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Cold, shivering, out on a limb

February 18, 2009

Martin Jacques, on The New Depression:

Each attempt to deal with the crisis has rapidly been consumed by an irresistible and ever-worsening reality. So it was with Northern Rock. So it was with the attempt to recapitalise the banks. And so it will be with the latest gamut of measures. The British government – like every other government – is perpetually on the back foot, constantly running to catch up. There are two reasons. First, the underlying scale of the crisis is so great and so unfamiliar – and, furthermore, often concealed within the balance sheets of the banks and other financial institutions. Second, the crisis has undermined all the ideological assumptions that have underpinned government policy and political discourse over the past 30 years. As a result, the political and business elite are flying blind. This is the mother of all postwar crises, which has barely started and remains out of control. Its end – the timing and the complexion – is unknown.

It is absolutely the case that “political and business elites” have been thrown into utter confusion by the detonation of a long-ticking economic crisis. But the confusion extends more widely than that, at least on this island: it is safe to say, at present, that not one established political force in Britain has begun to offer any credible solution to it.

Not one: certainly not New Labour, who – after a brief period dynamism late last year, wrong-footing their immediate opposition by opening the floodgates of government debt – now look simply desperate: in a vague echo of Brown’s “British jobs for British workers”, the merest whisper from any quarter that all is not well in Fantasy Island are met with cries that Britain herself is being ”run down”.

Not the Tories, who – beyond simply coasting into Number 10 some time around May 2010 – give every impression of the muddling on through in grand Old Etonian style: all they can really hope to do is keep whipping the proles, and hope the creditors don’t turn up too soon.

Not, more troublingly, from the ranks of the organised Left. Years were spent refining an analysis of capitalism that, in the broad, stressed the improbability of debt-fuelled boom continuing forever; noted the underlying weaknesses of, not just British capital, but capitalism globally; and highlighted the continuing instability of the system, precisely so that at just this moment they could be poised to offer solutions. Yet the arrival of a genuine and epoch-making economic crisis – of the properly old-fashioned kind (bank runs, fraud and larceny on a grand scale, insolvencies, mass unemployment… you know the score) – has found them largely blinking in the headlights.

The reasons for this are varied. One of them, perhaps, is the End of History: not that it has ended, but the brazen confidence and triumphalism the phrase, and the thesis, summarised. The overwhelming intellectual assault on socialism and the socialist tradition, brewing, in truth, from at least the mid-1970s that reached its apogee in the mid-1990s infected everything: even its hardiest defenders. The Left were cold, shivering, miserable creatures, stuck out in ideological limbo somewhere – the political equivalent of the Sealed Knot, faking ancient battles for entertainment, but nothing else. There is a certain sense now that to think Bad Thoughts about capitalism – about what we need to do to actually break with the remorseless logic of neoliberalism – is still a little too far-fetched: even as “neoliberal” governments across the world move to nationalise their banks. But that is precisely what the Left, internationally, needs to do: putting together a popular critique of capitalism, offering credible alternatives, and assembling the sorts of political organisation that can deliver them.

This blog is a very small attempt to move towards that.

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2 comments

  1. Not, more troublingly, from the ranks of the organised Left.

    Yes, thank you for that. I feel like my early life as a politically active human was largely spent building up to the moment when I could say: “A-ha! Told you so!” Then the moment came and the only person left to say gotcha was Paul Krugman.

    We socialists bought high and sold low, that’s our problem.


  2. You wrote that the Left needed to offer “credible” alternatives to Capitalism. However, in this context, any Socialist alternative to capitalism is bound to seem incredible. I think what we need to do is dare to offer incredible but serious alternatives.



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