martes, 19 de diciembre de 2017


Un amigo de la casa nos manda un link a un artículo del antropólogo y economista Keith Hart (foto), "El fundamentalismo de mercado en la encrucijada". Nos encantó la nota así que acá va; es larga, pero ya se sabe que este no es un sitio para twitteros: 

Título: Market fundamentalism at the crossroads


The roots of the West’s political crisis

The West is in the grip of a moral panic – or perhaps political breakdown would be nearer the mark. At the same time, there are signs of insurgency from the left and right that are usually described as being “populist”. Meanwhile, the corporations are steadily building a world society that suits their purposes while dismissing the modern political formula of national government, law and citizenship as decadent, irresponsible and irrelevant.

The US President (@POTUS has 20 million Twitter followers and a world rank of 78th, compared with Obama’s 92 million at 3rd) is being investigated for collusion with Russians and possibly for obstruction of justice in sacking the head of the FBI.He openly espouses white racism and does his best to subvert government, the law, the press and public language. The British prime minister ran the worst election campaign by a would-be charismatic leader in history, while refusing to divulge details of how she might fulfil “the will of the people” for a divorce from Europe decided by a razor-thin margin. She then cobbled together a majority supported by some bigots from Belfast and deploys the absolutist powers of parliament to drive through a “hard” Brexit supported by her party’s extremists, the tabloid press and an international coterie of billionaires based in London.

The Europeans appear to be beating off a wave of xenophobia that has, however, reached fascist proportions in Hungary and Poland. The euro’s flaws – no fiscal mechanism, dominance of the banks, the German export surplus, the built-in democratic deficit – are brushed under the carpet. Then the French first encourage and subsequently reject the racists, destroy the parties that have shared power in the Fifth Republic and, on the lowest voter turnout ever, award a parliamentary landslide to a Europeanist centre party that is just one year old.

For four decades, Britain and the United States have led a neoliberal consensus which, after the 2008 crash, consolidated the power of finance even further and imposed austerity on the rest of us, with no end in sight (Mirowski 2013). Then two old men led a socialist insurrection of the young that threatens to overthrow the establishment, but not yet. Bernie Sanders did it largely from outside the party and Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of his.

The Faustian compact with finance capital made by Clinton, Blair and the Eurocrats in the 1990s has come home to roost with a vengeance, since they neglected their own people while courting power, money and the ‘free market’. So the US Democrats are now in open civil war, Blair’s followers are implacably opposed to Corbyn’s, and the French Socialists lost the presidency, 6 million votes and 250 national assembly seats between 2012 and 2017 (from 29 per cent to 7 per cent). Volte-face is now in vogue: if you lose an election, borrow the opposition’s policies. The Tories talk about ditching parts of austerity for the sake of Brexit and Marine Le Pen considers rebranding herself as a Europeanist. 

Why is all this going on? The West was always outnumbered by “the rest”, but in its heyday around 1900, when Europeans controlled 80 per cent of the world’s inhabited land, they were still experiencing a population explosion that lasted roughly from 1830 to 1930: 25 per cent of humanity then lived in Europe, 36 per cent when the lands of new settlement were included. This was a unipolar world with divergent income distribution, meaning that most of the money came to the West. This inequality was explained as being racial in origin and white racism was everywhere. The flagship organ of American international relations, Foreign Affairs, began life in 1910 as the Journal of Race Development (Vitalis 2015). Things changed after 1945 when the American Empire (of which more below) took over from its British predecessor. The anti-colonial revolution and United Nations’ (UN) bureaucracy pushed overt racism onto the backburner, but it was always there.

The Cold War was ostensibly fought between the free market and state socialism, but states and markets were always indispensable to money (Hart 1986) and social reality was less starkly contrasted than the rhetoric made it seem. The Pentagon, while fighting for free enterprise, was the largest anti-market collective in world history, locating its bases in the American South for political reasons and even awarding food contracts on a non-competitive basis. Meanwhile the World Bank made loans to the Soviet bloc so that Western corporations could benefit from its cheap and cowed labour force and politburos bought foreign luxuries with hard currency earned by the exports.

