Thursday, May 21, 2015

Social Fibrillation: Consequences of the 2014 Oil Crash in Alberta and Scotland

Rhythms of the 'conjuncture. . . fluctuations and swings of periodic movements. . . harmonious or discordant. . . vibrating cords or sounding-boards.”

- Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism: 15th-18th Century Vol. III: The Perspective of the World tr. Siân Rynolds (London: Collins, 1984), 71.

Do you know that property values have increased 1924 since 1,000 percent?. . . Do you know that this is the greatest development since Sophie Tucker?. . . But who remembers Sophie Tucker nowadays. . . She was a great lady, but they tore her down and built a department store. . .”

- Marx

The most salient empirical object of political analysis today is the open situation, and, of such objects, the respective situations of Canada and the UK, and their respective subaggregates of Alberta and Scotland respectively, in the aftermath of the oil price crash of late 2014, are exemplary. These situations both involve relations to extant federal arrangements, explicit in the case of Canada, implicit in the case of the UK, in which regional ambitions have been transpierced by periods of speculative resource exploitation followed by political transformations that cannot be derived from the federal arrangements alone. These situations demonstrate the social effects of finance capital, particular spatio-temporal distributions of political sentiment and actions between the hinterlands of resource extraction and the central nodes of finance capital, but precisely so in the moments of financial convulsion, fibrillation. That is, these spatial dynamics, having been suppressed by financial machination, articulate or crystalize in the moments of the breakdown of such machination, giving rise to an open situation. Scotland and Alberta are distinct from one another insofar as they operate within the ambit of different superstate aggregates, and yet their recent political transmutations are of similar magnitude and they both evidence remarkably similar responses to the material effects of banking regimes who have adopted similar policies to one another in the period following the global financial crisis of 2007-9. Canada and the UK are exhaustive of neither situations pertaining to the collapse of oil prices in 2014, which has significantly altered countless geopolitical arrangements, nor situations pertaining to the global monetary regulative experiments antecedent to the financial crash, but are rather noteworthy, and perhaps even indicative, in that they evince what occurs in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of a particular asset class conditioned by those monetary regulative experiments.

Testifying before congress in 2013, then Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, noted that “the Committee is aware that a long period of low interest rates has costs and risks”1 including "the possibility that very low interest rates, if maintained too long, could undermine financial stability.”2 He argued that while “the Committee's intention is to maintain highly accommodative monetary policy as long as needed,”3 the Federal Reserve, nonetheless, “actively seeks economic conditions consistent with sustainably higher interest rates.”4 The aporia of the global experiment of quantitative easing is thus that the Federal Reserve and its affiliate institutions like the Bank of England must maintain an apparent commitment to raising interest rates for its mechanisms to function, but that those mechanisms would falter should they actually do so. As David Harvey writes, “the Fed simply takes all the excess debts of banks, consolidates them into one vast IOU and effectively locks the IOU in a cupboard.”5 Thus, as Bernanke noted at that same congressional hearing, “withdrawing policy accommodation at this juncture would be highly unlikely to produce such conditions. . . premature tightening of monetary policy could lead interest rates to rise temporarily but would also carry a substantial risk of slowing or ending the economic recovery and causing inflation to fall further.”6 Liquidity conditions are, in essence, premised upon the fiction that they can be brought to an end, the mere mention of which has been enough to give rise to 'taper tantrums' on several occasions since.

Philip K. Verleger noted that same year that “inventories of crude oil, at least in the United States, seem to have become one of the assets replacing treasury bills [and] there is a real prospect. . that an end of QE could lead to liquidation of these assets and a significant crude price decline. Inventories have become an asset almost by default.”7 Unlike in the UK, whose Bank of England participated in QE and asset purchase programs extensively (in spite of then shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, calling QE “the last resort of desperate governments” in 2009), the Bank of Canada did not, though they may yet. That said, a Bank of Canada working paper one month before the catastrophic oil price collapse of late 2014 found that QE had “strong and easily observable”8 spillovers, that “transmission to Canada occurs mostly through the financial market[s]. . . lead[ing] to higher oil prices,”9 and that “as integrated financial markets make Canadian asset prices and interest rates move in the same direction as their U.S. counterparts.”10 Thus American liquidity infiltrates Canadian and English development through asset prices, but the aporia is that this liquidity is premised upon the absence of material impediments that it alone forestalls. Evans, Rueschemeyer & Skocpol argue that “whether originally autonomous or not, state interventions in socioeconomic life can, over time, lead to a diminution of state autonomy and to a reduction of any capacities the state may have for coherent action.”11 This gives rise to a condition of, as Amin writes, “dwindling scope of national decisions and. . . widening effects of an autonomous global economy.”12 The local post-bubble social field and its opening of situation, its latency between State mediation and the social consequences of violent financial convulsion, is an important empirical object of political concern in the world of completed real subsumption, as intense sites of this peculiar global economic articulation and its breakdown are like Hegel's night in which “all cows are black,”13 but in a different way than it was, say, in the late nineties. Now, rather, it is a night in which all cows are black which discontentedly knows itself to be just such a night, it is a night that is no longer naive regarding its “emptiness of knowledge.”14

