[This essay is a slightly revised version of Stephen Gill (2015) ‘The Geopolitics of Global Organic Crisis.’ In Greek, Translated by Iraklis Oikonomou. Utopia – Review of Theory and Culture. April-May, Νo. 111: 25-36. An English version was also published online in AnalyzeGreece! on June 5, 2015: http://www.analyzegreece.gr/topics/greece-europe/item/231-stephen-gill-the-geopolitics-of-global-organic-crisis ]
This essay sketches aspects of the constitution of geopolitical power in world capitalism and a conceptualization of organic crisis relative to questions of debt, dispossession and the “new constitutionalism”. It highlights contradictions, questions and potentials that concern the making of our collective future.
The Geopolitics of Market Civilization
In a geopolitical political situation where communism and the lefts have weakened, the last 30 years have seen a remarkable and truly global restructuring of power. It is reflected in extraordinary, accelerating concentrations of capital and wealth in a tiny proportion of the world’s population – a global plutocracy supported by a governing class that principally rules on behalf of capital. This is partly reflected in the following graphic.
Today, capital is increasingly concentrated in most of the key sectors in an expanded capitalist world market: e.g. media, computing, energy, pharmaceuticals, autos, finance. Previously state owned or public enterprises are being rapidly privatized, amid a general process of the commodification of public goods, knowledge and public services.
The new capitalist order is structured hierarchically: it is simultaneously class-based, racialized, and gendered. It operates to systematically empower privileged social strata and the affluent, the principal beneficiaries of what I call neo-liberal market civilization. “Market civilization” is now the dominant model of capitalist development – one that is possessively individualistic, me-oriented, consumerist, exploitative of human beings and nature; it is unequal, energy-intensive, wasteful and ecologically myopic. This pattern of development is, by definition, exclusive and can be only available to a minority of the population of the planet, but a pattern that, nevertheless, is serving to consume the vast bulk of global resources.
None of this means that the market civilisation model and the disciplinary power of capital that governs it – primarily through market mechanisms – is uncontested; indeed one of the reasons why such power is not hegemonic and subject to resistance and struggle is because of its distributional consequences, which raise fundamental issues of inequality and social justice.
The system of governance that oversees this market-based mode of development, I call disciplinary neo-liberalism. It is backed by the systematic use of unequal geopolitical arrangements (such as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty). It involves the extended use of surveillance by NASA and its ‘Five Eyes” partners (Australia, Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand). More generally, it relies upon an enormous concentration of military capabilities linked to systems of policing/military power and securitization of state apparatuses that have proliferated since the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Such mechanisms of global surveillance/policing and capacity for intervention, principally dominated by the United States, have outflanked the previous geopolitical rival to capitalism, the USSR. The US holds massive military preponderance with many thousands of bases and installations worldwide. In sum, the USA – along with its key allies – uses military and security power as well as extended panoptic mechanisms to keep friends and enemies alike under a condition of constant surveillance, thereby guarding the citadels of corporate and political power.
These elements all reflect the post 911 increasing securitization of world capitalism under continuing conditions of political and economic emergency.
Organic Crisis and Morbid Symptoms
Some of the key issues associated with this situation have worsened since the global crash of 2007-8. Yet even before the crash in 2006 the leading organ of capitalism, the Financial Times asked how, without reading Marx’s Capital, could one possibly explain how the world’s richest 2% of people now owned more than 50% of the world’s global assets – a form of inequality which is subsequently worsened during the global financial and economic crisis. By contrast, perhaps 90% of the world proletariat are “unprotected” or precarious workers, who are non-unionized and deemed to be disposable by the employers, and a full 70% of them have no social protection (ILO 2015). They are often landless workers and peasants who are marginalized from integration into world capitalism but still subjected to many of its forces and pressures, insofar as they are dispossessed of their basic means of livelihood and forced to migrate to the urban centres of the Third World, usually to live in slums, searching for work in entirely unregulated labour markets.
