The Millennium that Never Came

 

by Mike Keefe - The Denver Post
by Mike Keefe – The Denver Post

 

One day the story of the decade gone by will be unpacked by others. This was a decade that was bizarre and terrifying – cluttered with event-scenes: massacres, spectacles, war, endless staged media events, and a mysterious violence with shadow perpetrators whose names changed every day in police stories – a million changing acronyms of ‘terror’ groups.

This was of course, the decade where a combination of endless greed, and endless dispossession was naturalized by vacuous ruling elites long-reliant for their ideas on a tribe of management consultants, media industries, fund managers, and neo-liberal intellectuals. Today the capitalist world economy lies in complete shambles, the largest crisis since the crash of 1929.

Who could have imagined but a decade ago that this situation would come to pass? At the beginning of the 1990s capitalism, argued the anthropologists Jean and and John Comarroff, took on a millennial shape, presenting itself as a Second Coming. This was a phenomenon that presents itself as both pragmatic and messianic, a figure of the moment, “ a capitalism that presents itself as a gospel of salvation, a capitalism, that if rightly harnessed, is invested with the capacity wholly to transform the universe of the marginalized.”

Neo-Liberal triumphalism generated the most noise in the 1990s, the defeat of Marxism’s Stalinist variant in 1989, ensured that for sure. Globalization became the generalised religion of official capitalism – Asia, and certainly South Asia has never been the same again. One of the main pillars of this was finance. As money, finance became the great narcotic of capitalism – drawing millions through easy credit. Urban populations have rushed to credit cards, and house and consumer loans. With money, millions also rushed to fill the information economy – PAN cards, mobile numbers, bank account details. In the 1990s money accomplished the rapid erosion of the private realm, a feat which older police regimes could only dream of. More interesting, and fantastically, numbers began to stand in for things. In the bubble years that have just ended, it was difficult to have a serious conversation with a sensuous description of things, without reference to its financial value. In buses, roads, everyday conversation, and the pornographic clutter of headlines – the Number took on an inflationary cast – the price of houses, the stock market, land values, an endless spiral upwards. The inflationary, self expanding image of money allegorised an out-of control culture of endless accumulation.

In his brilliant novel Auto-da-fé published in 1935, the writer Elias Canetti narrates the story Peter Kien, an old European bourgeois scholar in Weimar Germany, lost in his books and his library. Very soon, Kien’s world is swept away by the terrifying turmoil of the money economy and inflation. Canetti writes:

Everything that happened— and a great deal happened— depended on one thing, the breakneck devaluation of money. It was more than disorder that smashed over people, it was something like daily explosions; if anything survived one explosion, it got into another one the next day…. In order to stand my ground against the money-minded people in my own family, I had made it a rather cheap virtue to scorn money. I regarded money as something boring, monotonous, that yielded nothing intellectual, and that made the people devoted to it drier, more and more sterile. But now, I suddenly saw it from a different, an eerie side— a demon with a gigantic whip, lashing at everything and reaching people down to their most private nooks and crannies.

Like the destruction of the stable bourgeois world in Canetti’s story, the 1990s saw the money economy tie the lives of millions of city dwellers to the information economy. This was the secret of official money, to access it you bared your soul, your private self. This was the official script at least. As middle class populations entered the legal financial economy, many more inhabited the world of cash, local chit funds, and private loans – the great information black hole for the state.

Finance was the ultimate neoliberal dance with death. The historian Fernand Braudel once argued that financial expansion represented the sign of ‘autumn’, an announcement of systemic decline in capitalism. The vast expansion of the financial system out of sync with the commodity economy allegorised the US’ long decline as a global power. As the US became more dependent on financial expansion to fund global power, its hegemony was completely eroded – with the proliferation of financial centres, and nonlinear networks of money. The US borrowed for everything – wars, property – and sold its debt to the world’s banks. Today, its model in ruins, the US will move from hegemon to a simple capitalist power in the coming decades. Even the future of the US as a power depends on Chinese treasure in its banks. The Second Coming of Neo-liberalism has become the Fall.

