Commenting on British elections in the late nineteenth century, Frederick Engels remarked that British voters go to the polls every four or five years to decide which section of the ruling class will continue to exploit them. In similar vein, Dutch anthropologist Joris Luyendijk, writing about the City of London last week (15.09.11), says that “in some countries democracy is beginning to look like the system by which electorates decide which politician gets to implement what the markets dictate.” Plus ca change. The last Letter from the UK (09.11) noted the absence in Britain and throughout most of Europe of any effective opposition on the left to the harsh austerity measures that in country after country are impacting so disastrously on the lives of working people. Part of the explanation for this, it was argued, had to do with the legacy of Stalinism. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the international communist movement, the resurgent right was able to assert that socialism = totalitarian tyranny, and that there was not and could never be any socialist alternative to “free-market” capitalism, that did not replace democracy with dictatorship. The neo-liberal onslaught was directed not only against the defunct Soviet bloc but against the whole social-democratic heritage. Marxism and every variant of socialism were declared bankrupt. Nationalization, mixed economies and Keynesian economic theory and practice were lumped together and damned as statist constraints on the “free market” and on human freedom itself.
It is extraordinary, particularly after the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent manifest failure of the remedies that were supposed to stimulate economic recovery that the neo-liberal enterprise is still on the road. Can it really be that all our futures are to be shaped by the operation of this threadbare and discredited ideology? Is there really no alternative to a profoundly unequal, conflict-ridden world lurching from crisis to ever more intractable crises? It is becoming daily more evident that this is the road to economic and environmental ruin. But, sadly, it seems that for all its self-evident bankruptcy, neo-liberalism remains ideologically hegemonic. This is the opinion of British cultural critic Stuart Hall. If so, it looks like an example of an ideology that retains its mystique for a ruling class and its media-minions, despite the fact that it is no longer able to guarantee the future survival of the economic system it is supposed to advance.
In Britain at the moment it seems that in spite of the grim prospects their policies have imposed, the position of the Con-Dem coalition remains fairly secure. The deficit-cutting austerity measures are now beginning to bite; there is no sign of economic recovery; unemployment has topped 2.5 million for the first time in two years (a long predicted outcome, which the prime minister finds “disappointing”, of severe cuts to the public sector), and youth unemployment has reached almost 1 million. There have been serious riots in the streets by thousands of disinherited young people deprived of jobs and hope. Decline in purchasing power and in living standards has been steeper than any experienced for eighty years. Social inequality has reached levels not seen since Dickensian times. In spite of this the government ploughs on regardless, sticking dogmatically to its austerity program, without a “plan B”. Of course, for the wealthier and wealthiest sections of society there has been no recession at all. Those making over £150.000 a year may grumble about the 50% tax rate on their incomes – still reluctantly retained by the government – but their discomfort is not such as to seriously affect their style of life.
For the pessimistically inclined, there seems a lot to be pessimistic about. In spite of everything there are grounds for optimism, but optimism must be grounded in realism if it is not to be mere wishful thinking. That there will be no easy way out of this crisis – which is at root a systemic crisis of global finance capitalism – is obvious. But a way out must be found.
One weakness of much, including some of the more sensible, commentary on the ongoing financial crisis is a tendency to treat it primarily, or solely, from the standpoint of the governing elites involved. For example, for the past week or so there has been a growing sense of alarm about the prospect of a Greek default on its debt and the impact this will have on the Euro-zone and possibly on the survival of the EU itself. Commentators opine solemnly about whether “the Greeks” will be able to avoid a default; whether they will be sufficiently robust in imposing the further severe austerity measures and privatization necessary to persuade “the markets” and their EU paymasters of their seriousness. “The Greeks” referred to are the Greek government and the elites, who will not bear the burden of mass impoverishment that has fallen on the millions. The plight of the Greek working people is either not considered at all or dismissed as an irritating factor that should not be allowed to get in the way of “doing the right thing”. Whatever unimaginable pain has to be endured by those who were not responsible for causing the crisis, that’s just too bad; it has to be borne.
