Greatest abuse of humanity
What is the link between neoliberalism and identity politics? Rex Dunn offers his thoughts on what he thinks was a remarkable broadcast
Whenever there is a hint of a crisis, BBC2’s in-depth Newsnight programme suddenly lurches back towards reality, as opposed to the usual flannel. (In fact when there is an actual crisis like 2008, the media suddenly start quoting Marx!)
Maybe the programme broadcast on February 6 2018 is a warning that history is about to repeat itself? It was remarkable because it began to interrogate the twin pillars of neoliberalism: firstly, neoliberal economics based on the globalisation of capital, which produces an atomised society ruled by the callous cash-nexus; secondly, the fact that this feeds into a neoliberal social agenda, which promises individual freedom via identity politics.
In reality the first cancels out the second. As Marx says in On the Jewish question (1843), capitalism requires that each person is isolated and at war with everyone else in defence of his/her private interests. Therefore one can only be emancipated politically, but not in real life or civil society (ie, economic society). He explains why in Value, price and profit (1865). The capitalist requires that the labourer works, say, 12 hours every day:
Over and above the six hours required to replace his wages, or the value of his labouring power, he will, therefore, have to work six other hours … It is this sort of exchange between capital and labour upon which capitalistic production, or the wages system, is founded and which must constantly result in reproducing the working man as a working man and the capitalist as a capitalist.1
Stock market crash
Newsnight presenter Evan Davis introduced the programme by referring to the record fall in stocks and shares on Wall Street the day before, which quickly spread to the Asian and London markets. He then summarised the recovery from the last big financial crash of 2007-09. This was based on the following factors:
1. The central banks began to print more and more money.
2. Interest rates were cut to an unprecedented zero or half of a percent to stimulate growth.
3. Austerity measures were increased, such as cuts in social welfare, which placed the burden of recovery on the working class.
4. Eventually, the medicine did lead to the creation of more jobs, although wage increases lag behind the rising cost of living. At the same time, there is not nearly enough investment in the productive sector of the economy; so there is no solid growth. Government borrowing went on increasing.
Having given a reasonably accurate summary of the situation, Davis then introduced his two economic experts. On the one side there was Gillian Tett, US managing editor of the Financial Times; on the other, Ann Pettifor, former advisor to Jeremy Corbyn. Tett was slightly more optimistic about the situation than the latter. She began by saying that “in the short term” we should feel “moderately uneasy” about the latest drastic fall in share prices, which cut trillions of dollars off the market’s spreadsheets. But in the long term, “we should be concerned about dislocation in the global economy”. There is “too much debt - 40% more in the global system today than 10 years ago. But this “went unnoticed, because interest rates are super-low”. So what will happen when they go up?
Pettifor began by saying: “We should be worried, because we’ve got a new economic model based on the need to raise interest rates.” But the old model has not worked:
This is a turning point. I’m not sure if they will get it right ... The existing model, which came out of 2007-09, is deeply flawed. It was about injecting trillions of dollars into the financial system … assets, the stock market, property and foreign markets. At the same time [governments were] imposing more austerity. This model hasn’t led to the hoped-for recovery. We are not seeing any real growth, whilst at the same time we see massive [tax cuts] by the Trump administration.
Davis pointed out: “Rates will be put up when there isn’t a real recovery ... Yet most economists are saying there is OK growth.” Tett responded: “There is growth”. But she forgot to spell out that most of the new jobs are in the service industry, and that they are low-paid. So capitalists are “still addicted” to “the heroin of cheap money”, which is then used to exploit the working class even more, especially the low-paid, so they have to borrow more and more money just to pay their bills.
Investors were supposed to be “weaned off” that, continued Tett, only to become “addicted to morphine”: ie, “government help”. This led to a
huge explosion of government borrowing around the world ... that will eventually create problems … Markets were rocked in the last few days by a new dodgy financial product as well - similar to the sub-prime mortgages a decade ago ... Investors have responded to cheap money by doing some very weird things. But that will eventually come back to bite us. We should have started the withdrawal process [from the “morphine” of government borrowing] a little bit earlier ... So there are going to be inevitable lurches like this, as the system goes through withdrawal.
The point is that we haven’t seen any growth, because last year the central banks [around the world] pumped $3 trillions into their economies, in order to push up liquidity and keep investment alive for the sake of growth. But this is not working … Therefore there is something very wrong with the model … economists have not come up with a solution of what to do about the crisis of 2007-09 and what’s going to happen next. We don’t have an answer.
