No announcement yet.

the autumn of empire: industrialization --> financialization --> end of empire

  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • the autumn of empire: industrialization --> financialization --> end of empire

    This is hands down one of the most brilliant essays I have ever read and cannot recommend it strongly enough.


    18th Jul 2011

    Autumn of the Empire

    Joshua Clover

    James Joyce by Constantin Brancusi
    From Three Fragments from Work in Progress by James Joyce
    (Paris: The Black Sun Press, 1929)

    Giovanni Arrighi
    The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times

    Verso, 2010. 432 pp.

    Giovanni Arrighi
    Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century

    Verso, 2009. 418 pp.

    Richard Duncan
    The Dollar Crisis: Causes, Consequences, Cures

    2nd Ed. Wiley, 2005. 324 pp.

    Robert Brenner
    The Economics of Global Turbulence

    Verso, 2006. 369 pp.

    Part 1: Flight to Safety

    In the early days of the crisis everything was written on the waters, shifting moment to moment. Most eloquent was the mercurial renaming of 2008’s investor panic. Toward what did we flee? The word “safety” was swiftly deemed too suggestive of danger; the subsequent “liquidity” sounded a bit technical; by general agreement, we settled on the lullaby of “quality.” Flight to safety, flight to liquidity, flight to quality: If you spot in this something of the epic, you are not mistaken. Indeed, this sequence is a fine thumbnail of The Aeneid, as our hero flees the burning city of Troy, scuds across the seas, and eventually arrives at Rome. Option-ARMs and the man I sing.

    As summer turned and Lehman fell, it was hard to see the scale of things. It seemed astonishing that a sudden glitch in the market could tilt a presidential election overnight; as the global and historical consequences have cascaded through the following three years, such wonders now seem provincial at best. It grows daily more apparent that there will be no “double-dip recession,” in so far as there has been no recovery, and no serious indication of one. We need to reconceive the scope and timeline of what has happened, by way of thinking what might happen in the future toward which we stumble. But in order to undertake this predictive task, we are compelled to revisit the category of prediction itself.

    For a brief period, our various ministers (official and not) insisted that no one had seen the crisis coming, and indeed that no one could have seen it coming. Like so many stories of the moment, this one would not last. The reputed unforeseeability of the bust was a kind of alibi, of course, by virtue of which the bubble-inflators could claim to have had the best intentions. Alan Greenspan was foremost among these bubblistas, with Robert Rubin close behind. Had anyone known, of course we would have done things differently.

    But this alibi was itself a bubble. As with the economy itself, once the alibi bubble burst, and the wishful thinking and corruption leaked out, the underlying facts began to present themselves. A couple, or several, okay really quite a few folks had called it. Robert Shiller of the Case-Shiller Home Price Index rose to the fore among them; he had called the dotcom bust as well. Nouriel Roubini, business prof and head of the consulting outfit Roubini Global Economics, achieved media ubiquity — his dire forecasts and dour demeanor would earn him the title of “Dr. Doom.” Dean Baker, founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, had not only issued warnings, but in 2004 sold his home in a recently gentrified quarter of Washington, DC — the gentleman’s way of betting against the market. Then there are the less gentlemanly sorts found in Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, who made millions and billions by seeing it coming.

    The ranks of Cassandras, it must be said, were not much swelled by one faction we might expect to have nailed it: “real business cycle” proponents, the children of Walter Bagehot. These dismal scientists traffic in a medium-term rhythm of rises and falls, and are expected to be professionally attentive to boom and bust. Despite their research interests, they (and many others) managed to convince themselves that monetarism was a panacea, and the business cycle had been tamed over the course of the “Great Moderation” starting in the eighties and much-ballyhooed by Ben Bernanke. This dream of a practically self-correcting market was supposed to have been long banished. But just as the Great War did not turn out to dissuade civilization from further war on a global scale, the Great Depression dissolved neither the volatility of capitalism, nor the capacity for self-delusion among its owner-operators. Thus the exegetes of the real business cycle were quite likely to stand with the irrationally exuberant, not watching cycles and dynamics so much as leading the victory cheers. Nonetheless, recent surveys have now cited dozens, perhaps hundreds, of authoritative economists who predicted a housing market bust and ensuing recession.

