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Paul Kennedy on Fractured Societies and Alternative Futures

In this article Paul Kennedy, author of Vampire Capitalism, discusses the crises of capitalism and various alternative social economies.

Neoliberal global capitalism, as an ideology and a set of policy practices, has dominated much of the world for more than forty years. This culminated in the financial and economic crisis of 2008 and the resulting austerity policies that have hurt millions while leaving most of those responsible for the crisis unharmed or even better off. However, the arguments and claims associated with this neoliberalism form only the latest phase of more than two hundred years of capitalist modernity. Here, the vast majority of scholars and political thinkers, past and present, have assumed that a market economy, relentless economic growth and the pursuit of human “progress” through the development of rational/scientific thought together provided, and still do, the only realistic prospect for enhancing humanity’s material well-being while guaranteeing  access to social justice and individual freedom.  The universality and timelessness of capitalist modernity will take us into the indefinite future while encompassing every society.

But in the twenty first century, with crises and conflicts pressing in on everyone from all sides such perspectives seem far less attractive and feasible – certainly compared to fifty years ago. Indeed, it seems urgent and imperative that we challenge the presumption and claim that neoliberal or perhaps any known version of capitalism can, will and must remain the sole and overwhelmingly dominant form of future socio-economic life for the majority of citizens across our world. This is the theme I tackle and confront in Vampire Capitalism.

The book argues that since the 1970s a form of unrestrained capitalism has emerged that is probably more disengaged from the needs of ordinary citizens and workers than anything we have known since the nineteenth century. This predatory form is generating ever-widening income and wealth inequalities that endanger the long term future of capitalism itself as well as political stability. Moreover, its deepening grip goes some way towards explaining the deepening fractures around social class, generation, gender, education /skill, ethnicity and religion that now plague most societies – although globalization and the rise of multiple, competing, industrializing economies also contribute to uncertainty and insecurity.

Meanwhile, most scientists suggest that without drastic intervention climate change may move beyond our control while there are strong reasons for doubting that market solutions offer the main or, indeed, any viable solution. Similarly, many observers now fear that the seemingly unstoppable and unchallenged march of science and technology, dominated by corporate capital, are leading growing numbers of people everywhere towards a near workless future. The book also explores the cultures of capitalism, arguing that especially in the West our obsession with self-realization or individualization primarily through cultivating life styles – and tainted by neoliberalism’s insistence on each lone individual’s entire responsibility for their own personal economic situation and ‘failure’ – undermines our capacity for collective action and ability to confront these crises.

Few leading politicians and economic elites have shown much sign they are aware of these present and impending crises or how to avert them. Instead, most remain in thrall to globalization, financialization and neoliberal economics and the necessity for perpetual competition and growth. The recent nostrums proposed by emerging populist leaders that we should return to the more closed world and the economic and social nationalisms of the early twentieth century are likely to further intensify divisions and conflicts within and between societies rather than alleviate them. Drawing on sociology and political economy as well as case studies from across the world, it is imperative that ask how we arrived at these dilemmas and how we might escape from them through establishing alternative social economies.

Paul Kennedy is Visiting Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He has taught and written widely on African and Third World studies, comparative modernization, green businesses, globalization and cosmopolitan professionals. He is the co-author of Global Sociology (Palgrave Macmillan) and took a leading role in founding the Global Studies Association. 

Watch Paul Kennedy's Short Film

In this short film Paul Kennedy, author of Vampire Capitalism, explores the key themes of his book, discussing the crises of capitalism and various alternative social economies. You can watch the video here.