At this point in your reading you’ll have noted that for Eagleton, theory is, as he writes, politics by other means. Much of the theoretical work from the 60s through the 80s was a dialog with Marxism played out on the terrain of culture. If the Soviet experiment was ossified by Stalinism and eventually crumbled under its own weight, the radical impulses of the left sought other domains of synthesis and expression. With mass social movements sputtering to a halt (an exception being the rise of alternative globalization/ anti-captitalist fronts) the possibilities of human liberation– always the core of any left-radical tendency– seemed best addressed not in the streets but within the autonomous spaces of the dance floor or the university. As Eagleton notes, this transition from confronting the State in public square to reflecting on the nature of power and its relationship to cultural production and consumption, was no substitute for effective, organized dissent. At the same time, however, advances were made in the effort to come to terms with the shifting dynamics of capitalism.
“If culture began to be more crucial to capitalism in the 1960s, it had become well-nigh indistinguishable from it by the 1990s. This, indeed, is part of what we mean by postmodernism. In a world of film-actor Presidents, erotically alluring commodities, political spectaculars and a multi-billion-dollar culture industry, culture, economic production, political dominance and ideological propganda seemed to have merge into a featureless whole. Culture had always been about signs and representations; but now we had a whole society which performed permanently before the looking-glass, weaving everything it did into one vast mega-text, fashioning at every moment a ghostly mirror-image of its world which doubled it at every point. It was known as computerization.
“At the same time, culture in the sense of identity had grown even more pressing. The more the system unfolded a drearily uniform culture across the planet, the more men and women aggressively championed the culture of their nation, region, neighbourhood or religion. At its bleakest, this meant that the narrower culture grew at one level, the more it was spread thin at another. Blandness found its response in bigotry. Rootless advertising executives jet-setted in the skies over those for whom not sharing the same piece of sky as themselves meant to be hardly human” (48-49).
Loosely speaking, “theory” was (is) both a symptom and a response to this situation. As the people of the world become more interconnected and alienated from one another, as whole economies intertwine and national/ethnic/religious differences deepen, the demand for some new means of understanding and, crucially, addressing these contradictions becomes more pressing.
Neoliberals, like the free trade advocates of the 18th century, believe that the master-mechanism of the market is providential, an “invisible hand” whose motions bring the system into equilibrium. Left free of hindrances in the form of State intervention, the market will fulfill human needs in the most efficient manner possible. During the 1990s, what some might call the era of the “Washington (DC) consensus”, that view had many adherents. In the last decade or more, however, as disparities in wealth sharpen, fewer people are willing to submit to the logic of “market fundamentalism.” In Geneva this summer, for instance, global trade talks failed after several nations refused to accede to a US demand that local (national) markets remove protections (in the form of import tariffs) for their farmers. To anyone familiar with the history of US capitalism this demand was patently hypocritical: the US, especially in its earlier years of development, has had one of the most protected economies in the world.
This isn’t an economics class, obviously, but one more item to note in the category of breaking news:
“The US government today announced the biggest financial bailout in the country’s history as it took troubled mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae into temporary public ownership to save them from collapse.”
Such intervention directly contradicts the tenets of Free Trade. You can read the whole story here.
Finally, a pdf version of Mike Davis’s essay Planet of Slums.