Archive for ‘Economy’ Category
Reports that New Zealanders are working longer hours with more responsibilities and little if any overtime pay, are less unionized and more casualized (part time) than any time before in the country’s modern history suggests that not only has the national model of accumulation changed. It suggests that the labor market and labor process have fundamentally changed as well. The trend towards increased exploitation of human labor as an input commodity, added to an increasing lack of employer concern for the social costs imposed on workers by super-explotation and the long-term nurturing of employees as productive assets, is reminiscent of something that Marx wrote about a long time ago: the Asiatic mode of production.
I have written about the Asiatic mode of production before on this site, differentiating it from Oriental despotism and referring to my observations about Singapore when I lived there in recent years. The core of the model centers on an abundance of cheap and easily replaced human labor. This labor is used instead of machines or other labor saving devices because it costs less in terms of initial investment and long-term maintenance, although it is less efficient in terms of productive output generated by individual laborers. The labor market is dominated by employer “flexibility” in hiring and firing and setting wages, working terms and conditions. Workers are treated as expendable commodities, not as assets. In Singapore this was done via the importation of foreign labor from the sub-continent and Southeast Asia (not to be confused with the foreign “talent,” mostly Anglo-Saxon, that is imported to staff corporate upper management in the island state).
In New Zealand it is accomplished by maintaining unemployment rates at sufficiently high levels so as to have a labor surplus in semi-skilled and unskilled, middle to lower income, mostly youth and entry-level positions. Creation of lower minimum wage sub-categories (such as the youth wage) and lowering wage requirements for casual or part time work reduces labor input costs. Dropping of social welfare benefits forces people into the job market out of necessity rather than choice, adding to the numbers of the unemployed seeking work. Loosening of the regulatory environment in which most workers work gives them less legal grounds for grievance across a range of issues, from workplace safety to wages.
The combination of factors allow for the easy replacement of semi-skilled and unskilled labor (and in some instances, skilled workers such as academics), which increases the employment uncertainty and precariousness of the work force. That makes employees malleable to employer demands for more wage restraint, more task assignments, more productive output per employee and hence more working hours with little extra pay or benefits. For employees in a labor market characterized by work scarcity, loose regulations and employment precariousness, increasingly onerous jobs are not easy to give up (tragically, Pike River comes to mind). On the other hand, for employers it is a take it or leave it proposition. If workers want better pay or conditions, they can look elsewhere.
The deliberate undermining of collective bargaining by successive National governments (which the Fifth Labour government did not fully restore) and the decreasing role of unions in the labor process plays into this scenario. Less means of collective defense in the face of of the labor market shifts described above leads to atomization of the work force into a mass of uncoordinated and stratified individual opportunity seekers. As the opportunistic ethos takes hold and replaces the collective solidarity ties of previous generations, it reinforces the Asiafication trend.
An important aspect of the trend is immigration demographics. Since New Zealand is labor poor it must import foreign workers in order to grow. The historical use of unskilled Pacifika labor in New Zealand is well known. But what is interesting in recent years is the turn to Asian sources for all types of labor, most of it semi-skilled and skilled. Regardless of specific provenance, Asian immigrants are much less familiar with Western labor market rights and responsibilities and in fact are eminently susceptible to the labor process conditions outlined in the Asiafication model. Moreover, where working class benefits have accrued in Asia, much of that has been done via strong collective action (such as in South Korea) and/or via paternalistic state policies (such as in Singapore). In New Zealand neither of those factors have obtained in recent decades.
The increasingly non-Western immigration demographic appears to be easing the consolidation of the Asiafication trend. New Asian immigrants, schooled in authoritarian modes of production at home, arrive in New Zealand eager to work, relatively ignorant of their rights and less inclined to complain about employment terms and working conditions. To these can be added immigrants from Central Asia and the Middle East, who also have come from mostly authoritarian and highly stratified societies where workers know their place in the social hierarchy and where the concept of collective and individual rights is narrowly construed.
This mass of new arrivals, to include the first generation born and raised in New Zealand, add highly motivated opportunity seekers into the labor market mix. Although some may be refused work because of racism or difficulty with language, the larger trend is to increase competition for the relatively scare available jobs and in doing so lower the overall wage bill. That leads to more income inequality between workers as producers of value and the managerial consumers of their commodified labor.
Another way of looking at the issue is in terms of consent. Over the years Western workers have seen their material threshold of consent, which is the general expectation of fair treatment in the workplace and fair remuneration for providing their labor services, institutionalized in labor law and labor market practices. It includes access to collective representation and bargaining and state enforcement of workplace health, safety and other basic standards for working conditions and pay. What the Asiafication process does is lower worker’s expectations of “fair” treatment in the labor process, which in turn lowers their overall material threshold of consent. Reinforced by institutional and structural shifts that are reproduced over time, this further subordinates the salaried classes to the logics of capital as defined by investors and asset owners.
Asiafication also shows workers their “proper” place. After years of contesting capitalist domination of the political and economic system via party competition reinforced by union collective action in an effort to level the socio-economic playing field, Asiafication helps restore the overt social hierarchies that underpin the capitalist class system and which were camouflaged by design in democratic welfare states.
For employers (as sellers of cheapened labor, value added products), the result of Asiafication is lower price outputs across the board (be it in services, manufacturing or primary good-derived exports). That makes them competitive in the global market of production, service and exchange.
The result for workers is a vicious circle in the social division of labor as well as in production: a labor market created by an economic and political decision-making elite who see modern variants of the Asiatic mode of production as the wave of the future and something to emulate (however hard that is to do under democratic conditions), coupled with an increasingly non-Western immigration demographic that is historically familiar with the “flexible” labor market dynamics inherent in that model and its contemporary applications and which does not necessarily see the Asiatic mode of production, including intense social stratification and opportunistic individualism, as a bad thing. Under such conditions the race to the bottom begins in earnest.
It should also be noted that the Asiafication of New Zealand production facilitates the increasingly Asian focus of New Zealand trade and investment strategy. The push to increase investment in and trade with Asian and other non-Western countries has its domestic complement in the alterations to local labor market conditions. Asian investors who otherwise might be put off by Western labor market standards and regulations can now see something more familiar in the New Zealand labor market, which is becoming more akin to what they are used to in their home countries. That eases the way for the inward flow of non-Western capital into New Zealand’s productive apparatus, something that contractually reinforces local commitment to the Asiaification model.
I am not a labor economist or sociologist, much less an expert on immigration. I am sure that there are exceptions to the trend. The knowledge economy may still be around and centers of productive excellence perhaps abound. It is clear that the welfare state labor market model is kaput. It is equally clear that there are significant variations in Asian and other non-Western labor market standards that argue against making gross generalizations. Even so, there is a discernible trend at play when it comes to New Zealand’s labor market, and that trend derives from or at least resembles modern variants of the labor market typology associated with the larger structural model known as the Asiatic mode of production.
