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Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The World in a Mess?


Dealing with depression, as I am at the moment, one can question how much the way one perceives the wider world is influenced by the basic note of melancholy which overshadows one’s personal self-perception. When hope and joy become categories of intellectual certainty rather than lived experience their ability to colour the way we see things is weakened. This is something I feel I should take into account when I attempt to comment on the wider world, on events and trends beyond my own little world of direct experience.

Moreover, given my training as an historian, I am well aware of a fundamental human tendency to see the times in which one finds oneself as hopelessly corrupt and degenerate in comparison to the “good old days;” usually the times of one’s innocent youth when the sap was rising strongly and one was invulnerable and immortal in a world which was opening itself in a wonderful cornucopia of love, ideas, passions and possibilities.

And yet, even taking all this into account, I cannot discount my feeling that our world – particularly the western culture and society into which I was born and in which I have always lived – is in a bad way. I am not alone in this. In a comment on my last post, Susan said: “I'm depressed much of the time but I've come to see it as a natural byproduct of the unfairness we're expected to swallow without complaint every day. If instead of protesting at government buildings about particular wars, cutbacks, and financial improprieties, millions of people just gathered because they're bummed out, that would be at last a common truth.” Neil also commented: “I suspect depression is sometimes the strain of the struggle to retain sanity in a mad world.”

Our world is complex and one of the major problems it suffers from is a surfeit of idiots offering easy simplistic answers for the problems bedevilling it; one need only to look at the circus of potential candidates vying for the Republican nomination for next year’s presidential race in the USA. But sometimes it can help to look at history in broad sweeps, to see the movement of great waves, the birth, growth and death of paradigms which transcend borders and develop over decades.

The Second World War was a deeply traumatic experience for the generation around the world which experienced it, fought it and made the decisions which led to its ultimate conclusion. The new world order which the victors instituted contained many flaws, among them the acceptance of the division of the world between two rival systems. But one of the major motivations driving the western powers, under US leadership, was to try to create a system in which peace and economic prosperity would reinforce each other, within a democratic, free-market context. The United Nations, the Bretton Woods system, the Marshall Plan, the founding of the various organisations which evolved into the European Union and the roll-back of colonialism are all examples of impulses resulting from the experience of the war and the determination that the conditions which led to its outbreak should not be allowed to repeat themselves.

A second motivation for ordering (western) society following the war was the conceptual competition with Marxist and Soviet ideology. The promise the Marxist model offered for the masses was that its analysis and organisation of society were logically preferable for most people, as well as being historically inevitable. This provided a concrete incentive for those in power in the so-called “free world” to show that this was not the case; to demonstrate in practice that the Marxist claim that capitalism led to the exploitation, impoverishment and imprisonment in misery of the mass of ordinary people was untrue and that the free-market model led to increased prosperity and contentment for all – without the limitations on individual freedom which the centrally-planned, collective communist systems imposed.

Systems are always dynamic and change is unavoidable. But the eighties saw two major developments which led to a hollowing out of the post-war consensus. The first of these was the growing influence of a group of economic thinkers who rejected the Keynesian-inspired foundations of the prevailing economic order, particularly Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. The enthusiasm with which their ideas were taken up by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan dovetailed into a very different view of the individual and society, in which the individual was seen as completely paramount, with society being only the coincidental forum within which individuals interacted. Mrs Thatcher said in 1987, “They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

The result of this was to push any idea of the greater good firmly into the background, as well as to denigrate any thinking which inclined in the direction that specific economic policy could be used to forward particular societal goals. Markets were the context within which all human interaction took place. Any attempt to control and regulate them would only have negative consequences; left to themselves, markets were automatically self-regulating.

The second development which occurred was, of course, the collapse of the Soviet system and empire at the end of the decade. The competition between the two systems had been resolved; capitalism won, communism lost and disappeared (with a few paltry, stunted exceptions like Cuba and North Korea) into the midden heap of history.

