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Historical Materialism Sydney Keynotes

by Gareth Bryant on December 3, 2018

Please join us for the keynote addresses at the Historical Materialism Sydney 2018 conference. All parts of the conference are free and open to all.

Full conference details, including venue, timetable and registration are here.

Lisa Adkins

Social Reproduction in the Neoliberal Era: Payments, Leverage and the Minskian Household

When: Thursday 13 December, 10am-11.30am

Where: ABS Case Study Lecture Theatre 2080, The University of Sydney

In this talk, I am concerned with the shifting ground of social reproduction, that is, with shifts to the processes through which the life of populations is maintained and reproduced in the post-Keynesian or, as it is also often termed, neoliberal era. While the concept of social reproduction is most readily associated with Marxist and socialist feminist analyses produced in previous decades, and especially analyses of Fordist-Keynesian social and economic formations, there has been a recent revival of interest in the concept. This revival has taken place in the context of the increasing precarity of life, namely, in a context where the material maintenance of life appears to be under sustained threat. Indeed, in some quarters it has been declared that social reproduction is in crisis, not least because of the retreat of the state from social provisioning and the protection of populations. Drawing on the critical insights of earlier Marxist and socialist feminist analyses, and especially the understanding that the reproduction of life is both a condition of existence for capital and also stands as source of productive potential, in this talk I will suggest that rather than in crisis the maintenance of life has shifted its axis. At issue in the reproduction of life in post-Keynesianism is not a set of practices which work to support capital via the daily maintenance and reproduction of labour power and on which the survival of households also depends. Instead, post-Keynesian life is hardwired to the provision of payments to finance capital. Such payments not only give households access to the maintenance of life but also serve as a source of liquidity for financial markets and hence for finance-led growth. I will suggest, in other words, that social reproduction has shifted in focus from the maintenance of labour power to the maintenance of contracted payments, a shift which places the household as central to the economic order and in particular as central to the economic and political project of finance led growth. This household is one which I will characterize here as Minskian. This is a household which exists in a continuous state of speculation and serves as an anchor for financial capital via the provision of flows of money to finance markets.

Lisa Adkins is Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at The University of Sydney. Her home Department is Sociology and Social Policy. She is also an Academy of Finland Distinguished Professor (2015-19). She has previously held Chairs in Sociology at the University of Manchester and at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has served as a member of the Australian Research Council’s College of Experts (Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences Panel), 2011-13. Lisa’s contributions and interventions in the discipline of Sociology lie in the areas of economic sociology, social theory and feminist theory. Her recent research has focused on the restructuring of labour, money and time in the context of the growth of finance. A book based on this research – The Time of Money – will be published in 2018 by Stanford University Press. The book appears in the Currencies: New Thinking for Financial Times series edited by Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings. Her recent research has also focused on the condition of unemployment and on wageless life. This has been supported by the Australian Research Council, the Academy of Finland and by a 2018 National Library of Australia (NLA) Fellowship. Lisa is joint editor-in-chief of the journal Australian Feminist Studies (Routledge/Taylor&Francis).

Melinda Cooper

Secular Stagnation: Keynesianism and the Demographic Theory of Crisis

When: Thursday 13 December, 6pm-7.30pm

Where: ABS Case Study Lecture Theatre 2080, The University of Sydney

Among those who pushed the Keynesian “panic button” in the aftermath of the global financial crisis was Larry Summers, the former World Bank Chief Economist and Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton who has now become an unlikely advocate of big public spending. But although Summers’ conversion experience had distinctly Keynesian overtones, it is significant that in terms of historical sources, Summers chose to invoke the work of the American Keynesian, Alvin Hansen, rather than Keynes himself. It was Hansen who in the late 1930s suggested that America’s inability to recover from the Great Depression could be attributed to a series of external drivers, including the closing of the frontier, the slow-down of technological innovation — and most important, declining birth rates. This he referred to as a state of secular stagnation.