    The question of why so many danger cries went unheeded may seem to invite an inquiry into ideological blindness. On a different conceptual plane, however, it may be more interesting to ask instead: What counts as a prediction? Or, perhaps, the practical corollary: Who counts as an economist?

    After all, other thinkers — other sorts of thinkers, concerned with broader understandings than the tightly focused technicians who dominate contemporary debates — grasped the situation at a considerable distance and with remarkable acuity. They mostly don’t appear in surveys of crisis callers, even as their predictions may have the most significant things to tell us about how best to peer from our current vantage, toward the horizon.

    Part 2: Hot Money

    In the last 15 years there have been three decisive texts to ground an understanding of our present passage through an epoch that even now escapes us. Though they take different perspectives and examine different strata of the economic situation, they tell in certain key ways a unified tale.

    Richard Duncan’s The Dollar Crisis: Causes, Consequences, Cures is a popular text from the commercial giant Wiley, publisher of Entrepreneurship For Dummies. Duncan himself is no party to the great economic debates; he has spent his career largely as a financial analyst, toiling in Asia. Even worse for the book’s intellectual credibility, its argument risks stoking the theological fires of the gold bugs, that auratic sect certain that all grand ills devolve from the unholy abandonment of the gold standard finalized in 1971.

    But having had a seat in the Asian theater during the nineties, and thus been witness both to the catastrophic Japanese crash of 1990 and the contagious Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998 — two bubble blowouts par excellence — Duncan is able to offer an impeccably concise narrative of financial crisis. It is not quite one-size-fits-all, but it certainly fits the present circumstance; indeed, it is an all but prescient description, given that it was written in 2003. In brief: The developing crisis arises from ongoing, severe imbalances of trade and thus of current accounts, enabled and compounded by a willingness to print money as needed to rectify these imbalances.

    Gold bugs will leap upon this as proof of original sin: the fiat money’s detachment from its metallic base. In truth, Duncan has a more nuanced, and in some regards even contrary, account. The farewell to Fort Knox wasn’t a cause but a consequence. The U.S. was compelled to leave the gold standard in the seventies because, having shipped so many industrial jobs elsewhere in the war on wages, it was becoming a nation of importers. The ensuing trade imbalance wanted funding — and being the global big dog, the U.S. could do so at no cost beyond the red ink necessary to draft up a new balance sheet. Whoever’s printing press issues forth the global reserve currency has exactly this power: “seigniorage,” the great weapon of empire. Net exporting nations, conversely, were swimming in these freshly minted dollars. This is the famed “global pool of money” that NPR, well after Duncan, made the fulcrum of their crash tale. These countries were not quite in the catbird seat, however. If they converted that cash to their own currencies, they would take a loss on the transaction, and be left with a stack of local bills, perhaps more decorative but harder to shuttle through the whirring global circuits in quest of profit. Moreover, they risked undermining the U.S. financial position as a whole, and thus devaluing their own stores of dollars and American debt.

    A far more seductive option for these exporting nations — China and Germany, to name a pair — was to park their profits right back in dollar-denominated assets. That is, to return the money directly to the U.S. financial system as investment, in a seemingly felicitous feedback loop. But banks, now bursting at the seams with recirculated greenbacks, were in turn compelled to push them out the door as loans; that is what banks do, after all.

    In this clear-eyed assessment, it is not hard to see why banks were so frantic to sign off on deals without much due diligence; it’s either that, or the cheese rots in the vaults. Of course, there are other ways to describe what happened. Banks buy and sell risk, and when all the money is in financial instruments, this process is amplified; despite the now-farcical rationalizations of modern finance, which proposed that the great multiplication of risk actually lowered volatility, risk flooded the global financial system. At the same time, it raised the cost of anything that could be bid up using cheap credit. Mortgages come to mind.

