Quinn Slobodian: Can Democracy be Safe from the Market?Historians in the News
tags: history of capitalism, libertarianism, markets, political economy
How to make capitalism safe from democracy? The intellectual historian Quinn Slobodian has shown how the architects of neoliberal governance have strived to answer that question since the 19th century. In Globalists (2018) he examined how a coalition of politicians, academics and lawyers sought to legally encase and protect capital from democratic reordering. In his latest work, Crack-Up Capitalism, his focus is on the politics of the zone. It is a story of how a quixotic alliance of libertarian ideologues, anti-democratic entrepreneurs and Thatcherite acolytes have carved out states of exception to insulate capitalism from the constraints of the state and its rules. These enclaves are diverse in geography and nature, from colonial-era Hong Kong and apartheid South Africa, to free ports and special economic zones, to cryptocurrencies and visions of start-up “network states”. But, however different the form, zonal politics share the same political content: the effort to establish spaces in the global economy that operate by self-defined laws and regulations, with democratic oversight suspended and market rule unimpeded. In this vision the zone is an accessory and escape hatch to a world of capitalism without democracy.
A political movement focused on punching holes in the nation-state and undermining the legal and territorial integrity of the global economy has historically been the province of the libertarian right. As Slobodian shows, the effect of “crack-up capitalism” was to create zones where normal practices of taxation were suspended, investors dictated their own rules, and organised labour was crushed, often violently. But what went on in the zone did not remain in the zone. From coercive restrictions on organised labour to tax arbitrage that undermines state capacity to the insulation of corporate power from regulation by public authority, these anti-democratic enclaves prefigured the policies that define much of the contemporary global economy.
If Crack-Up Capitalism charts a project that created enclaves of market radicalism to leverage wider systemic change, it raises an important set of questions: what would a politics of the zone look like pursued from the left? What would it mean to build enclaves of democracy-against-capitalism? Is it possible to carve out and sustain collective space free from capitalist governance? Would such a politics be capable of prefiguring and driving deeper economic and social transformation or would it remain episodic and incidental to the wider operation of society?
A libertarian vision of the zone is clear: a space of capitalism without democracy. The contours of its inversion – a zone of democracy without capitalism – can be similarly traced: the suspension of market rule in place of a social economy, of the sovereignty of producers over production, and of democratic control over investment to meet collective and environmental needs and expand human capability and freedom.
What could this look like? In some areas, it could be active support for democratic forms of enterprise as part of a wider effort to expand ownership of local assets and resources. In others, the development of the built environment through conscious planning to meet community needs instead of market-led co-ordination. It might involve experimenting with new special economic zones that discipline capital in pro-labour, pro-climate directions by imposing stringent conditions on public support. Or it could prioritise an agenda of restless experimentation – institutional and digital – to build communities where meaningful decision-making is genuinely democratic and inclusive.
This is not just speculation about a future agenda. From the Greater London Council’s efforts to forge a distinct form of municipal socialism in the 1980s to the enduring achievements of the labour movement in building social and cultural institutions and traditions within and against capitalism, there is a deep history that can be drawn on for inspiration. But neither is this only backward-looking. Across the world, an embryonic, democratic vision of the zone is being built: the Preston Model’s efforts to scale and retain community wealth through the deployment of tools of public procurement and social licensing, adapted by cities around the world; the solidarity economies that thrive from the Basque Country to Cleveland; and experiments by organisations such as the Collective Intelligence Project to use digital tools to aggregate public opinion on how we should regulate technologies. Perhaps the oldest version of the left zone is the co-operative movement, which emerged in the 1840s in response to the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution, and associated forms of mutual aid and non-capitalist exchange that seek to build different practices, institutions and relationships.
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