It is disorientating to exist in a period of permanent crisis. You get out of a financial crisis with an austerity crisis attached which brings you a housing crisis and then Covid arrives and shows up the result of all of your crises at once for just long enough to experience two summer global warming crises and a massive cost of living crisis, all taking place in front of a crisis of democracy across the western world and a crisis of global instability everywhere you look.
And yet all these crises are really just the one crisis, repeatedly rebranded by the people that brought you that omnicrisis. This all leaves the causes of economic equality, climate change and Scottish independence facing massive opportunities and some substantial risks.
I’ll have a look at those tomorrow, but first it is really important to properly understand the shape and cause of the crisis we’re in. And to understand that it’s helpful to travel back in time to the 1990s. The 1980s changed the economy we had, but it was the 1990s that created the economy which was to follow.
It was based on two fundamental concepts, repeated ad nauseam until people started to believe them. The first was the creation of the concept of ‘centrism’. This was a new formulation of the concept that there is an identifiable elite who should self evidently run the world on our behalf. The idea of a hereditary aristocracy or a feudal serfdom or a ‘boarding school nobility’ was old and damaged.
But combine it with that dominant mythology of ‘meritocracy’ (the measurably false presumption that people rise because of ability and not wealth and connections…) and you get a new form of elite ideology – the centrist idea of ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’.
In this new mythology professional politicians would be informed by ‘economic experts’, experts from the private sector, legal experts and so on. Since that is a gathering of the ‘pinnacles of human knowledge and success’, inevitably they are ‘more right’ than any alternative you can think of. And since they are therefore the human embodiment of rationality they will bring about ‘the end of history’, a self-sustaining perpetuity of the best possible civilisation.
The legal agreements signed by one government which binds all subsequent ones has been perhaps the biggest inhibitor of social change of our generation (though lobbying access and media ownership close contenders for that accolade).
The 1990s were when centrism took hold properly; no more pesky ideology, only the most rational actions possible. Thus you (as a mere citizen) can just disengage from politics altogether because society and all its power are in the hands of ‘the right people’. Get a pair of ‘cargo pants’ and go snowboarding (or whatever). Be you, shop and they’ll let you know when they need your input.
So neo-feudalism rebranded as ‘centrism’ was one half of the spell; the other was globalisation. After all, modern technology means the world is getting smaller and smaller and the idea that the economy of such a world has time to stop at the artificial borders of our nation states is clearly a 19th century idea. There needed to be globalised ways to govern globalised trade.
There is so much wrong with this argument it is hard to know where to start. First of all, extensive international trade is nothing new; sources of the tin that (combined with copper) makes bronze was rare in Europe and so the Bronze Age relied on enormous amounts of trans- and inter-continental trade. The world of the 1990s was getting faster, not smaller.
What globalisation was really a response to was not technological change but the social changes that Thatcher and Reagan had brought about. They had taken radical steps to dismantle the underpinnings of the post-World War social democratic model. That model had (very successfully) increased democratic control of the economy which resulted in a massive redistribution of wealth away from the elites to ordinary workers.
Globalisation was about making sure that never happened again. It was a series of multilateral ‘trade deals’ which created governing mechanisms which were supra-national in nature – the World Bank, the IMF, the Global Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the European Single Market and much more. The primary feature of all of these initiatives was that there was no feasible democratic way to reform them.
Some of the younger ones among you may be surprised to hear that it wasn’t always the case that half of your own political objectives were labeled impossible because of ‘trade law’. But the legal agreements signed by one government which binds all subsequent ones has been perhaps the biggest inhibitor of social change of our generation (though lobbying access and media ownership are close contenders for that accolade).
The global economic order was now outside of democratic control, a wild-west playground of corporate interests which had the capacity to supersede any domestic democratic decision. And of course this was to be owned and governed by an elite, an elite which was to include the democratic representatives of those who were not the elite (the centrist politicians).
Globalised centrism has gone virtually unchallenged in the developed west. In Britain it was a consensus across parties – Blair, Cameron, May and yes, Boris Johnstone built this world, but perhaps none more so than the architect of ‘globalised Britain’, Saint Gordon of Brown.
In fact the only two challenges to this ideology show you the problem – Trump in America was pretty anti-globalist but even more elitist, even in his populism while Corbyn in Britain was utterly destroyed by a concerted campaign from the ‘centrist elite’ he was challenging.
It is awful to see this and see opportunity – but worse not to
And now we are paying for all of this. You watched on as the indicator chosen by this global elite to measure success (GDP) in fact measured only their own success. They pillaged and polluted, took by force or coercion, slanted every playing field in their own favour and took, took, took at a rate certainly not seen since colonialism and slavery. Their empire of greed took everything.
When they saw that they could take more by destroying good jobs in the west and turning them into bad jobs in the east, they did that. When they could ‘stretch and extract’ (take an enterprise, rip it apart, liquidate the profitable bits and dump the resultant mess), they did that. When evidence of an environmental crisis emerged it needed to be suppressed, so they did that. When they realised they could strip more wealth by causing house prices to skyrocket, they did that.
Flaky supply chains that save some money here and there, concentration of economic activity in risky single sites to reduce costs further, inflating their own wealth by creating money out of nothing via central banks, allying with militia groups which would wipe out indigenous populations to gain access to their natural resources – nothing was too venal or to inhumane for globalised centrists.
Would it do any good for me to point out that back in those 1990s there were lots of us who warned that this is what would happen and that the results for the planet and humanity would be dire? We have been proved precisely right. If you strip wealth from everything and everyone while preventing them from democratic recourse, the crises are inevitable.
The above describes the causes of the climate crisis. And the financial crisis of 2007. And the austerity crisis. And the global instability crises of wars in the Middle East and Africa. And the crises of democracy breaking out since the financial crisis. And the scale of the Covid crisis. And the climate crisis that is now with us. And the cost of living crisis we are about to experience.
It is awful to see this and see opportunity – but worse not to. If we cannot find opportunity in this then the next crisis will be worse again (you’ve noticed the crises are getting closer together and worse, haven’t you?). And the people whose suffering now creates opportunity are the people who will suffer worse again in the future if we don’t take that opportunity.
Everything that needs to change benefits from a clear realisation by the public that the hardships they endure are the result of the cynical ‘me, me, me’ of the global elite. Anger at that elite is a precious resource that must be handled carefully. In the right hands it creates a social revolution like in the post war period. In the wrong hands it leads to the fascism that started the war…
So we need to understand that none of this is ‘just happening’. It isn’t a law of economics any more than it is a law of physics. Ordinary people are reaping the entirely predictably bitter harvest of what the elite have sown. Our pain is the result of their choices, their grasping choices.
They know this. They’re petrified. Hell, the CBI is calling for major cuts to energy bills, clearer than most that it is them who should and very possibly will be the focus of our fury.
But fury does no good. It must become a programme of action or it will simply sputter out again, until the next one. So tomorrow I will look at what this means for the causes of economic equality, climate change and independence.