Yesterday I tried to show that the fundamental underlying reason people are angry, alienated and mistrustful is that they were lied to about the benefits of a wild economic experiment they were promised would make them wealthier and improve their public services but achieved basically the opposite.
More than that, I argued that when the politicians realised the promise had been broken they had nowhere to go because their ideology is predicated on not interfering with the system which wasn’t working and instead making social gains through a public sector which was supposed to be being funded by the titans of the economy but which in fact spent large parts of the time actually bailing those titans out using public money.
So they started to blame the voters for not celebrating ‘lesser evilism’ – vote Starmer, vote Biden, not because anyone thinks they’re good but because the political elite has got together and given you a choice which you must now like or lump. And if you lump, you’re the problem.
But that’s not the whole picture. The global crisis in democracy needed another factor to be in place to emerge; it needed there to be no alternative to this political narrative about the economy. After all, if your last gasp attempt to maintain elite control is lesser evilism, it would be a terrible problem if voters were being offered something else.
So if yesterday I tried to explain the basic economic and political failures which brought us to this place, today I want to explain that it was the failure of the left that sealed the deal.
Because if you were to sit down and take a dispassionate view about who was actually right about all of this it was the anti-globalisation left of the 1990s. That was my political proving ground, a time when exciting initiatives like the World Social Forum (as a counter to the World Economic Forum, the organising point for neoliberalism in Davos) were offering real hope for a future.
So why didn’t a left alternative to neoliberalism emerge to create a challenge to existing elite politics? Well, it did, but a number of things happened which derailed it, some by chance, some by design, some self-inflicted.
If you go back now and look at what the anti-globalisation movement was saying in the 1990s (or just browse the bookshelf of mine on which you’d find loads of the literature from the time), basically they were right about everything. Right about the economic instability of unregulated markets. Right about the economic hollowing-out of offshoring.
Right about the impact of monopolies. Right about the risks of an uncontested political ideology dominating our democracy to the exclusion of everything else. Right about the inevitable conflict it would eventually bring with it.
But the antiglobalisation movement was aggressively marginalised, not helped one bit by parts of that movement being too anarchist in nature and tending towards either a lack of seriousness (stilts do not change the world) or a penchant for destruction (part of the left always wants to smash a window).
Nevertheless in organisations like Atac (European alternative economists) or initiatives like the World Social Forum there were serious, grown-up proposal for a different system. Had Atac’s financial transactions tax ever been implemented we’d exist in very, very different world now.
But since antiglobalisation (it also had an unfortunately negative name) was only hitting its stride right at the end of the 1990s, the one thing it really didn’t need was a a massive geopolitical event to drag the left’s attention away. Then there was the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.
The truth is that the biggest legacy of Occupy wasn’t the revolution but the Coca Cola Corporation sponsoring pride
That (or more specifically the US’s blood-soaked response and particularly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) sucked away the left’s attention and directed it towards geopolitics rather than geoeconomics. So even the left stopped challenging the economic system for half a decade, refocussing on war and peace.
Then we get the financial crisis and it swings back again. Occupy Wall Street scares the pants off the global elite because it connects the left so completely with the global population of people screwed over by the banks.
But Occupy Wall Street had two components, one a demand for radical economic reform, the other a collection of ideas around democracy and identity. That latter aspect was all about ‘consent-based decision making’, race, gender and identity issues. So you can see why the global elite might well think ‘cracking – we’re all for that gender and identity stuff’.
It doesn’t need to be a conspiracy, just a case of ‘feeding the tiger you want to encourage to starve the other’. The truth is that the biggest legacy of Occupy wasn’t the revolution but the Coca Cola Corporation sponsoring pride and the Pepsi ‘Kendal Jenner as anarchist activist’ advert, probably the single most awful piece of trying to co-opt social movements in history.
It is a constant minefield addressing identity issues in politics but let me put it neutrally like this; if the corporations face either major regulation and tax or putting their pronouns on their emails, the decision is an easy one.
Why did identity politics appear to come out of nowhere to dominate everything in not much more than five years? In large part because corporations would have been delighted by it. It couldn’t be safer for a plutocrat. In fact it actually helped them – identity politics has done much more for wealthy people than poor people (think Sheryl Sandberg, not some Brazilian sex worker).
And then we got stuck for a decade in austerity (certainly in Europe) where the left was mainly arguing against changes to social security policy and the other issue which became dominant was climate change, another glorious opportunity for corporate capture.
Money flooded into politics to replace ideology – then again, neoliberal money is an ideology all of itself
There were always alternatives to neoliberal globalised capitalism, but they were prevented from finding space in politics, partly because the left parties were captured a long time ago, partly because the left is woefully disorganised (and has no money in an era when money can create or suppress momentum with ease) and partly because we keep offering opportunities to be derailed.
The final lesson on our odyssey of failure is Corbyn. Because when there is no political alternative for 50 years and everything gets worse and worse, people look for outlets for change. Corbyn’s economics were actually pretty cautious as these things go, but they were most certainly an alternative and they were very popular. So he was destroyed in a coordinated campaign.
What I now want you to do is combine my arguments from these two articles – that neoliberalism captured everything and failed, but still remained safe because it captured everything, and the popular narratives on an alternative to neoliberalism were constantly subverted, partly from within but largely from the outside.
The left didn’t challenge because when it escaped the ‘safe space’ of being against war or focussing on pronouns it was vigorously attacked by the plutocrats who were doing so well out of their neoliberal revolution. Neoliberalism allowed people to get disgustingly wealthy while at the same time allowing them to use their wealth to distort (even rewrite) public policy. Hell, they buy the media then all but decide which politicians we’re allowed to vote for.
Money flooded into politics to replace ideology – then again, neoliberal money is an ideology all of itself. Meanwhile the left had less and less money as sources of funding like the trade unions diminished. The fight was never equal and the left didn’t cover itself in glory.
The end result of this is that there really was little or no public debate which offered any alternative to the economic model that was screwing everyone over. ‘Tina’ had triumphed. Of course the left was angry, but everyone else was totally fine with this.
Except, eventually, the voters.