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The Great Tribulation of Global Neoliberalism – What Greece and ISIS Warn Us Of

Two much-publicized incidents in different parts of the world in recent days may be considered foreshocks perhaps of an imminent, larger event that many do not understand, or are not willing to understand.  I call it the great tribulation of global neoliberalism.

When speaking of a “great tribulation”, I am using a term deliberately here from millennialist eschatology not to play up the religious or theological dimension of what is happening.  We academics, particularly in the West, are always far more comfortable with whatever form of economicism, or socio-politico-cultural determinism, happens to be fashion at the time.

I do so in order to emphasize the original meaning and historical significance of the Greek word for “tribulation”  (thilipsis), as Jesus used it in the Olivet Discourses in Matthew, particularly verse 21, e.g., as “stress”, “affliction,” “constriction” rather than as “suffering” or “persecution,” which the more familiar theological interpretation.

The term also implies a seismic and relatively precipitous re-positioning of the balance of forces that keep a system in place and so smoothly functioning that we take it as de rerum naturae, as the very nature of things.

The re-ordering may not necessarily be confined to one event.  Seismology is not so much about forecasting or explaining individual earthquakes, but about mapping the tectonics of grinding plates in which multiple disturbances and sporadic disasters serve as symptomatic markers of a larger and more persistent zone of stress (i.e., a “tribulation”) which, once understood properly, can be imbued with some predictive meaning.   It seeks also to account for as many of the stressors that can be factored in to the theoretical model as a whole.

The current markers in this case are the economic showdown between Syriza and its international creditors in Greece and the seemingly unstoppable, slow advance of the Islamic State in the Middle East.   The stressors themselves are both familiar and not so familiar at the same time.

While progressives instinctively blame Germany and its politico-economic dominance of the European Union through a policy of “export imperialism” for the crisis in Athens, and conservatives hammer routinely on Hellenic “clientelism” combined with the collective narcissism of the Greek electorate, the real factor may very well be what has defined “neoliberalism” in its marrow from the get-go, that is, the transformation of capital – and henceforth political power – into the kinds of “hyperreal” signs, or “simulacra”, of the kind Baudrillard is famous for analyzing.

As David Harvey in his well-known and acclaimed book A Brief HIstory of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005) argues decisively and in detail, neoliberalism did not begin as some grand conspiracy to take over the world by the now mythical and faceless hegemonic cadre we refer to as the “1 percent.”  Nor should “neoliberalism”, as the book shows, be used synonymously with “capitalism,” as is commonly the case among so many of today’s Twitter-addicted, historically and theoretically uninformed, endlessly sloganeering, ivory-tower “revolutionaries.”

Paul Krugman aside, neoliberalism was actually a kind of desperate, experimental approach by conventional economists schooled in orthodox Keynesianism during the 1970s to stem the tide of productivity declines and soaring inflation caused by a widespread, global shortage of capital (the opposite of today) by substituting monetary for fiscal policy, and initiating a strategic policy of “de-industrialization” that transferred manufacturing operations to lower-cost foreign countries and gutted organized labor in order to make domestically produced goods more competitive in international markets.

Like fiscally minded Keynesanism before it, neoliberalism was indeed simply the latest, iterative initiative of the Western democracies to “save capitalism” by making it less economically dysfunctional as well as more efficient, and to co-opt radicals by seeking to eliminate certain “contradictions” of which Karl Marx had always declared would spell its eventual doom.

But to turn things around meant conjuring capital out of the air in the same way that Keynesianism during the 1930s was aimed at creating consumption out of nothing through massive government spending.

In certain respects the capital drought had been caused by the very success of worker participation in the fruits of the post-war, state-managed industrial economies – what Harvey dubs “embedded liberalism.”.  There was little industrial labor left to exploit outside the erstwhile colonial domains in the formation of Marxian “surplus value.”

Thus a whole new economy of intangibles, previously considered “social” or “cultural” goods without significant economic value, had to be developed, simulated, and managed for the purpose of exchange, in other words commodified.  Thus neoliberalism became the new grand theory of the emergent “service economy” driven by forms of capital that were no longer material machines, but the “machinery” of symbolic computation and the soft kind of social discipline Foucault named “biopolitics.”

