SOCIALIST REGISTER, Vol. 48 «The Crisis and the Left» – PREFACE

Leo Panitch, Gregory Albo, Vivek Chibber

July 2011

Four years after the collapse of 2007-08, it is fair to say that crisis has
become the new normal for hundreds of millions of people. Not only
have jobs been hard to find, they increasingly fail to provide the income
and security that workers had come to expect from employment during
the postwar era. Added to the huge numbers of the unemployed is the
‘precariat’, the growing segment of the working population in jobs that are
temporary, low-wage, and without benefits or protection. Conditions that
were once associated with the informal sector in the developing world are
now becoming truly global.
Meanwhile, there is a lot of talk in the media that we are in the midst of
an economic recovery. There is something to this. Banks are flush with cash,
profits in manufacturing are on the upswing, and no one can fail to notice
that the stock market has bounced back. But while profits are flowing again,
the traditional signs of a new cycle of accumulation are hard to find. It isn’t
entirely surprising, then, that every little bit of bad news sends the markets
into a temporary panic – as if everyone is waiting for the proverbial axe
to fall. Even within the ruling classes, confidence in this recovery doesn’t
run very deep. Clearly, if there is a recovery, it is coming in large measure
through the transfer of the costs of the crisis to the working class. And this is
why the press, even while trumpeting the economic rebound, laments that
to most working people, it doesn’t feel like a recovery. What it feels like is
a crisis that refuses to abate.
As if the structural shift in both the level and the pattern of employment
wasn’t enough, the crisis for working people is compounded by the political
offensive unleashed by the ruling classes. In the advanced capitalist world,
unions, pensions, health care, education – virtually every component of
welfare capitalism is either being rolled back or dismantled, all in the name
of economic necessity. The audaciousness of this programme would be
impressive were it not so devastating. It is not just being proposed as a
temporary measure to ride out the economic storm. We are witnessing the
onset of permanent austerity in the advanced capitalist world. The consistency
with which states have turned to this strategy betokens the remarkable degree of consensus within the ruling classes. Across North America and Europe,
in state after state, the message is the same – the age of social insurance, of
public supports, of protection from the market, and steady wage increases,
is well and truly over.
This attack on working people isn’t being launched by conservatives alone,
though parties of the Right certainly comprise its sharp edge. Wherever they
are in office, traditional social democrats have fallen in line with programmatic
austerity as the only viable exit strategy from the crisis. And where they are
in opposition, they have done little to forge an alternative agenda, much less
lead the fightback. If anything, the leaders of social democratic parties have
gone out of their way to distance themselves from the mobilizations against
austerity. As we write this Preface, their dedication to proving their mettle as
managers of the bourgeois order is most conspicuously on display in Greece,
but this crisis has clarified that as the main ambition of social democratic
leaders everywhere.
The popular resistance that has taken shape on this bleak political terrain
is by no means unimpressive. Even while it has not been able to turn the
tide, the resistance has been real, and it might be deepening. Who could
have imagined that bucolic Wisconsin would be engulfed in a massive
social upheaval, which would trigger a weeks-long takeover of the state
capital building in Madison, and climax in the largest demonstration in
the state’s history? No less remarkable are the Indignes occupying the city
squares in Spain, the strikes and massive demonstrations that have convulsed
Greece, and the imaginative sit-ins of the UK Uncut movement as well as
the hundreds of thousands of British public sector workers who have taken
strike action. Most politically significant of all, of course, has been the wave
of rebellions across the Middle East that have broken what appeared to be
impenetrable dictatorships. What all of these mobilizations have in common
is that they embody a rejection of the neoliberal offensive – whether its latest
incarnation, as in Greece, or its accumulated devastation, as in Egypt.
Yet every one of these resistances has only served to reveal the continuing
impasse of the Left, and its limited strategic and organizational resources.
Defensive resistance alone cannot take advantage of the opportunity that
the crisis creates. A common response of the Left when the financial crisis
exploded in the US in the fall of 2008 was a Michael Moore-type populist
one: Why are you bailing the banks out? Let them go under. This was, of course,
utterly irresponsible, with no thought given to what would happen to the
savings of workers, let alone to the paychecks deposited into their bank
accounts, or even to the fact that what was at stake was the roofs over their
heads. On the other hand, an even more common response from the Left was about asserting state responsibility: This crisis is the result of the government
not having done its duty: governments are supposed to regulate capital, and they
didn’t do so. But putting the issue this way created a fundamentally misleading
impression about the role of the capitalist state. The United States has the
most regulated financial system in the world, as measured by the number of
statutes on the books, pages of administrative regulation, and staff engaged in
the supervision of the financial system. But that system is organized in such a
way as to facilitate the financialization of capitalism, not only in the US itself,
but in fact around the world. Without this, the globalization of capitalism in
recent decades would not have been possible.
It was indicative of the Left’s sorry lack of ambition in the crisis that calls for
salary limits on Wall Street executives and transaction taxes on the financial
sector were far more common than demands for turning the banks into
public utilities. In fact, most the Left’s recommendations were advanced as
technocratic policy advice and presented as a means of stabilizing capitalism,
rather than using the crisis as an opportunity to educate people on how
capitalist finance really works, why it doesn’t work for them, and why what
we need instead is a publicly owned banking system. Of course, the sort of
bank nationalizations undertaken in the wake of the fallout from the Lehman
collapse — with the lead of Brown’s New Labour government in the UK
being quickly followed by Bush’s Republican administration in the US —
essentially involved socializing financial capital’s losses while guaranteeing
that the nationalized banks would continue to operate on a commercial basis
at arm’s length from any government direction or control, beyond seeking
to maximize the taxpayers returns on their ‘investment’. As the essay in
last year’s volume of the Register on ‘Opportunity lost: mystification, elite
politics and financial reform in the UK’ put it, this really represented ‘not the
nationalisation of the banks, but the privatisation of the Treasury as a new
kind of fund manager.’
The most important reason for taking the banks into the public sector and
turning them into a public utility is that this would remove the institutional
foundation of the most powerful section of capital today, thereby changing
the balance of class forces in a fundamental way. But the ultimate point of
this, of course, would be to transform the uses to which finance is put. We
cannot even begin to think about solving the ecological crisis that coincides
with this economic crisis without the Left returning to an ambitious notion
of economic planning. The allocation of credit is at the core of economic
planning for the conversion of industry as part of directing, in a democratic
fashion, what gets invested, where it gets invested, how it gets invested.
This, the 48th volume of the Register, was conceived as a companion to last year’s volume on ‘The Crisis This Time’. We observed there that
economic crises can be turning points which present political opportunities,
and pointed to the fact that, so far, it was the ruling classes that were taking
advantage of the political opening, not the Left. This volume deepens that
analysis in range a ways, not only in terms of broader regional coverage that
extends from Latin America to the Middle East to China to Europe, but also
by probing the place of the city in capitalist crises, and the new accumulation
strategies that feed on both the public sector crisis and the climate crisis,
while still portending a new age of austerity. It also takes better measure of
the state of the Left in the crisis, not least by a way of a symposium of three
essays on what the Left’s response should be to the Eurozone crisis. The next
volume will take up the challenge of developing socialist strategies for the
21st century.
We want to thank all of the contributors to this volume while as usual
indicating that neither they nor we necessarily agree with the various
arguments that are presented herein. We also owe thanks to Ruth Felder and
Shana Yael Shubs for their translation of Claudio’s Katz’s essay. Many of the
essays in this volume can be traced back to the Socialist Register workshop
on the crisis at York University in February 2010, and we are grateful to all
those who made that possible and especially to Alan Zuege, Adam Hilton,
and Justin Panos for the work they put into this volume in particular. And
we are as always very appreciative to Louis Mackay for his cover design, as
well as to Adrian Howe and Tony Zurbrugg of Merlin Press for all their
efforts on behalf of the Register. Finally, we thank our contributing and
corresponding editors for all their help in planning the two Register crisis
volumes, and we are delighted to announce that Gilbert Achcar and Adolph
Reed are joining the editorial collective.

