Since the last edition of Endnotes in 2013, the global economic train-wreck has juddered forward. No real recovery has taken place, but neither has there been a return to depression-like conditions. It is unclear how much longer this interim period will last. The wrapping-up of extraordinary measures has been declared many times, most recently in September 2015, when the US Federal Reserve was expected to raise its prime rate (this move would have ended a six-year stretch in which the fed funds rate was at zero). But this, too, was cancelled at the last minute. In a by-now familiar scene, technocrats shuffled onto the stage, shuffled some papers, and then shuffled off again. Another round of quantitative easing is anticipated. With little changing, the high-income countries’ economies continue to tick over.
Meanwhile, uncertainty and economic turbulence are extending themselves from the high-income countries to the low-income ones, which not so long ago were thought to be the scene of a possible economic “delinking”. Today, the news from Brazil looks grim, and the news from China is getting grimmer by the month. This is already impacting economies across the low-income world, so much of which depends on China’s demand for commodities. Are we about to see another “Third World Debt Crisis” unfold, as we did in 1982?
Even more so than when we published Endnotes 3, it is hard to say what is likely to happen next. Complex developments are taking place, which look quite different when viewed from Ferguson, Missouri, or Athens, Greece — or along the route of refugees fleeing Syria on their way to Germany. In some places, new social struggles are taking place; in others, there has been a return to calm; in still others, there is unending civil war. Some countries have seen the resurgence of a milquetoast parliamentary left, yet the prevailing order remains decidedly unshaken.
The world is apparently still trapped within the terms of the holding pattern that we described in Endnotes 3.1 This pattern is defined by a partial petrification of class struggle, attendant on a similar petrification of the economic crisis. This social stasis has been maintained only by means of massive ongoing state interventions, which have ensured that the crisis remains that of some people, in some countries, instead of becoming generalised across the world. How long can this holding pattern be maintained?
As they did in the earlier years of the decade, states continue to spend vast quantities of money in order to stave off catastrophe. At the end of 2014, debt levels as a percentage of GDP were still rising across the high-income countries, reaching 90 percent in the UK, 95 percent in France, 105 percent in the US, and 132 percent in Italy (the exception was Germany, where debt levels fell from 80 percent in 2010 to a still-high 73 percent in 2014). Yet all this state spending has not led to economic recovery. Following an initial period of growth in 2010–11, high-income countries’ economies have once again returned to a state of relative stagnation. The main exceptions are the US and UK, where a small measure of recovery has taken place. By contrast, across continental Europe and in Japan — ECB manoeuvres and “Abeconomics” notwithstanding — growth rates have remained low or negative. Greece’s GDP has, of course, shrunk significantly.
Such lackluster developments continue a trend that has been in place for decades: in the high-income countries GDP-per-capita growth rates have been ever slower on a decade by decade basis, falling from 4.3 percent in the 1960s, to 2.9 percent in the 1970s, to 2.2 percent in the 1980s, to 1.8 percent in the 1990s, to 1.1 percent in the 2000s. The 2010s seem set to continue this quantitative trend, with a growth rate of around 1.0 percent between 2011 and 2014. However, there are signs at present that we are at a qualitative turning point; the world economy is threatening to go down, in a Titanic fashion. Politicians can be seen, everywhere, trying to bail the inflowing water out of the sinking ship. But they are doing so with a set of hand pails which are themselves leaking. As we argued in 2013, these politicians are locked into a dance of the dead, for the following reasons.
States are taking out debt to prevent the onset of a debt-deflation spiral; however, their capacity to take out this debt is based on the promise of future economic growth. A combination of slow growth and already high debt levels has meant that government officials have found themselves trapped between two opposed pressures. On the one hand, they have needed to spend huge quantities of money to prevent recession from becoming depression. On the other, they have already spent so much over the past few decades that they have little left to give.
Thus, instead of spending even more, governments in the richer countries engaged in campaigns of austerity: to show their creditors that they remained in control of their finances, they cut social services at the same time as they handed out money to bankers. Austerity has had devastating consequences for workers. Public employees found themselves without jobs. The costs of education and healthcare rose just as households’ incomes were pinched. Meanwhile, without a boost to demand for goods and services, private economies stagnated. Creditor nations have been remarkably successful in preventing any departure from this line among debtors.
This contradictory logic, we argued, shaped the unfolding crisis and so also the struggles that erupted in response to it. Many people claimed that government officials were acting stupidly or even crazily: shouldn’t they have been making the banks pay in order to bail out the people, rather than the other way around? The main explanation offered for this irrationality was that governments had been captured by moneyed interests; democracy had given way to oligarchy. It was in this way that the form of the crisis determined the form of class struggle in this period: it became a contest of real democracy against austerity. Real democracy could, according to the logic of the protests, force the state to intervene in the interest of the nation, rather than that of crony capitalists.
In reality, governments have few options available to them, regardless of who is at the helm, for this crisis is one not of “crony” or “neoliberal” capitalism but rather of capitalism itself. The latter is beset by ever slower rates of economic growth. As productivity levels continue to rise in this context, the result has been an ongoing production of surplus populations alongside surplus capital, excesses which the economy has trouble absorbing. The social order persists, but it is slowly unraveling. The categories of our world are increasingly indistinct. When protesters have come together in this context, they have typically found it difficult to locate a common ground on which to build their struggle, since they experience the crisis in such diverse ways — some worse than others. The perspectives of the old workers’ movement are dead and gone, and thus unavailable as a substantial basis for common action. How are we to account for the failure of that movement to revive itself when workers everywhere are getting screwed?
