What’s been happening?

What’s been happening, at a popular level, in response to the economic crisis?

Back in February there was a remarkable upsurge in street protest and direct action in a range of different countries, sometimes in response to local events which sparked things off (like Greece), and sometimes with an unpleasant element of xenophobia (like England).

In the middle of that month there was a tv news report on young working class unemployed in Sheffield, who all blamed the government for the crisis and declared they wouldn’t vote for them. Their habitus, or mental purview, is very different from that of students, who are invested in the future in a way that escapes the rest of their generation who have given up on education. The students have long been depoliticised, but February was also remarkable for a wave of student occupations in British universities in protest at Israel’s murderous invasion of Gaza.

Few commentators accorded much significance to any of these manifestations of popular feeling.

The New Statesman opined that ‘This is not just a devastating recession: this is the New Depression’, and Martin Jacques wrote in its pages that ‘the crisis has undermined all the ideological assumptions that have underpinned goverenment policy and political discourse over the past 30 years.’ [New Statesman, 16 Feb 2009] This is a sentiment that first surfaced in the political media—the political zones of the public sphere—in immediate aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, an event which provoked strong feelings of both amazement and fear. And many people believe it, which is to say, we live in hope. It has not yet transpired.

Meanwhile, Jacques continued, ‘there is no political alternative waiting in the wings, refining its radical ideas in think tanks ready to storm the citadels of power as there was in the 1970s.’ [New Statesman, 16 Feb 2009] A slightly odd way of putting it—real radical ideas do not come out of think tanks, who cannot storm the citadels of power because they already live there. (What happened in the 70s was an internal political coup inside the Tory party under the charismatic leadership of the nasty Mrs Thatcher.) But it’s true that there seems right now to be no political alternative, and worse still, no capacity within the citadels of power to consider anything that would challenge the underlying status quo, when that is exactly what’s needed. Perhaps they’re in a state of denial; they’re certainly timid.

Meanwhile, the recession is projected against what seems an even more intractable background. In March it was reported that the world population has reached 6.8 billion, and is expected to rise to 9.2 billion by 2050, while the evidence mounts that climate change is speeding up.

It is difficult to see very much when your nose is too close to the ground. The historian Eric Hobsbawm was seeing it from a long perspective when he wrote, in April, that “In some ways it is a greater crisis than in the 1930s, because the globalisation of the economy was not then as far advanced as it is today, and the crisis did not affect the planned economy of the Soviet Union. We don’t yet know how grave and lasting the consequences of the present world crisis will be, but they certainly mark the end of the sort of free-market capitalism that captured the world and its governments in the years since Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan.” [The Guardian, 10.4.09] This must be right, but three months later there is little sign that free-marketeering has been significantly weakened among the political class, and certainly not in financial sectors. The measures have not been taken, the bankers have not been reigned in.

A serious dislocation has taken place. The political class has become disconnected from the public sphere, it no longer seems capable of hearing what people are saying—they’re not even listening to each other. The week before the G20 meeting in London, old Labourite Roy Hattersley reviewed a book called The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, criticising the indifference of New Labour to the gap between rich and poor, ‘We have come to the end of what economic growth can do for the quality of our lives’, he wrote [New Statesman, 16 April 2009]. But there is no politician in power who descries the aim of economic growth. Their only question is how to pull it off. Of course, only very limited options are admitted to the agenda, since the ruling economic doctrines remain in place—no other available economic model is given any real consideration. Another pundit declares that the real threat is the fragmentation of the world into rival policy blocs whose strategies cancel each other out. If this is the case, there is little to hope for.

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