It also seems to me that there is something amiss about a purported liberal democracy that so energetically pursues a model of accumulation that at its core is dependent on a highly exploitative labor process in which material short-term gains for employers is emphasized over the long-term employment security and welfare of workers. After all, the rewards of the former accrue to the few, even if there is some trickle down to the masses. But the long-term stability of democratic society depends on having relatively contented working and middle classes who invest in their jobs not only for immediate gain (or relief), but to help secure the next generation’s material well-being. If that is no longer feasible due to the conditions of production, then something will have to give.
Absent an authoritarian regression along the lines seen in certain Asian political economic models (which would have to include major changes in the basic socialization mechanisms of the citizenry, be they new immigrants or not), it seems to me that the Asiafication of New Zealand production will become untenable over the long-run. Long term disenchantment with economic exploitation turns opportunity seekers into the politically disillusioned, and it is the politically disillusioned who, however apathetic at first, eventually agitate the most for substantive change. Under competitive electoral conditions that means that the politically disillusioned become a potential support base for reform-mongerers and the parties that best represent them.
In summary, I believe that the current Asiafication of New Zealand production is a short-term, market elite-driven solution to a perceived problem of competitiveness that is not sustainable even with the changing national demographic based on non-Western immigration trends. I believe so because I do not think that the elites of New Zealand are prepared or inclined to engage in the authoritarian measures required to impose a new social division of labor consonant with modern variants of the Asiatic mode of production. Absent the will or the way to add Orientalism to the equation, there will be an inevitable political backlash to the Asiafication model that will see its undoing in favor of a labor market that is less exploitative and more attuned to long-term social gains rather than short term business profit.
It will be a good day when that happens. I just hope that it happens in my life time.
My yearly sojourns to the US provide a regular opportunity to garner a snapshot of the state of the union, at least from my limited perspective. This year I returned to my old stomping grounds in the desert southwest and to the home away from home in South Florida. After a wet monsoon season the desert was lush and the 360 degree skies saturated with cumulus, cirrus and stratus cloud. It was great to hear Norteno music and Spanglish spoken in the street.
My son joined my partner and I for a trip to the old mining town of Bisbee, where we stayed at the haunted Copper Queen (est. circa 1880) and had a long night on the town that ended up in some biker/metalhead dive bar. It was great. I highly recommend the Arizona desert to New Zealanders interested in a dramatic contrast in landscapes and Western cultures.
South Florida has been less pleasant. There is a palpable tension in the air marked by hostile attitudes and unbelievably aggressive, to the point of criminally reckless, driving. The region is known for its fast pace and shallow materialism, but in this trip there is something darker about it. Some of this can be attributed to the election campaign, in which some of the local attack ads are truly astounding in their ferocity and disregard for decency (the issue is large: one-third of the US Senate, the entire US House of Representatives, and most local offices are in play). There is a buffoon Republican named Alan West running for the US Senate, and his ads make the Swiftboat and Willie Horton attack ads look tame. He says nothing about what he proposes and spends most of his time defaming his Democrat opponent. Seeing that Romney is set to lose the presidential race, the right wing talkback and television outlets have ratcheted up the hysteria and vitriol to the point that even John Stewart or Stephen Colbert cannot parody them adequately. In a word, the place is nuts.
This condition of political anomie may be compounding the sense of frustration and anger felt by an increasingly divided–the word “polarized” does not do justice to the chasm between the US right and left–polity that more than anything else is diffident in its regard for politics. Both the Republican and Democratic conventions were not as well attended and not as widely viewed by TV audiences as in previous years, and it appears that the election abstention rate is going to be very high this year. People appear to be cynical, bitter and lacking in hope for the future regardless of who wins in November. All in all, this is the sorriest state of mind I have found the US to be in since my move to NZ fifteen years ago.
That is the backdrop to the subject of this post. As readers will know, the focus of the 2012 US election begins and ends with the economy. Platitudes are proffered and panaceas are prescribed. Words like “competitiveness” and “innovation” are bandied about like lollies. But there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of a root cause of the American economic malaise: its reliance on services.
The US is a country dominated by the service sector rather than true productive enterprise. Think of the variety of services now on offer: wealth and asset managers; financial advisors; PR and other “communications strategists;” personal trainers; life coaches (of which there are half a million in the US); pain management specialists (aka pill doctors); landscapers; floral designers; escorts; private alarm and security companies; fishing, hunting and tour guides; real estate agents; internet and in-store movie suppliers; credit card purveyors; nail and hair “artists;” wedding planners; a zillion types of mental health counselors and ambulance chasing lawyers; insurers; car, cat and dog groomers; dog walkers; bird, cat, dog and horse whisperers; DJs; car valets; (for-profit) drug and alcohol rehabbers; tennis instructors; beauty consultants; fashion stylists; liposuction specialists; motivational speakers; management and risk consultants; self-help gurus; personal assistants and agents, accountants; home delivery services; website designers–the list is as varied as it is endless. While one might argue that all retail sales are a service, my point is that in the US the extent of service provision is on its way to infinite, and this infinite progression dominates its economy.
The basic problem of reliance on services as the core of economic activity is that making money through facilitation is not equivalent to being productive. Nor is working hard synonymous with productivity. Americans work the longest hours and take the shortest vacations of all OECD countries. By that standard they should be light-years ahead of the democratic capitalist world in terms of real productivity. But they are not. That is because hard work and income earned in services does not, in the larger scheme of things, add real value to productivity. It may make the national quality of life better, but it does not advance the overall condition of the productive apparatus. It is the economic equivalent of silver–it is nice and attractive, very malleable, easy to buy, wear and replace, but is no substitute for the economic iron required to build and progress a nation.
What is noteworthy about the US service sector is that, at over 75 percent and growing, it is steadily occupying a bigger and bigger percentage of the national GDP (agriculture is less than 2 percent and manufacturing is at 20 percent). The creative genius involved in the proliferation of services is matched by its relentless rent-seeking: in South Florida television ads are dominated by ambulance chasers (who prefer the term “personal injury lawyers”), pill-pushers and geriatric care providers who offer relief and compensation for a myriad of ills previously unheard of or for which personal responsibility used to suffice.
The majority of US college graduates, be they from two or four year colleges, receive degrees in areas other than science or engineering (business, education and liberal arts degrees are the majority of those granted in the US). Since the bulk of undergraduates do not go on to graduate school, this leaves a labor pool full of people who cannot actually produce or add value to anything other than by virtue of their slick talk and quick uptake on the job. Since most people coming out of US universities and colleges are neither particularly articulate or quick on the uptake, their default option is to join the legion of personal service providers.
No that all services are of the silver variety. Some of these are important, such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, doctors, firefighters, police and lifeguards (I shall defer from elaborating on the public versus private aspects of the service sector, but note that what are considered public services are basically considered to be core functions of government, many of which are being privatized and downsized in the current fiscal environment). Many services are linked via supply chains to the manufacturing and research sectors. Others, such as the information technology services that spawned Google, Facebook and Twitter, create wealth but do not always really produce anything tangible or contributory to the value-added project (which in part explains the lukewarm stock market reaction to the Facebook public stock float). The vast majority of US services are, needless to say, even less contributory to the national productive apparatus.
