A lot of us are asking ourselves the wrong political questions – and have been for almost three decades…
The question, as it has always been in some shape or form, is this: can a modern, progressive society be effectively organised by ‘markets’ and the random, charitable whims of private capital?
I suppose, on the one hand, it’s great that so many people have taken such an active interest in politics over the last few months. On the other, it is a truly depressing (and disturbing) era in which the political arena has essentially become a bad soap opera — or some strange, farcical re-imagining of George Orwell’s 1984. The jury’s still out.
It’s as if the trumpets of Armageddon had been rung. Boris Johnson has become the new Foreign Secretary; Jeremy Corbyn is at war with both the media and his own MPs; Brexit has descended into an utter shambles; Southern Europe is an economic mess; global capitalism has never looked weaker; and Donald Trump could quite possibly become the next president of the United States.
Yes, on the surface, it all appears to be incredibly interesting. And it is. I don’t want to denigrate the situation or those who have used it as a means of engaging politically. These developments, at the very least, prove that history did not ‘end’ as some mainstream political thinkers predicted in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own corruption and inadequacy.
Flash forward: the financial crash in 2008, whether it marked the ‘end of capitalism’ as some on the Left have argued and hoped, or was a mere momentary blimp in the complex, but vastly-superior capitalist system, as argued by the Right and its free market zealots, has, undoubtedly, heralded a new uncertain age of politic — coupled with the technological revolution. The old rulebook has not just been rewritten, it’s been thrown out the f****** window.
In the midst of this though, sadly, one thing has been made very clear in most of our political discourse …
We’re not asking the right questions. We’re debating the wrong things. Our fixation is on the vapid and personal, rather than the existential-economic crisis our country is and has been facing for some time now.
An entire generation of people, of politicians, of thinkers, has been completely divorced from the broader economic narrative that used to animate many aspects of political, moral and philosophical thought. People, and especially our politicians, don’t really think about economics anymore in any imaginative sense — they simply accept the dreary, technocratic, neoliberal orthodoxy which exists, mostly unchallenged, regardless of whether it is effective, fair, sustainable, efficient or moral.
The detachment from the political and the economic is, in some ways, perfectly illustrated within the Labour Party at this current moment. Many of the MPs behind the coup against Jeremy Corbyn are ladled as ‘Blairite’ or ‘Red Tories’ because their politics simply revolves around slightly transient and culturally-specific social and foreign affairs issues. Consequently, there are no real defining characteristics for many of these politicians because, like the Conservatives, like the Liberal Democrats, they are essentially neoliberals themselves. What I mean by that is that they do not challenge the economic status quo in any serious or fundamental manner — unlike Corbyn, whether you like him or not. Resurrecting traditional social democracy is not necessarily the most effective way of combating free market capitalism, but it is an alternative which has arisen nonetheless.
As a result, in removing economics from politics, in separating the two, it becomes almost impossible to forge a political identity of any real depth because your views, without a broader economic or ideological underpinning, are simply vacant. They’re cheap. They can be bartered off for nothing and replaced with something just as worthless. This is WHY politicians are perceived to be such morally and intellectually bankrupt individuals. It’s because either a) they’re neoliberals and their ideology has ultimately failed or b) they’re neoliberals because they don’t know anything else. Ultimately, many of the MPs behind the Labour Coup deserve their label – ‘Blairite’, ‘Red Tory’, ‘Thatcherite’ – because, ideologically-speaking, that is what they indeed are.
Indeed, Thatcher, who is often portrayed as either a Pantomime villain or free market deity, was neither Devil nor God. In fact, what Thatcher did most effectively was change the way people thought about the world. That was, in essence, her greatest achievement. In destroying the pillars of working-class culture, she divorced economic ideology from politics and, as a consequence, we — as a society — are now in this position; sat on the edge of a cliff looking at the black and impenetrable abyss below. Our economic imagination is as stagnant as our economic circumstances; as hollow as our politicians and their supposed ‘politics’.
The soap opera of politics unfolding before our very eyes, as entertaining or disturbing as you may find it, is, at least in part, the result of this economic void which has existed in our politics since Thatcher — and globally since Reagan. One of the great tragedies of our time is that, despite the creativity and intelligence of many of us — many of our young people and many of our politicians — most of us do not have any kind of alternative way of looking and thinking about the world in a politico-economic sense. We just accept, quite passively, like slaves, like a religious congregation unable to think in any broader external sense, that there is no alternative. That the world has always been like this. That inequality and poverty are natural. That greed is a part of human nature. These are all sentiments that, in a mainstream-political sense, are barely 30 years-old and radically different to the post-war consensus in the 1950s.
Certainly, it was not by chance that Thatcherism coined the ‘there is no alternative’ mantra. Nor did she remove economics from our politics by accident.
My advice to the waves of people either becoming engaged in politics for the first time or looking for potential solutions to some of our major social, economic and environmental problems is this: look beyond the neoliberal, economic orthodoxy many of us have been fed since the day we were born.
As I said right at the beginning: can society, given the current landscape, be effectively organised by ‘markets’ and the random, charitable whims of private capital? Or do we need greater levels of state-led development and investment in order to generate prosperity and progress for all? The answer seems fairly obvious to me…