Blog: The Political Economy of the Apocalypse: A Reply to David Beaumont

By Rowan Lubbock

Dr Rowan Lubbock is a Lecturer in International Relations and Development at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. His research centres on the intersections between International Relations, Latin American politics and Critical Agrarian Studies. He is currently writing a book on the politics of food sovereignty within Venezuela and the Latin American regional institution of the ALBA-TCP, to be published by University of Georgia Press.

David Beaumont’s inaugural post in the Disorder of Things coronavirus series is a welcome reminder of how the apocalypse will unfold: not like a meteor out of the blue, but rather through a long, drawn-out suffocation. In light of this (collective) death in slow-motion, Beaumont poses a hypothetical question, likely on the minds of our descendants, that goes to the heart of the COVID-19 crisis: “How did humans manage to create a society so technologically advanced that they could predict the apocalypse(s), develop the technology to stop it (them), yet adamantly and proudly refuse to do so?”

There are several ways in which this question can be answered, which Beaumont attempts to address in turn. However, his own solution seems to rest on a problematic image of a society that is “complicit” in the problem of under-preparation.

Veering towards a type of electoral market-place explanation, Beaumont suggests that governments’ systematic disinvestment in disaster relief responses may due to the disincentives faced by political parties vying for people’s votes: “The leader who provides a pay rise will – ceterus paribus – defeat the leader who invests in insurance for the rainy day.” Thus, politicians will attempt to gain support through immediate benefits to the electorate, rather than bigger, more intangible benefits like pandemic preparedness.

Yet even with this explanation Beaumont proffers scepticism; after all, “states do also spend large sums on one particular type of disaster preparation; one that has enormous opportunity costs for society: Defence Spending.” He goes on to argue that the flipside of military spending is the underfunding of “life-saving projects such as disaster preparation.” But that doesn’t let the average joe off the hook. Our continued electoral support for candidates favourable of nuclear weapons puts us squarely in the dock for states’ neglect of other pressing security issues (like COVID-19) – “They do it because we reward them.”

While it’s vitally important to understand why states, societies, and individual voters make the choices they do, Beaumont’s argument appears to overlook the very conditions that shape those choices, and why a technologically advanced species can appear so monumentally stupid.

Perverse Incentives

Beaumont’s insistence on explaining state failure in the face of COVID-19 as a result of electoral incentives derives from his dismissal of “social-economic” explanations. The problem for Beaumont is that by prosecuting social-economic structures, “we may as well prosecute ourselves: we [sic] all implicated by virtue of our complicity in [capitalist] society”. Further, “humans have… fostered social economic structures that do not only not incentivize preparing for disasters, but activity work against such preparations.”

Nevertheless, as Beaumont further argues, the inability of the market to prioritise public goods is irrelevant, due to a state-funded public sector that makes up for private sector shortfall. Thus, we arrive at the great “puzzle” – why do “developed” states fail to secure public goods and craft life-saving policy “given this is supposed to be a key job of the modern state?” Having discounted the most obvious solutions to this puzzle, Beaumont is forced into a corner in which the electorate are ultimately responsible.

But are we really the masters of our representatives within the state? Somewhat surprisingly, Beaumont cites Carol Cohn’s article on nuclear strategic discourse as evidence that “electoral politics” is somehow culpable for the prevalence of such discourse. But this seems to miss the point of Cohn’s experience as a college teacher submerged within the security community. As she recalls: “as I learned the language, as I became more and more engaged with their information and their arguments, I found that my own thinking was changing, and I had to confront a new question: How can I think this way?” Cohn’s self-reflection helps to frame the same process that shapes the very terrain of “free” elections. The ability to shape the collective conversation, and to set the agenda, confers enormous power on political elites to narrow the terrain of possibility, and to engineer a type of “common sense” that in the end is socially irrational.

Equally problematic is Beaumont’s treatment of the state/market relationship. Is there really no reason why “private commerce would necessarily hinder a social-democratic governments’ preparations for a pandemic”? Not in any simplistic sense, no. But the very fact that (some) states were painfully slow to shutdown non-essential businesses, and seemingly uninterested in stockpiling sufficient numbers of ventilators, needs to be read through the same lens. Afterall, exactly what kind of state are we looking at when the first sign of response takes the form of interest rate slashing or barbaric Malthusianism? And why, after decades of austerity discourse espousing the virtues of “belt-tightening”, do we find piles of cash ready and waiting to bail out the financial sector?

None of these questions can be approached through a narrow electoral calculus, precisely because the political economy of the apocalypse is deeply rooted in social, economic and ecological crises that long predate the outbreak of COVID-19.

Who is this “We”?

“Humans” did not build markets, any more than “humans” built the integrated circuit. Both inventions emerged out of collective efforts spanning decades or centuries, in which some actors were more implicated than others. But in both cases, we can’t possibly understand their emergence by reference to the entire species. When historians sift through the raw material of social and political life in order to understanding what came before, rarely to they draw upon the actor-category of “humans”; more often we hear of states, communities, classes, movements, and individuals. Unless we differentiate, we cannot understand.

The value of differentiation is not simply a means to identify an “elite” standing against “the people”, as if markets were handed down from above. As Terrance Byres noted, the transition to capitalism and the concomitant spread of market relations can take place either “from above” or “from below”, affected by a the contingent class relations and social struggles among a variety of different actors.

However, once markets become wide-spread they tend to take on a life of their own, so to speak. Yes, people make markets tick, but they have next to no control over how they function. As such, the people end up being dominated by the very thing they created; set within a thick web of commodity relations and commercial interdependency, political deliberation becomes usurped by the impersonal domination of price signals. Of course, it’s not that prices dominate people. Rather, people dominate people through the impersonal, unplanned, and largely unconscious organisation of market society. So while only some humans may be particularly implicated in the construction of markets, eventually humans in general become ensnared within market logics.

