All entries for January 2008

January 31, 2008

The Future of Capitalism

Addressing Nicolas Sarkozy’s Gaullist rally recently, Tony Blair called time on the notions of left and right. In Blair’s view, politics, an art defined by division and argument, is to be replaced by a dash for the amorphous centre, represented by ‘the future or the past…strength or weakness’. That he had the gall to declare as much in France, the country that invented left and right in 1789, only compounded this original error. Nye Bevan, the great founder of the NHS currently celebrating its 60th birthday, surely had it right when he argued we know what happens to those who stand in the middle of the road. They get run down.

Yet Blair’s remarks were indicative of a profound shift in the scope of political argument. Where once socialists and social democrats heralded texts such as Lenin’s The State and Revolution, or Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, which pointed towards the transcendence of capitalism, they are now drawn to those that dramatically detail the destructive power of the boundless free-market. Strikingly modern in their style and stark in their analysis, such works are also characterised by their penchant for neologism, ‘turbo-capitalism’, ‘hyper-capitalism’, ‘disaster-capitalism’, or in the case of Oliver James’s The Selfish Capitalist- Origins of Affluenza, wry pun. Far from tumbling into the early grave that Karl Marx claimed it was digging, capitalism has proven adept at officiating over the successive funerals of its ideological rivals.

The best of the bunch has been Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, the work that originated the aforementioned ‘disaster capitalism’. It centres on the phenomena of societies traumatised by disaster, both natural and man-made, being seized upon by governments and companies to further market ends unachievable under normal circumstances. Her case is most compelling in the cases of post-Katrina New Orleans (privatisation of the education system), post-tsunami Sri Lanka (business’s appropriation of the coastline), and Iraq (15 per cent flat tax and unrestricted free trade). With citizens preoccupied with day-to-day survival, the usual resistant forces are weakened for just long enough. As Klein sardonically remarks, “some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas.”

Ambitious to a fault, The Shock Doctrine comes undone when it attempts to integrate post-Tiananmen China, where the market actually entered a prolonged period of hibernation, and post-Falklands Britain, where Thatcher’s appeal to a residual jingoism had little concrete effect on an economic revolution already unleashed. Amid this relentlessly melancholic landscape the final chapter ‘Shock Wears Off: The Rise of People’s Reconstruction’ can’t help but feel tacked on, and one has the sense of both people and author running to stand still. Implicitly, Klein calls for a return to the consensual Keynesianism of the Golden Age, but the route-map there is left to chance.

However, given the durability of the unhinged free market, is powerful critique twinned with improvised and sporadic resistance the best we can hope for? I don’t mean to sound unduly pessimistic; contrary to New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman’s latest, globalisation has not rendered the world flat and governments, as the relatively egalitarian Nordic states have demonstrated, retain extensive room for social-democratic manoeuvre. Persistent talk of a neoliberal ‘race to the bottom’ is designed to grant the right the same aura of inevitability that the left once traded on. Yet too often the centre-left portray any retention or even advance as only achieved in the teeth of all-consuming globalisation. A European social democratic revival could at least begin by acknowledging that globalisation imposes few genuine constraints, thus ending the irrational paranoia that leaves citizens bewildered and the prejudices of the right confirmed. Italy, where the crooked narcissist Silvio Berlusconi now seems likely to return to government, is a desperate example of this failure.

But what of the wider international level that Klein focuses on? With economists now more likely to differ on the severity than the probability of global economic decline, capitalism, warts and all, will be under the spotlight once more. With its inherent tendency to monopoly, to maldistribute wealth and to market failure all in tact, capitalism may have jettisoned its competitors but it has not, and cannot, cast aside these rogue characteristics.

These persistent faults at least provide openings but harnessing them proves a more weighty task. Some hail the so-called ‘pink tide’ of leftish Latin American governments as the bright spot in this regard. Governments in Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador have ensured that the poor majority can no longer be sidelined as passive spectators and have brought about a long overdue reckoning with bloated elites. But restricted by regional circumstance and over-dependent on charismatic individuals and resource populism, they fail to offer a globally transferable model.

Others alight upon China’s Market Leninism as a vital counterbalance to US hegemony. As Pinochet’s Chile demonstrated, democracy is neither a necessary precondition for, nor an inevitable consequence of, capitalist development but the defects that China is visibly tainted by are such that a political implosion cannot be ruled out. The informational difficulties and lack of accountability that flow from the absence of a free media and an independent judiciary are inherently defective and
can prove decisive.

It was vital, therefore, that after his shamefully sycophantic visit to the Chinese government, Gordon Brown renewed the UK pledge to campaign for a security council seat for India, the world’s largest liberal democracy and one equipped with an admirably secular system. In the form of the governing Congress party there remains a serviceable, if diminished, centre-left tradition and the outlines of a more sustainable and equitable rise.

In some ways it is symptomatic of the narrowing of economic horizons that the major capitalist power should find itself at war with a jihadist foe that, excepting opportunistic propaganda, has absolutely nothing to say on economics. First hubris and then fear have marked the left’s relationship with capitalism over the last fifty years, a cool dose of scepticism and an affirmation of human agency are the necessary preliminaries to engagement in this tattered arena.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 29/01/08

January 15, 2008

A great President who will never be: John Edwards

One of the most visible indicators of George Bush’s disastrous presidency has been a dramatic rise in global anti-US sentiment. In western Europe, (the east remains more amenable largely owing to memories of the Soviet yoke), French anti-Americanism was once seen as sui generis but over time this view has become less and less tenable. Eight years ago, 83 per cent of British citizens had a favourable view of the US, by last year this had fallen to 51 per cent. Though much of this can be put down to the calamitous invasion of Iraq, it also reflects a view of America as a corporate playground; a land dedicated to vulgar self-gratification while 47 million Americans lack health insurance and Democrat and Republican alike genuflect to big business. Its dismaying therefore, that the one presidential candidate who has said as much has been crowded out by the razzmatazz of Barack Obama and the stoicism (now with added tears) of Hillary Clinton.

“The system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken.” Not the words of a Noam Chomsky op-ed, but those of John Edwards, running mate in 2004 to the lacklustre John Kerry and a challenger for the Democratic nomination. Edwards wasn’t simply playing to the leftist gallery on this occasion. Radicalised by the 2004 defeat, the dysfunctions and social fractures that flow from overweening corporate power have been the defining theme of his campaign. As one Edwards ad put it, “We can say as long as we get Democrats in, everything’s gonna be ok. It’s a lie- do you really believe if we replace a crowd of corporate Republicans with a crowd of corporate Democrats that anything meaningful’s gonna change?”

Nor has Edwards ducked funding issues, promising to break a Democratic taboo-maintained since Walter Mondale’s 1984 run-on raising taxes. His emphasis on tackling inequality has helped bind together a cross-class coalition of progressive liberals, farmers and blue-collar unionised workers. And given that the Democrats have run rather too many Massachusetts liberals in the past, Edwards’ Southern roots are all to the good. After coming home a distant third in New Hampshire, the former North Carolina Senator won’t be elected President but the reasons why do much to affirm his essential message.

With a past as both a robust anti-poverty campaigner and as a well remunerated personal injury lawyer, he has necessarily fallen foul of the right-wing cry of ‘hypocrite!’, with opponents homing in on his $6 million home and his $400 haircut. I think we can all agree that, yes, $400 is rather too much to spend on a rug-rethink, but Edwards wouldn’t begrudge others the same indulgence, nor the appropriate taxation that follows. Where’s the hypocrisy? In any case, under this perverse logic reactionaries like the vile Ann Coulter, who among other things has labelled Edwards a ‘faggot’ and claimed he ‘enjoyed’ the road death of his teenage son, are hypocrites should they ever donate to charity.

Instead, the reality of Edwards’ defeat is that despite getting through more shoe leather than any other candidate, by taking aim at the stranglehold of big money on both parties, he has been left trailing Obama and Clinton in the financial stakes. Despite being just as electable as either, with voters ranking him further ahead of the Republican field when show clips of all candidates, this disparity in resources has proved decisive.

Nor is this just a technical issue; greater freedom from corporate interests has allowed Edwards the space to develop the most progressive policies of any candidate. Moreover, the corollary has held; Obama’s and Clinton’s policies have been visibly tainted by their corporate links.

The failure of Edwards’ campaign to receive the attention it deserves has robbed many of an illuminating vantage point on US politics. As Michael Moore’s Sicko devastatingly documented, the vested interests of the health insurance firms and drug companies, twinned with campaign contributions to this end, have blocked the development of an adequate health system. Clinton has largely matched Edwards’ health care plan, but the suspicion remains that as the second-largest Senate recipient of health-industry contributions, she will be forced to capitulate in practice.

By contrast, Edwards has recognised that euphemism about, or compromise with, corporate forces is neither possible nor desirable. As he wryly notes, “The lesson Senator Clinton seems to have learned from her experience with health care is, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ I learned a very different lesson from decades of fighting powerful interests—you can never join ‘em, you just have to beat ‘em.” Moreover, Edwards’ plan contains an inbuilt reciprocity; if a universal healthcare plan has not been passed by mid 2009, care for the President, Congress and political appointees will be cut off.

Most of all, he has grasped that clearing out the Aegean stables of corporate excess is a necessary preliminary to policy progress on issues from climate change to foreign policy. In 2005 State Department papers thanked ExxonMobil for the company’s “active involvement” in determining climate change policy and briefing papers encouraged acceptable alternatives to Kyoto to be formed in tandem with the company and others. Naomi Klein’s mordant The Shock Doctrine has most recently documented the extent to which corporate force drove the neoliberal order imposed on Iraq under former US viceroy Paul Bremer.

Edwards isn’t without fault; I can’t forgive his rather saccharine piety, “I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering”, a defect shared by his Democratic rivals. This is after all a religion that inaugurated the concept of eternal punishment long before Guantanamo Bay, or anything like it, came on the scene. His campaign hasn’t devoted enough attention to the consistent curtailment of civil liberties by the Bush administration, and his vote in favour of the Patriot Act is a stain on his record. But he still offered the Democrats their most progressive opportunity for decades.

The failure of John Edwards says much about the preference of American liberals for the fuzzy bed of identity-politics-a refuge for the sinister and mediocre-rather than principled civic liberalism. Yet Edwards’ failure also holds uncomfortable truths for the European left. The lack of interest in his campaign suggests at least some have become so disillusioned with US politics that they are unable to recognise a candidate who stands against the very roots of this disillusion. This mixture of complacency and fatalism must change-and soon.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 15/01/08

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