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Financial meltdown and the Age of Possibility

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Given to us – perhaps once in a lifetime – is the chance, the responsibility, to see the world with fresh eyes. George Orwell described the fleeting, deceptive intoxication of such a moment in Barcelona in 1937. More recently, the people of Bolivia may well have felt it with the election of Evo Morales in 2005. There could even have been a trace of it after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. On any given day, in a city or village somewhere in the world, people are probably experiencing something very similar for themselves. But never in my lifetime has everyone been forced to witness together the same spectacle – the meltdown of the world’s financial ‘architecture’, the prison walls it built around us, the open space it leaves in front of us.

When jobs are being trashed and lives ruined, this may not be the most seemly moment to suggest that the meltdown might eventually prove to have been a good thing. But then, machines for the emission of carbon dioxide are rusting pointlessly on airfields, and there’s a chance for the skilful people who made them to make something much better – better, surely, than no job. The meltdown, rather than interminable conferences, might actually be cutting carbon emissions – in this crucial respect, the old regime worked only when it failed. Homes are becoming more affordable, just as people who need them are being kicked out of them. Some people now find the growth of vital things like food more satisfying than ‘economic growth’ or losing oneself in a vacuous computer screen. A renewed sense of sufficiency, of the public interest and the common good, is being restored a little closer to its right place.

Epitaph for an era

All the while, however, governments have been bending every sinew to put things back the way they were – the one mission that is, for all practical purposes, impossible. In the space of a few months it has become drearily commonplace to hear of, say, a handful of idiots on Wall Street who pay themselves $20 billion from public funds as a reward for their inspired attempts to plunge the world into chaos. Even more characteristic of that world is the shameful fact that 80 in every 100 of their fellow human beings possess not so much as a single cent of social security; just 20 in every 100 consume 80 per cent and more of the world’s vanishing resources. ‘Money,’ retorted one of those smart Wall Street fools by way of justification, ‘is fungible’ – raised for one purpose, it can quite legally be used for another. Let that, finally, be the epitaph for a misbegotten age.

I grew to maturity through the 1960s and 1970s in Europe and Latin America, when power was being ceded to financial markets. How it had been possible, in a society bankrupted by war at the time, to establish the National Health Service in Britain and bring key sectors of the economy under some sort of democratic control (including, in 1946, the Bank of England itself), was already hard to imagine.

The merest hint of an offence against financial markets became, by 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher, enough to send political parties of all shades running for ‘realism’. By the 1990s, a prospective New Labour government was charting its path to power through ‘prawn cocktail offensives’ in the City of London franchise of Wall Street, and around the tropical tax havens of Rupert Murdoch. Plenty of people bought in to the myopic realism of it all. Relatively few foresaw that Tony Blair would eventually find fulfilment as the most expensive after-dinner warbler in the world. Shoo-in Gordon Brown’s first public act as Prime Minister was to invite Margaret Thatcher to tea. By January 2009, at a uniquely sombre World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the would-be saviour of the world pronounced himself quite at ease without the slightest idea where events were leading him.

The best answer we’re ever likely to get is emerging from the bottom up, not from the top down – from Belém rather than from Davos

Another world

Quite suddenly, it is the realists who don’t know what they are ‘for’ – Thatcher’s ‘moaning minnies’ who do. Though you would never have guessed it from the corporate media, at exactly the same time as Davos but in Belém, Brazil, the World Social Forum was underway. Perhaps 100,000 people from social movements around the world gathered at the mouth of the Amazon to gain strength from each other and debate the fate of the environment, the irresistible urge for social justice, human dignity, survival itself. The Forum’s motto is: ‘Another World is Possible’. If, at the beginning of 2009, the nabobs of Davos already seemed to personify the past, Belém offered a glimpse into a future that might actually be worth having.

Cynics dismiss the Forum – if they consider it at all – as a dream factory. It doesn’t behave like a proper political party, deploying disciplined cadres and huge quantities of compromised cash on propaganda campaigns. It doesn’t aim to make apathy the most popular mood. It has its own reluctant seers, like Eduardo Galeano, but prefers to dwell on diversity rather than orthodoxy. Heaven forefend, ancient terms like ‘socialism’ are quite common currency. To some people that looks, well really, a bit flaky.

How odd, then, that not just one but five hard-nosed Presidents showed up together in Belém: Evo Morales (a former coca grower) from Bolivia, Hugo Chávez (a former soldier) from Venezuela, Fernando Luco (a former Catholic bishop) from Paraguay, Rafael Correa (an economist trained in Chicago, of all places) from Ecuador and Lula da Silva (a former car worker and union organizer) from Brazil. Naturally, they had their own motives for being there, their own varied records to defend. But, as Fernando Luco pointed out, some of them had been to previous Forums, before they became Presidents. ‘If we are Presidents today,’ said Morales, ‘we owe it to you.’ ‘Ten years ago,’ said Chávez, ‘an encounter between five Presidents of the region and their social movements would have been unthinkable.’

