During the course of some back-and-forth discussions over the past two days about the OWS messaging in relation to debt, David Graeber coined the phrase “mafia capitalism” to express the palpable element of violent coercion at the heart of financial globalization. The latter phrase sounds technical, even clean. The reality, as we see around the empire, is that the debt machine has responded to mild setbacks with a dramatic escalation of force.
In Empire, Hardt and Negri reminded us that what Marx had called “primitive accumulation” was always part of capitalism’s process. This violent disruption separated the producer and the means of production, while also accumulating basic raw materials from colonies. There is, then, a
relationship between wealth and command and between inside and outside.
That is, in the case of England, the wealth came from outside (from the empire) and the command arose internally. This process was reversed outside Europe, so that wealth was created internally and command came from the outside.
In 2000, it seemed that this model was giving way to one of immaterial production. Today we might suggest that the new form is rather one where the command is internal in order to preside over a forcible transfer of what internal wealth there is to those in command. The form of that transfer is legalized violence and the end of state concern for the welfare of its population. In short, if this trend continues, we are no longer in the period of governmentality in which the management of population was the prime concern of government, so much as in a moment of internal colonization.
The debt crisis of the 1990s was a sovereign debt crisis in which Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (as the IMF rhetoric has it) [HIPCs] were compelled to borrow in order to repay their existing loans. Today, Heavily Indebted People are being forced to borrow more and more to survive. Or not. And the difference now is that, like the Mafia, authority no longer cares what happens to you, it just wants you to pay. Or else.
In the US, the Supreme Court, having presided over an electoral coup in 2000, has now become the legislative branch. It has enabled corporations to legally buy elections in the manner of mobsters of old. Yesterday, it authorized police to become immigration officers on the basis of mere suspicion. And tomorrow it will overturn a Republican-inspired health care plan because any concession from corporations to employees is now seen as being not just unnecessary, but illegal. The radical right don’t need to win elections: it can just rely on the Court. There is no solution for this dilemma in the present constitution, whereby the Court invalidates laws it doesn’t like, and then legislates things that it does. Here, the force of law, backed by the simple violence of its enforcers, has become whatever the Heads of the Five Families (aka the 5-4 conservative majority) says that it is.
In the UK, where the Conservative government (technically a coalition with the Liberal Democrats) has been shown to be the creature of Rupert Murdoch, it has responded not by toning down but ramping up its attacks on the welfare system. Prime Minister David Cameron proposes ending housing benefit for young people and limiting child benefit to three children. These are deliberately nasty policies, aimed at pleasing the older (and racist) voter, who believes that hordes of (non-white) benefit “scroungers” are getting away with something, just as the tabloids have claimed for years. With not inconsiderable audacity, the Old Etonians that lead the government have denounced a “culture of entitlement” in those qualifying for benefits, just after they cut taxes for the rich.
Finally, it is worth noting that Israel, so often the paradigm-shaper for its purported dominant partners, has also turned its tactics on its internal population, cutting and privatizing services, reinforced with a police force well trained in violence.
There might be a certain schadenfreude for Palestinians and their allies in watching (presumably) Jewish Israelis complaining about police violence. This is an old lesson: colonial authority will always use the force it develops in the colony, or occupied territory, at “home.”
Just as it has done since the 1970s, neo-liberalism responds to a crisis by intensifying its operations, as Gilles Deleuze would have put it. Indeed, the Israeli Defence Force now read Deleuze as a tactical guide to defeating Palestinian resistance. This resort to force is, then, not in fact a sign of strength but of the continued inability of capitalism to match its rhetoric of wealth creation with the reality of internal wealth transfer. Welcome to mafia capitalism.