10, No. 2, May 2009
Where do we go from here?
by Nicki Lisa Cole
University of California, Santa Barbara
Much is being written about the current “economic crisis,” or “crisis
of capitalism,” as others call it. What will become of
the world, as this is popularly understood as a global crisis,
is a question that many are concerned with. Social scientists
are quickly turning to the crisis to assess and analyze it, and
predict how the crisis and measures for mediating it will unfold.
But despite all the fuss, those who understand the history of
the capitalist system understand that a periodic collapse of
the designed-to-fail system is not only expected, but necessary. Capitalism
has, since it was instituted as the dominant global economic
system, periodically experienced a crisis of over-accumulation,
to which it has responded by slightly changing the rules and
destroying capital, thus preserving and strengthening the central
structure and relations of the system.
Global capitalism isn’t going anywhere in the wake of
this self-made crisis. More likely, it will emerge more forcefully
entrenched and oppressive after its phoenix-like reincarnation
because it will be popularly received as a global capitalism
softened and contained by state intervention. Whether capitalism
will survive is not a question to spend our time on, at least
as it applies to this current moment. What changes might be made
in order to maintain its overall dominance, though, is a worthy
question that many are addressing. How will the system of global
capitalism adapt in order to persist? Can we see evidence of
shifts and adaptations already? What cultural logic will accompany
the changes to the system? What will consumption and consumer
identity look like in the post-crisis landscape?
In this essay I respond to these questions by building upon a
lecture recently delivered by Dr. William I. Robinson, Professor
of Sociology and Global Studies, at the University of California,
Santa Barbara (2009). In this lecture Robinson outlined five
possible paradigms of response to this crisis of global capitalism
based on his theory of global capitalism. In his work, Robinson recognizes the
truly transnational nature of the relations of capitalism in our era, and the
significance of transnational configurations of power and governance that accompany
this organization of capital (1996a; 1996b; 2002; 2006).
In his lecture Robinson emphasized that the five paradigms are not mutually exclusive,
and that they reflect already observable trends in the world. These are: 1. A
shift toward global reformist/neo-Keynesianism that would embrace heightened
regulation of transnational capital; 2. A global resurgence of the left, accompanied
by radical reforms driven by popular movements, such as have been seen across
Latin America over the last decade; 3. A global return to national protectionism
in the vein of Russia, China, and India, that is similar to, though not the same
as previous historical forms; 4. A twenty-first century fascism that fuses capital
with reactionary political power, as was employed by the neo-conservatives of
Bush administration and the McCain/Palin team; and 5. A global systemic and structural
collapse that results in global warlordism, total social breakdown, and global
Robinson figures that options two and three are unlikely for reasons that are
easily understood. A global resurgence of the left and the strengthening of effective
global popular movements are unlikely because the population of “surplus
labor,” the poor, working poor, and workers of the world, is scattered
across the globe. They systematically experience inequality; they lack resources,
power, and access to the means to forge a unified movement to challenge a global
system. Robinson points out that even in Latin America, where such ideals have
produced significant change on a state-by-state basis, those changes themselves
are the product of a precarious and self-conflicting relationship with transnational
capital. The leftist movements and gains we observe in our era operate with, and
within, the system of global capitalism. They have not subverted or overturned
This observation points to why Robinson thinks the third scenario unlikely. Capital
and labor are truly transnational now in terms of how they are brokered and valued
as resources, and the relations of global capitalism are too globally dispersed
and integrated with nation state economies to simply be undone. Robinson thinks
the fifth scenario, of global collapse, is unlikely too. He argues that the global
capitalist system has not reached the kind of structural breaking point that
would result in such an outcome. To date, he argues, capitalism is experiencing systemic crisis,
but not yet structural crisis, and so far the power elite have moved
to protect and preserve the system, not to undo it.
What does seem likely, Robinson argues, is that we will continue to see evidence
of the first and fourth scenarios. The neo-conservative, fascist movement in
the U.S. took a hit with the resounding ejection of the Bush administration,
and the hearty dismissal of the McCain/Palin candidacy, but that the tip of the
iceberg has been temporarily evaded does not mean the behemoth that lies beneath
has been vanished. Neo-conservative, racist fascism is widely popular among poor
and working class whites across the country. They are the displaced workers of
the United States who have suffered from the globalization of capital, and these
conditions have cultivated a distaste for immigrants and international trade.
The old “nativist” ideology celebrated by Anglo-Saxons at the dawn
of the nation’s birth is alive and well today.
But at least for now, those in charge are celebrating a different agenda. Since
the coming of the Obama administration early this year, evidence of Robinson’s
first scenario, of a global reformist, or neo-Keynesian trend, is pervasive.