Since 1990, we have seen four massive transformations: the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the escape of money from political controls, the rise of China, India and Brazil as capitalist powers and the Internet going public. A revolution in urbanization, transport and communications has brought people closer together, while inequality has escalated within countries and regions, if not between continents. Unlike the unipolar, divergent world of 1900, our world is multipolar and convergent, with the post-colonial masses, especially in Asia, staking their claim to a place in the sun. This, along with stagnant or eroded living standards at home, is the context for increasing xenophobia and white racism in the West.

The world economy since 1945 may be divided into two periods. The first was built on developmental states committed to expanding workers’ spending power, public infrastructure and public services, controlling capital flows and reducing economic inequality. The biggest boom in world economic history lasted until the 1970s. It took in the industrial West, the Soviet bloc and newly independent countries – truly a world revolution catalysed by war. Its opponents, mainly private capital, mounted a counter-revolution against this revolution in the name of ‘the market’ and ‘sound money’. The regime inaugurated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in 1979-1980 has lasted until now, despite the financial crisis of 2007-8, after which the bad debts of the rich were made good by ‘quantitative easing’ paid for by working people’s taxes along with wholesale reductions of the public services made available to them. Unsurprisingly, economic inequality has returned to levels unseen since the Gilded Age around 1900.

The world’s population is currently divided as follows: Asia, 60 per cent; Africa, 15 per cent (double its share in 1900); and the whole of the Americas, Europe, Russia and Oceania 25 per cent between them. The UN forecasts that in 2100, Asia’s share will be 42 per cent, Africa’s 40 per cent and the rest 18 per cent (Europe will have 6 per cent compared with 25 per cent in 1900). The reason for this awesome demographic shift is that Africa is the only continent whose population is growing (by 2.5 per cent a year). All the others – including Asia and led by Europe – are ageing. The Asian manufacturers already recognize that Africa will be the most buoyant sector of world market demand in this century, but in the West, while the notion of ‘Africa rising’ has some currency, the implications for global hegemony are barely acknowledged. Given that economic growth has historically been correlated with population growth, the message is clear. Sooner or later, Africa and Europe will change rank order. Humanity’s future will be worked out between Asians and Africans, unless the West decides that no future is better than a worse one for them.

The West may be losing out on population and no longer controls the world, but does anyone seriously believe that the Americans will stand by while the new capitalist powers take over and a resurgent Africa challenges the racist world order of five centuries? A Pentagon air force colonel once told me: ‘You Europeans have stolen our moral high ground; the Chinese have stolen our manufactures; all we have left are the weapons. I 
guess it’s double or quits’. Maybe he was joking or just testing me. Elsewhere in the West, a subliminal feeling that the game is up is gaining ground. Unearned income from the others is drying up. But will they go down without a fight?

Free trade and protection

The American Empire has supervised a rigid international regime since 1945 comparable to the British Empire’s gold standard.  In both cases market fundamentalism or what Karl Polanyi (1944) called “the self-regulating market”outlawed protectionist measures and marginalized the state’s economic role. The freedom of capital to flow everywhere has subordinated politics to markets for decades. No-one runs for office on a programme of increased state intervention any more. But things may be changing. This monolithic ideology has suddenly spawned two variants, with xenophobic nationalism combining limited market freedom and protection to challenge the cosmopolitan universalism of the transnational corporations. As a result, the West is now hostage to an escalating division between those who want to leave the world and those who embrace it.Free trade and protection, following the logic of the 19th century gold standard and more recently of neoliberal globalization, have been represented as mutually exclusive opposites. But they have been a complementary pairing in all economies whose internal and external needs are often contradictory, as the leading western nations recognized when struggling to establish their own relationship to the world economy. We may now be entering a global paradigm shift comparable to that of 1979/80, when a world revolution led by development states after 1945 was overthrown by the neoliberal counter-revolution that is itself now under threat. A historical approach to free trade and protection may help us to clarify what the opposing sides share and to understand why nationalist market fundamentalism might not be as anomalous as it currently seems.

