Intro to Contemporary Crisis Theory
The financial crash and the subsequent transformations of the lived economy appear as existential threats. These threats cut across a broad range of social classes. Any deep recession provoking high unemployment affects working people, especially those on temporary contracts. When the recession is prolonged and tax revenues plunge, the state slashes social benefits, hurting parents, children, retirees, the sick and disabled. General welfare programs – notably concerning the environment – are dismantled in the name of a return to profitability. These are the most familiar features of the average business-cycle downswing.
The new thing is that from the outset, this depression has afflicted the so-called middle classes, hitting them in the very areas that define their status, with the loss of assets (devalued homes and stocks), the decline of professional rank (automation, outsourcing, crowdsourcing of intellectual/creative functions) and finally, the shrinking access to social property (curtailment of high-end entitlements, notably education and culture). Even more intensely, youth seeking to gain or confirm their middle-class status find themselves burdened with unpayable educational debt and stalked by impoverishment and proletarianization: the central figure of the Occupy movement was the “graduate without a future.” The professional-managerial class is shrinking to its technocratic core. How did this happen? Why is it so violent? Who or what is to be blamed? The banks, of course. But what are the banks? Where does their money come from? What do they do with it? How are they connected to the giant corporations? Why does the government support them? What makes the whole system so resistant to change?
Answers to these questions are not ready to hand, not for the so-called “average person.” The financial crisis of 2008 and its ongoing economic consequences translate into a new and practically immediate use-value of social theory. The citizen flush with credit in a well-lighted and well-policed city needs no conceptual map to find his or her way to the bar, the beach, the entertainment arcade and the workplace. The citizen faced with an ambuscade lurking in every bit of fine print, with consequences like unemployment, foreclosure, the refusal of medical care or the evaporation of retirement funds, suddenly wants to know what’s going on. Conspiracy theories (the Federal Reserve, the Bilderberg, the 500 families) offer the first shreds of insight. But society is more complex, corruption is deeply seated, injustice is systemic. What suddenly becomes recognizable is the public character of social theory, which addresses the whole as a human creation with collective consequences, unlike academic social science focusing microscopically on separate parts conceived as functions of natural laws. In a globalized society, social theory is the threshold opening up to a possible democratic practice.
Why not seize this opportunity to launch radical investigative projects? The economic system is opaque because it operates with a global division of labor; because it uses high-tech automation and communications systems; because the development of finance has vested so much power in abstract symbolic logic processed by computers; and because large sectors of national and even local and municipal government have split off from their obligations to the population, effectively transnationalizing their operations in the service of finance, multinationals, and the military-academic-industrial complex. Creating a readable map of these transformations responds to an existential urgency. That’s the basic idea behind the ongoing project “Three Crisis: 30’s – 70’s – Today.”
The organizational format involves multiple research collaborations, open public presentations with a balance of content and participation, extensive accessible documentation, incursions into universities and cultural institutions, and other means yet to be invented. The method places Marxist philosophy and economic theory into tension with fresh scientific data and the post-68 philosophies of multiplicity. The range extends beyond economics, technics, geopolitics and governance to embrace daily life, social movements, artistic works and processes as well as ecological thinking and practice. The aim is to understand the stresses of social class formation in the present, in order to transform and overcome them.
This work takes time. The biggest difficulty is, first, realizing the extent to which the social-democratic projects of the mid-twentieth century have shaped all of us – expectations, personalities, habits, drives – even into the present. And second, realizing that those social-democratic projects, far from representing a desirable “golden age,” actually culminated in the trap where we find ourselves today. In particular, the introduction of the televisual dream-machine into the home, and the Keynesian-Fordist treatment of consumer desire as the key input to industrial production, have produced one of the most powerful ideological systems in human history, easily comparable to religion in its capacity to orient human values and to justify organized violence and warfare. Networked technologies have intensified and complexified this consumer-credit ideology, even while offering tools that can help to overthrow it. The planetary extension of the postwar American consumer dream is the nightmare from which those expropriated at the very core of the capitalist project are finally struggling to awaken.
A theoretical introduction, offering detailed examinations of specific concepts that can be used to trace the historical phases of one’s own self-formation under capitalism, can be found in the pdf file linked at the top of this entry. The visual notes give another look at the theoretical frame, then begin tracing the relationship between the just-in-time production system and the financial apparatus of management and valuation. Does any of this strike a chord? Make you angry? Inspire you to work toward an entirely different future? If so, let’s find a way to collaborate.