The idea of an informal economy was born at the moment when the post-war era of developmental states was drawing to a close. The 1970s were a watershed between three decades of state management of the economy and the free market decades of one-world capitalism that ended with the financial crisis of 2008. It seems now that the economy has escaped from all attempts to make it publicly accountable. What are the forms of state that can regulate a world of money that is now essentially lawless? The informal economy started off forty years ago as a way of talking about the Third World urban poor living in the cracks of a rule system that could not reach down to their level. Now the rule system itself is in question. Everyone ignores the rules, especially the people at the top – the politicians and bureaucrats, the corporations, the banks – and they routinely escape being held responsible for their illegal actions. Privatization of public interests is probably universal, but what is new about neoliberalism is that, whereas the alliance between money and power used to be hidden, now it is celebrated as a virtue, wrapped up in liberal ideology.
The informal economy seems to have taken over the world, while cloaking itself in the rhetoric of free markets. We are witnessing the world-historic collapse of the twentieth-century attempt to impose national controls on the economy. Inevitably, when witnessing this collapse, we dream of restoring the era of social democracy, of Stalinism and of developmental states. The rules operated then with some degree of success. This nostalgia for the heyday of what I call “national capitalism” will not serve us well today. We need to analyse the contemporary world economic crisis at a number of levels. Above all, we should acknowledge that the core problem is not narrowly economic, but one of political failure, both national and international. Money and markets have escaped from public control and cannot be put back in that straitjacket. The question then concerns what democratically accountable structures might be capable of regulating the world economy and under what social conditions? I will try to answer that question by reflecting initially on the history of a concept with which I have been closely associated.
Before the First World War no-one believed that the state, a hangover from pre-industrial society, could manage the turbulence of urban commerce. Industrial capitalists and the military landlord class formed an alliance in the 1860s and afterwards to keep in check the proliferating working class spawned by the machine revolution. Germany and Japan took cooperation between these classes within new state structures to an unprecedented level. But the Great War revealed hitherto unimagined government powers: to raise and kill off huge armies, organize industrial production, control market prices and monopolize propaganda. After the war, the issue was which kind of state – welfare democracy, fascist, communist – would win the race to organize world society. The whole period, 1914-1945, was a nightmare: two world wars, the Great Depression, a succession of ugly conflicts such as the Spanish civil war, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Italian attack on Abyssinia. Writing just before the end of all this, Karl Polanyi blamed it all on the nineteenth-century experiment to make society conform to market principles.
No wonder then that, in the late 1940s, the world turned to post-war governments of various kinds to build an alternative system. Their mission, for the first and only time in world history, was to reduce the gap between rich and poor, to increase the purchasing power of working people and to expand public services. The European empires were dismantled, beginning in Asia; a new world order was inaugurated under US hegemony, implementing the accords of Bretton Woods; the United Nations was formed and “development” – a post-colonial compact between rich and poor nations — was the order of the day. All of this took large amounts of state intervention. The post-war boom began to come unstuck around 1970. By the end of that decade, neoliberal conservatives were installed in power throughout the West. Their slogan was the free market and in the 1980s, with the active support of the IMF and World Bank, they set about dismantling state restrictions on the international flow of money in the name of “structural adjustment”, at first in the developing countries. This was the context in which the “informal economy” emerged, not only as a description of the Third World urban poor, but as a universal feature of modern economies.