Sir James Steuart was a Jacobite exile who brought the term “political economy” from Continental Europe to Britain. A decade before The Wealth of Nations (Smith 1776), he published Principles of Political Economy in 1767. For advocating a free Scottish home market with initial protection from foreign predators, including England (this was 60 years after the Union), he was soon labelled a “mercantilist”. But his strategy has some relevance now, especially for regions that are politically fragmented, economically backward and subject to financial and other kinds of imperialism. In the present political climate, Steuart’s approach makes more sense than neoliberalism (known in the 90s as “the Washington consensus). Free trade and protection constitute a dialectical pair everywhere, swinging variably between the extremes.

Steuart rejected the idea that Edinburgh and Glasgow should be cleansed of “riffraff” (a term for the informal economy then popular among the elite) by sending them back to the countryside. What the world needs least, said Sir James, are more farmers. By leaving home, migrants reduce the number of farmers. As long as people who seem to have no jobs survive in the city, they generate demand for food supplied by the remaining farmers. With the money from commercial agriculture, farmers buy more manufactures and services, thereby letting the city economy grow, making migration from the countryside more attractive and accelerating the rural-urban division of labour.

As demand rises, so does labour productivity, but it starts from a very low level. The main threat to this benevolent spiral that we call “development” is cheap foreign imports undercutting infant industries and commercial agriculture. The home market must be protected at first by high tariffs. But as local enterprises become more competitive, with some firms driving out weaker (as they themselves would have been if exposed to the cold winds of the world market too early), the government can selectively reduce tariffs in strong home sectors while promoting exports. In this way the national economy will gradually join the world economy as an equal.

The early modern revolutions that transformed the United States, France, Italy and Germany all combined mass insurgency with warfare lasting several decades. They focused on building up the home market and consolidating fragmented sovereignty by removing unfair taxes and restrictions placed on movement of people, goods and money, usually against the rising global power of the United Kingdom or lesser imperialisms such as Austria. Impediments to trade caused by divided sovereignty within and between states had to be overcome. Development under these circumstances depended on removing these barriers to trade. At the same time, incipient free trade areas needed a measure of protection, so that their own agriculture and manufactures could benefit from supplying newly consolidated home populations. The French revolution is a striking case in point.

In 1793, the Jacobins unleashed the Terror and the Bretons raised a “Royal and Catholic Army”,  supported from the sea by Britain, against which the revolutionary Republic needed to send out an army of its own in what became known as the War of La Vendée, the subject of Victor Hugo’s last novel, “Ninety-three”. Nantes, France’s largest port (with Bordeaux, the regional base of the Girondin opposition to the Jacobins) was heavily involved in slavery and trade with the Caribbean. The slave shippers financed the Republican army and were in turn besieged by the Royalist army; 4,000 Catholics and royalists were drowned in the Loire – an episode that came to be known as “the national bathtub” -- and, as Hugo shows, atrocities were commonplace, especially those committed by the Republicans. 

Historians agree that this struggle to the death was the turning point in the revolution, not the storming of the Bastille in 1789 as such. Why did the Nantes bourgeoisie risk so much for the revolution? France had beena centralized monarchy; but it was also a patchwork of local fief-holders, each of whom exacted what they could from people and goods moving through their territory. The Republic promised to end all that by establishing a regulated and policed home market. The interest of the Nantes shippers was to reduce the costs of moving Caribbean trade goods inland; and so they allied themselves with the revolution. In the United States, American and Dutch smugglers led resistance to the East India Company’s tea monopoly and to British taxes imposed on the colonists to offset the crown’s military costs. The Italian Risorgimento too was backed financially by the industrialists of Milan and Turin who wanted a national home market devoid of fragmented jurisdictions and the abolition of Austrian restrictions on their access to world trade. In all three cases, the power of merchant and manufacturing capital played a decisive part in the revolution. 

