The Crisis of Capitalism and the Commons – Ümit Akçay

Today’s social and economic system, in which needs are provided on the basis of profit, is in deep structural crisis. This structural crisis sometimes manifests itself through a financial collapse, sometimes through crises in emerging market economies, and sometimes through the rise of authoritarianism. However, such economic and political issues, which can be seen as different parts of the puzzle, have so far been unable to affect the social power relations that have caused the structural crisis, and the economic policies. In the face of attacks by capital, social opposition around the globe, and particularly that of the working class, has been unable to generate articulate responses to challenge the predominance of ruling classes. And what’s more, faced with a rising wave of authoritarianism, the social opposition is in perpetual decline.

In this article, with the perspective of the commons in mind, I will try to focus on some viable contributions to the discussion of what alternatives could transcend capitalist social relations in the context of the global financial crisis of 2007-8, which is considered the first and most critical one of the 21st century. With this in mind, in order to explain the conjuncture of the current crisis, first I will briefly touch upon the causes of the global financial crisis of 2007-8 and the mainstream economic policies that were applied in order to overcome the crisis, and its short term consequences. Secondly, through critical assessment of the alternatives introduced in terms of the crisis, I will focus on the inherent contributions that the commons can offer to this discussion.

The first great financial crisis of the 21st century

When the history of capitalism is carefully examined, it can be noticed that the notion of financial crisis is neither a new one nor an exception. Among these crises are those that affect only individual countries, as well as those with a greater impact affecting multiple countries or even the global economy altogether. The crises of the 1870s, 1929, 1970s and lastly 2008 are considered to be the four major global financial crises experienced so far in the history of capitalism. Such major crises not only resulted in harsh economic contractions, but also had significant political, social, and economic consequences. These historic crises have certain similar mechanisms as well as differentiated characteristics in parallel with the development of capitalism. If we are to assess the recent global crisis from the commons perspective, we can assume that the current crisis – aside from the specific attributes highlighted in the literature on ‘financialization’ – is actually grounded in the neoliberal response to the crisis of the 1970s. The third major crisis in the history of capitalism took place in the 1970s. Various aspects of the causes of the crisis have been pointed out in various evaluations made from different perspectives. But what is critical for our subject here is to understand how the crisis in the 1970s was overcome, for it takes us to the actors of the current crisis. Notwithstanding their differences in different countries, they all seem to follow four fundamental processes.

The first one was the introduction of privatization in order to revive falling rates of profit. Privatization was one of the fundamental propositions of the market approach whereby the state abandoned its intervention in the economy (Harvey, 2005). In this way, it was suggested that new areas of profitability would be opened up for companies and public debt would be reduced. The basic logic of privatization, however, was the re-commodification of areas that were previously excluded from commodity relations. Public initiatives in myriad areas, such as education, health, social security, housing, and transportation in particular, used to be a part of everyday life before the crisis in the 1970s. 

These public commons not only prevented the commodification of these service areas but also limited the commodification of the labor force. In other words, the dependence on the market for the reproduction of labor power decreased in the presence of public commons. In this context, privatization led to both the commodification of service areas and the restructuring of the fields of reproduction of the labor force in a completely market-dependent manner. In short, the first strategy of capital against the 1970s crisis was the eradication of public commons.

The second process was the limitation of real wage growth. Indeed, when we review relevant data on the mature capitalist countries like the USA and the UK, we see that there has not been any substantial increase in real wages since the 1970s (Palley, 2015). In the remaining western countries, real wage increases have lagged behind increases in productivity. As for non-western geographies, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment and stabilization programs, which became widespread in the 1980s and 1990s, were based on the repression of real wages. Hence, the limitation of real wage increases has been the basis of neoliberal policies, which means continuous ‘austerity’ (Blyth, 2013). This policy has been justified by the anti-inflationary programs. Beginning with high interest rate increases, which started with the theoretical support of monetarist and new classical economics, the process was completed in 1990s with independence of the central bank and inflation targeting frameworks (Itoh and Lapavitsas, 1999). Therefore, limiting real wage increases, which was the main component of the anti-inflation programs, has been implemented as a strategy so as to increase the profitability of capital.

