24 November 2009 – The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) hosted an international conference in Geneva on 12- 13 November 2009 to better understand the social and political dimensions of the current crisis and subsequent policy and institutional reforms, and their implications for developing countries. This podcast is the fourth in a series of five podcasts focusing on some of the issues raised at the conference. It examines the political dimensions of the global crisis.
Please use the 'Media Files' link to the right of this page to access the podcast. (12mins 46secs, MP3 file, 2.19mb)
Transcript of the podcast
You’re listening to the UNRISD podcast and my name is Véronique Martinez. This episode presents extracts from an UNRISD conference that took place on the 12 and 13th November 2009 entitled the “Social and Political Dimensions of the Global Crisis: Implications for Developing Countries.”
Among all the aspects that have been studied or analyzed on the global financial crisis, the social and political implications have received little notice. Developed nations are ready to officially announce the end of the crisis but some experts predict that its ramifications are not over. Developing countries and rural economies in particular may continue to experience the direct and indirect shock of the crisis as markets remains volatile, while food and fuel prices continue to fluctuate, leaving vulnerable populations suffering. The conference on the global crisis and its implications for developing countries brought together experts from different horizons and countries to address this issue and try to identify the role that social actors such as trade-unions, NGOs and cooperatives are playing in mitigating the effects of the crisis as well as in bringing progressive change.
Professor Björn Beckman, from Stockholm University, favours a popular democratic agenda in response to the global crisis in opposition to the prevailing neoliberal order. In his opinion, trade unions are at the centre and concerned with ensuring the re-regulation of the world economy and demanding an active role for the state. Workers are suffering immensely as employment has been hit hard by this crisis and trade unions can play a key role in the South as well as in the North.
The way in which unions are inserted in the national development project, their superior organisational capacity and their ability to offer leadership for a wider group of popular forces in society gives them a particular place in this context. In both the global North and in the South, the current crisis intensifies the contradictions between popular democratic aspirations and the prevailing neoliberal orientation of government policy. The defence of workers’ rights in the context depends on the ability of trade unions to confront the state on the basis of a broad popular democratic platform. The beleaguered unions in the global North can only resist the anti-democratic and anti-union logic of global reconstruction if they ally themselves to the rising working class forces in the South. Simultaneously, the latter need to ally themselves to a wider range of popular organizations in order to change the policies of states and defend their own rights. To sum up, the current global crisis is unlikely to generate a reform movement at the level of states and international firms that change the balance of forces in favour of the working class and a more popular democratic agenda. The reverse is more likely. The crisis tips the balance radically against labour and even generates new opportunities for state and capital to repress and sideline the organizational efforts of the working class.
Social actors, civil society and the states are very important actors in finding alternative solutions to this crisis but it is also very important to look at the narrative dimensions of the past and present situation to have a more comprehensive vision of the state of the actual crisis and its future implications.
As Bob Jessop, Professor of Sociology of the University of Lancaster argued, the present crisis is a hypercomplex phonemenon which provokes profound theoretical, paradigmatic as well as policy and practical disorientation. It’s a question of power and domination, dangers and opportunities. It is a crisis in crisis management.
Let’s talk about power and domination. In the context of the current crisis, I’m taking Karl Deutsch’s definition of power. Power can be defined inter alia as the ability not to have to learn from one’s mistakes and I think that’s a very good starting point for the current crisis. Who is in fact learning from the mistakes of the current crisis? Is it those that made them? Or are those that made the crisis also busy not
learning from it but pushing off the costs of their mistakes onto others. And to try to understand the way in which the crisis is being read and the way in which the crisis is being solved tells us something about power and domination, and the capacity to define the crisis in terms that may not be shared by the majority of people who are suffering from or affected by that crisis. And indeed I want to argue that what the crisis has done is concentrate power in the hands of elites, leading to exceptional measures, but those are aimed at restoring business as usual.
In Jessop’s opinion, crises tend to disrupt accepted views of the world and question policy paradigms. This crisis has shocked people’s theoretical and political perspectives but has not yet been linked up with the refusal to change their ways. Policy is thus a crucial line of action.