The critical and deleterious aspect of the services domination of the US economy is that it is moving the country away from the production of real value added assets, much of which is increasingly monopolized in terms of ownership anyway. Add to that the overwhelming influence of the financial service sector, and what is left is a country that buys more than it makes (and what it makes are increasingly capital goods as much as consumer durables and non-durables), and in which people increasingly use services rather than do things or rely on themselves.
The social division of labor created by service sector dominance in the US appears to produce two distinct cultural characteristics. First–and this is very evident in South Florida and a subject that I have addressed in previous posts–is a culture of blame-assignment and responsibility-shifting where nobody is personally accountable for the consequences of their actions. Even hardened criminals commonly use the excuse that their teachers, counselors and psychiatrists failed them in the lead-up to their crimes, and in many instances this suffices to mitigate their culpability and reduce their sentences. They are not alone in this. In fact, there is an entire service industry comprised of counselors, insurers and lawyers that profits from shifting blame and responsibility, criminal or not.
The second aspect is the increasing compartmentalization and personalization of service work, which in turn produces an erosion of horizontal solidarities brought about by common insertion in the productive process. Much of the service sector is characterized by individual entrepreneurial or material pursuits. The individualization of service work, often aided by stay-at-home technologies that facilitate the rendering of such services, removes the associational and emotive ties that are part of the working experience in mass productive enterprise. This atomizes and alienates individuals as social subjects, as their material fortunes no longer depend on common identifications and sense of purpose (which occurs whether the workforce is organized or not precisely because it is a collective enterprise).
Social group associations, service group size and individual immersion in non-work related collective undertakings such as sports and churches mitigate against a complete return to survivalist alienation, but they do not fully overcome the dissociative effects of the nature of service provision. The effect of this is to reduce the ties that bind people together, which helps explain the turn to shifting blame and responsibility onto others.
Needless to say, I am only extrapolating from what I am seeing in the US during my limited time here. I recognize that generalizations are fraught and speculation based on fraught and fragmentary generalizations are to be suspected. So take this appraisal as an opinion, nothing more. Moreover, the US remains the largest national economy in the world, the largest trading nation, and the largest manufacturing economy. Its information technology, robotics, telecommunications and aerospace industries are world leaders. Its automobile and construction sectors are on the rebound. It is by no means weak in spite of what I have outlined above.
Even so, the trend is disturbing (at least for those with an interest in the US). For small countries not intent on projecting power or devoid of natural and human resources, reliance on services as the mainstay of the economy is acceptable if not advisable. Competitive advantage in services may counterweight a lack of comparative advantage in productive resources.
However, it seems to me that if a large, militarily aggressive country with a global reach relies on services as its engine of economic growth rather than on value-added production, than it will find it increasingly difficult to hold the its position over time. I might be wrong and, like (but better than) the USSR, the US can continue to ride on the production associated with an immense military-industrial corporate complex that spins off technological innovation and civilian applications as a matter of course even as the overall presence of value-added manufacturing as a component of GDP decreases. But if that is the case, it seems a risky proposition for sustained growth and global prominence given that an increasing percentage of the inputs to that type of production are derived from external rather than internal sources.
Meanwhile the life coaches continue to facilitate personal self-realization, realtors hustle properties, lawyers litigate and asset managers channel money made from services into other services. Wall Street and Washington both believe that ongoing reliance on services for economic growth is sustainable and desirable. In broad economic terms, that is like equating a merry-go-round with a wheel. It is that merry-go-round that Obama, Romney and other US politicians are trying to fix.
In spite of some serious dysfunctionalities in its party politics and potential problems with its economic growth model (heavily dependent on mineral exports), Australia is well on its way to becoming a regional great power. In this regard it shares macro-characteristics with three of the four “BRICs:” Brazil, India and Russia (the PRC has surpassed regional great power status and is no longer, in my opinion, appropriately categorized with the others). Although Australians may prefer not be grouped with the others for a variety of reasons, I take the notion of “rising middle power” as the starting point for a comparative analysis of Australia as a different type of BRIC.
The political Right regularly accuses the Left of engaging in social engineering. Be it pushing such unnatural constructs as union and civil rights, health awareness and environmental concerns, the Right claims that the Left is out to control how people behave and even think. For freedom-loving individualists, this is anathema.
Consider my surprise, then, when I saw the Prime Minister saying that one of the reasons for the $2000 dollar “kiwi-first” purchase option with loyalty premium for Mighty River Power shares was to “change the investment psychology” of New Zealanders. It seems Kiwis put money into real estate and bonds, but not the stock market. Mr. Key thinks that his countrymen and women should diversify their portfolios into stocks, and the asset sales option is one way of promoting that. After all, it is not really prudent to have too many eggs in one basket.
I can see his logic. As a money trader and speculator, stock manipulation comes natural to Mr. Key. Sell short, hold, think long…he has the field covered. And truth be told, in a market environment such as NZ’s, it may not be unreasonable to urge people to spread their savings around. Higher rates of savings are traditionally linked to higher standards of living and growth, so by market logic such a move is both collectively and individually optimal.
What I find notable is the PM’s admission that the Mighty River Power stock purchase proposal is a deliberate attempt to alter the way Kiwis think about investment. In other words, it is a social engineering project that proposes to transform the psychological disposition of Kiwis when looking at their investment options.
But if that is the intention, how is that different from campaigns to get people to stop smoking, not drink and drive, use public transport, practice safe sex, license and desex their pets or stop littering? Are these not all examples of what the Right claims is undue interference by government on the rights of individuals to freely choose how to live their lives? Even if one admits that the share purchase option is not compulsory and still a matter of free choice (as are some of the examples just mentioned), is not the intention of the National government and Mr. Key to engage in exactly the type of social engineering–to include psychological indoctrination–that the Right accuses the Left of championing for its nefarious totalitarian purposes? Mr. Key has admitted that there is a social engineering intent to the proposal, so how is that good when other social engineering experiments are considered by the political Right to be bad? Or are some types of social engineering more acceptable to freedom-loving market individualists than others?
If the latter is true, than even the Right has to admit that social engineering projects embarked upon by governments are not always contrary to the small-governance/more market/individual choice principles that ideologically underpin Right thought. And if that is the case, then how can social engineering experiments be totalitarian, collectivist and fundamentally anti-democratic at their core?
Pardon me if I see a little contradiction here…
The outcome of the latest Greek election is not surprising. When faced with uncertainty and dire predictions of collective and individual doom in the event that radical change occurs, voters often tend to go with the status quo or what is already in place. Confronted with the “valley of transition” to an unknown future, voters rationally calculate that their interests are best served by staying with what is known rather than leap into the unknown. Add to that the orchestrated litany of woes predicted by bankers, capitalist-oriented politicians, and lender nations, who pretty much predicted the end of the world as we know it if Greece were to default on its debts and withdraw from the Eurozone currency market, and it is easy to see why a plurality of Greeks decided to stay with the hand that they have been dealt with.
