Watch Question Time – or any TV programme where politicians are on display – and it’s clear that our cover theme, turning David Cameron’s ‘we can’t go on like this’ back on him and all the main parties, sums up a popular mood. Disillusionment with politicians has fed into a deepening anger at the way in which the political establishment have been subservient to the filthy rich, from the unconditional and unaccountable bail-out of the bankers to Lord Ashcroft’s private tax wheeze.
Underlying this behaviour is the long-term tendency towards Britain becoming a casino state – with some of the participants betting on its collapse.
The dependence of the British economy on the prosperity of the financial sector is extreme, built up over decades. Harold Wilson’s deference to the pound in the 1960s kyboshed the opportunity to invest in a major restructuring of the economy with the revenue from North Sea oil. Thatcher’s attack on trade union power, destruction of manufacturing and, above all, her deregulation of finance, fed the international power of the City.
Finance capital grew, from being a dominant power in a bargaining process that also included manufacturing industry and the unions, to becoming the prime driver of the economy and the state. This has skewed government policy – whichever political party is in office – against taxing the rich and capital gains, towards intensifying the Atlantic alliance and favouring investments supporting the infrastructure of the financial sector. This includes, most recently, the investment in Heathrow’s expansion, and now public spending cuts, reducing public debate to a matter of ‘when’?
The cuts are not primarily about covering the cost of the bank bail-out. They are to pay for the loss of revenue from a crisis-ridden financial sector on which the government has become massively dependent. In fact, a rush to cut will simply lock the economy into this dependence and prepare the way for a further crisis and a spiral of decline.
What is needed is action to direct the formally public banks to fund investment in the real economy – generating revenue which will eventually, with redistributive taxation, not only cover the deficit but also address its cause. There’s no lack of possibilities and needs if we look beyond Canary Wharf: public investment in developing regional economies, including the growing social economy, supporting green restructuring, extending access to information technology to the whole population and more.
The jaded figures on our cover share a taboo on state action to counter the damaging dynamics of the capitalist market. Still in thrall to neoliberal nostrums, they compete to dismantle the state as a provider of services, leaving its function as primarily a prop to private capital. This denial of political agency creates the impression that the City has been hit by a tsunami – that ‘the markets’ are equivalent to ocean waves and we must all make sacrifices in the face of an unavoidable disaster.
To counter this, our aim must be to rebuild democratic – state and non-state – bargaining power in the face of entirely human-made powers. We need to call the bluff of the institutions that are hidden behind the market mystique and that are effectively betting on the futures of millions of people.
This isn’t about rebuilding the nation state as we have known it. It’s about intellectual work like that of Mary Mellor (page 40) to develop a vision of embedded public institutions drawing on recent thinking about the commons and participatory democracy. It’s about starting from and interconnecting the new or hybrid sources of non-state democratic power that so many of us are involved in. We need to link up innovative trade union and community initiatives and alliances, like the campaign for a “Robin Hood tax” on speculation now gaining a mass following (see page 30) and web communities like those that, 40 years from the founding of the women’s liberation movement, are reclaiming an activist feminism.
And we must find ways of up-scaling all this into an internationally oriented movement, directly concerned with social control over the economy.
In this context, the election campaigns of inspiring left wing candidates like Caroline Lucas and Salma Yaqoob (page 16) are as important in their capacity to develop voters’ confidence to speak out and get organised as to win votes. Vital too are campaigns (page 14) that are using the election to build clarity and support for the struggles that will be necessary from the morning after polling day, whoever wins.
‘We can’t go on like this’ is not a call to arms, as if the line of march is already mapped and the generals in place. On the contrary, it’s an insistence that we act on our contempt for the political elites by realising our own capacities, with the latest means of communication, as potential creators of new institutions and new political projects. We can recombine the useful of the old with the possibilities being opened up by the new, so that we truly no longer should carry on like this.