Policy matters. When crisis management is reduced to issues of who’s got the best policies defined by the governing parties, then opportunities for more radical solutions are marginalized. Limiting crisis management to the search for correct policies implies that the crisis is due to incorrect policy rather than being rooted in inherent contradictions, antagonisms and crisis tendencies associated with dominant forms of economic and political organization and I think the crisis that we’re living through has been defined very much in terms of who’s got the best polities to solve this crisis. It’s not been called into question what are the root causes, the more fundamental causes it’s been narrowed down, interpretation has been taken back to failed policies and better policies to solve it and if you can do that quickly, tarp is wonderful, but if you don’t past this legislation today, the American economy will collapse tomorrow. It’s a very good example of the concentration and condensation of power.
There are a few potential solutions stemming from the North.
I think if we look at the emerging solutions in the North, we have got five that are in play. A revival or return of Keynesianism, recapitalisation and re-regulation of banks, a search for a new international financial architecture, a remoralisation of capitalism, very important from political economy to moral economy and I think coming up fast on the inside track, a green new deal which brings together the triple crises that we’ve talked about this morning. But the green new deal using discourse analysis terms is a floating signifier, it can mean what you want, and I think whilst we want the struggle for a green new deal it shouldn’t be on neoliberal terms, market solutions, carbon trading and so forth. So the green new deal is an opportunity waiting for alternative solutions but you have to be careful how that gets played out.
Andrew Fisher, Senior Lecturer in Population and Social Policy at the Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, followed Jessop’s presentation on the general parameter surrounding the crisis by a specific manifestation of it through the ties between China and the United States of America.
The Chinese current accounts only really started to shoot up in 2005 and already by that time there were warning signals that the credit bubble was out of control in the US and of course the key question is why did it explode at that point? And what I would argue is that the explosion is related to the reorganization of international production networks. Since the East-Asian crisis, there is a massive, massive reorganization of international production networks via China, largely led by US corporations and other northern corporations. And actually, this picture a lot of people have been interpreting as a sign of Chinese strength, the rise of China and the decline of the US. It might actually be quite the opposite. […] What we’re seeing in this type of relationship could be actually an expression of the strength of the corporate sector in the US rather than a weakness of the corporate sector and in that sense, I think what we’ve tended to see is the separation between the financial bubble in crisis from changes happening in the real productive economy. Where as actually the bubble and the crisis might themselves be mechanisms and lubrication of this underlying productive restructuring in the world economy.
Jorge Nef, Professor of Government and International Affairs at Florida University, explained that we are facing five dimensions of the crisis that are intertwined: an environmental crisis, an economic crisis, a social crisis, a political crisis and a cultural crisis. He continued with the notion of human security and the notion of mutual vulnerability, saying that as highly integrated systems, they become very vulnerable at the weakest parts. He took the case of the Americas.
The Washington consensus in Latin America means two things, an economic package which is neoliberal and a political package which is this restricted democracy. But, if you examine things a little bit more deeper, you realize that this king of restructuring was not only a political restructuring happening in Latin America, it was also happening in North America. And what I begin to see, if you examine the longer durée, it’s been an erosion of democracy and the democratic process not only in South America or Latin America but also in the United States. So the crisis of democracy leads to this kind of meaningless, what Prime Minister […] used to refer to as a five minutes democracy, it’s a democracy without substance and it’s characterized by a reduction of accessibility but also by growing inequality. If you examine North and South America, in fact, the indexes of inequality measure by the Gini index, the rate of inequality is greater in North America, including Canada, than it is in Latin America although the common denominator is inequality. And also, the political system becomes less representative, less democratic in this other sense. So my point is that part of the crisis is an inability of the State to detransnationalize itself. It’s an inability of the State to represent society. It represents a portion of the civil society, i.e. the elites, but increasingly is marginalizing the non-elites.
This podcast is part of a collection covering the UNRISD conference on “Social and Political Dimensions of the Global Crisis: Implications for Developing Countries” and if you liked what you heard here, the other podcasts in the collection may also interest you. For more information, go to our website, www.unrisd.org
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Thank you for listening. For UNRISD news, this is Véronique Martinez, in Geneva.