A specter is haunting America — the specter of financial apocalypse. Record-breaking current-account deficits, plummeting regional housing markets, a weakening dollar, and news that major central banks around the world are beginning to diversify their currency reserves have made the possibility that the U.S. could soon experience what happened to Mexico and Southeast Asia in the 1990s newsworthy even to the reliably rah-rah American corporate media. With Time and the Atlantic Monthly examining the cases for alarm and calm, respectively, in recent weeks, the time has come for the WAAGNFNP to consider its stance on global capitalism.
Flashback: It’s Fall 1997 and I’m teaching a course called Globalization and Its Discontents in the Princeton Writing Program. The course, which examines the processes and discourses of globalization, is a challenge for my students, who come from all over the western hemisphere, but they really get into it and work incredibly hard. After surveying attempts to define globalization in the context of major post-Cold War-paradigm-shift candidates, from Fukuyama’s “end of history” to Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” from Barber’s “jihad vs. McWorld” to Kaplan’s “coming anarchy,” we turn to debates over globalization of manufacturing, agriculture, trade, finance, labor, racism, civil society, and culture: is it really happening? is it new? is it a good thing? for whom? can and should it be stopped? why or why not?
Teaching at Princeton, even as a lowly grad student, has its privileges: then new-New Republic editor Peter Beinart visits the class to discuss his forthcoming cover story, my students never give up on the scads of difficult readings and argue passionately with each other in class over them, and their writing improves dramatically from the first summary assignment to the final research project. A Puerto Rican woman who had been a fire-breathing independence advocate and critic of U.S.-led globalization returns from winter break a Krugman-esque neoliberal; a Brazilian man turns in a lyrical photoessay on the responses to Nike’s recent advertising campaign in Sao Paolo; a woman from Mexico City engages the comuniques of Subcomandante Marcos in light of Mexico’s recent currency crisis.
Meanwhile, having little to lose and nothing to invest, I secretly root for financial apocalypse.
What I propose to do in this post and its sequels is revisit some of the writers from this course and others I’ve taught over the past decade — Subcomandante Marcos and William Greider today, Neal Stephenson and Mahasweta Devi later, and Leslie Marmon Silko and Kim Stanley Robinson still later — to track their controlling metaphors for global capitalism and explore what’s at stake in their similarities and differences. This procedure is inspired by Thomas Keenan, director of Bard’s Human Rights Project and author of Fables of Responsibility — particularly by his reading in it of Marx’s rhetorical figures from the opening of Capital as spinning a kind of gothic tale in which capitalism plays a role similar to Frankenstein’s monster. Along the way, I’ll intersperse Keenan-esque close readings of rhetoric and metaphor with an informal and fragmentary intellectual autobiography. Speaking of which, I feel another flashback coming on….
It’s the first of January, 1994, and NAFTA is going into effect today, a defining moment in Clinton-esque neoliberalism. I catch a brief story in the news about some kind of uprising in southern Mexico, but don’t make that much of it until, after a couple of weeks, it’s impossible to ignore the excited grad students and professors buzzing about the comuniques from the masked spokesperson of a shadowy group known as the Zapatistas that have been emerging from the Lacandona jungle with great frequency and panache. Who is Subcomandante Marcos? Where did he learn to write that way?
And why does he sound like — and dress like — a grad student in comparative literature?
In one of his first communiques, “The Southeast in Two Winds: A Storm and a Prophecy,” Subcomandante Marcos mashes up Cervantes, Marquez, and Lonely Planet-style travel guides in a brilliant introduction to Chiapas and what is at stake in the EZLN’s infowar against neoliberalism. Let’s look closely at his figures for capitalist globalization in the order in which they appear:
Many Veins/Many Teeth: Chiapas loses blood through many veins: Through oil and gas ducts, electric lines, railways, through bank accounts, trucks, vans, boats and planes, through clandestine paths, gaps, and forest trails. This land continues to pay tribute to the imperialists: petroleum, electricity, cattle, money, coffee, banana, honey, corn, cacao, tobacco, sugar, soy, melon, sorghum, mamey, mango, tamarind, avocado, and Chiapaneco blood flows as a result of the thousand teeth sunk into the throat of the Mexican Southeast. These raw materials, thousands of millions of tons of them, flow to Mexican ports and railroads, air and truck transportation centers. From there they are sent to different parts of the world: The United States, Canada, Holland, Germany, Italy, Japan, but with the same fate — to feed imperialism. The fee that capitalism imposes on the Southeastern part of this country oozes, as it has since from the beginning, blood and mud.