According to Harvey, “neoliberalization has meant, in short, the financialization of everything.”  (33)

If we may use Marxist lingo, we can say that the “contradictions” of neoliberalism, which has always “reproduced” itself (as Althusser would say) with the “libertarian” promise of endless consumer “choice” through expanded credit in the same way that industrial capitalism trapped workers in wage slavery under the fulsome notion of the “right to work”,  are thus the direct outcome of the theory’s transformation of real production and exchange into what Jean-Joseph Goux has termed “symbolic economies.”

Crushing student loan burdens in America are a poignant illustration.  Debt slavery grows out of the new necessity that one must have an advanced level of education in the guise of symbolic competency in order to have the “option” to “sell one’s labor power” (as Marx himself would say) at all.   One no longer owes their soul to the “company store,” only to the banking-educational-corporate employer complex that demands one pay more to earn less.

But the growth at a transnational level of these symbolic economies, aided overwhelmingly by the digitization of data in the same manner that the steam engine propelled the industrial factory system, has now run up against a crisis of planetary underconsumption resembling in form the conditions of the 1930s, but the output of significantly different factors.    Underconsumption, in turn, can be traced straightaway to this long-term trend of fabricating virtual capital, which has flowed almost exclusively into the hands of financial and governmental elites.

These elites in terms have rechanneled the global gushers of non-productive “funny money” into speculative assets such as stocks, real estate, and crony development projects, producing enormous income inequalities which the likes of Thomas Piketty have aptly documented.  Such monetary Keynesianism, directed by central banks and orchestrated by global financial conglomerates, has the most devastating impact on countries like Greece whose economy has not been subjected historically to the forces of globalization, and hence financialization.

It is this very financialization through EU membership and the speculative investment flows that followed which, according to Wolfang Münchau writing in The Financial Times, has a lot to do with the country’s dire straits.

Greek economic mismanagement brought about the crisis in 2010, but the creditors are responsible for the current mess by insisting on an economically illiterate adjustment programme. They had not taken into account the fact that Greece is a relatively closed economy. This means that most of its GDP is produced and consumed at home.

In fact, that statement was true of the American economy for a long time, which is 65 times larger than Greece’s (and approximately the size of the state of Connecticut) and thus has a much larger, though not infinite, survival capacity over the long run.  If Greece is, as many observers have put it, the “canary in the cage” for the global economy, then a mine disaster of some sort cannot be too far off.

But what has that, if anything, to do with the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS  – and presumably the proliferating number of intensely and ideologically motivated terrorist groups throughout the spreading “new world disorder?”  It is well-known that what has afforded ISIS its claim to be the Islamic “State” is not only its exploitation of social media as an effective recruiting strategy, but its facility with finance, which in turn allows it to convert seized assets like oil and its burgeoning share of global markets in vice and contraband into the kind of “capital” that sustains cross-border economic transactions of both a large and small order.

ISIS thus functions as one  of the rising “masters of the (neoliberal) universe,”  making smart use, as the Business Insider indicates, of the latest financial transaction instruments from electronic remits to prepaid credit cards to crowd-funding.  ISIS is not only a menacing “dark lord” of this new global galaxy of sublimated finance, it is truly an in-your-face manifestation (a real-life Mad Max spectacle perhaps) of where things are headed if we do not turn things around.

As Harvey reminds us, the origins of “neo-liberal” are the same as the provenance of “liberal”, both of which are closely related to the words “liberty” and “liberation.”   The crumbling highways of Greece and mine-strewed international road across from Damascus to Baghdad where much of the current fight with the Islamic State is taking place are truly “roads to hell.”   And we all know what those roads are paved with.

As I argue in my new book Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia UP, August 2015), the coming crisis of neoliberalism must be met with a collective Christian commitment that is radically unprecedented.  It cannot be merely Facebook fusillades of mantra-like incitement to vague “revolutionary” causes.

ISIS has already mastered the latter one.

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