Asymptotic tapering, “spinning constant suprises,”15 “the necessity of executing a coup d'etat en minature every day,”16 real negative interest rates, clearly the post-crisis period has been characterized by a peculiar psychological dance between speculators and bankers, where the expectation that the latter will hoist up the former into the air on wings made of near-zero interest rates and gracefully catch them in their arms of aggressive asset purchases has given rise to all manner of scurrilous overvaluations, asset bubbles, and risky ventures of the kind revealed by the oil crash of late 2014. Other-worldly taps are opened in the boardrooms of far-off and countless situations begin to transmute according to the logic of an ultimately sanctioned proliferation of norms - “forms of differentiation at the periphery,”17 as Samir Amin writes - materially built against a real social array to whom these proliferations are wholly unintelligible, terrifying, and, oftentimes, very dangerous. So while Claus Offe writes that “the state's attempts to maintain and universalize the commodity form require organizations whose mode of operation is no longer subject to the commodity form,”18 and “maintaining the commodity form presupposes the growth of state-organized forms of production that are exempt from the commodity form,”19 Philip McMichael argues rather that “the need to preserve money [nonetheless] increasingly governs institutional politics in global and national arenas, at the expense of the substantive social policies identified with the era of wage-labor and the nation-state.”20 Thus necessary conditions of liquidity to maintain the property relations of one or another superstate aggregate assume the form of chaotic trasmutation within the spheres of their proximate regional subaggregates, and the failure of these conditions produces a like response of subaggregate irrespective of the superstate aggregate to which they are a part.

As Philippe Schmitter writes, “the globalization of capitalism has produced increasingly indirect and articulated systems of production, transport, and distribution that are much more sensitive to disturbances in the behaviour of their most remote and marginal components.”21 Comparative analysis, however, is more often than not as blithe to this 'indirect and articulated' as the Alberta PCs and Scotish Labour were to such 'disturbances.' Comparative political science, as a discipline, after all, is hardly the activity of comparing in a political mode, weighing one from another, seeing a field and organizing it into constellation. Rather it is a sequence of repetitions oriented towards a uniform political instance, American neo-Thomist disciplinarity and its manifold ideological myopias; all means and methods of 'comparative political science' array themselves around this pseudo-core despite themselves and mirror its grey reifications. It is, in other words, deeply implicated in the social-subjective problems that it isolates as empirical objects, implicated in this machine, irrespective of the particular merits of the particular activity of comparison (comparatio;;synkrisis [σύγκρισις];; aggregation, condensation, combination). As Hermogenes notes, “syncrisis (synkrisis) is a comparison of similar or dissimilar things, or of lesser things to greater or greater things to lesser. . . included in the common-place, where we amplify the misdeeds by comparison, and in encomion, where we amplify the good features of the subject by comparison, and also in invective, as having the same function. . . requir[ing] a vehement orator and the forceful style (deinotes), and the working out requires rapidity everywhere because of the need of making quick changes back and forth from one to the other.”22 A “parallel scrutiny”23 as Nicolaus the Sophist writes in his preliminary exercises, “tak[ing] many forms.”24 Or, in other words, in the acceleration of the elements, feedback, hypergeometry, comparison itself accelerates, and cannot help but do so, taking on displacements and paradoxes as part of its vital machinery. As Cornelius Castoriadis writes, “when the object of one's study is a material chaos, an ideational shorthand is not only false, but counterproductive, insofar as the pseudo-totality pseudo-grasped by the subject of reason elides the real totality in which it was constructed and in which it finitely and contingently participates.”25 The global spillover effects of real negative interest rates are just such a material chaos, and the political transmutations of Alberta and Scotland, set off by the same catalyst they developed in cadence with one another and produced similar outcomes.