Now we have a president who is going to stimulate spending - via [the clumsy instrument] of tax cuts - but at the same time, he has put people on the board of the Federal Bank who are going to tighten monetary policy [ie, they want to push up interest rates, which will hurt business]. Trump’s cuts will benefit only big corporations and multi-billionaires. The latter will not invest in the real economy. Therefore people who voted for Trump are going to be increasingly unhappy, because their living standards are not recovering.
Here there was more agreement between the two experts. Tett added: “The immediate effect of these big tax cuts for the rich was to push up the stock market [over the new year], which became even more bullish.” This coincided with Trump’s barn-storming ‘state of the union’ speech to Congress - “which was immediately followed by the biggest fall in the Dow Jones Index ever!”2
On the same day we heard the staggering news that, in 2018 a mere 42 individuals earn as much as 3.7 billion of the world’s poorest people!
Trump’s tax cuts initiated the latest market crash just a day after his speech to Congress. Tett - and certainly other economists - believe that what happened was merely a ‘market correction’, to bring the stock markets in line with reality! On the other hand, this could also be the opening shot in the run-up to another financial crash like that of 2007-09, as bad as that of the great depression nearly 100 years ago. Therefore it is systemic in character (cf the theory of capitalist decline).
If that were to happen soon, then, as Pettifor said, Trump’s supporters among the working class/lower middle class are not just going to be “increasingly unhappy” because “their livings standards are not recovering”: rather the latter could be wiped out altogether. It could be worse than 2008. Therefore this upsurge in rightwing populism could turn very nasty. (NB: the conditions which bring about the possibility for the rise of fascism are: a deep, ongoing economic crisis; a divided ruling class; mass unemployment and general misery; the failure of the liberal/left to provide leadership or a solution to the crisis.)
On the other hand, if things remain more or less as they are now, there is a possibility of a return to the status quo, prior to the election of Trump. This is the preferred option of the capitalist class, although it does not offer a solution to their problems. Trump, on the other hand, poses a huge potential threat, in particular, to the economic base of neoliberalism: ie, if he is able to carry through his programme of economic nationalism, by means of protectionist trade policies. These, of course, run counter to the existing strategy of international free trade or the free movement of capital and labour within large single markets (such as the Americas, parts of Asia and Australasia or the European Union).
In order to rescue the situation the Democrats appear to be falling back on a political strategy, whereby it might be possible for the state apparatus to ‘corral’ Trump via Congress (hopefully with cross-party support), the FBI and even the judiciary. He might still face charges by the justice department, if not impeachment. The aim is to render him more or less impotent and ensure that he will be a one-term president. Thus the Democrats will have the opportunity to re-energise their flagging neoliberal agenda, helped by the establishment media (CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, etc.) On this basis they hope to make big gains in the mid-term elections later this year.
This is where the economic and social agenda of neoliberalism might be able to coalesce once again. But, at this moment in time, it is being propped up by allegations about a possible Trump-Russia connection - although this is a very flimsy policy, which might backfire (since Trump might also have some dirt on the Clinton oligarchy, etc). Therefore the current stand-off between the neoliberals and Trump could collapse at any moment: eg, if there is another stock market crash.
On the one hand, Trump’s supporters, who are normally the most virulently patriotic Americans, with a ‘nuke ’em first’ attitude, are strangely sang froid about the Democrats’ allegations. They know which side their bread is buttered on - or at least they think they do - because they are pinning all their hopes on Trump to provide more jobs and a better standard of life: ie, deliver on his election campaign promises. This is what ‘Make America great’ means to them. So they have put their traditional anti-Russian feelings to the back burner, at least for the time being.
On the other hand, the Democrats are playing the old cold war card for all its worth, because, in their heart of hearts they know that neoliberal economics cannot deliver the economic recovery, which is what everybody wants. Meanwhile the left wing of the Democrats - ie, Bernie Sanders and his supporters - have swung their support behind the right of the party (Hillary Clinton or her successor, if she chooses to throw in the towel) in the run-up to the mid-term elections (cf the temporary split during last year’s presidential election campaign).
In other words, the Democrat left does not have an alternative to neoliberal economics either, because that would require them not just to talk about Keynesian economics, but ultimately they would have to consider the idea of forming a new party (à la European social democracy). But this is not going to happen, because they do not want to risk spending years in the political wilderness.
