There Is (still) No Alternative

The most remarkable thing about the crisis is the absence of any serious critique of capitalism or debate about where our society is heading.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

If it’s Monday, it must be Bradford and Bingley… As one financial institution after another goes into meltdown, everybody on both sides of the Atlantic appears to agree that things cannot go on as they have done over the past decade. Yet as the chaos in Washington reflects, nobody seems to have much of an idea of how else to proceed. All governments of any political stripe can offer is an attempt to hold the line and preserve as much of the discredited financial set-up (and property prices) as possible through massive bailouts. Those who object to these spendthrift schemes have little to put in their place. If one thing seems even more serious than the financial crisis, it is the bankruptcy of political vision and debate.

This is a remarkable state of affairs. Capitalism, it would not seem unfair to suggest, is experiencing something of an international financial crisis. The US government is trying, and so far failing, to bail out the banking system with a mere $700 billion of federal funds, following on from the effective nationalisation of huge insurance and financial companies. Meanwhile in the UK, Bradford and Bingley – its bowler-hatted sign a supposed symbol of British business stability – is to join Northern Rock under state control to save the bank from bankruptcy. In Europe, too, governments and central banks are taking emergency measures to keep the finance sector afloat. And so it goes on.

Even mainstream commentators are now questioning the future of the free market. In reality market economies have long relied on state support, often delivered through the backdoor. Now, however, people are openly confronted with the reality that, after a decade of ‘boom’ based on credit-fuelled spending, short-term speculation and the inflation of paper assets, the financial markets in the US and the UK need a massive crutch of state support simply to keep limping along towards an uncertain future.

Nobody is happy with this state of affairs. Hence the House of Representatives threw out the first attempt at a banking bailout bill. Yet what alternatives are being put forward? Where is the serious debate about the future of these economies? It is perhaps unsurprising that the rump of the free-market right should be a bit subdued at present. But more to the point, where are the radical or left-wing critiques of capitalism today? Surely nothing could better attest to the demise of the left, or indeed the burial of the politics of left vs right, than their inability to take advantage of this crisis to launch a debate about where capitalism is taking us.

Instead all we have heard are narrow criticisms of a few bankers and their extraordinary bonuses, or of speculators and their short-selling tactics. It is a risible sign of the times that the most radical-sounding of these criticisms in Britain has come not from anarchists but from Archbishops. The Archbishop of York reminded us of the Bible’s teaching that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’, and attacked those short-sellers who were betting on banking failures as ‘bank robbers’. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and top man in the Church of England, even said that Karl Marx had been partly right to talk about how ‘unbridled capitalism’ could ascribe ‘reality, power and agency to things that have no life in themselves’. Williams claimed this worship of inanimate objects such as money was what Christians call idolatry. Things must be bad when the voice of ‘anti-capitalism’ is represented by a couple of media-savvy clerics staging a pale imitation of Jesus driving the money-lenders from the Temple.

As it happens the Archbishop of Canterbury should stick to the Bible, because he knows nothing about Marx’s Capital. Marx’s analysis of the fetishism of commodities is not about any ‘idolatry’ being practised by a few money-worshipping financiers. It is an examination of how the entire capitalist market works, by investing the value created by living human labour in dead objects – commodities, including most starkly the commodity money. This is about the operation of an economic system, not the excesses of individuals.

By contrast, the Archbishop’s sermon (delivered on the mount of the Spectator magazine) about the dangers of ‘unbridled capitalism’ was just another attack on what Tory prime minister Ted Heath once called ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’. There is a long tradition of singling out the most obviously parasitical or unpopular faces of the market economy for criticism, a practice that tends only to obscure and cheapen the system’s underlying problems. The church leaders were here following the same false trail as the tabloid newspapers who seem to imagine that the multi-trillion dollar financial system has been thrown into crisis by fat-cat bankers going on a jolly to Monte Carlo.

But then, what more should we expect from religious leaders, lost and wandering in the material world? The real problem is that our political leaders offer nothing more substantial in the way of critical analysis or alternatives. At the recent Labour, Liberal Democrat and even Tory party conferences, the easiest route to the moral high ground has been to complain about individual City bonuses, while simultaneously supporting the bailout of entire banking institutions.

This points to one important factor that has yet to alter in the new age of instability and sudden shifts in fortune. Many people have talked about the end of an era. New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown even worked up the nerve to announce the end of an ‘era of irresponsibility’ in the financial sector, without of course suggesting that he might have borne any responsibility for it during his decade as chancellor of the exchequer.

But whatever else has ended, we are decidedly not at the end of the era of TINA – There Is No Alternative.

TINA first came to prominence as handmaiden to Margaret Thatcher’s Tory governments in the 1980s. It began as a slogan declaring her determination to drive through hard-line pro-market and anti-trade union measures. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the decade, TINA briefly became the triumphant cry of those celebrating the historic triumph of capitalism over communism.

Before long, however, capitalism again proved less capable of overcoming its own economic difficulties. This did not break the market consensus, but it did turn TINA from a figure of triumphalism to one of fatalism. From now on, if anybody expressed the view that There Is No Alternative, it was more with a shrug of resignation. Whatever problems the market might have, it was the only show in town (albeit the theatre remained dependent on state subsidies).

After Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power in 1997, it embraced TINA along with Brown’s pin-up, Prudence. New Labour completed the process of removing the economy from political debate, symbolised by Brown’s first act as chancellor – handing control of monetary policy and interest rates to the Bank of England. The economy became seen as an entirely technical affair, to be managed by assorted bean-counters, consultants and ‘experts’, while politicians focused their energies waging war on terror, or obesity, or smoking.

Today, in the midst of a financial crisis when everything seems to be up for grabs, we can see that TINA still rules the roost. Where is the political debate about the future of our economy and society? What arguments are being fought out about how we should produce and distribute our collective wealth? The comparisons being drawn between this and previous capitalist crises might be dubious and overblown, as previously discussed on spiked. But the starkest contrast is surely in the absence of serious critiques and alternatives offered today compared to other eras.

Instead politicians of every persuasion are doing no more than reactive fire-fighting, attempting to keep the status quo in place. The proposed huge financial bailouts show that the Republican administration in America does not believe in the free market, any more than the Labour government in Britain believes in socialism. All of them are simply acting like desperate bank managers, trying to keep the failing business afloat on credit – and making as bad a job of it as those bankers they are bailing out.

With the recent nationalisations, one veteran Labour supporter joked with me that, ‘It looks like we might end up controlling the commanding heights of the economy after all!’ – the holy grail of the old left. In fact, of course, as he well knew, the Labour government is sweeping up the rubble of the finance sector, not as an act of socialism but of pragmatism, not to further the cause of workers’ control but to keep capitalism working.

It would be impossible for anybody to come up with a quick ‘progressive solution’ to the current crisis. Perhaps in the short term the best anybody could hope for would be for business and politicians to adopt a bolder approach to investing in the future of capitalism, rather than trying to freeze the failing present. But the bigger problem today is that, far from providing any answers, nobody is even asking the questions about what should come next or where our economy and society should be heading.

Margaret Thatcher may be long gone from government and in declining health. But by default, her old comrade TINA still stalks the corridors of power.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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