With such observations in context, this essay assumes that the present crisis is very deep and it involves much more than a crisis of capitalist accumulation or a necessary self-correction aided by macroeconomic intervention and bailouts. To capture the scale and depth of this crisis, this essay reformulates and extends Gramsci’s concept of organic crisis.
I will suggest that any resolution of the global organic crisis requires a revitalisation of democracy and much wider mobilization of progressive social forces to press for measures that are sustainable and that are not one-sidedly implemented on behalf of capital. Indeed it might be argued that the present conjuncture corresponds, in part, to the Chinese character for crisis, a character that combines moments of danger and opportunity. It is linked to the fact that the current global political situation is pregnant with the following paradox once formulated by Gramsci (1971: 276): “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
In this period of morbid symptoms, therefore, the central hypothesis of this essay is that the future of the world involves a multiplicity of intersecting and interrelated crises, each of which presents moments of danger and opportunity for different political forces, although these limits and possibilities are structured by the relations of force – economic, political and military that operate in and across jurisdictions and regions according 21st geopolitics and the global political economy.
When Gramsci reflected on developments in the 1930s he saw organic crisis as involving a crisis of representation and decay in prevailing forms of ideology and political organization – this was reflected in not only the eclipse of the old order in Russia but also in the collapse of liberalism and the rise of fascism.
In the early 21st century there is also a crisis of representation although it is structured in different ways. Certainly recent substantial evidence in much of the world indicates that mainstream political parties (such as Christian and Social Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals in Europe) associated with varying degrees of support for disciplinary neo-liberal capitalist governance have rapidly lost members and political support (Gill and Solty 2013). At the same time there has been a growth in support for alternatives, many on the right, e.g. in Europe, where in some countries, fascism and Nazism is on the rise; in others a new left seems to be emerging, e.g. in Greece and Spain. It seems that once again there is an impasse for the old frameworks of politics and a search for new directions. In this context our local and global political predicaments go well beyond questions of capital accumulation and poses fundamental and global questions concerning ethics, politics and governance in the making of our collective future.
Nonetheless we should not underestimate the robustness of geopolitical and legal strategies to contain challenges to the status quo, for example those, as noted, that are associated with intensification of state surveillance and the criminalization of dissent. Indeed in addition what is also frequently overlooked is institutionalization of measures to prevent democratic governance of key elements of the global political economy. A good example of the latter is new constitutionalism (discussed in more detail below in relation to central banking).
New constitutionalism encompasses a myriad web of bilateral regional and multilateral trade and investment agreements, as well as balanced-budget laws and other mechanisms that embody a most peculiar version of the rule of law: one that guarantees overriding status to private property rights, including full entry and exit options for capital (“free trade”) and full security of ownership for capital whilst simultaneously preventing democratic control over the political economy. The attempts by the major capitalist powers, especially over the past 30 years, to consistently apply new constitutional measures to guarantee the liberalization of trade and investment (e.g. the WTO and NAFTA) stand in contrast to the world geopolitical arrangements, which have a decidedly arbitrary quality that operates well beyond any coherent or consistent conception of the rule of law (Gill and Cutler 2014).
In this broader context we note that many morbid symptoms are experienced unequally in the global North and the global South, although some of the conditions in both regions seem to be converging with the effects of debt imperialism, dispossession, authoritarianism, dictatorship, and foreign intervention – underlining the vast disparities in life chances within and across classes and nations. We live in a world characterized by the ever-greater exploitation of human beings and nature by capital, whose power, as noted above, is increasingly concentrated in fewer giant monopolies or oligopolies, e.g. much of the media where a type of neo-liberal newspeak, providing the official versions of the truth, prevails.
Nevertheless, contestation is emerging over questions of lifestyle and sustainability, and deadlocks over climate change and food and health security are linked to political struggles over corporate domination and private control of world agriculture, life sciences, medicine, and pharmaceutical industries.