Who, then, can be entirely sure of what is or is not thinkable elsewhere? One does not have to ignore the limitations or peculiarities of what is happening in Latin America, or revert to wishful thinking about this least romantic of continents, to suggest that if such a thing can happen here then other possibilities are at least thinkable almost anywhere.

Co-operative works

Like most people, I reckon, my own sense of what is possible stems from what I already know to be so in daily life. For the past 20 years, here at the New Internationalist in Oxford, I’ve worked in a co-operative. This may sound idealistic to you, but I’ve found it quite practical, because that’s what co-operation is. Ideals do still have a place, but someone who wished to live on ideals alone, free from human frailty, wouldn’t be satisfied with us for long. We make use of several million dollars every year without recourse to a greasy pole or a CEO. No-one can tell anyone else what to do – we are all paid the same, perfectly sufficient living wage. We play no financial instruments and offer no ‘incentives’ of the kind that banks seem to believe are the only thing worth working for. We rely for support not on advertisers or the ego of a mogul, but on our subscribers. As a result, we have no-one but ourselves to blame for our shortcomings. Even so, I reckon our co-op has worked a good deal better than the banks. Personally, I find it hard to imagine how anyone in their right mind would ever wish to work in any other way, though I know full well that most people still must.

This experience suggests to me that the most durable (though by no means infallible) decisions, at work as much as anywhere else, are reached by informed argument and rational debate between people who thereby come to share a sense of responsibility for them – not by handing them over to someone else. That sense, which can be perverse as well as inspired, lives in the guts of a much-falsified idea: democracy. How it might best be realized is never more than a rather muddled, sometimes laborious form of work in progress. But it does provide a clear and constant appreciation of what progress actually is, not least when orthodoxy evaporates into the thin air it came from.

So it’s not just by chance that we failed to be dazzled by consumer culture and corporate globalization. And now, as the Group of 20 (G20) self-appointed ‘world leaders’ prepare to convene in London and survey the wreckage, one wonders what kind of progress they have in mind – the sort of things that quite obviously must be done now (as outlined in ‘Naked Emperors’ pages viii-xvi).

Were the G20 to do all or most of these things, or even head in this general direction, then some sort of progress might well be made. But it is doubtful that they will, unless they are constantly pushed very hard from below. Out of mere instinct they will probably try to reconstruct the very financial architecture that has just collapsed, and resuscitate the Unholy Trinity of ‘multilateral’ institutions that was supposed to be its caretakers.

Together, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization have failed no less completely than the banks they mimicked. But as yet G20 governments have shown little appreciation of this fact, since they have presided over it themselves. Gordon Brown dwells on ‘transparency’, without suggesting who (short of more or less randomly assembled ‘colleges’ of countries) should be looking in, or to what purpose. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has whispered support for an Economic Council at the UN – a tentative step back towards a more sensible structure from which all three of the Unholy Trinity were quite deliberately severed at birth.

A clean start

Better, surely, to make a clean start. In order to do this, further difficulties will have to be overcome.

The problem that six or seven billion people will always have in reaching or expressing a common sense of democratic responsibility has no obvious solution. Indeed, corporate globalization has flourished precisely because there isn’t one. Nevertheless, global economic meltdown and climate change mean that progress towards one becomes increasingly vital.

Then again, corporate globalization was once said to presage the demise of the nation state. Yet the nation state remains just about the only institution with effective tax-raising powers, for the simple reason that it comes closest – if not necessarily that close – to democratic legitimacy. Tax-payers’ funds – the element of compulsion – have now been requisitioned to bail out corporate globalization, without for the most part any sort of democratic mandate. How will a citizen in, say, Britain, feel about acquiring the ‘toxic debts’ of a bailed-out British bank in, say, the US? Equally, ‘nationalization’ as we have come to know it, with its bad old habits, has yet to come to terms with democracy at work, or with an international outlook.

The best answer we’re ever likely to get is emerging, I am quite sure, from the bottom up, not from the top down – from Belém rather than from Davos; from villages and municipalities rather than from states; from workplaces and homes that are occupied rather than vacant; from the protests that mount as the self-propelled meltdown careers along its wayward path; from wherever the sense of democratic responsibility can best be expressed.

That, after all, is how we came to acquire such a thing as a Universal Declaration of Human Rights – not by the stroke of a pen on some diplomatic stage, but because, over the years and in their daily lives, people everywhere would not (and will not) tolerate anything else. So too, and before too long, we must also acquire what amounts to a Universal Declaration of Environmental Justice, because without it human life will be extinct.

Great areas of debate will doubtless remain. Markets may have their place but, unhinged as they have become from diverse human cultures, they have lost any sense of where that might be. The day someone stands for election in a relatively rich country, says ‘vote for me and consume less stuff’, gets elected and means it, will be the day liberal democracy has a future. That could be the same day we conclude that $15 trillion spirited from nowhere to sustain financial markets might better have been spent on almost anything else; that the force of arms is helpless against the force of nature; that progress gained by the few at the expense of the rest is no progress at all. The Age of Possibility would then truly be upon us.

David Ransom is a Co-editor of New Internationalist.