Becoming-rent

The essays collected in Crisis in the Global Economy: Financial Markets, Social Struggles, and New Political Scenarios were researched and written in early 2009 and translated from Italian into English earlier this year. And thank god for that. They are a welcome respite from the social-democratic obsessions of Anglo-American writers: how parasitical finance and predatory lending caused the crisis, the greed of oligarchs who prevent recovery, etc. To say nothing of the technocratic alternatives offered: nationalizing banks, more robust stimulation, etc. In short, the same old moral analysis and the same old nation-based solutions.

 

Crisis in the Global Economy accounts for the last few years of multiple crises in a much different way, starting with a reckoning of finance’s centrality to the global capitalist economy. Though all of the writers have different points of emphasis, they agree that financialization, far from being nonessential and parasitic, represents, in Carlo Vercellone’s phrase, the “becoming-rent” of profit: Finance is today the primary site of valorization and accumulation. As Vercellone says, there is a “general tendency of capital to transform profit into a rentier mechanism of drawing surplus value from a position of exteriority in respect to production and/or founded on the creation of an artificial resource rarefaction.” So for most capitalists, their business is less about the organization of production and the accumulation of capital and more about using financial products to increase profit.

This is a pretty standard take of course, and it’s not really a problem for capital as long as the flows of credit, rent, and labor are moving toward and away from the beneficial targets. But when those flows are blocked — e.g., the freezing up of credit markets — or when their segmentations change in ways that upset the conventional balance — e.g., the default on subprime mortgages — it does become a problem, one that, because most large firms, the ones with the global reach required to help end the crises, operate from a “position of exteriority” to production, results in an inability to easily or quickly correct those flows.

In response to this situation, socialists and capitalists have articulated a shared set of demands: reregulation of finance, stimulation of demand and credit flows, and state reintegration into industrial planning. All things governments over the world have achieved, from stimulus packages to central bank pump-priming, from huge investments in green energy to nationalization of banks, financial firms, and even auto manufacturers. None of it has helped, as it appears the world economy is headed for, at best, a double dip recession, and maybe even decades of stagnation. But still, socialists want more of the same, a return to the policies that made Fordism.

Part of the value of Crisis in the Global Economy is that most of the essays predicted this happening: a mantra of the book is the impossibility of Keynesian solutions to the crisis. As Christian Marazzi says, and several others elaborate, “classical Keynesian actions lack transmission channels of state stimuli to the real economy, to the demand of goods and services, and investment goods,” those diminished channels being impoverished welfare states and the state’s lack of involvement in industry, to name but two. (Obviously, these conditions vary by country.) Karl Heinz-Roth points out that Keynesian mechanisms would still be operating in a financialized environment, so that they necessarily wouldn’t be able to increase aggregate demand, only income inequality. Andrea Fumagalli says that’s what lacking is a global system of governance that could direct the transnational flows of “cognitive accumulation,” which remain blocked by national institutions.

All of these impossibilities have been shown to be true by in the nearly two years since the essays were written. But I’m struck by the fact that all of these are, to use the archaic language, “objective” factors. In other words, for texts written by people who are mostly from or associated with autonomism, there is remarkably little “subjective” analysis — very little about class composition, in other words. And it’s in no small part because of the composition of working classes that Keynesianism remains impossible. The working classes are simply not centralized enough to allow it to work. Even more, they seem unwilling to be integrated: Can anyone imagine women heading back to the home? (It’s actually the opposite: in the US, more women now work than men.) The indigenous in Bolivia and Ecuador refuse to allow their populist governments to incorporate them into the world of petrochemical rents. The industrializing proletariats in Africa and China are demanding increases in wages just as the raising of prices of commodities becomes more difficult for producers.

Not that any of these factors will stop governments and their oppositions from asking for more integration and regulation.

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5 thoughts on “Becoming-rent

  1. I’ve been wanting to read that one too. Thanks for the reminder. Now I just have to overcome my third-rate status at the local university to obtain a copy.

  2. hi Eric,

    Thanks for this. I’m curious, do you know much and/or do the authors discuss Arrighi much? A friend has been telling me for ages I need to read The Long 20th Century by him. The way I understand it, 3rd hand, sounds pretty close to a lot of what’s in this stuff. I think what may be a difference is that according to the Arrighi framework, it’s likely that eventually a new productive center will emerge as the profitable site and will attract capital then, away from finance. Either way, on the class composition piece, this is still overly objective but I’ve been thinking about systemic elasticity a lot lately, more on that here — http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2010/09/16/is-elasticity-d/

    I think that there’s at least two questions here on the subjective side, one about upper limits of struggles’ ability to get gains in the short term and the role of gains to mobilize other sectors — what can we win? and how much do wins move people vs values, and the experiences of struggle. That relates to an issue of where to put our priorities — highly proletarianized strata who may get quite militant but are unlikely to win major economic concessions vs less proletarianized strata with more short term systemic leverage — and how we see various facets of the class coming together.

    Sorry that’s vague, best I can do at the moment.

    take care,
    Nate

  3. Nate, thanks for the comment. The authors do mention Arrighi a few times, mostly in ways that indicate their cloeseness, though with the exact difference you say. As Sandro Mazzadra writes in the introduction: “However, we are convinced that in our age, independently from what we can say about our past, the thesis, central in the work of Giovanni Arrighi for example, that systemic cycles of accumulation are constituted by phases of ‘financial expansion’ that are followed by phases of ‘material expansion’ is no longer valid.”

    I think I agree with Arrighi here. Mazzadra’s argument seems to be that finance is too pervasive today, too insinuated in the body of capital, to be left behind. But that only makes today quantitatively different from the past, not qualitatively. Finance has never been left behind in returns to material production. So I don’t see any reason to think that capital won’t reconstitute itself and do so on a material basis. At this point I don’t see what that would be — green industry? — but it’d be silly to doubt that it could happen.

    By the way, I haven’t yet read Arrighi. But I’m trying to make sense of finance, so he’s coming up soon on my list.

    On the objective-subjective thing, overall I like that the book is mostly concerned with the objective and doesn’t engage in much vulgar autonomism. But it struck me as odd that they talk about the impossibility of a return to Keynesianism without mentioning the lack of mediating organizations that could make it possible. That is, they focus on the technical rather than the political aspects.

    That could be looked at as simple nitpicking, but I think it’s an important question. As official organizations and transmission mechanisms wane or even disappear (in the U.S. at least), capital’s ability to reach “us” becomes more difficult. It’s almost approaching a pure autonomism. But clearly this autonomy has not meant very much successful struggle and definitely hasn’t meant the weakening of capital. Bourgeois statistics about wage gains and such may be just that, bourgeois, but they can also be a useful index, and currently they indicate only misery.

    I’m rambling incoherently now. My point is that I think it might be useful to hold on to some of the imperceptibility and unreachableness(?) that comes with lack of official organizations while increasing the level of antagonism, which, it seems to me, requires more organization. So probably a foolish duality. And painfully vague. But I think it’s similar in some ways to your thinking about vertical and horizontal and about the, for lack of a better term, allocation of struggles.

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