Interview David Ruccio on the crisis, globalisation and the way forward

In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview, David Ruccio, one the world's leading "non-orthodox" economists, speaks to Ceasefire contributor Chris Hesketh about globalisation, the financial crisis, the death of the university, the problem with Chavez and more.

Interviews, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, February 27, 2011 7:36 - 2 Comments


Conducted by Chris Hesketh

1. You are well known as a Marxist economist. Marxism however is a broad school of thought. Can you tell us about your unique take on it?

I’m not sure how unique it is. I encountered Marxism in Latin America as a critique of what was the reigning radical theory in those days; that was dependency theory. This was in the mid-1970s when I was in Peru. I was actually in political science and I switched over to economics because I hated modernisation theory, which is what then political science was (and continues to be) with respect to the Third World.

In my own case, I came across the work of Louis Althusser, particularly Reading Capital, and when I went to talk to my political philosophy professors about Althusser and Reading Capital, they said it wasn’t philosophy, it was merely an ideological justification for Marxist politics and therefore wasn’t serious. This made me want to read it all the more, but I found it very difficult going.

I read an interview somewhere with Fidel Castro where he said he picked up Reading Capital and read the first 50 pages and found it difficult and so put it down. I thought, if Castro can put it down then so can I, so I did. Later on in college my senior thesis (which was a research thesis) was on Peruvian development, from the Inca period until 1926. I discovered modes of production and that led me to Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst, and their work on modes of production and social formations.

That was one place where I got my Marxism. After college I took a year off and went to Portugal then went to graduate school, and when I arrived at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst there were two kinds of radical economics being done. One was being by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, which was a kind of non-Marxian, sometimes anti-Marxian radical political economy about unequal power. Then there was Marxism proper that was being done by Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, and that is the one I was attracted to. I was attracted to it for two main reasons.

One is that they took Marxism seriously but didn’t treat it as a dogma; that is, something that is already understood and only needed to be applied. They were in fact rethinking Marxism and that rethinking took place via Althusser and Balibar, Hindess and Hirst. They were the key texts in those days. That was my way in.

It was important for us in economics, even though we were reading non-economists, what they were doing was specifying Marxism as a break from, not just a radical version or a critique of, but literally an epistemological or methodological break from mainstream, bourgeois economics, and so we had to attend to that specificity.

We had to attend to the specificity of the epistemology (the theory of knowledge) rather than just accepting the notion of science. We had to attend to the methodology and therefore question the essentialist framework of both mainstream economics and radical economics and attend to the specificity of the class analysis. So that’s the ferment. Those are the ideas that were percolating at the time.

My own view is that the entries into Marxism are arbitrary. There is a book I want to write someday about how people got into Marxism: it’s accidental. They read Sartre, or they read Lukács, or they read Gramsci. In my own case I read Marx, taught a course on Marxism when I was in college and my interpretation, which I share with many others, is heavily influenced by the Althusser of over-determination, of Reading Capital, of the idea of modes of production, social formations, etc.

2. Would you accept the label ‘post-modern Marxist’?

Yes, but we didn’t invent the term. It is interesting because that Althusserian stuff is often written off as structuralism, but I never thought of it as theory based on underlying structures. What we called it was anti-essentialist Marxism. That was the focus. It was a class analysis with over-determination and therefore critical of all determinisms. Later on, we got called post-modern Marxists and that is fine by me. I don’t want to reduce it to a slogan but that picks up on those anti-deterministic, anti-essentialist elements.

3. We have recently seen the axe taken to public spending in Britain. As a non-orthodox economist, what is your position on the debate regarding cuts Vs fiscal stimulus?

The cuts are not necessary, and so my question is always, what is the class project behind them? If there is nothing dictating the cuts, then whether it be the cuts or any other economic phenomenon, what is the class vision of society embodied in the program, and what are the class consequences?

In my view, there is a clear class content to the cuts. And that class question has to be asked not only of advocates of the cuts, but also has to be asked of the Keynesians who oppose them. As a Marxist I want to ask of both approaches: what is the class project they are opposing and what project are they attempting to enforce? And, in a sense, a pox on both their houses! What would happen if we asked a different set of questions?

To the austerity advocates, the question has to be, why is the policy being dictated by the banks and the other financial institutions? And why, if society, by virtue of its overall wealth, is capable of supporting not only average workers and average households but also the poor, why is this spending being slashed? To the Keynesians, my question is, yes, you want to support growth. I am all in favour of lowering unemployment, but lowering unemployment means more capitalist employment and therefore what you consider a good – economic growth and employment – is in Marxian terms a bad: more people are being exploited.

