World-systems dopes, or an introduction to Jason W. Moore

Originally published online 9 September 2011

This is a diary about the merits of looking at the world through a world-systems perspective — with emphasis upon the writings of Jason W. Moore, who suggests new reasons for why we cannot count on the capitalist system to last forever. Here I am suggesting that systems theory presumes that we are “dopes,” people who are compelled by social forces to make its social structures real.


One of the most interesting concepts to come out of the arcane lexicon of cultural studies is that of “cultural dopes,” to wit:

the view that the readers of media texts are the more or less willing dupes of the media producers.

The idea that media consumers are more or less “cultural dopes,” of course, is not quite correct — people are active participants in the construction of culture; they don’t just let the mass media do it for them. But there is a kernel of truth to the idea of “cultural dopes” — the media, after all, do make consumer culture in an important (and often decisive) way.

More importantly, this notion of “dopes” is a real stimulant to debate. The question it raises is one of whether or not people really have any options beyond that of going along with the social forces which impact them. We need not stop at “cultural dopes”; we might talk, for instance, of “sociological dopes,” “psychological dopes,” and so on — the sociologist Harold Garfinkel referred to the idea of “judgmental dopes” as a cover-all term for all of the different types of “dopes” which were supposedly out there:

the sociologists conceive the man-in-society as a judgmental dope…who produces the stability of society by acting in conformity with pre-established and legitimate action alternatives, which culture provides him with. (Coulon 30)

Thus according to this model we do what the social forces in the world tell us to do, and the matter of what sort of “dopes” we in fact are can be resolved by an investigation to determine the social forces compelling our decisions. If the forces out there are psychological, then we’re psychological dopes. If they’re sociological forces, then we’re sociological dopes. And so on. One can see this sort of thinking at work in politics in the art of demographics. The demographer attempts to isolate the social forces compelling voters to select certain candidates over others, so that election outcomes can be shaped and/ or determined in advance using We The People as “demographic dopes.”

Demographics can also determine which voters have a greater degree of power over elections, and which voters are merely “demographic dopes” — demography can tell me, for instance, that I have practically no power over the 2012 Presidential election. Listen, if the vote is even close for Barack Obama in my state (California), he has practically no chance of winning the general election. Thus if I wanted to work for Obama’s re-election, I could at best attempt to assure that Obama would carry California, a state in which he will probably be ahead double digits in the polls. And if I wanted to work for Obama’s defeat, my “effectiveness” in defeating Obama in California would (if Obama actually lost California) merely add to what would be a foregone conclusion — Obama’s defeat. The people who decide Presidential elections live in what the demographers call “swing states,” and I am not one of those people. I’m a demographic dope.

Now, of course (as Coulon suggests) people are not really “judgmental dopes,” nor are they any other type of “dopes.” But they are (for much of the time) close enough to being “dopes” to make social theories about them seem real, at least insofar as their acts of free will are not typically game-changers. People behave in static, predictable ways, and even that about them that isn’t static can be guessed about.

Here’s an example of our dopehood that might amuse you: we could all, for instance, support a Democratic Party Presidential candidate next year (Bernie Sanders or someone like that) who successfully primaries Obama, takes no corporate donations and who, upon being elected President in a landslide, brings the glory days of FDR/HST/JFK/LBJ back to America and to the Democratic Party. That would be a game-changer. If, however, (when 2013 rolls around) we want to understand why we didn’t do such a thing, then, and why we let Obama or a Republican have the White House, we will have to understand social and political structures, and how they function to preserve (and in rare cases overturn) the status quo.


The discussion of “judgmental dopes,” here, is intended to serve as a preface to the essays of Jason W. Moore. Moore’s concern, for the most part, is the capitalist system; we are “capitalist system dopes,” or at least “world system dopes” as a human race. We act in accordance with the world system in its normal development, or in this case its decline. We complain about how the welfare state is being destroyed, and about how austerity planning is being imposed upon the world’s economies, but we don’t really do enough to change the situation.

The surest prediction of the future (given such universal dopery) is in my opinion given at the end of this essay by Gopal Balakrishnan:

We are entering into a period of inconclusive struggles between a weakened capitalism and dispersed agencies of opposition, within delegitimated and insolvent political orders. The end of history could be thought to begin when no project of global scope is left standing, and a new kind of ‘worldlessness’ and drift begins.

This is of course the conclusion, at the end of the piece. The body of Balakrishnan’s essay is a sort of review of why no alternatives to this kind of future will occur. In that body we can read tentative conclusions about what statecraft will do as we head into the great interim of aimless political economy:

It is probably safe to assume that elected parliaments, sheikhdoms and oligarchies will all cleave to the dilapidated hull of American statecraft for as long as they can, after a prolonged period in which such rulers have stopped contemplating the alternatives.

