There’s some necessary scene-setting in this post – context that has to be grasped for the main point to make sense. I don’t think this is going to be my most entertaining post, but I believe it’s an important one, so please bear with it if you can.
I’ve just flown back overnight from Africa. I don’t generally sleep fantastically well on planes, especially when I’m in the middle seat and sandwiched between two people as ill-suited to narrow economy-class seats as I am. So I spent most of the night re-reading parts of Naomi Klein’s excellent, eye-opening work ‘The Shock Doctrine’. If you haven’t read it, then please put it at the top of your reading list – it’s one of those books that causes a true paradigm-shift: you come out of reading it different than you went in, and a lot of governmental, quasi-governmental and corporate behaviour makes a lot more sense once you’ve seen it in its broader context.
The section I was reading last covers the 1980s, from the accession of Thatcher & Reagan onwards. It’s heart-breaking to remember how close we came to getting rid of Thatcher after a single term (possibly less) and before she was able to do the damage that she did to the fabric of our society. Had she not been politically rescued by the ‘opportunity’ of the Falklands conflict, she would have been just a footnote in Britain’s political history, rather than the primary cancer that metastasised into the deeply-embedded, systemic sickness of greed and inequality that still blights our social fabric today.
But the thing that struck me most, as usual, was pattern. The early examples of neoliberal, free-market worship being imposed on societies that were previously trying to treat all their people well rather than just a so-called elite were all achieved by violence and repression, but from the 80s another model started to become commonplace. Thatcher was the first to be able to shock a democratic society into the Friedmanite ‘greed and inequality’, small-state model without a violent coup and the torture and oppression of its people.
While Thatcher failed to impose the ideology to its ultimate degree, she ‘succeeded’ to a very substantial degree, and established a reference-point that allowed right-wing economists to sell the falsehood that democratic ‘freedom’ and free-market economics were two inseparable sides of the same coin – and that formed a die that has been cynically stamped ever since on any country that ‘threatens’ to go down a different path.
From Bolivia under Paz and Argentina under Alfonsìn, through Poland under Solidarity even to South Africa under Mandela, capitalist governments and institutions (primarily the IMF and World Bank, aided and abetted by ‘the markets’) have ganged up on various emerging nations to make sure that the initial intentions of their democratically-elected governments were rapidly killed.
Instead of establishing alternative, co-operative, fair economies based on justice and the redistribution of wealth from the hands of those who gained it by ill means into the common good, those new governments were forced into a helpless acceptance of the ideological construct that says ‘strong’, sustainable economies can only be built on the back of slashed spending, privatisation and deliberate erosion of protections for ordinary people.
These surrenders were forced by a combination of measures. Creditor nations insisted that emerging countries must repay the crippling debts generated by those who had oppressed and impoverished them – equivalent to telling a mugging victim that he or she is liable for the debts of the mugger; IMF and World Bank loans were withheld until new governments agreed to slash state spending, give away public property and services to private interests; stock markets dived and companies threatened to remove operations and investments every time any kind of radical fairness measure was even hinted at; speculators (something I’d happily make an imprisonable offence) exploited weakness to drive down the value of currencies to make sure that countries had no choice but to bend the knee.
The result has always been that the good intentions of incoming leftist governments have been killed at birth and replaced with the insane free market model that has allowed a tiny minority to enrich itself while the vast majority experiences poverty, insecurity and fear.
It’s been a tragedy of lost opportunities, and seeing them encapsulated in a few chapters of text was a heart-rending experience for someone who believes there are genuine alternatives, different ways of being and doing that build people up instead of grinding them underfoot.
Which leads me onto my real point for this post. I don’t think any clear-thinking, well-intentioned person can plausibly deny that we’re witnessing in this country the sequel to Thatcher’s move to create inequality and allow the powerful few to become rich at the expense of the many. And, as I’ve written recently, I believe it’s being done in a deliberate and ideologically-driven way, orchestrated by politicians, corporate interests and media to keep most British people ignorant of the scale of the coup until it’s too late.
But I don’t think the situation is without hope. Fuelled by the freedom of communication possible via social media, and by a new willingness in the Labour Party to claim the left ground and own the fairness proposition, I believe word is starting to get out. People are beginning – not as fast as I’d like, of course – to see Cameron and co for the callous, greedy, corrupt elitists they are. They just need a clear and genuine alternative to believe in.