So, the question to the Keynesians is, why do you want to provide the conditions whereby capitalists have more power in appropriating the surplus and doing with it what they want? When you ask that question you actually find the Keynesians and the neoclassical austerity advocates actually have a shared vision of society. They just have a different way of getting there.

4. When you say the cuts aren’t necessary what do you mean by that?

Very simply, if you changed the modes of taxation you could fully support the existing social services, and education and policing and all of these other things. You could even expand them. So, the cuts are not necessary. They are only necessary when viewed from the standpoint of a particular conception of capitalism.

So, here’s what always happens: they hold taxation constant, so the only way to balance the budget is by cutting expenditures. But you don’t have to hold taxation constant. There is a lot of surplus out there. One of the things I think a Marxist would put on the agenda is the question of the surplus. Who gets it, and once they get it, how is it distributed and how much of it can be taxed to support social programs? If in fact we believe there is such thing as society, then social needs can be funded from the surplus.

The second question is, what is not being put on the agenda? The current debate is all about budgetary expenditures and revenues, it is ‘don’t tax the rich, don’t tax the corporations’. That is one side of it. It is ‘screw the poor and screw the working class’ in terms of social programs, and that is true of both the Keynesians and the neoclassicals.

But they also don’t want to ask anything about the enterprise, for example. They don’t want to put on the agenda — the idea that, the people who actually do the work, who produce the surplus, might be allowed to have some control over appropriating and distributing the surplus? And I think that is one of the things we need to do. There is this wide-ranging discussion about the conditions of society and yet this other aspect of society is left off the agenda entirely. I think we need to put that on the agenda, and from what I see it is beginning to be put on the agenda.

5. Could any of the changes you are advocating be put into affect at national level or does this require international regulation so as to stop things like capital flight?

There are already differential taxes. Most of the studies I have read show that while capital threatens to move because of taxes, it doesn’t. It is like the tenth most important reason for doing so. Of course they make the argument that way because they are going to make an argument about everything, lower wages, and taxes and so on, but it is not the reason they move. There is actually much more latitude that governments have to impose taxation without provoking capital flight. It is a red herring.

6. For about the last 20 years or so, neoliberalism has been the dominant economic model for development. Do you think this is a model that is now dead, or dying?

No. It should be dead. It has been tried and has been an utter disaster across the globe. But, it is exactly what is behind all of the austerity plans. So Ireland, Greece, Iceland, Britain, France and the United States are all practicing various forms of a neoliberal economic agenda and modes of governance. In may be its last hurrah. But every time we think it is dead it comes back to life.

John Quiggin recently published a book called ‘Zombie Economics’ about the coming back to life of dead ideas. This one should have died, hasn’t died and I find that interesting, that the neoliberal mode bought us to the brink of a worldwide disaster. I really think it did come that close in the Fall of 2008. I was interviewed by the BBC and actually, much to their surprise, I supported bailing out the banks. My argument was that I couldn’t care less about the banks—let them lie in the bed they made—but there were a lot of people under the bed and if the banks collapsed they die.

We can’t side with that. That is not all I wanted to do. I wanted a different kind of bailout and a different stimulus. So it is interesting that in the economic realm (and this is why I think that the critique of political economy is so important), it is taken to be an unassailable common sense. I think that is why Gramsci is important in terms of his critique of common sense. It is also why the critique of political economy is important because what they consider to be ‘economic laws’ are in fact discourses and they can be de-naturalised.

7. I want to turn now to the issue of higher education. As someone whose department has borne the brunt of the neoliberlisation of higher education, what are your thoughts about its future, and especially with regard to critical thinking in higher education?

Let me provide some background on the departmental situation. My own view is that the dissolution of my department at Notre Dame is a product of two things. It is a product of what I call the ‘new corporate university’ and a product of the dogmatism and sectarianism of mainstream economics. It is that combination that led to a crazy, sui generis decision, but only as a more extreme version of what is happening elsewhere, so perhaps it is useful for that reason.

In 2003 the University decided that it didn’t want what at the time was an open pluralistic department. It wanted a purely neoclassical, mainstream department. Why? Partly political, but mostly out of rankings, that was the argument. An open pluralistic department that had some neoclassical, Keynesians, post-Keynesians, institutionalists, and one Marxist (myself), wouldn’t ever be ranked. It needed a department it could stock with mainstream economists that would someday be ranked.

