By ann summers
The need for better tools to analyze capitalism makes it important to look at the larger systemic pathologies that have brought us to a place where we tend to think less of Bread and Puppets and more about Buns and Burgers.
The metrics of the current economy can be characterized ironically with the indices of consumer fast food but it’s more than globalized fast food and deadly diets, it’s about the structure of commodity economies with pernicious exploitation in a cultural landscape of natural resource despoiling. The Food System is a good example of the failure of capitalism, whether McMeals or McMansions as generalized signs of “currency”.
McMansions and their 2007 mortgages were one part of the property problem, whereas even the lowly super-sized heart-attacks are more immediate examples of globalization and neoliberalism:
…when markets are imperfect (which is to say all markets everywhere to some degree), then they can fail and may not work as neoliberals predict, resulting in some form of crony capitalism.
The two chief modes of failure are usually due to imperfect property rights and due to imperfect information and correspond directly to Friedrich Hayek’s assertion that classical liberalism will not work without protection of the private sphere and the prevention of fraud and deception.
The failure of property rights means that individuals can’t protect ownership of their resources and control what happens to them, or prevent others from taking them away. This usually stifles free enterprise and results in preferential treatment for those who can.
The US meme is a “rigged economy” premise as the metaphor for exploitation when it is time to confront the larger concept of exploitation that will exist regardless of who wins the White House. The alternative to individual ownership obviously can maximize public preferences and social wealth and lies in collective rather than alienated private property rights. Open source information and commons promotes a public sphere where increased asymmetric proprietary information does not eliminate and yet can minimize imperfection. Austrian fetishizing of perfection as a scientistic brand of liberty always fails in a real, material world that will always have capital, however socialized.
IT’S NOT ABOUT STIFLING FREE(SIC) ENTERPRISE;
it’s more than who panders to Wall Street since it will be the political-economic deconstruction of Wall Street rather than the false binary of Wall Street / Main Street that should extend the protests that began with OWS and which will return under a GOP victory in November.
As useful as an index, more importantly, the role of a radical social and economic consciousness is to study the entire critique of neoliberal globalization and the needs to reorganize priorities where as one commodity example, specialty foods rely more on the infrastructure of a supply-chain that serves to exploit multiple populations (fresh sushi, Spain supplanting France in wine production). It’s more than “nolabels” and branding but some fundamental reorganization of economies where coordination (demonized as regulation, see TPP and cartelization) must be sharpened to ensure the minimizing of even greater externalities as with the problems of global warming.
Capitalism as incentivized investment somehow constrained by moral suasion will simply not suffice when massive global change can move in catastrophic ways as with pandemics, where no market for medical products or services can operate on a market-driven supply-chain model and in some cases has caused severe harm as with HIV treatment regimes in Africa. Center-Periphery and North-South analogies are insufficient as so many conflicts have multiple, uneven layers of development.
These layers emerge from maintaining international diplomacy and controlling demographic crises in regions dominated by human trafficking aided by maritime piracy in oceans dominated by petroleum transport among countries dominated by primitive patriarchal theocracies. Those regimes maintain permanent sectarian blood-feuds. And all of those conflicts are mediated by a tense trade-off between diplomacy and military action with arms dealers making a continuous profit. Utimately it is resolving a much larger set of questions about property rights, especially those globally and mutually “held” as in political ecologies.
In addition to being a technological marvel, the Big Mac moonlights as an economic tool. Every year the Economist calculates a Big Mac Index for the purpose of (being cheeky and) testing what currencies are overvalued compared to the U.S. The results are often illuminating. This year identified Switzerland and Brazil as particularly overvalued. The flight from euros is lifting the franc and the real’s appreciation has blunted Brazil’s export growth.
SO, THE BIG MAC ISN’T JUST SOME DUMB LUMP OF SOMETHING RESEMBLING MEAT. IT’S AN INTERNATIONAL BAROMETER OF ECONOMIC ACTIVITY…
Ashenfelter comes up with a clever way to measure wage growth, or purchasing power parity, across the globe. By recording wages and Big Mac prices over time, he computes how many Big Macs one can buy on an hour’s salary in the U.S. vs. Western Europe vs. the developing world. Tracking Big-Macs-per-hours-worked, he says, should tell us who’s really rich, who’s getting rich, and who’s not…And, as it turns out, Big Macs and McWages explain three of the most important ideas in international economics: (1) The Rise of the West; (2) The Rise of the Rest; and (3) The Great Recession.
The Great Recession: After a period of remarkable growth among low-wage countries, the financial crisis has had an uneven effect on wealth. Once again, McDonald’s explains the world. In the graph below, we’re looking at Big-Macs-per-hour-worked, from 2007 to 2011.
THIS TIME, WE’VE GOT A SCATTERSHOT OF MESSY GROWTH AND OUTRIGHT DECLINE, COMPLICATED BY WILD COMMODITY INFLATION, WHICH RAISES THE PRICE OF BURGERS AND ALSO RAISES WAGES IN COMMODITY-RICH RUSSIA AND LATIN AMERICA.
Ultimately its instability in relying on wages rather than wealth renders it imperfect and therefore more dynamic or changable and food as a natural resource is a more ultimate weapon in terms of sustainability.
Food may be the ultimate combination of imperfect property rights and imperfect information but in their virtuality and transience their imperfection as indices (a less contiguous version of sign) creates new dimensions and challenges for measuring capital and developing ruthless criticism.
Similarly, certain bourgeoise forms like Local Food Movements in contradistinction to some of the syndicalist and collective solutions possible, often maintain rather than critique the false consciousness of capitalist sustainability.
Marx proclaims agriculture as central to the process that leads to the overthrow of bourgeois supremacy and seizure of political power by the proletariat (Tucker, 1978). Although, like Marx, the LFM expresses concerns about degradation of the earth and the need for systemic changes in capitalist agriculture, it does not represent a radical ideology or movement. Compared to Marx’s critique and call for revolution, the LFM seeks escape in owning a plot of land and a rabbit hutch. The LFM is a capitalist, individualist, and limited response to critiques of agriculture and lacks an ideological center of gravity and large-scale vision of reform. It fails to address the problems capitalist agriculture creates for the environment and for agricultural labor, central concerns for Marx.
As an American, a Hillary Clinton administration is far from optimal and Democratic victories important at all political levels, but age and ability have convinced me that the kinds of revolutionary change possible in my lifetime were unfortunately more incremental than I had hoped even in my more romantic, collective, and idealistic moments. Because even as I will vote for Bernie Sanders, I also know and worry that the forces of crypto-fascism have always existed in industrial capitalist America and have made their ugliness appear more openly in the past eight years. History still moves and radical change can still happen. If only veggie-burgers didn’t taste like cardboard and pork fat just cannot rule…