The world food crisis involves global patterns of malnutrition and health: 25% of the world is obese or overweight; 25% is starving (Albritton 2009); indeed 1 in 7 people on the planet go hungry in the face of plenty. In a market system prices and incomes determine if one eats or starves or has medical care: if you have no income you cannot be a consumer or a buyer of medical services or drugs, i.e. such goods and services are bought in the market. Indeed, capital (including that developed by the pharmaceutical corporations and other enterprises associated with private provision of drugs and health sciences, as well as insurance) is not focused upon the promotion of global health but on the accumulation of capital via the profit system. Capital will profit from obesity as well as from hunger.
Similarly, food prices are increasingly determined through a global market-based system based on the control of agriculture by a relatively small number of giant corporate oligopolies. This system is driven by the accumulation of capital via profits; indeed since the start of the 21st century much of that profit has been associated with global futures trading linked to speculation by banks and other investors flocking to seek profits from buying and selling land and agricultural commodities. The obverse of such trends is a secular reduction of self- sufficiency and greater destruction of local systems of livelihood. Corporate controlled agrarian systems have tended to increase use of non-renewable sources of energy and chemical fertilizers as well as the world’s freshwater supplies. This fossil-fuel intensive and export-orientation of agriculture is driving crop monocultures and massive damage to biodiversity whilst contributing substantially to global warming.
Debt, Accumulation by Dispossession and New Constitutionalism
Accelerated privatization of water, land, natural resources, and public goods such as education and health systems is occurring at the very moment when broad swathes of public opinion support social protection and universal access to public education and health care. The struggles over the global organic crisis are exacerbated by these “new enclosures” which involve the expropriation of the “social commons.”
Such dispossession is paralleled by the wholesale defunding of the development potentials of many of the countries in the world as they struggle to pay their accumulated debts, typically to the very foreign bankers who have made reckless, highly leveraged investments that have been bailed out by governments.
Third World indebtedness – and increasingly that of the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism – constitutes a means of expropriation or “accumulation by dispossession” akin to what Marx – in Capital – characterized as primitive accumulation through colonization. It has been estimated that many of the poorest countries pay up to 20% of their annual fiscal revenues in foreign debt servicing, often in repayment of debts whose principal has already been repaid several times over, even though the original loans may have been used to fill the coffers of dictators and potentates – now in offshore bank accounts. These “public” debt obligations are overseen by combinations of private banks and public institutions such as the IMF and World Bank along with the governments of wealthier countries, for example the so-called “troika” (IMF, EU, ECB) in the European Union. The trillions of dollars paid by the global South for the debt servicing since at least the early 1980s has come at the expense of cuts in social programs, which particularly affect women and children, especially with respect to education and health care, although recent policies of the World Bank have attempted to mitigate some of these effects in the global South.
Put differently, recurring financial and debt crises, with their devastating social and economic effects, are not new in the global South, even though, up until recently, they have been largely avoided in much of the North. After 2010 financial and debt crises migrated to Europe and to other heartlands of global capitalism – to be followed by a politics of austerity and with it, a further expropriation of the social commons.
Such globalizing contradictions have important gender and racial dimensions. A majority of the world’s work, including caring work, is done by women and a majority of the world’s poor are women in the global South.
Nevertheless, the forces of disciplinary neo-liberalism have so far retained the upper hand in defining the responses to the organic crisis –the various lefts of the world have appeared relatively weak or internationally isolated, with a number of notable exceptions such as in Latin America. This seemed to be the case when Syriza was elected in January 2015 on a radical anti-austerity platform in Greece to be encircled by opposition from all other Eurozone members who stood in line behind Germany’s form of neoliberalism.
As noted above, one of the key elements of neoliberal governance is a range of arrangements I call the new constitutionalism, the legal centrepiece of neoliberal economic orthodoxy. It is intended to insulate the commanding heights of economic policy from democratic control or scrutiny and place it in the hands of capital, and primarily financial interests. A quintessential example is the European Central Bank, one of many “independent” central banks that have mushroomed in the neo-liberal era since the early 1980s. Indeed, this independence gave central banks substantial latitude to act as a lender of last resort and thus to massively bail out banking interests as well as other corporations following the crash of 2008.