They are mistaken. It was never going to be ranked! What they are doing is creating a third-rank mainstream department, but that is another question. They won’t have to pay the costs of that. So there were two departments created in 2003. One was the department of ‘real economics’ and the other the department of ‘flakey economics’, only they didn’t give it those names. Instead they were called ‘Economics and Econometrics’ (the mainstream department), which got the PhD program and all the new hires, and then the department of ‘Economics and Policy Studies’, which was prohibited from making any new hires and prohibited from participating in the doctoral program.

I said at the time this was stage one of a two-stage process. First, split them and the second one was to allow the Department of Economics and Policy Studies to whither and die, and eventually be eliminated. As it turns out they were impatient. They didn’t allow it to whither and die. In fact, in 2010 they dissolved this department. Now at Notre Dame there is a single department of economics.

And if you go to its website it calls itself a department of neoclassical economics, so the idea of academic freedom, of search for truth rather than knowing what the dogma is, has gone out the window. They know what truth is. It is neoclassical economics!

I think two things are in operation. One is that the university has now hitched its flag to the economic theory that justified all the conditions that led to the collapse of the world economy in the Fall of 2008, which is a very ironic move. Second, it is a university that is obsessed by rankings, and that is what I call the new corporate university. It is obsessed with rankings and making money which involves a change in its governing structure and a change in how its units are evaluated, which is what is going on. Its governing structure is such that it means the elimination of what we used to have, which was faculty governance.

The faculty was the centre of the University and everything else was put there to make the job of the faculty—teaching and conducting research—easier, or better and more effective. In other words, the administration worked for the faculty. In the new corporate university it is exactly the opposite. The faculty work for the administration, and the latter make all of the big strategic decisions. That is a fundamental change in how universities operate, it is a change in the idea of the university.

Then it comes to evaluation. These administrators who are not academics and are both not smart enough and too lazy to conduct a real evaluation of what is going on – effective teaching, effective research, and so on and so forth – because they actually don’t believe in the university, they believe in the successful corporation. So those become the criteria of evaluation. For the professional schools, which in the United States are law and business, it is about how much money they can bring in, and how many degrees they can sell. In the sciences, it is how many patents they can put on their research and how many faculty members in engineering and science they can get to work with them to create small corporations to sell the results of their research.

And one of the things they find, (oddly enough) is that some members of the faulty actually do want to do research and teach, so they have to give them inducements to participate in this entrepreneurial activity. In the case of social sciences and humanities we have nothing to sell. We have nothing that can be patented, so, what do you do with that? What they have done is create a market in pseudo academic value. Instead of patents and products they have created citations and research rankings.

So of course they are not going to read the work, because they are not smart enough and they are too lazy to do that, so they appeal to rankings. When somebody is hired now in the United States, or if someone is considered for promotion, they don’t read the work, they look at the rankings of the journals in which they have published and the number of citations to their work. That is the value of the work. It is not the value of a commodity, but it is a pseudo value they have created. It is a simulacrum of value.

There is now a market for this, the Web of Science actually counts up these things. All you have to do is plug in a name, find the number and that is the value attached to the scholar. That means you have do to a little bit of work, but there are people willing to do it for you, e.g., ranking journals, so you don’t even have to do that. You look at the rank of the journal and the number of citations and that is what the scholars’ value is. That is the new corporate university.

8. You attach a lot of importance to class in your work, unlike the prevailing orthodoxy in the social sciences. What utility do you think this concept has?

It goes back to your original question about where my Marxism came from and what interpretation I put on it. There are two things we did along the way. When I say we I mean my original advisors, the people that were working at the University of Massachusetts, the journal Rethinking Marxism, so on and so forth. One is that we took class seriously.

There are many things that make Marxism different, and my contention is that at least in economics that means paying attention to history, paying attention to society, rather than taking things as given. It means taking subjectivity as historically and socially formed rather than as a given, and taking class seriously. But it means taking class seriously in a non-determinist way.

So why take class seriously? My first answer is a refusal. It is not because class is the most important thing out there. In fact part of our anti-determinism is a refusal to rank either before or after the analysis. So the argument is not that you pay attention to class because it is any more causally important than anything else in society.

I make no such claim. Rather it is because bourgeois thought elides class, and one of the distinctions of a Marxian analysis is class. It is its entry point, its way of making sense of the world. It tells a class story. It doesn’t tell a causal class story, that is, if class is ranked number one on the list of explanations. Amongst all the various things we have in the world, class is important, so we must pay attention to class.

Second point is this. We did a lot of work on the notion of class. One of the things we do with it is to switch from class as a social actor to class as an aspect of society. To put it in a slogan form, we switched from class as noun to class as adjective. What we think of as Marxian class analysis is that it picks out amongst all the various economic, political and cultural processes out there, some of them, a small subset, which are class processes.

