Thinking the Global Crisis

By Moishe Postone
Wednesday 9 May 2012 by anik

“ […]Although, in the immediate wake of the crisis and near collapse of 2008, it seemed that neoliberalism had been fundamentally discredited, the period since then has been characterized, surprisingly, by a further entrenchment of the neoliberal conceptual framework and its associated policies. If anything, the neoliberal measures of recent decades have been intensified; the costs of restructuring since 2008 have been imposed on the majority of the population, rendering the lives of increasing numbers of people insecure and vulnerable. One could approach this surprising development in various ways. The most common, and ultimately unsatisfactory, would be to personalize it: neoliberal policies are simply the contingent result of decisions made by determinate people who are able to wield power and influence successfully.

Another possibility would be to interpret the course of the past three years as suggesting that, contrary to the hopes of some observers, the conditions for a renewed Keynesian/Fordist synthesis no longer exist. (This argument would, of course, require an analysis of the historical conditions of the postwar synthesis and its demise in the crisis of the 1970s.) At the same time, the idea of socialism—certainly as traditionally understood—seems to have little purchase in the world today. Lacking a vision of the future, much progressive politics has become increasingly defensive and, in a sense, conservative; it tends to defend the achievements of the postwar epoch rather than promote a new conceptualization of social life. Consequently, neoliberal capitalism can present itself as the only dynamic force in the world today, as well as the only realistic possibility.

Another, related, line of inquiry would consider the extensiveness of neoliberal austerity programs since 2008 as a manifestation of the degree to which modern states have become dependent on capital. Such a line of inquiry would, at least partially, contravene a great deal of theorizing about the state as possessing an autonomous logic, theorizing that was nourished by the apparently linear growth of state-centric forms during the first seven decades of the twentieth century. The dependence of modern states on capital has been obscured by approaches that reify the complex of institutions generally referred to as “the state” and project it transhistorically. Like all institutions of capitalist modernity, the modern state had its historical antecedents, of course. As was the case with many other aspects of social life, however, it was fundamentally recast and restructured by the overarching structuring mediation of capital.


‘In “Falsify the Currency!” Michael Hardt implicitly addresses the lack of historical orientation Lomnitz described as characteristic of our epoch by raising the question of the possibility of new forms of social life. Taking as his point of departure the story of the Oracle of Delphi telling Diogenes of Sinope to falsify or change the currency, Hardt suggests that this can be understood as a project to create a new form of life and, hence, a new world.

By “currency,” Hardt seems to be referring primarily to the processes of quantification at the heart of capitalism. These processes, he claims, are becoming anachronistic, as a result of the increasing importance of what Hardt terms “biopolitical production.” This term refers to the production of immaterial goods, to a form of production fundamentally different from that of industrial production with its mechanical instruments, wage relations, structure of the working day, and temporality. We are, according to Hardt, entering an age of biopolitical production in which the values of economic production are fundamentally immeasurable.

The increasingly anachronistic character of the forms of measurement at the heart of capitalism, according to Hardt, is paradoxically indicated by the growing importance of finance capital. Hardt claims that there is a disconcerting symmetry between the biopolitical realm and the technologies of finance. Value, in the realm of biopolitics, is plastic and immeasurable.
Finance capital falsifies the currency not only by manipulating for profit what is mobile and plastic but by capitalizing on the plasticity of value in order to shift social wealth upward. More fundamentally, finance seeks to quantify fluid and immeasurable values in order to capture them for processes of capital accumulation. This is particularly clear in the case of derivatives that seek to quantify risk or those that bundle a variety of asset types, seeking to establish a common measure for all the different assets involved.

Hardt, then, is suggesting that the growing importance of finance capital is an indication that the basis of measurability at the heart of capitalism is becoming anachronistic. It is for this reason that he is critical of approaches that regard financial capital as “fictional,” which they criticize from the standpoint of the “real” economy. The problem with such critiques, he claims, is that they maintain an industrial imaginary in the age of biopolitical production. That imaginary, however, has become anachronistic.
There can be no return to an industrial economy as it flourished in the decades following World War II.