In an environment where labor reproduction has become more market dependent due to privatization, suppression of real wage increases has triggered an interesting dynamic. This dynamic, which is discussed in great detail in ‘financialization’ literature, is the integration of large segments of society, especially lower income groups, into the financial system (Langley, 2008). Normally, due to the increase in household expenditures as a result of privatization, but also in cases where real wage increases are limited, the continuity of economic growth may be jeopardized due to the suppression of total demand. However, consumer credit has miraculously enabled continuous economic growth despite austerity policies (Crouch, 2009). Over the past few decades, large segments of society, whose real income has not risen in line with spending, have been increasingly using more and more consumer credit to cover their own budget deficits. The gradual increase in consumer credit has not only created a basis for the establishment in the 1990s of a new financial architecture, it has also ensured control over the working class by means of market discipline by putting workers in debt. (Lazzarato, 2012).

The fourth process of tackling the crisis was the internationalization of capital. In fact, the internationalization of capital was not a development specific to this period. However, what made the post-crisis period of the 1970s so specific was the coordinated internationalization of forms of money, commodity, and productive capital, and thereby the increased in the volume and speed of the movement of capital, owing to revolutions in information technology (Oğuz, 2015). The most important result of this process, often referred to as ‘globalization’, was the limited movement of labor in an environment in which capital movements were liberalized. This has been a development that greatly increased the bargaining power of capital over labor. In addition to capital’s trump card of moving to a different country or region, the fact that production per se could be dismantled with each piece produced in a different country or region has also been one of the biggest advantages of capital over labor. Last but not least, the discourse of ‘improving the investment environment’ has become a representation of the structural power of capital over labor. State managers have increasingly begun to adopt pro-capitalist economic policies to attract investments to their own city or country.

All of the four exit strategies developed in response to the crisis of the 1970s boosted company profit rates in the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, neoliberalism’s success peaked with the new financial architecture established in the 1990s. Ironically, this success also laid the basis for the 2008 global financial crisis. The ‘New Financial Architecture’ (NFA), which emerged in the 1990s and matured in the early 2000s, was a new formation that interconnected various areas of the economy (Akçay and Güngen, 2016). When we think schematically, consumer credit (housing, personal, education, vehicle, etc.) was the main tool for the integration of employees into the financial system. To the extent that borrowers’ repayment of debts provided a regular flow of revenue, the banking system transformed these revenue flows into new financial products that it could sell by means of securitization. This process, which refers to the commodification of debt itself, was made possible by newly developed risk transfer techniques. These new financial products, which were dependent on revenue flows generated through the debt repayments, rapidly began to be in demand for they promised a high return in the low market interest rate setting. These new products also entered into the portfolio of conventional corporate investors, such as mainstream financial institutions and pension funds, thanks to rating agencies. Produced by the banking system, these new financial products began to be seen as an attractive source of income for investors, as credit rating agencies labelled them so safe that they would never crash. All in all, the NFA was established on the curious logic that debtors could pay their debts even if they had no real wage increase. However, once problems arose in the repayment of debts, the entire financial architecture collapsed. In short, the financial collapse of 2008 also meant that the solutions formulated by capital to exit the crisis in the 1970s were also blocked and entered into crisis.

The 2008 crisis has passed through different stages and continues up to today. The first phase took place in the United States in 2007-2009. The second phase took place between 2010-2012, when the crisis fully affected Europe. The third phase of the crisis affected the Global South countries, also known as emerging market economies, in 2013 onwards. And, now in 2018, we have started to witness the severe effects of the last phase, which started in 2013. But what was surprising was not the infectious effect of the global financial crisis; it was that the economic policy framework applied for the exit from the crisis was the same as the economic policy framework that was effective in the formation of the crisis itself. In other words, in the case of the 2008 crisis, there was not a single change in economic policies before or after it, unlike the crises of 1929 or the 1970s. The direction of economic policies in the aftermath of the crisis was toward ‘more neoliberalism’ (Blyth, 2013).