The trouble is that hand, in the form of a New Democracy/PASOK coalition (the so-called “bailout coalition”) is exactly the hand that got Greece into the debt crisis in the first place. It was first New Democracy, then PASOK governments that set new records of corruption, clientalism, patronage and nepotism while running up the public debt on state-centered labor absorption and entitlement projects that did nothing for productivity or the revitalization of the Greek private sector (which remains fragmented and dominated by oligarchic interests in the few globally viable Greek industries such as shipping). It is to this pro-Euro political cabal that the responsibility for “rescuing” Greece is entrusted. That is not going to happen.
True, the terms of the bailout will be relaxed even further now that a pro-Euro government can be formed. That much is clear given that Andrea Merkel has hinted that the repayment terms can be “softened.” The hard truth is that repayment can be softened because what is being repaid in Greece is the compound interest on the foreign loans. The logic is that of the credit card: the issuer of the card would prefer for users to not pay off their total debt on a monthly basis and instead accumulate interest-accruing cumulative debt while paying off less than the total owed. If the user reachers a credit limit with interest debt accruing, the limit is raised. If the user defaults on the debt after a series of credit limit raises, measures are taken to seize assets of worth comparable to the outstanding amount.
States are different than individual credit card users because as sovereign entities they can avoid asset seizure on home soil even while bankrupt. As Argentina proved in 2000, they can default and renegotiate the terms of debt repayment according to local conditions (after Argentina defaulted on its foreign debts it was eventually able to negotiate a repayment to creditors of US 36 cents on every dollar owed. The creditors took the deal, then began lending again, albeit more cautiously. The devalued Argentine peso sparked an export boom of agricultural commodities that led to post-default growth rates unseen for 50 years). The short-term impact of default can be painful (witness the run on Greek banks as people try to cash in and export Euros), but measures can be taken to curtail capital flight and to mitigate the deleterious effects of moving to a devalued currency (the Argentines did this by placing stringent limits on currency transfers abroad in the first months after they de-coupled the Argentine peso from the US dollar while at the same time issuing interest-bearing government bonds to dollar holders in the amount valid at the exchange rate of the day before the de-coupling). Greece has not adopted any of these measures as of yet, but that is because a pro-Euro caretaker government, as well as the PASOK government that preceded it, wanted to heighten the sense of doom should an anti-Euro coalition look to be winning majority support.
That scenario emerged in the form of Syriza. Although it is formally known as the Coalition of the Radical Left it is anything but “radical” (no matter how many times the corporate media tries to emphasize that point). Instead, it is a coalition of Socialists, Social Democrats, Greens, Trotskyites, Maoists and independents not associated with the Greek Communist Party (KKE). It has an agenda that includes a possible default, and will now be the largest opposition bloc in the Greek parliament. Contrary to the perception that it came out of nowhere in this year’s elections, Syriza has been steadily building a popular voting base since 2004, increasing its electoral percentage significantly in 2007, 2009 and May 2012. Although it has had splits and defections (which are endemic in Greek politics, particularly on the Left), Syriza was the second largest vote-getter in the May 2012 elections and its margin of loss to New Democracy in the second-round elections held last weekend is less than it was in May. The bailout coalition may have a narrow majority, but Syriza and other Left minority parties will prove to be a formidable parliamentary obstacle to the implementation of its pro-Euro agenda.
That is why the new Greek “bailout” government will not be successful even if it renegotiates the terms of the bailout along more favorable lines than in previous iterations. It will be forced to deal with the combined pressures of Syriza opposition in parliament and the angry–and I reckon increasingly violent–opposition of the non-parliamentary Left in the street. Greece has a long tradition of student and union militancy and urban guerrilla warfare. Even during the best of times militant groups have used irregular violence to make their points about Greek capitalism and its ties to Western imperialism. They have burned and they have killed (including a CIA station chief, a British embassy official and various Greek security officers) during the decades after the Colonel’s dictatorship fell in 1973. These militant strands have not gone away and instead have been reinforced as the debt crisis drags on and the impact of austerity measures take their toll on the average (and increasingly unemployed) wage-earner. With unemployment at 20 percent and youth unemployment at 50 percent, the recruitment pool for Greek militants has grown exponentially.
Some of this has been siphoned off my neo-fascist parties like Golden Dawn. But the bulk of popular rage has been channeled by the Left, divided into the institutional vehicles of Syriza and the KKE (and various off-shoots), and the direct action, non-institutionalized vehicles comprised by the likes of Revolutionary Sect (who favor political assassinations) or Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei (who appropriately enough favor arson), that follow a long line of militant groups with a penchant for violence such as the N-17 and Revolutionary Struggle (and may in fact include former members of the latter), to say nothing of various anarchist cells.
These militant groups are not going stay quiet. Instead, I foresee a rising and relentless tide of irregular violence coupled with acts of passive resistance and civil disobedience so long as the political elite continues to play by the Euro rules of the game. Every Greek knows that the solution to the crisis is political rather than economic because the bankers have made more than enough profit on their loans and it is now time for them to draw down or write off the remaining interest owed. A softened bailout package only goes halfway towards easing the collective burden of debt, and the continued imposition of fiscal austerity deepens the stresses on Greek society (urban crime has ramped up significantly this year, and it already was pretty bad when I lived in Athens in 2010). Instead of continuing to cater to banks, the political decision palatable to most (non-elite) Greeks is not a softened bailout package, now into its fourth iteration. It is a complete re-structuring, with or without default, of the economic apparatus so that national rather than foreign interests prevail on matters of employment, income and production. This may require a retrenchment and drop in standards of living over the short-term, but it at least gives Greeks a voice in the economic decisions that heretofore and presently are made by Euro-focused elites more attuned to the preferences and interests of European finance capital than they are to those of their own people.
If there is a domino effect in other countries in the event that Greece eventually (I would say inevitably) defaults, then so be it simply because that is the risk that bankers and their host governments assumed when they lent to PASOK and New Democracy governments in the past. Perhaps it is time for bankers to pay the piper as well. After all, although their profit margins may fall as a result of the Greek default, they have already insured against the eventuality (the write-off of Greek debt by large financial institutions in the US, UK and Europe is the story that never gets mentioned by the corporate media). Moreover, and most importantly, the banks can accept the default and take their losses on projected interest as a means of keeping Greece in the Eurozone market, thereby avoiding the contagion effect so widely predicted at the moment. Default does not have to mean leaving the Euro currency market. Greece can default and stay in the Eurozone so long as the banks accept that it is in their long-term interest to shoulder the diminished profits (not real losses) that a default will bring.
Again, the economic decisions about Greece had already been made by the European banks, and they are now simply waiting, while claiming gloom and doom, for the political decision to terminate their interest-based revenue streams. The PASOK/New Democracy bailout coalition only delays that political inevitability, and Syriza and the militant Left will ensure that the next bailout is just another stopgap on the road to default and regeneration along more sustainable lines.
Whatever happens, it looks to be another long hot summer in the Peloponnese. Expect a lot of wildfires.
