Anti-capitalism: thinking the unthinkable?

Slavoj Žižek famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Others claim we are now in a post-political era, in the sense that the neoliberal world view and agenda are so embedded in our background assumptions and common sense that what passes for political discussion and argument takes place within the neoliberal framework. As Mark Fisher puts it in his book, Capitalist Realism (2009 Zero Books), “Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable”. Fisher claims that capitalism, as an economic system, far from being threatened by current anti-capitalist sentiments and movements, feeds on and exploits them both ideologically and commercially. They are no threat as, to all intents and purposes, “capitalism is the only show in town”. It may not be perfect but it is the best we can hope for.

In the main the anti-capitalist movement’s agenda is limited to mitigating capitalism’s excesses rather than replacing it, to reducing poverty and injustice, ‘third world’ debt relief, and so on. Public and political reactions to the recent ‘emergency budget’ mainly focus on issues like the enormous bonuses still being paid to CEOs, corporate directors and bankers, the fact that the reduction in corporation taxes pretty well matches the proposed savings on child benefit, child tax credit and child tax funds, and that reductions in housing benefits will hit pensioners, people with disabilities, carers and working people on low incomes. All very necessary criticism, but ultimately about how to share the gains and pains produced by the capitalist economy, not challenge the system.

So, what we have all swallowed whole allegedly are the neoliberal values and beliefs that are shaping and restricting our ability to frame problems and imagine solutions. According the David Harvey neoliberalism is

… in the first instance a system of political economic practices that proposes that human well being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. (page 2 A Brief History of Neoliberalism Oxford 2005).

What can possibly be wrong with that, one may ask? Quite a lot it seems. A book published this month (Neoliberalism and Everyday Life edited by S Braedley and M Luxton 2010 ) illuminates the ways that neoliberal policies (e.g. the deregulation of markets, the transfer of public services to private providers and so on) to ensure market expansion and growth have also inevitably expanded social inequalities of gender, race and class, and of opportunity and ability. The standard defence of neoliberal economic policy is that by encouraging individuals to maximise their wealth the poorest will benefit as the wealth ‘trickles down’ to them and make them better off too. However, empirically it is very hard to show this has happened. In the UK and USA for example the evidence for a growing concentration of wealth at the top at the expense of the bottom 10%, a process that appears to have accelerated with each successive recession, is hard to refute. If anything the evidence seems to show a ‘trickle up’ mechanism is in operation.

If neoliberalism is so damaging to society (not to mention the environment on many accounts) challenging its assumptions and imagining non-neoliberal economic and political practices would seem to be a valuable, perhaps essential task. It would in fact be our patriotic and humanitarian duty. But if Žižek, Fisher and the post-political theorists are correct, the task seems to require thinking outside a box we are not aware we are in. Or the feeling there is nothing outside worth wasting our time imagining and risking being labelled a delusional fantasist. None the less, one might hope that academic social scientists with their celebrated academic freedom and independence of mind would be in the vanguard of this project. And there are some hopeful signs. But, if Fisher is right about capitalism’s immunity to anti-capitalist ideas and movements, then an academic demolition of the basic principles of neoliberalism will surely not be enough. Not that an anti-capitalist practice would be straightforward either. There have been several attempts to identify other sorts of values in practice, in alternative and ‘transitional’ life styles and communities, or examples in everyday life of caring and sharing that offer brief glimpses of a better way to live. But arguably these can be seen as accommodations and adaptations to a selfish, materialist and uncertain world rather than a challenge to it.

It is also the case that neoliberal government culture and policy frameworks largely set the policy research agenda. Tim Jackson, at the British Sociological Association’s conference on society and climate change, noted that environmental issues could not be understood without reference to the problems associated with global capitalism. He concluded that any realistic specification of sustainability has to be informed by a sociological focus on the nature of capitalism and growth and the resulting social structures and environmental impacts. But in so doing we are in danger of being charged with being polemicists rather than social scientists. If this happens we may find we are ‘no further use to policy’. Jackson was referring to a warning given earlier in the conference by Malcolm Wicks, a former Minister for Energy, in his opening speech, that if scientists, including social scientists, become polemicists, they would be “less valuable to government”.

This fear is echoed in a recently published review of the state of UK sociology by an international benchmarking panel (http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/Images/Sociology%20IBR%20Report_tcm6-36279.pdf). Misgivings were expressed about the consequences of being either too close or too distant from policy makers. Being close means a good position to attract funding but being in danger of losing control of the research agenda. Being distant and producing results and findings that do not fit into a pre-set (neoliberal?) policy agenda could be seen as irrelevant, politically inopportune, and so dismissed. And, with the current threats of ‘restructuring’, funding cuts, threatened pensions and possible redundancies (the ‘shock treatment’ of the neoliberal response to the current financial crisis), this is not a propitious time to risk the ire of university management or research funders. As Fisher says, the primary methods of social control in today’s advanced capitalist societies are fear and indebtedness.

This a repost of an earlier article by Terry Wassall on Public Sociology.


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  1. Great article. My own thesis is looking at the applicability of post-politics to the Occupy movement and your argument is therefore very close to my own research. One slight mistake, your initial quote ‘its easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ is actually attributed to Frederic Jameson.

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