Social Movements in the post-2008 crisis period

The formula of ‘more neoliberalism’ implemented after the first major crisis of 21st century guaranteed that further attacks on all kinds of public property and commons would follow. In the aftermath of the crisis, a significant opposition have risen, especially when the cost of the crisis was inflicted on the general public. And the crisis broke out at a time when heavily indebted and unorganized masses formed the majority of the working class in many countries. However, those who did not want to pay the cost of the crisis in different parts of the world launched serious objections.

Social movements, which had been inactive for a long time in the US, made their first public appearance with the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ demonstrations. The movement, which began with the occupation of a park on Wall Street, the financial centre in New York, soon became the focal point of those who questioned capitalism and those who were suffering due to the crisis. Although the participation of the traditional working class to the Occupy process was quite weak, there was still a strong reaction in terms of public visibility. The main emphasis in these demonstrations was that while a handful of the rich (1%) were constantly enriched, the vast majority of the population (99%) becoming impoverished with no growth of income. Among the demands expressed was the transfer of revenues from the 1%, who were seen as responsible for the crisis, to the remaining 99% of the society. Even though the movement grew rapidly, it could not persevere in the face of police intervention. The flash in the pan nature of the Occupy movements, their rapid expansion and equally rapid decline, can be seen as a common feature of the protests developed by the social movements after the 2008 crisis. Although the Occupy movement was not able to offer a meaningful alternative in the years that followed, it was later revived as a discourse within the Democratic Party when Bernie Sanders mentioned the movement in his speech during the presidential race.

The protests that emerged in Europe against the crisis were in the form of strikes generated by the traditional working class against austerity policies. The fact that the workers were more organized made the objections longer lasting. In Greece, which was the crux of the anti-austerity wave in Europe, the radical left coalition SYRIZA came to power in January 2015 with promises that it would bring an end to the prevailing austerity policies and the debts would not be paid off. The experience of SYRIZA is a case in point in regard to the social movements launched against the crisis and the evaluation of alternatives (Varoufakis, 2017). As a result of the negotiations with the Troika between January and July 2015, it was decided to hold a referendum on the austerity program. On their way to the referendum, the Troika explicitly announced that the rejection of the program would mean leaving the European Union. And yet, 60% of the voters gave a resounding ‘No’. Despite this support, the SYRIZA leadership nevertheless decided to implement the austerity program. It would be inadequate to explain the SYRIZA experience simply by the fact that party leaders were not brave enough. The deeper problem is that it is not possible to object to the austerity policies by remaining within the Euro Union. In this sense, the European Union project has been based on neoliberal economic policies, and thus any deviation from it is not possible while remaining within the Union. In short, the EU project excludes a genuine left wing alternative by its design (Akçay, 2016). Therefore, in addition to various other issues, the lack of alternative economic and political programs even in Greece, which was one of the most outstanding examples in terms of post-crisis reaction, has prevented social movements from reaching their desired targets.

It is also possible to observe the effects of the global financial crisis and the social movements in geographies outside the US and Europe. For example, the impact of the crisis in the Arab region, which had lived under relentless dictatorships for years on end, has been devastating. The surge in unemployment, the increase in the cost of living and economic contraction have had a triggering effect on the revolt of large segments of the population already living in poverty. This wave of riots ultimately led to the collapse of the old regimes one after another. 

Notwithstanding the geographical and qualitative differences, the Arab revolts, too, collapsed in a short period of time, just like the protests developed in various geographies after the 2008 crisis. Just like the rest of the world, the underlying issue here was, again, the lack of institutionalization and any real alternatives. As a result, the rebellions in the Arab region were ceased within the geopolitical struggles of the great powers.

The crisis in Latin America had a devastating impact on the left in power in the 2000s, causing them to experience another crisis of their own. The economic contraction in countries such as Argentina and Brazil, where export revenues took a dip after 2013, together with the economic crisis in Venezuela, caused the right-wing opposition to strengthen its hand. Far from creating alternatives to capitalism, the development of alternatives to neoliberal capitalism such as ‘new developmentalism’ or neoliberal populism (Özden and Bekmen, 2015) made the realization of partial redistributive policies possible owing to the opportunities provided by a period of economic growth. However, when the global economic conjuncture that created this period of economic growth changed, the experiences in Latin America also entered into crisis.

