‘A vital new debate is beginning, or perhaps an old debate is being renewed, about the proper role of government , the welfare state, and the attitudes on which it rests.’
Margaret Thatcher, 1975
Since the end of World War two, we have reached this point twice.
The first time, a political agreement was pulled together when the country was faced with the changed social, economic, and political landscape exposed by World War Two. Similar settlements reached across Europe, creating the oft inaccurately described post war ‘consensus’, supposedly powered by Keynesian economics in the UK. The limitations of that initial settlement were apparent throughout its lifetime as the welfare state expanded inefficiently to absorb the effect. In reality, progressing globalisation, growing US dominance of the global economy, and weariness with the enduring features of the dogmatic left did as much to kill the UK Keynesian settlement, as the Tories did. Beveridge saw welfare as an economic tool which could help keep wages low. He paved the way for the worst aspects of neo liberalism and the Thatcher Reagan monster, and the post financial crisis coalition. The illusion of that Keynesian consensus washed itself away in the late 1970’s, in a mood not dissimilar to the current one I understand. Ahead of a wave of evangelised neo liberalism which was to become the ‘centre’ position on the political spectrum.
When RBS rang Alastair Darling to tell him the banks at the centre of the monetarism that guided that neo liberal ‘resettlement’ had exposed the economy to risks that threatened to have ‘cash machines run empty by lunchtime’, we should have treated that as a major warning sign that we were at a crossroads again. The levels of inequality that had been allowed to develop, patterns in our welfare spending, the erosion of our public services, emerging household debt crisis, and unresolved issues with an overvalued housing market should have alerted someone that something was amiss, a lot sooner.
PR politics and why we haven’t discussed the point in history we are at
Neo lIberalism has adapted our political system to its needs. Managing the message politics; maturing with the neo liberal consensus after the election of 1992, currently upheld by institutions in crisis or on trial. Politics and media entry grounds, with strict ‘centre-left, right’ and bat-shit fringes are increasingly difficult to maintain as they descend into ridiculousness live on, and under the scrutiny of the interwebs. Offline social influence is bought and sold, while the US alerts us again, to what happens if you nurture a culture of professional political idiots.
The failure of any democratic mechanism to kick in as a response to the as yet unfinished financial crisis, would have eventually spurred a crisis of whatever ideology that allowed it. Instead of triggering a democratic response, or even a real assessment of what had gone wrong, the banking crisis triggered a consolidation of the neo liberal consensus and an expansion in social conservatism has been whipped up to justify it. Not just in Westminster, but across the Western World. The only response of our political system to other emerging crisis, has been a willingness to aggravate them in the name of austerity. The toxic inane culture PR politics has created, is not substantial enough to hide its limitations in these circumstances. Now our political class moved into a chatroom, traditional political techniques are losing traction and elite voices are losing authority as they try to justify that absurdity in the face of reality by hook or by crook.
Murdoch is on trial after decades of acting out a mob boss/henchman relationship with successive governments, it’s not clear who was boss, and who was the henchman. The Mail and The Guardian continue to dutifully act out the empty tribal turmoil of circular debates over absurd social conservative cartoons. Loyal tribalists of all descriptions are willing to play out farce with hostile sincerity on twitter. Repeated exploitation of inequality ignored by this discussion making its endless ridiculousness and toxicity sinister, in a system where this it is measured in lieu of democracy.
The systemic problems that have been exposed cannot be discussed within the parameters allowed by a tribal political media. Especially not one dominated by a homogenous social and professional network forming the toxic misogynist, elitist, racist, social and professional political media culture and fringes that is a sizeable chunk of the problem. The dysfunction that network is projecting on to us has become dangerous but it’s not the only place in town to talk these days, which it rather relied on to be effective.
How the democratic crisis is bubbling along…
The crisis of legitimacy barely recognised at the time of the cabs for hire, expenses, and banking crisis, is now of epic proportions as the political spectrum redefines away from the centre of our two main political parties. The absurdly hollow tribalism and soap opera this part of our political system is manufacturing, and its failure to question the adaptions neo liberalism required of our political system and what it oversaw, has led to our entire political spectrum showing signs of redefinition away from it. In the UK, fringe parties are extracting short term benefit from the collapse of the centre position that used to render their part of the crumbling political spectrum ridiculous. There is an emerging trend of success for parties which pick the neo liberalism out of their position on the left and right across Europe. Anti-capitalism and nationalism seem to be converging and confusing issues alarmingly often, but as neo liberalisms polarising influence tips away that may happen less often. It is unwelcome as a response to a crisis still mainly on the balance sheets of our financial institutions and governments.
