The Ljubljana-born philosopher Slavoj Žižek – a commentator who is nothing if not inventive and prolific – recently caught the attention of our CSO with a Guardian piece entitled Why the free market fundamentalists think 2013 will be the best year ever (17th February 2013). One of the many points raised in this near-freestyle article is that free-market capitalists are utilising similar logic to that traditionally used by communists to explain away the inefficacious nature of a ‘collapsing’ system: capitalism is malfunctioning because its principles are being respected only in the breach. Ipso facto, if the ‘laws’ of capitalism were actually applied, then we would have no need to concern ourselves with an ultimately ‘impossible’ financial crisis.
Žižek is correct to point to the sometimes ludicrous measures that defenders of political or economic ideologies will employ when faced with the stark reality that their quasi-religious beliefs have been proven to be demonstrably false. But this picture of massed acolytes in denial – while worth contemplating – may not tell us as much as we first thought:
1. A Post-Capital Era. The fabled financial commentator Max Keiser has long noted that in many parts of the world – particularly savings-scarce economies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, but also bank-hobbled nations such as Japan – we are living in a post-capital era, with debt being the defining characteristic of the economy; the corollary of this is that it is difficult to define such systems as capitalist in the absence of capital. In fact, with their huge state subsidies to essentially unproductive enterprises, these economies are looking rather uncomfortably like the European communist ‘enemy’ that withered away a couple of decades ago.
2. A Wider Perspective. Like many theorists heavily influenced by Karl Marx, Žižek’s equates capitalism to the ‘modern’ (post-)industrial capitalism which first manifested itself in nineteenth-century Europe. But the history of capitalism and particularly the market economy is much, much longer and more interesting than this viewpoint permits. What both proponents and antagonists of both capitalism and the market economy tend to ignore is that systems are often shaped by the people who inhabit them far more than a theoretical abstraction would have us believe – and far more than many of us may feel comfortable with.
When taking the pulse of contemporary society, most analysts look at variables such as the stock market index, the state of vital systems such as those pertaining to education and health, or the condition of international transportation nodes such as airports; to give but one example, Changi Airport is in many respects the perfect metaphor for the pristine, relentlessly efficient city-state that is Singapore. But beneath the surface of all that is orderly, there are other indicators that, while less regularised, are nonetheless profound in what they convey to us about the world we are creating. And being based in a global metropolis such as London, we at Mediolana have little hesitation in citing graffiti – the often-desperate outpourings of some of society’s more leftfield elements – as a barometer of substance.
Much graffiti art in London – as in most parts of the world – is essentially boring, dominated by the twin attributes of vulgarity and vanity, and while there has historically been some world-class work produced along a stretch of what is now the western fringes of both the Hammersmith and City and Circle lines, we struggled to recall any output matching the output of Hong Kong’s CEA CREW (‘Chinks Express Aerosol’), responsible for the legendary 1999 piece ‘God loves people, people love people’s money’. And so far as we can tell, this is still the situation today.
Yet today, in the most unlikely of venues – a wall in a rarely-noticed corner of a municipal building in what is arguably London’s glitziest neighbourhood, Chelsea – one of our number spotted a graffito which, while very modest in terms of its technical quality, nonetheless carried a message that should make us all sit up and take notice: a direct quotation from the end of that unlikely classic, The Communist Manifesto: ‘The proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’
What is particularly incredible about the appearance of this quotation just off an SW10 boulevard is not even its location, but the fact that while for most of the past two decades it would have been adduced only in irony, the tomes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are seemingly regaining currency faster than another eurozone economy or American bank can crash; even if one disagrees with the ultimate message of dialectical materialism, there is no time like the present to inquire as to why the writings of theorists that many had presumed all but redundant are now on appearing in chic neighbourhoods where only society’s wealthiest citizens would dare to tread.