I don’t predict a riot
The passivity of public reactions to the financial turmoil is a symptom of the other crisis: of democratic politics.
These can seem like surreal times, when little is as it appears. Walking through a sunny London at lunchtime last Friday, you would never have guessed it was mid-October. And to judge by the sunny disposition of many working people, you might also have been hard pressed to guess that we were in the middle of a financial crisis which even business papers have described as ‘the end of liberal capitalism’.
The London crowds were going about their business as normal, the pubs and restaurants were as packed as on any other Friday. People walking to and from work would take a quick glance at the newspaper billboards screaming about ‘Blind panic as shares crash’, then go back to their decidedly non-panicky chatting and texting. It was as if the crisis was happening in some other city, far away.
At lunch, I was talking to an old friend about the apparent absence of public displays of anger or outrage at the financial meltdown and government bailout of the banks. He said he had recently watched again Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s dramatised version of events leading up to the New York draft riots of the 1860s, in which poor citizens of the city pulled the wealthy from their big houses ‘and then pulled them apart’. There were no signs of any such anti-rich riots in sunny London.
Instead all that happened on Friday was that the Socialist Worker Student Society got a couple of hundred students to play dodge with the police and march through a ‘glitzy shopping mall’ in the City of London, shouting: ‘No bail! Send the bankers to jail!’ There were no arrests. On Monday, as share prices rose again, there was another small left-wing protest in the City against ‘taxpayers’ money being plunged into the banks and trans-national finance institutions’. Few taxpayers took part.
Apart from these almost universally-ignored efforts, the only visible signs of public disquiet have been predictable postings about ‘fat cats’ on those ‘have your say’ online discussion boards, and invitations to join websites mocking the agonies of investment bankers. It hardly amounts to an uprising, or even an argument.
No doubt the relative lack of reaction is partly because the economic consequences of the crisis have yet to affect most people. But more importantly, even if and when it does hit home, what could they do about it? This strange and transient state of affairs, the apparent disconnection between the economic crisis and everyday life, is more a symptom of another crisis: the crisis of democratic politics.
One thing that clearly distinguishes this financial disruption from earlier capitalist crises is the complete absence of any political alternatives. Unlike in the 1930s or 1970s, there is no Soviet Union or parties of Western state socialism to offer even the illusion of an alternative to capitalism. Society is widely described as facing a crisis, a crossroads, yet there is no serious debate about which road to take into a different future. The Conservative opposition in the UK has managed the considerable achievement of looking even more paralysed than the government. Meanwhile, we are warned by the authorities that this is ‘no time’ for idle talk, as if we were facing a foreign invasion. But if now is not the time to raise questions about the direction of our society, when is?
In fact the problem goes further than an absence of alternatives. There is no longer even a ruling political ideology against which to formulate one. An alternative to what? There is nothing political about the Labour government’s multi billion pound bailout of the banking system. This is not nationalisation as an act of ‘state socialism’, unless you seriously believe that President George W Bush has become the world’s leading socialist. Instead Bush and Gordon Brown are simply adapting the non-political managerialism of government over the past decade to firefighting in a crisis, trying to keep as much of the existing financial structures standing as possible. Despite his token gestures about squeezing bankers’ bonuses, prime minister Brown’s political vision does not extend further than the next day’s share prices or opinion poll ratings.
Brown has sought to signal that he is above politics by comparing himself to Winston Churchill as a strong national leader in an emergency. Many pundits seem to agree, announcing that the crisis and the counter-crisis measures have restored the authority of Brown and the New Labour government. These responses only serve to confirm the distance between the world occupied by the political class and the one where most people live. An unpopular government facing the prospect of a recession, alongside tax rises and/or public spending cuts to fund its financial rescue package, has little to feel smug about.
But more importantly, what does it matter to people in the non-political world whether Brown survives or not? The responses to the crisis to date have demonstrated that the masses have effectively been disenfranchised, left with no political voice or vision, milling past billboards announcing what our rulers are doing in our name. When the recessionary pressures hit more people harder they will certainly react. In the absence of any political debate, however, those reactions are likely to be conservative and narrowly fatalistic. It is perfectly rational for people to refuse to buy houses or anything else or to invest their hard-earned money in such uncertain times. But hiding our lives under the mattress is no alternative either.
The crisis of democratic politics has reduced people to mere spectators at a potential turning point for their own societies. At best we can shout at fat cats on the television or the internet – an even more passive and pointless display of public anger than fans booing England footballers. The description of disgruntled citizens as ‘taxpayers’ – common to both right- and left-wing protesters today – captures the view of people as mere fee-paying passengers on the ship of state, rather than active political agents. There seems little prospect of any old-fashioned eat-the-rich riot – though even such a mindless outburst might look meaningful compared to what’s not happening today.
People can vote for or against Brown, and they can vote with their feet or their wallets in the financial crisis. But until we find a way to address the crisis of democratic politics, they will still have no choice.
Against austerity, by Brendan O’Neill
There Is (still) No Alternative, by Mick Hume
Congress bales out, by Brendan O’Neill
Scapegoating the spivs, by Tim Black
It’s the politics, stupid, by Phil Mullan
Lehman Brothers: when confidence runs out, by Rob Lyons
Five myths about the Wall Street crisis, by Daniel Ben-Ami
From the politics to the economics of fear, by Mick Hume
Fannie, Freddie and the ‘economics of fear’, by Sean Collins
The truth about the ‘credit crunch’, by Phil Mullan