I attended two days of the Historical Materialism conference in London in November 2011. As usual it was a highly stimulating experience; I feel if you are looking for a contemporary analysis of the state of global capitalism, and of resistance to that, it is pretty hard to go beyond it as a conference. I went to so many good sessions it would be hard to discuss them all but just want to try and give a flavour of two of these, which I have interspered with my own thoughts.
The first one I liked was a discussion of “Spaces of Dissent” by John Roberts, who is a sociologist at Brunel University. John opened his discussion by noting that a lot of contemporary sociology – people like Urry, Beck-Gernsheim, Beck, Castells etc. – has the appearance of being socially critical but is actually “bourgeois”. He is not simply using this word as an insult, but rather making the point that these people’s work takes the experiences of the bourgeois classes as the paradigm for society as a whole. I taught Elizabeth Beck Gernsheim this week and felt the way she describes the difficulty of the woman who has to choose between the demands of a career and the demands of child-rearing was an example of this. For many poor young mothers this conflict is a bit of a non-issue – work for them is not so much the career as low paid unskilled work. Roberts noted that one particular issue this form of sociology had signally failed to address was the significance of “financialisation”; the way in which we come to accept the logic of finance as a model for living our lives. For example the way in which people come to see their houses not just as places to live, but as means of financial speculation. He interestingly talked of the presenters of TV shows like “Location Location” as acting as ‘organic intellectuals’ of this process of financialisation. I was thinking you could extend this way of thinking about neo-liberalism to a whole range of television shows – Alan Sugar on The Apprentice is a classic example of this. Indeed watching this show makes it clear that the least ethical people are the most likely to succeed; so the popular common-sense of neo-liberalism becomes this idea that people who want an ethical dimension are simply ‘weak’ or ‘sentimental’. Jeremy Clarkson’s statement this week that public sector workers who go on strike should be ‘shot in front of their families’ while presenting as comically exaggerated, contains this underlying idea. Using Zizek’s idea of the “obscene complement” of this statement we might say that neo-liberalism was only established, particularly in places like Chile after the destruction of the Allende government, where things like that actually happened.
He went on to talk about public-private partnerships as things that were presented as showing “the human face of neo-liberalism”, and similarly the way a lot of charities have become involved with large corporations. Indeed only this week I an example of this in the form of an email from Shelter, the homelessness charity. It concerned an initiative which was presented as a joint intiative between Shelter and Marks and Spencers, but actually it was telling you that if you purchased particular products at M & S then 5p of that went to Shelter. As well as being free advertising for M & S, this is an example of the way corporations seek to brand their practices as’ ethical’; this is a key source of legitimation for capitalism, as well as a means of obscuring the essential ruthlessnesss of these firms as employers. How many homeless people use M & S? Indeed if they ever went in the security guards would most likely ask them to leave. This example chimed with Roberts charaterisation of “humanitarian neo-liberalism”, and his work explores the impact of this in relation to imperialism, where there have been ‘partnerships’ between NGOs and global corporations. Overall much to think about in this session.
Later on Friday I went to a session on the contemporary crisis of capitalism with David McNally, John Weeks and Francois Chesnais. This was a really exciting session in a packed lecture theatre – people were sitting where ever they could to get in and listen to these guys. The message that came through was not just of the profound nature of the systemic crisis within capitalism, but of the inability of the bourgeois classes to come up with solutions. David McNally (who has recently written a book called “Global Slump” which I have bought but not yet read) spoke of the way austerity presents as the only way for the capitalist class to attempt to raise the level of suplus value – yet at the time it has macro-economic effects which undermine capitalist growth. This point reflects the impasse of the global capital in relation to Greece, where the only ‘solution’ of massive austerity is itself incredibly destructive and for the majority of the population a non-solution. John Weeke echoed this analysis saying “we are stepping into the most devastating crisis of our lifetimes”; yet he saw the capitalist class as entirely unable to resolve this situation. He argued that “The source of the civilising tendency within capitalism itself is the strength of the working class” which he saw presently as weak, compared to the last slump when it was much stronger. Within this session the sense of the immanent crisis was palpable, and really depressing, yet at the same time incredibly useful for the clarity with which the nature of the crisis was set out.
Later that evening I listened to David Harvey at Friends Meeting House in Euston Road. Excellent. His work on the “urban origins of the crisis” is excellent and I found it changed the way I thought about urban spaces. He was saying that we have to stop seeing Marx as “holy writ” but instead start with real world problems, and then look for where Marx is useful in understanding those. I really like this approach, and see it very much as resonating with the way Marx needs to be used within Critical Pedagogy.
Overall a timely and very valuable conference.