihilism is apparently against the wishes of the west, yet the desire to be of the west is its hidden ghost. If the nihilist does not activate his death instinct, if he does not give vent to his aggression - at times deadly aggression - he knows that in reality he too will succumb to the desire to be of the west, which is already present in him.
It must be understood that these two typical subjectivities - the subjectivity of the desire to be of the west and the nihilistic subjectivity of revenge and destruction - are a duality of positive and negative versions around the fascination of western domination.
And all this occurs in a context where there is little sign of a collective approach for organising the prospects of another world structure. All this ensures that these three typical subjectivities actually account for the internal structure of the world, as I have described it.
1 . http://la-bas.org/la-bas-magazine/textes-a-l-appui/alain-badiou-penser-les-meurtres-de-masse-du-13-novembre-version-texte.