Monday, June 27, 2005

"Economic Growth Can Be Social Decline By Another Name."

We are currently living in a period where the dominant ideological vision is the aggressive desire for a complete surrender to the free market. As Susan George has noted this rise of neo-liberalism which first asserted itself as an experiment in the failed economic miracle of Chile under the Pinochet regime is very surprising given that “In 1945 or 1950, if you had seriously proposed any of the ideas and policies in today's standard neo-liberal toolkit, you would have been laughed off the stage or sent off to the insane asylum. ” Nonetheless, since the collapse of Keynesian economics, amidst the imposition of austerity on debtor countries after the 1982 Crash and the dismantling of the welfare state heralded by Regan and Thatcher in the west, there can be no doubt that if there is one historical project of our time it is that of creating new enclosures economically. Where aspects of life which were once under public control and exempt from market competition are now forced into private hands through the application of pressure from institutions like the World Trade Organization which blaze the legislative path for commodifaction initiatives like the Trade Related Intellectual property Rights and the General Agreement On Trades and Services. That economic growth along such lines entails huge social decline is obvious to anyone with a smattering of current affairs.

As Bourdieu notes there is the abandonment of the tradition of dissent among radical intellectuals. While the decentring discourse of post-modernity has closed the possibility it may have opened up for radical social change in its subversion of the grounds for its own critique, those still maintaining a radical critique echo the one sided mistakes of the Frankfurt School in weighing up the power of capital, but never looking to the counter power from below. Those few writers who do hold up the potential for radical transformation from below tend to be linked to social movements, and illuminate a path academics are slow to take up obsessed with a managerial vision of the world. A piece of movement propaganda from the AdBsuters’ collective jibes that “economists need to learn to subtract” if they are to maintain a role in future sociological anaylsis. A joke maybe, but the adbust points to serious need to attack the idea of economic growth and development both as an ideology and as a method wedded to capitalist modes of production at the expense of the autonomy of those who have currently developed methods of subsistence relatively free of the gargantuan interference of debt and corporations we now associate with the free market. As Reuss describes economists and neo-liberal apologists are engaged in rather obtuse peddling of miracles and amnesia. To uncover how economic growth can be equated with social decline we are required to delve into the memory hole of history and unearth some statistical contradictions, buried social realities and the experiences of those who are the victims of economic growth.

Rightwing Think Tanks globally focus on the experiences of Chile as a laboratory test for their free market ideologies. After the coup against the social democrat Allende, the economic shock therapy of the Chicago School Boys led to the worst recession in the country since the 1930’s. Due to hardcore privatization all but 27 of 507 state enterprises were handed over to the private sector. In 76 the economy began to recover, and entered into the ‘economic miracle’ growing 6.6 percent a year. Of course here is where economists need to learn to subtract, a boom following on from an earlier recession is only recovering lost ground on a net analysis, in reality Chile actually had the second worst growth rate in Latin America between 1975 and 1980 and then there was the disaster of the 1982 recession. When society is just measured as a labour cost some obvious social decline escapes the analysis of economists obsessed with their mantra of “all else being equal.” By 1989, Chile had a poverty rate of 41.2%, while shanty towns grew at an extraordinary rate. Just before the sabotaging of the Allende regime the daily diet of the poorest 40% of the population was 2,019 calories, twenty years later it was down to 1,629. These are of course just statistical pointers, there can be no statistics for the loss of dignity experienced by those who struggled for a better vision of how society could be run only to be brutalized by the Pinochet regime because they violated the economic ambitions of the United States. While Chile heralded the pattern of social decline on the back of neo-liberal growth policies, the pattern the Chilean tale tells is typical of the social decline experienced under such austerity not to mention the elimination or neutralization of traditional means of solidarity and self-protection such political parties and trade unions.

With the obvious failure of the development project in the eighties and its clear harnessing to projects for neo-colonial expansion, a wider critique of the ideology of development itself has been increasingly mooted. Most of these analysis’s are gaining increased prominence due to the increasing visibility of struggles in the global south. Magid Rahnena describes the impact of development and its desire for economic growth using AIDs as a metaphor. She describes vernacular societies, which exhibit the same sort of pre-capitalist structures of a moral economy envisaged in the west prior to primitive capital accumulation: “they have a certain organic consistency in other words their structures are a living tissue of social and cultural relations defining the activities of their members and protecting them against possible dangers…it is the tissue of human solidarities that preserves the communities immune system. ” Shiva has become the best known critic of the effects of this form of capitalist development in western circles given her affinity to Indian social movements. Her critique of Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights and the manner in which development has foisted an industrial model of agriculture on populations cuts to the contradictions in the idea that economic growth equates with social progress: “The rich diversity and sustainable systems of food production have been destroyed in the name of increasing food production. However, with the destruction of diversity, rich sources of nutrition disappear. When measured in terms of nutrition per acre, and from the perspective of biodiversity, the so-called “high yields” of industrial agriculture do not imply more production of food and nutrition. ” In 2000, the World Bank commissioned an independent study “Dams and Development” into major hydro electric dam projects which exemplify the trend of development on an industrial capital model. According to ‘The Ecologist’ magazine this study: “provides stark evidence that the world’s 45,000 large dams – which block over half the world’s rivers – have been failed experiments. They have failed to produce as much electricity and water, or control as much flood damage, as their backers claim…They have made up to 80 million people homeless, and their benefits have largely gone to the urban well-off not the rural poor they displace” and how “their effects on eco-systems have been disastrous ”.

