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Reflections on Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry

by Cemal Burak Tansel on April 4, 2016

The following post is based on a longer review of the book to be published in September 2016 issue of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

If you were to enter a cryogenic sleep in 2008, wake up in early 2016 and take a quick glance at the fortunes of Western capitalism, you would be forgiven for assuming that you had only spent a month frozen in time, rather than eight years. Indeed, if you were to wake up in the middle of Chancellor George Osborne’s grim Budget 2016 announcement, it is highly likely that the only difference you could immediately notice would be the identity of the person delivering the speech, not the bleak economic outlook that accompanied it. Eight years on, Western capitalism is still struggling to find a way out of its economic cul-de-sac and facing the intensifying political and social repercussions of its metastasising slump. In the intervening years, the expansion of credit and the ever-increasing reliance on private debt have become the lifeline of capitalist economies that are unable and unwilling to alleviate the crisis of social reproduction faced by their populations.

SoederberghEnter Susanne Soederberg’s Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry: Money, Discipline and the Surplus Population—an outstanding study of the precise mechanisms with which the instrumentalisation of credit and debt have given birth to a ‘new form of governance’ responsible for keeping capitalism on resuscitation. In the following post, instead of summarising Soederberg’s impressive analysis, I would like to briefly highlight a number of themes that emerged from my reading of the book with regards to the questions of methodology, critique and political practice.

Debtfare States accomplishes the difficult task of designing a robust theoretical framework and weaving a consistent analytical thread that effortlessly feeds from this conceptual infrastructure. This feat has been recognised with the 2015 British International Studies Association International Political Economy Group Book Prize. According to the judges, Soederberg should ‘be commended on the fact that she does not advertise her theoretical erudition; instead, the book was infused by it, which ensures that the book [is] eminently readable and accessible for the much wider audience to whom the conclusions will pertain’. This is an important statement given the broader theoretical landscape of the debates the book aims to intervene in and problematise. As Soederberg explains at length:

[M]uch of the literature on financialisation and consumer society stops at the realm of exchange without venturing into the wider capitalist relations of production and by extension, accumulation. This is the root of their explanatory weakness in grasping the origins of social transformation, the social power of money and the social reproduction of credit in neoliberal capitalism. A related issue in theorising finance as a separate entity from the social relations of production is the over-emphasis on finance and its tendencies toward greed-driven speculation, as the primary source of crises and immiseration in contemporary times. While financial speculation and predatory forms of consumer credit have played important and detrimental roles in destabilising societies and dispossessing hundreds of millions of people, there are deeper structural factors involved in neoliberal capitalism that have helped to legitimate, reproduce and stoke the dominance of interest-generating income over productive-based profit since the early 1980s.

In contrast, Soederberg’s own tripartite framework—which fuses Marxist theories of money, crisis and the state—invites the reader, following Marx, to leave the ‘noisy sphere’ of exchange and enter ‘into the hidden abode of production’. It is within these parameters that Soederberg conceptualises money, not as a ‘thing’ or a mere ‘commodity’, but as a specific commodity that serves to conceal exploitative class dynamics inherent in capitalist social relations of production.

Soederberg’s theoretical discussion is relevant and essential not only for those who study contemporary finance, credit and indebtedness but also for the broader disciplinary fields of International Relations (IR) and International Political Economy (IPE). This is the case because Soederberg convincingly reasserts why historical materialism is best positioned to interrogate not only the economic, but also the political and social components of contemporary capitalism. It is thus not surprising that the book prefaces its theoretical discussion by a thorough critique of those tendencies that charge Marxist analysis with economic determinism and reductionism. Rather than rejecting these criticisms tout court, Soederberg shows how the approaches that charge Marxism with economic determinism themselves are guilty of uncritically accepting ‘the economic meaning of money’ which then results in the naturalisation of ‘the social power inherent to money and its ability to neutralise, individualise, level and normalise highly exploitative and unequal relations of power between people in capitalism’. Soederberg argues that the critical treatments of finance and money offered by ‘Foucauldian and other post-structuralist analyses’ fail to move beyond the ‘realm of exchange’ as they ‘assume’ rather than ‘explain’ the roots and role of credit in capitalism by ‘[separating] the discussion of money from the dynamics of capital accumulation’. These approaches, furthermore, fail to confront the depoliticisation of credit as they ‘[vacate] the economic forms to study the cultural and social features of credit’. Soederberg’s dual positioning of her theoretical framework/critique thus provides both a compelling organisational structure for the study and a demonstration of how the approaches targeted by Soederberg are marked by significant lacunae that ultimately result in a fundamental inability to address the core dynamics of contemporary indebtedness and credit-led accumulation.