The New Zealand Herald’s archetypal “average” Kiwi family, the Ray family of Sandringham East, has declared the 2012 Budget “sensible and unspectacular”, probably the strongest endorsement Bill English could have hoped for. But let’s look at what this article signifies.
First and most obviously, the article makes something of the fact that the average income in Sandringham East is nearly identical to the average income across Auckland as a whole — not quite $27,000 per annum* — but the Ray family income is about four times that, $105,000. If both adults were in paid work, their income level would be about twice the average. But the article says that Amanda Ray is a full-time stay-at-home mum, from which we can reasonably assume that Alistair Ray’s income is four times the median on its own. Income level: not “average”.
The figures given for income, and for the decile rating of the local school, date from “the last census”, which was held in 2006. Census data from 2011, had it been held, would probably not yet have been released anyway, so that’s not really a factor — but the data is six years out of date in any case. The principal of the local school says the area is “gentrifying” and the middle-of-the-road decile 5 status is likely to be revised upwards. Suburb: not “average”. [Edit to add: the school decile rating doesn't necessarily support this conclusion; see Graeme Edgeler's comment explaining deciles, below.]
Alistair Ray is an urban designer, and Amanda has a doctorate in cancer research. I’m not sure of the qualifications required to become an urban designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that it requires postgraduate study to honours — probably master’s — level. Education: not “average”.
Education is just one aspect of social capital more generally. The Rays immigrated relatively recently from the UK. Their language is our language; their qualifications and experience are accepted here without question; many of our social norms and customs, and our legal and political systems are very similar to those of the UK, having been largely derived from the institutions of the Old Country. This is hardly uncommon — roughly a third of immigrants to NZ come from the UK — but neither is it typical. Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific (combined) make up a higher proportion, and these groups do not enjoy the same degree of familiarity that British immigrants do. Social capital: not “average”.
None of this is any sort of criticism of the Ray family. I have no doubt that they are honest, hardworking, skilled and decent folk who are committed to this country, who make a valuable contribution to it, and are as entitled as anyone else to express opinions on its government. They are welcome here. The Herald chose to frame them as an “average” family, though, and by these metrics they are not an “average” family. I think it is fair to characterise the Rays as an “aspirational” family.
And that, I think, answers the implicit question of whose view the Herald’s coverage seeks to express, and whose interests yesterday’s budget serves. The elision of “average” and “aspirational” is, I think, the single most powerful shift in this country’s political discourse in the past five years — since John Key took the National party leadership. This piece of terminology (and its close cousin, “ambitious”) dominated the 2008 election campaign, and while it has tailed off more recently, the policy settings the government has chosen demonstrate that it is still a core theme of their ideological project. This government does not speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders, and in this article the Herald does not really speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders. Blurring ideas of “aspiration” almost interchangeably with ideas of “average” defines an “us” in which nearly everyone includes themselves, persuading “average” people that the government speaks for, and to them, even though the policy programme yields them no direct advantage whatsoever. At the same time, it permits the government and others to define anyone who fails to “aspire” hard enough, for whatever reason — a lack of education or financial or social capital, chronic illness or disability, or a history of abuse, mental illness or repression, poor choices or simply bad fortune — as an unperson. So defined, the state can with relative impunity dismantle the system of benefits, state assistance and remedial advantage that, in the final analysis, enables more of the population to become genuinely “aspirational”.
That bell probably can’t be un-rung. I think we are stuck with this elision, and this delusion that everyone can be above-average — it’s normal, and expected, and if you aren’t, you’re a failure. That’s a concerning prospect.
* I should at least give credit to Simon Collins for using the median, rather than the mean with regard to income — many, including the government, are not so scrupulous.
The bottom line of any political economy resolves around the question of accumulation versus distribution. Productive activity that generates surpluses (profits) can be accumulated by those who control the means of production (workers or capitalists), or can be distributed throughout the larger community in which production is located. In capitalist system decisions about accumulation and distribution are done by capitalists. Workers organizations fight or bargain for better distribution of profits. Capitalists would prefer to accumulate for their own consumption. Because production is essential for the material standards of everyone, in democracies capitalists and workers negotiate the proper ratio of profits saved to profits distributed. Once distribution has occurred (via wages, benefits and the like) the saved part of profit is re-invested or “taken” by capitalists (owners) for personal use. Both sides adopt minimax negotiating strategies by making maximum claims on the preferred ratio, then settling for a mutually acceptable minimum. By doing so neither wages or profit-taking rise too recklessly or out of proportion to productive gains or inflation, as that would lead to inefficiencies and potential social unrest.
Or so the system is supposed to work. Depending on relative political balances and the specific location of a given productive sector in the capitalist world cycle at any specific moment, workers or capitalists may have structural and political advantages to play in their favor. Workers will attempt to maximize distribution in the form of job security and wage and benefit gains; capitalists will attempt to maximize accumulation by rolling back worker’s redistributive gains.
For the last twenty-five years logics of accumulation and profit-taking have dominated macroeconomic thought. Workers have steadily seen their distributive gains eliminated. As the process has deepened capitalists have pushed not only to reduce the material aspects of the distributive process. Sensing a favorable economic and political environment in places like New Zealand, they are launching attacks on the rights to collectively organize in defense of distributive stakes or goals. Capitalists well understand that for people to have economic rights they must have political rights. The right to organize collectively is a political right. Reduce that right and previously held economic rights are more easily curtailed or eliminated. The more the concept of economic rights based on distribution is pushed towards a minimalist definition (encapsulated in the saying “you are lucky to have a job”), the more workers will limit their distributive demands in the quest for basic subsistence. The more that they do so the more working class internal competition will further push down the overall wage bill and increase job insecurity. The process of “casualisation” is the result of that trend, with “labor flexibilisation” being the managerial jargon used to describe employment precariousness.
Today in New Zealand the scales are tipped in favor of accumulation over distribution. The political and economic elite (including many in the Labour Party leadership) overtly side with the logics of accumulation argued by capitalists. They accept the reasoning that in the current global economic moment distribution to workers is contrary to future growth. Thus they accept that not only worker’s distributive demands but their political rights must be curtailed in order for economic benefit to occur. Of course, that benefit accrues to capitalists rather than workers, and if the low rates of re-investment in many productive sectors is anything to go by, profit-taking out of accumulated surpluses have been very good for capitalists indeed.
None of this is particularly new or surprising, even if recent labor conflicts had led to commentary about an impending class war in New Zealand, among other places. What is happening today is just the logical conclusion of a process of market-driven accumulation that began in the 1980s and which is reaching deep into the foundations of modern political economies today. The purpose is to forever privilege accumulation over distribution, and to ensure the political conditions in which workers can no longer challenge that logic or have a say in fixing the “equilibrium” ratio of accumulation to distribution.
