Late Capitalist Timepass

This post has two purposes. First of all, I wanted to alert everyone to a wonderful new online Anthropology journal called Anthropology of This Century which “publishes reviews of recent works in anthropology and related disciplines, as well as occasional feature articles.” This is as close as I’ve seen to an anthropology focused New York Review of Books (or perhaps I should say London Review of Books, as AOTC is edited by Charles Stafford at LSE).

Secondly, I specifically wanted to link to two articles in the first issue: On Neoliberalism by Sherry Ortner and Timepass And Boredom In Modern India by Chris Fuller.

Ortner’s article starts with a quote from Marshall Sahlins: “Whatever happened to ‘Late Capitalism’? It became neo-liberalism.” Some of our readers may not remember the phrase “Late Capitalism” which gained popularity after Ernst Mandel’s book of that name came out in the late seventies. David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity owes a lot to Mandel. Ortner doesn’t dispute Sahlins, but suggests that there are some reasons why we might want to use a new word:

I want to make it clear that the economy known as “late capitalism” in the 80s and 90s was not really much more benign than the economy we now call “neoliberalism.” Either/both emerged from the dual turn from Fordism and Keynesianism, that is, from the metaphoric social contracts that had protected industrial labor as well as the citizenry in general from the worst excesses of capitalism. But in the 80s and 90s, accounts of late capitalism were closely tied up with “globalization,” and while globalization was certainly understood to have its down sides (labor outsourcing, unemployment, and deindustrialization at the sending end; extreme labor exploitation at the receiving end, etc.), there was also a fairly influential set of arguments about the ways in which other aspects of globalization (flows of technology, information, media, etc.) could be seen as positive and liberating (see especially Appadurai 1990). Globalization remains real and indeed as multi-layered and multi-valent as ever (see Hannerz 1996; Inda and Rosaldo 2002; Tsing 2005). But neoliberalism is now embedded in a different, and more consistently dark, set of stories, to which we now turn.

I’m not a huge fan of Klein’s work, but I really like Harvey’s and I find his brief definition of neoliberalism quite satisfying:

Harvey offers a clear definition of neoliberalism as a system of “accumulation by dispossession,” which has four main pillars: 1) the “privatization and commodification” of public goods; 2) “financialization,” in which any kind of good (or bad) can be turned into an instrument of economic speculation; 3) the “management and manipulation of crises” (as above); and 4) “state redistribution,” in which the state becomes an agent of the upward redistribution of wealth…

At the same time, using a new word has its downsides. For one thing, the phrase neoliberalism lets good-old-fashioned “liberalism” off the hook too easily. It also obscures some of the continuities that exist across various changes in the Capitalist system. A great book to read criticizing some of the excess fear/adulation over globalization is Doug Henwood’s After the New Economy, usefully discussed in this long Crooked Timber post by Kieran Healy. But I still think that Harvey is on to something in identifying neoliberalism as a political agenda which defines the current time, and I particularly like how he shows that neoliberalism is not purely a US-based conspiracy but something that has emerged simultaneously, if somewhat differently, in countries like China. Ortner ads further complexity to the story by drawing on recent ethnographic works on the subject.

I don’t have so much to say about the second article, except that I recommend also listening to Craig Jeffery’s CHIASMOS talk on his book Timepass: Youth, Class and The Politics of Waiting in India which is the subject of Chris Fuller’s review. (And if you don’t subscribe to the CHIASMOS podcast you should!)

10 thoughts on “Late Capitalist Timepass

  1. I wonder how neoliberalism will look after peak oil, if peak oil is the primary driver of industrialization in developed and developing countries? Globalisation hinges on the transport of goods across vast distances, and especially cheap goods manufactured at low cost (low input of materials and low wages). The rate limiting step is not production but transport. If the cost of transport continues to be driven up by the major driver of the capitalist world, then we should expect a shift in neoliberalism–for example why privatize public goods if those goods can’t be translated to capital elsewhere? Though I agree with Harvey that we should see a more of a management of crises and state redistribution.

