Pro Bloc v. Pro Monastery: On the Application of Social Movement Techniques

When pundits say they don’t understand what OWS is about, what that means is that OWS is a cross-(99%) stratification coalition of liberals and social democrats and the extremely marginalized and anarchists and socialists who are refusing to deny each other. That is to say, OWS is a functioning social movement bloc.

The unity of the opposing bloc of the 1% + its loyal hairy old man Teabag minions + its militarized police has probably helped to make the OWS bloc comparatively robust.

On the applicability of social movement techniques: 
Process-oriented communication

Barbara Epstein wrote a crucial book based on her study of the late twentieth century peace movement in the Pacific Northwest, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 80s, and Paul Lichterman wrote a study examining how social movement organization practices, such as a hierarchy-less organizational structure of empowered individuals, can put off key coalition partners and snuff out mobilization. Together these studies suggest that, under some circumstances, process-orientation can be at the root of social movement organizations’ ineffectiveness. The Epstein book in particular is a necessary read for people interested in social and political-economic change because it offers insight into the limits of prefigurative politics, and process-oriented communication social movement tactics–insight which corrects for the contemporary-era progressive community’s a-contextual idealization of these tactics.

Some cities’ Occupy movements this past fall have provided some support for the claim that perhaps the tactical innovations–including process-heavy communication techniques–can, in the context of adequate critical mass, effectively facilitate a coalition bloc. Elite concerns with predicting and managing social movement organizations are going to color how elite scholars look at social movements–for example in a too-short time frame. Perhaps the story is that it took people 40 years of practical R&D to innovate a social movement technique that can secure a bloc, but requires an adequate degree of preexisting critical mass to function as bloc glue and to ignite further mobilization.

This is to say that communicative process-orientation is a social movement technique that requires critical mass (cross-community participation) before it can be employed effectively. Without the critical mass precondition, communication process-orientation is not an effective social movement technique, see Epstein & satellite Occupy demonstrations without critical mass. Without adequate critical mass, process becomes counterproductive overkill as a social movement technique.

Without adequate preexisting critical mass, you’re left with a small, rather repulsive, and ineffective  assemblage of personalities that tend to get furiously frustrated in their failed efforts at micromanaging other people’s communication. But perhaps such a group can be more generously regarded as a sort of small monastery–not capable of mobilizing a movement, but monks of a social movement technique or two.

"Markets" are Confident When They’re Flaunting Moral Hazard

 “In Italy, the key programmatic points were listed last summer in a letter (meant to remain secret!) from the European Central Bank to the Berlusconi government. To restore market ‘confidence’, it was necessary to proceed rapidly down the road of ‘structural reforms’, an expression now used as a synonym for social devastation: in other words, wage cuts, attacks on workers’ rights over hiring and firing, increases in the pension age, and large-scale privatization.” –Marcello Musto, discussing the replacement of elected governments with technocracies, on the occasion of the bank failures. 

“Restore market confidence”–this causal explanation and imperative begs for a new, blistering Marxist critique.

How does an institution “gain confidence”? Well, there actually is a small group of “confidence”-craving humans behind the institution. We’ll call them the Confidence Men. Recall “effective demand,” which means that the market most certainly does not register billions of preferences. The market registers the preferences of whomever holds the majority shares in it, that is, whomever has the most control over the wealth, however this Confidence-man minority commandeered that wealth, which is certainly not by abstaining from any of the following: exploitation, dispossessing others, despoiling nature, maintaining totalitarian work conditions, corrupting politics, and generally abusing power. It is this small group of effectively-sociopathic Confidence Men that demand that their staff in governments reassures them that it’s all for them, by for example, transferring the massive costs of their confidence schemes and failures to the rest of society.

David Harvey on crisis-explanation points from The Enigma of Capital.

What’s the alternative to endlessly pouring money down the black hole of “restoring market confidence”? The state could transfer the task of supplying credit to responsible, accountable institutions, such as cooperative credit unions or national banks.

We are considering undertaking a study of the responses to the initial 2007-2008 financial crisis voiced by prominent members of the North American left, looking not to out poor responders, but to name reliable commentators who had the political literacy to know that in a crisis you forward alternative policies, rather than join the conservative drumbeat for TINA policies (like bailouts). There’s been much recent  handwringing (by leftists trained in econ) about economic illiteracy on the left. Arguably, political-economic illiteracy is the problem we need to be wrestling with.

Richard Peet takes a small stab at it in his article “Contradictions of Finance Capital” (Monthly Review 12/ 2011):

“Finance capitalist agents exercise power by controlling access to the markets through which capital accumulations become investments, directing flows of capital in various forms—as equity purchases, bond sales, direct investment, etc.—to places and users that are approved by the financial analytic structure of the Wall Street and City of London banks and investment firms. 