    This credit overheat could not help but volatilize the economy, unable to absorb all those dollars by expanding production, since industrial production had been offshored a couple steps back. Whether the overheating is in mortgages, tech stocks, or tulips, this is what we call a bubble. Bubbles know only three tricks, but they know them by heart and perform them by rote: they inflate; they pretend for one frozen and ecstatic moment to be a new way-things-are; and they burst.

    Part 3: The Long Bust

    It is the pivot of the early seventies that concerns Robert Brenner, arguably capital’s most lucid contemporary historian, as well. He lingers there with remarkable and sustained insight in The Economics of Global Turbulence. The brute situation, far more striking than most will admit, can be summarized in a single stark fact: During the “Long Boom” of 1948-1973, the lowest annual profit rate in the U.S. industrial sector was still higher than the highest such rate in the ensuing period, the “Long Bust.” This fact is all the more shocking for being so contrary to the largely accepted story — often centered around the Reagan presidency, or Clinton’s “new economy,” depending on one’s party preference — of recent American history as one of minor falls and major lifts.

    Brenner’s argument about how this came to pass is rigorous and buttressed by extraordinarily careful empirical research. With the Long Boom came an intensification of capital’s intrinsic logic. Brutal competition between industrial firms led to accelerating investment in the latest technology, the newest factory — or Fabrik, to use the more suggestive German word. This endlessly expensive struggle over fabrication methods replaced workers with machines, drove down profit margins, and correspondingly forced companies to increase the scale of production in order to earn anything at all. Less profit per widget, ergo more widgets! But alas, fewer industrial workers to buy them up: a version of the “general glut” that nineteenth century economists mostly believed was impossible.

    To this point, Brenner’s study follows rather closely the theory of capitalist crisis developed by Karl Marx around the ambiguously named “Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Decline.” Marx’s theory presented a challenge to the various prophets of equilibrium. Two centuries ago, French political economist Jean-Baptiste Say forwarded the proposition that supply and demand always balance themselves, because “products are paid for with products.” Marx disproved “Say’s Law” rather decisively. Marx being anathema to the doxa of professional economists, it would have to be disproved yet again, this time by a fellow bourgeois economist, John Maynard Keynes himself, before it could be put away (only to return, zombie-like, surviving against the massive weight of evidence in some quarters — cough Chicago cough).

    Marx argued that the tendency toward volatility and crisis was an intrinsic contradiction in capitalism’s mode of generating value. On the one hand, real profit (that is, systemic accumulation, as opposed to one merchant merely getting the better of another) could only arise from the extraction of surplus value from productive labor, to be realized as profit in the market. On the other, the coercive competition among enterprises compelled a struggle for greater productivity — which meant more and more efficient machines, organizational forms, and use of raw materials, requiring ever fewer productive laborers. Agribusiness is the great historical example of this, from the cotton mill to the “green revolution,” but the tendency exists across the economy. Since productive laborers are both the lone source of new value and are ceaselessly expelled from the production process, crisis is inevitable.

    To resolve this dynamic, a quite different kind of equilibrium was proposed. This is the “creative destruction” celebrated by its Austrian apostle, Joseph Schumpeter, in which the economy shakes itself apart amidst much destruction of value and great human immiseration, then reassembles itself so as to renew the process of accumulation. As profit plummets toward zero, a given line — automobiles, say, or consumer electronics — should “shake out,” with the weaker firms folding up their factories and heading home. Such a fratricidal fab-war, according to the theory, should restore profitability and even serve as a forcing house for the invention of new lines to tempt the consumer.

    Why, then, did this not happen in the seventies, as the U.S. economy went through a bruising series of shocks and declines? In an irony of position, Brenner’s history from the left approaches, as if the political spectrum were a torus, the far right ideas of the Austrian School of Economics (in particular their “liquidationist” belief that the government should never intervene against the failure of businesses, lest inefficiencies be unnaturally preserved). But Brenner is less interested in libertarian prescriptions than in a fact-based description of what happened and why. He persuasively debunks the idea that industrial profits were squeezed by wages; indeed, real wages have stagnated and even decreased in the last four decades. This has been concealed only in the sphere of rhetoric: Statistics about “household earnings” desperately hope you won’t notice that households now require multiple incomes to keep up. That wasn’t feminism sending women into the tender mercies of the labor market — or rather, it was, but at the same time the migration to the workplace was part of a protracted disaster for the working classes, masquerading as opportunity. And even while working more and harder, households have increasingly found themselves obligated to take on debt to stay afloat.