The fact that Summers chose to invoke a specifically demographic theory of crisis to characterize the lingering stagnation of the post-GFC era has been inexplicably lost in the controversy that has followed. I would suggest, however, that it is key to understanding both the significance of Hansen’s contribution and the limits of Keynesianism more generally. In his late work, Keynes himself appears to have wavered between two incommensurable theories of crisis, without ever acknowledging or attempting to explain their obvious contradictions. Thus, while the General Theory advances a distributional theory of crisis which attributes the deflationary tendencies of the 1930s to the growing inequality of incomes and wealth, in the same text, Keynes also contemplates the idea that population decline might provide an alternative explanation for faltering demand. The practical consequences of opting for one or the other theory are profound: while the first perspective opens up the possibility of radical redistribution between and within classes – between wealth-holders and workers, women and men, citizens and non-citizens – , the other subordinates redistribution to the imperatives of national reproduction and as such imposes a set of “natural” limitation clauses on the claims of women and non-citizens in particular.

I will argue that the demographic theory of crisis is necessary to Keynesianism, which must somehow limit the scope of redistribution if it is to broker a durable consensus between capital and labour. The idea that national demographic and economic trends were fatally intertwined — captured most succinctly by Hansen’s theory of secular stagnation — authorized Keynesians to dampen the scope of post-war wage reflation and to place specifically gendered and racial limits on the promise of redistribution, without apparently derogating from the principles of social democracy. Informed as it was by ambient fears of population decline, the welfare state provided a practical solution to the Keynesian dilemma: how much redistribution is possible without upsetting the terms of consensus between labour and capital?

Melinda Cooper graduated from the University of Paris VIII in 2001 and is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on the broad areas of social studies of finance, biomedical economies, neoliberalism and new social conservatisms. She has recently completed a manuscript Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, which has been published in Zone Book’s Near Futures series. She is one of the editors of the Journal of Cultural Economy and (with Martijn Konings) of the Stanford University Press book series Currencies: New Thinking for Financial Times. You can consult the book series here.

Andreas Bieler

Water Struggles in the Web of Life: Social Reproduction and Capital Accumulation

When: Friday 14 December, 11.45am-1.15pm

Where: ABS Case Study Lecture Theatre 2080, The University of Sydney

Since the global economic crisis of 2007/2008, austerity and neoliberal restructuring have continued unabated in Europe. This has also included pressure on privatising public services including water. Greece and Portugal, for example, were asked to privatise their water companies as part of a bailout agreement during the Eurozone crisis. And yet, resistance to water privatisation remains strong with broad based alliances of trade unions, citizens’ movements, environmental and developmental NGOs organising across civil societies at the local, national and European level.

In this lecture, I will first discuss how we can conceptualise these broad based alliances. Rather than treating them simply as interest groups, competing with others over influence on government policy, I will argue that we need to conceptualise the way water privatisation reflects capitalist exploitation across the spheres of production and social reproduction. Hence, capitalist accumulation does not only depend on exploiting wage labour in commodity production but equally on appropriating unpaid work by humans in the sphere of social reproduction as well as unpaid work by extra-humans in the wider ecology.

In a second step, I will then focus on key examples of water struggles in Europe. Analysing these struggles through a focus on class struggle allows me to unravel the internal relations between class agency and the structuring conditions of capitalism, providing us with a clear understanding of why some struggles are successful, while others are not.

Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice at the University of Nottingham, UK.  Prof. Bieler’s main research interest deals with the global dynamics of capitalism, neoliberal globalisation and the possibilities for resistance. Particular emphasis is placed on the potential role of trade unions in resistance to restructuring, the possibilities for labour movements more generally to establish links of transnational solidarity across borders, as well as theoretical discussions of how these struggles can be conceptualised from a historical materialist perspective. Moreover, he has analysed struggles over the future European Union model of capitalism and the possibilities of national economic-political models different from a neoliberal, Anglo-American model of capitalism. His most recent book, co-authored with Adam David Morton, is Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis, published by Cambridge University Press. He runs the blog on Trade unions and global restructuring, providing analytical commentary on labour movements and their attempts to resist exploitation in today’s neoliberal, global capitalism.



Gareth Bryant
Gareth Bryant is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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