The catastrophic management of catastrophe

  • September 14, 2013

Capitalism & Crisis

There is no doubt Warren Buffet was right when he said that his side is making and winning the global class war. The question is: for how much longer?

Neoliberalism is the chaotic theory of economic chaos, the stupid exultation of social stupidity, and the catastrophic political management of catastrophe.

— Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN

Last Wednesday marked the 40th anniversary of the CIA-supported military overthrow of Chile’s democratically-elected socialist President Salvador Allende. The shameless aerial bombardment of the Presidential palace, ordered by General Pinochet himself, and the self-inflicted gunshot wound that eventually took Allende’s life — fired from a rifle gifted to him by Fidel Castro — marked with a violent explosion the end of an era. Rivers of blood would follow. As thousands of dissenters were interned, tortured, killed and “disappeared”, it became painfully obvious that the short-lived marriage between capitalism and democracy was now really over. Neoliberalism, that paragon of freedom, was born of the barrel of a gun — and it made it known to everyone that it would only ever go down again in a blaze of glory.

But 9/11 was not the only painful memory of the week. On Sunday, it will be five years ago that the once mighty investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed and nearly dragged down the entire world financial system with it. It was supposed to have been the catastrophe hailing the start of another new era. Neoliberalism was dead, we were told, at long last — finished for good! Center-left commentators in the media and academia proudly proclaimed the revival of Keynesianism as the ruling elite’s guiding ideology while governments the world over pumped trillions of dollars of taxpayer money into the global economy to prevent a wholesale collapse of the system. We will never know whether these fears were justified or even genuine, but apparently the financial community at the time feared that it was just a matter of hours until ATMs would stop spitting out cash, a matter of days before world trade would freeze up, a matter of weeks before food and fuel supplies would run out, and a matter of self-evidence that the masses would rise up in violent rebellion as a result.

Today, however, some forty years since its birth and five years after its alleged death, neoliberalism has reasserted itself anew. In spite of its self-destructive nature, it continues to stumble along as a kind of zombie ideology, doing what the undead do best: preying on humanity and sucking the very life out of everything living, eventually transforming the entire planet into a lifeless, joyless and meaningless shadow of its former self. Want to dump some cyanide into a river? Sure, no problem, as long as it brings much-needed investment! Want to destroy your only city park to make way for a shopping mall? But of course, as long as the people keep consuming! Want to slash health care and education budgets while raising taxes, tuition and public transportation fees? Sure, as long as the poor keep paying for the “mistakes” of the rich! Oh, and let’s not even get started about climate change. The whole topic was quite fancy for a few months, inspiring documentaries and lecture tours by former world leaders and movie stars, even bringing in millions in profits. But now no one even talks about it anymore: it is simply taken for granted that neoliberalism will run the global ecosystem into the ground long before it allows big oil or haute finance to even be properly taxed. As Frederic Jameson once put it, and as the endless spate of post-apocalyptic Hollywood blockbusters only seems to confirm, it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

The scariest part of it all is that the post-apocalyptic depictions of the movies express not just a fear of some distant future, but a relatively realistic depiction of the present. The epic narrative film Beasts of the Southern Wild, for instance, which deservedly won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes last year, portrays not just the global apartheid that will come to fruition over the course of the next century if we fail to reign in the 1% and halt carbon emissions sometime soon, but fairly adequately displays the catastrophic reality for thousands of poor families who were left to die by the Bush administration after hurricane Katrina struck in New Orleans in 2005. Natural disasters like Katrina, of course, have always been around. But what marks out the neoliberal era — apart from irreversible man-made climate change, which will greatly increase the incidence and intensity of such disasters in the future — is once again the catastrophic management of catastrophe. Apparently, a neoliberal state that can afford to put itself into debt to the tune of trillions of dollars in order to feed the insatiable desires of Wall Street and the military-industrial complex can’t even find the requisite resources or manpower to adequately respond to a natural catastrophe in its own midst, let alone overhaul its hopelessly outdated carbon-fueled economy. Insofar as it does, it only makes matters worse by kick-starting a privatization drive where it should be taking care of reconstruction — a typical approach to disaster management that Naomi Klein so powerfully revealed in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. But not to worry: the little bit of disaster response and reconstruction that did materialize actually helped contribute to GDP growth, so all remains well in the fairytale land of neoliberal arithmetic.

The catastrophic management of catastrophe. If there is one line that describes the nature of neoliberal crisis management, that must be it. From Mexico and Latin America in 1982 to the South-East Asian crisis of 1997-’98, and from Turkey and Argentina in the early 2000s to the European debt crisis from 2010 onward — the most catastrophic thing about neoliberal crisis management is not only that it has a penchant to turn already catastrophic financial crises caused by runaway private speculation into an immense source of private gain for the same very financiers responsible for the catastrophe to begin with; but, even more nefariously, that it makes those catastrophes so much more catastrophic than they really need to be for almost everyone else. Notwithstanding all the propaganda and rhetoric about “free markets” promoting democracy and development, the massive bank bailouts of the neoliberal era have invariably shown that those so-called neoliberals in fact care very little even about free markets — let alone about democracy or development. As one particularly candid banker told the Wall Street Journal during the Latin American debt crisis in 1985, “we foreign bankers are for the free market system when we are out to make a buck and believe in the state when we’re about to lose a buck.” And so the neoliberal ethos can really be summarized in a straightforward principle: “privatize profits and socialize losses!” Or, perhaps more appropriately: “fuck everyone else!”

