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Marxism for Whores

By Magpie Corvid

My story is the same as many thousands of people who have found themselves unable to find steady, decently paid work. Our story is about austerity; we are everywhere, subsisting on meagre benefits, part-time work and a few occasional jobs. Some of us go into business for ourselves; some of us make websites; some of us fix cars, and some of us do sex work.

I entered sex work, along with so many other people, as a straightforward solution to the awful risks of poverty. I am not a sex worker because of a poignant story. I am not a sex worker because I am mentally ill, or have a history of abuse, or have daddy issues, or because I want attention. It is sometimes wonderful and sometimes difficult, and it’s not a job for everyone, but sex work is my job. It is a job that I can do, that I am good at; it provides for me. When I sell my sexuality as a product, the only difference between me and another service worker, or another performer, is in the sexual nature of the work. Of course, sexual labour can be intense, and dangerous, and of course making it illegal does nothing to alleviate these factors. Activist Jenny Pearl, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, said;

I go out to work now because of economic pressures. Benefits don’t cover the cost of gas, electric, water rates, replacing household equipment. I can’t live on benefits long term. When I have to buy coats or shoes I can’t afford them. Most of the other girls or women that I meet on the street are there for very similar reasons, purely to keep their families together, their children out of care. It gives them a little bit of control about when to have the heating on or not, instead of having to stay in bed with the covers on to stay warm. They go out for an hour and make enough money to pay a bill. Sometimes that is the only control, the only choice we have in our lives. We can stay in bed, live in squalor, survive on bread and jam, but personally I feel I deserve more and so does my daughter. So I choose to go on the street and earn some money because I want a better life. What I do is not dishonest. It is hard work. I wouldn’t do it if I had a choice. But now that I have a criminal record for soliciting, it is the only job I can do that enables me to earn some money without neglecting my daughter. Because of my daughter’s disability, when I go out I have to earn £60 just to cover sitting costs even though she is twenty-five, before I get the money to pay the bills.

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Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

By Neil Davidson

1

The neoliberal era can be retrospectively identified as beginning with the economic crisis of 1973, or, more precisely, with the strategic response of state managers and employers to that crisis. Previous eras in the history of capitalism have tended to close with the onset of further period of systemic crisis; 1973, for example, saw the end of the era of state capitalism which began in 1929. The neoliberal era, however, has not only survived the crisis which began in 2007, but its characteristic features are, if anything, being further extended and embedded, rather than reversed.

Yet, although neoliberalism has massively increased the wealth of the global capitalist class, has it also restored the health of the system itself? The crisis which gave rise to neoliberalism was, after all, caused by the end of the unprecedented period of growth which characterised the post-war boom, and the consequent accelerating decline in the rate of profit, unimpeded by the countervailing tendencies – above all arms spending – which had held it in check since the Second World War. These levels of growth were never resumed, but it would be wrong to claim that capitalism experienced no recovery after 1973. The boom from 1982 to 2007 was certainly uneven and punctuated by particularly sharp financial crises and recessions in 1987, 1991, 1997 and 2000; but these were normal expressions of the business cycle and only a misplaced fixation with using the unique and unrepeatable period between 1948 and 1973 as a comparator could justify treating these as symptoms of crisis. When crisis did return in 2007–8, it simply proved that neoliberalism was no more capable of permanently preventing this than any other mode of capitalist regulation.

Neoliberalism does, however, represent a paradox for capitalism. Its relative success as a ruling-class strategy, particularly in weakening the trade union movement and reducing the share of profits going to labour, has helped to disguise that some aspects of this mode of regulation are proving unintentionally detrimental to the system. Serving the interests of the rich is not the same – or at least, not always the same – as serving the interests of capital and may, in certain circumstances, be in contradiction to it. Simply doing what the rich want is unlikely to produce beneficial results for the system as a whole, although it may help increase the wealth of individual capitalists. For not only are capitalists generally uninterested in the broader social interest, which we might expect, but they are also generally incapable of correctly assessing their own overall collective class interests, which might seem more surprising – although as we shall see, it is a long-standing phenomenon, observed by many of the great social theorists from late eighteenth century onwards. As a result, capitalist states – or more precisely, their managers – have traditionally acted to make such an assessment; but in the developed West at least, neoliberal regimes are increasingly displaying an uncritical adherence to the short-term wishes of particular business interests. This is not the only emergent problem: the increasingly narrow parameters of neoliberal politics, where choice is restricted to ‘social’ rather than ‘economic’ issues, has encouraged the emergence of far-right parties, usually fixated on questions of migration, which have proved enormously divisive in working-class communities, but whose policies are in other respects by no means in the interests of capital.