    Certainly we have begun to identify globalization with soft or information goods (flows of technology, information, media, etc.), but even here we have to consider how these are tied into a larger distribution of physical goods. Each year China graduates 250,000 engineers–collectively that represents the potential for a boon in information goods, not to mention the development of physical infrastructure. In this sense, globalisation may become a chinese story, especially as that story is translated outside of China to say Africa. With the exuberance chinese feel towards their future, can we still speak about Late Capitalism except in a euro-centric/Americ-centric way? Maybe we need some new term in this context?

    Whether one adheres to the tenets of Late Capitalism/neoliberlaism, there is one thing certain in the mix of the various hypotheses coming out concerning globalisation and the management of political agendas in the world, especially through the U.S., NATO and the U.N.–the future continuation of neoliberalism is not in doubt but in metamorphosis, the management of neoliberalism will be to convince others to accept some or all its tenets. Isn’t this what Obama did in his latest speech on the Middle East? (I also find it intersting Obama found some legitimaxcy in his foregin policy after the Osama killing by tying it to the policies of the Bush administration–is this the act of a neoliberal as opposed to a neocon?).

  2. Kerim, thank you for pointing us in this direction. Specifically on the Ortner piece, Ortner portrays late capitalism as linked to the idea of globalization, then followed by neoliberalism. As I remember it, late capitalism came in as a label first, then the idea of neoliberalism, coined with the Washington Consensus in 1989, and then the idea of globalization, which seemed to appear more mid-1990s, and especially with Thomas Friedman’s writings.

    The quibble over timing is more about what we lose in the label shift from “late capitalism” to neoliberal-globalization. First, the latter labels make us believe there is something neo or new about this, which remains questionable. Economist Pankaj Ghemawat has recently written World 3.0 which is actually arguing we are currently not in his World 3.0, but in a “semi-globalized” World 2.0, with the empirical data not supporting the proclamations and denunciations of globalization. Second, the label of neoliberalism is just confusing for most people, and takes a lot of unpacking to understand that neoliberal really means market conservative. Finally, by accepting neoliberalism-globalization we are also accepting the labels favored by hegemonic capitalism rather than adopting our own analytic labels.

    The key text from the time, which Ortner mentions but does not develop, is Frederick Jameson’s book-length treatment Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism. To address the missing piece, a quote at length:

    This matter of periodization is not, however, altogether alien to the signals given off by the expression “late capitalism,” which is by now clearly identified as a kind of leftist logo which is ideologically and politically booby-trapped, so that the very act of using it constitutes tacit agreement about a whole range of essentially Marxian social and economic propositions the other side may be far from wanting to endorse. Capitalism was itself always a funny word in this sense: just using the word–otherwise a neutral enough designation for an economic and social system on whose properties all sides agree–seemed to position you in a vaguely critical, suspicious, if not outright socialist stance: only committed right-wing ideologues and full-throated market apologists also use it with the same relish.
    “Late capitalism” still does some of that, but with a difference: its qualifier in particular rarely means anything so silly as the ultimate senescence, breakdown, and death of the system as such (a temporal vision that would rather seem to belong to modernism than postmodernism). What “late” generally conveys is rather the sense that something has changed, that things are different, that we have gone through a transformation of the life world which is somehow decisive but incomparable with the older convulsions of modernization and industrialization, less perceptible and dramatic, somehow, but more permanent precisely because more thoroughgoing and all-pervasive. (Jameson 1991:2003)

    We should return to the terminology of “late capitalism” along with the ideological and political booby-traps. It may bring us back to a Marxian analysis that Rex not long ago talked about losing.

  3. Thanks for your comments Fred. One of the central features of neoliberalism is financialization. While Peak Oil may very well be a real and imminent phenomenon, recent studies have shown that recent spikes in oil prices (as well as food prices) have largely come from financial speculation. The problem here is that the market is supposed to work by giving feedback about real world phenomenon, but under neoliberalism that is increasingly not the case.

    As I said, I think Harvey does a good job in talking about Chinese neoliberalism in a non euro-centric way. There are real concerns, however, over the actual state of the Chinese economy. Manufacturing is on the decline, a property bubble ready to burst, etc. Hard to know if the current exuberance will be long-lasting or not…

    Many thought we would see a shift away from neoliberalism after the 2008 crash, but the state stepped in to save it. One wonders, however, about the next crash…

  4. First, thanks for the link to the new online journal–looks good.

    Second, I have always found the term “late capitalism” kind of odd, and this post makes some connections that I had not really thought about.