Mainstream neoliberalism might be up the creek without a paddle. But when in doubt about which way to turn, wheel out the ‘sexual abuse’ wagon. (In fact the latter is in such demand these days, there is no time to put it back in the garage!) An increasing number of American workers and lower middle class people refuse to be taken in by this any more, because it does not lead to better living standards. So they have organised their own propaganda via local media: eg, religious radio and TV stations. (At the same time, they use the new digital media such as Facebook and Twitter, albeit to create their own social bubble, wherein they can debate among themselves, so they can cut themselves off from mainstream media if they want to.)
Nevertheless, there is still a huge swathe of the middle class, especially in the big metropolitan cities, who continue to buy into the unreal reality of the ‘society of the spectacle’ in its present form: viz the corporate media, organised around the ‘politics of identity’. This stands in contrast to the old ‘politics of interest’ (or the class struggle - however much this is distorted by bourgeois ideology). In the ‘good old days’, the Democratic Party and the unions were able to organise women around the question of equal pay, as well as integrate blacks into the labour movement as a means to fight racism, and so on.
Called into question
This brings me back to the second item on the Newsnight programme: in some ways the ensuing discussion was even more remarkable than the first. Davis kicked off by explaining that Newsnight was doing its bit to celebrate ‘Suffragettes Day’ (February 6). But he immediately added a caveat: on this day 100 years ago, it was only women over 30 who were granted the vote, whilst working men also received the vote for the first time.
Then he turned to the question of identity politics. Was this to be more of the same? No! He took the opposite line (which is what the left should be talking about):
Identity politics in the current era is so preoccupied with the rights of groups based on colour, gender and sexuality…, it is difficult to raise the question of the underprivileged. Has class got lost? … The privately educated rich - one in 10 of the population - still does much better than the working class … It appears that [the latter] have been overlooked by identity politics … Did this neglect help propel Brexit and Donald Trump?
I was woken from my usual slumber.
Davis then introduced a three-way discussion, beginning with the American academic, professor Mike Miller, political scientist and author of a recent book, Once and future liberal: after identity politics. It was he who introduced the term, “politics of interest” (class, race, women’s liberation), which, he argues, has been replaced by the “politics of recognition”: ie,
being recognised on an individual basis, affirmed by one’s [self-defined] identity … which makes it harder to build bridges between different groups where there are overlapping interests … [ie] the politics of representing yourself … [Instead of advancing the wider interest of] your group, this tends to divide people.
He could have added that this should be seen within the context of an increasingly atomised and narcissistic society, which comes within our digitalised and image-obsessed world.
Davis answered this by saying: “Yet ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a classic example of identity politics. What’s wrong with that?” Miller’s reply was interesting: “If you want to change this dreadful situation [whereby black people are being murdered by police forces all across America], you have to think about how you govern”: ie, “draw up a political programme which will win your cause electoral support to change the politics of the government”. (Perhaps he is the spokesperson of a new leftwing think-tank within the Democratic Party?)
Next up was Faiza Shaheen, spokeswoman for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies. She began by trying to defend identity politics in typical media speak: those who rely on identity politics “haven’t always linked their concerns to the economy - we’re not very good at recognising this as an economic issue”. “You mean LBGT groups?” asked Davis.
Yes. There’s an element of discrimination in these groups, which is why feminism has not moved forward on things like low pay for women … We need to do much more about understanding the capitalist system. My job is not to talk about how working class women are affected by austerity, but to talk about an end to austerity.
Nice sound bite!
The final speaker, Claire Fox of the Academy of Ideas, was much more critical:
Identity politics is wholly divisive … It has led to a competition of jockeying for a position to be recognised in the media: ie, to play the victim … So are men! … I couldn’t get over the fact that the anniversary [of the suffragettes movement] ignored the fact that millions of men won the vote too … When you look at things like intersectionality, there is real snobbery in relation to those affected by austerity.
A glimmer of class-consciousness there!
Davis summed up the discussion rather well too: “If you go on about minorities and recognition too much, then you create a backlash … That’s what happened in the US with the rise of Trump - also Brexit, to some extent.” A light bulb suddenly lit up inside Faiza’s head: “We could also go back to trade union issues.” Well, that’s a start!
We shall probably have to wait until the next financial crash before we hear another such a discussion on Newsnight. Arguably, this is not a question of if, but when this will happen.