There is a cruel pleasure, (I must admit) in tracking the story of those who sold us the official story of the fading decade of Empire and the bubble economy. Yesterday’s neoliberals now claim they were Keynesians. The once inflationary spiral of the bubble economy is only matched by the deflationary intellectual spiral of the political spectrum. Manmohan Singh asks companies to not lay off workers. Indignant television commentators who once chided protestors for daring to oppose “development,” now organise talk shows on the ‘social cost’ of economic excess. On the other side the Keynesians (read orthodox Marxists), who sold us the story of the postcolonial state, now clamour for redemption. The Indian Left, official cadavers of the 20th century, are now recycled as the official economic dissenters, never mind Singur and Nandigram.

The interesting times have just begun, hold on for more.

10 thoughts on “The Millennium that Never Came”

  1. Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. What then would we make of EU protectionism- that systematically markets the semantics of Free Trade agreements and geographical indicators and what have you to secure the sensuality/brand equity/market monopoly of the wine and the cheese? I was sitting at a quaint lower East Side bar and thinking of the possible conspiracy theories that neoliberal ivory towers might have cooked up and disseminated for the length of the twentieth century, in order to protect their own romantic (but powerful) localism (think quaint jazz bars and local ales) to the postcolonial world. Maybe keynesians and the neoliberal gurus were always really on the same page, having figured the thermostat within which Western capital was to be protected and nurtured, and the semantics of “free markets” was always meant to seduce the rest, so they could be the hosts of sweat shops and EPZs, precisely in order to nurture the quaint localisms of the lower East side. Maybe protectionism was always the hushed strategy of free markets… Maybe World Bank Structural Adjustment proselytisation was always meant only for the rest…

  2. Recession has come because the developed world economy is satiated. There are very few people in the first world who do not own all the necesities of life- so how will the demand for cars, TV,fridge,cloth, etc grow. Because demand will fuel growth. Now when they have enjoyed the good things in life the first worldians(first world citizens) should turn to spirituality and hermit style living in which case their needs would be limited. As usually happens the rich turn spiritual after acquiring their riches. Perhaps the west should also adopt this – then they will not have to worry about confusing economic terms like liquidity crisis, credit squeeze, sub prime mortgages, stock market fluctuations etc.
    Since in under developed world most peoples live in villages they are not so affected because their needs are simple and confined to food and basic necessities. If any growth is to come it has potential here.

  3. Wonderful reading, Ravi. And lyrically written. Keep posting! And Atreyee, I am indeed convinced that your series of ‘maybe’s are very much on path. By the way, what is this lower east side? the lower east side of what? I have a quaint, perpetual ache in my lower east side, but that may be appendicitis eh?

  4. Sunalini: I am adequately embarrassed! Was trying to impress the thought that some localities become globalities, reaminiing in their quaint embeddedness, dint get across I suppose. Would have the same question if i said Connaught Place? Surely in a certain imagination, this particular locality has acquired greater recognition than Basveswarnagar right? At least in the imagination of the intelligent establishment that speaks from, on, over, under, for, against Delhi. And then they feel marginalised when greater universal localities are thrust upon them, they feel outraged…. Part of life I guess… We have scizophrenic personalities dont you think? We exercise silencing narrative power in some multiverses, and are silenced in others…

  5. Atreyee, I dont think Sunalini-from-Delhi felt marginalized or outraged by the mere invocation of a “greater universal locality” – all she wanted was for you to name the city the “lower east side” of which you were referring to. That the phrase refers necessarily to to New York city would not be clear to everyone who might read kafila. The assumption of familiarity with that form of address is what she was gently ribbing you about…
    And that involves implicating herself in the elite who do “know” – it’s all there, boss!
    (A smiley face would be in order here, but I’m trying not to do that…)

  6. Unabashed smiley:)- The stigma of the phoren is indeed unavoidable…. I suppose both Connaught Place and Manhattan are equally alien to parochial Bengalis like me, hence it had not made a difference which symbol-of-powerful-yet-quaint-local I picked…. but wouldnt want to monopolise and dissipate any more of the discussion from the main theses of the post.

