Capitalism in crisis is a sight to behold. Most of the time the system seems to hum along quite nicely. Oh, maybe a passel of people loses their jobs when some big-headed suit at the top decides to up and move on to a cheaper labor market. And maybe a city or two, or even a whole region, goes bankrupt and destitute, shops boarded up, ghosts in the street. Maybe a generation of young people ends up poorly educated because nobody could figure out how to turn a decent profit schooling ten-year-olds, so it slid down to the bottom of the priority list. Maybe there’s an aberration here or there, like the positive incentive to filling up prisons. But overall, the thing has the reputation of the proverbial well-oiled machine, humming along and delivering the greatest good to the greatest number. And besides, it’s the only machine in town.
But then it breaks down. Spectacularly.
And it turns out that this highest possible form of human development has more than a few foundational flaws, the relevant one at the moment being that it is subject, inevitably and constitutionally, to periodic, devastating crisis.
At such moments the verities of capital are called into question, and not by the closet Marxists and nostalgic revolutionaries. No, the capitalists themselves, in deed if not in word, are heaving great chunks of their ideology overboard. Invisible hand of the market? Heave ho. Limited government intervention in business? Heave ho. Self-correcting system? Heave ho. Whatever it takes to re-stabilize the system, let’s do it. Principles be damned.
The pragmatic and temporary abandonment of core ideological beliefs is a great unmasking. And behind the mask – fear, befuddlement, bravado.
The lords of finance live in a universe in which they are rewarded for being both insatiable and delusional. With maximizing profits as their single imperative they toil daily at the task of turning every human relationship and every form of matter – animal, vegetable or mineral – into a monetized asset. The only limits on how many ways that monetized asset can be reconfigured and repackaged; the only limits on how many times it can be resold; the only limits on how many ways profit can be wrung out of it are the limits of the imagination. We’re human; our imagination is without limits. We’ve figured out how to buy, sell and lease the air space above buildings and the wind blowing across the plains. And here you thought ‘inherit the wind’ was just a metaphor. But at least the air is a substance you can feel and hear and, on a crisp fall day, smell. Our boys are way beyond that, having long since abandoned the molecular to trade in the entirely immaterial.
So those are the rules they’ve been playing by. Did the current crop of players make up those rules? No, they are the rules of the reproduction of capital and the current players just happen to be in the game at a time when, abetted by the information superhighway and in the context of globalization, they’ve triggered a crisis that may yet turn out to be steeper, wider and deeper than any in recent history. As anybody standing on the corner could tell you, don’t hate the player, hate the game.
And the rest of us? What are we to them? We are the human embodiment of the capacity to carry and pay off debt. That’s it, that’s all. We are our credit scores. We might as well have them flashing on an LED display implanted in our foreheads.
We’ve been suckered, cajoled, manipulated and coerced into joining them in their world of delusion, ensnared as bit players in the grievous overproduction of imaginary wealth. And while the realm of the fictitious expanded infinitely, the realm of our real lives contracted and shrank. Our wages flatlined or fell; we lived in fear of acquiring an uninsured health problem; our mortgages turned into a leaden ball and chain. The loans and debts multiplied and the interest rates kept rising. One administration after the other enabled a regime of trickle up profits and trickle down pain.
So while they’re frantically hustling to salvage the system, let’s stop for a moment to consider where we stand.
We collectively face three major, inter-related crises: the global crisis of capitalism; the crisis of planetary sustainability; and the crisis of war, militarism and empire.
The crisis of capitalism will be temporarily resolved. On our backs, to be sure, and it will undoubtedly take a while, but the markets will stabilize, borrowing and lending will resume, and profit-taking will be back on track. The mask, now in the repair shop for a custom remodel job, will be back in place, firmly affixed to once again show the face of capital triumphant. And capital triumphant will have firmly in hand the one chunk of ideology that was never tossed – there is no alternative, or TINA.
Which brings me to the fourth crisis, hardly acknowledged and barely discussed, at least here in the U.S.: the crisis of the political impotence of the left.
We stand at the brink of multiple disasters in the howling absence of an alternative vision for sustainable, people-centered human development, or an alternative platform for deep reform, or an organized base capable of challenging and shifting power.
And so this moment – the great unmasking – should serve as an urgent reminder that we have a multi-generational project at hand. That is, to construct a viable politic and effective organizational forms capable of acting on the belief that it is possible to build a society that lifts up that which is generous and creative and humane while curbing the greedy, the short-sighted and the predatory. There must be an alternative.
Otherwise we, and generations to come, will remain at the mercy of the players and their game.
Linda Burnham is a co-founder and former executive director of the Women of Color Resource Center. She was a leader in the Third World Women’s Alliance, an organization that grew out of a women’s caucus in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), The numerous articles she’s published include: "Has Poverty Been Feminized in Black America," "Race and Gender: Analogous or Not," "A Sledgehammer Message from L.A.," and "Recruiting for the FBI: Reflections on The Bell Curve."