Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The politics of gloss, post-gloss

If those GDP numbers don't pick up in the next quarter, it's going to be a lot more than a winter of discontent.

For almost fifteen years, growth was New Labour’s great alibi. As long as the economy kept expanding (even if the expansion was largely powered by dubious speculation and borrowing) then all boats would rise, and there would be no need to resort to divisively old-fashioned policies of redistribution. Now that growth has ground to a halt, and looks a dicey prospect for the future in general, light-touch neoliberalism is going to have a difficult time living up to its billing. Its justifications - hollow even in the good times, but I’ll get to that - begin to look as cheap and flakey as its architecture. The Coalition’s scrabble in the bins for a political discourse based on austerity nostalgia and vindictive dogwhistling shows how difficult it is write a persuasive pitch under the circumstances. Does anyone, anywhere still believe that we live under the best (or least bad) of all political systems?

It’s at times like this - when ordinary people can no longer expect to have the occasional sticking-plaster policy like tax credits thrown in their direction - that they begin to question why even the country’s party of organised labour have no plan to reduce the greatest gap between rich and poor since the period between the wars. They start to ask awkward but fundamental questions about where the wealth is, who controls its flow, and what criteria are used to decide these things. All the governing Coalition care to offer in response is to plead national togetherness and stage a lavish Royal wedding (showing, touchingly, that love can cross class boundaries, down as far as those who are mere millionaires).

Robert Peston, currently a BBC business correspondent, wrote a timely book on this general theme called ‘Who Runs Britain?’* Its writing and publication coincided almost exactly with the crash and the bailout. Peston spends the entire introduction to the book talking about his background, presumably to reassure readers that he’s making his arguments as a credible grown-up authority and not some typical loony lefty. ‘My teenage conviction that it is always in the national interest for the gap between rich and poor to be reduced was wrong,’ ‘I gradually came to see that much of what Margaret Thatcher did was necessary,’ and so on. Yet the book is generally critical of lax regulation and the maniacally blinkered short-termist mindset of those making the big decisions in the financial sector.

Peston was on television recently in a spot about China’s economy, mentioning in passing that China was responsible for almost all of the global net reduction in poverty that had occurred over the last twenty years. This doesn’t necessarily say a great deal about social justice in China - eliminating rural serfdom, perhaps, the necessary first steps to building a modern industrial economy - but it’s an arresting statistic all the same. It can hardly be denied that the West’s neoliberal policies, even before the crash, were completely unsuccessful at addressing the interests of those at the bottom of the ladder. The trickle down was marginal and irregular - sometimes enough to distract, never enough to make a real impact on the poverty figures. The story of all benefiting from growth amounted to a vague promise of jam tomorrow. Certainly there was no point at which policymakers and grandees would pause and say ‘Okay, guys, that’s more than enough wealth for us - now let’s find out how we can make it trickle down faster.’

The irrational notion that it’ll all come good, eventually, has survived the crisis. The belief held by most of the Opposition and the critical media is that the problems of the financial crisis were ones of excess, soon fixed by a few legislative tweaks and a tightening of regulation. But the crisis wasn’t an event of an exceptional nature - it was an entirely in keeping with the philosophies and practices of the financial sector, and the economic policies of successive governments. Talking about ratcheting up powers of scrutiny is a mistake on more than one level - a categorical error, obviously, as our problem is qualitative rather than quantitative. It’s also a tactical mistake, because it lets the objects of this scrutiny indulge their Randroid fantasies about their incredible talents being strangled by a cabal of resentful bureaucrats.

If the standard line of opposition is weak and counterproductive, it’s a blood-soaked revolutionary cull compared to the attitude adopted by the Coalition in power. Last week, the news broke that that the level of money coming from the City into CCHQ has doubled during Cameron’s leadership, and now makes up 50% of party funding. So, back in 2008, faced with several unpalatable choices, the last government chose probably the least objectionable - opening huge lines of public credit to reinvigorate the financial sector’s shrivelled self-confidence. The recipients of this aid showed their deep gratitude by taking their newly liquid assets and investing them with a party who might find ways to be even more intensely relaxed toward them.

One night have expected Cameron, PR-savvy as he is, to make at least a show of clamping down on the banks for some cheap political capital. In fact (assuming we can dismiss the one-off, much-downsized £2.5bn levy) they’ve carefully steered in the opposite direction. The campaigns for Tobin or Robin Hood taxes - backed by assorted Serious Figures, not just the great unwashed - have been studiously ignored*. Remuneration and bonuses are back at the pre-2007 levels. Corporation taxes are being lowered, and tax laws amended to enable ‘large financial services companies’ with operations overseas to pay less tax here. The last measure in particular has to be read as a brazen, unapologetic fuck you to the UK Uncut movement and its relatives. It’s pretty clear that the financial sector is exception to the general rule of shared austerity - ostensibly so they can apply their talents and get the economy growing again. It’s more likely they’ll drive it into a big fucking wall a few more times first, but even when the glorious day comes, all involved have been careful to make it clear that we shouldn’t expect the rewards to be shared around.

