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The Anxious Triumph by Donald Sassoon – why capitalism leads to crisis

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On 20 January 1981, in his inaugural address as 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan declared: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” It was the soundbite that defined the end of the 20th century. “Rolling back the state” became the mission of the “market revolution” spearheaded by Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

In fact, as Donald Sassoon argues in The Anxious Triumph, the idea that the state and the capitalist economy can thrive apart is nonsense. The modern state and economy are twins born together in the 17th century. Through the age of absolutism and the great 18th-century revolutions, their relationship matured into one of ever-greater interdependence. This was most evident in the newcomer nations of the 19th century, like Meiji Japan or Bismarckian Germany. But it was every bit as true of a “liberal” power like Victorian Britain.

How precisely economic and political interests are articulated varies across the world and depends very much on a nation’s place in the international order. Part of the reason classical liberalism could acquire such a hold on Victorian Britain was that the UK moved first. Having constructed a powerful combination of a centralised fiscal state and a global empire, the UK didn’t flesh out its nation state apparatus or articulate a strong vision of a national economy until the 20th century. But then, as the historian David Edgerton has recently shown, it did so with a vengeance.

When you say that you want to roll back the state, what you really mean is that you want to reconfigure the relationship. Libertarians, down to today’s advocates of cryptocurrency, may dream. But the divorce they fantasise about is not a utopia but a nightmare. Insofar as it has ever existed, anarcho-capitalism is a product of disastrous state failure. Its life is nasty, brutish and short.

Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem Ronald Reagan

If the problem of the relationship of government and the economy is nevertheless posed over and over again, it is because on both sides it is fraught with tension. In order to function, as Sassoon stresses, states need politics, and that involves squabbling elites and more or less mobilised masses. Mass politics and modern ideologies, above all nationalism, have explosive potential. Indeed, if taken seriously, the very notion of politics as a process of collective choice and self-empowerment is antithetical to an economic system based on binding contracts between entrenched private interests that have no regard for the political collectivity.

A long line of liberals down to the neoliberals of our own age draw the conclusion that the solution is to tame politics: through law, international treaties, independent central banks and so on. That, not surprisingly, draws political opposition, both from the left and the right. But even more destabilising is the fact that liberals are on the whole hopelessly unrealistic about what actually makes the economy tick.

The arcadia of self-equilibrating markets, falsely attributed to Adam Smith, was one such fantasy. As Sassoon shows, even in the 19th century, not many people really believed in it. The 20th-century version was the macroeconomic idea of the national economy that could be governed like a machine. That, as we now realise, was in large part an artefact of national economic statistics. Numbers like GDP gave us a false sense of common interest in enlarging the collective pie.

Neither the utopian notion of the “invisible hand” nor the Lego-brick conception of the national economy captures the dynamic, disruptive, creative destruction that is the reality of actually existing capitalism. It is a protean force perpetually generating inequality, crises and the all-pervasive anxiety that gives Sassoon’s book its title.

There have been periods in which the tensions in this fraught relationship have been highly contained. The mid-20th century, the moment of the Beveridgean welfare state, was one when the state and economy were held in a fine balance. The periods before 1945 and from the 1970s onwards have been more unstable.

Margaret Thatcher with Ronald reagan, 1981.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Margaret Thatcher with Reagan in 1981. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Sassoon’s book speaks to the present by conjuring up the era between the 1850s and 1914, in which the tensions between global capitalism and modern politics came clearly to the fore. This was the first age of modern politics, if not of democracy – the age of Gladstone, Disraeli, Lincoln and Bismarck. It was the age of imperialism and early experiments in social insurance. It was the age of railways, steamships and the boom and bust of the global cotton industry.

Sassoon offers us a sprawling map, studded with fascinating details. Curious about the urban poor in 19th-century Naples? Want to know why liberalism was stunted in late-19th-century Romania? Sassoon is your man. Ever heard of the city of Elkader, Iowa, founded in 1846? No, neither had I. It was named, it turns out, in honour of the Emir Abd el-Kader, leader of the resistance against the French occupation of Algeria.

As one is thrown from cameo to improbable cameo, reading Sassoon becomes a hallucinatory experience. Insights are proffered and then repeated, sometimes several times. Familiar facts mingle with jaw-dropping novelties. The chronology drifts, at times roaring into the present before retracting not just to the 19th century, but deep into the 18th.

Is there some artful design at work behind the apparent confusion? Is the book’s swirling disorder meant to mirror its subject? If, as Sassoon remarks, capitalism moves “without a goal or a project”, would it be misleading for a historian to impose too much order or narrative coherence? If so, it is a pitfall Sassoon triumphantly avoids. But in a book of 758 pages, the effect is mind-boggling, and not in a good way.

Those craving order may do better to approach Sassoon’s book chapter by chapter. Skip over the preface in which he impatiently refuses to define capitalism and the first chapters in which he meanders through the history of 19th-century state formation. Home in, instead, on his detailed discussion of the role of the Japanese elite in industrialisation, or savour his classically Gramscian reading of the failure of the Italian bourgeoisie. Even better is Sassoon’s discussion of the global spread of democratic political practice before 1914. Skip the chapter that narrates the history of colonialism as a rather moth-eaten house of horrors. Others do anti-imperialism more convincingly. Instead, enjoy Sassoon’s opinionated treatment of French and British parliamentary debates about the rationale of empire.

