When financial markets collapsed in 2008, it was widely seen as the end of an era dominated by neoliberalism. Is the left making the most of the opportunity to fill the vacuum?
That's the question at the heart of After the Crash - re-inventing the the left in Britain, a new e-book available free from Lawrence & Wishart.
Editors Richard Grayson and Jonathan Rutherford open with a fairly sobering take:
The left has been no threat to the power of financial capitalism, which was the architect of its own downfall. It lacks the wherewithal to become an agency of progressive change ready with a political alternative. The neoliberal model of capitalism might have lost its credibility, but it remains the only story of economic life on offer. Its failings have been exposed, but its hegemony has not been defeated.
Yet it is not only the left that has been slow to adapt. Alan Finlayson argues cogently that the Tories remain wedded to an analysis of the 'broken society ' that assumed an unbroken economy.
Stuart Hall provides a valuable framework for understanding the crisis in an interview with Doreen Massey:
A conjuncture is a period during which the different social, political, economic and ideological contradictions that are at work in society come together to give it a specific and distinctive shape. The post-war period, dominated by the welfare state, public ownership and wealth redistribution through taxation was one conjuncture; the neoliberal, market-forces era unleashed by Thatcher and Reagan was another. These are two distinct conjunctures, separated by the crisis of the 1970s.
It's perhaps the combination of the consumer society established by the first Keynesian conjuncture, and the squeeze on incomes in the second neoliberal period that has produced the 'turbo-consumerism' identified in Neal Lawson's contribution:
The Consumer Industrial Complex is a vast army of designers, manufacturers, advertisers, marketers, retail consultants and high-street chains whose only purpose is to provide a never ending conveyor belt of wants that are turned into needs. Clothing, holidays, cars, bags and watches are refined and developed, often by miniscule design tweaks, and then sold to us as the next must-have item. We are bombarded with over 3,500 brand images every day of our lives. That is 200 for every waking hour.
Lawson mentions the internet primarily as an extension of this complex, in which "every site you visit is recorded, so that your interests and hobbies are logged to ensure you are sent the pop-up adverts you are most likely to click."
This, surely, is only one side of the story. The internet is also a vast exercise in the decommodification and non-market exchange of information, which presents profound challenges for both capital and labour in the very creative industries at the heart of the Consumer Industrial Complex.
Indeed, the very ad-serving technology that Lawson cites has sparked a dispute between the great information monopoly of the new conjuncture (google) and that of the old (Rupert Murdoch).
The struggle to shape the new information ecology presents opportunities as well as threats for progressives. Is there a place for the Pirate Party in the new plural left?
It's a question that fits into Lawson's larger thesis that an era shaped by mass production is being replaced by one moving "neither towards masses or markets, but to alliances, networks, cooperatives and social enterprises."
A similar post-industrial theme is expressed by several contributors, most boldly by environmentalist Jonathan Porritt, who rails against the growth obsession of a Labour Party whose history "is inextricably entangled with the history of industrialism itself, where both power and progress resided first in increased production and latterly in increased consumption."
Porritt's essay starkly underlines the challenge involved in reconciling the Green and Labour traditions in the manner implied in the 'Green New Deal' invoked by contributors including Labour's Jon Cruddas and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas.
Contributions from Lib Dem MP Steve Webb, the SNP's Richard Thomson, Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood and political philosopher Stuart White add further dimensions to the new centre left coalition which Grayson and Rutherford seek.
That coalition may not yet merit comparison with the new right which shaped the previous conjuncture, but there is a sense of direction here that could yet shape the current one.
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