9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN06 Critical Political Economy

2009-09-03 15:30:00 2009-09-03 17:00:00 Thursday, 3 September 15:30 - 17:00 Comparative Perspectives on the Financial Crisis Building AA, Auditorio Afonso de Barros

Back to the Future: Can American-Style Consumer Capitalism Be Saved? Should It Be Saved?

The ongoing economic crisis in the United States signifies the end of finance-led consumer capitalism as an accumulation regime whose key features were debt-financed mass consumption of largely offshore-produced goods and surplus extraction through rapidly appreciating asset values ("wealth creation"). The avant-garde of this regime - a mushrooming parasitic class of financiers assisted by organic intellectuals - has been instrumental in sustaining its reproduction not only by spreading the ideological appeal of consumerism ("the American dream") but also through its direct interpenetration with all branches of government. Thus, it comes as no surprise that all efforts of the US administration (past and present) have been aimed at keeping the services-based bubble economy on life support. This paper makes three key arguments. First, the present crisis management policies are bound to fail because they ignore the impact of rising debt levels on the behavior of economic agents and the economy as a whole. Second, saving debt-driven consumerism requires significant modifications in the existing accumulation regime and the redefinition of the terms of the wage relation. Consequently, nothing short of a new social contract is necessary to resuscitate American-style consumer capitalism. Third, this paper argues that the latter should be left to die. The explosive growth of commodity production and consumption creates externalities for society and nature whose feedback effects are impossible to control. In time, the diversion of a growing amount of resources is needed to combat the consequences of a combination of constraints arising from the unchecked exploitation of humanity and nature. However, a point will be reached when the cost of combating externalities will outstrip the value of output. The ultimate result will be the abrupt collapse of economy, society, and nature. Thus, the present crisis of American capitalism should serve to encourage bold thinking beyond what is necessary to ensure the smooth reproduction of the existing accumulation regime.