Emancipation in Precarious Times: Review of “Capitalism on Edge” by Albena Azmanova

by Ali Minai

I must admit that when I first flipped through Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia by Albena Azmanova, it did not look too inviting. The blurbs on the jacket did nothing to reassure me, suggesting that this was yet another post-Marxist critique of greedy capitalists and their enablers. As it turns out, it is, but in a way that is more interesting than I had assumed. As soon as I started reading the Introduction, I was gripped by the lucidity of ideas and clarity of the prose. For an academic text written from the perspective of Critical Theory, this is a wonderfully direct, incisive and insightful book. One does not need to agree with all the details of the analysis to find reading it a rewarding experience.

Dr. Azmanova is Reader of Political and Social Thought at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies in Bristol, UK. She has written extensively on politics, economics, democracy, and social justice. The book is motivated by an issue that is on many minds, is the subject of many books, and has motivated recent movements such as the Occupy Movement, the Yellow Vests, and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. It can be expressed concisely in terms of three intertwined questions: 1) Has capitalism led to a society that is unjust and extremely unequal? 2) Is the rise of (mostly) right-wing populism a response to this? And 3) Will this spell the end of capitalism? Her answers to these questions are: 1. Yes; 2. In part, but it’s deeper than that; and 3. Capitalism isn’t dying – just entering another phase unless we do something about it. The rest of the book is mainly about that third – most interesting – answer, and develops the idea of “precarity capitalism” – a capitalism that is all about living on the edge. Or many edges.

The introduction lays out the broad framework of Azmanova’s argument, which is that, for all the talk of capitalism being in crisis, actually it is the need for the perception of this crisis that is in crisis. She calls this “the crisis of the crisis of capitalism.” The point is that, even though the neoliberal capitalism of the 1980s and 90s has produced terrible inequality and insecurity, neither the elites nor society at large shows any motivation to reverse this. She attributes this to the fact that the economic logic of capitalism has become so completely internalized in Western democracies that even the progressive voices that protest the situation argue from within this framework. This point is developed in much more detail in Chapter 4, where she concludes that the focus of social justice has moved away from ensuring fairness and security for ordinary workers to making sure that they remain employable as parts of the capitalist enterprise machine, or as she puts it, “…. a move from ‘security’ to ‘resilience’ “ (p. 80).  It is partly this abdication of the progressives to fight for security and their willingness to concede the logic of capitalism that has allowed capitalism to build a new foundation on universal insecurity.

Chapter 2 – as the author says herself – is a detour into a revised Critical Theory framework for understanding the current situation. Unless the reader is interested in learning much more about the theoretical foundations of the Frankfurt School, it seems wise to take up a suggestion Azmanova herself makes at the beginning of the chapter and skip it. Even though she implies that it establishes terminology and concepts for the rest of the analysis, this is true only to a limited degree (though I did read Chapter 2). Chapter 3 is, to me, the most interesting part of the book in a theoretical sense, and it is here that Azmanova makes her deepest argument. She begins with the classic postulate that the promise of capitalism – especially in a democracy – is to offer a correlation between risk and opportunity, that is, greater opportunity – and thus potential reward – should come to those who take greater risk. The ideological landscape of the twentieth century is seen as being defined by an economic axis between regulated and free markets, and a cultural axis between tradition and change. Within this two-dimensional space, the Left occupied the cultural change/regulated economy quadrant and the Right was in the traditional culture/free markets quadrant. However, both sides saw the goal of their economic orientations the same way: To align risks and rewards in a way that was meaningful. The Right preferred to leave this to the market, the Left preferred the government to ensure it. However, Azmanova argues that the neoliberal capitalism of the Thatcher-Reagan years upended this, and both the Left and the Right came to agreement that a (mostly) free market was the only way – embodied in Thatcher’s slogan of “There Is No Choice” (TINA), and characterized by a move towards privatization and deregulation. On the Left, this eventually resulted in the emergence of the Third Way exemplified by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The loss of the original tension, Azmanova argues, changed the entire ideological landscape. Risk and reward/opportunity were no longer correlated; instead, they became two poles of an axis along which political ideology began to reorganize. The two axes of this new ideological space are different than those of classical capitalism: Closed to open economies, and nationalist to cosmopolitan outlook. In this space, the tension is between the open economy/cosmopolitan worldview Opportunity Pole and the closed economy/nationalist worldview Risk Pole. The names given to the two poles represent the factor that motivates those occupying each pole. The Center Right and Center Left along with several more progressive groups (e.g., the Greens) see the opportunity in an open cosmopolitan world – leading directly to the logic of globalization. What they don’t appreciate is the way this orientation shifts all the risk to a very large, weak cohort of the population – lower middle-class workers. While a strong alliance of the earlier neoliberal and progressive ideologies has assembled on the Opportunity Pole, and are continuing to bicker among themselves, the Right – in the form of the Alt-Right symbolized by Trump, Le Pen, and others – has captured the Risk Pole. This, it is implied, explains why the recent rise in populism has been mainly on the Right.

