Keith Hart on Sun, 1 Dec 2002 16:51:17 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> joxe's empire of disorder

McKenzie Wark wrote:

>On the one hand, globalisation is really
just a return to 19th century capitalism. Nothing new there, except
the scale. On the other hand, I think there is something very new
in the extension of the abstraction of property to information. It
creates a whole new regime of commodification that impacts on
the underdeveloped world as much as the overdeveloped world.<

One could of course say that there is nothing new about the abstraction of
property to information, pointing to the print revolution and the invention
of copyright long before the 19th century. Everyone to his taste. It might
pay to examine the selective use of a rhetoric of old and new today. But I
want to take seriously, that is historically, the claim that neo-liberal
globalisation is a return to 19th century capitalism. This would lead us to
ask what is new and what old about neo-liberalism. The similarities and
differences between liberalisms old and new are quite relevant to the
political questions raised by the review of Joxe's book. All of which is a
bit much to chew in one short message.

The age of liberal revolutions lasted from the English civil war to the
Italian Risorgimento. Capitalists played a significant role in all of them
while being allied to a motley collection of popular democratic interests
that bore no resemblance to modern political parties. The aim of these
revolutions was freedom from the restrictions of the old regime, in a word,
democracy. A certain intellectual freedom was nurtured by this political
movement, making science its twin. One of the last manifestations of this
classical liberal democracy was the anti-corn law league in Britain that
almost destroyed the Tory party. The urban commercial classes took on the
traditional rulers, the military landlord class and, when they played their
decisive card, the machine revolution, it looked as if they had won. The
discipline of political economy celebrated this victory. But the
concentration of workers in expanded cities drove the capitalists back into
the arms of the rural aristocracy and together they formed new states
capable of holding workers to an unequal contract.

The 1860s were a turning point. There was a revolution in transport and
communications -- steamships, continental railways and the telegraph --
which opened up the world economy as never before and prepared the ground
for imperial competition in the subsequent decades. At the same time, a
series of national political revolutions allowed the leading states of the
20th century to find a political form conducive to managing indiustrial
capitalism. In 1861, the most important of these started, the American
civil war, just as the Risorgimento reached its conclusion and Russia
abolished serfdom. Later in this decade, Britain pushed through a series of
democratic measures including the Second Reform Act. The Japanese had their
Meiji Restoration. And at the end of the decade, German unification led to
the Franco-Prussian war and the establishment of the French Third Republic.
The political consequences of these linked political revolutions were only
realised in the first world war. In the meantime Marx published Capital and
the First International was formed. Engels (in Socialism Utopian and
Scientific) feared that society was becoming coordinated faster at the top
than the bottom and it turned out that he was right.

The synchrony is impressive, suggesting that, even though, with the
exception of the Franco-Prussian war, these events took place within
national boundaries, world society was sufficiently integrated at the time
for us to describe it as a case of globalisation. But Arthur Lewis claims,
in The Evolution of the International Economic Order, that imports and
exports accounted for less than 1% of GDP in most countries around 1870 and
the single strongest indicator of Britain's annual economic performance was
the weather at harvest time. The so-called Great Depression of 1873-96
turned out to be a squeeze on British profit margins caused by German and
American competition. In 1973, an increase in oil prices plunged the world
economy into a depression from which it has still not recovered. If we are
to understand the political possibilities in our day, it would pay to be
more precise about such differences of scale.

The formation of new industrial states by means of national revolutions
from above, all in the name of democracy and science, of course, certainly
deserves to be called neo-liberal. An unholy aliance of capitalist and
precapitalist classes combined to impose coercive states on the new urban
working class, leading to the triumph of bureaucracy, mass production and
the rest of the 20th century institutional synthesis. The rhetoric of the
early phase of liberalism was retained for purposes of education and
propaganda, with the result that most people came to distrust the words
themselves and those who stood for them. Of the many critics of 19th
century liberal capitalism, Polanyi's exposure of the lie of the liberal
state is as powerful as any. When he writes, in The Great Transformation,
that all other institutional interests were sacrificed to the freedom of
capital, the parallels with today are obvious enough. But the outcome of
the revolutions of the 1860s was state capitalism, the attempt to manage
markets and accumulation through national bureacracies. Its symbol was the
monopoly enjoyed by the national currency. Its legacy was a century of war.

I leave implicit how all this relates to neo-liberal capitalism today.
Certainly it is relevant to the split between old and new left in the
anti-globalisation movement. I would argue that the degree of global
interdependence now is of a fundamentally different kind than any the 19th
century knew. 140 years ago national society was being formed; now it must
defend itself against an immensely strengthened transnational capitalism.
Half of the largest entities on earth are corporations. And yes, the
communications revolution of the 1990s has profound consequences for world
society. It may be that, far from this being the twilight of late
capitalism, we are witnessing its apotheosis in a truly global form. I
cling to the possibility that the classical liberal revolutions hold one
key to the mobilisation of social interests able to do something about it.
But such a mobilisation would be selectively pro- as well as
anti-capitalist and the left would find it hard to swallow that.

Keith Hart

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