Every crisis is an opportunity

There is an urgent need for new ideas that challenge the technocrats, writes Andy Bowman

February 8, 2012
5 min read

Goodbye, 2011 – we will miss you. An upsurge of popular protest against our dysfunctional economic system finally arrived, Western-backed dictatorships in the Arab world were toppled, and social movements began to take on innovative, unfamiliar forms.

One person who will be trying to banish the memories of 2011, though, is Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Less than a year after he joined the TUC’s March for the Alternative to say ‘there is an alternative to these cuts’, his first major intervention of 2012 was to announce that ‘we are going to have keep all these cuts’.

The nuances of Balls’ speech, delivered to the Fabian Society on January 14, suggest this is not quite the 180-degree reversal in approach that delighted commentators on the right suggest. What it certainly does represent, however, is a continuation of the slide into a post-political consensus in the UK’s parliamentary politics. In the ever‑shrinking centre-ground that the three major parties inhabit, differences of opinion over fundamental issues are sidelined for an image-based popularity contest in which winning power is an end in itself. And in pursuit of victory in this contest, as evidenced by its refusal to support the pension strike, Labour is willing to trample upon its support base in pursuit of the elusive centre-right floating voter. Miliband’s Labour turns out not so different from New Labour after all.

Labour’s vacillations over the cuts are an exemplar of the deeper crisis of social democratic parties across Europe. If there was any doubt over the matter before, it seems certain now that significant progressive change will continue to be driven by movements outside the formal political process. This issue of Red Pepper contains several critical reflections on the successes, failures, challenges and opportunities in this arena. These range from a discussion of the historical lessons for the Occupy movement and an analysis of the relation between leaderships and grassroots members in trade union mobilisations for N30, to a look at the student movement’s ability to bypass conventional union structures altogether.

Paul Mason outlines the extent to which horizontal forms of political organisation combined with new communication technologies have created protests that repressive regimes find hard to contain, and that also, as he puts it, have a ‘congruence with the human values of the generation’ in a way that increasingly tired traditional left organisations do not. In the surreal contest between Ed Miliband and David Cameron to offer condemnation of ‘predatory’ or ‘crony’ capitalism, or the Economist’s plea to ‘Save the City’ as ‘even the bankers’ supposed allies are putting the boot in’, one can read the far-reaching impacts that the likes of UK Uncut and Occupy are now beginning to have.

There are grounds for caution as well as optimism though. As our essay by Adam Leaver outlines, the past three years have seen the entrenchment of a coalition of big banks, leading politicians and civil servants within the most powerful organs of the British state, which has successfully blocked financial reform. The democratic disconnects hereby created will be hard to overcome. Additionally, as Nina Power’s sobering analysis of the legal system’s crackdown on student protests and Mika Minio-Paluello’s report from Cairo remind us, successful movements usually encounter repression.

The EU’s lurch towards technocracy exemplifies the regressive direction in which official politics may be heading as political elites seek to contain the discontent caused by imposed austerity. There is an urgent need for new ideas that challenge the technocrats’ neoliberal programme, which threatens to undo the social gains of the past half century and erode the basis of mass democracy itself.

This issue seeks to provide a space for discussion of some of the alternative proposals for a route out of the EU’s current crisis, in the hope that we might ‘keep good ideas alive until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable’.

The quote is borrowed from Milton Friedman, who endured decades in the political wilderness during the Bretton Woods era of state capitalism. The coalition of interests that the likes of Friedman provided the intellectual foundations for, later subsumed under the label ‘neoliberalism’, was well placed to take advantage of the collapse of the post-war economic order in the 1970s.

At the time of writing, the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s has, ironically, issued a stark warning over the shortcomings of Europe’s austerity obsession via a rating downgrade of France and Austria. Ernst & Young economists have announced that Britain is back in a double-dip recession and that unemployment will rise to three million in 2012.

As Friedman was fond of saying, every crisis is an opportunity. And as the failures of neoliberal doctrine proffered by both the EU technocrats and the UK’s coalition become more apparent, the space for alternatives is opening further.


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