[DEBATE] : There Is (still) No Alternative
grinker at mweb.co.za
grinker at mweb.co.za
Tue Sep 30 14:29:20 BST 2008
Tuesday 30 September 2008
There Is (still) No Alternative
The most remarkable thing about the crisis is the absence of any serious
critique of capitalism or debate about where our society is heading.
If it's Monday, it must be Bradford and Bingley. As one financial
institution after another goes into meltdown, everybody on both sides of the
Atlantic appears to agree that things cannot go on as they have done over
the past decade. Yet as the chaos in Washington reflects, nobody seems to
have much of an idea of how else to proceed. All governments of any
political stripe can offer is an attempt to hold the line and preserve as
much of the discredited financial set-up (and property prices) as possible
through massive bailouts. Those who object to these spendthrift schemes have
little to put in their place. If one thing seems even more serious than the
financial crisis, it is the bankruptcy of political vision and debate.
This is a remarkable state of affairs. Capitalism, it would not seem unfair
to suggest, is experiencing something of an international financial crisis.
The US government is trying, and so far failing, to bail out the banking
system with a mere $700 billion of federal funds, following on from the
effective nationalisation of huge insurance and financial companies.
Meanwhile in the UK, Bradford and Bingley - its bowler-hatted sign a
supposed symbol of British business stability - is to join Northern Rock
under state control to save the bank from bankruptcy. In Europe, too,
governments and central banks are taking emergency measures to keep the
finance sector afloat. And so it goes on.
Even mainstream commentators are now questioning the future of the free
market. In reality market economies have long relied on state support, often
delivered through the backdoor. Now, however, people are openly confronted
with the reality that, after a decade of 'boom' based on credit-fuelled
spending, short-term speculation and the inflation of paper assets, the
financial markets in the US and the UK need a massive crutch of state
support simply to keep limping along towards an uncertain future.
Nobody is happy with this state of affairs. Hence the House of
Representatives threw out the first attempt at a banking bailout bill. Yet
what alternatives are being put forward? Where is the serious debate about
the future of these economies? It is perhaps unsurprising that the rump of
the free-market right should be a bit subdued at present. But more to the
point, where are the radical or left-wing critiques of capitalism today?
Surely nothing could better attest to the demise of the left, or indeed the
burial of the politics of left vs right, than their inability to take
advantage of this crisis to launch a debate about where capitalism is taking
Instead all we have heard are narrow criticisms of a few bankers and their
extraordinary bonuses, or of speculators and their short-selling tactics. It
is a risible sign of the times that the most radical-sounding of these
criticisms in Britain has come not from anarchists but from Archbishops. The
Archbishop of York reminded us of the Bible's teaching that 'the love of
money is the root of all evil', and attacked those short-sellers who were
betting on banking failures as 'bank robbers'. Rowan Williams, the
Archbishop of Canterbury and top man in the Church of England, even said
that Karl Marx had been partly right to talk about how 'unbridled
capitalism' could ascribe 'reality, power and agency to things that have no
life in themselves'. Williams claimed this worship of inanimate objects such
as money was what Christians call idolatry. Things must be bad when the
voice of 'anti-capitalism' is represented by a couple of media-savvy clerics
staging a pale imitation of Jesus driving the money-lenders from the Temple.
As it happens the Archbishop of Canterbury should stick to the Bible,
because he knows nothing about Marx's Capital. Marx's analysis of the
fetishism of commodities is not about any 'idolatry' being practised by a
few money-worshipping financiers. It is an examination of how the entire
capitalist market works, by investing the value created by living human
labour in dead objects - commodities, including most starkly the commodity
money. This is about the operation of an economic system, not the excesses
By contrast, the Archbishop's sermon (delivered on the mount of the
Spectator magazine) about the dangers of 'unbridled capitalism' was just
another attack on what Tory prime minister Ted Heath once called 'the
unacceptable face of capitalism'. There is a long tradition of singling out
the most obviously parasitical or unpopular faces of the market economy for
criticism, a practice that tends only to obscure and cheapen the system's
underlying problems. The church leaders were here following the same false
trail as the tabloid newspapers who seem to imagine that the multi-trillion
dollar financial system has been thrown into crisis by fat-cat bankers going
on a jolly to Monte Carlo.