The task, according to Hardt, is to develop a technology, equal to finance’s power, that could institute a noncapitalist, democratic, and equitable schema for the management and distribution of social wealth. This requires examination of existing alternative biopolitical practices. Hardt concludes by revisiting Michel Foucault’s reading of the Iranian Revolution, reflecting on the range of movements that have erupted globally in 2011 (Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Wall Street), and considering the ways in which they could be regarded as biopolitical struggles.

At the center of Hardt’s essay is the question of the possibility of a qualitatively different future, which he relates to the increasingly anachronistic character of the forms of quantitative measurability at the heart of capitalism. This problematic can be framed as one of the increasingly anachronistic characters of value. Although Hardt, at points, seems to suggest that the question of measurability is a function of the nature of that which is measured—material or immaterial—the question of measurability is, basically, one of commensurability. That, however, is not an ontological attribute of the objects themselves. Rather, it is a function of the nature of the social context within which they exist. In the first volume of Capital, Marx notes that, for Aristotle, shoes and houses are incommensurable. Hence he could not locate the grounds for their mutual exchangeability. Those grounds, for Marx, are historically specific and social. What renders them commensurable is value, a historically specific form of wealth that has nothing to do with their properties, whether material or immaterial, but is the crystallized expression of a historically specific form of social mediation that, in Marx’s analysis, is constituted by a historically specific form of labor.

The trajectory of value is such that it becomes anachronistic and, yet, at the same time, is reconstituted as necessary to the system. The notion of value’s increasingly anachronistic character is central to Hardt’s argument (even if his use of the term “value” is not the same as that presented here) and to considerations of a possible alternative future. Historicizing value also implies that movements against capitalism must also be considered historically. The question of the historical conditions of revolt and revolution is not only one of their genesis but also of the sort of social order that could subsequently emerge. This is a fundamental historical question that cannot simply be bracketed. A lack of critical distance from uprisings and the absence of an inquiry into the nature of the new order likely to emerge can also be understood as a symptom of a sort of temporal disorientation that, arguably, characterizes our historical situation.

Different sorts of responses to the current crisis vary according to the degree to which they accept the present order as necessary. A very common response in the public sphere has been to demand better regulation of financial futures and options markets in order to curb the worst excesses of casino capitalism. Other responses have been on a more structural level, especially with regard to the distribution of wealth and power. Socioeconomic development in the past three decades has once again demonstrated that, without countervailing governmental policies, capitalism generates increasing inequality and insecurity. This, in turn, has elicited many social-democratic responses to the current crisis that call for a return to the sort of Keynesian/Fordist synthesis that marked the postwar decades. Many of the essays here, however, have, at least implicitly, called into question such widespread social-democratic responses. They have indicated, in a variety of ways, that the consolidation of that social-democratic synthesis in the decades following World War II depended on historical conditions that are no longer present.

This raises the question of a possible future qualitatively different from the present order. This, as some have noted, would require a fundamental transformation not only of the mode of distribution but of the mode of production itself. Aspects of value theory could help illuminate this problematic. The notion, mentioned earlier, that value becomes historically anachronistic implies that value-creating labor also becomes anachronistic, even while remaining necessary for capitalism. More and more labor is being rendered superfluous, even as the organization of capitalist society remained predicated on its existence. One result is a growing maldistribution of labor time between an overworked segment of society and one that is essentially without work. This is no longer a conjunctural question as it, perhaps, had been during the Great Depression, but it has become a structural one.
These brief considerations suggest that a future beyond capitalism would require a fundamental transformation of the division of labor and that, without movement in that direction, increasing numbers of people will be rendered superfluous, susceptible to hunger, disease, and violence. They will increasingly become the objects of militarized control. On this level, the current crisis can also be understood as a crisis of labor interwoven in complex ways with a crisis of the natural environment. Against this historical background, the old slogan of “socialism or barbarism” acquires new urgency, even if our understanding of both terms has been fundamentally transformed.’


Moishe Postone

An extract from Moishe Postone, « Thinking the Global Crisis », in The South Atlantic Quarterley, 111 (2), 2012, pp. 227-249.

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