    The question of why the shakeout never materialized as the Long Boom ended stands at the center of Brenner’s detailed case and of his theory of history. At some point — between, say, the Summer of Love and the Fall of Saigon — the investment in machines and factories grew too weighty. The generals of industry had built so many fortifications they were no longer able to cut and run. And the nation-states that stood behind them urgently worked to preserve these shaky battlements, propping them up with various explicit and implicit forms of support that were enough to stop decay — to stop it from turning into demolition, that is, but not enough to reverse the vector of decline. And so necessity, momentum, and state meddling kept competitors at war, driving down profits until they could go no lower. The Detroit motordämmerung, and the vast husk of Bethlehem Steel in Buffalo that stands now quiet as Pharaoh’s tomb — these are part of the story, but only part. The places that held on, generating neither new jobs nor new profits — they are part of the story as well. Where industry was, there shall disaster be. And finance.

    It is here that the narratives of Duncan and Brenner converge, having unfolded in differing frames and with different focuses. An era of industrial expansion and real growth bears the seeds of its own undoing; when it fails, the financial sector must leap in to generate the profits elsewhere. But these expansions of the financial sector are always temporary, if not indeed illusory. There is no financial expansion that is not a bubble. Credit is, for all the many mysteries and wonders in which it traffics, money spent now for work to be done later: a mortgage, a share of IBM, and the mezzanine tranche of synthetic Collateralized Debt Obligation are all, in more and less evident ways, “claims on future labor.” The moment that it becomes evident that all that productive labor is not waiting up around the bend, then nobody wants to give out any more credit. And the creditors want their money. And the investors want out of risk. Pop.

    Part 4: Life on the Spiral

    This consequential shift from industrial to finance-based economies is the tale told by Giovanni Arrighi as well. Not twice or thrice but four times; in his telling, it has seized the mind of the globe and the centuries. The Long Twentieth Century, newly reissued by Verso, has the grandeur of a sprawling epic, and the schematic grace of a Richard Neutra blueprint; this combination is at once its virtue and its vice, promising clarity for some, mechanistic reduction to others. On balance, however, it is the single most useful text on offer for anyone who wants to narrate the story of world capitalism — from its nascent form on the rim of the Mediterranean to the current reach of the United States’ empire, and beyond.

    Arrighi, who died in 2009, admittedly stands on the shoulders of giants — the tallest of whom is French historian Fernand Braudel, doyen of the longue durée. Braudel and the Annales school gave rise to a kind of comparative macro-history that concerns itself with the interlocking relations of social, political, and economic forces across space and time. If one is able to distance oneself enough to see even great nations and transnational enterprises as parts rather than wholes, this “world-system” can then be studied as a complex unity, with its own logic and unfolding dynamic. Celebrity economist Paul Krugman likes to mention how, as a boy, he chose his career out of a desire to emulate Isaac Asimov’s fictional “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon, but in truth it is world-systems theory that more closely resembles such a dream of total history. Nonetheless, it remains a profoundly empirical and even pragmatic discipline: It follows the scholarly dictum formulated by Braudel’s colleague Marc Bloch, “years of analysis for a day of synthesis.”

    Surveying the historical record, Arrighi distinguishes persuasively between two sorts of empires. These might be distinguished according to Marx’s two formulae for exchange. The older of these is C-M-C, in which money is simply a means to gain further commodities; there is no imperative toward profit. Against this, Marx’s “General Formula” for capital is M-C-M, in which commodities only serve as a medium for increasing one’s store of money; this economic mode is the spirit of capitalism. Arrighi, in a striking insight, transposes this to imperial form. The traditional model follows a territorial logic, which he formalizes as T-M-T, and is bent on territorial advance; money is not an end but a means to expand the empire’s landholdings. Such reigns have been familiar since antiquity. But that model may be inverted to M-T-M, seizing territory only in so far as it provides greater profits. Here Arrighi locates the novelty of modern empire, and of modernity itself — which is to say, the historical reign of capital.

