I recently attended the BISA International Political Economy Group Conference on the theme of “IPE and the New Normal. Open Conflict After the Crash” at the University of Leeds. It was a great event and was especially enlightening for me as a relative outsider as I was a sociologist at an International Political Economy conference. Particularly interesting was to listen to the concerns and debates about the direction and worth of the discipline in relation to contemporary social and political issues. Many of these were the similar to those I have heard at sociology events (“what is distinctive about our discipline?”, “are we just talking to ourselves?”) with similar proposed solutions (“greater interdisciplinarity and inclusivity”). Anyway, it was nice to know that there are similar concerns in other areas.

There were inspirational plenaries from Jacqui True and Hugo Radice and diverse papers from many other colleagues.

True’s paper showed how the violence of macro-economic austerity policies towards women (through cuts hitting services important women first and hardest around the world) has combined with the continuing devaluing of feminised care work, increases in violence against women (particularly in poorer countries) and the individualization of the success stories of women such as Sheryl Sandberg. The result is that women are often in increasingly dangerous and precarious positions while the expectations on them have grown and they are told that they have no one to blame for their failures but themselves.

Radice asserted that ecological and economic problems can only be tackled globally but increasing dominance of quantification is increasing individualism of people and states. It has been difficult to mobilise a resistance against neo-liberal capitalism, he suggested, because of the fragmentation of the working class (and therefore their decline as a political subject) and interstate power politics blocking an internationalist discourse and multilateral interventions. Ultimately, he suggested that this will require a reassessment of the relation of humanity to nature.

Scott Lavery built on Colin Crouch’s analysis of ‘privatized Keynesianism’ as a replacement for social welfare to demonstrate the enduring importance of state institutions through ‘para-state employment’ with services which are state funded but privately run. He showed that under the coalition government this ‘para state’ model has caused widening inequalities across the regions of the UK.

Emma Dowling and David Harvie discussed similar semi-privatization of public services through ‘social impact bonds’ which have effectively become a new asset class. In this new model of social provision the outcomes of public services are supposedly improved by making funding conditional on results. This has a disciplinary role in which competition is encouraged between diverse public sector workers who are made (seemingly) commensurable through the reduction of their value to calculations of risk and return.

Phoebe Moore and Andrew Robinson continued the discussion of the changing working conditions under advanced capitalism through their analysis of the use of self-tracking devices in the 3D industries (dirty, dangerous and difficult). GPS enabled devices, similar to those used to track exercise, are used to keep monitor workers and increase productivity and by co-opting people into their subjugation. They concluded that history and the philosophy of Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze suggests that qualitative, the worker and the body will resist this domination.

The theme of “The New Normal” was thoroughly interrogated by many of the speakers such as: Bob Jessop’s assertion that the “Great Financial Crisis” of 2008 was a “crisis in capitalism” not a “crisis of capitalism”; Nick Taylor’s deconstruction of the neoliberal governance of the ‘workfare industry’; Martin Upchurch’s assessment of the marketization of education through parental choice and the quantification of teachers’ performance; the neo-liberal populism which has risen since 2008 analysed by Jörg Wiegratz and Stuart Shields; the increase in political significance of entrepreneurialism discussed by Charlie Dannreuther and the normalisation and denormalization of work unpicked by Frederick Pitts.

But Radice perhaps gave the pithiest analysis when he suggested that to understand the response to 2008 we need to look to post 1968 Czechoslovakia and the “3rd world debt crisis” of the 1980s. Fundamentally, nation states stepped in to ensure that a process of re-normalization occurred and that power and capital stayed unevenly distributed.

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