“The Crisis of Capitalism” – An Interview with Dr Simon Parker (Part II)

(Photo: Steve and Clare, CCL)


Last time, Dr Parker talked about how the Migration Crisis and rising xenophobia have been a direct consequence of the current global capitalist system. Is there a solution? We put the question to Dr Parker.

Do you see a solution, or set of, that could work that is not utopian but has a realistic side to it?

Not at the moment. Things such as climate change and struggle for resources such as water are going to make matters much worse. Unfortunately, I am quite pessimistic: things will have to get a lot worse before they can become better again. There will be more and more pressure for the better off nations to build walls and fences, to look to exclude more categories of people from citizenship in the future or even current citizens. It’s a classical ecological problem of scarcity where capital is creating its own scarcity, but it is an artificial scarcity. There are enough resources to feed the world and for all of us to have a reasonable level of income, but of course this cannot happen under conditions of capitalist accumulation.

As Thomas Piketty [1] demonstrated, not only will virtually all of the world’s resources end up in the hands of the 1%, it will be more like the 0.01%. This accumulation on top of the pyramid is inevitable given that assets are the source of wealth, rather than production. What I believe will happen is that there will be some kind of push-back, but not necessarily in ways that Marx predicted: it will likely not be a progressive revolution, but rather a regressive one. We have seen from Egypt through to Syria that this is not a play where there are only good guys, rather it is one in which there are only bad guys.

There was a major report on Egypt on how after the revolution, the young people and revolutionaries didn’t move fast enough to provide food for the disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but the Muslim Brotherhood did. Basically saying: we had the revolution, but life is still awful for us, we are starving, so who should we vote for? Clearly, those supporting us in our struggle.

I agree with that, and it is the sort of middle-classes who were behind the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square who were more interested in their own freedom than the conditions of the poor of Cairo. In a sense, they got the response they should have expected.

Do you believe if you were to correlate the international legal norms governing migration on a national and EU level with economic prosperity, would we see more fluctuations? Would we see more support for open borders, or maybe against it?

Two things: uneven economic development produces migration and mobility. If you think of population as labour, which is not to imply that most people are moving for economic reasons, then economic inequality leads to political inequality, which in turn leads to conflict. They are obviously connected, especially in the case of Africa. As a result, economic inequality is both operating as a push-factor, and it is also operating as a pull-factor: the West is still where the jobs are, where opportunity is. In the absence of alternatives many people feel they have no option but to risk their lives for a better life.

It sounds like rather a cliché, but a more equal world will lead to less forced mobility. At that point, people may migrate for cultural interest, but not out of necessity, and so you take away a lot of the incentives. Sadly, I think that you will see, and this is also what the World Bank, UNHCR, all the leading think-tanks and the EU believe that global migration, both forced and voluntary, will accelerate over the next 50 years. And the reason for that is that the world is going to become even more uneven and unequal. But again: that is just the symptom.

The challenge for governance is that if you are prepared to change the world to be a fairer world, particularly if you are a government in the West or the Global North, that would mean to go to your citizens and say you have to live on less. Whatever surplus you have has to be redistributed to the rest of the world that has next to nothing, living on less than $2 a day. Unfortunately the response to that is obviously going to be a dusty one.

There are people rioting over the idea of a few young people coming from Calais. The reason neo-liberalism is moving towards a revanchist punishment phase is because it is working with the kind of psychological grain of publics who think that they can smell the sweat of the third-world proletariat crowding around their borders. And they fear it. It’s what brings huge votes to Trump, Farage, or Le Pen: they are speaking their language.

But this is actually a very difficult problem because governments are not actually going to back global justice. Voters are clearly against it; they are in their privileged fortresses. And so that is only going to make the desperation of those excluded from the good life ever greater. So there is an unfortunate tendency with these trends for negative consequences for those who feel they are forced to move, and those who are trying to deter that movement. Frankly, this tug of war is only going to get more intense and violent, and that is inevitable.

You mentioned that the state’s role these days is mostly about protecting property rights?

I think it’s about seeing citizenship as a form of property-right, yes.

And then there is also this argument that, for example in France, citizens didn’t have passports or ID-cards until the Second World War, quite similar to other countries, and that today social-welfare etc. is tied to the state and those it grants citizenship, forcing the state to become more protectionist by so doing.