The brutal tragicomic consequences are abundantly clear and afflicting countries across the world to differing degrees. The social conservatism outrage pantomime has gently tipped beyond believability, neither left nor right should be willing to credit it but do. The power held by the companies hovering up a captive market of public sector fire sales, is still evading discussion.
People are talking
We are visibly reaching ’democratic’ limits of austerity worldwide, just as cuts which hit those who are more valuable to political debate start in the UK. Everything upholding this kind of politics is descending into farce.
The US and Greece, unfolding as the cautionary tales to kill the austerity myths, and the compassionate conservatism Bush was shouting about years before Cameron has been exposed as a grotesquely comic veneer to some pretty horrific changes. Democracy is already a banking crisis casualty in parts of Europe, the sagas of Spain and Italy (too big to save), and the IMF’s warning of a drastic contraction of Europe’s banking balance sheets over the next 18 months are scenarios are yet to play out. Planning to avoid it or predict how the financial crisis will play out this year is pointless, unless that planning is done by a political party with the power to challenge the consensus that our political system should banish discussion of the very real problems that face us.
There are likely to be more riots this summer, and community relationships are changing under the pressure of spreading hardship and bureaucracy and a growing understanding of its source. The understanding that there is no viable political vehicle for at the moment (Occupy was a symptom of that) is evolving with people’s understanding of their power and vulnerability within a global market, with insufficient democratic protection. The uncertainty and fear it has caused, allowing us to ignore that the spell of the source of the sickness that afflicts our domestic political system has been broken and there isn’t much else underneath it. The world is redefining its understanding of politics and power. This is not just happening in the UK. The consolidation of a lifetime of economic and social policy history, and two years of Coalition austerity here, mean the shock and awe is wearing off a bit.
A global debate is now happening about the proper role of national government in a global economy, the responsibility of that government to the people it is elected to represent and the responsibility of those governments beyond national boundaries. About the assumptions that underpin the welfare state and whether our foreign policy should be linked in such a routinely brutal way to our economic ambitions. The social, democratic and economic and political contract is being rewritten despite the best efforts of our political system, even before the financial crisis has concluded, using only its consequences so far.
The political spectrum has no choice but to redefine as every last shred underpinning the current centre position falls away. You don’t get far into the debate before you realise the rot in our political system is quite localised and these problems share a source. This debate is happening everywhere in some form and is even beginning to be evident in the right wing political press.
I know it doesn’t look like it, but a new settlement discussion is inevitable and could be sooner than you’d think
By late-summer of 2011, ‘the markets’ were simultaneously condemning Western governments for a paralysis which was the inevitable result of what they demanded, while wealth again shifted upwards and east. Caused by the expansion of the neo liberal dogma at the heart of all our current crisis. While the world changed around us all chains we used to dominate and control are being exposed and challenged by those with the power to shake them off.
The candour of those institutions and countries of emerging importance, ensuring parts of the political system are now on trial. The foreign, economic, and social policies demanded by our institutional bastardisation of free market principles under a veneer of competing liberal ‘principles’ fighting with social conservative nonsense. That trial is not taking place on media shaped by political consensus…
The brutality of the effect of austerity, ensuring the scale of the economic and political incompetence being highlighted as neo liberalism crumbles into sand, is not as funny as it could be. That so much of the crisis in the UK is manufactured in order to distract from that, and the very real risks we are clearly now exposed to, actually reassuring in terms of prognosis. That all our main political parties are being flung into turmoil as the neo liberalism they adopted is discredited, to be expected. This is not the first time this has happened, they’ll adapt and survive. If not, hey ho.
We stand where Beveridge and Bevan stood after the war, and where Margaret Thatcher stood in 1975. As the wave she spotted crashes and disappears, taking lots with it and leaving some wreckage. The deficiencies of each settlement that went before, creating the savage bureaucratic indifference which marked out their limitations and failures now. We stand here, having a fag and waiting for a political party to catch up so we might as well chat. Our political media is not the place to rediscover the consensus that isn’t neo liberalism. They understand nothing outside the message they provide for it until they have to.
We need to examine how each of the post war settlements reached its limits, and how the combined deficiencies of successive post war settlements enabled the savage incompetence we have seen in recent years. Ask how that shaped the priorities for bearing the brunt of suicidal ill thought out deleveraging that has deliberately aggravated every problem we had, including our genuine financial crisis, and the blindness to the consequences. How we undo the blinding stupidity afflicting our political system. What the finale of the financial crisis will be is far from clear, that the multiple crisis we have been ignoring have not gone away is a no brainer. The likelihood of the UK seeing the extremes other nations have seen, now unlikely before a political solution emerges. In order to address the future, we are going to have to look at what is and what went before without the rose tinted glasses of political allegiance and ‘ideological’ conviction. And start addressing the sources of the problem. This is 2012, not 1984.