The gaze of the “investment analyst” representing the “confidence of the market” is the active form taken by the financial capitalist interest, although “investor confidence” is presented as somehow neutral and technical, in the best long-term interest of everyone—“professional economics” is to blame for this misrepresentation

The accumulation of surplus in the relatively few hands of the super-wealthy intensifies the financial component of capitalist growth and increases the power of the financial capitalist class fraction over not just the industrial fraction, but everyone else as well. Control over investment capital and financial technical expertise gives finance capital and its banking representatives tremendous power—over policy making, over economies, over employment and income, over advertising and image-production…over everything. Production, consumption, economy, culture, and the use of environments are subject to a more removed, more abstract calculus of power, in which the ability to contribute to short-term financial profit becomes the main concern” (Peet).

Radicalized Keynesian Paul Krugman has been a great chronicler of the various grotesque, pathetic exploits of the undead Confidence Fairy.

Most recently, from Krugman’s “The Austerity Debacle” (1/29/2012):

“How could the economy thrive when unemployment was already high, and government policies were directly reducing employment even further? Confidence! ‘I firmly believe,’ declared Jean-Claude Trichet — at the time the president of the European Central Bank, and a strong advocate of the doctrine of expansionary austerity — ‘that in the current circumstances confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery, because confidence is the key factor today.’

 Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs. Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas” (Krugman, explaining how it came to be that the British conservative government’s obliging extension of capitalist class warfare resulted in that country’s economic decline).

 Don’t be fooled by the cuteness. She’s undead, and she’ll destroy your economy.

Financial Economic Power = Political Stranglehold

The Crisis in the Eurozone
by James K. Galbraith

 “(T)he ECB refuses to solve the crisis at a stroke, which it could do by buying up the weak countries’ bonds and refinancing them. The argument against this is called “moral hazard,” buttressed by old-fashioned inflation fears, but the real issue is that to do so would admit loss of control by creditors over the central bank. Actions parallel to those taken by the Federal Reserve – nationalizing the entire commercial paper market, for instance – would repel the ECB, even though it does buy up sovereign bonds when it has to.

[MF: This is all a polite, econ-theoretical way of saying that the ECB is the tool of financial capital, not a manager of social or economic welfare.]

 So instead the zone has gone about creating a gigantic toxic CDO called the European Financial Stability Fund, which may shortly be turned into an even more gigantic toxic CDS (like AIG, they will call it “insurance”). This may defer panic at most for a little while.

 Technical solutions exist. The most-developed of these is the “Modest Proposal” of Yanis Varoufakis and Stuart Holland, widely backed by older political leaders in Europe. It would 1) convert the first 60 percent of GDP of every eurozone country’s debt to a common European bond, issued by the ECB; 2) recapitalize and Europeanize the banking system, breaking the hammerlock of national banks on national politicians; and 3) fund a New Deal-like program of investment projects through the European Investment Bank.

 Variant proposals include Kunibert Raffer’s call for a sovereign insolvency regime modeled on the U.S. municipal bankruptcy statute, Thomas Palley’s proposal for a new “government banker” and Jan Toporowski’s proposal for a tax on bank balance sheets to retire excess public debt.

 These are the best ideas and none of them will happen. Europe’s political classes exist these days in a vise forged by desperate bankers and angry voters, no less in Germany and France than in Greece or Italy. Discourse is sealed off from fresh ideas and political survival depends on kicking cans down roads so that the fact that this is a banking crisis does not have to be faced. The fate of the weak is at best incidental. Thus every meeting of finance ministers and prime ministers yields treacherous half-measures and legal evasions.

Political fragility also explains the fury in France and Germany when George Papandreou [the calmest man in Europe, by the way, having been born and raised in Minnesota] sought to cut the knot of his rebellious ministers, irresponsible opposition and angry public by putting the latest austerity package to a vote. God help the bankers! The move was fatal to Papandreou in short order, and Greece will now be turned over to a junta of creditors’ deputies if such can be found willing to take the job. It won’t be anyone who wants to continue to live in Greece afterward.

Greece and Ireland are being destroyed. Portugal and Spain are in limbo, and the crisis shifts to Italy – truly too big to fail – which is being put into an IMF-dictated receivership as I write. Meanwhile France struggles to delay the (inevitable) downgrade of its AAA rating by cutting every social and investment program.

If there were an easy exit from the Euro, Greece would be gone already. But Greece is not Argentina with soybeans and oil for the Chinese market, and legally exit from the Euro means leaving the European Union. It’s a choice only Germany can make. For the others, the choice is between cancer and heart attack, barring a transformation in Northern Europe that not even Socialist victories in the next round of French and German elections would bring.

[MF: Here, I would demur. This explains why Greece hasn’t exited so far. But at this point, why not choose exit? Everybody proper said, following orthodox theory, that exit wouldn’t work for Malaysia, Argentina, etc. as well. But it did. Considering the empirical evidence at this point in history, and adding to that game theory logic, I think exit is the only rational option now.]

So the cauldrons bubble. Debtor Europe is sliding toward social breakdown, financial panic and ultimately to emigration, once again, as the way out, for some. Yet – and here is another difference with the United States – people there have not entirely forgotten how to fight back. Marches, demonstrations, strikes and general strikes are on the rise. We are at the point where political structures offer no hope, and the baton stands to pass, quite soon, to the hand of resistance. It may not be capable of much – but we shall see.”