I think the great problem with republicanism is that it only works if everyone is inside the tent. Once it becomes a kind of mechanism for exclusion, then it becomes very much a kind of terroristic type of revolution. For example, we saw this with the Jacobin revolution: in a sense it was a revolutionary project built out of radical exclusion. You were either part of the state as a citoyen, or you were a ‘dirty’ priest, aristocrat, or whatever. One sympathises to a certain degree with those who they deemed were against the revolution for it was an ideology born in flames and steeped in blood, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. To the extent that it became adopted as a sort of liberal creed – of course, republicanism sounds quite appealing if you take away all the nasty antecedents – but the nasty antecedents matter, and now they are coming back to haunt liberalism.

If you look at someone like Geert Wilders: he’s the sort of liberal republican figure for whom European and Dutch values are basically about us being open, free, tolerant, etc.. But it also means that we therefore reject all world cultures that are not like us. So no, we are not actually tolerant. We are intolerant towards forms of culture that don’t conform with our world view, and I think that’s the trouble at hand. For that very good reason, Republican France is the textbook example of anti-multiculturalism. You cannot show any religious display in school, it is radically secular, and, in some ways, from a rational enlightenment point of view: yes, we should want to defend that. Again, there are these French feminists who think it is quite legitimate for the state to say women should not wear the hijab. But if you think about this logically, this is setting up the idea of the state as an instrument able to decide on your identity, on how you should think. At the end of the day, it is basically a quite totalitarian ideology again.

Are we an open world on paper, but hypocrites in practice?

We are open on our own terms. As long as you conform, we will consider your application, instead of just rejecting you outright. You can see this with people like Žižek on what is affecting the left: we have to defend the Enlightenment; we have to defend reason. These beliefs that everyone coming from the Middle-East is a primitive who wants to chop off people’s hands, force people into hiding, and so on. There is a gigantic failure of understanding the complexity of Islamic culture, which is a willed ignorance that is starting to replace a discourse which, ironically, came from the West’s encounter with the Orient. Interestingly enough, we were back then humbled by the encounter, and how Oriental culture gave us a lot of philosophical ideas, Aristotle, a lot of our language, how we do mathematics etc.. But that has all been erased now in a way that is deeply troubling. Dangerous actually. There is a new imperialism of western liberalism which is why a lot of non-westerners reject it – because it is attached to real forms of colonialism and imperialism: real F16s dropping weapons on people to bomb them into democratic values: this is the real reason why millions of Muslims have turned their backs on the West and western values, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was thinking of this in terms of Huntington’s so-called ‘Clash of Civilisations’ [2] except that what we are actually witnessing is the clash of market liberal fundamentalism versus its reflection in fundamentalist Islam. That is to say we are increasingly defining ourselves in opposition to what ‘you’ are, which is of course a completely artificial thing.

But one can understand why this happens, as we decomplicate liberalism as an instrument of class-domination, its opponents, looking for their own forms of class-domination, are simplifying it and producing its mirror-opposite as a counter-ideology. This then is what is extremely dangerous.

(At this stage, I thanked Dr.Parker for the interview, and we came to talk about academia, what it means to him, what keeps him in it, and why anyone should consider pursuing a PhD.)

Academia is not quite the free life of the mind it is made out to be. It has its moments though. There are times, usually during the vacation, when you can get your own work done. (laughter) It’s definitely hard for me to think of another job I’d rather be doing. Everyone in higher education will tell you that -if they have been in it long enough- that the job has become more pressurised, more driven towards external indicators, and all that. Things like raising grant-income, getting publications out to journals, that sort of constant pressure.

In the end, it is about a passion for knowledge. People who stay have not lost that passion, and want to communicate it to the next generation. Going back to what I was saying earlier: we can overstate our importance as universities being sources of enlightenment, but without them the world would be in a much sorrier state. To the extent that we make a difference it really is more about producing people who don’t just believe whatever they are reading or hearing from lazy journalist articles, bigoted politicians…, particularly for students doing social science. You want these people to leave with a critical mind that approaches the complexity of the world, recognising that that complexity needs to be respected, that there are no easy solutions, and that the solutions we do come up with should do no harm as a general principle. If you can teach people that, you have done a good job. At least that is what keeps me doing it.

Further reading:

1.  Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the 21st Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

2.  Huntington, S. P. (2000). The clash of civilizations?. In Culture and Politics (pp. 99-118). Palgrave Macmillan US.

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