    For Arrighi, the history of global capitalism can be understood as a spiral, at once recursive and expansive. At the scale of the world and across long waves of global development, its cycles integrate the ebb and swell of states and markets and take on familiar and even predictable patterns; in the passage from cycle to cycle, however, uncertainty is the only emperor.

    In his telling, there have been four “cycles of accumulation,” each with its own imperial leader. In each period of something more than 100 years, a leading nation is able to organize the larger sphere toward its own interests — sometimes via force, but in main because it serves the interests of other states and enterprises to align themselves with the leader, a kind of influence known variously as hegemony, soft power, or neo-imperialism.

    The four “long centuries” have been led by Genoa, the Dutch, the British, and the United States. Some things about this grouping are surprising, including the earliest: We are more used to recalling the glory of Venice and Florence than we are the Ligurian republic of shipbuilders. Other commonalities are plain enough, such as the reminder that the British East and West Indian Companies were cover versions of the Dutch innovation.

    Most striking and most dramatic is the discovery that each of these long centuries has itself been divided into three phases, choreographically consistent: a merchant phase based on trade, followed by a phase of industrial expansion, and finally a period of financialization, in which economic vitality moves to the banking sector. It is a febrile vitality indeed, burning hot and fading away; the shift to finance is always, in Braudel’s lovely phrase, “a sign of autumn.” And when the finance era runs its course, so does the empire.

    This, finally, is the crux of the book: the discovery “that the financial expansion that came to characterize the global economy in the closing decades of the twentieth century was not a new phenomenon but a recurrent tendency of historical capitalism from its earliest beginnings.” It is this that grants us some purchase on the mercurial catastrophe of the last couple of years. We should not think of the rule and ruin of Wall Street as a novel historical fact; Genoa, after all, invented modern banking, and Amsterdam saw the first stock market. In the British Empire’s dotage, the City of London became financier to the world (in The Dial in 1922 the ever-grumpy T.S. Eliot described the cosmopole as “a little bookkeeper grown old”).

    The schematic quality of Arrighi’s history, seductive as it is, has also summoned skepticism. Does it not promise a sort of eternal return, the same shape repeating irrevocably — in a manner that seems discordant, to say the least, with the shifting course and deeply variegated texture of history, its subjective influences and contingent character, and its essential unknowability?

    Arrighi’s postscript to the new edition, written shortly before his death, addresses these doubts directly by pointing out that he had never in fact offered such a parade of the endless same. Yes, there is a three-staged cycle that keeps coming around. But each time, it recurs at a larger and more complex scale, internalizing new costs of protection or transaction, making a more efficient order of things. Each arises from a successively larger base, with more resources and more population: from the Italian city-state to the nation-state and eventually to the continental state of the US. And in turn the reach of each empire is broader, spiraling outward toward the only real spatial limit, the arc of the globe itself. This is what globalization means, after all; it has been in motion for quite some time, but has now perhaps reached some sort of limit. We recall the preceding cycles not to mutter about how there is nothing new under the sun. We reach back into the tradition so as to better reflect on our present predicament.

    For Arrighi, our own seasonal shift happened — no surprise — right around 1973. Along with industrial decline, we note the oil crisis, the finality of defeat in Vietnam, the end of the Bretton Woods agreements, the birth of the derivatives markets. All of this offered a “signal crisis” for American empire, a sign that autumn had begun. And the present collapse is, in turn, the “terminal crisis.” It is characterized not only by financial collapse, but more ominously by the decreasing ability to rally the globe toward the empire’s ends, and the corresponding need to pursue strategic goals via brute military force. The geopolitics of the last decade, with its tragic rehearsals of Vietnam, the farcical hollowness of the “coalition of the willing,” and the wrongfooted bumbling in the face of the Arab uprisings, testifies to little else. Our long century is no longer.

