Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Autumn's Children

I haven't used this blog in forever, but given that Occupy is such a Jamesian event, and given that I'm writing constantly about Occupy for myself, I figured that I might as well begin posting. The piece below was written on October 16th. Happily, it's already dated.

Autumn's Children

We are witnessing, we are told, the emergence of an “American Autumn”—a moment of radical political possibility inspired by the pro-democratic movement called the “Arab Spring.” The citation of influence is symbolically valuable: it suggests that U.S. democracy is being revitalized, not threatened, by Arab-world populist movements. Despite the value of this discursive shift, we must be careful with our metaphors. By narrating global struggle as if it participated in the same unilinear chronology as seasonal change, the figure of an “American Autumn” threatens to hide from view the persistence of radical struggle in the Arab world. We must keep in mind that the “Arab Spring” and the “American Autumn” are now synchronous events. Despite this and other problems, the figure of an “American Autumn” conveys more than we might think. By recovering the meanings implicit in this figure, we can get a read on both the limits to and potentials for radical change in our political present.

The domination of a state by financial capitalism—the motivating complaint of the Occupy movement—is an autumnal phenomenon. Such is the conclusion that Fernand Braudel reaches in the third volume of his magisterial Civilization and Capitalism. Describing the process by which London overtook Amsterdam as the premier trade entrepot of Europe in the late-eighteenth century, Braudel suggests that Dutch capitalists’ reorientation toward finance capitalism contributed to their own demise. They “dropped the bird in hand to go chasing shadows,” abandoning the trade of material goods in favor of “a life of speculation and rentierdom.” They left “all the best cards to London” and “even financ[ed] her rival’s rise.” Far from being particular to the history of Amsterdam capitalism, Braudel suggests that the turn to finance signals the beginning of the end of any globally dominant power’s hegemonic reign: “Every capitalist development of this order seems, by reaching the stage of financial capitalism, to have in some sense announced its maturity: it [is] a sign of autumn.”

The U.S. has long since fallen into the autumn of finance capital, Giovanni Arrighi argues in The Long Twentieth Century. Arrighi charts the rise and fall of four hegemonic powers (Genoa, Holland, Britain, and the U.S.), substantiating Braudel’s claim that financial capital signals the autumn of one hegemonic power and the emergence of a new one. According to Arrighi, American autumn began decades ago: “Underneath the accelerating inflation and growing monetary disorder of the 1970s we can detect in new and more complex forms the dynamic typical of the signal crises of all previous systemic cycles of accumulation.” The loose monetary policy of the 1970s—designed to forestall inflation in the domestic U.S. economy—did not spur the “material expansion of the U.S.-centered capitalist world-economy.” Rather, the “liquidity created by U.S. monetary authorities…turned into petrodollars and Eurodollars,” which “re-emerged in the world economy as the competitors of the dollars issued by the U.S. government.” The Reagan administration attempted to repatriate this mobile money through pecuniary incentives (high nominal interest rates) and a drive toward financial deregulation. We know the result: “US and non-US corporations and financial institutions [gained] virtually unrestricted freedom of action in the United States.” What followed seems like a period of economic health—a new belle époque. But the flowers of finance capital are more like dying leaves—a multi-hued but ephemeral beauty that soon turns brown and ugly.

Arrighi’s analysis outlines some of the structural limitations of the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement began with a simple plea. It asked that the state occupy a position of responsibility, that it guarantee the availability of jobs, health care, education, and so on to all citizens. This is now a structural impossibility. If the turn to finance marks the transfer of power from one hegemon to another, the state to which U.S. protesters direct their pleas for financial overhaul, jobs, and economic redistribution is less empowered to act than we might hope. There is no political power capable of resolving today’s economic crisis. The neoliberal reforms through which the U.S. attempted to retain global hegemony effectively disembedded economic processes from territorial state control. Financial deregulation and free trade policies have produced a situation in which states cannot generate revenue by siphoning from the flows of capital traversing their boundaries. To attempt to build revenue from capital flows is to invite capital flight. The loss of revenue sources means that states are largely dependent on financial markets to provide basic services. And so the House’s primary constituent is Moody’s. Critiquing the House for this reality is a useless strategy. Their hands are tied; or, as Marge said long ago, there is no alternative. We have to give up our nostalgia for the Keynesian state. It won’t come back.

If the global economic crisis exceeds the scope of any single sovereign state, we might be tempted to look to supranational organizations to promote economic restructuring. Yet, the supranational organizations that do exist are feeble, lacking mechanisms to respond to mass demands and even the procedures to entertain them. For instance, many aspects of neoliberal reforms (and, indeed, capitalism itself) are in direct contradiction to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see, for instance, articles 22-26 of the UDHR), but obviously the UN has no mechanisms to enforce these rights, nor do we have the ability to present petitions or demands to the UN. As Adam Smith pointed out in that revolutionary year of 1776, capitalists always organize better than workers, and the truly functioning supranational organizations and mechanisms are those that have produced and reproduced the current crisis: the IMF, WTO, NAFTA, GATT… Both nation-states and supranational states are weak indeed compared to the power possessed by these globe-making organizations and mechanisms. Given the global scope of the crisis, it is unsurprising that we’ve seen the Occupy movement spread over the past few days. It’s autumn everywhere, and has been for some time.

Indeed, many involved in the youthful Occupy movements—I include myself—were born into this autumn, we’ve lived with its effects throughout our lives, and we’ve never known anything else. The destruction of the Keynesian state, the subsequent racialized war against the poor, the less metaphorical debt-fueled wars through which the U.S. has injects liquidity into the economy and attempts securing resources for itself, the financialization of daily life in the form of home mortgages, credit card debt, student debt, and the pegging of retirement funds to the whims of financial markets…these are the facts of the world into which we autumnal children were born. The rhetoric of the Occupy movement is saturated with a nostalgia for something—let’s call it a springtime—most of us have never experienced first-hand: that is, a political community that has not abandoned its citizens to the mystical workings of a self-regulating markets in goods, labor, and capital.

While this nostalgia makes Occupy rhetoric banal at best or naïve at worst, it has generated practical effects on the ground that prefigure new modalities of democratic community. Occupy camps have rearticulated subsistence needs (water, food, shelter, basic sanitation, even medical attention) with political participation. No one at a General Assembly need be hungry. In its commitment to feeding those who gather, Occupy demonstrates the viability of non-market modes of material distribution. (That the movement relies on donations—and thus the corporations that they protest—is a problem requiring resolution.) No doubt the situation is rather austere, but Occupiers seem more interested in the vibrant democratic sociality in which they participate than in pursuing an endless accumulation of wealth. The definition and experience of work subsequently shifts. Working at Occupy is not a burden nor a means to something more than work itself; it is the mode by which Occupiers make themselves responsible to and for one another. In short, Occupiers are doing far more than their slogans say: they are surrogating for the very state that has abandoned its obligations to them, and doing so in a radically democratic fashion.

The figure of “American Autumn” is split. On one hand, it names the melancholic fact that the state’s facilitation of finance capitalism has left it unable to meet the demands we make upon it. This situation produced the rage and anger that drove many to camp out in public spaces across the U.S. These protesters refuse the fact that the state has made itself structurally irresponsible to our pleas—time will tell whether these pleas will have practical effects or remain a utopian cry for a just state. On the other hand, “American Autumn” names a potentiality irreducible to explicit critiques of the articulation of the state and finance. It names the production of new communities, new forms of responsibility, new articulations of material subsistence and political belonging. This is the real value of the Occupy movement; this is where the work is happening. If autumn is a season of decay, it is also the time of harvest.

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