Two Voices: Not everyone hears the voices of hopelessness and conformity. Not everyone is carried away by hopelessness. There are millions of people who continue on without hearing the voices of the powerful and the indifferent. They can’t hear; they are deafened by the crying and blood that death and poverty are shouting in their ears. But, when there is a moment of rest, they hear another voice. They don’t hear the voice that comes from above; they hear the voice that is carried to them by the wind from below, a voice that is born in the Indigenous heart of the mountains. This voice speaks to them about justice and freedom, it speaks to them about socialism, about hope…the only hope that exists in the world. The oldest of the old in the Indigenous communities say that there once was a man named Zapata who rose up with his people and sang out, “Land and Freedom!” These old campesinos say that Zapata didn’t die, that he must return. These old campesinos also say that the wind and the rain and the sun tell the campesinos when to cultivate the land, when to plant and when to harvest. They say that hope is also planted and harvested. They also say that the wind and the rain and the sun are now saying something different: that with so much poverty, the time has come to harvest rebellion instead of death. That is what the old campesinos say. The powerful don’t hear; they can’t hear, they are deafened by the brutality that the Empire shouts in their ears. “Zapata,” insists the wind, the wind from below, our wind.
Two Winds: And this wind from below, that of rebellion and dignity, is not just an answer to the wind from above. It is not just an angry response or the destruction of an unjust and arbitrary system. Rather it carries with it a new proposal, a hope of converting rebellion and dignity into freedom and dignity.
How will this new voice make itself heard in these lands and across the country? How will this hidden wind blow, this wind which now blows only in the mountains and canyons without yet descending to the valleys where money rules and lies govern? This wind will come from the mountains. It is already being born under the trees and is conspiring for a new world, so new that it is barely an intuition in the collective heart that inspires it…
Two Dreams: Antonio dreams of owning the land he works on, he dreams that his sweat is paid for with justice and truth, he dreams that there is a school to cure ignorance and medicine to scare away death, he dreams of having electricity in his home and that his table is full, he dreams that his country is free and that this is the result of its people governing themselves, and he dreams that he is at peace with himself and with the world. He dreams that he must fight to obtain this dream, he dreams that there must be death in order to gain life. Antonio dreams and then he awakens… Now he knows what to do and he sees his wife crouching by the fire, hears his son crying. He looks at the sun rising in the East, and, smiling, grabs his machete.
The wind picks up, he rises and walks to meet others. Something has told him that his dream is that of many and he goes to find them.
The viceroy dreams that his land is agitated by a terrible wind that rouses everything, he dreams that all he has stolen is taken from him, that his house is destroyed, and that his reign is brought down. He dreams and he doesn’t sleep. The viceroy goes to the feudal lords and they tell him that they have been having the same dream. The viceroy cannot rest. So he goes to his doctor and together they decide that it is some sort of Indian witchcraft and that they will only be freed from this dream with blood. The viceroy orders killings and kidnappings and he builds more jails and Army barracks. But the dream continues and keeps him tossing and turning and unable to sleep.
Everyone is dreaming in this country. Now it is time to wake up…
One Storm: The storm is here. From the clash of these two winds the storm will be born, its time has arrived. Now the wind from above rules, but the wind from below is coming…
The prophecy is here. When the storm calms, when rain and fire again leave the country in peace, the world will no longer be the world but something better.
From his initial characterization of globalizing capitalism as an undead vampire, sucking the resources, lives, and wealth from those living in the colonies and neocolonies of this world, to his closing prophecy of a new world, Marcos links the EZLN’s uprising against NAFTA and the Mexican state to the hemisphere-wide indigenous response to European colonialism, the continent-wide national liberation movements against Spanish imperialism, and the nation-wide revolution symbolized and led by Emiliano Zapata, not to mention globe-spanning movements like international socialism, liberation theology, and Fourth World activism. His metaphors, that is, carry a lot of weight (not to mention history).
From 1994 to 1998 I’m working on my dissertation on Hawthorne and race, researching and writing on African-American and black diasporic women’s writings on race and trauma, and reading widely in what Amitava Kumar would famously call World Bank Literature in his 2003 edited collection of essays. I’ve become fascinated by scholarship and literature that engages postmodern “incredulity toward metanarratives” but nevertheless attempts to produce new “cognitive maps” of the world and of world history, by debates between those involved in rethinking marxism, delineating postcoloniality, and transnationalizing feminism. I’m missing the Internet Boom but having a blast. Even as best friends get jobs, I prolong my Princeton years, taking a seminar from and teaching for Toni Morrison, working as Arnold Rampersad’s research assistant on several book projects, and soaking up everything I could from Tom Keenan, Eduardo Cadava, and especially Wahneema Lubiano, even after my coursework is long since over and done with. My only activism, though, is a failed attempt to organize Princeton graduate students and the beginning of an engagement with the academic labor movement through the Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Language Association and eventually Workplace. Oh, and I land a tenure-track job and finish the dissertation!