With the figleaf of collective progress long since blown away, we get to see what kind of society we’ve really built. All that three decades of neoliberal supremacy have achieved is to concentrate more wealth in fewer hands, and rearrange society so that it presents as few obstacles as possible to the lives of those fortunate individuals. Our policies have made us (on one measure, anyway) less socially progressive than a country ranked 136th in the EIU’s Democracy Index. Of all nations, it had to be China, whose much-vaunted economic success shows that there’s no necessary antagonism between a powerful State apparatus and an acceptance of free-market principles. But then it was never the existence of a large state per se that our neoliberals despised. It was just our, particular, Western state edifices, born out of the postwar social democratic compromise, that had to be painted as the enemy and ruthlessly destroyed. They were never aiming for complete deconstruction, some abstract Hayekian ideal of perfect market freedom - certain functions of the state (authoritarian ones, in particular) were not realistically going to be dispensed with.

China has been the spectre haunting industry in the West for some time - it’s in the name of ‘competing internationally’ (ie with emerging economies) that we held back wages, cut corners, decimated workforces, and embraced the just-in-time precarious approach to manufacturing. With countries like India and China now producing a supply of highly-qualified graduates, the same rhetoric of global competition has been deployed to justify the marketisation if higher education. Next, I can only presume we’ll be attempting to compete with these countries by filing away at standards of living and basic democratic rights - what use is democracy, after all, if worrying about ordinary people holds back the economy? From a certain point of view, these things are luxuries, or weaknesses. The priority given economic performance above all else exists already - many writers have observed that the Coalition rhetoric of ‘there is no alternative’ is an attempt to sidestep politics entirely. Certainly, when you’re attempting to force down a dose of IMF-style medicine - whose glorious results can be seen in Latvia, Greece, and Ireland - it helps not to have to worry about a popular mandate. Then you’re free to bend the entire resources of your nation to ensuring that the people at the top of the pyramid scheme get their returns.

To have to drop even the pretence of fidelity to the principles of liberty and democracy wouldn’t be such a terrible chore for our leaders. For some time now, the role of the Home Secretary has been to compete with his Shadow to see who can profess the most hostile stance toward immigrants. Those unrepentant souls who dare to use what’s left of the benefits system can expect to be put to work, even if it’s busywork conducted for the sole purpose of balming the perpetually wounded psyches of passing commuters. You could go on - heavy handed police tactics at demonstrations, ‘human rights’ becoming an expression most commonly followed with an ejection of saliva - but the best illustration is our foreign policy. The international reaction to events in Egypt showed us how surprisingly ambivalent democratically elected leaders can be when it comes to other people expressing the desire to choose their own representatives and take part in the workings of government. There were many reasons to cheer the ‘Glory of Tahrir’ - the infectious energy, the sheer indefatigable lust for liberation that refused to be beaten down or intimidated, was one; the explosion of the usual deflationary faux-wisdom from expert onlookers was another. One to savour above the others - and one that’ll stay with us however this revolution turns out - is that it exposed certain of our leaders (who might in private moments have considered themselves champions of global democracy) as the irrelevant, corrupt hypocrites they are.

When men like Blair and Berlusconi threw extravagant praise at their braid-chested friend Hosni Mubarrak, it was because, more than anything, they envied him. These men never really liked to think of themselves as elected public servants. Instead they were Presidents, Statesmen, reshaping not only their own parties but entire political establishments, societies, in all cases investing more power at the top. All they ever wanted was a chance, like Hosni, to demonstrate their strength, courage, and far-sighted wisdom free of pesky democratic fetters. After all, what right did impudent journalists, child-like voters, or deluded leftist dinosaurs have to question their great works? And if, as a side enterprise to their tireless efforts, they wanted to make themselves as rich as Croesius and as powerful as God, that was no concern of ours. These men never gave the impression of caring a great deal about the desires of their electorate, and Cameron (though a less effective figure) is cut from the same cloth - pushing his agenda forward on all fronts at breakneck speed, despite having failed to persuade even a majority of the public to vote against their own interests and place their trust in him.

There is a certain grim humour in watching the blithely confident Coalition struggle with reality - Gove’s humiliation on school-building, the State Department worrying that Cameron and Osborne are ‘lightweight’, the endless weary rebukes from volunteer leaders. They’re the leaders nobody would choose to handle a crisis - to echo my rhetorical question at the start of this post, does anyone believe that George Osborne is one of the top ten (hundred, thousand, ten thousand) economics brains in the country? These are the last dregs of neoliberal politics, the crew left behind to go down with the ship. The struggle will continue after they’re gone - capitalism will remain, just forced to drop its latest human mask and reveal itself. If the response to crisis across the board is to take certain measures out of the remit of democracy, it’s not so implausible that we could shift gears into some kind of authoritarian, oligarch-friendly hypercapitalism - perhaps conducted under the auspices of democracy, perhaps not. As Peston himself so delicately puts it on his BBC minisite: “Reconciling our political traditions with the imperative of making safe the globalised world will be a challenge, to put it mildly.” If we can’t articulate a more appealing future than that, we might as well pack up the tents.

  1. In fact it feels like Peston tried to redirect the book halfway through, when events caught up with him - from a fairly standard investigative journalist piece about hedge funds and high earners to a blame-throwing Cassandra act. Publishing gold!
  2. Even set at the meek, cheese-paring rate of 0.005%, Tobin would bring in 2-3bn per year, and has the added advantage of removing the incentive for some of the riskier speculative transactions. It is so unrevolutionary that Nicolas Sarkozy is an enthusiastic fan.

1 comment:

  1. Go Tobin. Doesn't it speak volumes about who runs things that no major political party has the guts to make this policy?