 

2 Σχόλια to “SOCIALIST REGISTER, Vol. 48 «The Crisis and the Left» – PREFACE”

  1. […] Με την ευκαιρία δημοσιεύουμε σήμερα στη Λέσχη τον Πρόλογο των Leo Panitch, Gregory Albo, Vivek Chibber που μπορεί να βρεθεί στα αγγλικά εδώ. […]

  2. […] Σήμερα, έχουμε τη χαρά να αναδημοσιεύσουμε ένα πρώτο τμήμα (θα ακολουθήσουν και τ’ άλλα…) του κειμένου του Χάρβεϊ, όπως δημοσιεύθηκε στο red notebook σε μετάφραση του Γιώργου Σουβλή. Το κείμενο του Χάρβεϊ πρωτοδημοσιέυθηκε στην πολύ ενδιαφέρουσα ετήσια έκδοση του περιοδικού Socialist Register, που για το 2012 κυκλοφόρησε με τη θεματική “The Crisis and the Left” (στα περιεχόμενα συναντάει κανείς και το άρθρο του Κώστα Λαπαβίτσα “Default and exit from the eurozone: a radical left strategy“. Με την ευκαιρία δημοσιεύουμε σήμερα στη Λέσχη τον Πρόλογο του περιοδικού των Leo Panitch, Gregory Albo, Vivek Chibber που μπορεί να βρεθεί στα αγγλικά εδώ. […]

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