Or, you could start near the end, where one of Sassoon’s best chapters describes how the great recession of 1873 sparked an awareness of globalisation and triggered a wave of protectionism. He surveys the French debate with real flair but is far too dismissive of protectionism in Britain. It was never “fashionable” he blithely tells us, waving Joe Chamberlain aside.

But read on from there and you are in for a final surprise. Suddenly and without warning, just short of 1914 Sassoon calls a halt. From the trade wars of the early 20th century he jumps into the future. Vaulting over the first and second world wars, he takes us on a sweeping overview of pro- and anti-capitalist politics, complete with nods to Venezuela’s die-hard Chavistas, and Hyman Minsky, the prophet of the 2008 crisis. It is quirkily brilliant. But it is also a diversion. A history of gilded-age capitalism that rightly insists on the inextricable entanglement of the economy and state power, but which does not address the first world war, lapses into nostalgia. It is a puzzling end to a puzzling book.

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6 fully vaccinated people who attended an outdoor wedding caught the Delta variant, but people with Pfizer and Moderna shots survived, study says

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Six fully vaccinated people who attended an outdoor wedding in Texas in April came down with COVID-19, a new study says – a small outbreak that underscores how effective US-authorized vaccines are against even variants of the virus.Though the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna may not knock out every COVID-19 case, especially now that the more infectious Delta variant dominates across the US, they are very good at preventing death from COVID-19.

The preprint study from Baylor College of Medicine found that only one person who’d gotten an Indian-made vaccine, Covaxin, died after attending the 92-person wedding near Houston.

The wedding took place in a “large, open-air tent” before the Delta variant was circulating widely in the US. Guests were required to be fully vaccinated at the event, though that policy operated on the honor system.

The study’s authors said they suspect the Delta variant was introduced at the wedding by two people who had traveled from India and tested negative before their flight but developed symptoms in the US. All the COVID-19 patients said they’d had close encounters with those two people during the wedding, according to the study.

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5,946 Fatalities Reported Related to COVID-19 Vaccination

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(Precision Vaccinations)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed on July 7, 2021, the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) had received 5,946 reports of death among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine.

However, a review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines, says the CDC’s website.

This CDC data indicates a vaccine fatality rate of about (0.0018%) since over 331 million vaccinations have been completed in the USA since December 2020.

The U.S. FDA requires healthcare providers to report any death after a COVID-19 vaccination to VAERS, even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause. Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem.

VAERS is co-sponsored by the CDC, and the FDA, agencies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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Selected Adverse Events Reported after COVID-19 Vaccination

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What You Need to Know

  • COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.
  • Millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.
  • CDC recommends everyone 12 years and older get vaccinated as soon as possible to help protect against COVID-19 and the related, potentially severe complications that can occur.
  • CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other federal agencies are monitoring the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Adverse events described on this page have been reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)external icon.
  • VAERS accepts reports of any adverse event following any vaccination.
  • Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem.

For public awareness and in the interest of transparency, CDC is providing timely updates on the following serious adverse events of interest:

  • Anaphylaxis after COVID-19 vaccination is rare and has occurred in approximately 2 to 5 people per million vaccinated in the United StatesSevere allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, can occur after any vaccination. If this occurs, vaccination providers can effectively and immediately treat the reaction. Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines and allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis.
  • Thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) after Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen (J&J/Janssen) COVID-19 vaccination is rare. As of July 12, 2021, more than 12.8 million doses of the J&J/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine have been given in the United States. CDC and FDA identified 38 confirmed reports of people who got the J&J/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine and later developed TTS. Women younger than 50 years old especially should be aware of the rare but increased risk of this adverse event. There are other COVID-19 vaccine options available for which this risk has not been seen. Learn more about J&J/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine and TTS.
    • To date, two confirmed cases of TTS following mRNA COVID-19 vaccination (Moderna) have been reported to VAERS after more than 321 million doses of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines administered in the United States. Based on available data, there is not an increased risk for TTS after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination.
  • CDC and FDA are monitoring reports of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) in people who have received the J&J/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine. GBS is a rare disorder where the body’s immune system damages nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. Most people fully recover from GBS, but some have permanent nerve damage. After 12.8 million J&J/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine doses administered, there have been around 100 preliminary reports of GBS identified in VAERS. These cases have largely been reported about 2 weeks after vaccination and mostly in men, many 50 years and older. CDC will continue to monitor for and evaluate reports of GBS occurring after COVID-19 vaccination and will share more information as it becomes available.
  • Myocarditis and pericarditis after COVID-19 vaccination are rare. As of July 12, 2021, VAERS has received 1,047 reports of myocarditis or pericarditis among people ages 30 and younger who received a COVID-19 vaccine. Most cases have been reported after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna), particularly in male adolescents and young adults. Through follow-up, including medical record reviews, CDC and FDA have confirmed 633 reports of myocarditis or pericarditis. CDC and its partners are investigating these reports to assess whether there is a relationship to COVID-19 vaccination. Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines and myocarditis.
  • Reports of death after COVID-19 vaccination are rare. More than 334 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the United States from December 14, 2020, through July 12, 2021. During this time, VAERS received 6,079 reports of death (0.0018%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine. FDA requires healthcare providers to report any death after COVID-19 vaccination to VAERS, even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause. Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem. A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines. However, recent reports indicate a plausible causal relationship between the J&J/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine and TTS, a rare and serious adverse event—blood clots with low platelets—which has caused deaths.
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