In Empire of Chaos, Amin argues that Giovanni Arrighi is wrong to believe that these global transmutations will bring together the social forces of “the more advanced center as well as the periphery, and especially the semi-periphery.”26 Amin asserts instead that 'polarization,' that is, “the ideological separation between social democracy at the center and the revolutionary attitudes at the periphery”27 is “a permanent and basic characteristic of really existing capitalism.”28 But just look at what has happened in the situations of, on the one hand, Alberta, on on the other Scotland. In both cases there proceeded a period of asset inflation bolstering regional perogative, and in each case, by the most unlikely of circumstances, both have evidenced a kind of exacerbation of semi-peripherality, a kind of homogenous posture after successive fibrillation to otherwise disperate and distinct social bodies. In 2014 Scotland was still tacitly Labour, as Alberta was tacitly PC, in Scotland to ward off the Tories, and in Alberta to ward of the Wildrose, but both were largely dissatisfied with their obliged choices. While, on one level, the UK Tories may appear as akin to the Conservative Party of Canada, with its close ties to the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, and the Wildrose Party as more akin to the UK Independence Party, UKIP – as far right parties - in this instance, however, the comparison is between the UK Labour Party in Scotland and the PCs in Alberta, and hence between the Wildrose and the UK Tories, as the most proximate conservative political forces. This is because in both cases their vote share was in essence butressed by the fear of the established conservative threat, the Wildrose in the instance of western Canada, the Tories in the case of Scotland. The collapse of oil prices, in both instances, precipitated shifts away from their respective sclerotic obliged choices, and elided their most proximate conservative and pro-austerity political choice, to newly emergent parties whose message was regionalist in nature and tailored to the specific social symptoms of financially driven resource exploitation. The election of the NDP in Alberta, and the sweep of Scotland by the Scotish National Party in the aftermath of the oil collapse mirror one another in their localized polarization. As Alan Woods writes of Scotland, “this widespread radicalisation expresses itself as a desire for independence but is in fact an expression of a deep-seated hatred of the pampered, arrogant bourgeois clique that rules in London.”29 The immediate activity of one centre of activity appears, in each instance, to be selling the other, in the manner of a spatially displaced comprador, a set of bourgeoisie who marshal the contemporary conditions of liquidity saturation to exploit subaggregates of their federal arrangement which they are not present within. That is, the reform or revolution dichotomy is exacerbated at the regional level, such that local peripheries, or semi-peripheries, become more revolutionary with respect to their most proximate cores. Thus, both Arrighi and Amin are right: Amin is right insofar as these global transmutations do tend to polarize, but because there is not one global polarization but many global polarizations, Arrighi is right insofar as this opens the possibility of the lateral political socialization between them. Both Alberta and Scotland experienced not only an exacerbation of the peripheral relations with their local cores but indeed lengthy periods of traumatic political banality, the latent emergence of electoral alternatives is as much a product of the oil crash as it is these prolonged periods of uncomfortable support for complacent and increasingly alien governing parties.

Greece, too, can be said to have been fibrilated into this semiperipheral state of shock, and even more aggressively so, with respect to their larger participation within the European Union. And the cause of the oil crash itself is yet another asymmetrical semi-peripheral situation, as in late 2014 the Saudis signaled that they had no intention of cutting production in spite of growing production elsewhere due to new shale extraction techniques. Prompting Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, to call the move by the Saudis “treachery,”30 “political conspiracy by certain countries against the interests of the region and the Islamic world,”31 adding that this was “only in the interest of some other countries.”32 These distinct situations produce political enunciation exclusively oriented by systems of financial and political control to which these subaggregates are otherwise wholly subordinated. Amin is wrong therefore to say that polarization of the social-democratic core and revolutionary periphery model is a basic feature of actually existing capitalism, rather what was erstwhile a global core and global periphery now occurs in the manner of local cores and local periphery, fanned out across a series of geopolitically intensive nodes that transpierce the old global distribution and produce semi-peripheral characteristics and contradictions everywhere. “Points of connection within the NETWORK,” as Romano Alquati writes, that “may be strategically hierarchized, including INTERNATIONALLY [and] will represent the points of advanced mass struggles of the working class!”33 It is upon the basis of these shared figurations of the semi-peripheral in asset political arrangements, rather than the superficial differences of which greater super-state aggregate to which whatever subaggregate situation belongs, that there is in effect a spasmodic form of fidelity or plane to post-bubble conditions: traumatic mutations effected by loose monetary policy on the part of the world's central banks effects a relatively homogenous or akin genesis across the social field of the fibrilated subagreggate. It is not that both Alberta and Scotland underwent processes of democratic association and elected new political forces that is analytically important, but rather that their respective subaggreggates responded to the collapse of a single asset class in this manner. This indicates that national aggregates are porous to the tempo of political transformation within their greater superstate aggregations and across them.

