After Bretton Woods: from civic solidarity to political action

From Greece's Golden Dawn to America's Alex Jones, the populist right is utilising the global crisis as the ‘pragmatic’ smokescreen for a variety of backward-looking nationalisms. For the left, it is time to go beyond the civic victories of Occupy and focus on constructing a political alternative to the Bretton Woods institutions.


Alex Jones: American radio host and conspiracy theorist (Image: Infowars.com)

The late actor and satirist Peter Ustinov, a strong advocate of the World Federalist Movement, once said that patriotism in its truest sense would be for those who felt so deeply about the progress of mankind that they would pool their national heritages in order to seek the common good. Ustinov himself, like many progressive visionaries before him was from a highly privileged background and became wealthy enough to become a tax exile in Switzerland to avoid paying the comparatively high taxes at the time in social democratic Britain.

In hindsight, this highlights the problem with internationalism, or cosmopolitanism and globalism as a popular campaign. Whilst the idea of global society and of global resistance to neoliberal capitalism appears appealing as an idea within undergraduate classrooms across the developed world, the stark reality is that no practical support for creating some sort of ‘global solution’ exists. It has been this lack of firm political direction on how to turn these ideas into reality that has allowed for the rise of other forms of political ideologies that have included a re-engagement of nationalism and fundamentalist religion.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the lack of a practical global solution to solve the anarchism of international economy was testament to the shallowness of globalism. The failure to get beyond any serious attempt of substantially rebuilding the economy in the manner that was briefly discussed at the G8 conference in London in 2008 reveals the lack of political ambition globalists have, in practical terms, for transformation. The lack of a strategic objective for restructuring the management of the global financial system has led to the wide-spread assumption that austerity would provide a remedy and allow the economy to re-stimulate itself within major reform. The moment therefore for the global justice movement, which seemed to be gaining momentum in the first decade of the 21st century has passed at least in political terms.

Against this, rises in national and populist responses to the economic crisis have begun to gain significant prominence. What is interesting here is that these reactions have been used both in opposition to and in support of austerity. In the case of the former, the rise of movements such as Golden Dawn, coupled with the continued growth of electoral support for certain far right parties across Europe (for example the Front National in France) has provided an alternative challenge to the policies of austerity. Here, reactionary principles have demanded a return to national protectionism and a retreat from the globalisation that has marked world politics since the end of the cold war. Unlike global justice, the practical solutions for nationalism are well rehearsed and can muster support throughout the class divide.

Yet, nationalist forces have been utilised in the support of austerity perhaps even more successfully. We can see this clearly with the rise of the Tea Party and of populist financial conservatism in the US. The ascent in recent popularity of politicians such as Ron Paul, along with the prominent rise of conservative media personalities such as Alex Jones has allowed for a new national-populist narrative that supports fiscal prudency. In this narrative, debt accumulation is something that has been created by big government and is by virtue ‘un-American’ in its action. The true Patriot, who looks to upholding the principles enshrined in the constitution, should regard any form of federal debt with distain and indeed argue that the very nature of a national debt is both unconstitutional and unpatriotic. In the US, therefore, nationalist romanticism insists upon fiscal conservatism and austerity. Any alternative Keynesian solution at the international level is seen as increasing the premise of big government and ultimately is grounded in socialism. More prominently, one only has to read or listen to any of the rantings of many ‘libertarian conservatives’ to the west of the Atlantic to realise that the real enemies here are the globalists. It is the globalists that appear elitist in their actions, the globalists that seek to erode liberties by establishing greater governance from above and the globalists that are alien and foreign to American traditions.

If right-wing sentiments are embracing fiscal conservativism on one side of the Atlantic, then similar trends can also be seen on the other. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe has led to increased xenophobic attitudes in Germany for example, in light of the bail-outs given to indebted states. Maintaining a convincing commitment toward the European project has become more and more difficult with core European states. In the UK, the rise of political organisations such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has provided another example of this move. Self-styled as the ‘British Tea Party’ UKIP favours British withdrawal from the EU, greater de-regulation in every facet of the economy and appears at odds with any form of multiculturalism and globalism which it sees as being damaging to national traditions. Alarmed at the rise in popularity of UKIP, David Cameron has responded by ensuring his supporters that unless the EU backs his commitment to a more open, neoliberal market economy, the UK will leave.

So where does all this leave the progressive left and those that have campaigned for a global response to the inequalities of contemporary capitalism? Politically nowhere at present. Yet, despite politicians, political organisations and movements might struggle to come up with a practical solution to the ongoing economic crisis, certain voices continue to flicker. The Occupy movement, for example, might not have led to a reawakening of responses on the political left but it has at least prompted wide debate across political circles. Whilst directionless, they do at least still highlight the problems with the status-quo and by their very nature have a global reach. It is the political rather than the civil that have failed to act.  Yet, it might be from these spontaneous expressions of solidarity at the civil level that a systematic political response at the global level might eventually emerge. At present however, the 2008 demands for a new form of Bretton Woods to regulate and address the instabilities in global economy seem light years away.

This article is part of the series, Re-birth of the nation? Challenging 'global citizens'

Also see the openSecurity debate, Security and the Far Right in Europe.

About the author

Owen Worth teaches in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick. His book, entitled 'Resistance in the Age of Austerity', is out in April 2013.