FAULT LINES & SUBDUCTION ZONES: The Slow-Motion Crisis of Global Capital

The housing-price collapse of 2008, the credit crunch, the bank failures, the downswing of the world economy, the fiscal crisis of the sovereign states, all have been expressed as wild gyrations in the global circulation of information, attention, emotion. Everything undergoes tremendous acceleration at the crucial moments, before the wave recedes into a blur. We are sure that beneath the surface agitation, something has really changed. Institutions have been destroyed. The course of individual lives has dramatically shifted. The composition of the social classes has been altered in depth. For the first time since the 1970s, the continuity of the American way of development appears uncertain. Yet people find their surrounding environments exactly the same; while world leaders call for just one thing, a return to normal.

Amidst the paralysis of public debate, questions arise for those who can neither forget, nor clearly remember. How do we perceive social change? How do we grasp the facts that will prove decisive in the future? When will the surging wave return again? How do our own lives make a difference to the slow-motion crisis of global capital?

In his new book, The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey makes an important remark: the major crises of the capitalist system – like the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s or the current deflation of the financialized economies – are never really “resolved.” Instead, the determinants of the crisis are shifted around to new places within the system, masking persistent instabilities and sowing the seeds of future upheavals. This means that the key components of the present social order – its technologies, organizational forms, labor relations, monetary instruments, its claims to rationality, security, justice etc. – all derive from the stopgap measures of the 1970s-80s, introduced to alleviate the last major downswing. But it also means that current chaos of the global markets will lead to further crucial shifts in the dynamics of social existence, with long-term outcomes that will inevitably be conditioned by the particular paths taken over the next decade or two. Such shifts in the compass of society do not only arise from decisions at the top. Instead they result from interactions between distinct and semi-autonomous “activity spheres,” of which Harvey names seven: “technologies and organizational forms; social relations; institutional and administrative arrangements; production and labor processes; relations to nature; the reproduction of daily life and of the species; and ‘mental conceptions of the world.’” Capital, for Harvey, plays the mediating role: “The relations between the spheres are not causal but dialectically interwoven through the circulation and accumulation of capital.”

Harvey’s work coincides in a number of ways with with the research program developed by Armin Medosch and myself, as a vehicle to investigate the dynamics of the crisis. Like him we are interested in the contradictions that can lead to the break-up of a more-or-less coherent phase of capital accumulation. That implies a concerted study of the phases themselves. One of our departure points is a chronological analysis of industrial development into “long waves” unfolding over roughly fifty-year spans, marked by successive phases of emergence, expansion, contraction and decline (or spring, summer, fall and winter phases). The long waves are themselves continually punctuated by shorter, sharper oscillations, generally known as business cycles, which occupy the newspaper headlines. Nonetheless, only these longer spans indicate the time frame within which something like a phase or a period can take form. The hypothesis of the long waves, launched by the statistical observations of Nikolai Kondratiev in the early 1920s, has been made more robust by the so-called “technological innovation school” which associates each wave with a group of major innovations around which economic growth is structured, thus giving rise to successive “ages”: the age of water-powered textile production; of steam and railways; of electricity and steel; of assembly line mass production (“Fordism”); and finally the present age of microelectronics and computer networks. Of course we’re aware that each of these five ages do not simply replace all that has gone before, as though starting each time from a clean slate. Instead they are layered onto each other one after the other, via the major periods of infrastructural development whereby the industrial societies seek to resolve the problems of excess capacity and shrinking markets, or what Harvey calls the “capital surplus absorption problem.”