The policies and objectives of the Obama administration clearly exhibit this
tendency, as do the “bail-outs” and interventions enacted by other
wealthy nation states throughout Europe. Robinson reminds us though that this
is not a traditional Keynesianism, but a neo-Keynesianism. It reflects
our present historical moment, with its particular global relations
of capitalist production and consumption. Regulation in this context is different
from the Fordist era Keynesianism. Regulation is still in service of the nation
state and the population, but now the fates of the nation state and the population
are inextricably bound to the fate of the global economy. Thus, neo-Keynesianism
protects transnational capital at the behest of the nation state. A prime example
is the U.S. funded bailout of AIG, which does not bail out a business operating
within the confines of the economy of the United States, but rather, a transnational
corporation that is foundational to the global economy as it exists today.
This kind of response is certainly counter to the dominant free-market ideology,
but then again, the market has never been all that free anyway, so it is not
much of a shake-up from standard operating procedure, all things considered.
While major systemic change of global capitalism is unlikely to happen, the kinds
of subtle nods toward socialism described above are taking place. We can thus
expect that the cultural logic of capitalism, particularly consumer practices
and values, are shifting too.
Though we are not looking at a revolution, popular regard for the system has
indeed changed. Given widespread loss of wealth, homes, jobs, and financial security,
the popular classes in the United States who have born the brunt of the necessary
destruction of capital are fed up and disenchanted. People have less faith in
the power elite to steward them. They see gross manifestations of avarice and
malice in the largest firms in the nation and among transnational corporations.
State budgets are failing and public services are drying up. Things are a mess,
and people are aware. A recent poll shows that growing numbers of Americans believe
socialism would be better than capitalism (Rasmussen Reports 2009). The jig is
up. At least, this particular jig, for the time being.
It is at times of social instability such as these that the possibility of change
increases. As fissures in the system appear they offer opportunity for rearrangement
of social relations. Right now, the material conditions for change are ripe,
just as they were when Marx wrote of the Industrial proletariat class. But whether
the ideological conditions are ripe, is a different concern altogether. People
are not looking for change so much as they crave stability. People want
a return to normalcy and social order. They want the system repaired and its
legitimacy redeemed. This would be the most comfortable solution for all because
it does not represent change -- particularly for those who are empowered and
advantaged by this particular set of relations.
What I suggest here is that the source of redemption and legitimacy that people
crave and that the capitalist system requires already exists. This crisis of
legitimacy facing the global capitalist system occurs at an historical moment
when the concept of “ethical” capitalism, with its attention to environmental,
social, and health concerns, and practices and discourses of ethical consumerism
have spread to a mainstream, everyday level. Elements of ethical capitalism are
incorporated into most products to some degree at this point, and are employed
to address a range of concerns. Ethical capitalism, itself a symptom of
global capitalism, emerged in response to more minor crises of legitimacy that
have plagued capital in the United States and Europe since it went global, and
reports of abuse and misconduct started trickling “home” to the consuming
Thus, ethical capitalism was conceived in direct response to the illumination
of the bad corporate actor, who is assigned the role of the destructive villain
who reaps poverty and injustice in producing regions, misleads consumers as to
their corporate image, and all the while earns record-breaking profits. The bad
corporate actor is a trope against which the ethical capitalist is juxtaposed,
and the ethical consumer in turn is defined in contrast with the uneducated,
or careless consumer. In this conceptualization of social problems there is nothing
wrong with the system of global capitalism, rather the problem is bad actors
who necessitate moral regulation.
The current “crisis” of global capitalism has done nothing but reinforce
the trope of the bad corporate actor in the minds of American citizens and others
around the globe. In particular, after the “bail-outs” were doled
out to leading banks and corporations, and with that money, bonuses were handed
out by the tens of millions and lavish corporate retreats at expensive resorts
were enjoyed, people are balking, and rightfully so. But they are not balking
at the system, they are balking at the behavior of the bad corporate actors.
There is a nostalgic zeal to the aggression and death threats directed at the
corporate elite who enjoyed bonuses and benefits on the tax payers’ dollars.
It calls to mind the racial lynch mobs and food riots of early America. Like
those crowds of yore, this manifestation of social effervescence is not an attempt
at overthrowing the system, rather, it is expressed in defense of the system.
This kind of event occurs when egregious violations of moral sensibilities have
been observed. People want the system stabilized and its legitimacy repaired.
They crave demonstrations of morality in the wake of rampant greed and recklessness.
