This is Mike Rustin's response to comments on his recent piece, From the beginning to the end of Neo-Liberalism.
Naturally, there is uncertainty about the nature of the crisis (in this case of neo-liberalism, following the financial collapse) and how it will develop. Gramsci pointed out that in such situations, a long struggle may well take place between conservative forces committed to making the minimum changes necessary to retain their powers, and those demanding more radical transformations. This argument is now developing around us.
Tony Taylor asks , where is the working class in all this, following the Thatcherites’ attack on labour and its institutions in the 1980s, not least their defeat of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5? Can there be any pressure for radical change without it? It’s surprising how much a wider consensus of public opinion demanding greater equality and justice, more regulation of the banks, the defence of civil liberties, and a more democratic political system, has emerged despite the weakness of traditional labour institutions. Maybe the forms of democratic political agency have broadened and changed in the past 20 years, so that while political parties have undoubtedly become weaker, informed publics which can demand change have grown stronger. This is why forums like Open Democracy are important. But if institutions representing working people can be strengthened, so much the better.
BigC, Anonymous and others are sceptical of my claim that neo-liberalism is at a point of crisis. But there has been a widespread move to strengthening the role of governments in relation to the global financial system, because of what happened in 2008-2009. This was why Gordon Brown’s global ‘Keynesian’ initiative to prevent an economic meltdown captured its moment. We see the assertion of ‘a politics of the centre’, in the USA with Obama, in the new Coalition in Britain, and now in Germany after the CDU’s defeat in the North-Rhine Westphalia regional election. The main losers in this move so far have been free marketers of the right. The Lib-Dem /Tory coalition is in some respects to the ‘left’ of the pre-crisis Labour government, on a number of issues, showing that the whole political spectrum has moved . I’ve argued that these adjustments - e.g. regulating free markets, arresting the extreme polarisation of income and wealth, making democracy work better - are now seen as unavoidable by a dominant consensus, although in the USA these changes are being fiercely resisted by the right. At this moment, the policy differences between the three major British parties are very small. We will soon see if Labour also chooses a leader with a personal style similar to those of David Cameron and Nick Clegg!
I agree with Wa. State Physicist that the arrival of ‘peak oil’, and its future relative scarcity, is a serious issue. (On this see John Urry ‘s writings and here) However I do not think this means the end of economic life as we know it. Renewal energy has a huge potential, once the necessary investment is made in it. So far as Europe is concerned, solar power in North Africa is probably going to be the largest new energy resource. Multi-national planning – e.g. in Europe – will be needed to make this adaptation. We can already see in the UK a move away from expanded air travel (no more runways in the South East), and from road building. The arrival of ‘peak oil’ and the need to deal with it is another reason why the era of unfettered free markets is coming to an end.
What should be done by political progressives? Firstly, they need to take time to understand the emerging situation. Without a theoretically informed map of what is happening. it will be difficult to find a good political route. Second, the more progressive policies of the Coalition should be supported, while the more regressive ones are fought. It is important to draw the lines of division in the right places, and not, to take as Gerry Hassan warns us, mindlessly tribal positions. Lines of division will emerge soon enough. Mostly likely these will focus on public expenditure cuts and deliberately induced unemployment (echoes of 1979-82 perhaps) and in our need to defend those public sector improvements that were achieved in the past decade. Also Britain’s economic model needs to be changed significantly, lessening the weight in it of the financial sector. Lines of division should be chosen which mark out genuine advances on the Coalition’s own programmes.
Finally, the ambience of the Coalition, which will need to tolerate some internal differences, and perhaps following implementation of ‘Tony Wright’ reforms enhanced powers of Parliament, may now serve to enhance the quality and complexity of public debate. Since we should want to see an informed democracy as much as anything (see my reflections on Raymond Williams) we should try to make this a positive gain of the past few months.