Long waves of technological development provide us with a temporal framework in which to observe the development of crisis tendencies. Taking a further cue from the French “Regulation School” economists, we propose that the major phases of development should not be conceived in merely industrial or economic terms, but rather as “technopolitical paradigms” which embed each set of technologies and organizational forms within a cultural and institutional mix, while still allowing for the proactive role of specific political forces in the shaping of each period. Here we refer directly to the innovation-school theorist Carlota Perez, who points to at least some of the political and institutional factors that can help a long wave of technological development to consolidate itself and reach what she calls its “maturity phase”; but we also refer, as she does, to the constitution of scientific paradigms as studied by Thomas Kuhn. Finally, we draw on Giovanni Arrighi and the world systems theorists to understand the rise, expansion, decline and displacement of hegemonic centers in the geographical dynamics of capital. It is here that the images of “fault lines and subduction zones” – also referring to earlier research in the collaborative seminar “Continental Drift” – take on all their contemporary meaning. It should be stressed that all of these aspects feed directly into lived experience. By analyzing in detail the different facets that make up the current technopolitical paradigm, we hope to describe the texture and dynamics of the present period, to show how it emerged from the contradictions and decline of the previous one, and to identify in advance the weaknesses and bifurcations that will again throw the system into a prolonged period of chaos. The point is to seek a number of different pathways through this upcoming period of chaos.

Harvey enumerates seven “activity spheres” whose co-evolutions account for the crisis-prone dynamics of capitalism. We have adopted an analogous approach, which consists in a somewhat larger number of analytic categories into four broad fields: Productive Process, Integrative Processes, Global Protocols and Agents of Change. The first group includes the leading technologies of a given period, the energy sources that power them, the organizational forms that structure their production and the strategies of distribution and financing that bring them to market – in short, the most obviously “capitalist” aspects of the social order. The second group of analytic categories is derived from the Regulation School and from Karl Polanyi’s description of the ways that supposedly self-regulating markets are embedded in an institutional mix. These “Integrative Processes” include the wage relation between capital and labor and the forms of consumption and usage, as well as the core values and the legal and administrative devices that structure daily life; all of which mark the greatest subsisting areas of national, regional and ethnic divergence in an otherwise unifying world. The third group, “Global Protocols,” encompasses what Harvey in his new book refers to as the “state-finance nexus,” i.e. the international commercial and monetary order along with the border regimes and acts of sovereign military power that enforce such an order. Here, however, we also include what could be called an “epistemic regime,” which refers to scientific, legal and administrative norms and standards that have attained transnational validity at any given period, thus contributing to set the overarching parameters of a technopolitical paradigm. Finally, with the category “Agents of Change” we refer not only to the corporate and national innovation systems that drive technical change, but also to the subcultures, oppressed groups, entrepreneurial elites, revolutionary and mafia networks, and last but not least, the artistic and political vanguards that come to disrupt current forms of organization and introduce new inventions and values into the world.

graphic by Armin Medosch at The Next Layer

What we’re attempting is a synthesis of some major forms of social, economic and cultural analysis on the Left, in order to respond, during this moment of suspended crisis, to what Harvey calls “the enigma of capital.” The phrase is a strong one, and interestingly, it does not receive any explicit elaboration in the book. For my part, I’d formulate the riddle like this: How does the process of capital accumulation continue to make us who we are, despite its deep contradictions and recurrent breakdowns, and despite all the desires and efforts to overcome it and to steer society in some fundamentally different direction? No doubt it is on the eve of the great turning points, particularly those involving major wars and other disasters, when the juggernaut of capital accumulation appears most unstoppable and most deadly, that such an enigma takes on all its disturbing force. You may have noticed that the “activity sphere” which Harvey dubs “relations to nature” has no single place within our four broad fields of inquiry. This is because in the age of hyper-production, frenzied resource extraction and unchecked global warming, when ecological imbalances have arisen as a new central contradiction within capitalist accumulation, the relation to nature stands out as an essential factor within every field of human activity. The enigma of liberation is how we can cease to be what we always were, to find some other collective pathway for social development. Yet it would be naïve to think that capitalism is on the verge of some apocalyptic self-dissolution, or that a sixth technopolitical paradigm will not emerge after the decline of the present one. What we need is not eschatology (the science of final days) but instead, a strategic understanding of social complexity that can lend positive force to the diverse forms of human agency.