In Turkey, the resistance of Gezi Park of 2013, on the one hand, stood as an articulate social movement against neo-liberal policies, and on the other hand was a massive reaction to the existing authoritarian populist government. However, the Gezi uprising, like other similar movements, also retreated shortly afterwards. The chances of politicization from the bottom up and the potential of the politics of the commons to be implemented were some of the features that made the Gezi movement so significant. However, the fact that the conventional left had been lagging behind this social movement was one of the factors that hampered the realization of these potentials. Again, lack of any viable alternative was the recipe for such a failure.

In short, the global wave of revolts that emerged after the 2008 crisis could not manage to affect economic policies. The most important result of the short-lived dissident riots was that it was made clear that they did not have an alternative that could overcome the prevailing neoliberal model. The fact that these alternatives were so weak was, in part, a result of the worldwide decline of working class politics. Parallel to this, the fact that such a mode of social democracy that embraced neoliberalism became the mainstream had an even more restrictive effect on options outside the mainstream. In this sense, the continuity of economic policies before and after the crisis was made possible since the ruling classes did not have to act in the opposite direction. This continuity in economic policies had a devastating impact on politics. When the discontent that emerged in the aftermath of the crisis was not represented by the left, a wide ground was opened for right-wing populist leaders and fascist movements to manipulate. So in a way, the deficiencies in social movements in general and the commons in particular led to the emergence of escalating authoritarian populism. As a result, after the crisis of 2008, when a rising wave of opposition across the world had to withdraw, a much more authoritarian political atmosphere remained.

The potentials and limitations of the politics of the commons

As I have tried to summarize with the examples above, one of the reasons for the great shortcomings of the social reactions that emerged after the 2008 crisis in terms of persistence and efficiency was the lack of a widely agreed upon common alternative program. Of course, this deficiency is not due to the fact that such a program cannot be devised. The problem, in a way, is linked to the phase at which capitalism stands today. For instance, growing an opposition movement in any country often leads organizations that monitor countries on behalf of global capital to immediately set alarm bells ringing. Triggering capital flight from a country, this process called the ‘deterioration of investment climate’ can swiftly eliminate the political alternatives that attempt to escape the current neoliberal system and do not give them the opportunity to become institutionalized by creating an economic crisis. In fact, the structural boundaries that we saw in the case of SYRIZA with regard to the framework of the European Union exist at a global level as well. In this context, the internationalization of capital makes an impact that bolsters the domination of capital over labor. Yet, in spite of all the handicaps, the development of post-capitalist alternatives is the common problem of anti-systemic dissident movements in different countries in today’s world where social inequalities have reached their highest levels in the history of capitalism. The politics of the commons can offer a meaningful contribution to this field. The establishment of a system of thought and practice that puts common use, production, and management models on the agenda trying to overcome binaries such as economy vs. politics or public vs. private may indeed be a guide for the creation of an alternative program that the opposition is desperately in need of.

An important opportunity inherent in the politics of the commons is the potential to overcome the issues that tend to arise from the duality of state and market. Indeed, in the 20th century, we have witnessed the development of alternative projects in which the state was at the centre of focusing on limiting the destructive features of market-based economic and social systems, and in some cases also using non-market methods in resource allocation. However, although these state-centric projects were more successful in preventing inequalities than market-centric models, they were not so successful in developing a stable model that would eventually manage to overcome capitalism.

The commons framework has the potential of transcending the state or market-centric models. Placing the commons in the centre, such a reconsideration of property issues could be regarded as a crucial step in the right direction. Private property of units of production or consumption is the origin of the profit motive and commodification. The state ownership, which is its opposite, does not automatically eliminate the problems created by the market system. The structure of common ownership, on the one hand, helps to move away from commodification and profit-driven production structure associated with private property, while on the other hand, it can provide the establishment of democratic audit mechanisms that are the missing element in state property. In particular, the participation of employees in decision-making processes in production units and becoming a part of public control will be one of the important opportunities of public ownership. In short, instead of conventional binaries such as privatization vs. nationalization, filling in the conceptual and practical aspects of commoning practices is of critical importance so as to overcome the state and market dichotomy (Akçay and Azizoğlu, 2014).

