Solidarity Economy Alternative Emerging Theory and Practice

Cycles of financial expansion and technological change

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Cycles of financial expansion and technological change

Perez understands the present crisis as a phase of financial collapse in the latest of recurring cycles of finance-driven expansion based on the installation of a new technology, to be followed by collapse and, finally, government-facilitated renewal through deployment of the new technology. After analysing previous periods of expansion, collapse and renewal, she suggests the likely conditions, drivers and directions of a path out of the present crisis to a new paradigm of sustainable development.

Her central point relevant to this chapter is that we are now in a period not only of financial collapse but also of partially stalled deployment of the new information and communication technologies, because investors on whom growth depends are no longer confident of a sufficient rate of return.8 Her explicit challenge to ‘government and to those who can pressure and influence government’ is to create the conditions under which investors would feel more confident about investing in a whole new development model centred on ICT and green technologies, thus achieving new levels of sustainable growth. She compares this directly with the post-war combination of meeting social goals and achieving economic growth through private as well as public investment. For example, she describes low-cost internet access for all as equivalent to electrification and suburbanisation in stimulating demand (as well as facilitating education and ‘intangible’ services). She believes revamping transport, energy, and production systems could equal post-war reconstruction in terms of innovation and investment opportunities. And she argues that incorporating millions more people worldwide into sustainable consumption patterns would equal the welfare state and government procurement in terms of demand creation (2012).

This is a challenging vision, and drawing on it helps us to pitch the discussion about the future of the solidarity economy at a suitably systemic level. Perez’s historical sweep, with its focus on financial cycles and technological change, installation and deployment, leaves open key questions of institutional agency. I am doubtful in particular about the extent to which she looks to government action to enliven and encourage the ‘animal spirits’ of capital as the basis of a transition towards the sustainable new paradigm. Indeed, the strength of her own analysis of the present highly financialised nature of capital points to the importance of economic agency and power, beyond government – but in some relation to government – to deploy and apply the new technologies to the problems of inequality and climate change. The grounds for looking beyond capital and government are first that powerful sections of capital are tending to put their surpluses on the money markets, certain of being able to make money out of money, rather than investing in production.(Weldon 2011). Second few governments, in Europe at any rate, are willing nowadays even to nudge business to invest, nor to take the risks involved in investing in production (Weldon 2011).(Mazucato 2012).

Even though Perez may be overoptimistic about the potential of capital, encouraged by government, the way in which she poses the economic and environmental challenge in terms of a new techno-economic paradigm is nevertheless pertinent. It indicates the strategic importance of actors engaged in production and in the relationships of consumption and culture that influence production; in other words, the actual developers, producers and creative users – ‘produsers’ or ‘prosumers’, as some have described the latter (Bauwens 2012) – of the new technology. This points to the potential of civil society associations and initiatives, organised autonomously from (though in often in some relationship to) capital and state as transformative economic actors. And this includes the (necessarily renovated) organisations of labour in the workplaces and among precarious and ‘freelance ‘workers.

My argument, building on Arrighi’s analysis of the importance and nature of the social conflict at the origins of the crisis in the 1960s and 1970s, is that as civil society asserts itself consciously as a creative and economic actor, the possibilities open up of economic relationships driven by co-operative creativity,. leaving us less dependent on the spirits of the capitalist jungle.

    1. The roots of crisis, the rebellions of labour, and the emergence of civil society as an economic actor

Arrighi argues that the social conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s were decisive in provoking the flight of capital from production to financial markets. The rebellions of these years, he notes, were ‘far more important than the intensification of inter-capitalist competition’ – the key factor producing financial expansion in past periods of transition from one period of global capitalist development and crisis to another. (Arrighi and Silver 1999) In other periods, social unrest followed financialisation and collapse, whereas the rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s preceded financialisation.

This historical chronology also points to something about the nature of these revolts. They were not responses to the repercussions of capitalist crisis – unemployment, reduced wages, and so on. Rather, they were more the product of increasing and unmet expectations, arising from the promises of the post-war global settlement.

The 1960s civil rights movement in the US inspired, globally, a sense of confidence in refusing injustice and standing up for human dignity. In the factories of the North, the day-to-day struggles of the same decade, in conditions of full employment and buoyant bargaining power, were more fundamentally about who controlled the organisation, pace and discipline of labour than the level of wages. In the wider society, struggles were about making public services respond to social needs that were taking an increasingly diverse and demanding form. This was particularly so as women with a new self-awareness and expanded expectations refused sole responsibility for child-rearing and housework (Rowbotham 2009). On a wider international level, struggles took place over self-government and political equality. All these rebellions in different ways had an impact on profitability, whether in changing the balance of power in production, in strengthening pressures for public spending and more progressive taxation, or in challenging the privileged terms of access to the markets and natural riches of the South.

There was a complex diversity to these struggles – in a sense, this variety was intrinsic to their character. But it does not diminish the importance of the specifics to say that what they had in common, and what made their consciousness historically distinctive, is that they were all conflicts over the assertion of cultural equality.

The importance of this, touched on earlier in this chapter, is that whereas most democratic reformers of the twentieth century acted with assumptions of cultural superiority – they, the professionals, the leaders, knew what was best for the masses – the rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s asserted a deeper equality of each individual, understood socially in terms of the social structures that produced their subordination. This was evident in the inseparability of personal change and social change, in an individualism contingently connected to social liberation. New self-defined subjects – women, blacks, gays, workers – named, investigated and challenged their marginalisation by making changes directly, breaking from subordination in the here and now. The challenges were not only to macro structures of domination but to the micro power relations of everyday life.

The struggles for cultural equality were both against the state – in and against the social institutions of the state as well as against the military-industrial complex – and the Fordist corporation.

A corollary of this struggle was an active claim to be subjects, including in economic change, whether as workers; as women; or as black, colonised or any previously marginalised social group (Mamdani 1996). This cultural equality and implied ‘subjecthood’ was not embedded in any lasting economic or political institutions. This made the social and cultural innovations of these decades literally ambivalent in the sense of having the potential to go – at least – two ways (ambi vale) in terms of political and economic paths. As a reflective participant observer of the movements of 1968 in Italy put it, ‘To demolish authority did not automatically mean the liberation of human diversity’ (Tronti 2012). The path chosen depended on developments outside the control of the fragile organisations through which those rebellions, to varying degrees, had an organised expression.

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