A similar move is visible in Soederberg’s periodisation of capital accumulation. Soederberg retraces the emergence of neoliberalism—or the dominance of ‘credit-led accumulation’—by recapitulating a familiar neoliberal ‘origin’ story. In this account, neoliberalism emerged from ‘the underlying tensions and crises in capital over-accumulation’ inherent in Keynesian and Import Substitution Industrialisation (ISI)-oriented accumulation models. In response to the accumulation crises and ‘social fallouts’ that beset these state forms, neoliberalism rose upon a number of ‘rhetorical and regulatory’ pillars, including ‘a withdrawal or abstention by the state in economic matters; the shifting into the private sector (or, the contracting out) of public services and the commodification of public goods such as health, housing, safety, education and culture’. While the historical account largely reflects a conventional narrative of neoliberal ascendancy, it is important to note that Soederberg refrains from reproducing what Damien Cahill has called an ‘ideas-centred explanation’ of neoliberalism with which the rise of neoliberalism is understood as a direct consequence of the policy-makers’ adoption of neoliberal ideas. Instead, Soederberg’s account of neoliberalisation serves as an introduction to her extensive analysis of ‘debtfarism’ which is located as one of the four elements of contemporary neoliberal governance, along with monetarism, corporate welfarism and workfarism. The corollary of this approach is recognising neoliberalism not as a monolithic set of policies, designed and implemented in a uniform manner across different contexts, but as a strategy—and often a desperate one—to offset the crises of capitalist accumulation that all varieties of capitalist state forms face at regular intervals. Perceiving neoliberalism in such terms, in contrast to projecting a triad of functionalism, instrumentalism and statism as some critics of Marxist explanations have argued, enables an appreciation of how a myriad of policies act and emerge as strategic state responses to such accumulation crises.

Finally, revisiting the ‘hidden abode of production’ raises some important questions for anti-capitalist organisation and taking concrete political steps to pacify the worst effects of financialisation and indebtedness. As Soederberg’s study reveals, the issues of indebtedness and dependence on credit cannot be resolved without simultaneous interventions to augment workers’ wages and to re-establish non-corporate forms of social security. And even then, since Soederberg chastises the debtfare state for not ‘providing workers with social protection against market forces through, at a minimum, a living wage’, it is safe to assume that the author considers living/social wage as a necessary criterion to weaken financial bondage, not a sufficient one. This is an important point given the salience of ‘basic income’ proposals and living wage campaigns that are gaining traction in advanced capitalist countries. While the progressive appeal of the basic income proposals is clear, some concrete plans are clearly anchored in a right-wing agenda to shift the ‘burden’ of the welfare state onto individuals with marginally increased consumption capacities—an agenda that is geared towards dismantling universal welfare provisions while invoking the sacred neoliberal tenet of financialised personal responsibility.

Soederberg concludes the book by stating that her study aims to ‘raise pertinent questions about how to radically re-think’ the role of money in neoliberal governance, rather than offering ‘blueprints and roadmaps of how struggles should proceed’. True, the book does not provide systematic ‘blueprints and roadmaps’ for individuals and collectivities struggling against the increasingly disciplinary forms of neoliberalism, but it does offer an equally important insight by rendering naked the mechanisms and champions of credit-led accumulation that extend well beyond big business, banks and mortgage companies—conventional targets of many important contemporary radical movements. Soederberg’s critique expertly reaffirms the deleterious role these actors play in entrenching inequalities and indebtedness, but the book’s real strength lies in its determination to frame and target the state as a pillar of the neoliberal assault on social reproduction. Consequently, the book invites us to reassess and design existing ‘blueprints and roadmaps’ that either underestimate or wholly eschew the questions of state power and political organisation as well as coordination beyond localised grassroots efforts.

Cemal Burak Tansel
Cemal Burak Tansel is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is the editor of States of Discipline: Authoritarian Neoliberalism and the Contested Reproduction of Capitalist Order (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017) and has published peer-reviewed research articles in the European Journal of International Relations, New Political Economy, Review of International Studies, Globalizations, South European Society and Politics and The South Atlantic Quarterly.
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