Long before the small European Common Market became an expanded European Union, the Prussian Zollverein was launched in 1818 and culminated half a century later in the German Empire. In each case political federation was preceded by a customs union lasting half a century. The Zollverein was an attempt to harmonize tariffs, measures and economic policy in a few scattered territories controlled by the Prussian ruling family. The Germans attributed their vulnerability to extreme political fragmentation (some 40 states in 1815). Prussia’s main aim was to expand a protected zone of internal free trade from which the Austrians were to be excluded. By the 1860s, most of what became Germany had joined the customs union. Friedrich List proposed a “national system” of political economy which he claimed was the only way Germans could escape from being forever “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the British”. He emphasized the scope for innovation within an expanded free trade area protected from the world market. Similar proposals were made by Americans such as Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay.

I recently contributed a chapter toThe Left in the Twenty-first Century,“Africa: waiting for emancipation” (Hart 2015, 2016a). I argued there for regional trade federations as a step towards a politically stronger Africa, following the international trend for such federations to mediate between nation-states and global markets. The editors asked me to explain how you can have free trade and protection at the same time. The international left has been brainwashed by neoliberal universalism. Sir James Steuartcould have put them right. The political and economic scenarios change when old industries, including agriculture, are in decline and being undercut by cheap labour or more efficient machine production elsewhere. Then the majority of national consumers benefit from cheaper commodities and displaced labour in theory should find employment in newer and more efficient industries, as they have throughoutthe modern history of capitalist expansion. Transitions of this sort, however, are painful for capitalists, workers and the places where they live. The temporary solution is to emigrate, but many consider that to be rather drastic and prefer to stay at home, unless forced to leave by necessity.

The imperial hangover: United States, France and Britain today

Finally, a brief sketch of recent political events in the United States, France and Britain: Trump’s presidency, Macron’s improbable rise and May’s snap election. Donald Trump’s assault on the institutional foundations of democracy (even if it is also a plutocracy) has no precedent since Hitler in 1933. Fortunately, the United States is not the Weimar Republic. Already the American establishment is regrouping to resist his illiterate attack on theirdemocratic institutions. My young American friends worry that this represents a reassertion of the conservative “state”, since they too have been brainwashed to believe in techno-utopias linked to markets unhindered by politics. But many Germans in 1939, and even more in 1945, would have been glad of such robust conservatism when Hitler first came to power. Perhaps civil rights, the rule of law, honest language and a free press become crucial only when they have been lost. Besides democratic resistance, not least by the FBI, Trump’s future hinges on the political cover he can expect from a Republican Congress. This is already unravelling, but it will become a stampede in the run-up to the Congressional mid-term elections next year, when politicians realise that they could lose their seats because of him. George W. Bush’s rejection in the 2006 mid-terms sounded the death knell for what he stood for. Trump, for sure, will not be nominated for a second term.
Intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic grossly underestimate the power and resilience of the American Empire. Europeans prefer not to inspect their own weakness and parasitism and play up every sign of hubris, incompetence and malfeasance on the Americans’ part. This empire owes nothing to the free market idea, except as a rhetorical fig leaf, but its opponents reproduce it in their own strategy. Its bulwarks are rather world market share, all those weapons and bases, the world currency and intellectual property (the US’s leading exports are movies, music and software). The US invented and still dominates the Internet economy, which is rapidly becoming the world economy, supplying the bulk of its hardware, software, content and giant firms. In other words, the American Empire rests on mercantilism, militarism, financial monopoly, enforcing private property in ideas and the digital revolution in communications. World war would enhance all of these relative strengths. Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville turn in their graves.

