Britain's Brezhnev-style capitalism

Wander into post-Olympics East London, lift your gaze, and what do you see? The awful warning of late-Soviet homogenisation.

Will Davies
6 April 2013

Karl Marx believed, optimistically, that capitalism was creating the conditions of its own socialist successor, through bringing an emergent class together in cities and factories, where they would inevitably discover their shared interest and the superiority of common ownership. Optimistic Marxists, such as Hardt and Negri, continue to believe that something like this is true, on the basis that value is dematerialising, making it eventually impossible to privatise. There are even business gurus who preach something similar.

Wandering around Stratford Westfield the other day, I had a similar but more pessimistic thought: maybe capitalism is gradually morphing into the 'actually existing' state socialism of the old Eastern Bloc. (For international readers, Stratford Westfield is a vast shopping centre that was strategically located between the 2012 Olympic Park and the nearest train station, in the hope of rinsing unfortunate athletics fans for some cash en route to the games.) British capitalism already has many of the hallmarks of Brezhnev-era socialist decline: macroeconomic stagnation, a population as much too bored as scared to protest about very much, a state that performs tongue-in-cheek legitimacy, politicians playing with statistics to try and delay the moment of economic reckoning. But it was this glimpse of Bucharest-style architecture, while crossing one of the Westfield walkways, that really brought this home:

A whole area of Hackney and Newham, that used to be a wasteland of scrap metal and ex-industrial equipment, was bulldozed, concreted over and then built on at vast scale, as part of London's unnecessary Olympic modernisation project. Only a very carefully planned alliance of state and corporate actors could have made this happen, with the principle goals being 'security' and 'delivery'. But even these apparently neoliberal ideals were becoming mired in comedy by the time of the games themselves. The 'security' threat was so vaguely defined, that battleships were located in the Thames and rocket-launchers placed on top of people's homes, like those laughable Red Square muscle parades of  yore. Meanwhile, the 'delivery' was spoken of as 'on budget', but on the comical principle that 'budget' meant whatever the spokespersons needed it to.

Travelling around the area, you get a very clear sense that you are no longer in an unplanned, emergent or liberal urban space. Both aesthetically and politically, this is the nightmare that everyone from Jane Jacobs to Friedrich Hayek was warning us against: the quest for complete control of an economy or a space will result in a uniformity that is at best very dull and at worst very frightening. Examples of 'actually existing' state socialism tended to sit at various points on a spectrum between the two. For a British example of something that is a tad scary and more than a tad depressing, here is another shot of post-Olympian London:

The absurd sculpture that nobody asked for, the CCTV, the barbed wire, the bland greyness; I was probably breaking the law by taking this photo, but the security guards had probably given up caring. In any case, I might have bought them off with the offer of a pack of Marlboro reds or an Eagles LP.

Earlier this week, I happened to hear an old NYLON friend, Suzi Hall, speaking about her work on the LSE Ordinary Streets project, which is carrying out a close ethnographic and economic analysis of the Peckham Rye Lane area of London, including interviews with hundreds of shopkeepers. The work sounds like a brilliant example of what an anthropological sensibility can bring to the understanding of urban economic life.

She compared Peckham Rye to Stratford Westfield, in terms of numbers of businesses and the employment generated. While Westfield was sold as a local regenerator and job creator, Peckham Rye Lane's economy of ethnically diverse small-holders is eyed suspiciously by policy-makers as an apparent blockage to economic development. Plans are afoot to help chains move into the street as a step towards 'regeneration'. Yet Suzi reported that, while Westfield Stratford had duly delivered its promised 8,000 jobs, Peckham Rye Lane's local market was already a source of 13,000, via a far greater number of businesses. This is aside from the webs of social networks that accompany an 'embedded' market economy, in contrast to identikit businesses that are taking over most highstreets.

The notion that in an age of shrinking social security, policy-makers might view such a street as anything other than an irreplaceable socio-economic benefit is just bizarre. Why such government suspicion of the market? In contrast to the known quantity of WH Smiths, it probably appears dangerously opaque to the local council, but only because of the myopic tools of transparency and surveillance that are in use. A different gaze, such as that practiced by Suzi and her colleagues, would reveal things differently. The blind fear of the migrant (or even second or third generation migrant) converts economic liberty from the asset that Adam Smith portrayed it as, to a risk that requires costly management. And when it comes to mitigting the risks associated with individual freedom, the Chinese political model will always 'out-perform' ours...

In his recent On Critique, Luc Boltanski argues that repetition becomes the key trope of political actors who seek to avoid moments of critical or objective judgement. Words are recited, truths are repeatedly affirmed, routines are performed repeatedly, for fear that otherwise questions might be asked. This is different from, say, a company audit or an evaluation, in which there is a ritualistic element to it, but the outcome is unknown, unless it has become corrupted in some way. My feeling is (and I discuss this in a book I'm just finishing) that neoliberalism has entered a post-critical, repetitive phase, in which certain things have to be spoken - delivery, efficiency, security, competitiveness - but in order to hold the edifice together, rather than to reveal anything as objectively 'delivered', 'efficient', 'secure' or 'competitive. Political systems which do not create space for critique encounter this need for mandatory repetition immediately, as occurred to state socialism.

Neoliberalism was a political system in which the world was put to the test in some way, it was simply that the tests employed were those which privileged price and entrepreneurial energy. I don't want to defend this form of testing, which is often cynical, bullying and depressingly unsympathetic to other valuation systems. But there was often some consistency about it and the capacity for an unexpected outcome (for instance, that local economic diversity might be revealed to be more fiscally efficient). Look at Westfield today, however, and you see an economic culture being repeated, without any sincere sense that this represents 'choice', 'efficiency' or 'regeneration', nor any sense that things might have turned out differently even if this had been known. The point becomes to name this as 'efficient' and that (e.g. Peckham Rye Lane) as 'inefficient', and try and avoid or suppress evidence to the contrary. The fear arises that provable efficiency might involve abandoning one set of power structures in favour of another. And so economics becomes a naming ceremony, not a test.

Eastern bloc socialism had to keep going through the 1970s and 80s, inspite of lagging growth and failed ideological hegemony, because nobody knew what else to do. This is the stage neoliberal policy-making has now reached. The difference is that there is still one area of our economy that is still moving and changing, namely the money economy, with corporate profits high and financial innovation ongoing. What seems to have changed, post-2008, is that the price paid for this monetary dynamism is that the rest of us all have to stand completely still. In order that 'they' in the banks can cling on to their modernity of liquidity and ultra-fast turnover, 'we' outside have to relinquish our modernity, of a future that is any different from the present. Finance is to our stagnant societies what the space race and the Cold War were to the Eastern Bloc countries of the 1970s and 80s - a huge cost that the state imposes on its public, with the result that cities and economies start to become tedious processions of the same.

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