The final paragraph from Luigi Zingales critique of the Paulson plan reads:
The decisions that will be made this weekend matter not just to the prospects of the U.S. economy in the year to come; they will shape the type of capitalism we will live in for the next fifty years. Do we want to live in a system where profits are private, but losses are socialized? Where taxpayer money is used to prop up failed firms? Or do we want to live in a system where people are held responsible for their decisions, where imprudent behavior is penalized and prudent behavior rewarded? For somebody like me who believes strongly in the free market system, the most serious risk of the current situation is that the interest of few financiers will undermine the fundamental workings of the capitalist system. The time has come to save capitalism from the capitalists.
Following – more loosely than I would like – the reporting of the financial crisis, I have found myself recurrently distracted by the ways in which capitalism is described – as an ideal and as an object of critique – and the ways in which the current crisis is being framed against the models provided by previous crises. I won’t be able to get at the things that have been interesting me – mostly likely not until the PhD goes in, at which point I wouldn’t mind tackling this situation systematically for a postdoctoral project.
But just to comment inadequately and in passing, several of the things that have caught my attention are expressed in the conclusion to the Zingales piece. One is a sense that – in a rough and inexact way – I don’t want to overstate the similarities, but they are there, and I can’t help but be struck by them: this same sort of framing might well have been used early in the 20th century, to set up for a critique of capitalism. The question “Do we want to live in a system where profits are private, but losses are socialized?” – in the quotation above, this sets up for the desired conclusion: no, we want a system where everything is privatised. Turn back time, and it could well have been the opening volley in an argument that everything should be social.
Saving capitalism from the capitalists – the language of gambling, of speculation, of irresponsible and reckless individuals – it’s all over the coverage. There are historical resonances here too – framings that were once used to push through the reforms of the welfare state. I’m also interested, though, in this specific distinction between “capitalism” and “capitalists” – this is a distinction that was, I think, quite important in Marx’s work: individuals as bearers of economic roles – individuals as beneficiaries and as more or less wilful and abhorrent exploiters of social circumstances – but capitalism itself having an ontological status that is in some meaningful sense externalised in relation to those individuals whose actions nevertheless perform the reproduction of capital. For Marx – and I’ll try to write more on this in the future – this externalisation opens up some important options for critique and transformation, while at the same time, and within current circumstances, operating as a form of domination of the collective consequences of social action over the actors. The passage above treats the externalised entity capitalism as distinct from its imprudent bearers – and this entity also becomes an ideal that must be preserved, at the expense of those bearers if needed. The capitalists can go – capitalism, no. The bearers are more contingent that the process they bear – the process is taken to carry, not simply hard force, but a distinctively normative power.
All of this needs more analysis than I can provide at present… But one interesting dimension of the current crisis is the rendering manifest of these distinctions in much more popular discussion than we’ve seen for some time, I think… Articulations can have their own hard power – as well as normative force: large-scale public discussion of capitalism – what it is, what it should be – has now opened up on a massive scale. What is articulated now will likely define a space of possibilities for the sorts of actions that lie ready to hand in the decades to come… Opening some potentials… Placing others farther out of reach… This is a time when theorising structural possibilities becomes… unusually impactful… The previous major structural transformation opened an experiential and interpretive gap into which flooded the interpretive systems and policies that have led us here. The question when confronting present and future transformations is how to open the potential for something other – for something that holds onto emancipatory promises that can otherwise be easily drowned out in reactive responses, conditioned by an environment primed to be receptive to ideals of capitalism as an end in itself…