After Rage against the Machine: The Search for an Alternative
The Scotsman, July 2nd 2011
The return of mass public sector strikes; British living standards experiencing their biggest fall since 1977; the escalating Greek debt crisis; the shaky future of the eurozone and European project in doubt.
These are just some of the headlines this week. All across the West governments are cutting public spending, services and benefits, and privatising and marketising what were once seen as public goods.
Many governments are enduring significant unpopularity and even questions of legitimacy. They face publics uneasy, unsure and resistant to what they are doing.
We are in crisis, but what kind of crisis is it? Are the state, public spending and entitlements out of control? Or is it all the fault of bankers and finance capitalism, the modern equivalent of Harold Wilson’s ‘gnomes of Zurich’?
The scale of the crisis goes much deeper than either of these assessments. It goes to the nature and direction of capitalism over the last three decades. This has been the age of pro-rich, pro-business, ‘trickle down’ economies, deregulation and supposed buccaneer capitalism.
After thirty years across the West and global economy the results are conclusive. Across the world it has never been a better time to be rich and privileged. Such people have grabbed a bigger slice of the economic pie, while seeing the expansion of the pie slow down, and the rest of us suffer as a consequence.
The age of managed capitalism of 1950-73 produced high rates of growth, security and rising living standards. Then came the 1970s, stagflation and the OPEC oil price shocks. The era of 1979 to today of disorganised capitalism, life after the rupture has seen lower growth rates across the world, great times for the super-rich, and lean times for those on middle and lower incomes.
As the economist Ha-Joon Chang put forward in ’23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism’ the world economy is increasingly based on false premises. He argues that thirty years of evidence show that ‘making rich people richer doesn’t make the rest of the world richer’.
Western societies have been shaped by waffle about ‘the new economy’, denigrating manufacturing and not addressing the long-term decline in investment. Instead, we have a fixation on pro-rich, pro-elite apologies, and the incantation that we live in a post-industrial knowledge economy. Tell that to the Germans or South Koreans with their tradition of ‘making things’.
Despite this there is a lack of a coherent, plausible alternative. Social democracy hit the rocks in the 1970s, and was surely buried by the Blairite-Brownite humiliation of it. But the market fundamentalists have had three decades to deliver their utopia, and only delivered salvation and satisfaction to a tiny slither of a powerful elite.
This is one reason why we are constrained in finding an alternative. The elites who have gained have articulated an age which has been called by the sociologist Colin Crouch, post-democracy. This he defines as the convergence of global corporate, media and political elites to support a vision of society which suits their self-interest and which has increasingly supplanted traditional political structures.
The outriders of such a politics can be seen across the world, New Labour, Silvio Berlusconi’s numerous platforms in Italy, the American Republicans and Democrats. The project of the European elite. Our political systems are still shaped by the memory of democracy, but the impulse is slowly withering. Our democracies are increasingly truncated, atrophied and silenced.
Mainstream politics in the UK is never about the fundamentals, but narrow nuance of difference between Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems. It isn’t surprising that none of these parties are that popular in votes or members or able to question the orthodoxies of our age.
There is it is true agitation and action all around the world. There are protests, anger and ideas. There are plenty of books on health and well-being telling us how we can be more individually and collectively happy. Then there is the psychology industry, from Martin Seligman’s ‘Authentic Happiness’ to books like ‘Nudge’ and the rise of neuro-psychology. There is even a small and welcome trend of books and research addressing inequality such as Wilkinson and Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’ and Danny Dorling’s ‘Injustice’.
What none of these books consistently tackle is two fold: economics and power. We can’t have a vision of ‘the good life’ and ‘the good society’ without talking about the nature of political economy. And we can’t reimagine democracy without addressing power and how it has across the world become more and more concentrated and held in a few hands.
How does an alternative begin to take shape? In the midst of the golden age of managed capitalism, people like Hayek and Friedman began to set out their case for fundamental, far-reaching free market transformation which eventually shaped many of the assumptions which shape today. They trod a lonely path to begin with in the 1950s and 1960s, but slowly as the post-war order hit crisis a counter-movement was sitting waiting with a coherent critique.
The post-free market radicals of tomorrow will already be with us levering away, mostly unacknowledged and unnoticed. Away from the world of Westminster and the global elites, there is a ferment of ideas emerging which are slowly pointing in a very different direction.
The counter-movement to the world of the last thirty years will not simply be a retort from the left, given that the market revolutionaries drew together mainstream right, centre and left. It will draw from the ideals of green economics, self-determination as an idea for individuals, communities and society, and Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity, which entails what we do after the structured modernity of most of the 20th century.
Such a movement needs a name. It took Hayek and Friedman several decades to find one. First they were free market economists, and then, monetarists, before eventually settling on neo-liberalism, the language of market fundamentalism.
What is needed is a philosophy which draws together economics, psychology and politics, and which challenges the encroaching hyper-individualism and marketisation of our age. That cant entail going back to a better yesterday of the capitalism of the post-war years.
Instead, there has to be a critique and counter-story which goes beyond the well-meaningness of most of the accounts of ‘the good life’ and ‘good society’. There are already across the globe, from the UK to Spain and Greece, mass movements of opposition. Now there needs to be movements for change and a different global order.