The historical geography of capitalist development is at a key inflexion point in which the geographical configurations of power are rapidly shifting at the very moment when the temporal dynamic is facing very serious constraints. Three-percent compound annual growth (generally considered the minimum satisfactory growth rate for a healthy capitalist economy) is becoming less and less feasible to sustain without resort to all manner of fictions (such as those that have characterized asset markets and financial affairs over the last two decades). There are good reasons to believe that there is no alternative to a new global order of governance that will eventually have to manage the transition to a zero growth economy. If that is to be done in an equitable way, then there is no alternative to socialism or communism. Since the late 1990s, the World Social Forum became the center for articulating the theme "another world is possible." It must now take up the task of defining how another socialism or communism is possible and how the transition to these alternatives is to be accomplished. The current crisis offers a window of opportunity to reflect on what might be involved.
The current crisis originated in the steps taken to resolve the crisis of the1970s. These steps included:
(a) The successful assault upon organized labor and its political institutions while mobilizing global labor surpluses, instituting labor-saving technological changes, and heightening competition. The result has been global wage repressions (a declining share of wages in total GDP almost everywhere) and the creation of an even vaster disposable labor reserve living under marginal conditions.
(b) Undermining previous structures of monopoly power and displacing the previous stage of (nation-state) monopoly capitalism by opening up capitalism to far fiercer international competition. Intensifying global competition translated into lower non-financial corporate profits. Uneven geographical development and inter-territorial competition became key features in capitalist development, opening the way towards the beginnings of a hegemonic shift of power particularly but not exclusively towards East Asia.
(c) Utilizing and empowering the most fluid and highly mobile form of capital — money capital — to reallocate capital resources globally (eventually through electronic markets) thus sparking deindustrialization in traditional core regions and new forms of (ultra-oppressive) industrialization and natural resource and agricultural raw material extractions in emergent markets. The corollary was to enhance the profitability of financial corporations and to find new ways to globalize and supposedly absorb risks through the creation of fictitious capital markets.
(d) At the other end of the social scale, this meant heightened reliance on "accumulation by dispossession" as a means to augment capitalist class power. The new rounds of primitive accumulation against indigenous and peasant populations were augmented by asset losses of the lower classes in the core economies (as witnessed by the sub-prime housing market in the US which foisted a huge asset loss particularly upon African American populations).
(e) The augmentation of otherwise sagging effective demand by pushing the debt economy (governmental, corporate, and household) to its limits (particularly in the USA and the UK but also in many other countries from Latvia to Dubai).
(f) Compensating for anemic rates of return in production by the construction of a whole series of asset market bubbles, all of which had a Ponzi character, culminating in the property bubble that burst in 2007-8. These asset bubbles drew upon finance capital and were facilitated by extensive financial innovations such as derivatives and collateralized debt obligations.
The political forces that coalesced and mobilized behind these transitions had a distinctive class character and clothed themselves in the vestments of a distinctive ideology called neoliberal. The ideology rested upon the idea that free markets, free trade, personal initiative, and entrepreneurialism were the best guarantors of individual liberty and freedom and that the "nanny state" should be dismantled for the benefit of all. But the practice entailed that the state must stand behind the integrity of financial institutions, thus introducing (beginning with the Mexican and developing countries debt crisis of 1982) "moral hazard" big time into the financial system. The state (local and national) also became increasingly committed to providing a "good business climate" to attract investments in a highly competitive environment. The interests of the people were secondary to the interests of capital, and in the event of a conflict between them, the interests of the people had to be sacrificed (as became standard practice in IMF structural adjustments programs from the early 1980s onwards). The system that has been created amounts to a veritable form of communism for the capitalist class.
These conditions varied considerably, of course, depending upon what part of the world one inhabited, the class relations prevailing there, the political and cultural traditions, and how the balance of political-economic power was shifting.
So how can the left negotiate the dynamics of this crisis? At times of crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain for all to see. Surplus capital and surplus labor exist side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together in the midst of immense human suffering and unmet needs. In midsummer of 2009, one third of the capital equipment in the United States stood idle, while some 17 per cent of the workforce were either unemployed, enforced part-timers, or "discouraged" workers. What could be more irrational than that!
Can capitalism survive the present trauma? Yes. But at what cost? This question masks another. Can the capitalist class reproduce its power in the face of the raft of economic, social, political, geopolitical, and environmental difficulties? Again, the answer is a resounding "yes." But the mass of the people will have to surrender the fruits of their labor to those in power, to surrender many of their rights and their hard-won asset values (in everything from housing to pension rights), and to suffer environmental degradations galore, to say nothing of serial reductions in their living standards, which means starvation for many of those already struggling to survive at rock bottom. Class inequalities will increase (as we already see happening). All of that may require more than a little political repression, police violence, and militarized state control to stifle unrest.
Since much of this is unpredictable and since the spaces of the global economy are so variable, then uncertainties as to outcomes are heightened at times of crisis. All manner of localized possibilities arise for either nascent capitalists in some new space to seize opportunities to challenge older class and territorial hegemonies (as when Silicon Valley replaced Detroit from the mid-1970s onwards in the United States) or for radical movements to challenge the reproduction of an already destabilized class power. To say that the capitalist class and capitalism can survive is not to say that they are predestined to do so nor does it say that their future character is given. Crises are moments of paradox and possibilities.
