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Capitalism’s Crisis of Value and Imagination

In this excerpt from his forthcoming book, “Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power,” Max Haiven postulates the need to reclaim and reimagine the commons, to restore humanity and human values from market-assigned assessments.

Cublicles(Photo: yuan2003 / Flickr)You, dear reader, are on the front lines of a war. It is a war between money and the earth, between capital and people, between the blunt stupidity of greed and the resilient creativity of humanity. Perhaps they have destroyed or will destroy the ecosystem in which you live in the name of profit. Perhaps your body or your soul is wrecked or in the process of breaking down because you must work a meaningless, oppressive job to make enough money to survive – or perhaps you like your job but feel the ever-present shadow of the axe in this age of budget cuts and rationalization. Perhaps you are devalued by the colour of your skin, the country of your origin, or your perceived gender or sexuality and feel that devaluation in the form of prejudice, exploitation, intimidation or xenophobia. Usually you will feel it economically too. Perhaps you are among or will be among those statistics that indicate that the largest single cause of the breakdown of marriages and relationships is financial hardship. Perhaps you can no longer recognize yourself after years of seeking success or enduring failure. Perhaps you feel guilty for the ways your economic privilege is fed by the exploitation of others, the way your (relatively) cheap iPod or clothing depends on the incarceration of young people in factories on the other side of the earth. In any case, unless you are extremely fortunate, or extremely avaricious, what and who you love and value has been or will be undermined by capitalism at some point and in some way.

Of Value and Values

According to free-market ideologues, capitalism is the ultimate system for assigning value to the world’s wealth. By bringing people’s wants, needs and desires together into an open market, capitalism will accurately and efficiently price things as diverse as the cost of an hour of a shoemaker’s time, a loaf of bread, the value of a river, or the price of a song on iTunes. These utopian dreamers, whose thinking has become associated with the term ‘neoliberalism’, believe that by mobilizing people’s competitiveness and inherently acquisitive human nature, capitalism is, ultimately, value-neutral – markets are simply egalitarian arenas of exchange. The truth, of course, is quite different. The value of the market itself has become the overarching and unquestionable arbiter of almost every aspect of human existence today. All social, moral, ethical, and personal values are subordinate to the value of money. The result is a system where, in almost every case, the perceived needs of the market trump any other considerations.

Consider, for instance, the dramatic failure of some of the largest assemblies of world leaders in human history to take meaningful action in the face of global warming and the catastrophic climate change it will unleash. In spite of an unprecedented near-consensus of global scientists, and in spite of the evidence that the continuation of present levels of carbon emissions would lead to the destruction of the lives and livelihoods of millions (perhaps billions) of (mostly poor, brown) people, it was ultimately decided that the perceived needs of capitalist markets were more important, and that no action that in any way impeded or jeopardized ‘economic growth’ would be taken.

Such a perversion of any reasonable notion of what is valuable is, sadly, neither new nor shocking. It occurs everywhere, all the time. Individuals and communities around the world are left to languish in poverty, ill health and strife because markets demand lower taxes, access to resources and cheap labour. Whole nations and populations are ruined by speculative investment because markets desire the unfettered ability to gamble on currencies, food prices and government bonds. In the age of austerity, hospitals, pensions, mental health services, schools and universities and even civil infrastructure must be abandoned in the name of plugging the bleeding holes in the crisis-ridden market. And everywhere the value of the earth and the value of individuals and their labour is measured exclusively in their capacity to render profit for increasingly uncontrollable and unanswerable corporations and the god-like market they serve.

The process is insidious. We are told that the value of the atmosphere itself is best imagined though ‘carbon credits’, that the value of individuals is best imagined through the price of their time in the form of wages, or that the value of schools, universities and other public institutions is to be measured in the fiscal ‘return on investment’ they afford their ‘customers’. Everywhere, money becomes the measure of the imagination, the means by which we comprehend and act upon the world that we share. And, ultimately, the crises we now face (the ecological crisis; the economic crisis of global markets; the political crisis of austerity; the social crisis of alienation; the cultural crisis of dislocation; the food crisis; the water crisis; the crisis of education; the crisis of incarceration) are all crises of value, where the pathological value of the market is diametrically opposed to the plural values of humanity.

The Crises of Capitalism, Crises of the Imagination

The crises of our age, like the crises of ages past, are the crises of capitalism. In this book, capitalism represents a cancerous disorder in the ‘fabric’ of social reproduction, one that works by perverting our sense of what and who is valuable and conscripting us to reproduce a system that works in the short-term interests of the few and against the interests of the vast majority of humanity. The failure to acknowledge that the many global crises we now face are, inherently, crises of capitalism represents a massive failure of the imagination. And without the radicalization of the imagination, we have no hope of overcoming these crises.

The crisis of the imagination develops on several interconnected levels.

First, it represents a crisis of parochialism. While the 2008 financial crisis came as a shock to many in the global North, it came as no surprise to many in the so-called Third World who have been experiencing the dangerous volatilities of financial markets, predatory lending and extortionary debt for generations. Indeed, ‘austerity’, from one perspective, is merely the application of economic discipline to the First World that once was only reserved for former colonies: the maddeningly bull-headed imposition of a neoliberal economic agenda in spite of its inherent flaws and history of abject failures. The idea that capitalism has ever not been in crisis is a privilege afforded to the privileged. As the capitalist crises deepen and widen, swallowing many who once imagined themselves deservingly immune (notably, the Northern white middle class), the imagination struggles to find purchase.

The crises we now face are also crises of the imagination at the heart of the ruling paradigm. The pompous and enthusiastic announcements of the ‘end of history’ and the eternal and unquestionable value of free markets and global trade which characterized the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall have given way to hopeless resignation. While practically no one still believes that unfettered free markets will lead to prosperity, sustainability, peace and human fulfillment, the vast majority of politicians and policymakers remain enthralled to the now undead ideology of necroneoliberalism. Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that ‘there is no alternative’ to unregulated capitalism has ceased to be a smug, self-satisfied pronouncement from on high and has instead become a shrill and desperate mantra of a crisis-ridden and potentially suicidal system, rehearsed with slavish devotion by nearly every government in the world, whether avowedly right or ostensibly left.

Finally, the crisis of imagination is a much deeper, broader crisis, which is the subject of this book. Economic systems, for all their material wealth and very real relations of labour, exploitation, violence, hunger and tangible inequality, are also dependent on the imagination. As I argue more fully in this book, capitalism relies not only on the brutal repression of workers in factories and fields; it also relies on conscripting our imaginations.

On a basic level, it relies on each of us imagining ourselves as essentially isolated, lonely, competitive economic agents. It relies on us imagining that the system is the natural expression of human nature, or that it is too powerful to be changed, or that no other system could ever be desirable. Capitalism, as a system, is driven by a process whereby the plural, living values of humanity, for all their contradictions and vagaries, are translated, transformed and subordinated to the monolithic, singular value of capital. We reproduce our lives, our society and our world through cooperation, and our cooperation is guided by what and who we imagine is valuable. Capitalism is a system that drives and relies on the conscription of that imaginative process of valuing and the subordination of all value to price.

While the system is ultimately held in place by the threat and exercise of very real violence and the concentration of very material wealth and power in the hands of the ruling class, its imaginary and imaginative dimensions cannot be ignored. For instance, sexism, racism, homophobia and nationalism are, for all intents and purposes, forms of power essential to the reproduction of capitalist social and economic relations based, ultimately, on largely imagined attributions of value to individuals. Those who are empowered by these value systems, in turn, typically use their power to reproduce the system. Ranks, hierarchies and other forms of coercive authority are, in spite of the fact that they are often backed by real wealth, privilege and violence, ultimately imaginary distinctions between people. In all these cases, inequality, oppression and exploitation based on imaginary distinctions are central to the reproduction of capitalism, and also reproduced by and within that system.

So the crisis of imagination is also a crisis we all experience every day, a crisis in how and who and what we value, a crisis in the patterns by which we imagine the world around us and, hence, act in the world, a crisis in the way we, as social, cooperative beings, reproduce our world and are reproduced by it. Essentially, a crisis occurs when the reproduction of capitalism comes into conflict with the reproduction of life and happiness.

The Enclosure of the Commons

Throughout my life of activism and research, I’ve been heavily indebted to the thinking and writing of a set of authors who have made the idea of the commons a central motif in their analysis of capitalism and resistance to it. The early work of the Midnight Notes Collective looked back at the phase of capitalism Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’ for answers about the nature of capitalist exploitation that went beyond the doctrinaire and conventional Marxist understandings that idealized the industrial labourer.

Primitive accumulation referred to the way the common lands established and fought for by peasants under feudalism were ‘enclosed’ and made private property as the European economy transformed towards capitalism (through both legal changes and extralegal land seizures). This original generation of ‘capital’ in the form of land, as well as the displacement of landed peasants and their transformation into itinerant workers dispossessed of their means of subsistence, created the conditions in which capitalism as a system could take root.

The enclosure of the commons is not only a historical precedent, it is an ongoing process. In a direct way, especially in the Third World and in Indigenous territories, lands are actively being seized from communities and transformed into private property. More generally, enclosure refers to the way capital constantly seeks out spheres of common value to devour and transform according to its own logic. The privatization of water, the commercialization and policing of the Internet, the tightening of intellectual property laws (from cultural ‘content’ to life-saving pharmaceuticals to corporate ‘biopiracy’ and the patenting of seed), the corporatization of schooling and the increasing power of capital over governments large and small are all examples of contemporary enclosures where the value and cooperative energies of communities are subordinated to or subsumed under the capitalist paradigm.

So, too, can we speak of all our lives and our time as under enclosure, to the extent that we are compelled to work for a wage to earn back enough of a share of our common wealth to survive, or to the extent that we are made to pay for commodified entertainment, transportation, care and companionship for lack of community. We can also speak about the rise of debt as an enclosure of the future in the sense that it fundamentally delimits and shapes what we imagine might be possible, both as individuals and as collectives. Or we can think about the university as a space for the enclosure of knowledge, where disciplinary boundaries, increasingly corporatized research and commercialized spaces shape and constrain human possibility.

For authors like Silvia Federici, Massimo De Angelis and George Caffentzis, the means to overcome capitalism is through the defence of actually existing commons and the establishment of new commons where we can cooperate on other terms, terms that obey other values, not the single pathological value of capital. Capitalism, especially the unfettered capitalism germane to neoliberalism and austerity, transforms the world, like a virus recalibrating most spheres of life to look like the capitalist marketplace, injecting values of competition, accumulation, hierarchy, coercive power, exploitative labour and imagined differences. Measuring all other values against its inhuman metric of money, capitalism turns human cooperation towards its own reproduction. While it might make a tiny minority of humanity the temporary beneficiaries and agents of this accumulation (the ruling class), these individuals are disposable and replaceable, though their attempts to maintain their power and compete against one another fundamentally sow the system with crisis.

Struggles for Value

Yet, for all of that, people’s resistance, ingenuity and radical imagination escape and evade enclosure. People form new commons all the time, sometimes as small as a circle of friends who support one another, sometimes as large as an occupation or a workers’ co-operative. ‘The commons’ refers both to the real, existing alternative anti-capitalist institutions that make life worth living (community gardens, housing co-operatives, social movements) and to the quality or timbre of the many areas of our lives that we hold in common, though they may exist within (indeed, may be necessary to the reproduction of) capitalism. In this sense, we must think of ‘common’ as a verb, not a noun. It names a dimension of action and cooperation, rather than a hard and fast thing, a space or time in which we create value together.

Yet we must also recall the importance of the imagination and creativity to the idea of the commons. Throughout this book I argue that the way we imagine the world is a field of material struggle. In chapter one, I show how the way we imagine value shapes and constrains how we cooperate to reproduce the world. I argue that the talk of “values” hurled about by right-wing commentators (national values, religious values, family values) mystifies and distracts us from the horrific ways capitalism not only vampirically drains workers of the value they create, but transforms who and what we imagine is valuable. In chapter two, I suggest that the occupations that animate radical politics today (Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Revolutions, the Movement of the Squares, Occupy Taksim Gezi, the student occupations of public space in Quebec and Argentina, the occupations in Thailand and the Ukraine) allow us to envision how value can be reclaimed and rebuilt through merging a politics of the commons and a politics to defend the public sphere.

In chapter three, I examine how finance capital is not merely a particularly powerful and lawless force of economic and political extortion, it also transforms our social and cultural life, enthroning what might at first appear to be purely imaginary money as the supreme arbiter of global affairs and enclosing us all in a world of debt. Then in chapter four, I argue that the university has become a space where the imagination is enclosed and foreclosed, though one where radical values and practices may still be designed and tested.

Chapter five suggests that we imagine history as a commons, as a shared resource from which to draw hope, inspiration and courage in dark times. By admitting to and working through our debts to past struggles, we rekindle the radical imagination. Chapter six, in contrast, maps out the ways the idea of creativity has been enclosed and harnessed to the reproduction of capitalism. We are offered small, personal opportunities for creativity, only to the extent we accept the rule of capital and give up our autonomy to co-create our social reality. For this reason, in chapter seven, I argue that we must reimagine the imagination itself: it is not an individual possession, but a collective, common process.

For these reasons, I believe the idea of the commons represents a radical and hopeful means not merely to reimagine what is valuable, but to generate a radical imagination based on lived acts of creativity and refusal. The commons represent a means to reclaim our lives, our energies, our passions and our time from a system that orients them towards ecological destruction, horrific inequality and untold misery. To do so, I think we need to keep three “tenses” of the commons in mind.

First, we can imagine the commons as a historical actuality that we hold in our common memory, that is, the commons that existed before capitalism or that have existed under capitalism, which we now find everywhere enclosed or under threat of enclosure. Remembering the commons is also a matter of remembering that each of us, indeed all the world, is the product of our shared, cooperative, reproductive labours, a realization that is key for the radical imagination.

Second, the common imagination refers to the way the commons live on in the present. Not only does the term refer to the way we can recognize and value the commons that are being defended and built today; it also draws our attention to the way the common is an undercurrent throughout our lives, even in some of the most privatized spaces, where we must, in spite of everything, find and build commonality with our fellow workers.

Finally, the common imagination acknowledges that the ultimate horizon for humanity beyond capitalism is in the commons. The common imagination envisions a world beyond the coercive and competitive value paradigm of capital, but it also acknowledges that commoning is an always unfinished work, that even once the pathology of capital is overcome, we will continuously strive to make our commons yet more common, to understand and bridge difference, to transform and adapt.

Excerpts from the Introduction to Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power by Max Haiven (Zed Books, March 2014).

The book launch of Max Haiven’s Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power will take place at the Café Oto Project Space in London on 18 March, 7pm. Free to attend and open to all, the event will see Max Haiven in discussion with Nina Power, senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University and author of One-Dimensional Woman.

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