The same goes for the millions who are suffering from the “deficit-cutting” austerity measures in Ireland, in Spain and Portugal and who will soon be suffering in Italy and France. To the rulers of these countries, supposedly proud of their democracies, it is perfectly acceptable to wipe away at a stroke the rights and livelihoods of the workers, to slash their wages and pensions, to relegate their youth to the scrapheap before they have had a chance to work. The crisis brought on by the systemic failure of casino capitalism must be solved at the expense of millions of working people who were not responsible for its failure. If they protest and organize to resist the erosion of their livelihoods, to protect their pensions and to fight to retain their jobs by taking industrial action, they are accused of “holding the country to ransom” and “acting against the public interest”. All those who take such actions are, it seems, no longer members of “the public.”
In Britain, the Labour Party opposition in parliament has been lily-livered in its response to the Con-Dem government’s assault on the public sector. In the absence of any well-organized mass party of the left, a great deal of hope rests on the trade union movement. And, to their credit the main public sector unions have signed up to a program of industrial action against the cuts, with a coordinated strike on 30 November and expressions of support for civil disobedience. Yet Ed Miliband has refused to support such actions. He condemned the one day strike by teachers and civil servants in June. Although there are welcome signs that he has moved to dissociate himself from the disastrous legacy of New Labour, there is no sign that he intends to support extra-parliamentary action against the government. If he were to do so it would be seen as a decisive break with the Blairite past and it is likely that he would have widespread public support. With or without Miliband and the parliamentary party, if there is to be effective and sustained opposition to the government’s cuts, a broadly based popular movement must and can be built.
Another respect in which much of the commentary in the mainstream media in Britain fails to come to terms with the seriousness of the ongoing crisis, is the apparent inability to grasp its global implications. For example, in this country there is a certain smugness about being outside the Euro-zone, as though somehow this will shield British banks from the impact of a Greek default because they are not as exposed to Greek debt. But the inter-connectedness of British and other European and US banks which will suffer as a result of a Greek default means that British banks will also be exposed. Likewise, the deepening debt crisis in other Euro-zone countries will result in the drying up of Britain’s main export market, putting the final nail in the coffin of the Con Dem government’s elusive economic recovery. The fact that US Treasury secretary Geithner is due to attend the emergency meeting of EU finance ministers in Wroclaw, Poland, this week, is a pretty clear indication that the seriousness of the Euro crisis has not been lost on the Obama administration. This is the biggest crisis in the history of the European Union and no-one has any idea about how it is going to end. If the European banking system goes down as a result of the Greek debt crisis, Obama’s recovery program is finished too and the US will be plunged back into recession.
And that’s just looking at the financial/economic crisis. The US and the UK are still up to their necks in Afghanistan, a war which has cost billions of dollars, countless lives and is clearly lost. The Anglo-French-US intervention in Libya which amounts to a Nato-led revolution for secure oil revenues, has all the hallmarks of a fiasco. The civil war looks like continuing for some time and even if it doesn’t, the motley conglomerate of tribal, sectarian and Islamist militias constituting the NTC is already in considerable disarray and doesn’t look like the basis of a stable government.
It’s still too early to guess the outcome, but the Arab awakening has already thrown up some interesting prospects for the Middle East. The flowering of democratic forms of expression and the mass participation of its citizens has focused attention on Egypt. The emergence of a likely new accord between Turkey and Egypt at Israel’s expense, and the forthcoming vote in the UN General Assembly on a Palestinian state, is likely to alter the whole landscape of the Middle East and put increasing pressure on Israel to reach a just and long-lasting agreement with the Palestinians. In South Africa, pressure is growing on the ANC government to jettison the neo-liberal shock program adopted post-apartheid at the behest of the multi-nationals in place of the promised Freedom Charter. This was a betrayal of everything the movement had fought for and resulted in the continuation of economic apartheid to the present day. Now there is a demand to return to the Freedom Charter with a program of large-scale nationalization.
These are just a few signs of a growing restlessness throughout the world. It is to be hoped that such resistance to the depredations of neo-liberal shock doctrine will continue to grow and, before it is too late, help to achieve a future more conducive to human development.