Is all this a symptom of capitalist decline, which has reached a turning point? As Hillel Ticktin explains in his seminal essay on decline as a concept,
capitalism is in decline when the poles of contradiction become more difficult to mediate. Mediating forms break down quickly and the poles of attraction move into absolute opposition.3
Neoliberalism, as it applies to the economy, emerged as a mediating form for the rule of finance capital 40 or more years ago. It appeared to be firmly in control of things. This was based on bureaucratic institutions at both the international and national level (eg, the International Monetary Fund, the Federal Reserve bank of the USA, the Bank of England, etc), which supervised the so-called ‘free market’ and globalisation. At the same time, parasitic finance capital was able to flourish as never before by feeding off the productive sector (eg, speculating with worker’s pension funds and so on). This led to growing inequality between ‘the few’ and ‘the many’ across the world.
From the standpoint of the history of civilisation, this is unprecedented. It was reinforced by neoliberalism’s social agenda, based on identity politics, as opposed to class issues. Then came the crisis of 2007-09 (the worst since the great depression of the 1930s). In order to recover from this, governments imposed even more austerity on working people. At the same time, institutions acting on behalf of capital, introduced ‘quantitative easing’. They printed trillions of dollars and pumped them into the economy (this has begun to erode the law of value itself, but that is another story).
This was seen as a short-term measure, in the hope that the system could be kick-started back into growth. The aim is to return to business as usual - ie, decent interest rates of, say, 5% - in order to balance growth with low inflation. But, to their horror, the bureaucrats have discovered that when they try to go back to normal - ie, by raising interest rates - the system begins to break down almost immediately. On the one hand, real growth in the economy continues to flat-line; on the other, inflation is rising again. Hence we have instability within the markets.
Previously capitalism was able to maintain itself via the mediating forms of imperialism, the cold war, actual war and finance capital. The problem with the first three of these, of course, is that they are extreme forms; they cannot be repeated without the real danger of Armageddon. So we are stuck with finance capital and neoliberalism and capitalism is running out of options. Thus Ticktin asks: “What happens … if there is no mediation possible between the poles of a contradiction? Then disintegration ensues.”4
What the Newsnight programme of February 6 produced was a rare admission that neoliberalism is breaking down. But, as a form of mediation, there appears to be nothing to replace it, either at the economic base or the superstructural level. A return to protectionism, chauvinism and nationalism, such as that promised by Trump and Brexit, would be a disaster - not just for international capital, but for everyone. That is why the bourgeois ideologues who advise the government here, along with their acolytes in the media, are doing their best to patch things up.
When in doubt, wheel out the trusty wagon: sexual abuse! The latest news scandal concerns the revelation that some Oxfam employees have had relations with prostitutes in really poor countries like Haiti. Media hacks and various feminist spokeswomen have taken a one-sided, moralising approach - they describe this behaviour as the ‘sexual abuse’ of women. But surely the real question is, why does Haiti (along with other similar countries) continue to be so poor and backward? This is one reason why women are forced to go on the game - they see it as an opportunity to earn a little money to feed themselves and their families.
Why don’t these same critics speak out against sex tourism, which is a pastime of the rich? On the centenary of British women being granted the vote, senior Oxfam officials are being hauled before the International Development Secretary to account for this shocking behaviour of a minority of their employees. If Oxfam is unable to show “moral leadership”, they were told, the government will withdraw its £32 million subsidy to the charity. Tory rightwingers are salivating at the opportunity of slashing the overseas aid budget.
Meanwhile nothing is being done about offshore tax havens - despite the fact that these have a lot to do with the fact that 42 individuals earn as much as 3.7 billion of the world’s poorest people: ie, half the population of the planet! Given the fact that capitalism is the world’s first global system, this amounts to the greatest abuse of humanity in human history l
1. K Marx Value, price and profit: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/value-price-profit/index.htm.
2. Catch 22: the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget recently argued that Trump is trying to emulate (if not better) Ronald Reagan’s success in the 1980s, which in the short term provided a huge stimulus for the world’s biggest economy, after being in the doldrums since the end of the Vietnam war. But the CRFB says that Trump’s plan will fail. Once again his tax cuts will only encourage companies to invest in the financial sector. An interest rise is desirable to stop the economy from overheating. But this could actually lead to further inflation as a result of higher costs for rents, food and gas. Consumers will spend less; therefore instead of sustained growth, which has eluded the economy for so long, the US will have another slowdown. Meanwhile, Trump will have to borrow more to beef up his nuclear weapons programme. Thus the national debt is predicted to hit a record $1.3 trillion in the next few years or so.
3. H Ticktin, ‘Decline as a concept and its consequences’ Critique No39, August 2006, p154.
4. Ibid p154-55.