Such a system has long been noticed and understood by the materialist school of class conflict. It is called the Asiatic Mode of Production, which relies on super-exploitation of human labor for accumulation gains. Given that New Zealand’s original market ideologues borrowed some of their policy prescriptions from the Chicago School of monetarist economics (later conceptually distorted in the word neoliberalism) as widely applied by capitalist authoritarians in the 1970s and 1980s, it seems that their heirs have borrowed from the Chinese or Singaporean models, which are also heavily reliant on authoritarian political and social controls. This shift in preferred macroeconomic models makes perfect sense when we consider the move, shared by both major parties, to focus NZ’s diplomatic and trade relations on Asia and the Middle East, where democratic “niceties” are in short supply and where capitalists are largely unencumbered by human rights, much less labor rights or worker’s substantive rights to a share of the benefits of production.
The modern Asiatic model is as ruthlessly efficient as its predecessors, but is also based on a downwards redefinition of the concepts of economic and political rights that is generally considered anathema to democratic values (which in the labor market are enshrined in International Labor Organization conventions, now under siege in NZ and elsewhere). It would seem that in this particular market-driven moment, authoritarian capitalist reasoning prevails, accumulation is the sine qua non of macroeconomic policy, and the notion of egalitarianism as the basis for stable social order reflected in a fair ratio of accumulation to distribution has been abandoned in favor of the all-mightly profit-taking “bottom line.”
That is the state of play in New Zealand today.
Much has been written about the difference between public goods and private goods, including issues of fungibility versus liquidity in the allocation of each (public goods are fungible rather than liquid, private goods can be both. Fungible means that something of worth can only be replaced in-kind, in a largely 1:1 transaction. Non- fungible or liquid means that the item can be exchanged for something else of different worth/value)). Less attention has been devoted to the issue of public and private bads, including the responsibility of the state in addressing each. In light of the disasters that have befallen NZ in the last year, it is worth pondering the latter.
The Pike River mine disaster is an example of a private bad. It was human caused, being the result of bad management decisions and poor safety standards within the mine, and affected its employees and profits. However, its impact on the public good was minimal. Even so, lax mine inspection regulations contributed to the explosion and loss of life, which is a public bad because state inaction facilitated the collective tragedy, and the adverse economic impact of the mine’s closure on the local community is also a public bad because it negatively impacts on the community through no fault of their own. The question is, what role does the state have, other than the policing in the aftermath of the event, in addressing the public bad aspects of the disaster?
The Christchurch earthquakes are clearly a public bad. The combined into a prolonged natural disaster, largely unforeseen. The government mobilised resources to address the aftermath, efforts that are still ongoing. But is there a private bad element to the quake? Did shoddy construction contribute to the loss of life and property? Were regulatory loopholes exploited that exacerbated the impact of the quakes, and if so, what is the state’s role in rectifying those areas in which standards and procedures were skirted. Is it a matter for the industries involved to resolve privately? What happens when private insurers renege on coverage or attempt to minimise payouts? Does the state have a responsibility to cover the difference in the public interest? Or is that purely a private matter?
The Rena shipwreck is most interesting because it clearly combines the two forms of bad. It started out as a private bad caused, apparently, by gross human error. National’s response was predictable: it waited for the parties to the contract of the vessel to negotiate a response. And waited. After four days of calm weather and no private response, a storm blew through and began to break the ship apart, spilling part of its load and fuel from ruptured fuel lines. When leaked oil and containers began to hit Bay of Plenty beaches, the disaster became a public bad, at which time the government belatedly intervened, mostly in a support rather than in a leadership role. This is due to its continued preference for the contracting parties to assume the responsibilities incumbent upon them for having caused a private bad with public ramifications. Meanwhile the environmental impact of the wreck continues to grow, with the costs of the clean up rising and the negative economic impact on local businesses likely to be significant in the measure that the spill is not contained promptly and the clean up process stretches into months.
In other words, a private bad caused a public bad with private bad implications. Since the National government believes in the primacy of the market and private sector, it has left the bulk of the response to the parties involved, and called for volunteerism (another private act) in its approach to cleaning the beaches.
All of this is quite predictable. The quest for privatisation of the public sphere over the last two decades has reduced the concept of public goods and bads while expanding that of private goods and bads. Left to their own devices in a deregulated public space, private actors will minimize costs and increase risks in the pursuit of profitability. Should an accident such as Pike River or Rena occur, the payouts involved are considered to be acceptable given that they will be less than the costs of compliance in a tightly regulated commercial environment. The calculation is that the costs of occasional “one-offs” (which are not) will be less than the costs of ongoing regulatory compliance. In coal mining and shipping, accidents are not occasional happenstances but regular occurrences so the industries involved are have prepared accordingly (by establishing contingency funds for such events). The difference is that when a private bad becomes a public bad, they have limited contractual responsibility in addressing the latter. It is up to the state to recoup the costs of the public side of the bad incurred, which means taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the legal expenses involved in the court cases taken against the private parties responsible. In some cases–Pike River looks to be one–the state will do nothing of the sort because the public bad aspects are considered to be small, incidental, and not worth prosecution.
It appears that in the rush to privatise sight was lost on the potential public bad caused by private bads. Commercial de-regulation in the pursuit of competitiveness and trade ignores the fact that the private parties in contractual relationships with each other are not, by definition, responsible for the public good. As such, the public bad potential of a private bad event is discounted, in part because private parties know that governments will be loathe to charge them the full costs of a public bad response less they be seen as anti-business. In an age when the private sector rules over the public interest, few governments will be courageous enough to incur the wrath of major commercial actors regardless of the latter’s responsibility in causing a public bad.
The problem is compounded by the hollowing out of state regulatory agencies, particularly in their operational capabilities as well as their policy scope. Insufficient regulatory enforcement (such as it is) due to reductions in state regulatory agency workforces, combined with reductions in quick response assets in agencies responsible for disaster relief and mitigation, force the state to contract out the latter in an environment made riskier by de-regulation. Since the skill sets required for disaster relief are often very specialised and limited, given the geographic and logistical difficulties presented by specific scenarios in the time-sensitive context in which the public bad occurs, this places private actors with such skills in a de facto monopoly position over the response in their areas of expertise. This allows them to extract monopoly rather than market rents from the state when contracting such assignments.
The private bad-focused approach can be seen as short-sighted in the measure that de-regulation facilitates private actor irresponsibility, which in turn leads to higher costs for the state in the event that a private bad becomes a public bad. Seen another way, robust state regulation of private industries with potentially injurious public consequences may in fact be more of a cost-savings over the long-run given the inevitability of private sector accidents that negatively impact on the public good.
This is the crux of the matter, and it is the one that should be reflected upon when issues of off-shore drilling, mining, nuclear energy and other private industrial ventures with potentially public bad implications are discussed.
Market responses to the US debt crisis and financial downgrade have been like king tides as of late, and inevitably speculation centers on the possibility of a “double dip” global recession (this speculation is more than rhetorical. Gold and other precious metal prices have spiked overt the last three weeks as investors flee the stock, bond, commodity and currency markets). There is much talk, some fearful and some hopeful, of a global meltdown of epic proportions. The argument goes that downgrading the US credit rating devalues US Treasury bonds and the dollar, which slows US private investment at home and abroad, decreases domestic consumption, increases unemployment and generally prolongs the recession begun in 2008. This ripples negatively across the globe given the interconnectivity of commodity chains and the central role of the US in them. Be it on the Left or the Right, the belief in state bankruptcy is taken as an article of faith.