The self-destructive nature of neoliberal capitalism has nothing necessarily to do with the removal of restrictions on markets. The rise of neoliberalism made it fashionable to refer to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, the assumption being that neoliberalism is in the process of realising Polanyi’s nightmare: reversing the second part of his ‘double movement’ – the social reaction against markets – and unleashing the mechanisms that he saw as being so destructive of society and nature.

Leaving aside the fact that capitalism was always capable of producing social atomisation, collective violence and environmental destruction, even in periods when the state was far more directly involved in the mechanisms of production and exchange then it is now, there are two problems with this position. First, rhetoric apart, capitalists no more favour untrammelled competition today than they did when monopolies and cartels first appeared as aspects of the emerging system in the sixteenth century. Second, one would have to be extraordinarily naïve to believe that the neoliberal project has been about establishing ‘free’ markets in the first place, although this myth has been assiduously perpetrated by social democratic parties who, eager to disguise their own capitulation to neoliberalism, emphasise their opposition to the marketisation of all social relationships, even though no-one – except perhaps the followers of Ayn Rand – seriously imagines this is either possible or desirable. In what follows I will mainly draw on the experiences of the UK and the US, since these were the first nation-states in which neoliberalism was imposed under democratic conditions – unlike Chile or China, for example – and where it has in many respects gone furthest. To understand the real nature of the difficulties inadvertently caused for capital by neoliberalism we have to begin with the role of capitalist states ‘in general’.


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The Limits of Utopia

By China Miéville

In 1985 the city government announced that it would locate a trash incinerator in South Central Los Angeles, a year after California Waste Management paid half a million tax-payers’ dollars to the consultancy firm Cerrell Associates for advice on locating such controversial toxic facilities. The Cerrell Report is a how-to, a checklist outlining the qualities of the ‘“least resistant” personality profile’. Target the less educated, it advises. The elderly. ‘Middle and higher-socioeconomic strata neighborhoods’, it says, ‘should not fall at least within the one-mile and five-mile radii of the proposed site.’

Target the poor. 

That this is the strategy is unsurprising: that they admit it raises eyebrows. ‘You know,’ one wants to whisper, ‘that we can hear you?’

In fact the local community did resist, and successfully. But what are sometimes called the Big Ten green groups – The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the National Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, and others – refused the request to join the campaign. Because, they said, it was not an environmental, but a ‘community health’ issue. 

The fallacies of Big Green. Start with heuristics like rural versus urban, nature versus the social, and in the face of oppressive power you easily become complicit, or worse, in environmental injustice, in racism. Such simplistic urbophobic utopianism can unite the most nostalgic conservative, seeking solace in a national park with the most extropian post-hippy touting an eco-start-up. 

For Lactantius, it was God who would heal a broken nature. This is a more secular age – sort of. But not everyone leaves such messianism aside: some incorporate it into a new, and newly vacuous, totality. 

In 1968, Stewart Brand opened the first Whole Earth Catalogue with an image of the Blue Planet, Spaceship Earth, a survival pod in which we mutually cuddle. Beside it the text read, ‘We are as gods and might as well get good at it.’

Here, says the image, is a beautiful Gaian totality. Here, say the words, is the ecological subject: ‘We’. Which obviously leaves unanswered, in the famous punchline to the blistering, uneasy joke, Tonto’s question to the Lone Ranger: ‘Who is “we”?’

Faced with the scale of what’s coming, there’s a common and baleful propriety, a self-shackling green politeness. ‘Anything’, the argument goes, ‘is better than nothing.’ Hence solutions to tempt business, and the pleading for ecologically-inflected economic rationality. Capitalism, we are told by Jonathan Porritt, an eminent British environmentalist, is the only game in town.