There remains a popular or perhaps professional conservative economist’s insistence that the cause of economic crisis in Europe is immoral Greek consumer and political behaviour. That might be an opportune, EZ, resonant, discursive tactic if you’re a Greek with a meso-political axe to grind or a conservative economist clinging to the wire monkey mother of your dogma.

As someone who was hounded by bankers and real estate agents to buy a house in the US at the peak of the bubble (and of course I was! I was even given a whole book by the realtor explaining in simple terms that if I bought a home, I could be part of the Infinite Pyramid Scheme (TM) and someone would without fail buy that home from me for an even-more inflated price.), when I had just graduated from my PhD program with grotesque mounds of student debt, I know good and well that moralistic arguments about the consumer root of economic crises are full-on undiluted bullshit, toxic CDOs, if you will.

To still buy those toxic funds, you would have to be completely autistic; hallucinating nothingness in the face of mass marketing, highly-unequal social status and institutionally-flogged hegemony; utterly blind to the global quality of the economy; and abjectly deaf to the extreme variations in money-borrowing and -lending power. You would have to be a conservative economist, or the slave of some such defunct economist).

Debt + No Class Compromise > Delay > Asset Liquidation

If you get your rocks off by pursing your lips sourly and pointing fingers at more-or-less hapless pawns, here’s a link to Greg Palast’s observation of one of the proximate causes of Greek economic crisis. The conservatives had to borrow from financial capital in order to temporarily prop up the pretense that the financial capitalist’s order works, and the conservatives can operate it. The order, one of primitive accumulation, doesn’t, cannot work for most societies and people and environments. So what were conservatives supposed to do? Admit that, and lead the socialist revolution? THAT WAS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN. Did I even have to caps-lock that? No. Conservatives’ only (pro-system) choice was debt-to-delay. So that is not a choice.

Now, should any working class person ever elect a liberal, let alone a conservative, to represent her in the political sphere? No. Absolutely not. Because that debt-to-delay non-choice is exactly what you get from them. Fetishizing the politicians’ systematic corruption is kind of perverse and creepy and stunted, given it’s about “catching” them doing what they are ideologically-constrained and coached to do.

Regardless of Keynesians’ belief that states can deficit spend, everyone believes in debt–or money liquidity, as it’s known when we’re not being manipulatively moralistic. It’s a fundamental part of economies, as well as pious, exploitative moral economies. Debt was the key to US military-economic dominance in the latter half of the 20th century, and this constrained everyone else’s options–especially in Europe, not to even mention how the financialization/debt model was sold, was saturation-marketed as the 1-Tru (TM) path to infinite economic expansion and happyness.

But of course the underlying problem is that actually-existing financialized capital is principally a tool for primitive accumulation–appropriating, concentrating and controlling value and exchange. In other words, debt-to-delay leads inexorably to wicked public and smallholder asset liquidation and a continuous and depleting debt-to-liquidation cycle, or else one helluva social fight to force garbage investors to take the losses on their garbage investments and to clean up their investment practices.

Our elites are very diligent at reminding us about the terms of their protection racket: that if investors are forced to be prudent, they will withhold liquidity and offload the costs onto the working class and the public. However, the traditional  threats have begun to mean nothing, because the primitive accumulation debt-to-liquidation cycle has resulted in withheld liquidity and economic crisis offloaded onto the working class and smallholders anyway. When there’s no class compromise, the hegemonic leverage wears down quickly, leaving bare brutality.

Unless we fight to reduce its power, we cannot escape capitalist primitive accumulation and our own over-determined economic dispossession and depletion. Yet we still have a wide range of commentators declaring TINA on austerity. There are alternatives. The alternatives simply do not support financial-military global monopoly capitalism.

Thus, faced with this impassible dilemma, (much like the 20% (a low) of Americans who still somehow believe that they will be in the top 1% of wealth accumulators) paid experts somehow still desperately pretend to believe that there is a universal, moral path to wealth accumulation in a fictitious 2-D world without power, and that little Greece, if they’d just been more moral, could have followed that yellow brick road, paved by the benevolent financial system devoted to unproductive accumulation and geo-political power moves undertaken by the financial capital centers of the US (US banks own over 10% of Greek risk), England, France and Germany in the west, and oil capitalists and China eastward. The level of political- economic and geopolitical naivete required to maintain this moral handwringing and within-Greece fingerpointing is flabberghasting at this point in history.

Within the context of global monopoly capitalism, nothing could have been done for the welfare of peripheral small economies (countries) like Greece. Financial-military capital has not been and is not aligned for this. That this mal-alignment destroys capital and undermines the Greek, European or global economy is not a problem to financial-military capital–especially not when the dollar as world reserve currency automatically secures such resolute US dependability for capital. (Which is why OWS is so important to disciplining global speculation.)

Someday, the capitalist lords and retainers claim, global monopoly capital may get in the mood or accidentally do something to benefit non-elites. You just never know. It’s happened (with some considerable drawbacks, including population explosion, scarcity and environmental catastrophe. But dammit some of us did get those nice SUVs for a while in some places.) In the face of their brutal solipsism and frigidity, the deity-bankers only ask for assurances that, as long as you or your politicians are worried about liquidity for your society’s survival (assuming of course that we’re not interested in bothering to establish a global network of rebellion), they are entitled to the wealth your society creates into the future. This is the blackmail of late monopoly capitalism. To really paraphrase Nixon all out of recognition, perhaps we all have Stockholm Syndrome now. You give your wealth. You get a steady supply of bloody fingers, etc. in the mailbox. It all ends when you open up the envelope to find your own bloody heart muscle wrapped in a tissue.

