Sunday, March 18, 2012

Layer 530 . . . The Questioning of Capitalism, and Culture after the Credit Crunch

There was an interesting piece in the Guardian yesterday which readers of Layer 528 might want to pick up on. It sheds some more light on the state of post-apartheid South Africa, and the reasons why a country that so many of us had such great hopes for is so fucked. You just have to wonder what Mandela and Tutu make of it all. Are they writing about it now? And do their views carry any weight?

On page 5 of The Review, in "The Week In Books", John Dugdale writes about Nadine Gordimer, who was in London this week.
What Gordimer, 88, was keen to talk about was censorship, and a current threat to freedom of expression in her country, which she called "an updated version of the gags under apartheid". 
One element of this is a media tribunal that requires journalists to seek permission before, for example, investigating a government minister's activities.
Then there is the Protection of State Information bill, which clamps down on whistle-blowing. For Gordimer, both moves are designed to shield an ANC elite who have "betrayed all they fought for".

As pointed out in the recent blog, the betrayal took place almost from the outset, and it continues to this day - thanks to the stupidity, greed, selfishness and ignorance of those who were supposed to be the leaders and liberators.


Also in this weekend's Review is a brilliant whole-page article by Marilynne Robinson, which is almost too depressing to read. The USA, like South Africa, was supposed to be a new light in the world - a beacon of hope which showed the way forward for people to overthrow oppression and colonialism and build a society based on freedom and justice. Instead, it's fucked.

Culture after the credit crunch
The financial crisis has not led to a questioning of capitalism. Rather, hard times have brought even sharper attacks on 'big government'. In the US anything public equals 'socialism'
Fear is the motive behind most self-inflicted harm. Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform, and trust one another. 
This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realised increasingly come under attack by the real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them "western civilisation" would be an empty phrase.
Austerity is the big word throughout the west these days, with the implicit claim that what ever the Austerity managers take to be inessential is inessential indeed, and that what ever can be transformed from public wealth into private affluence is suddenly an insupportable public burden and should and must be put on the block. 
Everywhere the crisis of the private financial system has been transformed into a tale of slovenly and overweening government that perpetuates and is perpetuated by a dependent and demanding population. This is an amazing transformation of the terms in which our circumstance is to be understood. 
For about 10 days the crisis was interpreted as a consequence of the ineptitude of the highly paid, and then it transmogrified into a grudge against the populace at large, whose lassitude was bearing the society down to ruin.
Austerity has been turned against institutions and customs that have been major engines of wealth creation, because they are anomalous in terms of a radically simple economics. [See all previous blogs on Disaster Capitalism, Chicago-School economics, The Shock Doctrine and Naomi Klein.]
As a professor at a public university I feel the effects of this. Of course legislators are also state employees, but for the moment they are taken to act in the public interest when they attack the public sector. If they were to tell us taxpayers how they spend their time, fiscal demolition would account for a great part of it. 
The phenomenon is national, indeed global, since every entity with leverage on any other is bringing the same sort of pressure to bear. The countries we now call "developing" have dealt with this for many years – as often as the international financial institutions have decided that their economic houses need to be put in order. Their cultural and political integrity has been overridden whenever these agencies have invoked the supposedly unanswerable authority of economics. And now the west is seeing its own cultures and politics, indeed its modern social history, erased on these same grounds.

[Of course the 'agencies' and institutions referred to here are the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.]

It is this supranational power . . . that failed us all in fairly recent memory. It has emerged from the ashes with its power and its prestige enhanced even beyond the status it enjoyed in the days of the great bubble. The instability and the destruction of wealth for which it is responsible actually lend new urgency to its behests. 
This makes no sense at all. Certainly its authority with the public aligns badly with any conception of rational choice, which is supposedly a pillar of this self-same economic theory. It can proceed confidently, and moralistically, in the face of common sense and painful experience because it is an ideology, the one we are supposed to believe was the champion of freedom and prosperity in the epic struggle called the cold war. 
If there was such a champion, might it not have been freedom itself, as realised in the institutional forms of democracy? That is not how the story has been told. We are to believe it was an economic system, capitalism, that arrayed its forces against its opposite, communism, and rescued all we hold dear. Yet in the new era, market economics – another name for the set of theories and assumptions also called capitalism – has shown itself very ready to devour what we hold dear, if the list can be taken to include culture, education, the environment, and the sciences, as well as the peace and wellbeing of our fellow citizens.
The wealth that was once frozen in appreciated value and thawed at the discretion of the owner, in homes, notably, is now, increasingly, liquid in the hands of international financial institutions. 
To project debt forward as the Austerity mongers do is to assume a predictable future economy, essentially a zerosum economy which can only increase wealth by depressing costs – wages, safety standards, taxes – that is to say, by moving wealth away from the general population. This prophecy will fulfil itself as education is curtailed and "reformed" to discourage intellectual autonomy, and so on. The new sense of insecurity, the awareness that the rules have suddenly changed, has a meaningful segment of the population furious at government and desperate to be rid of the institutions that enable a culture of innovation.
In any case, in America an abstraction called capitalism has truly begun to function as an ideology. The word is not included in the 1882 edition of Webster's dictionary, and in the latest Oxford English Dictionary capitalism is simply defined as "a system which favours the existence of capitalists", as the self-declared socialisms of western Europe have always done. 
In contemporary America it has taken on the definition, and the character, Marx gave it, and Mao, and all the pro-Soviet polemicists. This despite the fact that Marx did not consider the United States of his time essentially capitalist. This despite the fact that the United States as a society is structured around any number of institutions that are not, under this definition, capitalist. 
Suddenly anything public is "socialism", therefore a deviancy, inevitably second-rate, and a corruption of, so to speak, the public virtue. If I could find any gleam of intelligence or reflection in all this, or any sign of successful education, I would be happy to admire it, so passionate are my loyalties. Failing this, I am left to ponder again the fact that this post-Soviet America has turned against its own culture and has seen cleavages in its own population that can only rejoice its most fervent ill-wishers. This is an ideal atmosphere for the flourishing of Austerity, punitive yet salvific, patriotic in its contempt for the thought and the values of those of its countrymen who have doubts as to its wisdom, especially if they express their doubts in the press or at the polls.
At very best there are two major problems with ideology. The first is that it does not represent or conform to or even address reality. It is a straightedge ruler in a fractal universe. And the second is that it inspires in its believers the notion that the fault here lies with miscreant fact, which should therefore be conformed to the requirements of theory by all means necessary. To the ideologue this would amount to putting the world right, ridding it of ambiguity and of those tedious and endless moral and ethical questions that dog us through life, and that those around us so rarely answer to our satisfaction. 
Anger and self-righteousness combined with cynicism about the world as he or she sees it are the marks of the ideologue. There is always an element of nostalgia, too, because the ideologue is confident that he or she is moved by a special loyalty to a natural order, or to a good and normative past, which others defy or betray.
The march of Austerity, with all that means, is international. Historically there is nothing new about it. It is an assertion and a consolidation of power, capable of cancelling out custom and social accommodation. It claims the force of necessity. And when necessity is to be dealt with, other considerations must be put aside. We in the west have created societies that, by historical standards, may be called humane. We have done this gradually, through the workings of our politics. Under the banner of necessity it can all be swept away.

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