Numbers for 2007 show that, even during what is now recognized to have been a
period of economic recession, sales of ethically branded products in the U.S.,
appealing to concerns for the environment, for laborers, and for consumer health,
have grown and out-performed their competitors in their respective product markets
(TransFair USA 2009). Classic economic theory of supply and demand, and cost
benefit analysis cannot account for the increase in distribution and sales of
ethical products, for this is a moral issue -- it is not a process of “rational” choice.
Recent studies conducted in the U.S. and the U.K. show that concerns for “responsibility” and “sustainability” are
common among consumers polled, and that a dedicated minority are consistently
willing to pay more for ethical products (Carbon Trust Standard 2009; Cohen 2009).
Individuals I’ve recently interviewed in Seattle have said that they are
living with a tighter budget right now, and that they are cutting expenses like
dining and drinking out. But they are not cutting back on ethical choices they
embrace in their consuming practices.
I advance, then, that this crisis, and the state responses to it we can observe
to date, only strengthen and more deeply entrench practices and discourses of
ethical capitalism/consumerism across the globe and in our everyday lives. This
mode of capitalism and its cultural logic appeal to the popular desire for morality
and social order. In truth, ethical capitalism/consumerism has been responding
to the crisis of global capitalism for years now, but those of us in the comfortable
position of privileged consumer are only now just seeing the crisis, much like
how a sonic boom is perceived as audible after the sound barrier has
Ethical consumerism, the cultural logic of ethical capitalism, runs deep and
strong in the currents of our social world. As a symptom of global capitalism,
and an assuaging response to the current crisis of legitimacy, it can only grow
under these conditions. The cultural logic of ethical capitalism fits well with
what some are calling “Obamaism,” others “fascism” or “socialism.” What
the Obama administration has done is neither fascist nor socialist. Rather it
is a softening of the bonds of inequity that bind people to capitalism. It is
not a true state take-over, but an attempt at equalizing the playing field just
a little bit. It is a tip of the hat to socialism. Simultaneously though, and
rather counterintuitively, the state funded bail-outs sustain that which disempowers
most of the players: the system of global capitalism. This kind of regulation
plugs the holes in the dyke of global capitalism, and so provides temporary relief
from the systemic crisis of over-accumulation. In doing so, the Obama administration
both reinforces global capitalism, and offers a mantra of hope that pulls at
the anomic heart-strings of a nation looking for something to believe in. Two
birds, one stone.
In much the same way, ethical capitalism makes symbolic gestures at change and
maps morality and legitimacy onto the whole system. But it can only last so long.
Another crisis of over-accumulation is inevitable, and the state can’t “bail-out” the
sinking ship of global capitalism interminably. It is hard to predict where we
will be in ten or twenty years, but for now at least, the more things change,
the more they stay the same.
Carbon Trust Standard, The. 2009. Businesses should seize opportunity
to demonstrate green credentials. The Carbon Trust Standard.
Resource document. http://www.carbontruststandard.com/Latestnews/Pressreleases/NewresearchfromtheCarbonTrustStandard/tabid/222/language/en-US/Default.aspx.
Accessed 12 May 2009.
Cohen, S. M. 2009. Making the case for environmentally and socially
responsible consumer products. Forrester Research. Resource document. http://www.forrester.com/Research/Document/Excerpt/0,7211,53746,00.html.
Accessed 12 May 2009.
Rasmussen Reports. 2009. Just 53% say capitalism better than
socialism. Rasmussen Reports. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/just_53_say_capitalism_better_than_socialism.
Accessed 15 May 2009.
Robinson, W. I. 1996a. “Globalisation: nine theses on our
epoch,” Race and Class, vol. 38.2: 13-31.
Robinson, W. I. 1996b. Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization,
US Intervention, and Hegemony. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Robinson, W. I. 2002. “Capitalist globalization and the
transnationalization of the state,” in Rupert & Smith
(Eds.). Historical Materialism and Globalization. New
Robinson, W. I. 2006. “Theories of globalization,” in
G. Ritzer (Ed.). The Blackwell Companion to Globalization.
Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Robinson, W. I. 2009. “The crisis of global capitalism.” Lecture
delivered in department of sociology, University of California,
Santa Barbara. January 28. Video archive. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5909444875088969582&hl=en.
Accessed 15 May 2009.
TransFair USA. 2009. Fairtrade flows against the economic tide.
April 17. TransFair USA. Press release. http://transfairusa.org/content/about/pr/pr_090416a.php.
Accessed 15 May 2009.
to two interviews I conducted with self-identified consumers
of ethical coffee. These interviews occurred in coffeehouses
in Seattle, Washington, on March 23 and 25, 2009.
>>> back to Consumers,
Commodities & Consumption, Vol. 10(2) May 2009.