A quiet crisis

Submitted by The Free Association on September 11, 2011

A Quiet Crisis sounds like the title of a John Le Carré novel. At least from Le Carré we might get some real insight into the murderous logic of capital and the complicity of the British establishment, along with a good dose of well-directed cynicism. But this is Labour leader Ed Miliband’s new ‘focus’. What’s he’s talking about is a crisis of social reproduction.

In many senses, Miliband is — alas — correct. After three centuries of capitalist development and three decades of neoliberalism, our own individual and collective ability to access social wealth is so entwined with the market that capitalist crisis spells, for many of us, an inability to reproduce ourselves as 21st century humans. (‘Must the molecules fear as the engine dies?‘, ask Siliva Federici and George Caffentzis.) He’s also correct that we mostly, at least in the UK, live and experience this crisis individually, and have been pretty quiet about it. Of course, for Miliband this is just fine. The most important way for us to express ourselves is through the ballot box, with a cross next to his party’s name. And when things have got a little noisier, as with June 30′s one-day public sector strike or August’s riots, Miliband isn’t quiet in his condemnation.

On the topic of the Labour party, it’s worth noting a few debates which seem to be getting an airing. One Miliband strategist apparently argues that

the financial crisis signals the obsolescence of the neoliberal economic model and that the government’s difficulties in responding to the crisis reflect Tory and Lib Dem inability to conceive of an alternative way of structuring capitalism. Ed’s plan is to define that new structure and sell it to the country. “Building an alternative to the neoliberal settlement should be the frame for the debate within our movement” is how Lord Wood puts it. “Ripping up the rule book” is Miliband’s distilled version.

And shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander is spot-on in his suggestion that:

There are moments in politics when the common sense of the time is up for grabs. The deteriorating economic situation here in Britain, in Europe and globally means now is such a moment.

This is what we talking about two years ago in ‘Life in limbo‘ when we argued that the ‘centre cannot hold, the middle ground is broken’ — that neoliberalism had lost its ideological justification, that it simply didn’t ‘make sense’ anymore.

But, of course, these Labour party thinkers are only looking for an alternative way to structure capitalism, they’re not looking for an alternative to capitalism, an alternative way to structure society. Alexander continues:

To seize that moment … we don’t need to shout louder, but explain more. Explain what we got right and wrong before the crash, explain how we would get the economy growing and so deal with the deficit, and explain how we will deal with social justice with less money around.

Economy growth economy growth economy growth… what happened to Alexander’s challenge for ‘the common sense of the time’? Even David Cameron has acknowledged there’s more to life than GDP, FFS!

But back to Miliband’s quiet crisis and social reproduction. In Greece, of course, the crisis had been a lot louder. The cacophony of dissent from Syntagma Square and other places has been heard across Europe and beyond. (Though, according to Paul Mason, many middle-class people have been as quiet as in Britain.) In many many countries across the planet the financial and economic crisis of 2007 onwards has engendered a crisis of social reproduction. But what’s happened in Greece and a few other places is that proletarians (or ‘the 99%’ , to borrow the term of the Occupiers of Wall Street) have made their own crisis of social reproduction matter for capital. By screaming ‘WE WON’T PAY FOR YOUR CRISIS!’ they have pushed crisis back onto capital. The Greek ‘indignants’ are still very much living through crisis at the moment, but so is ‘European capital’ (I know it’s a sloppy term and quite incorrect, but I can’t think of a better one): there is now a real possibility of a break-up of the eurozone and Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Europe’s largest and ‘strongest’ economy is having almost as tough a time of the Greek crisis as George Papandreou.

The other interesting thing emerging from Greece is the way people are attempting to decouple their own social reproduction from that of capital. Probably as a result of necessity as much as anything else – an example of acting in a cramped space – but full of potential nonetheless. The prime example here is the migration from city to countryside, as urban folk take up farming. I don’t really know too much about this, but perhaps from this will emerge new collective struggles for food sovereignty. What I do know is that the following paragraph, by Marxist political economist Costa Lapavitsas, sums up not only Greek’s crisis of social reproduction, but also a widespread inability to even imagine a future for humanity disentangled from capital, markets and wage labour:

The social implications have been catastrophic. Entire communities have been devastated by unemployment, losing the means to live as well as the norms, customs and respect of regular work. Barter has appeared among the poor and the not so poor. Medical services in working-class areas are running low on basic provisions. Schools and transport are disintegrating. People are abandoning cities to return to agriculture, a sure sign of social retrogression.