    Part 5: Spiral’s End

    Arrighi, notably, came to world-systems analysis as an economist, bearing a doctorate from one of the most esteemed business schools in Europe, Milan’s Bocconi University. Yet he ended his career in the sociology department at Johns Hopkins, and was occasionally derided by academic economists for trespassing on their turf. Along with Duncan and Brenner, Arrighi was finally alien to the discipline, or to its self-definition, which determines who participates in the policy debates, sets agendas, and wins Nobels. None of the three authors discussed here appears in the lists of those who predicted the crisis — though all of them did, laying out its grand mechanics, its global context and historical logic, and its absolute inevitability. What they didn’t do was think to offer a punctual date. Not even a month or a year; they didn’t try, or feel compelled to do so (well, Duncan may have, in his guise as an analyst, but not as an author).

    This absence clarifies certain matters all too well. When we talk casually about “who predicted the crisis,” we habitually don’t mean those who understood the mechanisms, who had an analytic method that might help us understand the future that crashes in upon us. We don’t mean to discover who is capable of historical thought, or what that thought might be.

    We mean stock pickers, more or less. We mean those whose insights could direct us when to get in and when to get out. This is the only mode of thought recognized by The Economist and the economists sanctioned by the guild’s conventions. Such thought has moved from being a hobby of speculators to an entire episteme, a mode of knowledge that dominates all others.

    Like democracy itself, this official thought presents itself as having subtleties, wings, parties. But the oppositions on offer — NYT vs. WSJ, Krugman vs. Cochrane, saltwater vs. freshwater schools of economics — can’t begin to grasp the fullness of the situation. Whether discovering “green shoots” or hand-wringing over a “jobless recovery,” they think unquestioningly in terms of a return to normalcy, debating only the rate and method: the crisis a mere blink in the long stare of empire.

    But the scandalous lesson we learn from heterodox thinkers like Brenner, Duncan, and Arrighi is quite a different one: that the American experience is grand, outsized, but not entirely novel. Industrial growth is bound to undo itself as a profit center, to be replaced by a regime of finance; this regime’s profit mechanism is always the bubble and its total crisis inescapable; and this is how empires end. Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart’s book on the delusions that accompany bubbles is called, with a wink, This Time It’s Different. Meaning, it never is. We must admit the same about the course of empire, and the current conjuncture. Empires rise and fall.

    We live in an epoch in which the great question is how to bid farewell to the U.S.-centered empire, and what the transition to another global arrangement might look like. Whether we know it or not, we are all Arrighians now.

    Part 6: The Epic in Winter

    One of the complexities on which Arrighi insists is the volatility of imperial transfer. These moments are not orderly passes of the scepter; the work is accomplished not within the whirring circuits of virtual capital, but all too often in the realms of blood and steel. It is Schumpeter’s creative destruction at the level of geopolitics. Last time around it took not one but two world wars to complete the exchange. It is not the sort of thing you root for, especially if your nation has been at the center and the top for a long while. But it happens whether or not one cheers it along, or endeavors to hold it back with white-knuckled desperation, or, more likely, ambles down the street with blinders on, passing the unemployed, joining the unemployed, waiting for a recovery that never arrives. It is toward such a period that we drift now.

    Arrighi’s final book, Adam Smith in Beijing, was a sustained consideration of what the far side of that period might look like. Its title might seem to suggest a conclusion that increasingly passes for common wisdom: The Chinese are coming. The smart money is investing in a good Mandarin for Beginners course.

    But Arrighi in fact offered a far more nuanced and ambiguous reflection on current events — made reticent, perhaps, by the failure of his curious proposition, at the end of the original edition of Long Twentieth Century, that we might expect a Japan-centered globe (at the time of the book’s publication, the Rising Sun had been already in eclipse for half a decade; it has yet to drag itself out of the doldrums).

    In the posthumous edition, he revisits and clarifies the forecasts arising from both major texts. He presents three scenarios. The first is a “truly global world empire” formed out of an alliance of the US and its European allies against the rise of East Asia. The second is a world market society — which is to say, based on exchange but non-capitalist — centered around China. And the third is, in his succinct phrase, “endless worldwide chaos.”

