Frase, Parameswaran, and the Future: This Sunday in NYC

June 13th, 2013  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion

This Sunday at 3:00 PM, those of you in the New York area can catch me at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 exhibition space in Queens, where I’ll be participating in a discussion with Ashwin Parameswaran. It’s part of a summer-long season of interesting talks organized by the online magazine Triple Canopy, under the heading “Speculations (‘The future is ___________’)”. (The weekend after my event, there’s another great one between Jacobin contributor Alex Gourevitch and Kathi Weeks, whose book about work and feminism I reviewed for the magazine.) Tickets are ten bucks, five for students, and you can also check out PS1’s interesting collection as part of the deal. And after that you can go eat at the only barbecue joint in New York named after a revolutionary abolitionist.

Ashwin is a fascinating character whose ideas I’ve touched on several times, in connection with topics ranging across social network companies, capitalist stagnation, ecology, and the private welfare state. His writing about automation also bears on the ideas I explored in “Four Futures”. But I’ve never engaged with his writing at length, and I’m looking forward to the chance to meet and talk with him in person.

To get a feel for the areas we’ll be discussing on Sunday, the best place to start is probably this post, followed by this more theoretical treatment if your appetite hasn’t been satisfied. Parameswaran believes that many of the problems with contemporary capitalism can be traced to an approach to macroeconomic management that ensures “stability for the classes, instability for the masses”. Individuals face economic insecurity, but bailouts and corrupt privatization schemes ensure that “incumbent firms have no fear of failure and can game the positive incentives on offer to extract rents while at the same time shying away from any real disruptive innovation.” As he notes—and as Jacobin readers will recall from Seth Ackerman’s “The Red and the Black”—capitalism has thus reproduced the fundamental flaw of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union.

Parameswaran’s alternative is what he refers to as “bailouts for people, not firms”. In other words, a strengthening of the welfare state to protect people from economic turbulence, combined with a renewed commitment to capitalism’s “invisible foot”: the real threat of failure for uncompetitive firms. A proposal that might not sit too well with the major sponsor of the PS1 series, the Nazi-founded and now pseudo-privatized Volkswagen.

He argues, furthermore, that this is the only workable alternative to the status quo. He thus rejects the project of some nostalgic liberals to return to the heyday of managed post-war capitalism—“stability for the masses and the classes”. I tend to agree with this perspective, albeit not for exactly the same reasons. But I think Parameswaran’s form of utopian left-neoliberalism is subject to the same critique that I’ve made of another writer with similar predilections. The idea that it’s OK to subject people to the constant disruptive flux of market relations, so long as there is redistribution to compensate them, may make sense as technocratic macroeconomics. Or even as abstract moral philosophy. But I’m not certain it’s sufficient basis for a viable politics, when we have so much evidence that people value stability and continuity as goods in themselves. But that should make for some interesting conversations on Sunday.

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