    Neoliberalism is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot, and sometimes it’s not all that easy to figure out how people are using it, and why. I agree that the use of the new term can kind of erase some of the meanings and issues with plain old vanilla liberalism, and it also makes it seem like there is something entirely new going on with capitalism–like it’s a completely new formulation or something.

    Anyway, I have taken most of my cues about neoliberalism from Harvey, who explains things in a pretty concise manner (especially in the “Brief History”). For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this is the financialization of, well, everything…as Harvey puts it. This is definitely useful for my research about tourism development, in which landscapes and experiences are part of what drives expanding markets.

  5. Kerim, what do you think about Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity in relation to neoliberalism? I haven’t done that much reading on this topic, only a bit on ‘liquid love’. In the Chinese case, for example, could one speak of a liquid form of communism?

  6. @Marcus: I haven’t read much Bauman, but again I’m not sure there is anything significantly new here? After all, it was Marx and Engles who wrote, of capitalism: “All that is solid melts into air…” (And I feel more comfortable talking about China as a capitalist country than a communist one.)

  7. Kerim: I agree that one of the facets of the price spike in oil/natural gas & other commodities has been financial speculators, but does this make for a crisis regarding Late Capitalism (if oil really is running out, then globalization is in trouble)? Had the run-up in commodities not occured would the banking system have weathered the mortgage meltdown–in other words, is the commodities speculation bubble the dog or the tail? Some economists (ie. Jeff Rubin) feel the run-up in commodities triggered the financial meltdown in the banking system. But how much of a meltdown was this now that banks are back to record profits? In this case, we might ask for whom is the crisis? Further, a drop in commodities could herald a ressurgent economic boom, and will we then still be talking of a crisis for neoliberalism?

    As you note, the neoliberal notion of market pricing should reflect the current or near future demands of the macroeconomy, and so (by market theory) the current run-up should reflect supply-demand of consumers and industry. An impression of a disconnect is created by the depression in available jobs and the simultaneous price rise in commodities. But I take it this reflects more the continued hangover of the financial system and the availablity of credit than a disconnect (not every country in the world is undergoing these conditions).

    Neoliberalism is not dead. And the political implications of that are still being felt (as I noted with Obama’s rhetoric over Libya). And if this is the case, we should see in the near future a strengthening of the political arms of neoliberalism–calls for the democratization of the Middle East, greater integration of Africa in the world economy, a renewal of talks regarding Kyoto, and strengthening of the IMF in regard to debt management in Europe. How much of the otherness will disappear when we consider each other as financial factors?

    Following Jameson’s wording of “neoliberalism” as a periodization, I get the feeling this echoes Fukuyama’s notion of “the end of history” (which turned out to be anything but). Further the distinction Ortner brings between Fordism and post-Fordism, with the breakdown in relations between management and labour in the latter period, raises the question of why that relationship ever existed. Was it a consensus period in the 50s in which governments were engaged in the first stages of the Cold War and were still living with the effects of Keynsian economics? Or might we find some answer in the nature of management, that managers tended to come from below and were schooled within the company? Today’s emphasis on MBAs as the pedigree for management and the need to appease investors with quarterly financial results are also part of the mix of post-Fordism. I am not sure, but I think there is more to delve into in the divide Ortner makes between Fordism and post-Fordism. (Why even the question of paternalism on the part of management may be an issue).

  8. I’m having difficulty differentiating the “four pillars” definition provided by Harvey from how I think about “capitalism” in general. Especially considering historical re-critiques by folks like Siliva Federici, I think it’s a mistake to not see what people seem to imagine as “late capitalism” or “neoliberalism” as immanent in just plain old fashioned capitalism.

  9. The problem may be that “immanent in” could be a relation like that of the oak tree to the acorn. As someone who has worked in advertising for nearly three decades, I am constantly struck by how often how dated anthropologists’ notions of how capitalism works seem to be, a flaw particularly prevalent on the political left with which I claim affiliation. Too many read Marx or Mao and assume that conditions prevalent in 19th century Europe or early 20th century Asia have simply persisted unchanged, ignoring Schumpeter’s dictum that capitalism is, above all, a process of creative destruction, more an example of sudden evolutionary radiation than stable adaptation.

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