Chapter 4 of the book is a very illuminating view of the history of capitalism, which Azmanova divides into four stages: The liberal (or laissez-faire) capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th century; the welfare capitalism of the post-Depression and post-WWII era; the neoliberal capitalism of the late twentieth century; and, finally, the precarity capitalism of the twenty-first century. The process by which each evolved into the next leads inexorably to the emergence of the last, which is shaped by the new risk-opportunity landscape. This is then described in detail in Chapter 5 as a situation where “social and economic insecurity has become a core feature of our societies” (p. 105). The main culprit for this change, in Azmanova’s analysis, is globalization. As she notes, with globalization:

“…. the global market transformed rapidly from an entity composed of interlinked national economies integrated through trade agreements into transnational production networks. …. The financial contribution of these production networks to particular national economies became unclear and uncertain.” (p. 106)

Very perceptively, she notes that, “Global competitiveness replaced both growth (the priority of welfare capitalism) and maintaining competition within unencumbered domestic markets (a priority of neoliberal capitalism)” (p. 106-107). The “shift from competition to competitiveness as policy priority” (p. 107, author’s emphasis) has induced governments to pick winners and losers among businesses purely in terms of their global competitiveness, ignoring the impact of these choices on the vast majority of workers who are stuck in the national economies. It also decouples the rewards significantly from the risk, where the rewards largely go to the competitive winners, and risk flows down to the rest who were left out. Azmanova identifies two further amplifying factors for this: The disproportionate growth in the importance of technology, and the emergence of purely financial assets such as derivatives, whose rewards come from abstract processes rather than concrete ones that can benefit all of society. Most of this analysis, while elegant, is quite familiar from recent critiques such as those by Thomas Piketty and Robert Reich. Nevertheless, Azmanova’s emphasis on governments’ obsession with global competitiveness is insightful. As an example, she cites how EU funding of academic research in Europe from a global competitive standpoint has squelched rigorous fundamental research in favor of “financialization of academia” and “rampant commodification of knowledge” (p. 126). This discussion of precarity capitalism in Chapter 5 is followed in Chapter 6 by a detailed survey of where the roots of the current discontent lie. This draws heavily on the work of previous economists from Keynes onwards, and ends with the author’s own analysis. In some ways, Chapter 6 is the bridge between the analytical and the prescriptive parts of the book.

In Chapter 7, Azmanova lays out her prescription for “emancipation from oppressive social dynamics” (p. 171) in terms of combating three types of domination: Relational domination, represented by inequalities of power and privilege between groups; structural domination, which leads to domination of some groups by others through the structure of society’s institutions (e.g., the influence of big money on politics); and systemic domination, which is generated through the core process of the system, i.e., the pursuit of profit. Azmanova states bluntly that opposing “the competitive production of profit” is the “proper object of radical, revolutionary practice” (p. 175). Essentially, this is an exhortation to strike at the very root of capitalism. As she explains later, this should be done, not through direct confrontation, but by using the instruments of democracy to recast both globalization and domestic policy. For example, she suggests including strong non-economic imperatives such as environmental regulations in the rules of global trade, and providing sufficient financial security to all citizens such that employment becomes a voluntary pursuit of opportunity and enrichment rather than a basic need. In summary, the goal she proposes is a society where “the task of allocating productive inputs and social surplus will pertain not to the market, but to public authority” (p. 180) – which sounds a lot like a top-down authoritarian economic system, though Azmanova imagines it as closer to a semi-utopian society that the present precarity capitalism has made impossible. To enact this radical agenda, she finds hope in two factors: The disaffection of the youth from both capitalism and socialism; and the fact that the current risk-opportunity capitalism subjects even the winners to a high degree of insecurity. To be fair, Azmanova is not advocating for the abolishing of profit or private ownership of the means of production, but mainly for more robust, enforceable mechanisms for channeling the wealth acquired by the rentier class and its ancillaries to those who have been left with most of the risk and no reward. For example, she suggests the formation of a market-based European Sovereign Wealth Fund, funded by higher taxation or even nationalization of companies that are currently shifting risk by exploiting the system.

The concluding chapter of the book begins with Azmanova invoking Václav Havel’s notion of “self-waste” (samopohyb): submitting to – in Havel’s eloquent words – “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, inhuman power – the power of ideologies, systems, apparatus, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans” (p. 190). She expresses the fear that “when we seek inclusion and equality within a model of well-being, we inadvertently endorse the model together with the injustices, beyond inequality and exclusion, that it continues to generate…” (p. 194). She sees hope in the rise of the Progressive Left in the United States, as embodied by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and even in the election of Donald Trump in 2016, which Azmanova sees as signaling the death knell of the TINA worldview.