The reality is different. What is happening is a fiscal crisis of the Western State rooted in a cyclic crisis of capitalism. Arguments about the blown-out US public debt obscure the fact that it is the result of the same conditions that produced the 2008 recession and which are at root the cause of the next one. For the last thirty years the ‘bubble” of private debt was replicated by the US Government, in the last decade under the strain of simultaneously fighting two prolonged low intensity conflicts. In Europe public debt was in part procured in order to compensate for private debt (via the provision of subsidized entitlements). Capital was lent on looser and looser terms as interest payment calculations came to rival returns on productive investment as the dominant macroeconomic logic. The market in financial derivatives boomed, then busted, bringing with it a crisis in small scale property ownership at the same time that major manufacturers were being bailed out by the US government.
There is a difference, however, between the private sector and the State when it comes to fiscal crises. The analogy between States and firms is overdrawn. Firms go bankrupt; States do not. States may default on loans and suffer the indignities of downgrading by financial institutions, but they do not go out of business. The reason is simple. States with a presence in the global economy may fail but they do not cease to exist.
Modern states are political entities with other measures of power beyond economic resources, are rooted in historical and cultural ties within more or less fixed borders, have distinct political systems and political regimes that govern them, and are therefore sheltered from the hard realities that beset wayward market agents in a globalised system of production, service and exchange. More importantly with regard to the social and political relations of production, the modern nation-state supercedes the market at any specific moment even while being generally subject to its rhythms and dictates. It is, after all, a capitalist type of state that is not reducible to the productive apparatus.
Imagine even if the US defaulted on its current obligations. Its credit rating would fall further in parallel with the value of its currency, but how long will that last? Even if the US fails its financial obligations, it would be the markets that push for a debt restructuring favourable to it. As the core of the global economy, the US is simply too big to fail because its financial collapse would reverberate widely and deeply through the world. In fact, with the exception of undeveloped failed states and microstates with minimal economic resources to promote, virtually all modern states can survive a fiscal crisis and default.
Take Argentina, which in 2000 defaulted on its foreign loans, uncoupled its currency from the US dollar and then renegotiated the terms of its obligations. Since most of the outstanding balance was interest rather than principal, foreign creditors were eventually forced to settle on terms favourable to the Argentines (about 60 cents on the dollar lent). The weakened Argentine peso stimulated commodity exports and attracted foreign investment in resources and primary goods. In spite of endemic corruption, political interference and a multitude of market inefficiencies, over the last five years Argentina has averaged growth rates in excess of six percent and attracted the highest levels of foreign investment ever even while maintaining a large public deficit.
Greece, the poster child of all that is supposedly wrong with governments and societies that do not couple entitlements with production, is another such case. What would happen if Greece defaulted on its recently rescheduled loans? Will it cease to be? what it could do is drop out of the Eurozone, replace the Euro with the much less expensive drachma, and print money to fund its domestic obligations. Somee foreign investors may flee, but local capitalists will continue to engage the domestic market, people will continue to consume, albeit at lower rates with regards to imported goods, tourists will still flock to see the historical sites and visit the islands, and the country will continue to exist. In fact, should it be successful at restructuring its economy on more internally-focused terms out from under the straitjacket of Eurozone obligations (say, by making its tax collection system more rational and efficient), it could serve as a model for the other “PIGS” nations—Portugal, Ireland and Spain—as well as Italy.
It was Northern European, mostly German capital, directly and channeled through the European Central Bank, which sought to recycle in the European periphery the super-profits accrued during the last two decades of derivative market expansion. These are the creditors who took the risk in the PIGS and who now demand debt repayment schedules rooted in austerity measures and privatization programs. They are also the beneficiaries of a strong Euro, unlike the weaker Southern European economies now under siege. Should debtor countries in Europe decide to reconfigure their economies around a devalued national currency a la Argentina, the European Union will be finished as a currency regulator. Here the sub-regional ripple or contagion effect makes each of the PIGS too big to fail, something that is magnified in the case of the US. Loss of credit rating and a high debt to GDP ratio, in others words, does not translate into State bankruptcy.
The larger point is that states can default but they cannot be bankrupted because they are not solely economic agents but instead sovereign political actors with interests that transcend a financial bottom line. They can be upgraded and downgraded as financial risks, but even if investment falls and inflation rises, they will not disappear. Think of Brazil and Argentina in the late 1980s when inflation ran at over 1000 percent per year. Did they disappear? Did all foreign investment dry up? Did local markets crash?
Truth be told, capitalism, led by finance capital, was on overheated overdrive for the two decades before 2008, only slowing down briefly after events such as 9/11, even when objective conditions advised against the maintenance of the macroeconomic policies private agents used to calculate the speed of their returns. Western States emulated private agent logics, whereas Asian banks and sovereign wealth funds were less keen to adopt derivatives-led financial approaches backed by increasingly unsecured loans (although some of that did creep into Asian markets as regional economies attracted Western investment).
Here is where global networks come in. Rather than wage war on States with economies in default, other States that are debt free or less indebted work to cover their investments, and those of their private agents, in the debtor States. This means that even if private agents in the debtor States fail as a result of their market excesses or miscalculation, and State treasuries do n not have enough reserves to cover their debts, States remain open for business, perhaps even on more favourable terms depending on the nature of sovereign debt restructuring agreements (public debt for equity swaps are one measure that can improve State efficiencies as a result of restructuring). Inefficient producers are expelled from the market; inefficient States muddle along.
The entire Western capitalist combine was due for a retrenchment given the downward slope it has been on since spending, both public and private, exceeded productive output in material goods and services. So long as money could be made off of lending money and risks were passed on to increasingly lower-level actors, early 21st century capitalism saw States tax and spend without coherent productive purpose (which mirrored the approach of the financial markets). This was a good political calculation but not a sound economic grounding for future productive growth within current capitalist parameters. Thus the turn towards private sector retrenchment in 2008, with public sector retrenchment now following.
We hear about the demise of various States because they can no longer afford to repay what they have borrowed in order to maintain whatever it is that is considered precious to national identity and political stability–public goods and entitlements in Europe, a war machine in the US. Retrenching Western States may not be able to provide these services in the measure they used to, but thy remain (however diminished) as linchpins of an international system that has its origins in the Treaty of Westphalia rather than Bretton Woods or the Washington Consensus. States are the ties that bind that global system of exchange, and Western States continue to have a central role in it even as the system moves towards increased multipolarity.
Markets and politicians alike need to be cognizant of this fact, because as Keynes pointed out, it is political conditions, not economic conditions, that are the best guarantors of long-term investment. Rather than the economic particularities of a given investment climate at a specific moment in time, political stability offers better conditions for secure future private return. A stable national polity is the best guarantee of profit even if the public books are not balanced. That is the political cost for the social peace that is the basis for economic stability.