And businesses do adapt, according to their priorities. Whatever the barking of their pet deniers, the oil companies all have Climate Change Divisions – less to fight that change than to plan for profit during it. Companies extend into newly monetised territories. Thus the brief biofuels boom, and that supposed solution to the planet’s problems drives rapid deforestation and food riots, before the industry and market tanks. The invisible hand is supposed to clean up its own mess, with Emissions Trading Schemes and offsetting. Opportunities and incentives for shady deals and inflated baseline estimates increase, as, relentlessly, do the emissions. EU carbon bonds remain junk. New financial instruments proliferate: weather derivatives that make climate chaos itself profitable. What are called ‘catastrophe bonds’ change hands in vast quantities, because one of the minor casualties of capitalism is shame.   

Citizens fret about their own refuse, which we should, absolutely, minimise. But in the UK only ten percent of waste is down to households. Recall that the very concept of litter was an invention of the American packaging industry, in 1953, in response to a local ban on disposable bottles. The caul of atomised and privatised guilt under which we’re encouraged to labour is a quite deliberate act of misdirection. 

At a grander scale, the most conciliatory green organizations obfuscate the nexus of ecological degradation, capitalism and imperialism in which they’re caught up. In 2013 the US Environmental Protection Agency presented its National Climate Leadership Award, for ‘tackling the challenge of climate change with practical, common-sense, and cost-saving solutions’, to Raytheon. 

It isn’t clear whether Raytheon’s drones will be embossed with the award’s symbol, so their commitment to sustainability can flash like a proud goldfish fin as they rain death on Afghan villages.  

In the service of profit, even husbanding trees supposedly to counteract emissions can be violence. Far worse than merely a failure, UN-backed emission-reduction forest offsetting schemes – known as REDD – legitimate monocultures and seize land, in the name of the planet, all so corporations can continue to pollute. In Uganda, 22,000 farmers are evicted for the UN-Accredited New Forests Company plans. In Kenya, Ogiek people are threatened with violent expulsion from the Mau Forest, in a project blessed by the UN. And in case we need an unsubtle metaphor, the Guaraquecaba Climate Action Project in Brazil, bankrolled by Chevron, General Motors and American Electric Power, locks the Guarani people away from their own forest, and to do so it employs armed guards called ‘Forca Verde’ – Green Force.

This is environmentalism as dispossession, what the Indigenous Environmental Network calls Carbon Colonialism. 

And stocks of heavy industry go up. The recent IPCC report left financial markets unmoved: the value such markets continue to grant oil, coal and gas reserves ignores the international targets according to which the bulk of such reserves not only are still in the earth, but mustremain so. This carbon bubble declaims that the choice is climate catastrophe or another financial one.  

Or, of course, both.

Forget any spurious human totality: there is a very real, dangerous, other modern totality in commanding place, one with which too much environmentalism has failed to wrestle. As Jason Moore puts it, ‘Wall Street is a way of organizing Nature.’

The very term ‘Anthropocene’, which gives with one hand, insisting on human drivers of ecological shift, misleads with its implied ‘We’. After all, whether in the deforestation of what’s now Britain, the extinction of the megafauna in North America, or any of countless other examples, Homo sapiens, anthropos, has always fed back into its –cene, the ecology of which it is constituent, changing the world. Nor was what altered to make these previously relatively local effects planetary and epochal, warranting a new geochronological term, the birth (as if, in too many accounts, by some miracle) of heavy industry, but a shift in the political economy by which it and we are organised, an accelerating cycle of profit and accumulation. 

Which is why Moore, among others, insists that this epoch of potential catastrophe is not the ‘Anthropocene’, but the ‘Capitalocene’. 

Utopias are necessary. But not only are they insufficient: they can, in some iterations, be part of the ideology of the system, the bad totality that organises us, warms the skies, and condemns millions to peonage on garbage scree. 

The utopia of togetherness is a lie. Environmental justice means acknowledging that there is no whole earth, no ‘we’, without a ‘them’. That we are not all in this together. 

Which means fighting the fact that fines for toxic spills in predominantly white areas are five times what they are in minority ones. It means not only providing livings for people who survive by sifting through rejectamenta in toxic dumps but squaring up against the imperialism of garbage that put them there, against trash neoliberalism by which poor countries compete to become repositories of filth. 