Financial apocalypse still sounds pretty good to me.
William Greider begins his 1997 masterpiece One World, Ready or Not with a coded tribute to Marcos: his first chapter is entitled “The Storm Upon Us.” But in fact his aim is to introduce a competing metaphor for global capitalism, one as indebted to Leo Marx (of The Machine in the Garden) as it is to Karl Marx (of The Communist Manifesto):
Imagine a wondrous new machine, strong and supple, a machine that reaps as it destroys. It is huge and mobile, something like the machines of modern agriculture but vastly more complicated and powerful. Think of this awesome machine running over open terrain and ignoring familiar boundaries. It plows across fields and fencerows with a fierce momentum that is exhilarating to behold and also frightening. As it goes, the machine throws off enormous mows of wealth and bounty while it leaves behind great furrows of wreckage.
Now imagine that there are skillful hands on board, but no one is at the wheel. In fact, this machine has no wheel nor any internal governor to control the speed and direction. It is sustained by its own forward motion, guided mainly by its own appetites. And it is accelerating.
This machine is the subject of this book: modern capitalism driven by the imperatives of global industrial revolution. The metaphor is imperfect, but it offers a simplified way to visualize what is dauntingly complex and abstract and impossibly diffuse — the drama of a free-running economic system that is reordering the world.
Note here how Greider cleverly if a bit clumsily alludes to centuries of economic history — from the early modern enclosures of the commons in England and elsewhere and the rise of mercantilist national economies to the neoliberal revolution that overturned the Keynesian post-WW II Bretton Woods accords — and introduces his readers to the debates over globalization with pith and vigor.
Shifting Marxes, Greider then elaborates on his second key metaphor: the capitalist revolution.
The logic of commerce and capital has overpowered the inertia of politics and launched an epoch of great social transformations. Settled facts of material life are being revised for rich and poor nations alike. Social understandings that were formed by the hard political struggles of the twentieth century are put in doubt. Old verities about the rank ordering of nations are revised and a new map of the world is gradually being drawn. These great changes sweep over the affairs of mere governments and destabilize the established political orders in both advanced and primitive societies. Everything seems new and strange. Nothing seems certain.
Economic revolution, similar to the impulse of political revolution, liberates masses of people and at the same time projects new aspects of tyranny. Old worlds are destroyed and new ones emerge. The past is upended and new social values are created alongside the fabulous new wealth. Marvelous inventions are made plentiful. Great fortunes are accumulated. Millions of peasants find ways to escape from muddy poverty.
Yet masses of people are also tangibly deprived of their claims to self-sufficiency, the independent means of sustaining hearth and home. People and communities, even nations, find themselves losing control over their own destinies, ensnared by the revolutionary demands of commerce.
The great paradox of this economic revolution is that its new technologies enable people and nations to take sudden leaps into modernity, while at the same time they promote the renewal of once-forbidden barbarisms. Amid the newness of things, exploitation of the weak by the strong also flourishes again.
The present economic revolution, like revolutions of the past, is fueled by invention and human ingenuity and a universal aspiration to build and accumulate. But it is also driven by a palpable sense of insecurity. No one can be said to control the energies of unfettered capital, not important governments or financiers, not dictators or democrats.
And, in the race to the future, no one dares fall a step behind, not nations or major corporations. Even the most effective leaders of business and finance share in the uncertainty, knowing as they do that the uncompromising dynamics can someday turn on the revolutionaries themselves.
Let’s note in passing Greider’s calculated use of passive voice, his attempt to mediate Karl Marx and Adam Smith, and his invocations of the French Revolution here, but quickly move on to his punchline, which pulls his two metaphors together:
[O]ur wondrous machine, withal its great power and creativity, appears to be running out of control toward some sort of abyss. Amid revolutionary fervor, such warnings may sound far-fetched and, as history tells us, usually go unheeded until one day, sometimes quite suddenly, they are confirmed by reality.
Greider here takes on the role of Cassandra, ambiguously exhorting the lemming-like but revolutionary technocrats of global capitalism not to rage against the machine or treat is as a deus ex machina but instead to reengineer it — before it’s too late.