Ironically, it was the short-term focus of the macroeconomic logics that propelled the “bubble” that led first to the financial crisis of 2008 and now to the current conditions of political impasse and social instability in many liberal democracies. That is where the convergence of the fiscal crisis of the Western State and the cyclic crisis of capitalism can lead to liberal democratic State failure: when it produces a crisis of legitimacy of the political elite, often confused with regime crisis, that once rooted in and superimposed on the economic downturn and social unrest constitutes an organic crisis of the State. The UK evidences these type of pre-conditions.
Rather than demand zero-sum tax cuts and a diminished State role in guaranteeing the social relations of production, the priority of the market during a State fiscal crisis should be to to express confidence in the State because delegitimisation of the latter is an absolute guarantee of disasterous market consequences for the private actors involved with them in the event that they are overthrown or fragment. That is where market ideologues have failed in their basic obligation: to help foster the political and socio-economic conditions in which stable rates of private return are generated. Instead, they are exacerbating the crisis with their jitters, demands and panic trading. This will not lead to an organic crisis in most liberal democratic states (which will muddle along), but it could produce legitimacy crises in newly democratic states or those with significant social cleavages. Even then the prospect of State, as opposed to regime or private sector failure, is unlikely.
All of which is to say that when it comes to the fiscal crises of modern Western States, this too shall pass.
A short while ago we were treated to the spectacle of a Royal Westminster wedding, a royal tour of Canada and the US, then another lesser royal wedding. The UK and colonial media went crazy with 24/7 coverage of the fairy tale personae involved, and the image conveyed was of stability and continuity in British foundational politics. All was well in the Realm.
In the months since the first royal celebration things have grown dimmer. There is the hacking scandal in which politicians and the police appear to be complicit in the illegal tapping of private information by media corporations (primarily but not exclusively Murdoch-owned assets). Added to this sign of elite criminal coziness, now there is a police shooting followed by wildcat riots that represent criminal opportunism rather than outrage about the death itself. The UK media are swamped with reporters, police spokespersons and politicians all chanting in unison about the “mindless thuggery” and criminality of the youth who are widening the scope of violence beyond Tottenham and London itself.
The official emphasis on criminality cannot hide a number of things that depict a reality that s a far cry from royal bliss. The youth involved, while criminally opportunistic in their looting and vandalism, are a mix of ethnicities, but all seeming of working class or unemployed status (On TV I actually saw some young Hassidic Jews amongst the rioters in Tottenham). Some may have participated in earlier demonstrations and rioting about restrictions on access to higher education and the cost of basic services. They appear to be coordinated–in yet another tweeter and smart phone fashion–enough to stay a step ahead of the thinly stretched British Police. The fire service is not attending to full alarm fires because of fears for their security and the Police cannot predict when the next smash, burn and grab will happen. The mob is ahead of the Man, and the mob is angry.
So far the British government has declined to send in the army even though suggestions have been made that they have very robust anti-riot capabilities in Northern Ireland. The language used to justify that non-action is precious: the government states that it does not deploy such hard assets on British soil. So the riot police in London chase rioters using shields, helmets, horses and batons while the British Army uses armoured personnel carriers, water cannon trucks and live ammunition to keep the peace in Belfast and beyond. Some Imperial habits are hard to break, even though the Empire is long gone and its post-colonial consequences have come home to roost in the capital itself.
The hard fact is that the criminality of the rioters is a political act whether or not those involved or the government and corporate media would like to admit it. At a time when the PM, Police Commissioner, Mayor of London, and assorted other leading officials were on vacation in places like Ibiza, Tuscany and Milos, the youth now on riotous display swelter in the housing estates where unemployment, racial separatism, ethnic conflict and everyday economic insecurity are rife. Like their counterparts in any number of less developed countries, they can see up close the material lifestyles and commodity consumption of the royals, celebrities, sportsmen and corporate elites, but do not have (and likely will never have) the means of access to them. Worse yet, they live in a world where the institutional framework is stacked against them, leading to the violent turn inwards when the opportunity presents itself. The Police response is to ask parents to lock up their children.
Be it Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Guevara, Marighella, Ayman al-Zawahari, or Muqtada al-Sadr, revolutionaries understand the potential of the criminal mass engaged in collective violence. Lumpenproletarians are the street vanguard who, however unconsciously, help to bring social contradictions to a head and expose the weakness of the elite response and the inherent fragility (sclerosis?) of the status quo as a whole. Where instigated or abetted by politically conscious cadres (and there is some evidence of this at play here), their actions are designed to accelerate the organic crisis of the State, in which economic, social and political cleavages overlap and congeal into compound fractures not resolvable by force, reform-mongering or after-the-fact piecemeal pacification. Given the ongoing repercussions of the 2008 recession and the increasingly global debt crisis, and no matter how they are disguised by ethnic and religious division, the structural foundations for a larger class war in the UK may be fixing in place.
This does not mean that the British government will not be able to quell the disturbances this time around. But what these riots may be is a dress rehearsal for more to come, perhaps in conjunction with the Olympics next year, where militant planners accelerate the pace, focus and intensity of mass collective violence at a time when the British elite are exposed to global scrutiny and their security resources are already working at full capacity. That raises the issue of whether the official approach to rioters will shift to the more lethal Northern Irish “solution” set, and whether those charged with adopting a more lethal approach will have the ideological conviction to respond in such a way to the actions of fellow citizens rather than foreigners (I note that it will be possible for the official narrative to scapegoat “outsiders” drawn from minority ethnic communities that hold non-Western beliefs, but even that may fail to overcome foot soldier or beat police reluctance to turn their weapons on their own).
In any event, we should see the riots for what they really are: an expression of mass subordinate discontent and disaffection, the product of profound alienation, expressed through collective criminal violence operating in seemingly opportunistic and decentralised fashion in the face of official incompetence or lack of will. That, by most reasoning, is a good sign of a pre-revolutionary situation, one that has the potential to become more of an existential threat to the status quo should tactical guidance and coherent ideological justification be given to it. After all, if what we are experiencing is a crisis of capitalism in the liberal democratic world, then it was only a matter of time before superstructural conditions and precipitating events would combine into a violent rejection of the system as given in countries in which the societal contradictions were most apparent. Be it in Greece, in France, in Spain or now in the UK, should these contradictions continue to fester and combine, it will not be Tea Party-type clones that will lead the insurrectionary charge, nor will they be as polite.
PS: Before Red Dave and other ideologically militant readers opine that I am belatedly joining their ranks, let me state that I do not see this as the beginning of a global revolution or necessarily of one in the UK. It is a pre-revolutionary moment, which means that the UK government still has the ability to engage in divide-and-conquer, selective application of force and reform-mongering tactics (along the lines I mentioned with regard to the Arab uprisings in an earlier post dedicated to them). There is a fair bit of ground to cover before the Arab Spring gives way to a Red European summer.