The end of a year, the beginning of an era

Gerry Hassan
31 December 2009

It's not just the end of a year and of the decade. I suspect 2008-9 will go down as the end of an era: a pivotal transition point – similar to 1973 – our demarche from a thirty year span of neo-liberalism to the start of... all we can say at the moment is that a contest has begun. 

The last year had many dimensions. Globally there was the G20 summit in London in April which saw Gordon Brown take centre stage co-ordinating international plans to avoid financial armageddon. Then in December there was the Copenhagen impasse on climate change with China emerged as a formidable power and the G77 and Africa as global players.

Then there was the Israeli butchery of Gaza at the start of the year, the act of an oppressor who still invokes the psychology of seeing themselves as ‘victims’. The Iranian elections were a watershed for how the Islamic Republic is seen inside Iran; a revolution which for thirty years had always carried popular support turned in on itself, openly rigging the election result and turning the guns on the protestors.

Israel will eventually at some point in the future be forced to come to terms with the consequences of being a coloniser. The Iranian authorities have in a Tienanmen Square manner shown their open contempt for their own people but they don't have the capacity of the Chinese communists to deliver economic growth as a compensation for party dictatorship while the young, urban and educated Iranians want a “normal” life. 

While Obama excoriates US security services for failing to stop a terrorist who boarded a transatlantic flight without checking any luggage after his own father had reported him to the American Embassy as a danger, the suicidal arsonist proved incapable of igniting the fiendish strapped to his leg. Both terrorism and counter-terrorism seem trapped in a dance of incompetence. Far more important, the  massacres of Ashura after six months of protest over the stolen election in Iran suggests the failure of repression not its success. A democratic challenge to fundamentalism is growing in the Middle East in the country whose Islamic revolution began its global influence. If this proves the start of the Iranian democratic revolution it give us reason to hope globally even in dark times as it will deflate the pretensions of militant Islam, Sunni as well as Shiite. 

Three major factors marked the year within the UK. First, the slow implosion of the old, self-regulatory Westminster order suddenly accelerated with the MPs expenses crisis. The media emphasised the frippery of duck islands and the such like. More important, MPs were caught ‘flipping’ their main place of residence (in then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s case being unsure where her ‘main’ place of residence was), and engaging in Capital Gains Tax avoidance (step forward George Osborne would-be Chancellor, James Purnell etc).

Then there was the theatre of Michael Martin’s resignation. Not, as all the media said, the first speaker to resign in over 300 years, but the first speaker of the British Parliament who has ever been forced to resign. Am I alone here in noting the inability of the British state and media to understand its own, most basic history?

Second, there was the continued aftermath of the crisis of the economic system and the models of banking and finances promoted in the last couple of decades along with their supporting ideology of deregulation, capital mobility and constant innovation in so-called 'financial instruments' as if these were real objects of value.

Fascinatingly in Britain, the year saw a shift from the crisis being understood as one about the short-comings of the free market to being one about the public sector. While bankers were still being bated, politicians and media moved on in a collective groupthink, to see identify the size of the public sector and public spending as the core problem of the country.

Thus supposed ‘independent’ groups like the Institute of Fiscal Studies saw the problem as being one of reducing public debt and public spending, something all the main political parties were happy to sign up to. This despite the fact that government action and public spending saved the entire financial system from going belly-up! It was if in a strange sexual competition to see who would cut most, manhood and leadership became defined by how quickly you would shrink the size of government. The saddest example was Nick Clegg boasting prior to his Lib Dem party conference that compared to Tory evasions on their plans to cut back spending he would be “quite bold, or even savage”.

This leaves us an uncomfortable place, a transition from one era to another. The elite and institutional opinion in the UK still cling to the assumptions of the 1980s and 1990s and the wreckage of the neo-liberal ideology.

They are all ‘new conservatives’. They dominate the UK’s main political parties, business organisations and mainstream media, and see their purpose as ‘restoration’: kick-starting growth and putting back together the whole great enterprise of global capital and UK plc’s part in it.

This agenda will dominate nearly completely the forthcoming UK General Election. None of the main political parties are going to offer any serious commentary that will question the above. They will hope that their procedural changes will satisfy voters that they have cleansed the stables and restored 'trust in politics'.

But all three parties are also going into the 2010 election saying that like it or not voters must accept the reality of the Lisbon Treaty and can't express their views about it. In this way they have imported into the heart of British politics the democratic deficit they complain about in Brussels. Far from restoring trust their joint behaviour has ensured a historic severance of belief in the Westminster system.

Nor has this done the EU much good in its historic year of appointing a 'president'. The elite justified the Lisbon process as being essential for the EU to compete on the world stage. Instead, as its lamentable lack of influence at Copenhagen demonstrated,  despite their exceptional efforts the Europeans were unable to shape a global conference for which they had long prepared and that they hosted. The reason for this is that the EU elite failed to understand the nature of our times. They calculated that   popular legitimacy will follow the successful exercise of international influence while   global leverage comes from having popular legitimacy in the first place.

A third marker for the future, alongside the collapse of Westminster's standing as a representative system, and the naked triumph of the interests of finance capital over the livelihood of regular people, was the much needed start of a contest over the powers of the state. For while New Labour early on pushed through controversial, far-reaching and welcome constitutional reforms such as the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information legislation, it has spent billions with almost no public debate on a “transformation of government”. It is pioneering the creation of a database state having permitted an exceptional expansion of barely controlled public surveillance and the extension of powers of intrusion by government and quasi-government agencies, while also pushing for the expansion of surveillance and control at the level of the EU. The year saw two major reports: on the database state in Britain published by the Rowntree Reform Trust and on the EU's “security-industrial complex” by Statewatch and the Transnational Institute and the start of a fightback to defend our rights and freedom with the Convention on Modern Liberty backed by OurKingdom and the Guardian.

The historic importance of this argument will be skipped over or ignored in the official summaries of the year, not least by the BBC whose license fee gives it a stake in the database state. But when, at the end of 2019, people look back on the decade it  will be seen as a shaping issue. As its popular consent crumbles, the British regime now seeks to modernise its systems of control and passive assent. It is the New Labour legacy that dares not speak its name but it was brought into the open and contested for the first time this year.

Finally, alongside the unravelling of the British party political system and the economic orthodoxies of the last couple of decades and the efforts to reinforce the state by stealth, there sits the inter-connected issue of the travesty of what British foreign policy has become. Under Blair and now Miliband it combined a hyper-overblown sense of its own grandeur and importance with a fanatical, blinkered commitment to being the USA’s junior partner. George W. Bush may have gone and Iraq may be slowly diminishing as an issue for the British public, but we are left with an unwinnable war in Afghanistan (its third British occupation).

Let's also not forget Scotland’s moment in the international hotspot, when our Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill freed the convicted Libyan bomber al-Megrahi on ‘compassionate grounds’. MacAskill acquitted himself well as did the Scottish Government, while the international community learned of the existence of a separate juristiction and polity called Scotland.

In Scotland, the UK and globally, there is a profound sense that people are looking to express a very different language, ethics and set of values from that of the global market and our political masters. Namely one informed by equity, justice and fairness.

How this feeling and basic human yearning finds voice and form after neo-liberalism and the progressive embrace of market fundamentalism will be one of the huge questions not just for the next year, but the years after it as well. At least, we are beginning to ask the right questions, and that implies that there is an opening, a sense of new possibilities, and even dare I use the word, of liberation.

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