Sunday, June 24, 2007

Capitalism Now!

"I want to give you an argument," Saskia Sassen told a large audience of German intellectuals at the Grosses Haus in Freiburg. She leaned forward complacently and made some kind of gesture that reminded me of Hugo Chavez's speech to the UN last September. She looked up and said, "The WTO and the IMF have done their jobs!" The global power structures have de-nationalized zones around the world which adhere to their own kind of "private law". This de-nationalization of what was once the nation-state is important to her argument. But we lack the kind of vocabulary to describe this privatization of the rule of law, yet it exists and those for whom it exists are the organizations who seek to destroy lesser-developed economies and dominate global politics from a distance. Although the imperative of her diatribe was never made explicit terms, it is something like multinational corporations must be punished for their crimes, and that the nation-state is the most important structure yet the corporations are using them to gain illegitimate power.

But what is illegitimate power? I agree with Sassen on the urgency of her thesis, that there is something illegitimate about the power making its way to the corporate sphere. But I would like to give you an argument too. And I'm going to call this a teleological reply to Sassen's noticeably anti-capitalist argument. "The corporation" is certainly a failed enterprise. But it is not the corporation which is to blame for the emergence of this illegitimate power. Corporate power is simply an effect: it is rather the concept of the nation-state itself which is to blame for all of this. Sassen applauds the "important lawsuits" in the last three years against the 200 largest multi-national corporations. This is really important work, she says. We should not be convinced. This is misguided work. Real work would decentralize state-power, the crux of the problem. Strong states, that is, states with a tremendous amount of executive and distributive power, have not only a huge burden and responsibility, but also have an incredible incentive towards corruption. All the post-communist countries with lingering statists in power have exorbitant levels of corruption deep within the state apparatus. And this is the source of socialist inequality. I mean that: socialist inequality--that is, inequality under the law which is promulgated by a powerful, lopsided state.

The situation of capitalism is perilous. A professor of sociology with academic posts at Princeton, London and Chicago flies to Freiburg to warn the audience of how dangerous corporate extensions of state power are in the United States. But offers no compelling argument as to why the state apparatus deserves its own special status, as if it were an 'enlightened' institution. The IMF and the World Bank are an extension of the US executive branch legally. The organizations she blames for the disintegration of Latin American states wouldn't have existed without the state-sponsorship of Washington. And if Latin American states weren't so strong or so statist they wouldn't have been able to bargain with the IMF and the World Bank. This nasty power can be traced all the way back to the state every situation, invariably.

Sassen commented that people tell her she thinks "like a European", much to her flattery. In fact she spent part of her youth in Italy. Her cosmopolitanism can be attributed to the fact she was born at The Hague where her father, Willem Sassen, wrote articles as a Dutch-collaborator and Nazi journalist. While not a Nazi, she is indeed a super-statist. However, isn't it more apparent that she thinks like a Latin American? After all, she spent the other half of her youth in Beunos Aires, and she remembers the collapse caused by the IMF and the World Bank first hand. Hugo Chavez helped Argentina pay down its debt, she recalls, but the IMF encouraged Argentina not to accept it "because then they'd be out of work." The audience snickers. Oh capitalism.

Another one of her ideas: "Global capitalism needs the nation state to survive." I paused for a moment--she is so close to the idea and yet so removed from it! Of course, heavy state power becomes increasingly powerful when its corporations benefit it, bribe it, corrupt it, manipulate it. What if there was nothing to be manipulated in the first place? A minimal state and a vigil polis can achieve this. But as the ultimate arbiter of these matters, the nation-state is incredibly irresponsible. There are many problems with the contemporary conception of "the corporation", and these all come from the states which assign them a special status. The state has the power to enact, the power to penalize, the power to subsidize, is the object of immense lobbying, has the power to distribute wealth from the citizen to the corporation, the authority to govern belligerently, the power to puff-up its military defense, power to create spaces, power to engage in warfare, power to annex territory, power to manipulate trade, finance, media, courts, etc., the power to imprison, and the willingness to act unjustly and without good governance. This is late capitalism--state-sponsored capitalism.

In Robert Nozick's article Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism he outlines Sassen's academically anti-capitalist disposition to a point. The opposition of what he calls "wordsmith intellectuals" to capitalism is a fact of social significance. They shape our ideas and images of society; they state the policy alternatives bureaucracies consider. From treatises to slogans, they give us the sentences to express ourselves. Their opposition matters, especially in a society that depends increasingly upon the explicit formulation and dissemination of information. I don't doubt Prof. Sassen is an intelligent person. The intellectual stance against capitalism, however, seems to be highly misguided. If statism is the problem, as I believe, the anti-capitalism of intellectuals like Sassen is a serious threat to global civil society and its development. Academic intellectuals, who have spent their entire lives in formal institutions, come to believe that these state tools and easily-manipulable offices are the answer to all civil problems when if they had studied the problems of capitalism more closely, more teleologically, they might have found a more tenable conclusion: the intellectual arguments about the ills of corporate power have invariably taken for granted the strength of the state.

2 comments:

lrosen said...

How do you feel about her powerful nation-state comment when institutions like the EU and the UN are as powerful as ever? The 21st century may mean the decline of the nation-state as technology brings us closer together.

acumensch said...

Yeah, I think technology will dissolve national borders. And then we will just be groups of "peoples" scattered on the planet. Sort of like international neighborhoods. The local "city" and neighborhood would be the focus. It would be closer to the individual, but conscious of a larger community. This is at the same time nostalgic and futuristic, and I think it gives a better sense of global community and connection, and satisfaction.

So international criminal courts seem like a good idea, like if someone commits crimes at the international (or high offices in nations) level. And groups would work towards a uniform code so that they're activities are legitimate outside their own jurisdiction. But beyond that, the EU's distributive power seems wrong to me--for example, 40% of the budget is spent on agricultural subsidies that flood the market and prevent trade with underdeveloped countries who make the same products.

I have problems with the UN's executive and legislative power--like proper consensus. Members aren't equal "before the law" since it's based on national power to start with. But it's "forum" structure seems legitimate if it allows individual groups to work on projects together, especially security issues like landmines. And after all global security is presumably what brings the nations together in the first place. I'll try to post more ideas about minimalism and global security.