France is by some accounts the most statist economy in the world. To neoliberals this means the worst, but in 2008, President Sarkozy, elected as a French Thatcher, had every reason to be grateful for “the French social model” – as I am. The rise of Marine Le Pen, when combined with France’s lingering imperialism in Africa and the terrorist attacks, seemed to indicate an inexorable descent into xenophobic nationalism. Facing the likes of Trump, Putin, Jinping, May, Erdogan, Modi and Sisi, the writing seemed to be on the wall. The death throes of neoliberalism pointed inexorably to fascism and world war. It seemed that society everywhere – or at least in the West – was divided between two kinds of market fundamentalism, global and national, for being in the world and against it. Another thirty years’ war for Europe seemed likely. Emmanuel Macron’s ascent was based on luck, timing and considerable political acumen. The Europeanists and Paris’ cosmopolitans breathed again when he was elected president. But the intellectuals and far left ignored his unassailable parliamentary majority to focus on the unprecedentedly low electoral turnout, claiming that his single-handed annihilation of the traditional parties meant nothing, since France remains irreconcilably divided and when he tries to reform the labour market, he will be overthrown on the streets. We will see; but imagine a scenario where Le Pen became president and be thankful for small mercies.

And last, but not least, perfide Albion, the sick man of Europe. In a recent editorial (Hart 2016b) I argued that what mattered was not Europe, but the impending break-up of the United Kingdom, led by Scottish independence and the reunification of Ireland. The international mafia based in London and fronted by the Tories left no room for national politics; the Labour party would inevitably self-destruct; austerity would continue indefinitely; and a politics of decentralization was the only hope. What a difference a day makes: 8th June 2017. The Labour party’s woes have not gone away, however. A Blairite MP made he headlines by claiming that Jeremy Corbyn lost when Theresa May’s catastrophic campaign offered an “open goal” – when she and everyone else at first thought the demise of the Labour Party (like the French Socialists) was a foregone conclusion.

The killings in Manchester and London, the hung election with its depressing aftermath and the Grenfell Tower fire constitute a perfect storm to sink Britain’s political right. We could be witnessing the end of almost four decades of Thatcherism (including New Labour). Scottish independence was postponed by this election, while Ireland’s has become more precarious. Jeremy Corbyn, with the most left-wing manifesto since 1983 (known as “the longest suicide note in history”), has changed the direction of British politics.

Britain has long since lost its world empire, but maybe this election belongs in a series with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, neither of which fulfilled the hopes they raised, but nevertheless changed the political outlook of millions, including me. The cracks in the wall of neoliberalism and its dark authoritarian twin are there for everyone, especially women and the young, to see. Jeremy Corbyn likes to quote the last verse of Shelley’s great poem, the most revolutionary in the English language:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few 

(Shelley, 1832)

I wonder if the Grenfell Tower fire will be a defining political moment for its era comparable to the Peterloo massacre, except that Grenfell is more obviously systemic. His opponents damn Corbyn as an associate of “terrorists”, but the main threat he poses to the status quo inside and outside the Labour Party is his own principled lack of contamination by neoliberalism. Now there is real hope of reversing Thatcher’s TINA mantra,that “there is no alternative”.

Reactions to Trump’s white supremacy politics, along with the surprising French and British elections, suggest that neoliberal hegemony may be cracking and a swing back to state intervention is now more likely than at any time in the last four decades.


Hart, K. 1986. Heads or tails? Two sides of the coin. Man 21(4): 637-656.

—2015. Waiting for emancipation: the prospects for liberal revolution in Africa, Open Democracy: Open Movements, 26 March.

—2016a.Afrique: en attendant l’émancipation, J-L Laville and J. Coraggio (dir) Les Gauches du XXIe Siècle: Un dialogue Nord-Sud, Editions Le 

Bord de l’Eau, Lormont, 351-366.

—2016b. Brexit: Where once was an empire. Anthropology Today 32(5): 1-2.

Mirowski, P. 2013. Never let a serious crisis go to waste: How neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown. New York: Verso.

Polanyi, K. 2001 [1944].The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Shelley, P.B. 1832. “The mask of anarchy”. (Various)

Smith, A. 1961 [1776].An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: Methuen.

Steuart, J. 1767. Principles of Political Economy.London: Millar and Cadell.

Presentation at UNESCO International Forum, ‘Intellectual Cooperation for Innovation in a Time of Social and Political Challenges’, Guanajuato, 

Mexico, 14-15th September 2017

Vitalis, R. 2015. White world order, black power politics: The birth of American international relations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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