Introduction: Our Present History
If 2019 is a year supersaturated in politics, it is also one lacking in informed and hopeful politics. The Financial Times reported on September 30, 2018 that "more than half the world's population is now middle class," with "five people joining their ranks every second."1 Most of this population growth, they also state, is in Asia. We can pretty much take this to mean "China," as the world's most populous country has the lion's share of reduced poverty globally. (And 27 individuals hold more wealth than the 3,500,000,000 on the bottom of the wealth lottery in an Oxfam study.)
So why does it also seem, then, that the world is slipping—sliding down a darkly familiar path—that things are not, in fact, going well for people, even as humankind may be doing just fine? What does it mean that, in a country buffeted by “economic anxiety” the vitriol has only grown worse with an improving economy? Why the global shift to the right? From Brazil to Hungary to India and the Philippines, to say nothing of the U.S. political about-face?
Economics and politics are not truly separable—and both are interlinked to the cultural discourses of a particular moment. Any causal statement so obviously redundant is made so by the beliefs of the audience and speaker: “Increasing the bond yield decreases investment in the wider economy.” Is a truism in current theories and studies around central banking. While esoteric, this example is useful in understanding how arbitrary these “truths” are—especially about the nature of money, debt, and wealth. For these are, unlike sunrises, trees, and food, immaterial and legally defined constructs. You cannot pick up some debt off the ground while hiking!
That investment tracks inverse with the bond yield is not, in a strict sense, natural. It is a hypothesis, one that has perhaps tacked true for years—but perhaps only because people think it is true. In that sense, our study here will be informed by the theory of discursive formations as put forth by Michel Foucault specifically, and poststructuralists more generally.4
Power, in essence, is make-believe. Yet it has real-world impact. Drone bombings, huge mansions, nicer cars, longer lifespans, private jets, famines. Everything interacts with, touches, changes, and in turn is changed by, everything else.
The Project: Kickoff
In order to theorize and understand our present, it may be useful to learn from some of the people who have spent a lot of time working with the past.
This project, which is informal and therefore perhaps somewhat aspirational, is to read three books on contemporary economic thought, three critiques brought by different authors, and attempt to place them in conversation. The two most recent books were both published in 2018 and directly reference and cite the third, which was published in 2014. The reading list:
«Capital in the Twenty-First Century» Thomas Piketty (2014)
«The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy» Mariana Mazzucato (2018)
The project is beginning with no clearly defined hypothesis, but it does contain some biases and caveats that I will address. Firstly, this is not meant to be an economic feasibility study—I am not here arguing for the replacement of the Federal Reserve, for example, with something of mine or someone else’s creation. Secondly, and this is important, I am not treating this as a “debate fetish.” I am not interested in exploring the ‘good side’ of authoritarianism, for example. This is a project that takes to heart many of the ideals and ethics of the critical humanities. I believe that every human is entitled to respect and a life free of violence—structural and individual.5 And thirdly, this is being undertaken of my own initiative, without a strict (externally imposed) deadline. We therefore set out sine auxilio, and hope that we can make sense of the terrain we encounter.
In a sense this is less a research project and more a sort of intellectual voyage—we embark upon these texts, and see what lands they will lead us through, and how the journey might change us.
On a practical note, I will be updating this “Future Capture” series periodically, after reaching certain milestones in the reading, or when a fact so impresses upon me I must share.
I will be reading the books “simultaneously,” from the first page, so that the texts will weave together and inform on one another as I progress. To avoid mixing and meshing the narratives and data too much, I will be keeping detailed and separate notes for each book. Nonetheless, I will make a few mistakes, and so beg the reader’s forgiveness in advance.
Here’s to learning, then—in the hope it engenders change!
Hark, Some New Beginning
Further Background Reading, but not Explicitly Used:
«When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order» Martin Jacques (2012)
«False Dawn: Delusions of Global Capitalism» John Gray (1998)
«The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South» Vijay Prashad (1994)
«Orientalism» Edward Said (1978)
2Overall doing well: not quite per-recession levels, and there is some fall in the luxury market while the affordable market suffers from chronic undersupply. Meanwhile, retail space in Manhattan sits empty, as no one can afford to rent the empty (and thus useless) space.
4https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-structuralism (It’s a good place to start, there are also quite a few useful YouTube series. One of the best podcasts is Philosophize This! which is freely available.)
5This is also not a manifesto. So the pontification stops here.