And for what? Regardless of what happens to the body, the economy or societies or the environment, as long as they get the wealth, financial capital wins. –Perhaps we go along with it because we think the capitalists are sexy (Thanks for the beer goggles, Frank Luntz!), because even all the militarized cops can’t follow all of us around in our daily rounds of assiduous obedience.

Nuclear USA

Nuclear facilities in the US, courtesy Mother Jones.

Otsuka Norikazu, a Japanese TV newscaster, devoted himself to the national public campaign, “Let’s support North Japan by eating their food,” often eating radioactive food from the north in television broadcasts.

Norikazu was committed to a hospital for acute lymphatic leukemia on November 7, 2011.

Grimly proving once again: Matter over marketing.

Class War with a Little Generation War on the Side

According to the recent Pew Social & Demographic Trends study,

The current (generational wealth) gap is unprecedented. In 1984, the age-based wealth gap had been 10:1. By 2009, it had ballooned to 47:1. Older people today have 47 times more money than younger people; and they have 42% more wealth than their same-aged counterparts in 1984, while the younger generation has 68% less than theirs.

Someone needs to use the Pew data and write on the Silent & Boomer Generations’ little cut of our era’s  class war. We should be able to talk about how the younger generations were sold out, without the Republicans co-opting the discussion for their anti- working class institutions (Medicare, social security) campaigns.

Sources of intergenerational (young to old) wealth transfer: housing bubble, privatized education & student loan debt, deunionization & stagnant incomes, pension funds & bank bailouts.

And that’s not even talking what devastation they wrought on the environment, just to keep floating atop their magical oil geyser kingdom. With sincerest apologies to that punk Tom Brokaw, the point is not that some generations are holier or more evil than others. The point is that we need to learn how to recognize when we’re selling out the future, stop ourselves from selling out the future, and formulate a real sense of wealth (cf J. Schor). In order to see class war, we need to be able to see how class warfare strategically manages (inter alia) generation divides.

Overcoming Denialism

John Bellamy Foster
“Occupy Denialism: Toward Ecological & Social Revolution”
MRZine 11/11/11

All of us here today, along with countless others around the world, are currently engaged in the collective struggle to save the planet as a place of habitation for humanity and innumerable other species. The environmental movement has grown leaps and bounds in the last fifty years. But we need to recognize that despite our increasing numbers we are losing the battle, if not the war, for the future of the earth. Our worst enemy is denialism: not just the outright denial of climate-change skeptics, but also the far more dangerous denial — often found amongst environmentalists themselves — of capitalism’s role in the accumulation of ecological catastrophe.1

 Recently, climate scientists, writing in leading scientific journals, have developed a way of addressing the extreme nature of the climate crisis, focusing on irreversible change and the trillionth ton of carbon. Central to the scientific consensus on climate change today is the finding that a rise in global temperature by 2° C (3.6° F), associated with an atmospheric carbon concentration of 450 parts per million (ppm), represents a critical tipping point, irreversible in anything like human-time frames. Climate models show that if we were to reach that point feedback mechanisms would likely set in, and society would no longer be able to prevent the climate catastrophe from developing further out of our control.

 Even if we were completely to cease burning fossil fuels when global average temperature had risen by 2° C, climate change and its catastrophic effects would still be present in the year 3000. In other words, avoiding an increase in global average temperatures of 2° C, 450 ppm is crucial because it constitutes a point of no return. Once we get to that point, we will no longer be able to return, even in a millennium, to the Holocene conditions under which human civilization developed over the last 12,000 years.

 Many of you are aware that long-term stabilization of the climate requires that we target 350 ppm, not 450 ppm. But 450 ppm remains significant, since it represents the planetary equivalent of cutting down the last palm tree on Easter Island.2. It is here that the trillionth ton enters in. In the last couple of years, climate studies have determined that once we emit the trillionth metric ton of carbon — counting all the carbon put into the atmosphere since 1750 — we will have exhausted our cumulative carbon budget. This means that if we burn no more than the trillion ton of carbon we will still have a reasonable chance (though this may not in fact be much more than 50-50) of not exceeding the 2° C, 450 ppm boundary. The trillionth ton of carbon is thus viewed as an absolute cutoff.

 Growing scientific evidence, however, suggests that it is essential to remain below the 2° C, 450 ppm level. Consequently, some prominent climate scientists, such as Myles Allen at the University of Oxford, have stipulated that we need to target 750 billion tons of carbon as the limit, which will give us a 75 percent chance of staying below a 2° C increase in global average temperature.