In this sense, the political response to the European debt crisis is only the latest regurgitation of this sickening mantra: it is obvious for everyone by now that it’s all about bailouts for the bankers and austerity for everyone else. In Athens, in scenes unheard of as little as three years ago, children now go to school hungry, while junkies sink needles into their veins in broad daylight and the armed Sturmabteiling of the explicitly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which now comes third in the polls, runs racist pogroms and violent assaults on leftists in the heart of the city. In this developed European economy, a quarter of the population has been forced into poverty. Suicide, HIV and child death rates have skyrocketed. Even malaria is staging a comeback. As a recent epidemiological study puts it, the single-minded insistence on austerity and structural reform has transformed today’s debt crises into “veritable epidemics, ruining or extinguishing thousands of lives in a misguided attempt to balance budgets and shore up financial markets.” Faced with such a catastrophic reality, how can anyone still pretend that the neoliberal approach to crisis management is a “success” from the point of view of the economy, let alone general well-being? If a developed economy loses over 20% of its size in just four years, how can anyone still maintain his or her credibility while preaching the virtues of an “expansionary contraction”? The whole thing would be a bloody tragedy if it weren’t so goddamn farcical.

The bottomline is that they are lying to us — they are lying through their teeth, and they know it. Austerity was never meant to speed up the recovery, just like structural reform was never meant to make the economy more competitive. Why would German industry or German politicians want more competition from Southern European firms? Of course they don’t. They want cheap labor, and they know how to get it. Beyond these goals, the design of the neoliberal policy response to the European debt crisis hinges on the absurd proposition that the banks, by virtue of them being “too big to fail”, are simply incapable of taking any losses at all. And so, in Spain, as in the US and Ireland, the very banks that speculated so recklessly on real estate in the lead-up to the crisis were first bailed out with taxpayer money — which the average Spaniard then had to pay for in terms of tax rises and austerity measures — and then continued to re-appropriate the same peoples’ homes! Over 400.000 families have lost their houses since the crisis began, many of them ending up on the street. If ever there was an example of accumulation by dispossession, this must be it. A maddening socialization of losses combined with a total privatization of profits. The houses now stand empty, uselessly wasting away in poor neighborhoods or eerie ghost cities, while more and more people sleep out in front of ATM machines at night. Homeless people and peopleless homes coexist in a bizarre social reality intermediated only by the bankers’ shortsighted idiocy and the utter irrationality of neoliberal finance more generally; a social reality that can only properly be defined as delusional — but perhaps the term “capitalism” captures this schizophrenic approach to resource allocation better.

As in Greece, unemployment in Spain now stands at over a quarter of the population, higher than in the US during the Great Depression. Over 60% of both countries’ youth is shut out of a job and education, destroying the dreams and aspirations of an entire generation and, in the case of Greece, leading 120,000 of the country’s most brilliant young minds to flee their homeland and leave their families behind in search of a better future elsewhere — anywhere. It is catastrophic enough that pensioners are going hungry because they haven’t received their pensions, but at least an ultra-neoliberal fascist could still justify this in terms of productivity and competitiveness: the elderly are simply not making any contribution to the economy, so fuck them! What makes no sense whatsoever even from the utterly inhumane point of view of capital is to systematically exclude the majority of the youth from the productive economy. After all, the labor of these people will be the very source of capitalist profits in the future. But then again, even for this utterly twisted reality we can find a cynical explanation that is candidly propagated by the EU-ECB-IMF Troika itself: as long as there is high youth unemployment, cutthroat competition for scarce jobs will drive down labor costs to the point where you can hire a PhD in law or medicine to wait tables at your shitty multinational coffee house or flip burgers in your crappy American fast food chain for 490 euros a month. Hurray! Yet another victory for neoliberal arithmetic.

Of course we all know by now that the European debt crisis is only one of the most visible manifestations of capital’s relentless assault on ordinary people all over the world. What you don’t read about in the newspapers are the myriad ways in which European and American insurance companies, or sovereign wealth funds from Saudi Arabia or China, are buying up vast swaths of the most fertile land all over Africa, pushing out poor farmers whose families have lived on that land for generations but who have no formal documentation to prove their “ownership”. As these people are forced into the labor force or the informal economy, the cycle of primitive accumulation continues in relentless fashion. Something else you don’t really hear about on TV are the mysterious speculators, who, from the comfortable anonymity of their computer screens in a London or New York investment bank, continue to speculate on commodity futures, driving up the price of food for everyone else on the planet just to land in a useless bonus and some meaningless profits, while almost 1 billion people continue to go hungry. This is an insane way to “solve” a food crisis; let alone deal with the endemic catastrophe of world hunger. But of course, neither of these objectives has ever really been on the agenda of world leaders or global finance, notwithstanding their vacuous liberal rhetoric to the contrary.