  7. Jumping in just for a minute to say, yes that was pure gentle ribbing. I really should have put in a smiley…It was tongue-in-cheek, but if there was any implicating going on, it was as Nivedita pointed out, for all of us, who do have some idea what the ‘lower east side’ is. No offence intended at all, honestly! Your points about certain locals becoming reified were very well taken, as I mentioned above. About Connaught Place, you know I have a friend who has written a wonderful novel in HIndi about growing up in a mofussil town outside Delhi. One of his chapters is a description of the way in which he and hundreds of others from small towns all around Delhi would board a train every saturday to reach Connaught Place, which they would proceed to overrun in hordes.

    The point being that Connaught Place has been open for multiple appropriations due to its being the geographical centre of the political and national Centre in India. In 80’s India, in the imagination of urban villages around Delhi, it functioned as a shimmering promise of inclusiveness and anything-goes…But that is irrelevant. In my next post, if I mention Connaught Place with easy familiarity, do pull my leg :)

  8. The hand wringing that has followed the The Wall Street Crash/crisis/implosion/crunch has also stemmed from the fact that there appears to be no option other than to bailout/rescue the very people who appear be held responsible for the crash.

    In the run-up to the first failed bailout – where congress refused to pass the 700 billion dollar package – the crux of the debate was hinged on whether Main Street (supposedly a metaphor for the regular joe six packs and plumbers of america) should bail out Wall street (the metaphor for the financial sector). With an election around the corner, a number of democrats and republicans argued that Wall Street should wallow in its own mess.

    The freezing of credit lines was, however, what the americans like to call a “game changer”. The freeze meant that small businesses on main street couldnt pay their employees and coupled with an impending (or ongoing recession) meant that the US has lost 1.2 million non-farm jobs since the beginning of 2008.

    Pension funds are down 40 per cent, people’s retirement funds have been wiped out – and more than 12 million american families find that their mortgages are worth more than their homes.
    So Ravi is right in calling this a systemic crisis that asks some fairly basic questions of the way the US economy is structured.

    A recent New Yorker article <http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2008/11/10/081110crat_atlarge_lanchester?currentPage=all

    talks about how the before the financial system went bust, it went postmodern.

    But capital’s charming ability to co-opt and adapt appears unharmed. Soon after the de facto nationalisation of some of the worlds biggest banks american papers – particularly the Wall Street Journal – carried page after page of op-eds explaining why exactly this wasnt “socialism”.

    So the moral of the story? That we are so plugged into the system that there appears to be no way of getting out. Because even when wall street fails, main street has to grit its teeth and do the needful. Frightening wot?

  9. Dear all,
    Thanks for all the great comments. In looking at this crisis, I am reminded of Karl Polanyi’s classic, The Great Transformation written in the 1940s. Polanyi argued that capitalism went through a “double movement,” The nineteenth century liberal creed of a self-regulating market, which disastrously disembedded the economy from society, and the countermovement of state regulation, that emerged after the inevitable economic disaster. The nineteenth century self regulating market was mythical and unsustainable, such that economic crisis provoked even the business elite to call for regulation. “Unless the alternative to the social setup is a plunge into utter destruction,” said Polanyi, “no crudely selfish class can maintain itself in the lead.” Polanyi thought liberalism was finished by the disasters of the economic Depression and War, even the bourgeoisie had no use for it. Little did he know that this would come back in recent years, in the form of neo-liberalism.
    The “utter destruction” wrought by recent years is so repetitive, and ‘normal,’ that the ‘double movement’ between market and statism needs to be radically updated today. Perhaps the movement, post the events of Seattle – are not towards a new statism, but more. Shall we see regional alliances, linked local struggles, bypassing the famous ‘double’ movement?

    Ravi

  10. dear ravi sundram,
    are u the same ravi sundram who was in SFI during the 1983-84 at delhi ?
    due regards,
    raj kumar baghi

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