Thursday, August 11, 2011
The global media has been nervously covering two simultaneous forms of destruction: the obliteration of wealth in the financial markets and the destruction of property in the United Kingdom. This destruction involves different actors, objects, temporalities, and spatial scales. The looting by youths in the UK had a short-term temporality and has been territorially contained within one nation. But this destruction had a profound affective impact because of its power to temporarily wrest the streets from the control of the state and because it can be immediately represented, visually and live, on countless screens. The corporate media promptly mobilized these images of burning shops, burning police cars, or wounded passersby to scare and enrage the “normal citizens” and modulate their attachment to state authority through the image of looters in hoodies.
But the media are simultaneously covering another form of violent looting, one that operates on a much vaster temporal and spatial scale and creates much deeper forms of social and material devastation. The sacking by the global financial elites of the collective wealth of myriad countries, from the United States to Greece, has been going on for much longer and is ruining not just property but millions of lives. As Paul Krugman has repeatedly argued, the main outcome of this neoliberal devastation is pain. The debris that testifies to this pain is there for anyone to see: dozens of millions of jobs destroyed, millions of homes foreclosed, public services reduced or shut down in hospitals, schools, and public libraries, pension plans evaporated, social security eroded. In Europe, the UK has led the way in this hugely destructive transfer of wealth away from the commons. Yet this devastation and those responsible for it are harder to represent visually in the 20 second-clips that the media cultivates. Being scattered in countless places, this is destruction that the corporate media hides from view or dilutes politically as the product of ever-uncontrollable, faceless and ghostly market forces.
Yet this capitalist sacking can and should be represented. And we should start calling it by what it is: looting, as many people in the critical blogosphere do. This capitalist sacking has accelerated since the 2008 financial crisis and has become a destructive appropriation, supported with the repressive power of the state and in most cases against the will of the majorities, of what used to belong in the public domain. Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, the UK, the US are all variations of the same story.
The looters in hoodies are being promptly punished by the state. With over 1,000 arrests, the British courts are at capacity and overwhelmed. The capitalist looters in Armani suits, in contrast, destroy with impunity. They know they are above the law because they are the planetary elite, what we should probably call (resurrecting an old-fashioned but also crystal-clear political concept) the global oligarchy of the 21st century. Oligarchs are, after all, actors so wealthy and powerful that they control the state and do as they please with impunity, even if they act against of the will of the majority of the population. Our oligarchs devastated the world economy in 2008-2009 yet landed on their feet with a grin on their face, knowing all too well that this destruction not only left them unscathed but actually made their wealth thrive. These looters supported by the military might of the state that follows their orders thrive on destruction. And they continue calling the shots and preaching the wonders of free markets, as if millions of homes had not been already devastated under their watch. Obama, after all, put the US economy in charge of the men from Wall Street (i.e. Larry Summers) who deregulated the financial markets and led them to their collapse (as the film The Inside Job crudely shows). These professional looters in suits do not have to fear being called “thugs” by the British prime minister despite bullying whole nations into destroying their social safety nets and shutting down hospitals or daycare centers. Like zombies insensitive to the ruins piling up around them, they keep preaching their old credo, and they keep cashing in big time, as we enter yet another destructive economic turbulence of their own creation.
It’s about time to stop calling the devastation created by capitalism “creative destruction,” as progressive thinkers like David Harvey often do. Popularized by Joseph Schumpeter in the 1940s, the term “creative destruction” appropriates the negativity of Marx’s view of capitalist destruction in The Communist Manifesto yet rephrases it as creative, thereby depoliticizing it. Through a subtle yet decisive ideological sleight of hand, capitalist destruction is redefined as innovative, positive, desirable: an unavoidable outcome of its thriving dynamism. It is therefore not surprising that neoliberal economists and corporate apologists often celebrate the “creative destruction” of capitalism, for in this usage the positive element, creation, subsumes and neutralizes the negativity of destruction. But there is nothing creative in capitalist destruction for those who live amid its rubble. Capitalism certainly produces enormous amounts of goods, wealth, and technological innovation, but as part of a destructive system of production that, as Ann Stoler would put it, ruins the lives of millions. Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story can be seen in this regard as a gripping journey to the experience of people whose lives have been destroyed by unregulated financial capitalism in the United States.
This capitalist global devastation dwarfs the destruction of property by kids in hoodies in the British streets. In an interview on BBC that has gone viral, Darcus Howe forcefully articulated (to the horror of the anchorwoman) that in the UK this devastation is profoundly racialized and supported by police brutality. This, he explained (while the anchorwoman was trying to shut him down), is the affective terrain that created the rage behind the riots. Many analysts have emphasized the obvious: that riots are complex social phenomena that respond to multiple factors and determinations. But the action of looters in hoodies in thousands of different places all over England is definitively not disentangled from the capitalist looting that has eroded social services and opportunities in those same spaces and is taking, again, the global economy onto the edge of the abyss.
