Crisis for Christmas

With so much of this, Red Pepper’s Christmas issue, examining the financial crisis, it doesn’t look like we are exactly bringing yuletide good cheer. But the holiday is also a time to reflect, recharge and prepare for the New Year. So we’re unashamedly adding to your seasonal menu some tough food for thought! We want […]
January 2009

With so much of this, Red Pepper's Christmas issue, examining the financial crisis, it doesn't look like we are exactly bringing yuletide good cheer. But the holiday is also a time to reflect, recharge and prepare for the New Year. So we're unashamedly adding to your seasonal menu some tough food for thought! We want to convey both the sense of a historic opportunity for egalitarian change, and the real and evident threat to millions of people's livelihoods if we do not grasp it.

We have to think and act strategically: refusing those solutions from above that attempt to solve the bankers' crisis at the expense of people entirely innocent of the crime, and campaigning from below for constructive solutions. That may not bring down capitalism, but it can begin to force decisions on the basis of social need.

There's a lot of mental pollution to clear away first, like the idea of the 'credit crunch' itself - as if we're all in it together, rich and poor. As if this financial crisis is some great equaliser: we're all going to feel the pinch but if we swallow this wholesome 'credit crunch' breakfast cereal we'll soon get better.

The solutions on offer that go beyond 'grin and bear it' still go nowhere near the kind of change that the depth of the crisis requires (see Hugo Radice). Read the Guardian and you sense a palpable sigh of relief at the idea of going back to Keynes, as if somehow the policies associated with past prosperity represent firm ground. The nostalgia for Keynes also represents a yearning for definitive schemes and new supermen to guide us through the global economic maze. Every minor rearrangement of the global financial deckchairs is greeted as 'new architecture', while Gordon Brown is confidently refashioning the role of a contemporary Keynes to fit his more clunky conservative persona.

But Stuart Holland witnessed the breaking of Keynesianism while a young adviser to Harold Wilson in the 1960s, as its once-sharp instruments of managing demand came up against two obstacles that rendered it almost powerless: the growth of the multinational corporation with inordinate power over the market, including international trade, and the re-established power of the City and finance capital after years of financial stability.

Both, ironically, were the product of the success of Keynesianism - along with the economic consequences of the second world war - in kick-starting a further phase of capital accumulation and in re-establishing the international financial system so that once again financial institutions flourished.

The growth of the corporate giants shattered Keynes's assumption that the state needed only to influence the level of demand (through lowering taxes and/or increasing public spending) and the market could be left to itself. And the increasing power of the City created a powerful enemy of the welfare state and any attempt by the government to intervene in industry or significantly to borrow to expand.

The financial crisis that has its roots in those years is surely the moment to begin to tackle these two unaccountable sources of economic power. With the banks visibly dependent on the government and the taxpayer it becomes a logical step to turn the banks into public utilities (see Leo Panitch). To make money the servant not the master of the public, going well beyond the non-voting (and temporary) shares that the British government has taken as part of the rescue package.

Public control over the banks would give the government power to radically influence the real economy. Through its control of lending it would have real bargaining power over multinationals, to tackle the recession and require ecologically driven investments; through its capacity to create social funds (see Robin Blackburn) it could give huge support to the social and co-operative economy and the development of new forms of peer-to-peer production (see Michel Bauwen).

The key to such possibilities is democracy and movement-building, locally and globally. There is an appetite for this: for democratic control over money, to end the gross inequalities now revealed to all, to end the waste and destruction of war, to meet the housing, health and education needs of all.

The worldwide excitement over Barack Obama's election is an expression of these long-suppressed desires. Whether we can build globally on his victory depends on our ability to tap previously hidden sources of power, to scale up the alternatives we have been developing or trying to develop on the ground, as we resist.

Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.


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