So the question is, what makes them distinct? For us, what makes them distinct is the idea of surplus. What class refers to is the mode whereby surplus is first performed and appropriated, and then distributed and received. What we call appropriative and distributive class processes, what others call fundamental and subsumed class processes. That is what it tries to pick up. Amongst all of the various things happening in society, in the economy, some of them are class processes, and so in capitalism for example it means that labourers produce a surplus which they do not appropriate.

Capitalists appropriate that surplus for doing nothing. That is Marx’s notion of exploitation. Those capitalists who appropriate it, in turn distribute it to various places and elements in society, in part in order to reproduce the condition whereby the surplus was produced originally. What it means, is that much of what society is, comes about as a result of the surplus—where jobs are located, what jobs exist, what kind of regions thrive and what kind of regions die.

This all depends on how the surplus is first performed and appropriated, and then distributed. They can create jobs where they want to and destroy jobs where they want to. That is a lot of power in capital’s hands. But, to go back to the anti-deterministic point it means that class does not operate in isolation. Whenever a set of class processes exists out there at any moment in time, they are the result of everything else happening in society. So they are neither the essence causing everything else, and they are conceived to be the product of everything else that is happening.

Part of what we do with our class analysis is to say that there may be in Britain, or the US or other places that we recognise as capitalist, a predominant or hegemonic class form, (call it a capitalist one), but it is rarely, if ever, exclusive. There are always elements of non-capitalism. Not just as remnants of the past but actually being created in the present.

There is always something which exceeds capitalism, both in terms of the way in which the economy is organised but also in terms of the social imaginary. That causes us then to rethink, or at least put forward other ideas about where a post-capitalism, or a non-capitalism might come from. Not as some pie-in-the-sky fundamental change in everything that exists in the world sometime in the future, but in fact it may already be being practised within existing capitalist social formations. That is what we do with class.

9. In your most recent book you say that imperialism is a much better term than globalisation to understand the current world order. Talk us through why you think this.

I hate globalisation; that is, I hate the term. I hate the term because it carries the idea of inevitability and totality. Every fibre in my thinking body rebels against inevitability and totality. What I mean by that is as follows: Inevitability means that it is happening and one has to accept that it is happening, or just adopt its opposite.

So what do radical thinkers do? They propose globalisation as a necessary stage of capitalism — Ernest Mandel, Frederic Jameson, David Harvey, and so on. That kind of inevitable stages of the growth of capitalism, to put a Rostovian cast on it.

Therefore, it is no longer a product of history and society, it’s no longer a project of making the world (which is how I prefer to see globalisation), but the actual form of the world. Secondly, it becomes an explanation of everything, nothing escapes from it, except tiny little things at the margins like some Indian tribes lost in the Amazon or something like that are not part of globalisation, but everything else is.

I find that totalising concept problematic, because it forgets about contradiction and tensions. It forgets about the non-rationalist, materialist ontology of the world, in which lots of things are happening in a not-necessarily ordered or fully completed fashion.

If I was going to reject globalisation as a Marxian concept how would one begin to think about these issues? if you look back in the Marxian tradition we have a term – imperialism – that worked well as a concept at the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. So why not now? When I saw the first war in Iraq I thought that it was an imperialist war. It was a war for oil.

If you can’t recognise that, you can’t recognise anything is imperialism. And yet, left-liberal thought was weak on that point and couldn’t see it in those terms. They asked for humanitarian interventions, not opposition to the war, which is what I thought was a proper stance.

If we look at globalisation today – what they say is globalisation – movements of goods, services, people and capital around the world, then, as it turns out globalisation is not so new. If you go back to the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, at least by quantitative indicators, the levels of globalisation achieved today are not that much different from what we saw in that earlier period.

If imperialism was appropriate then, why not now? My caveat is, of course, that the world is not the same. I don’t want to emphasise sameness and lose novelty but I also don’t want to emphasise novelty and not see the connection between the two periods. So, imperialism is a candidate from a Marxian perspective but I had to do some work on the concept. Lenin (among others) produces a concept of imperialism. I found it problematic because it was articulated as a stage of capitalism – the monopoly stage of capitalism.

The alternative – Kautsky’s alternative – to say that imperialism was just one of many political options, I find that a problem, too. That is where the work of Deleuze and Guattari was interesting to me. It is all about machines and machinic connections. So I began to think, if we can imagine imperialism as a machine, establishing machinic connections with other machines, like capitalism and like economics as a discipline, so you have a disciplinary machine, an imperial machine and a capitalist machine, they we can ask the questions, how do they connect, and what are the effects of those connections when they do connect? This then made the idea of imperialism feasible as a non-totalising, non-inevitable concept, but as a project of making and remaking the world.