    This is not a promising array. The first is decreasingly likely as Western Europe pursues a geopolitical course that is unsteady but oblique to the fortunes of the U.S., with a German powerhouse intent on leveraging the continental crises to consolidate its role as the unchallenged power of the Eurozone. As Washington lashes out unconvincingly and Berlin plays economic bully, it’s hard to imagine a coordination of interests — much less one that would successfully restart the accumulation cycle by, in effect, reshuffling the present pieces.

    The third possibility, alas, seems most easily within the realm of imagination: a period of prolonged stasis and chaos, a sustained global drift dotted with local irruptions of conflict. In some places, zero-growth state capitalism tightly controlled by a centralized power; in others, frontier lawlessness and irresolvable claims. This already has a familiar feel.

    The second option, meanwhile — the argument Arrighi tried to sustain in Adam Smith — requires a somewhat optimistic belief that China’s economy, careering along “the capitalist road” for 30 years, is just within spitting distance of a qualitatively different mode of social relations. There is a certain logic to the prediction; Arrighi argues rightly that China currently follows a labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive course, and that living labor is less in thrall to the weight of the dead labor embodied in ceaselessly proliferating machines. But this locates the Chinese on the continuum of capitalist development, not elsewhere.

    Still, if the vision of a market society ruled by something other than the profit motive tilts a bit toward the utopian, it summons forth the discussion topic that the economists won’t recognize: a real alternative to capitalism. Arrighi, not much of a polemicist, lingers little on the fact that empires of capital not only undo themselves, but proceed via intensifications of exploitation and immiseration. If capitalism has been an incomparable historical dynamo, it has also been its most prolific producer of inequality — an imbalance that always increases during the autumnal phase of finance, as we have seen of late all too clearly. It goes without saying that this is the debate we should be having. And it should not be only economists who are having it, much less glorified stock touts.

    Flight to safety, flight to liquidity, flight to quality. The flight has begun; this much is true. But we are not adrift on the tides of investor risk preferences; we are on the seas of history, between the great swells of empire. This has always been the true significance of the epic. It tells the story of transformation between capitals; the gods play the part of destiny, the unseen inner logic of the world-system, into which the hero is tossed in need of a home. However, this takes on a different substance in an epoch when we have reached the limits of the globe, when there is no unfound Rome on which to found a new empire, and the familiar dynamic has run its course. We fancy ourselves done with the gods; are we equally as free from the thrall of destiny, from a systemic dynamic that remains alien to us? And is this not what we should be debating, rather than the merits of management styles for the old capital?


    Joshua Clover is a Professor of English Literature at University of California Davis. He is currently at work on a book tentatively entitled Capital Poetics, bringing together the study of poetry with contemporary political economy, and finishing a poetry collection called Tranche/Syntagma.

  • #2
    Re: the autumn of empire: industrialization --> financialization --> end of empire

    Good read. Enjoyed the historical scope - merchant capitalism, competitive industrial capitalism, monopoly capitalism and now, financial monopoly capitalism, the latter within the special conditions of a post-war US world, now fraying on the edges.


    • #3
      Re: the autumn of empire: industrialization --> financialization --> end of empire

      Thanks. Very good article. Parts 5 and 6 are similar to what Immanuel Wallerstein is now saying...we are entering a period of instability, while "the forces" fight to determine "the next organizing model".

      Wallerstein sees 2 options in play over the next few years, essentially Arrighi's option 1 ( a "new world order", dominated by self-enriching elites running elitist globalist organizations that dominate the world, and which tend to impoverish most of the rest) or Arrighi's option 2 (a model tilted more toward labor and people, with the implication of greater equality) .

      What's interesting is that Wallerstein is a fairly well-known and respected sociologist, a field that Arrighi was attracted to at the end.

      Michael Hudson very recently wrote an article in which he seems to contend that it's all over, option 1 (global elitist domination and control) is winning and will continue to win , unless things change drastically and soon.
      Last edited by World Traveler; 07-20-11, 08:41 PM. Reason: spelling