But then, what more should we expect from religious leaders, lost and
wandering in the material world? The real problem is that our political
leaders offer nothing more substantial in the way of critical analysis or
alternatives. At the recent Labour, Liberal Democrat and even Tory party
conferences, the easiest route to the moral high ground has been to complain
about individual City bonuses, while simultaneously supporting the bailout
of entire banking institutions.
This points to one important factor that has yet to alter in the new age of
instability and sudden shifts in fortune. Many people have talked about the
end of an era. New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown even worked up the
nerve to announce the end of an 'era of irresponsibility' in the financial
sector, without of course suggesting that he might have borne any
responsibility for it during his decade as chancellor of the exchequer.
But whatever else has ended, we are decidedly not at the end of the era of
TINA - There Is No Alternative.
TINA first came to prominence as handmaiden to Margaret Thatcher's Tory
governments in the 1980s. It began as a slogan declaring her determination
to drive through hard-line pro-market and anti-trade union measures. Then,
after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the decade, TINA
briefly became the triumphant cry of those celebrating the historic triumph
of capitalism over communism.
Before long, however, capitalism again proved less capable of overcoming its
own economic difficulties. This did not break the market consensus, but it
did turn TINA from a figure of triumphalism to one of fatalism. From now on,
if anybody expressed the view that There Is No Alternative, it was more with
a shrug of resignation. Whatever problems the market might have, it was the
only show in town (albeit the theatre remained dependent on state
After Tony Blair's New Labour came to power in 1997, it embraced TINA along
with Brown's pin-up, Prudence. New Labour completed the process of removing
the economy from political debate, symbolised by Brown's first act as
chancellor - handing control of monetary policy and interest rates to the
Bank of England. The economy became seen as an entirely technical affair, to
be managed by assorted bean-counters, consultants and 'experts', while
politicians focused their energies waging war on terror, or obesity, or
Today, in the midst of a financial crisis when everything seems to be up for
grabs, we can see that TINA still rules the roost. Where is the political
debate about the future of our economy and society? What arguments are being
fought out about how we should produce and distribute our collective wealth?
The comparisons being drawn between this and previous capitalist crises
might be dubious and overblown, as previously discussed on spiked. But the
starkest contrast is surely in the absence of serious critiques and
alternatives offered today compared to other eras.
Instead politicians of every persuasion are doing no more than reactive
fire-fighting, attempting to keep the status quo in place. The proposed huge
financial bailouts show that the Republican administration in America does
not believe in the free market, any more than the Labour government in
Britain believes in socialism. All of them are simply acting like desperate
bank managers, trying to keep the failing business afloat on credit - and
making as bad a job of it as those bankers they are bailing out.
With the recent nationalisations, one veteran Labour supporter joked with me
that, 'It looks like we might end up controlling the commanding heights of
the economy after all!' - the holy grail of the old left. In fact, of
course, as he well knew, the Labour government is sweeping up the rubble of
the finance sector, not as an act of socialism but of pragmatism, not to
further the cause of workers' control but to keep capitalism working.
It would be impossible for anybody to come up with a quick 'progressive
solution' to the current crisis. Perhaps in the short term the best anybody
could hope for would be for business and politicians to adopt a bolder
approach to investing in the future of capitalism, rather than trying to
freeze the failing present. But the bigger problem today is that, far from
providing any answers, nobody is even asking the questions about what should
come next or where our economy and society should be heading.
Margaret Thatcher may be long gone from government and in declining health.
But by default, her old comrade TINA still stalks the corridors of power.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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