10. In terms of trying to get out of the current situation which we are in, internationalism has always been a demand of socialist thinking. Yet this is always threatened by nationalist responses to crises. How much do you see that occurring again at the present moment? For example with the tea party in the US, the rise of rabid anti-Islamic parties in the Netherlands and Sweden, the announcing of the death of multi-culturalism by the German chancellor a few weeks ago. How much a problem is this for a politics of resistance?

Is it always going to be a problem. It is a failure of the Left. It is their/our mistake. We left that open. I’m not sure it has to do with internationalism. There are moments of nationalism within internationalism. The attack on the Roma in France, the attack on Muslims in Britain and in the United States, racism is certainly on the rise in the US.

In moments of capitalist economic crisis, there is always a search for easy scapegoats. There is a search for them amongst the population, and there is a feeding of them by sections of the elite who are quite willing to bankroll that view because they will get what they want. They are certainly getting what they want from the Tea Party movement that is made up of regular citizens, not a full cross section, most of them are white. Many of them are small business owners.

They are better off than the average. They are not typical working class, but they are people full of fear. That fear is stoked by big money, so the Tea Partiers end up supporting policies that don’t help them out, they help their wealthy benefactors. For me, that is not a question of nationalism and internationalism, it is a question about your conception of society. That is what radicals and Marxists need to put on the table.

As a Marxist I would argue, that has to do with the way you structure how production takes place, how surplus is originated, and that poses the question, how do you want to utilise the surplus? That is not the same thing as nationalism versus internationalism but there is an internationalist component. That has to do with competition between nation-states. In economics it is called competitive devaluation which is a big worry right now and was an important part of the Great Depression. That has to do with whether you pit workers in one country against workers from another country.

The Right says there should be free trade because workers around the world want to engage in trade. My attitude on that is that workers don’t decide on whom they are going to trade with, they work for enterprises. So, Chinese enterprises do want to trade with the rest of the world and therefore they don’t want to shut it down. Workers in the United States and Britain when they actually produce things don’t want to then adopt a position as the AFL-CIO in the US has in a cynical fashion, they are all in favour of human rights when it puts restrictions on the imports of goods from China.

That is cynical nationalism and we can’t stand for that. Why should we be more concerned about US workers than Chinese workers? The question then becomes, ‘how do we think about the world economy that does not represent a race to the bottom, but rather a levelling up’? That is what we should challenge; both the national modes of decision making as well as international institutions

11. As a specialist on Latin America, to what extent do you see emancipatory potential being generated there? Is this a viable alternative?

No, it’s not. It certainly is not for most of the rest of us in the world, and it is only partially so for Latin America itself. If it is the only alternative, we are going to become very depressed and cynical. We cannot take what is going on in Latin America, with all of its promises – and I am quite supportive of many things that are going on there – as indicative of how an alternative would be posed in other places of the world.

In contrast to some of my fellow thinkers in the US, and although I am a Latin Americanist, I have never thought of Latin America, or the Third World/Global South more generally, as the margins of the system where the alternatives would be produced. I have always been critical of that idea. If the world economy is going to change, it is going to change because of what is happening in the United States, Europe, China and India, not because of what is happening in Venezuela or Bolivia.

There are interesting things going on in Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, even to some extent Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. But we have to keep in mind they are in part strongly influenced by and constituted in terms of nationalism, which is problematic, even when they have an internationalist credo.

Many of them are taking forms that, for anybody who knows the history of Latin America, should be recognised as dangerous forms. It is a kind of authoritarian populism, or leftwing caudillismo. The danger is – let’s take the case of Venezuela – Chávez gets to decide what changes are going to be allowed and what changes are not going to be allowed, with an attempt to centralise political power in a single party.

So, I am actually quite optimistic with regard to some of the base-level, co-operative formations in the country. I don’t know if they are self-sustaining, but there are a lot of them now, and people are learning a kind of power that is not easily overturned. It is also clear that there is an attempt to sidestep history in a Gramscian sense, in that the work has not been done to create an alternative hegemony within civil society. Thus, an authoritarian state is put in place in order to make the changes that otherwise would take place.

I think that is dangerous. It is a dangerous model of organisation of social change for the world, and for Latin America. I am not going to dismiss the experience. As in Brazil or Bolivia, lots of things are being learned, and lots of good changes are being made, but as a mode of creating non-capitalism, as a mode of creating socialism, I find them deeply problematic.

Chris Hesketh s a Teaching Associate in Economic Geography in the Geography Department, at the University of Nottingham.



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Feb 27, 2011 15:41

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