Balakrishnan is probably right about all this — capitalism will collapse again and again and be repeatedly propped up, each time less convincingly than the last. But what structural explanation will convincingly show this to be the case? Given what we know about “the system,” how do we know that it will drift into some sort of chaotic interim?

The “systems” explanation for what’s going on right now is most simply given by an author whose book was the topic of my third diary here at DailyKos.com: Harry Shutt. The fundamental reality depicted in The Trouble With Capitalism is one of a government basically owned by capital, in which:

the weight of official opinion is still clearly convinced that the primary duty of government in the global economy is to prop up corporate profits at all costs despite the demonstrable reality of a surplus supply of capital (87).

Thus governments throughout the world since the 1970s have acted, desperately, to maintain the profit rate through the steady jettisoning of everything else: government assets, the welfare state, the money system, government commitments to anything outside of the profit rate. Understanding this is the primary key to understanding why we are not going to see some great recurrence of populist Keynesian “economic stimulus” at any point in the future. Corporate control of government is simply too complete, and there is no willpower among the Powers That Be to allow the people anything outside of a few token dollars for the sake of tax cuts or deleveraging high debt loads.

And do not expect the Super Congress to permit America to engage in a rush program to convert its fossil fuel engines to alternative energies. This is something that should have appeared obviously necessary during the last spate of economic growth in this country, in which we saw $5/ gallon gasoline. Thus the possibility of resurgent economic growth runs up against an “oil bottleneck.”

What we can say, then, is that in being “capitalist dopes” at this stage of the capitalist game, we are also “corporate dopes,” because the corporations control both the economy and the political apparatus, pumping out profits through increased government intervention while the rest of the economy exists as a host for corporate parasites?

In a larger sense, we are “world system dopes,” because as political actors we more or less fall in line with what the world system has in store for us. (Every time I read “I criticize Obama, but I support him,” my imagination drifts to the concept of world system dopes.)

However, things are different now than they were at different phases of the world system. What we need to realize, now, is that capitalism has now reached old age. It’s not going to rejuvenate itself, it is not going to go back to some repeat Golden Age of robust growth like the 1950s and 1960s once were. It may sustain itself for awhile longer — but in that time the capitalist system is only going to decline. And I wouldn’t have reached that conclusion were it not for world system analysis.

Here I wish to direct my readers’ eyes to the essays of Jason W. Moore. Perhaps a further study of his works will allow us to stop being dopes. The main path to our not being dopes, I would argue, is through the knowledge of world systems theory, through an understanding of where we were, where we are now, and where we are headed.

Moore is in the tradition of David Harvey and John Bellamy Foster — marxist, global analysis of the world system. Moore’s unique contribution is to regard capitalism as a “socio-ecological regime,” in which the capitalist system is conceived as a machine which reorganizes nature in its own image. So there is a different way in which nature is conceived in Moore’s theories. He explains that first nature is commodified, then nature is capitalized. Finally nature is used up. Moore argues that the capitalist system regards nature as a “free gift” — that both outer nature (the environment) and inner nature (human tendencies) are “for the taking,” and can thus be made to contribute to processes of capital accumulation. Thus capitalism is a process of chewing up the planet, and it’s likely to end at some point.

Moore also provides readers with an important distinction as regards the nature of “crises.” All of the marxists have as their ultimate talisman against capitalist economics the presupposition that capitalism is prone to “crisis.” What this term “crisis” means, however, is open to debate. Just because there’s a crisis doesn’t, in fact, mean that the capitalist system is in any way endangered. Moore, however, distinguishes between different types of crisis:

1) the “developmental crisis,” (see page 11 of Transcending the Metabolic Rift) in which capitalism transforms itself to overcome the crisis, by technological innovation and by expansion.

2) the “epochal crisis,” which signals the end of one form of economic life from another — the “for instance” in Moore’s essays is the crisis which signaled the end of feudalism and the beginning of capitalism.

Moore suggests that at each crisis, whether “epochal” or “developmental,” the existing system has had to confront a “metabolic rift” between the economic system and the ecology. In plain English, a crisis occurs when an economic system goes too far in messing up the natural world. “Developmental” crises preserve the existing system by changing its relations with nature, “epochal crises” signal its impending doom out of an inability to change the system’s relations to nature. Whatever the current economic crisis is, it doesn’t appear to be a developmental crisis, because it has in no way rejuvenated the economic system, nor has the relationship between capitalism and nature changed significantly.

Technology does not appear to be poised to save capitalism. The “Cheap Food and Bad Money” piece argues this for agriculture. Genetic engineering has made billions for Monsanto, but has not brought the world to an era of cheap food. We could argue the same for energy — alternative energy will doubtless preserve human civilization, but it won’t bring back the era of cheap energy.

We are probably in an epochal crisis, then — a sign that the end of capitalism has in some way begun. The lesson we should carry away from Moore is this: if we no longer wish to be “capitalism dopes,” or “world systems dopes,” then, we should prepare for whatever system is to come after capitalism, rather than counting on its indefinite existence.

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