 How far are we from emitting the 750 billion — or even the trillionth — ton? Since 1750, we have emitted 550 billion tons of carbon and the rate is accelerating. If present emission trends continue, we will reach the 750 billionth ton of carbon in 2028, that is, in sixteen years. In order to avoid emitting the 750 billionth ton by 2050 we will need to reduce our global carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent annually. In order not to emit the trillionth ton of carbon by 2050, carbon dioxide emissions would have to drop by 2.4 percent per year. This is much greater than the 1.5 percent drop in global carbon dioxide emissions, resulting from the Great Recession in 2008-2009. The longer we wait to make the reductions the steeper the decline required. Another way of putting this is that if we burn even half of today’s proven, economically accessible reserves of oil, natural gas, and coal, we will almost certainly reach/exceed the irreversible 2° C, 450 ppm, boundary. If we want a 75 percent chance of staying below a 2° C increase, we have to lock up all but a quarter of today’s proven economically accessible fossil-fuel resources.3

 If all of this were not enough, climate change is only one of the rifts in planetary boundaries that scientists are now pointing to: the others include ocean acidification, ozone depletion, species extinction, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land cover loss, freshwater shortages, (less certainly at present) aerosol loading, and chemical proliferation. Each of these has the potential of disrupting the global environmental order on catastrophic levels, and the trends for each (with the possible exception of ozone depletion) are presently a source of concern. Already we have crossed three planetary boundaries: climate change, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, and species extinction.

Faced with such enormous environmental problems and the need for massive, urgent changes in society, our worst enemy, as I have indicated, is denialism. Here it is useful to look at what I call the “three stages of denial” with respect to the global environmental crisis.5

 The first stage of denial is straightforward. It is the denial associated with Exxon-Mobil and climate skeptics — who say either that there is no such thing as climate change or that it is not caused by human actions. Sometimes they contradict themselves and argue both at once. This of course is the inevitable response of capital, which is invariably concerned, first and foremost, with protecting its bottom line — even at the expense of the earth itself.

 The second stage of denial — often advanced by self-designated environmentalists themselves — is to admit that there is a problem, and even to factor in the proximate causes. Most of you are no doubt familiar with the environmental impact or IPAT formula. Environmental Impact = Population X Affluence X Technology. This is a mere truism, where the drivers of environmental impacts are concerned. It frequently leads to the notion that the solution is a simple matter of promoting sustainable population, sustainable consumption, and sustainable technology. Nevertheless, this conception doesn’t actually take us very far, since we then need to explain what drives population, consumption, and technology themselves. In fact, such multiple-factor analysis is all too often used as a way of denying the underlying background condition: the capitalist treadmill of production.6

 The third stage of denial has the look and feel of greater realism, but actually constitutes a more desperate and dangerous response. It admits that capitalism is the problem, but also contends that capitalism is the solution. This general approach emphasizes what is variously referred to as “sustainable capitalism,” “natural capitalism,” “climate capitalism,” “green capitalism,” etc.7 In this view we can continue down the same road of capital accumulation, mounting profits, and exponential economic growth — while at the same time miraculously reducing our burdens on the planetary environment. It is business as usual, but with greater efficiency and greater accounting of environmental costs. No fundamental changes in social or property relations — in the structure of production and consumption — are required. This is the magical world view advanced by such diverse figures as Al Gore, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken, and Jonathon Porritt — if not Thomas Friedman, Newt Gingrich, and the Breakthrough Institute, as well.

 From a policy perspective, this normally divides into two streams, one state-centered and the other market-centered. Green Keynesians like to think that we can ameliorate our environmental problems (and our economic problems too) by having the state promote economic growth through the creation of green jobs. Green Schumpeterians, like Friedman, Gingrich, and the Breakthrough Institute, offer as a solution green technological innovations, supposedly a natural outgrowth of the market — but usually seen as requiring additional subsidies to corporations to harness its full strength. Here too the promise is one of heightened economic growth on greener terms, equated simply with greater energy efficiency. 

The main problem, which all of this denies, is the nature and logic of capitalism itself. Capitalism, as its name suggests, is quite simply, the system of capital. Its sole purpose is the accumulation of capital through the exploitation of human labor. It is a grow-or-die system dominated by the 1% (the capitalist class) and giant corporations. It is prone to periodic economic crises, and constant — and today deepening — unemployment. Capital accumulation and economic expansion occur by means of gross inequality and monopolistic competition, generating a war of all against all and a world of waste. The wider public/social/natural sphere is an object of theft — a realm in which to dump “externalities” or impose unpaid social costs, which then fall on nature and humanity in general. 