Alex Dupey is correct to state that the 'postmodernist trend seeks to replace the central concept of class in the analysis of capitalism. ' Neo-liberalism as a postmodern condition with out doubt has undermined many of the traditional organizations of the working class in the north through breaking up heavy industries in the wake of the struggles of the sixties and seventies and exporting these to the south, leaving us with a heavily non-unionized services sector. Amidst the debate on globalisation as Dash has pointed out, some significant questions arise for those who place themselves on the left, these questions revolve around the manner in which neo-liberalism has reshaped class composition, and the manner in which it has closed many of the ‘opt outs’ movements could previously adopt as a means of contesting power. As Negri asserts, post-modernism in itself has now become both the language and a condition of power. For this reason, the term precarity which has been taken up by some social movements in the global north provides a decent interpretable framework for the global class re-composition neo-liberalism has bred through it's imposition of flexiploitation. Some have defined this "as a juncture of material and symbolic conditions which determine an uncertainty with respect to the sustained access to the resources essential to the development of one’s life. This definition permits us to overcome the dichotomies of public/private and production/reproduction and to recognize the interconnections between the social and the economic. ” The debate on precarity is one that is ongoing in the parts of the new social movements, and it is possible to expose how economic growth within a neo-liberal framework has equated to a large degree with social decline using this debate as a framework. The framework is most useful because unlike much analysis in development studies and on the left it does not make the mistake of viewing neo-liberal globalization as a practice whereby northern states just subject southern states, thereby regurgitating the lexicon of national liberation struggles but it provides a lexicon where we can understand neo-liberalism as the imposition of a new work discipline on the multitudes in the metropolises of both the north and south.

In any analysis of how social decline equates with economic growth is important to escape the very statistical language economists speak while recognizing the contradictions within it. EP Thompson exposes the myth of economic growth as being contingent with social advancement in his analysis of the industrial revolution, one of the first serious instances of development, describing its effects on traditional communities: “the loss of status and above all independence for the worker, his reduction to total dependence on the master’s instruments of production; the partiality of the law; the disruption of the traditional family economy; the discipline, monotony, hours and traditions of work; loss of leisure and amenities; the reduction of man to the status of an instrument. ” For economic growth to agree according to the neo-liberalistas, we need to become flexible. The results of this flexibility is illustrated best by El Alto in Bolivia: “Bolivians have become vulnerable to economic shock and displacement especially the rural poor. As a result a demographic revolution is bringing hundreds of thousands from isolated peasant communities to expansive slums like El Alto. With its structural unemployment, incredible population growth, with sprawling miles of substandard housing and incredible social misery, el Alto may represent the near future of Latin American urban life, the era of the mega slum. ”

The flexibility imposed by neo-liberalism as a key requirement for economic growth leads to social decline north and south. With a post-modernisation of the economy, due to technical mobility there is increased scope for transnational corporations to side-line traditional protections against exploitation in society. On a global level, this was represented by a confidential report which seems to confirm much of Susan George's adoption of character in the Lugano Report. The world banks' chief economist Larry Summers called for the exporting of northern polluting industries to the global south describing how: "There are no limits on the planet's capacity for absorption likely to hold us back in the foreseeable my view the economic logic of disposing toxic waste in low income countries is impeccable. " At the same time the creation of new enclosures through TRIP’s and GATS places populations in a precarious position where there is no guarantee of security apart from what they can provide for themselves through work for transnationals. On a global level, this provides an insecure work force which is exemplified by the nightmares of sweat shops and examples such as Nike’s dismissal of 447 of 6,000 workers in Vietnam for engaging in activities to secure a monthly minimum wage of $47. Equally, the increased mobility of capital necessitates a mobility of labour, with social security stripped increasingly there is a labour force unsure of its rights as the case of Brazilian cleaners in Dublin a few years ago raised: “the Brazialians were told that these extremely harsh and exhausting conditions were the way things were in Ireland. They knew no better. They came from a country with no social welfare and little protection for workers. ” More recently the GAMA workers highlight the pattern, amidst the economic growth of the Celtic Tiger which if one is to accept Kieran Allen’s work has benefited few..

With such swathes of the population so clearly absent from the benefits of economic growth, perhaps the biggest indictment of the ideology is the windows towards autonomy from market led growth which parts of society have developed in order to deal with the fallacies of development. Some of the most obvious examples of these are the “shrimp satyagraha" non-violent daily direct action against bio-piracy in India which take seeds or the ‘stolen harvest’ back out of the market and into the commons. Something else which springs to minds is the system of bartering developed to cope with the entrenched failure of the free market in Argentina. With economic growth along capitalist lines benefiting such a small fraction of the global population, the biggest indictment of the social decline prevalent under neo-liberalism is the struggles of the multitudes against it.

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