Whilst central banks are independent of governments, their boards of governors are largely drawn from the ranks of private financial interests (not from trade unions or from the ranks of progressive political economists).
Central banks have been the principal drivers in the issuance of massive and rising sovereign debts since the 2008 crash, debts that have now been estimated to have risen by US$57 trillion (government debts have increased by $25 trillion) over the last seven years, to stand at $199 trillion or 286% of GDP.
Huge political battles over future fiscal stringencies to pay for these debts can therefore be anticipated over coming years. Global indebtedness on this scale clearly tilts the balance of power in the global political economy into the hands of creditors and bondholders.
Much of the monetary expansion has enriched super wealthy plutocrats in the context of rapidly accelerating global inequality to levels that were last seen in the 1920s. Normally the class-based nature of central banking and monetary policy is rarely debated in mainstream media and political discourse, but it was demystified recently by one of its primary beneficiaries, wealthy financier George Soros, in a speech at the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. Soros warned that the planned Eurozone stimulus measures under the aegis of the ECB, to inject (in effect to create) EUROS 1.1 trillion into the Eurozone economy (i.e. make cheap money available to private banks) in the form of “quantitative easing”, would “increase inequality between rich and poor both in regards of the countries and people”. Soros pointed out that “excessive reliance on monetary policy tends to enrich the owners of property and at the same time will not relieve the downward pressure on wages”.
To make this point about monetary policy under new constitutionalism and class politics clearer, the following chart shows the European Economic Recovery Program (designed to invest in job creation measures) plan had a mere $200 billion in bailout allocations after 2008 (1.5% of the EU’s GDP). This contrasts with the huge Euros 4.5 trillion in bailout aid transferred to the European financial sector (37% of total EU GDP) – and again, this was prior to any additional funds that might come from “quantitative easing.” Such a massive socialization of the losses and debts of the private financial sector represents arguably the largest transfer of funds from citizens to private creditors and financial interests in the history of the continent.
Furthermore, despite claims that central banks are “independent” of political influence or geopolitical inclinations, the new left-wing SYRIZA government in Greece that was elected in January 2015 will not be able to take advantage of the benefactions of the ECB since the latter has refused to lend to Greek banks against the security of Greek government bonds, a measure that does not apply to other Eurozone members.
Put simply, at the time of writing (April 17, 2015), the ECB was threatening Greece with a credit crunch at precisely the moment it sought a breathing space to renegotiate its debts. As was noted earlier when this denial of credit by the ECB began: “The ECB will be seen in Greece to have punished the Greek people for daring to vote for an alternative to Eurozone economic orthodoxy”.
Green Capitalism versus Green Alternatives
Turning now to the relationship between capital and the environment, and the proposals for “green capitalism” that were widely discussed prior to the financial meltdown of 2008, these should be judged in terms of whether they address not only specific ecological challenges, but also the general crisis of social reproduction and livelihood that compounds the ecological problem. Indeed there is some substantial thinking on the left along these lines to develop a European Green Alternative but as yet there is insufficient political support for such measures in the EU.
Of course it is desirable for capital to be constrained from completely reckless exploitation of global resources and forced to use energy more efficiently. However, green capitalism is entirely compatible with the prevailing forms of consumerist growth associated with market civilization, even if such consumption might be reconciled with lower levels of fossil fuels use, lower amounts of chemical fertilizers, and the introduction of more renewable sources of energy. It can also go with land grabs, (including massive recent purchases of land by oligarchs, celebrities and politicians seeking remote bolt-holes in case of political threats) as well as wider use of genetically modified seeds and new technologies of control over life-forms, e.g. bigger feedlots and expanded use of hormones to feed meat-based diets. More fundamentally, green capitalism is still characterized by the contradiction between private accumulation and enclosure of the social commons versus social needs.
Following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, there has been acceleration in the commodification of the atmosphere via the “new carbon economy” in which actors can buy and sell carbon credits or carbon offsets in capitalist markets (Gill and Cutler 2014).