Surmounting the dilemma of the state vs. market can help to bridge the gap between political democracy and economic democracy. In this regard, the politics of the commons can be seen as a suitable medium for the development of the most advanced form of democratization. It is impossible to reach a true democracy unless political democracy is complemented with economic democracy. Surpassing the liberal approaches based on the separation of economy and politics as well as having a perspective that does not limit the demand for participation in the political sphere is of crucial importance for the politics of the commons (Akçay, 2014). Otherwise, even if the demand for political participation is met, it may not automatically help the democratization of the economy.

The politics of the commons has the potential to bring together the system critical alternatives that are progressing on two levels and almost dissociated (Akçay and Azizoğlu, 2014b). The first of these levels is conventional politics, which can be defined as the macro politics, aimed at achieving political power. Although political parties turn into dysfunctional subjects within the current crisis of the liberal democratic system, they are still considered the most indispensable components of the mainstream political game. Therefore, the criticisms and alternatives to the system developed through political parties are still the most important means of the macro politics. 

Apart from political parties at the macro level, trade unions are also conventional components of social opposition. However, in today’s capitalism, in which precariousness is especially becoming more widespread with atypical working conditions and contract forms on the rise, the organized working class in the trade unions decreases quantitatively while conventional unions cannot organize a large group of workers. In this context, the commoning of trade unions by the working class and thereby transforming them into a means of struggle organized at the macro-level according to the new conditions of capitalism is of critical importance. The politics conducted at the macro level is still important in terms of reaching large segments of the population that cannot be encompassed by professional and economic organizations.

In the face of the macro strategy that makes policies to influence public opinion nationwide, addressing the whole country, there are also some micro strategies that are separate from the major agendas and that are often isolated. The micro strategies comprise practices that can be implemented ‘right now’, even without having major changes in macro politics, and without wasting any time, especially in the face of problems that are very difficult to solve in the short term. Having a large spectrum, micro strategies way range from ecological villages to production and consumption cooperatives, from park communes in urban areas to data commons or subject-oriented solidarity activities. The most advanced examples are cooperatives, which often combine production and consumption areas.

When we look at the social movements that emerged rapidly after the 2008 crisis and declined at the same rate, we can see that the levels of macro and micro politics usually work apart. Based on the politics of the commons, we can offer some suggestions on this issue. For instance, it can be argued that even if flexibly defined, micro strategies that are not a part of the macro strategy can easily be incorporated into the system, whereas the effects of macro politics which are not embodied in micro strategies tend to be limited. Far from being isolated from each other, these two areas should therefore interact with each other so that they can both gain more strength. In this framework, the common aspects of local struggles together with national and international ones as a scale can be revealed through the politics of the commons. Apart from interconnecting the macro and micro strategies, another strategy is that the ‘grey areas’ between them can also be filled with the politics of the commons.[1]

I would like to point out some of the limitations of this approach after addressing the potential contributions that the politics of the commons can offer in terms of a social struggle program that could overcome capitalism. As I have pointed out above, the first of the limitations is that one of the strategies, which are found at different levels and which can have an advantage when interconnected, that is, especially micro strategies, is prevalent in the realm of the politics of the commons. The prevalence of micro strategies within social opposition may be functional in order to ensure the continuity of opposition in the absence of macro strategies. However, in the case of critical social upheavals, it is not possible for social movements with micro strategies to channel these social upheavals into a system critical direction.

In addition to this, in the context of the lack of alternative programs mentioned above, the most important limitation of politics of the commons is that the links between micro strategies are not sufficiently considered. More specifically, self-management and cooperative structures are suggestions of the politics of the commons in terms of communing of production. Nevertheless, there are still limits to be met even for the most successful implementations of these suggestions. In other words, the structural limit of the alternative production organizations under the existing capitalist system is the pressure of competitiveness. It is not quite possible for local cooperatives to compete on price with goods manufactured by giant capitalist corporations. 