And it means standing directly against military power and violence. Three times as many land-rights and environmental activists were murdered in 2012 than a decade before. Environmental justice means facing down Shell not only for turning Nigeria’s Ogoniland into a hallucinatory sump, a landscape of petrochemical Ragnarok, but for arming the Nigerian state for years, during and after the rule of Sani Abacha. 

Arms trading, dictatorships and murder are environmental politics. 

Those punching down rely not on the quiescence, but on the weakness of those against whom they fight. The Cerrell Report is clear: ‘All socioeconomic groupings tend to resent the nearby siting of major facilities, but the middle and upper-socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition.’

The poor should be targeted, in other words, not because they will not fight, but because, being poor, they will not win. The struggle for environmental justice is the struggle to prove that wrong.

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Re-asking the Housing Question

By Mary Robertson

Chronic under-supply, crippling unaffordability, and – for the first time in a century – deteriorating physical conditions, are pushing housing to the forefront of political and economic debate in Britain. It is an indication of its breadth and severity that we are spoiled for choice in seeking a headline figure that encapsulates Britain’s housing crisis. A twenty-six percent increase in homelessness since 2010; average house prices more than five times larger than average incomes; ballooning social housing waiting lists; or three quarters of the British public agreeing that there is a housing crisis in Britain – all these things and more point to Britain’s growing inability to house its population.

But its escalating problems are also making housing a site of intensified struggle. A scattering of local defensive actions across London have turned into some of the most vibrant and inspiring campaigns seen in Britain in a long time. For the most part, these are campaigns led not by the usual suspects or dedicated activists, but by people directly affected by housing issues and new to political action. Significantly, for a generation of leftists accustomed to political defeat, housing has also proved the site of some rare, if small, political victories, such as the New Era campaigners ousting their American buyer or Focus E15 forcing part of the Heygate estate into use. The momentum building around housing struggles raises the question of whether housing can be a site of transformative social struggle.

It has been a long time since housing garnered such attention. Significant improvements in housing in the inter- and post-war periods relegated housing to the relative political wilderness. Viewed from a longer perspective, however, housing problems are not new. The nature and inevitability of housing problems, and their potential for transformative change, were discussed by Engels in his pamphlet ‘The Housing Question’ in 1872. Engels argued that capitalist society would fail to provide workers with sufficient or adequate housing, and that the contradictions and uneven development of capitalist society would generate recurrent housing problems. With the housing question resurfacing so forcefully after decades of progress in the middle of the last century, this insight seems highly prescient. However, while there is much in Engels that remains relevant today, the nature of the housing problem has inevitably been transformed by a century and a half of capitalist restructuring. Most notably, the growth of primary and secondary mortgage markets has embroiled housing in financial markets and made housing a site of speculation. To comprehend the present crisis, Engels’s analysis needs updating so that it is able to grasp the novel features acquired by the housing question in the era of financialised capitalism.

Engels’s prognosis for housing was paired with a thesis about the nature of housing struggle. While he granted that housing problems might be temporarily mitigated through the actions of states, capitalists, or workers themselves, Engels ultimately saw housing problems as a reflection of, and subordinate to, the exploitation of labour under capitalist production. Consequently, he argued that the housing problem could only be definitively solved through the overthrow of capitalism and not through isolated struggles around housing:

As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labour by the working class itself.

Accordingly, he insisted that workers, not tenants, are the agents of revolutionary change, derisively dismissing Proudhon’s suggestion that ‘[a]s the wage worker in relation to the capitalist, so is the tenant in relation to the house owner’ as ‘patently untrue’. As housing struggles emerge at the forefront of contemporary resistance, this thesis demands to be revisited. In particular, is there anything about the financialised reincarnation of the housing question that alters or elevates the transformative potential of housing struggles today?


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Marxism for Whores

Magpie Corvid

My story is the same as many thousands of people who have found themselves unable to find steady, decently paid work. Our story is about austerity ...

Read more »

Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

Neil Davidson

The neoliberal era can be retrospectively identified as beginning with ...

Read more »

Labour, Pasokified

Richard Seymour

We were exhorted by Labour’s supporters to ‘vote with hope’ in this election. What now that hope has been so cruelly dashed?

Read more »

Re-asking the Housing Question

Mary Robertson

Chronic under-supply, crippling unaffordability, and – for the first time in a century – deteriorating physical conditions ...

Read more »