There’s a long way to go and we can’t afford to relax for a minute until it’s done and dusted, but for the sake of imagination for the moment, let’s assume that the Tories continue to be as disastrous and as evidently arrogant as they currently are, and that they lose the next election (please God, catastrophically and much sooner than 2015!), so that we have a strong Labour government coming to power against a European backdrop of resurgent socialism in France and other places.
What’s going to happen then? The markets, the IMF, World Bank, the powerful corporate interests who stand to lose profit and power if a genuine alternative gets a chance to succeed, are not just going to sit back and let it happen. They’re going to push back – hard, fast and in as many ways as possible. They’ll use every conceivable tactic to force the UK (presumably Miliband) government not to disturb the status quo – to continue to accept their treasured austerity-narrative, to continue to cut spending (perhaps in a fractionally more measured way), to lower taxes (and certainly not to raise them!) and to acquiesce to the fallacy that no other path exists than the neo-liberal, ultra-capitalist model that has made those vested interests unimaginably rich over the past few decades.
It’s already started, of course. Threats are muttered that investment would disappear if fair taxes (though they don’t call them that, of course) were imposed, that the rich would flee (if they’re not paying proper taxes, we wouldn’t miss them), that the markets will panic, interest rates rise, inflation grow out of control. And so on. A litany of fear and threat.
It’s inevitable that powerful interests will try to kill any alternative way or view at birth. So what do we do? Well, just as the right is already promoting its twisted narrative with every ounce of its energy, I believe we need to start constructing and communicating an alternative that is coherent, clear and radical. It’s not enough to offer a slightly redder, kinder austerity-narrative that effectively does nothing but continue the pain but at a slightly lower level while leaving the underlying structures undisturbed. in the hope of claiming the ‘competence’ proposition.
That’s like offering an aspirin to a cancer-ridden patient. People are tired of the ‘same old same old’ and can see what we have now isn’t working – but they need to hear intelligent, clearly-articulated and radically different ideas. Ideas that start to paint a completely different world-view, one in which we’re not condemned to the despair of believing what the Friedmanites would love us to believe (remember Fukuyama’s staggeringly arrogant ‘The End of History’?) that all we can ever hope for is a slightly different veneer on the way of being and doing that has brought us disaster after disaster.
And I believe it has to start with us – from the bottom up. There has to be leadership, vision and inspiration from the leaders of the opposition, of course, but the reality of Parliamentary politics in the context of suborned or biased media means that it’s going to be hard for Ed Miliband and others to be the ones to discuss these radical ideas to begin with.
It’s not enough to be outraged – though that’s important, and I’m full of outrage. It’s not enough to snipe and point out the idiocy and falsehoods of Tory claims and thinking – though that’s important too, and heaven knows they’re clear enough! There has to be a groundswell of positive, bold, alternative ideas - a subversive, even semi-subterranean momentum that spreads via word of mouth and social media, via the meeting of minds between the already-engaged and the not-yet aware, until it’s strong enough that the media can’t so easily ignore or misrepresent it to destroy the political capital of those we need to replace our corrupt and venal ‘leaders’.
Ideas. Ideas that embed themselves in the mind, thoughts that can’t be unthought and that shift paradigms and world-views – and the guerilla-boldness to advocate them in spite of media bias and the scorn of ‘commentators’ who want to perpetuate and strengthen the hopelessness-mindset. Ideas that ‘go viral’, spreading far beyond the committed radicals who conceive them and into the thinking of everyone – even ‘white van man’.
If we can create that momentum, that groundswell, then the next Labour government will be seen to have a massive, solid mandate from an aware and informed people – and will be much more able to resist the corporatist push-back that will inevitably come.
The centre-ground has started to move left, and we need to proclaim radical ideas to push it further, so that the bankrupt Tory ideology is simply ridiculous to the majority of people.
I have some (you’ll find them in this blog, in existing and future posts), and I’m sure you do too. Let’s not be shy about sharing them with like-minded people – and with those who aren’t like-minded yet. And think big!
Now’s not the time for timidity or excessive caution. Conviction carries weight, and who dares, wins.