Planning the market

None of this should be taken to mean that capitalist society is simply “unplanned”. On the contrary, the very anarchy of the market fundamentally requires the most sophisticated types of planning and organisation possible – from the modern nation-state to the vertically integrated corporation. As with the formation of markets, the consolidation of modern forms of organisation – whether in the factory or society – were long-term processes responding to unanticipated outcomes and crises. The whip of market competition led capital to devise ever-more sophisticated means of extracting value form labour, primarily through technological and organisational innovation. Such innovations eventually led to a veritable “managerial revolution” that actively encroached on the realm of market coordination. Rather than representing merely the perfection of market-based practice, the emergence of modern managerialism was in essence a response to the inefficiency in flows of information and the allocation of resources mediated by market signals.

So why, then, does a society so steeped in the complex arts of systems analysis and scientific management so spectacularly fail to deliver when we need it most? Clearly, the perverse incentives of the market play a part; as the story of Dr. Peter Hotz reveals, when a potential vaccine to coronavirus is pitched to the market, capital doesn’t see a public good, but rather a sub-optimal investment. But market failure should not be separated from the equally important phenomenon of state failure.

Electoral processes are not unconnected to the story of state failure within “developed”, or post-industrial, societies. But it shouldn’t be one in which voters simply reward bad behaviour. The question comes down to why such behaviour has become so universal in the first place, to the extent that voters end up having little choice than to elect bad governments. As Mark Blyth and Richard Katz point out, the growth of party ‘cartelization’ has proceeded in step with the dynamics in globalisation. Facing a circumscribed space of economic policy making – where states become subject to “financial market beauty pagent[s]” – political parties have simultaneously sought to lower voter expectations as to what they can achieve at the ballot box. The scourge of “policy convergence”, and the concomitant discourse of neoliberal common sense, can be seen as the political face of globalising markets.

Even if we are living in an age of “competition states”, that doesn’t mean that the converse dynamic of planning and governance are correspondingly displaced. Rather, the origins of globalisation, neoliberalism and policy convergence were all, in effect, planned (if not evolving) strategies that sought to deal with the fallout of capitalist crisis and popular revolts. The Trilateral Commission’s 1975 report on the Crisis of Democracy interpreted the explosion of citizen unrest as an “excess of democracy” across the industrialised world, largely due to capital’s inability to adequately provide for society. In response, the Commission’s underlying philosophy centred on the restoration of market discipline specifically through the elevation of managerial expertise and an ever-tighter integration of public/private networks.

The Commission’s flagship report as, in many ways, the precursor to the rise of “disaster capitalism”, itself merely a contingent expression of the neoliberal pattern of colonising public goods under private corporate ownership. When eruptions to social order emerge – whether in the form of anti-systemic struggles or natural disasters – the state-capital nexus ensures pre-empts the kind of political deliberation necessary for the resolution of such deep-seated crises, by appeals to “market rationality” for processes that are, in effect, non-economic, state-meditated transfer of resources to capital.

And yet, it’s important to remember that there is no teleology to the market/planning dialectic; indeed, as Kees van der Pijl notes, in the early days of global governance, the Trilateral Commission occupied the same environment as the Club of Rome, publishing its landmark report, ‘The Limits to Growth’, in 1971 as a damning indictment of global capitalism and its systematic destruction of the ecological base. Whether one set of planners prevails over the other can only be understood through the contingent outcome of concrete political struggles. 

Living in the End Times of Capital?

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic should bring into sharp relief not simply the barbarism of neoliberal governance, but the precipitating instabilities embedded within the political economy of capitalism. The entire edifice of capitalist organisation has come so severely under strain (and only in the initial stage of COVID-19 outbreak), that we may be witnessing a mass “synchronous failure”: ever-increasing energy inputs, ecological depletion, cheap credit, and debt-fuelled consumption interlock in erratic and unpredictable ways. And the coronavirus pandemic only heightens the underlying fragilities of global capital that have been building up over the past two decades.

Whether it’s the crisis of democracy, the market, or ecology, it’s during these moments of re-organisation that the political terrain becomes (however temporarily) opened up to new vistas of possibility. As it turns out, it’s the conservative forces of neoliberal discipline have never let a crisis go to waste. But could we be approaching an inflection point in which the entire raison d’etre of global capital is seriously put into question? As fanciful as such a question may be under normal times, this is hardly “normal”.

I agree with Beaumont that, hopefully, a post-corona environment will produce a new political will. But I don’t think we should rest on our laurels in the hope of spontaneous “cross-party alliances”, or the more incomprehensible demand of “depolitizising” the cost of public health. Yes, political parties will remain important vehicles for democratic politics in the future, but leaving this in the hands of established parties runs the risk of allowing them to regroup under a new cartelization. The only way out of the morose of liberal democracy, and the global crises it seems incapable of solving, is to radically repoliticise the most pressing social questions.

The recent strike waves ripping through corporate capitalism – from General Motors, to Amazon and Whole Foods – may lead to the renewal of such politicisation. And it’s within these corporate behemoths that the material conditions for socialism are being laid; as Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski argue in The People’s Republic of Walmart, vast logistics infrastructures and information networks connecting global commodity chains already contain the kernel of socialist planning. What would happen if workers at General Motors were able to directly manage such infrastructures, for the purpose of meeting social need rather than pecuniary profit? Such struggles from below can only go on to further push political elites into a direction they’re already heading, whether through guaranteed wages or universal basic income. If this momentum continues, perhaps the apocalypse can, in the end, be reversed.