For this reason, such production models must certainly be part of a macro strategy as well as a micro strategy. This macro strategy should be democratic planning. It is likely that the uncoordinated activities of different production units – even commonized ones – encounter severe crises, both strategically and economically. The coordination here has both technical and political content. A planning mechanism in which workers participate in both production and management, while also controlling the process, constitutes the very content of the coordination activity.

Another area on which the politics of the commons needs to focus more is the commoning of production. This is an area where conventional working-class politics and the politics of the commons incorporate. Furthermore, it indicates the potential to overcome the current crisis of the trade unions. It should be emphasized that the commoning of production units is both a sine qua non component in the commoning of all other areas and also a means that promotes commoning practices in other areas. On the other hand, commoning of production units does not simply refer to the establishment of State Economic Enterprises that operate under state ownership. Likewise, it is highly unlikely for the state to be at the very centre of such a commoning process as it has been restructured today. The reason for this is that the state per se conducts its operations based on market conditions. Hence, under the current circumstances, nationalization is far from being an alternative to overcome the problems that arise from the pressure of competitiveness. On the contrary, it can function as a catalyst for commodification and a means of marketization. With regard to an alternative program, it is precisely for this reason that the politics of the commons should advocate neither nationalization nor expropriation, but rather commoning.

In addition to production units, the commonization of finance is also another critical area. The restructuring of the banking system and especially the credits so as to meet needs will be one of the first steps of the democratization of money. In the same way, the commoning of finance, however, does not simply mean the development of public banking (Güngen, 2014) because such a reform of the monetary system has no transformative effect on its own, before the development of post-capitalist relations in the system of production, property relations, and distribution. However, if the commoning of production does not coordinate with the commoning of finance, the possibility of applying it in practice will gradually diminish. To put it in a nutshell, when the horizons of the politics of the commons are expanded through the commoning of production and finance, more constructive contributions can be made to the debate on the issue of a possible alternative program.

Concluding remarks

On the 10th anniversary of the 2008 global financial crisis, the greatest crash of the 21st century, there have been no changes in regard to either the economic policies that led to the crisis or the mechanisms that triggered it. The primary objective on the agenda proposed by the ruling class is not to find a long-term solution or to overcome the crisis, but just to look for ways to get around it. What makes them think the crisis is manageable is that the response from below is quite meagre. In this brief evaluation, I have tried to analyse the crisis of today’s capitalism by studying its imminent roots grounded in the crisis of the 1970s from the perspective of the commons. The question of how the potential of the social oppositions that have emerged following the crises can be used more effectively so as to alter the dominant economic policies remains the most fundamental issue that I think should be answered by those who say ‘Another world is possible’. I have tried to address some of the contributions that the politics of the commons can make by examining the post-crisis social movementss launched so far across the globe. Nonetheless, the subject is too extensive to fit here in a single study and yet it is of crucial importance that the discussion on the commons should further be dealt with in other areas as well.

Alongside the basic arguments of commons literature, such as those that dwell on the right to the city, it is time that we discuss more contemporary perspectives. For example, as we are standing on the verge of a revolution in robotics, we should also discuss these in depth from the commons perspective and focus on the contemporary aspects of technological advancements that can ease the overthrow of capitalism. Breaking the monopolies in the production of knowledge, commoning the knowledge production process, and ultimately creating models that can surpass the prevailing hierarchical university system are just a few of the areas to which the politics of the commons can contribute. As the discussion on the commons expands into such areas, it is necessary to address commoning practices from a much wider perspective in order to surmount their aforementioned limitations. The debates that seem to have been stuck in certain spheres, such as the cooperative system or self-management, need to adjust their focus to the commoning of production and finance at the macro level. Otherwise, no matter how radical their content and potentials may be, the commons will continue to face the danger of inclusion into the system.

Notes

[1] For a strategy discussion on filling in the ‘grey area’, see Fırat and Genç (2014).

References

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