It is now a cliche to say that we live in a time of crisis. Long before the financial system collapsed in 2007-8 it was obvious that the natural world was heading towards a disaster that Western political systems were unable to acknowledge adequately, much less address. But the collapse of the credit bubble and its aftermath have made this sense of crisis much more pervasive. The stories that justified the existing order have lost much of their credibility. The great rewards enjoyed by the rich were supposed to be accompanied by great risks. It turns out that, like so much of what we’ve been told over the last few decades, this wasn’t true. The rewards belonged to those who gambled. Meanwhile those who had placed no bets were left with the bill.
This collapse of credibility has prompted many on the left to invoke Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “organic crisis”. In their useful pamphlet Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics, Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy quote the following passage from the Prison Notebooks:
In every country the process is different, although the content is the same. And the content is the crisis of the ruling class, which occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a revolution. A “crisis of authority” is spoken of; this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the State.
In recent years the emphasis has fallen on the first part of Gramsci’s formulation. There has been much talk of the ruling class’s failure “in some major political undertaking”. But it is clear that the mere fact of failure will not be enough to shake their hold on society. Indeed, at the current trajectory there is every chance that the culprits will emerge stronger.
A programme of reform
Despite the accumulating evidence of bad faith, ineptitude and outright larceny, the same people who caused the economic meltdown remain in charge of managing the aftermath. It’s true that the politicians who made their names as champions of free markets now feel obliged to make disapproving noises about the worst excesses of capitalism. But they are also busily stoking resentment against traditional scapegoats – welfare recipients and immigrants in particular. In Britain the combination of vague left-populist rhetoric against bankers and very precisely targeted attacks on vulnerable groups has an ominous pedigree.
Financial market meltdown
If the crisis is to be resolved in a way that serves the interests of the majority then we will need to pay more attention to the formulation of demands – or, if you prefer, to programmes for social transformation. There are some signs that this is indeed happening. To take two recent examples, Seth Ackerman’s The Red and the Black, for example, is a serious attempt to describe a plausible socialist system. John Quiggin meanwhile explores a Keynesian utopia in his essay “The Golden Age“.
Over the last few weeks I haven’t described a final destination for radical politics. Instead I’ve picked out three areas of our shared life where great power is wielded without effective public oversight, let alone control. In matters of finance, scientific research and the media vast public subsidies satisfy the lucky few at the expense of the hapless many. Not surprisingly they are surrounded with a mixture of energetic misrepresentation and malignant silence whose effects spread and corrupt the entire field of what is said and thought. For example, the communications industry is unable to discuss man’s impact on the natural world in terms that match its seriousness and significance for human life. And so it resorts instead to a kind of hysterical inanity. The billboard intimacies of celebrity culture screen the reality of a rapidly deteriorating environment and intensifying resource competition.
But why should we unite around such a programme of reform, or something like it? It isn’t exhaustive, at all. In fact it is deliberately incomplete. But it has a number of features that make it attractive. It only asks for powers that are to be exercised by everyone, in virtue of their being citizens, even if the consequences for the disadvantaged (by which I mean the exploited, disparaged and abused) will be quite profound. It moves us beyond the rhetoric of resistance. To resist without a practical alternative is a kind of political sentimentality. Besides, any practical alternative to the current political consensus must have revolutionary implications. Why shy away from that? There’s no need to worry that proposals like this will undermine your reputation for seriousness. The political class has been mouthing nonsense for years and continues to make things up as it goes along.
The reforms I suggest have sufficient scope to excite a degree of popular support. They attack illegitimate power directly. They represent a different way of organising important aspects of society. At the same time they fit neatly into the imaginative structures of neo-liberalism, the better to transform them. We all pay for the institutions on which I concentrate. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that we should have some say in how they are run. The customer is king, after all.
But they are also modest in two ways. Firstly, they can be framed in terms of the electoral system. And, because they could be enacted in legislation, they become a direct threat to sitting politicians and an opportunity for their rivals for office. Secondly, as noted above, they do not entail any given outcome. It is possible to envisage the public culture I describe developing in a number of ways. Though the popular power to control the financial system cannot help but end capitalism in its current form, it leaves open the question of what will replace it. A programme that seeks widespread support must have this transitional nature. Otherwise our efforts will break down over different visions of the future that are all the more tantalising for being out of focus. Taken together what I propose constitutes a revolution and will be resisted as such.
We are in a crisis, that much is clear. It might end in a more entrenched and self-confident oligarchy or in a much more fully developed and capable democracy. Oligarchy has been the norm in human affairs. It is time we tried something different. Call it what you will, but it must be the achievement of a free people acting in the broad daylight of a general comprehension.
Dan Hind is the prize-winning author of The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. Last year he published two online essays, “Common Sense” and “Maximum Republic”.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind