The Spirit of the Age
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
The spirit of that 19th century socialist is alive among the idealistic young people who have come out in protest against the turbo-charged global capitalism that has dominated the world ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters who have taken up residence at the heart of New York’s financial distract, are demonstrating against a system of despotic finance-capital: a greed-infected vampire that must suck the blood of the non-rich in order to survive. The protesters are showing their contempt for bankers, for financial speculators and for their media hirelings who continue to insist that there is no alternative. Since the Wall Street system dominates Europe, local versions of that model exist here too. (Interestingly it was the Wall Street occupiers rather than the indignados of Spain or the striking workers of Greece who had an impact in Britain, revealing once again that the real affinities of this country are Atlanticist rather than European.) The young people being pepper-sprayed by the NYPD may not have worked out what they want, but they sure as hell know what they’re against and that’s an important start.
How did we get here? Following the collapse of communism in 1991, Edmund Burke’s notion that “in all societies, consisting of different classes, certain classes must necessarily be uppermost” and that “the apostles of equality only change and pervert the natural order of things”, became the common-sense wisdom of the age. Money corrupted politics, big money corrupted absolutely. Throughout the heartlands of capital we witnessed the emergence of: Republicans and Democrats in the United States; New Labour and Tories in the vassal state of Britain; Socialists and Conservatives in France; the German coalitions, the Scandinavian centre-right and centre-left, and so on. In virtually each case the two-party system morphed into an effective national government. A new market extremism came into play. The entry of capital in the most hallowed domains of social provision was regarded as a necessary “reform”. Private finance initiatives that punished the public sector became the norm and countries (such as France and Germany) that were seen as not proceeding fast enough in the direction of the neo-liberal paradise were regularly denounced in the Economist and the Financial Times.
To question this turn, to defend the public sector, to argue in favour of state ownership of utilities, to challenge the fire-sale of public housing, was to be regarded as a “conservative” dinosaur. Everyone was now a customer, rather than a citizen: young, upwardly mobile, New Labour academics would coyly refer to those forced to read their books as “customers”, as if to say we are all capitalists now. The social and economic power elites reflected the new realities. The market became the new God, preferable to the state.
But those who swallowed this line never asked: how come this happened? In fact the state was necessary to make the transition. State intervention to shore up the market and help the rich was fine. And given that no party offered any alternatives, the citizens of North America and Europe trusted their politicians and went sleepwalking to disaster.
The politicians of the centre, intoxicated by the triumphs of capitalism, were unprepared for the Wall Street crisis of 2008. So were most citizens, hoodwinked by huge advertising campaigns offering easy loans and a tame, uncritical media, into believing that all was well. Their leaders might not be charismatic but they knew how to handle the system. Leave it all to the politicians. The price for this institutionalised apathy is now being paid. (To be fair, the Irish and the French people scented disaster in the arguments over the EU constitution that enshrined neo-liberalism at its heart, and voted against it. They were ignored.)
Yet it was obvious to many economists that Wall Street deliberately planned the housing bubble, spending billions on advertising campaigns to encourage people to take out second mortgages and increase personal debt to spend blindly on consumption. The bubble had to burst and when it did the system tottered till the state rescued the banks from total collapse. Socialism for the rich. As the crisis spread to Europe, the single market and competition rules were flushed down the toilet as the EU mounted a rescue operation. The disciplines of the market were now conveniently forgotten. The extreme right is small. The extreme left barely exists. It is the extreme centre that dominates political and social life.
As some countries collapsed (Iceland, Ireland, Greece) and others (Portugal, Spain, Italy) stared into the abyss, the EU (in reality the BU, a Bankers Union) stepped in to impose austerity and to save the German, French and British banking systems. The tensions between the market and democratic accountability could no longer be masked. The Greek elite was blackmailed into total submission and the austerity measures being thrust down the throats of the citizenry have brought the country to the brink of revolution. Greece is the weakest link in the chain of European capitalism, its democracy long submerged beneath the waves of capitalism in crisis. General strikes and creative protests have made the task of the centre extremists very difficult. Watching recent images from Athens, where the police have used force to prevent 10s of thousands of citizens entering parliament, one feels that the rulers of the country might not be able to rule in the same old way for too long.
Earlier this year in Thessaloniki, where I was addressing a literary festival, the main concerns of the audience were political and economic rather than literary. Was there an alternative? What should be done? Default immediately, I replied. Quit the euro zone, re-introduce the drachma, institute social and economic planning on local, regional and national levels, involve the people in discussions on how to stabilise the country but not at the expense of the poor. The rich should be made to disgorge the money (by special taxation) accumulated by dodgy means over the last decade. But the visionless politicians at the heart of the system are far removed from any such ideas. Many are on the payroll of the small number of people who own and control the economic resources of a country.
The debt-ridden United States, under Obama (a president who for all practical purposes has continued the policies of his predecessor), has seen the emergence of a new movement of protest spreading to all the large cities. The energy of the young occupiers is admirable. Spring had absconded from the heart of political America for far too long. The frozen winters of the Reagan and Bush years didn’t melt with Clinton or Obama: hollow men who rule over a hollow system where money overpowers all and the much-maligned state is used mainly to preserve the financial status quo and fund the wars of the 21st century.
The fog of confusion has finally lifted and people are searching for alternatives, but without political parties since virtually all of these have been found wanting. The occupations currently being staged in New York, London, Glasgow and elsewhere, are very different from protests in the past. These are actions being mounted in times of growing unemployment and where the future looks grim. A majority of young people – hysterical protestation to the contrary notwithstanding – will not get a higher education unless they conjure up huge amounts of money and will soon, no doubt, be confronted with a two-tier health system. Capitalist democracy today presupposes a fundamental agreement between the main parties represented in Parliament so that their bickering, limited by their moderation, becomes utterly insignificant. In other words, citizens can no longer determine who (and how) controls a country’s wealth – wealth that has largely been created by the citizens themselves.
If crucial questions such as the allocation of resources, the social welfare provisions, the distribution of wealth are no longer the subject of real debates inside representative assemblies, why the surprise at the alienation of the young from mainstream politics or the huge disappointment with Obama and his global mimics? It is this that is forcing people out into the streets of more than 90 cities. The politicians refused to accept that the crisis of 2008 was related to the neo-liberal policies they had been pursuing since the 1980s. They assumed they could get away with carrying on as if nothing had happened, but the movements from below have challenged this assumption. The occupations and street protests against capitalism are in some ways analogous to the peasant Jacqueries (revolts) of preceding centuries. Unacceptable conditions lead to uprisings, which are then usually crushed or subside of their own accord. What is important is that they are often harbingers of what is yet to come if conditions remain the same. No movement can survive unless it creates a permanent democratic structure to maintain political continuity. The greater the popular support for any such movement the greater the need for some form of organisation.
The model South American rebellions against neo-liberalism and its global institutions are telling in this regard. Huge and successful struggles against the IMF in Venezuela, against water privatisation in Bolivia, and against electricity privatisation in Peru, created the basis for a new politics that triumphed at the polls in the former two countries as well as in Ecuador and Paraguay. Once elected, the new governments began to implement the promised social and economic reforms with varying degrees of success. The advice proffered to the Labour Party in Britain in 1958 by Professor HD Dickinson in the New Statesman was rejected by Labour but accepted by the Bolivarian leaders in Venezuela some 40 years later:
“If the welfare state is to survive, the state must find a source of income, of its own, a source to which it has a claim prior to that of … a profits-receiver. The only source that I can see is that of productive property. The state must come in some way or another, to OPEN ITALS own CLOSE ITALS a very large chunk of the land and capital of the country. This may not be a popular policy: but, unless it is pursued, the policy of improved social services, which is a popular one, will become impossible. You cannot for long socialise the means of consumption unless you first socialise the means of production.”
The rulers of the world will see in these words little more than an expression of utopianism, but they would be wrong. For these are the structural reforms that are really needed, not those being pushed by the isolated Pasok leadership in Athens. Down that road lie further deprivation, more unemployment and social disaster. What is needed is a complete turnaround preceded by a public admission that the Wall Street system could not and did not work and has to be abandoned. Its British followers, like all converts, were more ruthless and coldblooded in their acceptance of the market as the only arbiter, backed by a neo-liberal state machine. To continue on this path will require new mechanisms of domination that will leave democracy as little more than an empty shell. The occupiers are instinctively aware of this, which is why they are where they are today. The same cannot be said for the extremist politicians of the centre.
I am full of admiration for all the young people occupying squares and streets in different parts of the globe. They are challenging our rulers with humour, brio and panache. But the hard-faced bankers and politicians who dominate the world will not be easily displaced. A decade of struggle and organisation is needed to win a few victories. Why not unite everyone we can behind a charter of demands – a “grand remonstrance” to the parliament that represents the interests of the rich – and march with a million or more to deliver the remonstrance in person next autumn. The law (imposed after the Restoration of 1666) bans tumultuous demonstrations outside Parliament, but we can interpret “tumultuous” just as well as any lawyer.
TARIQ ALI’s latest book The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad’ is published by Verso.
Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch
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