The sad death recently of Stuart Hall and the thoughtful obituaries that have been published, along with recent public debates about extreme weather and climate change, perhaps help us first take stock of our past and then point to the possibility of a new era in politics being about to start. Of course, nothing is certain because politics is not mechanical, but let’s consider the last 60 years, as outlined in the obituaries of his working life, and how the time divides roughly into two political periods.
First, in 1956 we had Suez and Hungary. The Suez crisis caused a disenchantment with the UK, France and Israel acting as imperial powers, basically invading Egypt on a pretext. The Hungarian uprising and the Soviet crackdown showed the Eastern Bloc countries in a similar light. The resulting New Left was non-aligned, not fixed to nation states, but instead fixed to ideas of human rights and freedoms. It was the New Left that created a climate for cultural change and the ‘sixties revolution’ of supporting campaigns rather than political parties. This was CND, women’s liberation, the civil rights movement in America, Cathy Come Home and Shelter, and a nascent environmental movement.
Then, in the late 1970s we find a counter-movement politically. The oil crisis around 1973 created an economic shock in the West which took years to work through. Politics slowly moved to the right, a new era of neo-liberalism followed, summarised as Thatcherism in the UK and Reaganism in the USA, but best known now as globalisation. The solution here was to be business-led, to dismantle the structures which were said to hold back progress, including trade unions and local authorities. In the UK the New Labour movement continued in that direction in some aspects, for example requiring students to pay tuition fees, but took a more inclusive approach in other aspects, such as the network of Sure Start centres, rebuilding schools and hospitals, and in-work tax credits to address child poverty. There was a view in Russia that the two world wars in the twentieth century were essentially a conflict between democracy and capitalism, and the post-war settlement in the West was about how those two forces might rub along. Globalisation put capitalism first again, not least because democratic countries became powerless to stop flows of money leaving. The New Labour movement argued that this was a price worth paying for a new, more peaceful world order. To roughly quote a line from the TV drama, The West Wing, “Global trade stops wars. The rest we sort out afterwards.” Iraq and Afghanistan ended that hope.
However, even if wars continued, globalisation in the West contained two seeds of decline: debt and climate change. The lack of global political structures that were as strong as the forces of business meant that any international responses to debt or to climate change were essentially voluntary, by treaty, and could be ignored or avoided without penalty. Thus we see the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund making requirements on elected governments for limited amounts of borrowing while the business sector was very lightly regulated, being able to shop around the world for the best deal. The new round of Basle banking rules have been an attempt to better regulate banks internationally after the 2008 crash, but other aspects of globalisation continued as before, alongside growing levels of income inequality.
So, following the 2008 crash (from which the UK has yet to recover economically in terms of GDP, productivity or employment), and the 2014 extreme weather events (which maybe will bring climate change into political focus in the UK), this could be a moment politically when the furniture is moved for another 30-year or generational period. Crucially, any such change will hinge on how younger people respond politically to their generally declining conditions of employment, housing and debt. The national lack of trust in UK institutions as well as in the press and in political parties has, I believe, inhibited a coherent political response so far.
And when this political response does show itself, there are no guarantees it will be a good outcome. Politics is not a playground game where ‘left’ and ‘right’ take it in turns to be in charge. The move could be further to the right. The 2008 crash has produced some strong right-wing trends in some European countries, especially in blaming immigrants, most recently in Switzerland.
The pessimistic scenario is of a right-wing retrenchment across Europe, with increasing xenophobia, more intolerance of minorities, and an increasing meanness in sharing the fewer public resources available. The driver for these trends would be the continued economic decline of the West as the South (China, India, Brazil, and maybe Africa) rises. Such tensions are also evident within the South, for example the street protests and disorder in Brazil over rising costs in public transport, and the increase in street violence linked to racism.
An alternative scenario is of a new understanding of how the world’s resources are finite, and what a fair and equitable sharing of these resources would look like. Ideally, centred around maximising people’s happiness and wellbeing rather than maximising a figure of wealth. Money is only a means to an end, not the end itself.
Clearly this is an ideal, and globally there will always be countries which drag their feet, looking to squeeze an advantage over the rest. But, for me, I’d much rather face that as a problem to be dealt with, rather than have to deal with retrenchment and xenophobia with all its echoes of 1930s Europe and the conditions which supported the growth of fascism.
Disclaimer: As are all my posts here, this is a personal view.