The capitalist looters, needless to say, don’t want us to connect the dots. A certain Andrew Roberts on The Daily Beast wrote, with indignation, a piece on the riots entitled: “Stop blaming the wealthy.” He proposes, instead, to blame the poor. The core reason of the riots, he says, is the welfare state and the “entitlements” that make poor people lazy. This “uprising,” he tells us, is that of “the non-working, anti-working, would-do-anything-sooner-than-work class.” The cheerleaders of corporate power hate it when people point their fingers at the oligarchs. It’s much easier to point to youths in hoodies and call them “scum.”
The English riots explosively articulate aspects of the collective angst that has marked most of the affective political currents and the many insurrections interconnecting different parts of the world in 2011. In their purely destructive form, they shattered and subverted the fetishized form of the commodity world, even if failing to create in those ruptured streets positive political solidarities like the ones emerging in Greece and Spain (or the ones created in the previous wave of anti-cut protests in the UK). The lack of a positive political message tends to be read by much of the public (through the lens of the corporate media) as mindless, criminal violence one needs to be afraid of. The right-wing celebration of state repression tends to benefit from this type of destruction as long as public debates do not place it firmly amid the much larger wave of capitalist destruction. The insurrections at the Paris working-class suburbs in 2005 were, unfortunately, a gift to the capitalist looters. As Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy demonized the rioters as “rabble” and became the champion of a scared middle-class who shortly thereafter elected him as president. He then proceeded to hand the government over to professional looters (the crème of the national oligarchy) committed to sacking and eroding the national pension plan, despite generalized and massive political opposition on the streets. In France, the bogyman of the hooded kids setting cars on fire served the capitalist looters well.
But this doesn't need to be the case elsewhere. The riots in the UK were dramatic ruptures in the texture of the neoliberal order that also offer spaces for political and theoretical illumination. As the Situationist International argued in reference to the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles: "Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It instantly undermines the commodity as such, and it also exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialized detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed violence." The English riots reveal with brutality that there is nothing orderly and calm behind the façade of everyday consumerism most of these youths feel excluded from. And they make it clear that capitalist devastation is taking a toll. Its affective and material outcome are eruptions of violent destruction. As Paul Lewis and James Harkin from The Guardian put it after talking with several rioters, capturing the rudimentary but anti-status quo politics of their actions: “This is unadulterated, indigenous anger and ennui. It's a provocation, a test of will and a hamfisted two-finger salute to the authorities.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, as Naomi Klein has shown in The Shock Doctrine, Latin America was the terrain on which the global elites first experimented the extremely unregulated capitalism that is now wreaking havoc in the US and Europe. This is why many people in and from Latin America, myself included, are following the news coming from Europe and North America as déjà vu. Privatizations, brutal spending cuts, default, riots? Been there done that. By the early 2000s, the capitalist sacking of Latin America had been so devastating that it led to several popular insurrections and a wave of democratically-elected left and center-left governments that, despite their differences, have partly reconstructed the welfare state, put limits to the reign of corporate power and the IMF, and set on a course of sustained economic growth. And many of those responsible for the capitalist looting of the 1990s had to flee the continent. Most found a safe haven on ivy league campuses in the United States.
In 2000-2001, I had a first-hand, often surreal experience with some of these former looters in exile when I was a postdoc at Harvard and kept running into them on campus. Most of these former officials could simply not live in their home countries anymore because they were rightly seen as responsible for widespread social destruction. I once attended a talk, for instance, that included in the public the former President of Ecuador Jamil Mahuad (toppled by an insurrection in January 2000), his former finance minister, and a former minister of Menem’s cabinet in Argentina. They were all Harvard fellows. But I was still not fully prepared to stomach a speech by the then president of Harvard, Larry Summers, who had just deregulated US financial markets under Clinton. In the spring of 2001, Summers praised at a public event the recent nomination of Domingo Cavallo as finance minister of Argentina for a second time. He condescendingly argued that Cavallo’s Harvard education guaranteed the success of his tenure, failing to mention that the then rapidly-worsening situation in Argentina was Cavallo’s own making (when he engineered the neoliberal sacking of the commons as Menem’s finance minister). A few months later, Cavallo had to flee Argentina amid a devastated economy and a widespread popular insurrection that toppled the government and included a crowd of thousands surrounding his home in Buenos Aires angrily demanding his resignation. Cavallo joined the other elite Latin American expats at Harvard, which always opens its arms to looters of all stripes, as long as they don’t wear hoodies.
The case of Latin America simply confirms that there is nothing natural or inevitable in the capitalist devastation that is now descending, again, upon the northern hemisphere. It all comes down, as is usually the case, to political relations of force created by the presence of multitudes on the streets. And the former financial oligarchs now in exile at elite US universities remind us that what the capitalist looters fear, and what in some cases makes them literally run away to escape popular wrath, are resonant multitudes taking over public space and negating the neoliberal order through an assertive defense of the commons. And this is why, at this particular historical conjuncture, in order to gather further political strenght it is important to shift the debate away from the kids in hoodies shattering windows and toward the capitalist looters.