 Endless capitalism requires unlimited economic growth. Economists generally consider a 3 percent average rate of economic growth over the long run as absolutely essential for the stability of the capitalist system. Yet, if we were to have a continual 3 percent rate of economic growth, world output would expand exponentially by around sixteen times in a century, 250 times in two centuries, and 4000 times in three centuries. Already we are overshooting planetary limits — consuming resources as if we had multiple planets at our disposal, undermining the very basis of our existence.8

 What then is the alternative? The answer is a cultural-power shift — opening up the world to the creative efforts of hundreds of millions, even billions of people, and unleashing a process of sustainable human development. Today the world Occupy movement is showing the way. It is time, as Noam Chomsky contends, not simply to Occupy Wall Street but to go on to “Occupy the Future.”9

 As the 99%, we need to take direct action with respect to the environment: locking up the three-quarters of the proven, economically available oil, natural gas, and coal (remembering always that the poorest countries have to be allowed to develop while the richer countries need disproportionately to pay the cost); blocking the Canadian-U.S. tar sands pipeline; and imposing a carbon fee at the point of production (i.e. at the oil well, mine shaft, and point of entry) — the funds from which would be returned immediately to the population on a per capita basis, so that those with the largest carbon footprints, predominantly the corporate rich, would be the ones that paid. (This is the proposal of U.S. climatologist James Hansen.)10

 In the end we will need to go on and culturally Occupy the system itself through a long-term ecological and social revolution, opening the way to democratic planning at all levels of society from the local community on up.11

 Under twenty-first century capitalism the world is being buried in commodity waste. We are compelled, simply in order to live and breathe in this society, to engage in useless and alienated labor directed at satisfying artificial wants through the production of mere “stuff,” the bulk of which ends up being disposed of soon after it is purchased. This all takes places simply so that the whole process can start up again, more commodities can be generated, and more profits can be made by the 1%. As radical economist Juliet Schor says, we have lost any sense of “true wealth.”12

 In the United States today we spend about $1 trillion on the military each year, far more than all the rest of the world put together.13 U.S. corporations and businesses today spend more than $1 trillion on marketing annually, simply in order to persuade people to buy things that they don’t want or need.14 Our very cultural apparatus is shaped so as to conform to the imperative of marketing — not democratic communication.

 If we are to save the earth, this gargantuan waste and destruction which dominates our lives needs to be brought to an end, so that we can focus on the real issues: making sure that everyone in every part of the world has enough of life’s basic needs; building community; promoting substantive equality; and creating the basis for sustainable human development. Some have called this a socialism for the twenty-first century. In a 1962 speech to the National Maritime Union, Martin Luther King declared: “We are presiding over a dying order, one which has long deserved to die,” and he ended his speech with the words of the great American socialist Eugene Debs: “I can see the dawn of a better humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.”15

 Now is the time of which Debs and King spoke, the time in which to create a new society where human beings no longer deny, but affirm, their connections to each other and to the Earth.

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

 1 On ecological denialism as a complex social construct see Kari Norgaard, Living With Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life(Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2011).
 2 Susan Solomon, et. al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 6 (February 10, 2009): 1704-1709; Heidi Cullen, The Weather of the Future(New York: Harpers, 2010), 264-71. 
3 Myles Allen, et. al., “The Exit Strategy,” Nature Reports Climate Change, April 30, 2009, and “Warming Caused by Cumulative Carbon Emissions Towards the Trillionth Tonne,” Nature 458 (April 20, 2009): 1163-66; Malte Meinshausen, et. al., “Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2° C,” Nature 458 (April 30, 2009): 1158-62;; Catherine Brahic, “Humanity’s Carbon Budget Set at One Trillion Tons,” New Scientist, April 29, 2009; Cullen, The Weather of the Future, 264-71; International Economic Agency, CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion (Paris: IEA, 2011), 7.
 4 Johan Rockström, et. al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461 (September 24, 2009): 472-75.
 5 See John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe,” forthcoming Monthly Review63, no. 7 (December 2011): 1-17, where the three stages of denial are put in the context of an overall accumulation of catastrophe under capitalism.
 6 Allan Schnaiberg introduced the treadmill of production critique in his book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity(New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), based on earlier Marxian conceptions. 
7 See Al Gore, Our Choice (New York: Rodale, 2009), 346; Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism(Boston: Little Brown, 1999); L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, Climate Capitalism(New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); Jonathon Porritt, Capitalism: As If the World Mattered(London: Earthscan, 2007); Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008); New Gingrich, A Contract With the Earth(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Break Through(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
 8 Charles Morse, “Environment, Economics and Socialism,” Monthly Review 30, no. 11 (April 1979): 15.
 9 Noam Chomsky, “Occupy the Future,” November 2, 2011,
 10 James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren(New York: Bloomsbury, 2009),211-20.
 11 For a more developed argument on short-term, radical ecological changes and long-term revolutionary ecological change see Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 123-44.
12 Juliet Schor, True Wealth(London: Penguin, 2010).
 13 For the data on military spending see John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney, “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending,” Monthly Review 60, no. 5 (October 2008): 9-13.
 14 “U.S. Marketing Spending Exceeded $1 Trillion in 2005,” Metrics Business and Market Intelligence, June 26, 2006,; Michael Dawson, The Consumer Trap (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 1.
 15 Martin Luther King, Jr., “All Labor Has Dignity” (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 71.

The Revolution Will Not Be Pomo-icized

Why Critics of Economics 
Can Ill-afford the “Postmodern Turn”
Yanis Varoufakis (University of Athens and University of Sydney)
Reposted from Post-autistic Economics Review 2002 Issue 13.

 The dissident’s nightmare 

 It is a sad irony when the activities of dissidents help shore up the establishment they set out to subvert. The point of this piece is to warn the ‘economic’ dissident: Beware the Postmodern Turn! The argument will turn on the thought that postmodern criticisms of economics serve the twin purpose of (a) releasing pent-up frustration with the profession while, at once, (b) reinforcing its ideological backbone.

