Thursday, July 9, 2009

Is Capitalism Dead?

Workers Vanguard

In a much lauded recent book Architects of Poverty, political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki reflects on why “African capitalism” needs changing. Instead of enriching their societies, indigenous elites and the powerful “sell off the Continent’s assets to enrich the rest of the world”, he argues.

In return for these services, “they receive the crumbs from the tables of the foreigners who make their fortunes by processing Africa’s resources” in the same way they processed African slaves not so long ago. This he calls “mercantile capitalism”.

Mbeki believes that market reforms such as those initiated in India or China are the best way to increase labor productivity, to use and deploy national resources efficiently and lift hundreds of millions of people out of grinding poverty.

In the absence of any realistic alternative to the market economy, the challenge facing us is “how to modernize capitalism from mercantilism to industrialism”. Without new rulers – the people themselves – stronger democracies, hard work, creativity, knowledge and equity, naked greed will triumph and we will go nowhere, he concludes.

Surprisingly, this renewed act of faith in the power of the market, the people and democracy (his advocacy of a Chinese model of “bourgeois revolution” notwithstanding) comes at a time when, according to the new orthodoxy, Anglo-Saxon liberal market economics is dead. Democracy itself is in crisis and globalization is discredited.

The unprecedented loss of wealth during the last 18 months has swept aside many established ideas of how societies and nations should run their economies. The willingness to trust the free play of market forces has been damaged. But that the system will survive, albeit in a different form, is pretty much assured. Such is the cyclical nature of economies that the pendulum will swing back.

Worldwide, the hope is nevertheless that the age of a hegemonic neo-liberal model of the market economy is past and, with it, the delusions of “the unipolar moment”. Capitalism as such is therefore not yet dead and it does not help to write it’s premature obituary. The globalization of markets and the commodification and exploitation of labor will be with us for a long time to come. Even more ominously, being exploited by capital is, at this point in history and for many people, better than not being exploited at all.

In the face of these realities, what is left of the Left seems disoriented. Many on the Left still see capitalism as inherently unjust and its costs in human suffering staggering. They still cling to the hope that the alternative to such an unequal system is some sort of socialism - a political regime run by workers, a mode of production for needs and not for profits, a non-bourgeois democratic socialist state that would expand economic rights.

Today very few advocate the outright abolition of the market or its wholesale replacement by “democratic planning”. Efforts to build a broad-based, global anti-capitalist movement have not yielded much. Nor have the myriad versions of the Left been able to tell us exactly what would a socialized market look like and what kinds of institutions would be put in place to concretely serve what Michael Hardt calls “the common”.

Meanwhile, the fragmentation of left-leaning movements has made it difficult to invent and sustain a culture of resistance. In most instances the alternative institutions they have created have hardly embodied the values they profess to hold. Divisions among so-called progressive forces are not simply the result of their harboring different visions of a non-capitalist future. They are also a consequence of a deep culture of dogmatism ingrained in the theological belief that to be marginal is by definition to be “purer” and “holier” than the others.

All the above is not a reason to resign to the cynicism of our times. More than ever, a renewed critique of capitalism is a political and ethical imperative.

Such a critique should address four dimensions the recent crisis has made ever more obvious. The first is the extent to which capitalism has revealed itself to be if not a gigantic fiction, at least a form of natural and perverse theology. The second is the alignment of capitalism with nihilism. Nihilism is not only the deliberate confusion of means and ends. It is also the profound belief that in the end, there is nothing.

Third, we need to revise our developmental path. According to Chinese author Lin Chun, the Chinese model Moeletsi Mbeki proposes for Africa is in fact a mixture of 19th-century conditions of the English working class, Latin American patterns of rent seeking and dependency, and a Russian-style privatization (Kremlin Inc.) blended with the native Chinese traces of bureaucratic capitalism.

Development must be reconfirmed as “development as freedom”, says Nobel-Prize winning economist Amartya Sen. Ours should be a development model that not only attends to the mass of basic human needs, but also to their aesthetic, intellectual and cultural desires.

Fourth, there is an urgent need to return to the idea of community, or more precisely of “the common” that is, of human lives and life’s capabilities that must be safeguarded and cherished, and their destruction opposed or prevented.

Finally, a renewed critique of democracy is also much needed. Democracy cannot be an end in itself. Democracy is fundamentally a project of human mutuality. It is the means through which we decide on questions about what collective ends are desirable and worthy to pursue. We can have different accounts of what is most worthy of human pursuit. Is it the endless competition in the marketplace? According to what set of rules? Is it true that if one plays the game, one can possibly win even if one is at the bottom of the pile? How many will lose and what should we do about the lot of losers?

Achille Mbembe

@ This article appeared in The Weekender. July 4-5, 2009, p. 4.

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