In this sense, all the bullshit moralism that Bono and Geldof bombarded us with ever since LiveAid and the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign looks even more vacuous and laughably self-righteous today than it did back then. Even major philanthropists now seem to have come around to realizing that the ruling elite’s policy response to the global catastrophe of 2 billion people living in poverty (however that may be defined) is nothing more than shallow window-dressing at best, and a hegemonic strategy to preserve global inequalities at worst. As Peter Buffet, the son of America’s richest man, put it in a scathing opinion piece about the “charitable-industrial complex” for the New York Times: “All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left … But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”

And, again, let’s not even get started about climate change, where the neoliberal policy response — at least in the EU — has been to turn carbon into a commodity that can be traded through the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme. Rather than helping to reduce total carbon emissions, the scheme has added insult to injury: in the first three years of trading, carbon emissions actually increased while national authorities senselessly gave away public assets worth €14 billion to some of the most carbon-intensive industries, none of which took any corresponding action to reduce total emissions. The main problem is that governments did not even dare to put pressure on industry; rather, they doled out billions of euros worth in emissions permits for free, effectively subsidizing the most polluting companies and encouraging them to grow their emissions rather than reduce them. By 2008, the scheme had provided the steel and coal industries with so many excess allowances that it is reckoned that the companies with the worst carbon footprint in Europe can now afford to grow their total emissions by another 50 percent until 2020. Again, it would be a bloody tragedy if it weren’t so goddamn farcical.

But since you always have to end such raging diatribes on a positive note, it is worth pointing out a ray of light in this overwhelming darkness enveloping the world at present. The catastrophic political management of catastrophe may be global, but so is the resistance. The ranks of the indignant are swelling by the day as the crisis of global capitalism enters a dangerous new phase with the general slowdown of the so-called “emerging markets”. Turkey, Brazil, Bulgaria, Romania, Colombia, Chile, Mexico — each of these countries was thought to be immune from the crippling disease that struck the United States in 2008 and the European Union in 2010. Once again, the assumptions were wrong. Growth is slowing down in China (which is buckling under a major speculative housing bubble of its own), sending ripples through global commodity markets and causing a downturn across Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. It is no surprise, then, that the latest wave of mobilizations is taking place in some of the same very countries that just a few years ago where being hailed as “miracles” and “role models” for the sclerotic capitalist states of the developed world (this in itself is typical of neoliberalism: just like its motto of privatizing profits and socializing losses, the zombie ideology also has a tendency to hype up its “successes” while blatantly ignoring its countless failures).

In Chile, where the death of Allende marked with its bloody imprint the start of the neoliberal era, the youth continues to mobilize in massive numbers to erase the authoritarian neoliberal legacy of General Pinochet and to demand free and high quality public education. In Mexico, public school teachers are waging a major resistance campaign against the neoliberal school reforms that were pushed through by President Peña Nieto and his authoritarian neoliberal party, the PRI, which overlooked the transformation of the Mexican state into a businessman’s wet dream during the crises of the 1980s and 1990s. In Colombia, farmers have been waging a violent battle with the state against free trade agreements that have sent the price of agricultural inputs soaring and the price of food imports skyrocketing, effectively pricing local smallholders out of the market. Five farmers died in the state crackdown. In Turkey, the resistance against the authoritarian neoliberalism of Erdogan’s AKP continues unabated as the country enters another week of riots following the police murder of 22-year-old Ahmet Atakan. In Romania, thousands are taking to the streets to resist the construction of Europe’s largest open-pit mine, which will see 200.000 tons of cyanide deployed and hundreds of families evicted from their homes to bring in some foreign investment.

Wherever you look nowadays, it is becoming increasingly clear that the self-serving hypocrisy of the ruling elite is not sustainable. Global capitalism is running everywhere into the social, financial and environmental limitations imposed by its own catastrophically shortsighted rush for endless accumulation. Still, it is important to recognize that zombies don’t just die, and there is no way neoliberalism will simply destroy itself — after all, further catastrophe can always be displaced by creating yet another catastrophe elsewhere; and further profits can be ensured by imposing the socialization of even more losses onto the general population. Capitalism won’t just voluntarily jump of a cliff, as David Harvey puts it. It will have to be pushed. But it is similarly obvious that there will eventually have to be a point where the irresistible force of market fundamentalism runs up against the unmovable object of popular resistance. The social collision course upon which the ruling elite has embarked is now playing out in front of our very eyes. A global class war is unfolding. There is no doubt that Warren Buffet was right when he said that it’s his class that’s making war and his class that’s winning. The only question is: for how much longer?

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