I’ve lived in central NY, northern CA, central CO, and central NC, travelled throughout the NE U.S., SE Canada, and SW U.S., and even visited Denmark, Sweden, and Ireland, but I didn’t really understand the meaning of “uneven development” until I moved from a small town in western NY to a small city in western Japan last August. On my previous visits to Chiba (near Tokyo) and Naha City (in Okinawa) I had experienced ten days or two weeks or a month of life in Japan, but it was always immersed in babies (ours and those of my sister-in-law) and family life. Living on our own in Fukuoka until this August has allowed us to gain a new perspective on life in Dunkirk. Despite not knowing the language even as well as my three-year-old daughter and not being able to understand more than a few scraps of what I watch with my wife on tv, even I can see and feel that the quality of everyday life is quite high in Japan’s rapidly-developing “gateway to Asia.” When my home institution is struggling for funding just to stay in the black and my current institution is in the midst of a decade-long move to an entirely new campus so students won’t have to commute all over the city to take classes, I understand what a huge difference state investment in higher education can make.
So let’s stage a little Figural Death Match between Greider and Marcos to see if we can’t draw some preliminary conclusions about the prospects for financial apocalypse today in the U.S.
The Vampire vs. The Machine: I have to call this one a draw. Both writers appeal to their core audiences — Marcos those in the global south suffering under the Washington Consensus, Greider those in the global north worried about its ramifications. Whereas Marcos’s metaphor is more artfully sketched than Greider’s, it’s been a long time since the U.S. was anything like in the position of Chiapas and Greider’s call for global technocrats to rein in the globalization machine has been more influential in the business press and among policy makers (witness former World Bank head Joseph Stiglitz borrowing the title of a Saskia Sassen book for his own, which itself was borrowed from a book by Roger Burbach, Orlando Nunez, and Boris Kagarlitsky, which couldn’t possibly have been borrowed from the title of my course; or, less convolutedly and not-quite-self-referentially, witness the influence of the 50 Years Is Enough Network and The ONE Campaign on European and world leaders). Still, the EZLN did help make Latin America’s subsequent leftward shift possible, so it’s a draw balanced on a knife edge for me. Or should I say that the Buffy-/Van Helsing-esque “put a stake through its heart” solution is competing with the Terminator-/Iron Giant-/Metropolis-esque “reprogram the machine before it destroys you” solution and causing my fantasy and sf inner fanboys to battle it out within me.
The Storm vs. the Abyss: I have to side with Marcos on this one. Neither The Perfect Storm nor The Abyss were great movies, but, post-Katrina, meteorological metaphors trump geological ones any day. I know, I know, Marcos’s comunique predates the former movie by six years. You get my point: it’s all about the possibility, people, if only the possibility to see how cruel and incompetent globalization’s U.S. managers are in the wake of a hurricane or typhoon. Plus the EZLN has done more to start a worldwide rethinking of and movement against neoliberalism — and to create alternatives to it — than Greider, who seems to have gotten more new agey and self-helpy with his metaphors in The Soul of Capitalism. I’ll take global encuentras over the lecture circuit any day.
Duelling Prophets: Again, I’ll take Marcos over Greider. Issuing veiled warnings that won’t be understood until it’s too late is a recipe for tragedy, plus it’s self-indulgent to cast yourself as cursed by Apollo (the Fed?), as Greider does. I’m a big fan of The Tempest, anyway. That said, Greider does a pretty good job of surveying the range of activist responses to corporate globalization from around the world in the last section of One World, Ready or Not, which helps put the EZLN in context, even if he studiously and unforgivably avoids referencing them in his entire 500-page book. He was one of the first to point out that China’s and Japan’s massive investments in the dollar and in U.S. Treasury bonds could have disastrous consequences — and his reporting on those consequences in other countries in the 1990s is impeccable and instructive. But Marcos’s prophecy is more relevant for a 21st century that is already feeling the effects of environmental, ecological, and geopolitical stresses that Greider only touches on and that raise the stakes of the economic and social revolutions he primarily focuses on.
In the end, though, I don’t want to leave you with an either-or choice or leave Marcos’s and Greider’s thinking in the 1990s. So I encourage you to explore Marcos’s later writings (in Spanish if you can) as well as Greider’s, both at his site and at The Nation. I’ve learned a lot from both.
Flash forward to May 2007. With tenure, a house (and a low fixed-rate mortgage, thank Astaroth and Gojira), three lovely ladies to support until the younger two are old enough to allow their mama to join the workforce, two sets of aging parents to worry about, retirement and college savings accounts to somehow grow, and savings accounts in dollars and yen to sustain, the prospect of financial apocalypse is rather more disquieting than it was a decade ago. So how do I reconcile my appreciation of Marcos’s metaphors and for the EZLN’s projects with my own entry into the global elite? Stay tuned — same WAAGNFNP time, same WAAGNFNP channel!
Responses to “Figures for Global Capitalism, Part I”