Three Crises: 30s – 70s – Now

Here is the outline of a self-organized seminar which we are preparing at Mess Hall in Chicago for the Fall, as one activity of the Slow-Motion Research/Action Collective. It is an outgrowth of Four Pathways through Chaos and the Technopolitics projects, as well as the Public School events around the UC strikes. Hopefully in this seminar we can develop and share a precise but also useful analysis of the current crisis, and lay some foundations for autonomous research and education practices in this city and in collaboration with other groups. Get in touch if you are interested!


GOALS: The seminar program seeks to develop a framework for understanding the present political-economic crisis and for acting against and beyond it. Historical study is integrated with militant research and artistic expression. The program is a first step toward a self-organized university, including Internet resources for sharing research notes and reference materials.

FORMAT: Eight two-part sessions, each four hours long with a half-hour break in the middle. The first part of each session will be a course delivered by Brian Holmes, with readings that may be done in advance or afterwards. Each installment of the course will be accompanied by another presentation, screening, artistic event or organizing session offering some parallel to or resonance with the material; these are developed by a collective working group. Readings will be posted on the web and full course notes as well as reference materials will be made available immediately after each session. Distanced participation or parallel sessions in other cities are welcome.

CONCEPT: The development of capitalism is marked, every thirty or forty years, by the eruption of extended economic crises that restructure the entire system in organizational, technological, financial and geopolitical terms, while also affecting daily life and commonly held values and attitudes. In the course of these crises, conditions of exploitation and domination are challenged by grassroots and anti-systemic movements, with major opportunities for positive change. However, each historical crisis has also elicited an elite response, stabilizing the worldwide capitalist system on the basis of a new integration/repression of a broad range classes, interest groups, genders and minority populations (whose definition, composition and character also change with the times). In the United States, because of its leading position within twentieth-century capitalism, the domestic resolution of each of the previous two crises has helped to restructure not only national social relations, but also the international political-economic order. And each time, progressive demands that emerged from the crisis period have been transformed into ideologies covering a new structure of inequality and oppression. By examining the crises of the 1930s and the 1970s along with the top-down responses and the resulting hegemonic compromises, we will cut through the inherited ideological confusions, gain insight into our own positions within neoliberal society, identify the elite projects on the horizon and begin to formulate our own possible agency during the upcoming period of instability and chaos.


1. Introduction: technopolitical paradigms, crisis, and the formation of new hegemonies.

We begin with a theoretical look at more-or-less coherent periods of capitalist development, known as technopolitical paradigms. During twenty to thirty-year periods, technologies, organizational forms, national institutions and global economic and military agreements all find a working fit that allows for growth and expansion, up to a limit-point where the paradigm begins to encounter conditions of stagnation, internal contradiction and increasing crisis. Autonomist Marxism helps us understand the dynamics of grassroots protagonism during the crisis periods. To grasp the mechanisms whereby systemic order is recreated, we can draw on Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony as the construction of a set of discourses and practices that articulate the behaviors of the diverse classes, in order to secure their consent to a new social hierarchy. Hegemony is first achieved at the national level; but when its formation is successful it spreads throughout world society. The ingredients of a hegemony are moral, aesthetic, philosophical and epistemological; but these abstract categories of thought and imagination are intertwined from the start with economic practices and institutional forms. Hegemony is the force of desire and belief that knits a paradigm together and sustains it despite manifest injustices.

2.Working-class movements and the socialist challenge during the Great Depression.

This session describes the emergence of Fordist-Taylorist mass production in the United States, then turns to economic and geopolitical conditions following the Crash of ‘29. We follow the interaction between labor movements and socialist/communist doctrines, while examining the major institutional innovations of the Roosevelt administration. Can the 1930s be understood as a “regulation crisis” of assembly-line mass production? What are the forces that provoked the crisis? Has the “New Deal” become an idealized figure of class compromise for succeeding generations? What does it cover over?

3. The Council on Foreign Relations during WWII and the US version of Keynesian Fordism.

Only after 1938 was the economic crisis resolved through the state orchestration of innovation and production, effected by wartime institutions. Corporate leaders from the Council on Foreign Relations were directly inducted to the Roosevelt government and planned the postwar monetary and free-trade order enshrined in the Bretton-Woods agreements. How was the intense labor militancy of the 1930s absorbed into the Cold War domestic balance? To what extent did the American experience shape the industrial boom in the Keynesian social democracies of Western Europe and Japan? How were the industrial welfare states supported and enabled by neocolonial trade and resource extraction?

