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Global Slump in Labor Studies Journal

Global Slump By Sarah Laslett

Labor Studies Journal 37(1): 127–140

David McNally’s book Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance provides an historically grounded and insightful analysis of the economic crash of 2008. The book would be appropriate for use in an undergraduate or graduate-level political economy class. It could also be useful for labor educators preparing popular economics workshops, although it would not be appropriate to assign to audiences without any higher education background.

McNally paints a picture of global capitalism and the impact of recurring economic crises in both the global north and the global south, in both highly developed economies and developing economies, and connects the radical swings of economic fortune to both governmental policy and people’s movements. One particularly powerful lesson of the book is that the “recovery” of global financial institutions does not mean improvement in the lives of the average working person, nor that the sacrifice is equally shared among the international working class:

While banks and multinationals have been rescued, there is no bailout for working class people, who can only expect more “pain” for years and years to come. As corporate profits recover, jobs, incomes and social services continue to disappear. . . . But the human recession hits some a lot more than others (24).

Moreover, McNally assures us at the end of the book that the continued pain for working people is not a random by-product of the “jobless recovery,” but rather a strategy of the “shock doctrine”:

“Shock doctrine” refers to the idea that our rulers cannot carry through radical neoliberal restructuring without first traumatizing the population. Massive attacks on pensions, health-care, education, public sector job and incomes, and on people’s image of the sort of life they ought to expect—none of this can be accomplished without generating a profound sense of social crisis, a panic that life as we know it is now imperiled (184).

While explaining the brutality of the global economic collapse, and tracing the history of these vicious boom-and-bust cycles over the last forty years, McNally also wants to inspire us to believe that a new kind of social justice movement is possible in response. The final chapter of the book does, indeed, offer inspiring examples, from the fight against the privatization of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to the factory occupation at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago.

There is, however, something of a disconnect between McNally’s macro-economic analysis and his activist response. One of the things I have been particularly struck by as I have watched the drama of our current “great recession” unfold is the anthropomorphizing of the “market.” How often have we heard that “the market is lacking confidence” or “the market is having a bad day”? While I have had a number of good chuckles at these ludicrous analogies, they also strike me as highly dangerous. Just as we are entering into a movement phase in which the 99 percent are unveiling the lie behind the idea that corporations are people, we continue, even in the most progressive of economic analyses, to assign near-human status to the mythological entity of “the market.” McNally falls into this trap. In analyzing macro-economic and structural forces, he even goes so far as to let individual decision makers entirely off the hook:

But the story of powerful bankers seizing the reins of capitalism and remaking it in their interests is decidedly unhelpful. Among other things, it falls prey to the illusion that powerful men (and the odd woman) actually direct the way our society develops (87).

McNally wants us to believe that structural forces overwhelm the agency of individuals in the power structure, as if “the market” can “have a bad day” without lots and lots of individuals making choices that create those conditions. And yet we are to also believe that the agency of activists in building movements to resist exploitation is paramount. How can, on the one hand, activist agency be a driving force in the creation of social movements, but on the other, the culpability of individuals in the financial sector not be an integral part of understanding how our economy works in the interest of the few?

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