On October 6 Naomi Klein (author of the 2007 best seller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism) addressed thousands of supporters of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement gathered in New York’s Zuccotti Park – re-named Liberty Park by the occupiers. Echoing her Shock Doctrine message, she told the protesters “If there’s one thing I know it’s that the 1% loves crisis.” Natural disasters and severe economic crises are embraced by advocates and practitioners of the shock doctrine as opportunities to “push through their wish-list of pro-corporate policies: privatizing education and social security, slashing social services, getting rid of the last constraints on corporate power.” In the present economic crisis, she said, “this is happening the world over.” The only thing capable of stopping it from happening, she continued, is the 99% against whom the shock doctrine is directed. “And that 99% is taking to the streets from Madison to Madrid to say ‘No. We will not pay for your crisis’.”
Naomi Klein’s message to the OWS protesters expresses perfectly the newly awakened mood of anger and defiance that is rapidly spreading like a prairie fire through US cities, across national boundaries in Europe and throughout the world. This movement is still in its infancy and it is too early to tell how it will develop and how far it will go. It is surprising that it has taken as long as it has to emerge. From time to time over the past two or three years, Letter from the UK has remarked on the absence of any significant left wing response to the crisis in Britain and elsewhere. Of course there have been exceptions. In Greece, where the cuts to the public sector have been most draconian, there is a powerful and effective working class fight-back involving mass strike action and barricading of ministerial buildings. But generally, until very recently, response to the crisis from traditional sections of the left has been conspicuous by its absence. Now, something new and exciting is happening.
From Spain, where the rate of unemployment is 21.2% (with youth unemployment at 43% and rising) the “Indignado” movement that started in Madrid earlier this year, has inspired similar outbursts of anger and indignation at the gross greed of a bloated financial elite, the 1% who wrecked the economy only to be bailed out at the expense of the 99% who were blameless for the wreck. In London an encampment of mainly young people has established itself on the space in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral after being denied access to Paternoster Square, home of the London Stock Exchange. Their banner proclaims “Capitalism is Crisis.” Like the OWS they plan to be there for the long term and they are gathering support daily. The most striking characteristic of these occupations is the diversity of their membership. Some of the more jaded commentary, from both left and right, sees this as a weakness. Those fundamentally hostile to the protesters dismiss them as incoherent, juvenile hippies, incapable of articulating their purposes beyond sweeping generalizations. Some of the more sectarian sections of the left lament the lack of any programme or clear socialist direction and probably feel somewhat aggrieved that they have failed to assert their “leadership” of the movement.
For the time being at least, such objections should be ignored. As with their precursors, the “UK Uncut” movement, the energy and activism of the protesters should be welcomed and applauded. They have tapped the deep well of anger and indignation rising amongst wide sections of the population at what is happening in society. Since 2008 the overriding mood in Britain has been one of cynicism about “politics” and contempt for most parliamentary politicians and bankers. Until the cuts started to bite this year, bringing with them rising food prices, rising unemployment and rapidly declining public services, this cynicism and discontent did not translate into support for active opposition. Now things are beginning to change. As in the United States the political establishment cannot afford to dismiss these protests. The ranting of a Russ Limbaugh who applauds the ravings of the Tea Partygoers but condemns the OWS activists as “anti-American”, has no equivalent on the right here. So far the more discreet British conservatism has remained quiet, if disdainful. But that has not been the reaction of the wider public where sympathy for the protesters is widespread and apparently growing. This is hardly surprising given the state of Britain and the wider world. Let’s consider for a moment some of the things that are causing concern and impacting painfully on the lives, not only of the working class, but also, increasingly, of what Ed Miliband has termed “the hard pressed Middle” – the middle classes. People read the newspapers or follow the news on television. They have some notion of what is happening world-wide.
The economic crisis here is severe. The “austerity programme” has failed. The economy is flatlining, unemployment has topped 2.5 million, with youth unemployment over 1 million. Inflation is presently running at over 5%. Rising food and fuel prices are biting harder by the week. It is now public knowledge that many low income working families, including many who consider themselves middle class, cannot make ends meet and are increasingly dependent on food hand-outs. Young professionals cannot afford mortgages to start buying their own homes, in a society that was supposed to have become a “property owning democracy”. Decent private rented accommodation is too expensive for even those with salaries above £35.000. For young workers and unemployed youth faced with a shrinking social housing stock, the situation is dire and the future looks hopeless. Faced with this situation the deliberations of government ministers usually give the impression that they live on a different planet.
The crisis in the Eurozone goes from bad (which is very bad) to even worse. At the time of writing (22 October) yet another of the interminable round of meetings by EU finance ministers is in progress (perhaps not the right word) to deal, yet again!, with the debt crisis. Another (final) EU summit has been scheduled for next Wednesday. They have a few days to conclude an agreement that requires them to recapitalize about 70 of Europe’s so-called systemic banks to the tune of 90 billion euros to help them withstand exposure to “debt defaults.” They also need to persuade the main banks and insurers exposed to Greek debt to take a 60% “haircut” (write off of the debt), when just a few weeks ago these same investors were balking at 20%. The big issue though is how they propose to increase the funds available to the European Finance Stability Facility (EFSF) from the present level of 400 billion euros, to 2 trillion euros. How are they going to turn one euro into five? As far as it is possible to tell, no-one seems to know. In a deep hole, the only message that gets through to them is ‘keep on digging.’ Keynes’s advice that if you want to get out of a recession you don’t impose austerity measures that increase unemployment, destroy consumer spending and close down businesses, is one that was rejected long ago by the enthusiasts for neo-liberal capitalism. They are in no mood to listen to reason now.
But, as Naomi Klein has made clear, the Hayekian/Friedmanite school of neo-liberalism still bestrides the global stage. The financial wizards who have presided over the worst crisis since the Great Depression and are now driving headlong towards the precipice, do not, to use Tony Blair’s phrase, have a reverse gear. They will use the crisis to try to implement the Shock Doctrine world-wide. It needs to be said loud and clear, that we have reached a point where we face the prospect of global disaster. Either the 1% will prevail or the 99% will stop them. Should the multi-billionaire minority of corporate predators impose their will, it will amount to a final victory for a neo-liberal capitalism that will reduce the globe to a pleasure park for the super-rich and a squalid wasteland for the rest of us. The OWS protesters and their growing army of supporters worldwide are right. They are the core of the resistance movement that will go from strength to strength. We will be belittled and dismissed as irrelevant for a time by those who are either part of, or in hock to, the 1%. But the bankruptcy of a system that is clearly collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions is now clear for all but the willfully blind to see.
The banner raised by the London occupation reads “Capitalism IS Crisis.” Before 2008 this would have resonated with only a tiny minority of committed leftists. Now it provides food for serious thought to all whose lives are adversely affected by the crisis. Prior to this crisis the term “capitalism” was rarely used in the mainstream media. It was hardly ever used by those who operated the system and whose interests it served. They talked only of “democracy” and the “free world” and the “free market” – all these terms were interchangeable. This was the only way, the best of all possible worlds. There was no alternative to it. It operated as near to perfectly as it was possible to get. As Gordon Brown constantly told us and as the financiers of the City of London nodded in approval, there would be “no more boom and bust.”
But now things have changed. The emerging global resistance is gaining ever wider support, uniting the burgeoning new movement of youthful activists with a rejuvenated labour and trade union movement. The OWS and its kindred spirits world-wide have seen through the obfuscation of the propagandists of corporate power. The financial crisis denotes the systemic break-down of global finance capitalism. The power elites in whose interests that system operates will not be able to fix it. If we are to avoid global economic catastrophe and irreversible environmental despoliation, there has to be an alternative that transfers power from the 1% to the 99%. That is, a form of social organization fit for human beings. In addressing the movement dedicated to achieving this goal, Naomi Klein concluded her address to the OWS activists with these words: “Let’s treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world. Because it is. It really is.”