Of course ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’ – to echo Bill Clinton’s famous response in 1992 to the question of what mostly affects elections. Except it’s not ‘the economy’ in the sense of GNP, the Dow Jones or FTSE Indexes, prices, or even figures for wages and employment. Behind all these lie the economic systems that determine these indicators to a great extent, but also do more.
The system we’re living under now, of course, in most parts of the world, is capitalism, and a late version or ‘stage’ of capitalism to boot. This explains everything, at bottom. Only the surface details – politics, the press, religion, Brexit – vary according to other factors. They are – today – the visible and local manifestations of the slow and uneven, but still inexorable, shuffle of the great capitalist leviathan towards its self-destruction; and whatever may follow that. I’m sorry to sound so Marxist here; but Karl was a wise old bird. (He wasn’t sure what would follow the Götterdämmerung, either.) In fact I’ve taken it mainly from my dear old doctoral subject, the mild but immensely influential JA Hobson, who called himself a Liberal. I don’t pretend to have the maths or the grasp of theory which would enable me to prove this, but only my ‘History’, with which it all seems to ‘fit’.
Here’s my very broad take on the history of the last couple of hundred (British) years. The beginning of that period saw the establishment of industrial capitalism first in Britain, and then in Europe and America. In Britain it stimulated a huge increase in production, a surplus of population which helped to keep wages low, and a great boost to her overseas trade, partly in the search for raw materials, and partly to offload the surplus goods – and later capital – which the domestic market, partly because of the low wages, couldn’t soak up. As a result she came to depend on those markets, and on their potential expansion, now in competition with other newly-industrialised nations; which was the main factor behind nineteenth century British, European and American imperialisms and the clashes they gave rise to. By around 1900, with nearly all the ‘virgin’ markets in the (‘third’) world having been taken over by the industrialised economies, expansion became more and more difficult, without the expansionary powers bumping into one another. Hence the succession of wars that marked the twentieth century, which – whatever their immediate motives – had the gruesomely welcome effect of expanding Britain’s and the USA’s overseas markets; partly by winning new ones, and partly through the destruction wrought by them, which eased the ‘over-production’ crisis by requiring stuff to be replaced. That extended capitalism’s life a little longer. Another extension was achieved by the establishment of ‘welfare states’ in Britain and other countries of Europe, which cushioned the ‘people’ against the full and natural repercussions of a struggling capitalism: namely the social privations that today go under the name of ‘austerity’. They might seem to imply – and persuaded many of us non-Marxist Leftists at the time – that Karl had been wrong, and a capitalist Götterdämmerung was not ‘inexorable’. With some modifications at the edges, we could save the best parts of the free enterprise system without its leading us all to destruction. That’s what kept us from ‘communism’. But then came Thatcher.
Well: not Thatcher personally, who was merely the tool of ‘History’, together with Pinochet and Reagan over the pond. It turned out that the Welfare State created its own tensions, especially for the propertied classes, who were unwilling to pay for it out of their ill-gotten gains, which they spirited away to ‘tax havens’; and who had the Daily Mail, lots of money, a propensity for amoralism, and a quiverful of seductive but mean and reactionary arguments to hurl at the ‘socialists’ (so-called). Hence the ‘Great Reaction’ – my neologism, but it would be nice if it caught on – of the 1980s onwards; a natural outcome of ‘late’ capitalism, which is still determining so many aspects of the world around us today. The commodification of universities is the one I’m best acquainted with; but there are many others: from the language of capitalism which is now almost universal (railway ‘customers’ in place of ‘passengers’, for example; ‘human resources’ replacing ‘personnel’ departments); to the privatisation of even ‘public’ utilities, and the dreadful things that have happened to the Premier League. Most of the things that people complain about today have their roots in this late – and hopefully final – ‘stage’ of capitalism. If only more people were aware of it; rather than blaming their woes on the targets the Daily Mail directs them towards: like foreign immigration, ‘scroungers’, ‘socialism’, the Guardian, and those elitist and ermined ‘enemies of the people’ at the top.
I’m thinking of writing a short book on this, if I can summon up the energy. If I call it ‘The End Time’, I hope people won’t think it’s about the ‘Rapture’. An alternative might be Götterdämmerung; q.v. George Bernard Shaw’s Marxist interpretation of The Ring. Come to think of it, both Wagner and modern eschatological theology could be seen as products of late-stage capitalism.
It is not clear from the above whether you regard ‘late capitalism’ as a mainly ‘objective’ social phenomenon, which determines – but which is not determined by – the actions of all the economic actors within the system; or whether you see late capitalism more as a constructed, more ‘subjective’ social order.
In David Harvey’s ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’, he makes the point that all the elements of the current politico-economic system were put in place as a result of deliberate decisions made by the captains of capital and their political underlings. The smashing of trade unions, wholesale privatisation, the dismantling of the welfare safety net, the creation of vast wage differentials, the corporatisation of education and the health sector, etc etc, were not caused by an abstraction that might be labelled ‘late capitalism’, but by virtual theorists, neoliberals, working for and on behalf of the capitalist elite. They were trying to overcome a situation whereby this elite had forfeited too much control of the system to labour.
If the current ‘system’ is to brought to an end it does not look as though it will be through the agency of the labour movement, which is at its weakest point – in the Anglophone countries – for 200 years. The vultures circling over head are of the extreme right, not the left.
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The former. But I’ll get back to you on this.
Yes, and if rightist forces fill the vacuum the result is likely to be authoritarian, tyrannical illiberal, kleptomania on the Putin, Trump, Orban nationalist models. Whether this will be a stage in the process towards a socialism or another reinvention of capitalism is arguable, but it will interrupt, is already, the neo-liberal globalisation
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