In this edition, we reconsider in depth the long emergence and dissolution of an affirmable worker’s identity (and, with it, the crisis of “the Left”) in “A History of Separation”. European socialists and communists had expected the accumulation of capital both to expand the size of the industrial workforce and, at the same time, to unify the workers as a social subject: the collective worker, the class in-and-for itself. However, instead of incubating the collective worker, capitalist accumulation gave birth to the separated society. The forces of atomisation overpowered those of collectivisation. Late capitalist civilisation is now destabilising, but without, as yet, calling forth the new social forces that might be able, finally, to dissolve it.
An intake from Chris Wright, “Its Own Peculiar Decor”, looks at the same story through the optic of suburbanisation in the United States. Initial waves of proletarianisation that gathered people in factories and cities, constructing the collective worker, gave way to never-ending suburbanism, where the absence of any link to the countryside was combined with a near full-achievement of atomisation. This was a suburbanisation constructed on a rejection of the unruly poor, the non-homeowner, and through the inevitable racialisation of these categories.
In Endnotes 3 we described this structure of rejection and racialisation in the context of the English riots of 2011 as a process of abjection.2 Both the 2011 British student movement and the US Occupy movement — which were initially struggles of a white middle class fighting against an ongoing impoverishment — were followed by struggles on the part of racialised populations whose impoverishment and exclusion had long been an everyday reality. In “Brown v. Ferguson”, we trace the unfolding of Black Lives Matter, situating this movement in the history of race politics and struggles in the US. We look at the shifting meaning of black identity in a context of growing surplus populations managed by incarceration and police violence.
But it would be too hasty to deduce from such struggles the emergence of some new, potentially hegemonic figure of the “surplus proletarian”, or “the abjected”, to which we might hitch our revolutionary aspirations. Rather than unifying all workers behind a specific subject, growing superfluity has meant a decomposition of the class into so many particular situations — fragments among fragments — pitting the interests of those with stable jobs against precarious workers, citizens against undocumented migrants, and so on. Proletarians thus increasingly face a “composition problem”, lacking any firm basis for unity in action. In “An Identical Abject-Subject?” we consider the political meaning of surplus populations.3
Struggles do not all try to solve this problem in the same way. In “Gather Us From Among the Nations”, we look at a movement that received little international coverage: the February 2014 protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When workers from privatised factories — whose demands had been ignored by authorities for years — were attacked by police in Tuzla, thousands took to the streets, storming the Canton government buildings. During the following months, citizens held large assemblies, where they rejected the ethnic divisions that had plagued the country for more than two decades. Participants in these assemblies tried to solve the composition problem in an unusual way, by marshalling an ever-proliferating multiplicity of demands, so that nobody’s plight would be forgotten. But it remained unclear to whom these demands could be addressed and, above all, who might be able to fulfill them. That raised key questions about the protesters’ relation to the state.
If, in retrospect, 2012–13 was the end of a high point in the movement of squares, these movements did not exactly disappear in the following years. Still, their development gave us no reason to be particularly optimistic. Sisi’s coup in Egypt — shrouded in the mantle of Tahrir — introduced mass-shootings to the movements’ repertoire. The following year saw another bloodied square in the Maidan, this time defended by fascist groups. Shortly thereafter Occupy Bangkok, organised by royalist yellow shirts, succeeded in bringing about a military coup in Thailand.
The conclusions of many social struggles were given by geopolitical manoeuvring. Various powers succeeded in taking the gains of destabilised situations. In the Maidan, tensions between nationalists and pro-EU liberals had been brewing for months, but they did not get much of a chance to play themselves out, for as soon as Yanukovych resigned, Russia — faced with the prospect of EU and NATO extension to another country in its “near abroad”— invaded the Crimea and began a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. At that point, the rebellion became a civil war. In Egypt the conflicts between radicals and the Brotherhood, or Muslims and Copts, which had developed in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, were ultimately submerged in a larger regional power game, as Saudi financial support helped Egypt’s deep state to reestablish itself. Elsewhere, from Syria to Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, the hopes of the Spring were snuffed out in civil war, military intervention or both.
Similar limits were encountered by left-wing parliamentarians in Europe. There too it was ultimately the regional hegemon that would decide the fate of social movements, whatever came of their assemblies and government referendums. To understand the tepid nature of Syriza’s proposals — calling for a primary surplus of 3 rather than 3.5 percent — it is necessary to recognise that Greece cannot feed itself without foreign exchange. Moreover, any sign of unilateral default would deplete the country of taxable revenue. This left Syriza few options, such that their “modest proposals” could easily be ignored by the troika of creditors.
As we prepared this issue for publication, an analogue of the Syriza developments seemed to be in preparation in the UK with the shock rise of a member of the Labour Party’s long marginalised left-wing to its leadership. The political discourses greeting these developments have busied themselves with empty rhetorical distributions of the old and the new, but what is certain is that the social forces and situation that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to victory are different to those that caused the rise and fall of Tony Benn in the early eighties. The institutional brakers have of course stepped in to halt this upsurge, and are likely to be successful in the short term. But can a party that has already been looking cadaverous for years avoid sustaining an even greater loss of legitimacy in the process? The key question for the current strain of political anti-politics remains: how many instances of these vessels crashing on the rocks will it take to produce something qualitatively different, and what will that be?
In reality, despite the offers of Marxist economists “to save European capitalism from itself”,4 states will continue to find that they have very little room for manoeuvre, since they are beset by high debt levels and slow growth. It will therefore be difficult for governments to deal with the catastrophic events to come, whether these are further economic crises, or the already emerging consequences of global climate change, regardless of who is in charge. These pessimistic conclusions are now becoming common, in a way that was not true in 2011–12, marking an important transition in public discourse. A growing, although still small portion of the population now understands that the state — even a real democratic state — will not be able to revive capitalist economies. To bring this onwards-grinding wreck to a halt, the passengers can only count on themselves.