David Harvey ends his book with a chapter entitled “What is to be Done? And Who is Going to Do It?” Originally presented at the World Social Forum 2010 in Brazil under the title “Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition,” the text examines the currently existing forces of resistance in order to formulate a “co-revolutionary” strategy of transformation operating across the dialectically interconnected spheres of capitalist society. Rather than maintaining or abandoning a working-class position, rather than taking up an anarchist, feminist, post-colonial, indigenista or progressive middle-class stance, he approaches contemporary society as a mosaic of repressive constraints and revolutionary possibilities, where each specific form of resistance or sectoral alternative is dependent on awareness of and active collaboration with the others. The Old Left notion of a vanguard party leading a single class at the cutting edge of capitalist development has totally disappeared, without any depreciation of the role of organized labor. What’s being broached here is an understanding of the potential for solidarity in multiplicity. The initial delivery of the talk at the Social Forum and its wide distribution on the net before the publication of the book express the desire of a great leftist intellectual to find new ways, not only of delivering a message, but above all, of opening up collective capacities of perception and expression. As though the prelude to any co-revolutionary strategy was a process of radical co-education.

This is what interests me today. How to knit together the disparate strands of resistance to the current mode of social development? How to regain a strategic mode of thinking on the Left? How to develop cultural forms which can support political engagement and activism through the expression of a sharable and enabling – rather than paralyzing – framework of understanding? These are obviously not questions which any one group can answer. What has been happening recently, and indeed, over the last decade and more, is a multiplication of experimental spaces of learning and action, in which aspects of the social/ecological question are brought into existential focus by people who have specific issues. Many activist campaigns have been developed whose importance should not be minimized, even in these dark days after the bank bailout and the rebooting of financially driven globalization, the failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen, the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, etc. Yet despite important moments of convergence at local, national and transnational levels, clearly the coordinating capacities of the Left are radically insufficient when it comes to addressing the slow-motion crisis of global capital, and embracing the opportunities it offers. Is this not due to the absence of a philosophical and strategic horizon, where a powerful utopian vision combines with a concrete grasp of the many partial and sometimes internally contradictory steps that are needed to get anywhere? The point is not that we missed the opportunity of the 2008 meltdown and failed to impose any re-evaluation of the basic tenets of neoliberalism, because that’s water under the bridge, what’s done is done. Rather, the point is that much like the sudden melt of the Arctic ice in 2007, this last set of wild gyrations in the world economy signals the outset of a longer, slower crisis that will undoubtedly last for well over decade, before some new and perhaps extremely tenuous equilibrium is found. Now is the time to begin collaborating on a shared strategic framework – and really, on a new kind of common sense – that can help to coordinate the efforts of egalitarian ecological and social justice movements across a tumultuous period of systemic change that everyone will have to live through and face in the flesh.

Overarching goals don’t exclude specific acts. Over the course of the next year I will be participating in relatively small collaborative seminars in order to develop the ideas outlined here, and above all, to find clues for the elaboration of a radical pedagogy that is capable of putting abstract ideas to work in real contexts, with diverse groups of people. In a period when alternative and oppositional thinking is on the verge of being literally kicked out of public universities, the practice of collaborative pedagogy is itself a strategic concern. It is shocking and dismaying to realize – as we often had the opportunity to do over the last two years – that there presently exists no alternative school of economics, including the centrist Keynesians, that can effectively challenge the delirious and discredited dogma of neoliberalism, at least not in the USA. But an ecological-egalitarian science of social development will not spring full-blown from today’s free-market universities. It will need both an overwhelming desire from the public for something more humane, and a very clear and widely distributed consciousness of what actually exists, which is where the detailed analysis of our excessively complex society has its necessary place. By collaboratively examining the constitution of neoliberal society in all its different aspects, and by allowing oneself to feel its immense and unbearable power to make us what we are today, we might begin to find the inflection points where that social order is already breaking down and sliding irrevocably toward a new configuration. The important thing is to find ways of guiding, at least to some degree, the chaotic processes of change that are clearly coming.

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— Next Seminar: Baltimore, August 7-8:

— Initial project texts:

–Previous seminar notes (first two pathways):

–A couple of background texts: