Saturday, November 29, 2008

Payback: Debt and the Shadow side of Wealth

Emperor Rupert's Boyer Lectures have so far centred on whipping Australia's inflexible culture so that it can face the challenges of the golden age before us as neoliberal globalization lifts all boats and technology creates a growing global middle-class where we all partake of the fruits of a free-trade modernity where enterprise has trumped the disempowering welfare state and . . . well you know the rest. Blairite self-empowerment bullshit with more neoliberal governmentality demanded and a wondrous world just over the horizon.

But the Murdoch vision has all gone to shit recently, hasn't it? Governments are pump-priming demand and have had no choice but to become interventionist: investing in collapsing child-care centres in Australia and considering dropping a sly wad of largesse on the US car industry. But in the midst of all these bail-outs and ersatz Keynesianism the social forms of debt that appear to be at the heart of the current convulsions are largely left unexamined. Some Neocons have found a scapegoat, in the minor lending practices to poorer Americans, for the whole darn mess. If this falsehood is accepted then it follows that, as the Neolib-Neocons argue, we are governed too much and the world financial system will return to its marvellous wealth-generating machinations just as soon as the do-gooders are abjected from their pathological government interventionism.

Yet the problem with this version of Neoliberalism is that it still wants the state to encourage, enable and support the key organs in the body of finance capital. And to ensure that those corporations too big to fail are kept alive. Moral hazard is a luxury in times like these - so this line of reasoning goes.

If we are seeing merely a reconfiguration of Neoliberal Global Capitalism, then Murdoch's lecture is one long News Limited op-ed that argues its case, with all the narrative sweep of a stuttering collection of sentence long paragraphs and nationalist cliches about the Australian pioneer spirit that might have less to do with a public lecture series and more with Murdoch's Fox produced movie epic STRAYLA.

Shame on the ABC for giving Rupert such a prestigious platform.

More timely and less a case of self-interested rank bullshit are Margaret Atwood's Massey lectures -- the Canadian equivalent of the Boyers -- on Debt as a social form. The lectures can be listened to on the CBC website here. A recent interview in the New York Times is here.

From the CBC site introduction:

Legendary novelist, poet, and essayist Margaret Atwood delivers a surprising look at the topic of debt. In her wide-ranging, entertaining, and imaginative approach to the subject, Atwood proposes that debt is like air - something we take for granted until things go wrong. And then, while gasping for breath, we become very interested in it.

Payback is not about practical debt management or high finance. Rather, it is an investigation into the idea of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies.

Margaret Atwood writes “These are not lectures about how to get out of debt; rather, they’re about the debtor/creditor twinship in the broadest sense – from human sacrifice to pawnshops to revenge. In this light, what we owe and how we pay is a feature of all human societies, and profoundly shapes our shared values and our cultures.”


Amit Singh said...

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Lester Spence said...

It wasn't really the poor, but rather the black poor they tried to blame the crisis on. But that meme really didn't stick for a couple of reasons.

However one of the things I'm trying to wrap my head around is one of the central lessons of Katrina--end the end we have to rely on ourselves.

The government bails out the auto industry. Puts massive money into infrastructure investment. Given what we are facing I'm not sure how different the new subject created in this time from the one neoliberal governmentalities sought to create. Discipline yourself, make yourself marketable, become a corporation of one, "hustle hustle hustle"....

Michael C said...

Lester, there are still a few neoliberals in Australia running these lines: that the subprime loans were regulated in favour of, as you say, the black poor, and that failure to repay these loans precipitated the Wall St crises. Also in the Oz public sphere these arguments are being repudiated.

There's a great opportunity to refashion the auto industry -- especially to rehape it toward greener transport -- but the mentality at present seems to be to just intensify the same old government-based support for the industries that have been financialised and failed to guide and lead on addressing climate change.