4. The ‘60s revolts, Third-World self-assertion, stagflation and the monetary chaos of the ‘70s.

The brief convergence of labor movements, student revolts and minority rights campaigns in 1968 was a global phenomenon, spurred on by Third World liberation and the struggle in Vietnam. Wildcat strikes, entitlement claims and the political imposition of higher resource prices (notably by OPEC) were all key factors in the long stagnation of the 1970s. We examine the breakdown of Bretton-Woods, the conquest of relative autonomy by Western Europe and Japan and the last surge of decolonization movements in the 60s, followed in the ’70s by the Third World push for a New International Economic Order. We also look at the fear and anxiety that the ’68 revolts produced in ruling classes across the world. Does the US internalize global economic and social contradictions during this period? Which aspects of the social and cultural revolts posed real obstacles to the existing economic structure? Which ones became raw materials for the formation of a new hegemonic compromise?

5. The Trilateral Commission and the transnational hegemony of Neoliberal Informationalism.

The launch of the Trilateral Commission by Nelson Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1973 is an elite response to the crisis, with concrete political effects: some twenty members of the Commission were named to the Carter administration in 1976. During the decade the coming of “postindustrial society” was announced by sociology, while technoscientific innovations like the microprocessor went into production. Cooperation among trilateral elites was paralleled by financialization, the rise of networks, the creation of transnational futures and options exchanges, etc. However, the Treasury-induced US recession of 1980-82, the “Star Wars” military buildup and the emergence of a new innovation system are specifically American contributions to the new technopolitical paradigm that takes shape in the US in the 1980s, before going global after 1989. So we have to understand the difference and complementarity of Republican and democratic responses to the crisis (the right-wing Heritage Foundation was also founded in 1973). What are the defining features of Neoliberal Informationalism? Who are its beneficiaries – and losers? How is the geography of capitalist accumulation transformed by the new hegemony? What sort of commodity is transmitted over the electronic networks? And what does it mean to be a consenting “citizen” of the trilateral state-system?

6. BRIC countries, counter-globalization, Latin American and Middle Eastern social movements.

With the breakdown of the USSR in 1989, followed by the first Gulf War, the world-space is opened up for transformation by the trilateral economic system. The 1990s witnesses the largest capitalist expansion since the postwar industrial boom, driven by Neoliberal Informationalism. The global boom of the net economy was supposed to be synonymous with “the end of history” and the universal triumph of liberal democracy – but that soon hit the dustbin. After tracking the expansion of trilateral capitalism we focus on the economic rise of the Gulf states and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), as well as the political currents of the counter-globalization movements, Salafi Jihad, Latin American Leftism and finally, the Arab Spring (and following hot summer). Do these diverse economic and political assertions mark the end of the trilateral hegemony and the reemergence of a multipolar order?

7. Financial crisis, climate change and elite attempts to stabilize Neoliberal Informationalism.

Here we examine the inherently volatile dynamics of the informational economy, culminating in the Asian crisis of 1997-98, the dot-com bust of 2000 and finally, the credit crunch of 2008 and the ongoing fiscal crisis of the neoliberal state. The central product of Neoliberal Informationalism now reveals itself to be the financial derivative. Little has been done in the United States to control finance capital, but the debt crisis has massively punished the lower ranks of society and seriously eroded the status of the middle classes, with a major attack on the public university system and a move to cut all remaining welfare-state entitlements. What is the significance of the bailout programs? How have the European Union and Japan faced the crisis? What paths have been taken by the Gulf states, and above all, by China? Is contemporary economic geography now changing? Do we see the beginnings of new alliances among international elites, outside the traditional arenas of trilateral negotiation?

8. Perspectives for egalitarian and ecological social change in the upcoming decade.

In the absence of meaningful reform and redistribution, continued financial turmoil appears certain, along with a reorganization of the monetary-military order. Meanwhile, climate change is already upon us, advancing much faster than previously anticipated. The result of all this is unlikely to be business as usual. What we face is a triple crisis, economic, geopolitical and ecological, with consequences that cannot be predicted on the basis of past experience. Can we identify some of the central contradictions that will mark the upcoming years? Which institutions and social bargains have already come under severe stress? In what ways will the ecological crisis begin to produce political responses? How will class relations within the United States interact with crossborder and worldwide struggles? Is it possible to imagine — and work toward — a positive transformation of the current technopolitical paradigm?


Comments. Ideas. Contributions. Welcome.

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