So what will happen this time around? If we are to get back to three-percent growth, then this means finding new and profitable global investment opportunities for $1.6 trillion in 2010 rising to closer to $3 trillion by 2030. This contrasts with the $0.15 trillion new investment needed in 1950 and the $0.42 trillion needed in 1973 (the dollar figures are inflation adjusted). Real problems of finding adequate outlets for surplus capital began to emerge after 1980, even with the opening up of China and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. The difficulties were in part resolved by creation of fictitious markets where speculation in asset values could take off unhindered. Where will all this investment go now?
Leaving aside the undisputable constraints in the relation to nature (with global warming of paramount importance), the other potential barriers of effective demand in the market place, of technologies, and of geographical/geopolitical distributions are likely to be profound, even supposing, which is unlikely, that no serious active oppositions to continuous capital accumulation and further consolidation of class power materialize. What spaces are left in the global economy for new spatial fixes for capital surplus absorption? China and the ex-Soviet bloc have already been integrated. South and Southeast Asia is filling up fast. Africa is not yet fully integrated but there is nowhere else with the capacity to absorb all this surplus capital. What new lines of production can be opened up to absorb growth? There may be no effective long-run capitalist solutions (apart from reversion to fictitious capital manipulations) to this crisis of capitalism. At some point quantitative changes lead to qualitative shifts and we need to take seriously the idea that we may be at exactly such an inflexion point in the history of capitalism. Questioning the future of capitalism itself as an adequate social system ought, therefore, to be in the forefront of current debate.
Yet there appears to be little appetite for such discussion, even among the left. Instead we continue to hear the usual conventional mantras regarding the perfectibility of humanity with the help of free markets and free trade, private property and personal responsibility, low taxes and minimalist state involvement in social provision, even though this all sounds increasingly hollow. A crisis of legitimacy looms. But legitimation crises typically unfold at a different pace and rhythm to that of stock markets. It took, for example, three or four years before the stock market crash of 1929 produced the massive social movements (both progressive and fascistic) after 1932 or so. The intensity of the current pursuit by political power of ways to exit the present crisis may have something to do with the political fear of looming illegitimacy.
The last thirty years, however, has seen the emergence of systems of governance that seem immune to legitimacy problems and unconcerned even with the creation of consent. The mix of authoritarianism, monetary corruption of representative democracy, surveillance, policing and militarization (particularly through the war on terror), media control and spin suggests a world in which the control of discontent through disinformation, fragmentations of oppositions, and the shaping of oppositional cultures through the promotion of NGOs tends to prevail with plenty of coercive force to back it up if necessary.
The idea that the crisis had systemic origins is scarcely mooted in the mainstream media (even as a few mainstream economists like Stiglitz, Krugman, and even Jeffrey Sachs attempt to steal some of the left’s historical thunder by confessing to an epiphany or two). Most of the governmental moves to contain the crisis in North America and Europe amount to the perpetuation of business as usual which translates into support for the capitalist class. The "moral hazard" that was the immediate trigger for the financial failures is being taken to new heights in the bank bailouts. The actual practices of neoliberalism (as opposed to its utopian theory) always entailed blatant support for finance capital and capitalist elites (usually on the grounds that financial institutions must be protected at all costs and that it is the duty of state power to create a good business climate for solid profiteering). This has not fundamentally changed. Such practices are justified by appeal to the dubious proposition that a "rising tide" of capitalist endeavor will "lift all boats" or that the benefits of compound growth will magically "trickle down" (which it never does except in the form of a few crumbs from the rich folks’ table).
So how will the capitalist class exit the current crisis and how swift will the exit be? The rebound in stock market values from Shanghai and Tokyo to Frankfurt, London, and New York is a good sign, we are told, even as unemployment pretty much everywhere continues to rise. But notice the class bias in that measure. We are enjoined to rejoice in the rebound in stock values for the capitalists because it always precedes, it is said, a rebound in the "real economy" where jobs for the workers are created and incomes earned. The fact that the last stock rebound in the United States after 2002 turned out to be a "jobless recovery" appears to have been forgotten already. The Anglo-Saxon public in particular appears to be seriously afflicted with amnesia. It too easily forgets and forgives the transgressions of the capitalist class and the periodic disasters its actions precipitate. The capitalist media are happy to promote such amnesia.
China and India are still growing, the former by leaps and bounds. But in China’s case, the cost is a huge expansion of bank lending on risky projects (the Chinese banks were not caught up in the global speculative frenzy but now are continuing it). The overaccumulation of productive capacity proceeds apace, and long-term infrastructural investments, whose productivity will not be known for several years, are booming (even in urban property markets). And China’s burgeoning demand is entraining those economies supplying raw materials, like Australia and Chile. The likelihood of a subsequent crash in China cannot be dismissed but it may take time to discern (a long-term version of Dubai). Meanwhile the global epicenter of capitalism accelerates its shift primarily towards East Asia.