And with it disappeared a continual, effective corrective to the extremes of capitalism. For as long as the socialist alternative existed, the societies of the west had an incentive to show that they were capable of providing a decent life for all their citizens without the totalitarianism and ideological control which guaranteed social security within the communist system entailed. Too much existential insecurity in western societies would lead to a growth of popularity of extreme leftist thinking among the masses and increasing attractiveness of the alternative on the other side of the Iron Curtain. So, particularly in Western Europe, which was the front line in the ideological struggle known as the Cold War, the social market system had developed, with continual efforts to ensure employment for the great majority of the population, universal access to relatively good quality education, public health care, decent, affordable housing, social welfare, pensions and enough disposable income to ensure moderately high rates of general consumption.

The fundamental changes I have sketched here did not become immediately apparent. The liberation of the markets from their fetters initially gave rise to increased growth, a growth fuelled by globalisation and the opening of new markets and opportunities, above all, for reduced costs through the relocation of labour-intensive production processes in areas of the world where wage and ancillary (e.g. environmental controls) costs, as well as taxation were lower, a development aided by the increased ease with which capital could be transferred. Though Reagan’s Republicans and Thatcher’s Conservatives had been replaced by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s New Labour, deregulation continued. For as long as the “peace dividend” could be enjoyed, the negative consequences of unfettered so-called free-market capitalism were disguised.

Now that the crash has inevitably come, the results are becoming clear. While the old paradigm of democratic participation, of empowerment in shaping our societies, has continued to have lip-service paid to it, we are discovering that it has become meaningless. The whole post-Cold War system of unregulated global markets could only half-way function through rapid growth, some of it real (if frequently based on exploitative, inhuman, commercial corporate neo-colonialism) but even more of it the artificial inflation of all sorts of virtual bubbles, so often masquerading under the name of financial “products” and “services.”

The price has been frighteningly high. Western countries have priced themselves out of global markets for most simpler labour tasks, thus giving rise to growing under-classes of those lacking the necessary social and intellectual skills and networks to make their own way and forge their own dignity and values in the societies in which they find themselves. Here are the true roots of the violence and destruction which have erupted in the Parisian suburbs and London in the past years. Identification with wider societal values and concepts such as the common good or service of others have given way to a general ethos of social Darwinism and individual selfishness. After all, as Mrs Thatcher said, there is no such thing as society. So why should someone who does not have the purchasing power hesitate to loot a shop for a new TV, a games console or a new pair of Nikes (stitched together by a Chinese labourer earning two dollars a day) if the opportunity presents itself? After all, they have been bombarded all their lives with the message that these are the things they must possess in order to be happy. And that this happiness is their right, as long as they are strong enough to get it. They don’t see themselves getting it any other way.

Meanwhile, we are also becoming aware that we have mortgaged our say in what happens, in our futures and those of our children to out-of-control markets, driven more and more by software programmes written by people who didn’t understand the consequences of their programming apart from maximising profits in every situation; rising markets, falling markets, swing markets. That such virtual gambling has serious consequences in the real world doesn’t matter, for ethical responsibility – insofar as it exists at all – is defined solely with respect to maximising profits for share- and bond-holders.

To those with enough money and power it doesn’t really matter anyway. No matter what happens, they remain on the winning side. And, in handing over control of the future to the corporations, to the banks and the rating agencies, we have unwittingly sold out our democracies to the representatives of that small minority who possess most of the wealth, nationally and globally.

That is the real lesson of what happened in the wake of the crash of 2008; having seriously damaged the real world economy through their irresponsible hubris, the financial institutions – as representatives of that small rich elite – demanded and got their losses equalised and more from the ordinary taxpayers (for the rich themselves pay little or no taxes) of the countries whose economies they had wrecked. Our elected representatives failed to face them down. More, the control the rich elite exercises over much of the media, and thus their ability to manipulate public opinion, is so overwhelming that they have persuaded large amounts of the little people in the USA (through their Tea Party instrument) to protest against tax increases for the rich.

If we don’t find some way to change all this, I see the future as being very bleak for most of us. But, despite being personally down at the moment, there is still a part of me which refuses to despair. When Pandora opened the box in the legend, thus setting free all the ills to which humanity is heir, hope was the one thing which remained. There are so many creative, intelligent, generous people around, all trying in their own ways to live out and project values such as decency, respect, honesty and solidarity. In recent months the young people of countries as dissimilar as Spain and Israel, refusing to accept that their futures should remain bleak and hopeless, have taken to the streets to peacefully protest. It is seeds like this which need nurturing.



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