In a book rich with ideas, it would be tedious to critique every aspect, so I will note only a few positives and negatives. The main positive is a systematic, coherent analysis culminating in a clear – if rather quixotic – agenda. The chapters build on each other with impressive logic, and provide the reader with a great deal to think about. At the very least, an attentive reader would be left with a better understanding of a worldview that is ascendant among large parts of Western society – and especially among the young. As such, this book is a very valuable contribution.

That said, there are several glaring issues that should give us pause. First, the book consists almost entirely of argument by assertion. Yes, there are occasional examples – such as the promotion of Qualcomm by the U.S. government, or the EU’s “Horizon 2020” research funding program – but these are anecdotal. More extensive data would have made the argument of the book much stronger. Perhaps the author assumed that such data was available in the works of others, such as Thomas Piketty (who is cited only sporadically), but the assertions made in the book – for example, about the switch from an ideological axis to a risk-opportunity axis – would benefit from empirical substantiation, even though they “feel right.” This would also help demonstrate whether this transition is indeed the profound shift claimed by the author, or simply a relabeling of old axes.

For all its universal tone, this is very much a book about the West – and even there, many of its assertions are true more in Europe than the United States. One way in which this become clear is that race plays virtually no role in Azmanova’s analysis, as though the dispossessed are all miserable in the same way. This leads to a fundamental misreading of the rise of the Alt-Right in America, which is driven much more by race than risk. The populations most exposed to risk in America are the mostly African-American and Hispanic urban poor, who could not possibly be more different in their political orientation and perception of injustice than the mainly white working-class that brought Trump to the White House. The erasure of this difference is also a feature of the rising Progressive Left in the U.S. that – perhaps for ideological reasons – sees all of the so-called 99% (more accurately, the 70% or so) as a single group with common grievances.

Another surprising erasure in the book’s analysis is that of China – a name that does not even appear in the index at the end of the book. In the phenomena that are at the core of Azmanova’s argument – globalization and the rise of technology – China’s recent evolution as a great economic power has played a central role. No analysis of globalization, the shifting of risk to the working classes, and the emergence of global competitiveness as a driving force can be complete without the inclusion of the China factor – its role in providing cheap manufacturing, its huge consumer market, its rising technology industry, its ramification into the economies of almost all developing countries in ways that are yet to be reckoned with by the world. If countries pushing global competitiveness is the main narrative of today’s capitalism, China is its subtext.  If nothing else, China is presenting the world with a unique model of managed authoritarian capitalism that must force economic thought out of its usual tropes.

As in many critiques of capitalism, the assumption is that the current situation is entirely due to the nefarious machinations of greedy Western plutocrats. That is certainly a big factor, but far from the only one. In a system as large and complex as the world economy, analyses based on linear, causal thinking are, at best, incomplete. Indeed, this criticism can be made at a broader level than just the omission of China from the analysis. There are many factors – immigration, conflict, climate change, disease – that all interact with the economic system in highly nonlinear, self-organizing networks. Grasping a part of this network at one point, or tracing one path through it tells us little about its present or its future. As for living on the edge, the very notion that this is an issue unique to this time and place is problematic. Most humans throughout history (and, no doubt, prehistory) have lived – and still live – precarious lives. It is mainly thanks to innovations fueled by science, communication, and capitalism that the ideal of universal security appears even to be possible, if not yet attainable. It is a noble ideal to aspire to – but carefully.

Ultimately, the recommendations made at the end of this book are unlikely to be taken up by those who have the most say in the system. No amount of wishing otherwise can make that happen. Great socioeconomic transitions do not happen via policy prescriptions from academics or analysts. They emerge bottom-up as the logic of the existing system collapses in the face of some crisis. Azmanova claims that we are in such a crisis now, though she – like others critics of rising inequality – seems somewhat frustrated that this is not moving people to act more energetically. To her credit, she tries to make an argument for why this is the case – and that argument is persuasive – but her prescriptions, in the end, are not equal to the profundity of the change that is being sought. Changing trade regulations, increasing taxes, and setting up a fund to redistribute wealth – even if they came to pass – would almost certainly not subvert capitalism, remove the profit motive, or solve the problem of insecurity. Nor would the dizzying speed of technological change slow down to accommodate the desires of those who are being left behind. If there is one lesson that can be learned from the history of interventions in complex systems, it is that most of their consequences are unintended and unpredictable. Successful reform – even transformational reform – in such a system is more a matter of grasping opportunity than of following a prescription.