Moreover, the question of intellectual property rights is at the heart of the impasse between the global North and the global South in the climate change negotiations. The same applies to agricultural technologies, including private control over seeds. Private corporations want rents for their technologies which poorer farmers and poorer countries can ill afford to pay. Green capitalism will therefore do very little to address the intensification of economic and social insecurity of a majority of people throughout the globe.
In my view Alternative Left arguments that address this question should be based on the view that technologies to ameliorate environmental problems should be global public goods – not mechanisms of control by corporations, codified as they currently are by intellectual property rights in national legislation in the bigger nations (e.g. USA and EU) and in the new constitutionalist organizations such as the WTO which has gained jurisdiction over intellectual property rights, redefining them as tradable commodities.
“The Return to Normalcy” versus the Making of the Future
What will this all mean politically in the affluent countries? In most of the North Atlantic countries about 70% of workers are in services, many in public services now threatened with further privatization. Moreover, in northern regions of Western Europe (and especially in Germany where governmental crisis management has kept unemployment surprisingly low, allowing a successful export-oriented growth model), many remain sympathetic to the argument that G20 leaders can resolve the crisis and return to “normalcy”. Indeed many “protected” workers in unions are shielded from some of the worst effects of the crisis (i.e. partly as a result of Keynesian automatic stabilizers such as unemployment insurance), whereas insecurity is increasing for the vast majority of workers worldwide.
Nevertheless, the idea of an early return to “normalcy” would seem delusional in light of the global financial situation – and the fiscal situation of many countries – that continues to be far worse than political leaders dare admit. Moreover the “normalcy” of the past few decades meant not only a deep crisis of social reproduction but also relentless environmental destruction, ever increasing and obscene levels of inequality, and not least, global economic stagnation with much of the world, e.g. Japan and Europe facing deflation; in Europe mass unemployment, especially for young people, is reminiscent in scale to the 1930s.
The question of “normalcy” is therefore a global question. We can expect global political conflict to begin to increase; the question is how to channel this for progressive ends.
In my view, therefore, the principal challenge for the progressive political forces and political economists in the coming decade is mobilizing forces and arguments – as well as policies and governance proposals – to create a new “common sense” that can address the global organic crisis. In so doing diverse progressive forces will help to foster new forms of political agency, involving both men and women in the North and the South: what I have called a new, diverse, and creative post-modern Prince.
Immediate challenges for progressive policies include continuing policy responses to the costs of gigantic bailouts, which, as noted, run into the many trillions of dollars. As I observed in 2009, neo-liberal governments, assuming they are able to hold onto power, will continue to download the burden of payment on the backs of ordinary people in the form of wage cuts, reductions in social benefits and health expenditures, privatization of education, in an attempt to continue fiscal and social austerity – the very types of ongoing surplus extraction that have characterized Third World development for much of the past three decades. Indeed, despite the recent recovery in stock market prices in many countries unemployment is still high and rising, particularly amongst the young (although it is very unevenly distributed across countries), world hunger is growing, and serious social dislocations have already emerged worldwide as a result of cuts in public provisions, health care, and wages.
In this conjuncture, some elements of the progressive lefts have begun to argue more systematically that economic emergency measures should and could have been targeted in ways that would have been less costly and more socially efficient, e.g. strengthening public goods for the social, health, and educational commons, and promoting democratic control over the commanding heights of the economy so that they are also made less risky and more stable – something partly reflected in recent regional initiatives. Concrete steps in that direction that many, including myself, have advocated, would be to systematically introduce and enforce much more progressive and fair taxation (e.g. particularly for the top 20% of wealthy people), enforce a major crackdown on tax evasion and the regulation of offshore centers (both of which would alleviate fiscal problems), and the promotion of tax regimes and pricing strategies designed to channel production towards more socially and ecologically useful ends. A progressive strategy would also be international, involving strategies for global redistribution with a qualitative component (e.g. to provide the means to healthier food and improvements in medical care globally).