 Every era has a tendency surreptitiously to guide young dissidents toward a specific ‘umbrella movement’; one that ends up shaping their milieu. Existentialism, structuralism, neo-Marxism, etc. have given their place, in our era of devalued political goods, to Postmodernity and Deconstruction. Without wishing to discuss the ‘postmodern condition’ generally, I shall concentrate entirely on its likely effects on the struggle to ‘civilise’ economics. In this regard, the problem with postmodern thinking is that it stands no chance of success.

 Postmodernity’s criticism of grandiose Theory may be terribly satisfying to those who adopt its grandiose pronouncements. However, the satisfaction at having lambasted all Theory is momentary and the ensuing subversion short-lived. To paraphrase Marx, the subverters will be, eventually, subverted and, tragically, the neoclassical establishment will come out stronger and better equipped to obfuscate social reality than ever before.(2) If I am right, the task of the PAE movement must be to clear the way for radical criticism that avoids the postmodern trap as resolutely as it opposes economic autism. 

Dissidents or the economists’ handmaidens? 

 Modernity marginalised Religion, but retained religious transcendence by worshipping Theory. Economics emerged as the highest form of this secular creed and enchanted all of its practitioners; free-marketeer and protectionist, liberal and Marxist, Keynesian and monetarist. It now seems that some economists are breaking ranks; joining the ‘other’, the postmodern, side which defines itself in anti-theoretical tones that exude an atheist’s anti-religious fervour. The danger is that the legitimate anger of students (which has given rise to the PAE movement) will draw them to an apostasy without a future. For despite its considerable oeuvre, postmodern criticisms of economics are doomed to shrivel and be absorbed by mainstream economics; the predator turning into unsuspecting prey. I risk this prediction for two reasons.

 First, postmodernists allow economics to parade as equally scientific as the natural sciences (albeit on the grounds that no discipline is truly scientific). They are right of course to think that all theory resembles religion, since it also seeks to give meaning to the practices and expectations of whole communities. However some theories are capable of transcending religion and approaching objectivity better than others. Nature’s habit of working independently of our beliefs about it means that the natural scientist can devise experiments which have the power disinterestedly to discard falsity and thus forge knowledge and progress. Society, on the other hand, is corrupted to the very marrow of its bones by our collective beliefs about it, and can therefore provide no objective test of social theory (the latter being part of the very web of beliefs that society is made of). Thus social theory, unlike thermodynamics, is condemned to remain untestable, and stuck in the realm of opinion. Economics valiantly attempts to extricate itself from this fate with a touching commitment to mathematics but, sadly, it only ends up as a religion with equations.

 Postmodernity errs in thinking of this as the inevitable failure of all Modernist enterprises. It lambastes economists’ churlish reliance on an Outer Wall of Algebra and an Inner Wall of Statistics but overlooks their success at never even coming close to the nature and the dynamics of contemporary capitalism, thus shielding the latter from rational criticism. But such is the fate of all idealisms which give language an existence independent of the material conditions of social life and reproduction. If only postmodernist critics understood theology and mathematics a little better! Perhaps they would have recognised in economics the greatest proof that Modernity is saturated with its negation.

 Which brings me to the second part of the argument: Postmodernity not only lets neoclassical economics off the hook but, more worryingly, reinforces it copiously before dissolving into it. Consider what the postmodern rejection of metanarratives means at the individual level: It means the loss of any capacity to scrutinise one’s private urges rationally on the basis of some collectively constructed notion (or metanarrative) of the Good. Stripped of those capacities, the individual fragments into a community of selves, a bundle of ordinal preferences, and ends up with no one self whose preferences those are.

 In this Empire of Ordinal Preference the only possible data that social theory can go to work with are the differences in individual whims and freely-chosen identities. These data are then, courtesy of their ordinal properties, impossible to compare across persons (for this would require a metanarrative) or procure a view of capitalism as a system. Thus in a fully-fledged postmodern schema, social relations are confined to interplay, voluntarism, tolerance and exchange; society is the playground where the latter unfold; and discussions of the General Will, exploitation and developmental freedom make no sense. Does this all sound familiar?

 If it does, the reason is that neoclassical economics went down that alley decades ago. The asymptotic limit of postmodern fragmentation is the neoclassical general equilibrium economic model. Both Neoclassicism and Postmodernity espouse a radical egalitarianism which is founded on the rejection of any standard or value by which either individual action or the institutions of late capitalism (e.g. the labour and capital markets) can be subjected to rational criticism. In short, whereas the problem with modernist mechanism was that its view of our world excluded value from the outset, the problem with Postmodernity is that it ends up having no view of the world and becomes easy-pickings for a similarly viewless/valueless tradition, one which bears the additional weaponry of intricate mathematics and endless econometric ‘evidence’.

