Studying capitalist dystopias, and avenues for change

The big questions being discussed at a big conference in Manchester.

David Bailey Angela Wigger
21 August 2019, 10.11am
Image: Thomas Hawk, CC by 2.0

We live in dystopian times. The crisis of global capitalism is revealing itself in the most uncompromising fashion. Quantitative easing – the one ‘solution’ to the last crisis – has only re-inflated the global financial bubble, and created the prospect for the next impending crisis to be greater than witnessed heretofore. Government bonds across the industrialized world are either approaching, or already at, negative interest rates. Financial investors, aware of the next big recession, are betting against long term economic growth, for up to the next thirty years. Something is clearly amiss!

Those not fortunate enough to gamble on financial markets are already living the dystopian consequences of capitalism. In the Global North, wages have stagnated over the past decade, employment is increasingly temporary and insecure, and the ongoing erosion of the welfare state has become manifest in a housing crisis, health care crisis, and an elderly care crisis, all of which increases the care burden placed upon women. The ‘age of austerity’ created the perverse situation that children of the rich industrialised world increasingly face poverty. The aftermath of the global economic crisis has brought with it prolonged neoliberal restructuring, authoritarianism and heightened inequality.

In the Global South, poverty, violence and climate change continue to push thousands into dangerous attempts to migrate across borders, risking either death or imprisonment in inhumane detention centres with little or no regard for human rights. Natural resources have been depleted to the extent that we have little chance of reversing the harm that has been caused, and climate change proceeds unabated.

This is global capitalism in 2019. In order to understand current political responses we need to diagnose capitalism, and point towards potential alternatives, grounded in a utopian vision for making a better world possible.

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The Critical Political Economy Research Network (CPERN) aims to provide a space through which to develop this kind of knowledge. We meet this week in Manchester, as part of the European Sociological Association’s 14th conference. The research network was established in 2005 as part of efforts to reassert the centrality of critical political economy perspectives, and to promote and facilitate research aimed at understanding and challenging capitalism.

CPERN brings together those working across the social sciences – including political scientists, economists, human geographers and sociologists - and activists politicizing capitalist crises. Our shared conviction is that we need to understand the way in which global capitalism has developed historically as a socio-economic system, the way it operates in the present, and the public policies which have underpinned those developments.

What makes our approach a critical political economy is a shared concern with understanding the changing and antagonistic social, political and economic relations that constitute contemporary global capitalism. Global capitalism is not only an economic system. It is a type of society which includes and relies upon profit-seeking firms, global finance, states and international organisations, waged workers and unwaged care-givers, the extraction of environmental resources, and the exclusion of those who stand in the way of its relentless pursuit of growth and profit. It is only through forms of knowledge which are focused on these different, but interconnected, parts of the global capitalist whole that we can also consider ways that global capitalism is susceptible to change.

CPERN members have been active in many of the key academic debates of our time; and we do so in a way that reflects this shared concern with understanding the interconnected and antagonistic nature of contemporary global capitalism. Network participants have contributed to debates on the effects of the 2008 global economic crisis and the subsequent Eurozone crisis, the increasingly authoritarian and disciplinary approach taken by governments in recent years, the global rise of the far right, the adoption of neoliberal public policies, the transformation of the workplace in the so-called ‘digital age’, and the privatisation of essential resources. In each case, we have done so in a way that considers not only the developments or policies in question, but also highlights their relationship to the changing nature of global capitalism as a social, economic and political system, built upon hierarchies of class, gender and race, and ways in which this is constantly being confronted, challenged and contested.

This week in Manchester promises to make some important contributions to critical political economy. Phoebe Moore and Jamie Woodcock are leading one of the conference semi-plenary sessions, talking about some of the key tensions in contemporary digital capitalism, including the impact of artificial intelligence and the new technologies that are driving changes to work, in cases such as Uber.

We also have over 45 papers that will be presented on a wide range of topics by scholars from across the world. This includes work on finance by Matthew Donoghue, Pelin Kilincarslan, and Caroline Metz, each of whom focus in different ways on financialisation, the gendered dimensions of indebtedness, and the gendered consequence of attempts to stabilise European debt markets. Anne Engelhardt will consider the effect of capitalism’s continuous pressure for new technological developments. Javier Moreno Zacarés will present work on the ongoing effects of the global economic crisis in Spain. Clémence Fourton will talk about the effects of government austerity policies, whilst Gerardo Costabile Nicoletta will consider the effects of the EU’s system of multi-level governance.

We will also consider ways in which public policies are changing: Angela Wigger and Luuk Schmitz analyze the likely impact of the EU’s recent turn to a new industrial policy and how this exacerbates economic asymmetries within and beyond the EU; John Evemy, Ed Yates, and Andrew Eggleston will present their research on the changing nature of monetary policy; and David Casassas and Jordi Mundó will evaluate the growing calls for a Universal Basic Income.

We need also to understand ways in which global capitalism is contested, and so we will hear about a number of social movements that are currently seeking to resist the pressures of global capitalism: Andreas Bieler will present his research on campaigns against the privatisation of water supply; Bernd Bonfert will present his work on transnational anti-austerity campaigns; Oscar Berglund will talk about the wave of environmental protests that we have seen over the past 12 months, including Extinction Rebellion; and Nikolai Huke will discuss refugee solidarity initiatives that have arisen as responses to increasingly anti-immigrant public policies.

Finally, in terms of international developments, Frauke Banse will consider European efforts to increase financial power over African markets; Oreste Ventrone will talk about the current trade war being led by the United States; and Steven Rolf will discuss the changing digital capitalism of China.

Whilst it is often said that global capitalism is crisis, it is becoming increasingly clear that this global capitalist crisis is coming to a head. To understand this we need to know how and why capitalism operates the way that it does. We need to understand how this is occurring in the present, across our economies, democracies, and public policies, as well as the ongoing efforts that are being made to survive within and resist the disasters that are being unleashed as a result. It is with these goals in mind that the Critical Political Economy Research Network continues to create the space for this kind of critical scholarship. We invite you to join us!

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