The Bass Connections team studying the Moral Economy of Markets, led by Kenan Senior Fellows Michaeline Crichlow and Dirk Philipsen, has invited a series of guest speakers to campus this semester. This team’s work is primarily focused on case studies from the Global South exploring the experiences and narratives of those thrown various states of vulnerability by the spread of market logic. Among the people most vulnerable to the forces of market-driven modernization: the agricultural worker no longer able to engage in traditional small-scale farming; the parent in need of childcare without viable extended family networks; the laborer in need of support to get out of a financial crisis.
The first two lectures in this series were held last week focusing on how climate change and debt reflect global market inequalities dating back centuries. Are we talking about these issues ethically today or do we need a new vocabulary to justly acknowledge the disproportionate harm both processes inflict on the poor and minority groups?
Jason Moore (SUNY Binghampton) challenged his audience to reject the concept of “Anthropocene” as unfairly targeting all of humanity as responsible for climate change, rather than the neoliberal elites at the core of this process. Likewise, Patricia Northover (University of the West Indies, Mona) talked of the technocratic economic terms used to describe “optimal states” of indebtedness as grossly inadequate to fully tabulate the human costs of a world awash in state and individual debt.
Neoliberal elites and institutions shaped by them were identified by both speakers as the true culprits behind climate change and the rise of global indebtedness. Moore suggested the use of the term “Capitalocene” as a more accurate reflection of how the actions of global capitalists have exploited an abundance of “cheap nature” throughout history by appropriating the unpaid energy of natural resources or the unpaid work of enslaved populations to increase industrial profits and exacerbate climate change.
Northover echoed Moore’s critique of neoliberal elites charging that debt markets impoverish countries and oppress minorities across the globe. The “debt spiral” many states and individuals experience cannot be separated from questions of morality, justice, or fairness. Indeed, the principles of market optimality used by most global financial institutions today are inadequate to measure the true social cost of indebtedness. Speaking about the struggles of her home country, Jamaica, to dig itself out debt, Northover observed that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) continues to demand the country run a 7% budget surplus to pay its debt, even though this leaves little or no money to improve schools or health care on the island.
The Moral Economy of Markets series take a broad view of moral markets encompassing global perspectives. On February 21, the team welcomed Mark Driscoll (UNC-CH) who gave a talk on amoral markets in 19th century China dealing with arms and drug possession. The next two talks in the series will shift focus to case studies from Latin America. Each talk in the series provides insights as to what alternative narratives exist that may point the way toward a more equitable, just, and sustainable future. Also, what might the future role of markets be if the focus were to shift from expansion, growth, and profit to that of universal human well-being within a framework of biophysical sustainability.