I would argue therefore that the central contradiction of global capitalism is not that between capital and democracy as such – the concentration of capital allows for socialization of the means of production, or at least their “commanding heights”, and thus a solution to this problem. The main contradiction we face is deeper and much broader and it is dramatized by a global struggle of power and resistance, and one that is not simply over the terms of fiscal austerity. It concerns the degree to which a continuation of neo-liberal globalization will intensify what feminists have called a crisis of social reproduction (Bakker and Gill 2003) and with it, a restructuring of our basic social institutions for health, care, welfare and livelihood – all issues that have fundamental implications for the question of democracy.
The wide-ranging and challenging nature of this global organic crisis may seem intractable. However, when we consider the nature and future trajectory of world order and the forms of power and rule that go with it, we should remember that these are contested, transient and governed by violence as well as by forms of mutability that are not all progressive nor inevitable: we should remember Marx’s maxim that human beings make their own history but not necessarily under conditions of their own choosing. This leads us to believe that the global organic crisis and its associated stalemate over basic conditions of existence and the future of the planet – cannot last indefinitely.
Albritton, Robert. (2009) Let Them Eat Junk: How Capitalism Creates Hunger and Obesity, New York: Pluto.
Bakker, Isabella & Gill, Stephen, editors. (2003) Power, Production and Social Reproduction: Human In/security in the Global Political Economy. London: Macmillan Palgrave.
Gill, Stephen. (2008) Power and Resistance in the New World Order. London: Macmillan Palgrave.
Gill, Stephen, editor (2015) Critical Perspectives on the Crisis of Global Governance: Reimagining the Future. London: Macmillan Palgrave.
Gill, Stephen. & Cutler, A. Claire, editors. (2014) New Constitutionalism and World Order. Cambridge University Press.
Gill, Stephen. & Solty, Ingar. (2013) Crisis, Legitimacy and the Future of Europe: A Research Framework (In German). Das Argument No. 301: 82-94.
Gramsci, Antonio. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, New York: Progress.
International Labour Organisation (2015) World Social Protection Report 2014-15. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_245201.pdf.
 Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/jan/19/global-wealth-oxfam-inequality-davos-economic-summit-switzerland.
 Also involved are diplomacy, covert intervention and the growth in the criminalisation of dissent. Geopolitical arrangements are often justified by the expediency of forms of law that are applied in arbitrary ways. Geopolitical practice is typically hypocritical (e.g. NATO backing for the most corrupt regime in Europe in Ukraine in order to countervail Russian power). Its practices are frequently antithetical to any concept of the rule of law that requires all people(s) be treated equally, fairly, with due process and impartiality.
 Financial Times, December 28, 2006, p. 13.
 On this, see the critical essays on the crisis of global governance in Gill (2005).
 The UN Population Fund has stated that the single biggest cause of global health inequalities – as well as the principal cause of death for women – is childbirth.
 Robert Peston, “Global Debts Rise $57 Trillion since Crash”. BBC News Business, 4 February 2015. These sums are based on a survey by McKinsey and Co. See: http://bbctakeaway.herokuapp.com/news/business-31136707
 Joe Miller, “Eurozone stimulus reinforces inequality’, warns Soros”. BBC News Business 22 January 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-30943216
 I thank Michele Benericetti for researching these numbers and for making the chart. The data is from: Oxfam, A cautionary tale. Briefing Paper No.174 (2013), p. 7: See http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/bp174-cautionary-tale-austerity-inequality-europe-120913-en_1.pdf
 Robert Peston, “Why has the ECB punished Greece?” BBC News Business 5 February 2015. See: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-31148199
 This is despite rapid growth in countries such China and India, involving the intensification of consumerism.
 See Gill 2008. The concept invokes Machiavelli’s The Prince and Gramsci’s The Modern Prince.
 The financial crisis may be stimulating some decentralization of the financial architecture with many new initiatives, e.g., the Latin American Reserve Fund (FLAR), a regional reserve pooling arrangement with a capitalization of just over US$2.3 billion that largely lends to members’ central banks; and the BRICS’ (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) commitment to the creation of a new development bank with a capitalization of US$100 billion, to finance joint development ventures and bypass the World Bank and the IMF. I thank Isabella Bakker for highlighting this point.