In sum, sustained global monetary intervention on the part of central banks in the period following the global financial crisis has given rise to not only a series of asset bubbles, but indeed asset political arrangements. In the case of the case of asset failure, these ossified arrangements break down creating an open situation which has played out in similar ways in Alberta and Scotland with respect to their respective financial cores. Comparative political science is ill-equipped to recognizing these sequences as their fundamental object is situations, or geometries of political and economic arrangements, requiring syncrisis, or parallel scrutiny, i.e. a consideration of similar developments of regional subagreggates functioning separately across different superstate-aggregates, and a recognition of the empirical object of the open situation, specifically, in this case, those produced by a failed asset class in the peculiar conditions of contemporary global liquidity. The collapse of the asset based political arrangement is a fibrillation of the hinterland by the core that results in social association and political transformation oriented to the spatial elements of the political arrangements that had been suppressed when the asset class had been a catchment for global liquidity, as it had been prior to the end of QE-3 and the Saudi's refusal to cut production levels. Certainly the altered political dynamics of the global capitalist world-economy, pertaining to, for example, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, etc. are deserving of careful scrutiny, but the parallel of the Scottish and Albertan sequences is worth isolating as it demonstrates how social fibrillation by financial capital exacerbates semi-peripherality, the relation of local cores to local peripheries, not necessarily according to distributions of national sovereignty, but according to logistics chains and regional systems.


1 Ben Bernanke, “The Economic Outlook” Joint Economic Committee, May 22, 2013.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 David Harvey, “The Micawber Solution”, August 6, 2014.
6 Ibid.
7 Philip K. Verleger in Izabella Kaminska, "What have Inventories Got to do with QE?" FT Alphaville, June, 2013.
8 Tatjana Dahlhaus, Kristina Hess and Abeer Reza “International Transmission Channels of U.S. Quantitative Easing: Evidence from Canada” Bank of Canada, September, 2014, 3.
9 Ibid, 5.
10 Ibid, 13.
11 Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer & Theda Skocpol "On the Road toward a More Adequate Understanding of the State” Bringing the State Back In eds. Evans, Rueschemeyer & Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 354.
12 Samir Amin, Empire of Chaos tr. W. H. Locke Anderson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1992), 11.
13 G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind (New York: Dover, 2012), 9.
14 Ibid.
15 Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Maryland: Wildside, 2008), 135.
16 Ibid.
17 Amin, Empire of Chaos, 8.
18 Claus Offe, Contradictions of the Welfare State ed. John Keane (London: Hutchinson, 1984), 127.
19 Ibid.
20 Philip McMichael, “World-Systems Analysis, Globalization, and Incorporated Comparison” Journal of World-Systems Research, 3, 2000, 688.
21 Philippe C. Schmitter, "The nature and future of comparative politics" European Political Science Review, 1;1, 2009, 40.
22 Hermogenes, “Preliminary Exercises” in Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric ed. George Alexander Kennedy (Leiden: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 83-84.
23 Nicolaus the Sophist, “Preliminary Exercises” in Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric ed. George Alexander Kennedy (Leiden: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 162.
24 Ibid, 164.
25 Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, 56.
26 Amin, Empire of Chaos, 8.
27 Ibid, 11-12.
28 Ibid, 12.
29 Alan Woods, “Marxism and the national question in Scotland” International Marxist Tendency, April, 2015.
30 Hassan Rouhani in Mike Whitney, “Irreversible Decline?: Did the U.S. and the Saudis Conspire to Push Down Oil Prices?” Counterpunch.or, December, 2014.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid.
33 Romano Alquati, "The Network of Struggles in Italy", 2005.

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