 For Oscar Wilde the supreme vice was shallowness. For Postmodernity it is the New Jerusalem. Its playfulness allowed it to thrive in the friendlier waters of literary and cultural studies at a time when ‘margins’ were becoming central and classical stuffiness was going out of fashion. But now postmodernists have entered shark-infested territory. Neoclassical economics, another purveyor of shallowness, threatens to bend them to its will,(3) gain strength from them and subsequently reinforce hierarchies more oppressive and totalising than those the postmodernists set out initially to dismantle. 

When the IMF dictates its policies to some hapless Third World country, there is a strong whiff of the radical egalitarianism shared equally between general equilibrium and Postmodernity. The same whiff accompanies, and legitimises, the inexorable devaluation of political goods, the vulgar commodification of human bodies and values, the impossibility of conceptualising freedom-from-the-market, the depiction of Central Banks as ‘independent’ only when under the thumb of financial capital, the confusion of liberty with the freedom to exploit and to demean and, above all else, the portrayal of coercion as tâtonnement. Thus Postmodernity unwittingly blows fresh wind in the sails of neoclassicism, the undisputed champion of the deconstructed human agent. While warning us correctly that new authoritarianisms will be born when we get caught up in our own rhetoric, it offers no resistance to the current authoritarianism of neoclassical economics and, more so, the socio-economic system that it serves.

 Conclusion: The dissidents’ dilemma 

 When a fresh wave of criticism is unleashed, it picks up along the way pre-existing discontents, hitherto bopping along hopelessly near the surface, and propels them toward the shores of exposure and respectability. Lonely dissidents suddenly find a new ‘movement’ that will have them. New hope of escaping obscurity is thus born.

 In recent years many dissident voices had to adapt themselves to postmodern-speak in an attempt to be ‘included’ on the postmodern bandwagon. The PAE movement must release such voices from this obligation. Social criticism of economics must reclaim an awareness that to reject the scientific status of economics is not to reject science in general or to espouse postmodernism.

 Indeed irony and ambiguity were utilised, long before Postmodernity, by thinkers eager to come to what a more confident past once knew as the truth. To re-establish irony, ambiguity and indeterminateness in the discourse of economists would be a triumph of the spirit. But it would not be a postmodern turn. For the latter has no monopoly on an appreciation of the radical indeterminacy of social processes (as Hegel would be all to eager to remind us) or the importance of not taking our selves, and our theories, too seriously. On the contrary, Postmodernity undermines itself by offering Modernity’s most awful purveyor another means of extending its dominance.

 So, we have arrived at the dissident’s dilemma. The postmodern kernel within neoclassical economics forces a stark choice: Submit to homo economicus and model our messy world’s dynamic as if a series of suburban disputes between postmodern neighbours. Or, seek an historically-grounded understanding of how systematic patterns of power and economics are the joint products of the continual feedback between technological developments and evolving social formations. The difference between the two options is not theoretical; it is ideological. The postmodern turn will be chosen by pseudo-dissidents whose prime interests lie in acquiring a chic image; one that the self-effacing postmodern criticism is good at imparting. The less-fashionable option of working towards historically-grounded knowledge will appeal to the truly ‘unreasonable’ dissidents; those driven by an unbending commitment to a rational transformation of society.

1. Department of Economics, University of Athens, 8 Pesmazoglou Street, Athens 10596 and Department of Economics, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia. Email:
2. Recently, Routledge published a volume on the nexus of Postmodernity with economics edited by Jack Amariglio, Stephen Cullenberg, and David Ruccio (2001). The following thoughts have been extracted from my review of that book (forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Methodology)
3. Courtesy of a more sophisticated take on the same type of philosophical shallowness.
Cullenberg, S., J. Amariglio and D. Ruccio (2001). Postmodernity, Economics and Knoweldge, London and New York: Routledge
Varoufakis, Y. (2002). ‘Deconstructing Homo Economicus?’, Journal of Economic Methodology, forthcoming.

The reason why political economists see idealist postmodernism as superficial and epiphenomenal is because there’s no ontological depth to idealism, see the critique in critical realism & Bhaskar.  In a 2-D world of epistemological surface viewed from different points on that surface, liberation looks methodological individualist, methodological instrumentalist, and in methodologically-imposed equilibrium. But that is exactly what bondage looks like in a critical realist, historical materialist world of ontological depth.

A further note to self–explore this hypothesis:
The Kantian rejection of ontology and elevation of epistemology does not solve the problem of human reflexivity, when studying social relations.

Coming attraction:

Though engaging or convincing postmodernists is not germane to my life’s intellectual (or otherwise) projects (I’m simply not in that social location–though I am in that geographic location.), I’ll post notes on Zizek, Badiou & Agamben’s niche efforts to explain leftist traditions to postmodernists. Unlike other leftists, I don’t mind the Z-B-A niche. There’s a real problem in the Anglosphere with superficially-liberatory postmodern misunderstandings and distortions of leftist thought that bolster the hegemony of ideological conservative economics and the adoption and diffusion of neoliberal governance. …Just as there’s the persistent problem of the neocon swerve (from a leftist base) within the Anglo-American Zionist intellectual community. Where there’s network, status- and/or resource-access incentive, humans are great at rationalizing, even if it is ugly; and how they do it, how they are motivated, and the demonstrable telos of those rationalizations are of some interest.