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Economy: coming out of crisis?

The world has known dozens of economic crises over the centuries. Among the great weaknesses of capitalism is its inability to steady itself, its tendency to generate bubbles that burst with terrible effects. Its strength seems to be its surprising ability to recover – and usually without major structural reform. The banking collapse of 2007-9, followed by the Eurozone crisis, has had severe economic and social consequences especially in the Global North, leaving unemployed great swathes of the population (especially among the young) notably in the peripheral states of the EU.

It can be argued that the financial crisis and its aftermaths did not greatly affect developing countries, for several reasons: Africa is less integrated in the world market. Latin America and Asia seemed better prepared, since they experienced crisis before. Latin America’s banking regulations are very strict, which is something most Western countries have yet to learn.

On the other hand, with the financial meltdown, other dimensions of the global systemic crisis –notably environment, food and inequality - became more visible. However it has been the political uprisings, notably in the Arab world, that have attracted the headlines over the last 5 years.

Meanwhile globalization continues its seemingly inexorable course: The wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion, 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world. (Oxfam Report 2014: Working For The Few)

What is disturbing is that the whole upheaval has noticeably not led to mass revolt (outside the MENA region), nor increased support for the left, whose Keynesian approach to reflating the economy might have been expected to win out over those preaching market-led solutions. As a result, right-wing governments in the West are now presiding over a mild improvement in the aggregate numbers, notably in terms of output, and taking the political credit. But this is not translating into a significant drop in unemployment – partly because of the inexorable march of automation and restructuring in industries who no longer need so many skilled workers. What new jobs there are have often been generated at the lower skill levels of the system, and/or are related to developing economies where labour costs are low.

Question:

What models do we have of an alternative perspective: union militancy, workers’ control, social enterprise, coops, community business, alternative currencies, barter systems, etc ?

Ecology: climate, the last chance

While recovery from this multiple crisis has taken the primary place in public debate, the much darker shadow of climate change has gradually come to occupy a central place in political discourse. The realisation is finally dawning that the survival of the biosphere as a liveable system is at stake and that far too much time has been wasted in the crucial years when the levels of CO2 emissions could have been curbed by embarking on a low-carbon economic system. The series of COP meetings have been essentially a long chain of missed opportunities, with next year’s COP 21 (Paris) offering a kind of ‘last chance saloon’ for the world’s governments to cut a deal on CO2 emissions which is not just a lowest-common-denominator compromise but which represents a truly radical socio-economic transformation. How to achieve this turnaround in 18 months is a mighty challenge indeed for the progressive movements. Yet it is one we have no choice but to grasp.

Question:How to build effective alliances with environmental movements

The military: as greedy as ever

Meanwhile militarism is alive and well. Despite the significant drop in resources available to western governments over the last 5 years, and therefore small reductions in national defence budgets, global military spending remains more or less at the highest levels in history: $1,700 bn according to SIPRI. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this might seem hard to explain if one fails to factor in three key driving forces:

  1. the permanent lobbying power of the major arms industries and related bureaucracies and institutions (Military-industrial-etc… complex) ;

  2. the replacement of the USSR as primary adversary of the US and NATO by a) Islamist terrorism, b) a fast-rising China, and c) Russia (again) under an autocratic Putin. Thus 100 years on from 1914 we face the prospect of major war (both inter-state and asymmetrical) on 3 fronts.

  3. potential (and actual) armed conflicts over all key economic resources: oil, gas, water, minerals, precious metals, rare earths, land, fishing zones and undersea resources….

For all 3 reasons, the arms industry (not only in the West) can rub its hands in anticipation of major sales far into the future.

Question:

Does militarism have an Achilles heel and if so where?

Connections

There are a number of important connections between the three areas: economy, ecology and conflict.

  1. It is principally the economy that is destroying the ecology

  2. Much conflict is caused by inequality and struggles for resources. The system appears insatiable. Its managers lack social vision.

  3. The military system diverts enormous public and private resources that could be used to fix both the economy and the ecology. At the same time it causes huge damage to both when let loose in actual warfare; and ultimately has the potential to destroy all life on earth through nuclear destruction.

Responses

How have progressive people’s movements responded to this moment of multiple crisis? Here is a schematic analysis of some major political movements and trends. Naturally there are many overlaps, possibilities for collaboration, as well as exceptions.

Charity

Food banks…increased role for religious groups of all types.

Mutual aid

Traditional credit unions, coops, workers’ takeovers of failing companies. Some new forms linked to Indignés etc.

Labour struggle

Traditional strikes for improved wages and conditions, demonstrations against austerity, appeals for regulation of banks etc. In the wake of the Thatcher/New Labour decades they are much reduced in membership and organising/negotiating power.

Social democracy

Managing the system, riding the tiger, trying (unsuccessfully) to regulate the banks. Losing popularity and in most places elections too. Corruption scandals (including MPs) don’t help. Also failure to mobilise against populism and the Far Right.

Leninists

Much reduced everywhere, except arguably Latin America. Torn between unsuccessful attempts to win in electoral races and re-building their popular base through labour struggle. But their history and style of operation elicits suspicion among potential allies, and the historical model they represent is bankrupt.

Far left

See Leninism above. Some limited success eg Die Linke (Germany), NPA (France) but Trotskyists et al are often perceived as both marginal and manipulative of genuine people’s struggles. Sect-like behaviour doesnt help.

Greens

What was once a welcome breath of fresh air in politics is now seen mostly as just another set of wheeler-dealing politicians vainly trying to control the great beast of globalisation. Compromised in the eyes of pacifists by willingness to endorse armed intervention, eg Kosovo. In most places marginal to the big political decisions.

Anarchists/libertarian

Central role in Indignés/Occupy. Local direct action struggles and protests of all types. Internet activism, hackers, wikileaks/Snowden etc. Strong link with environmental movements and actions eg anti-fracking, anti-airports, highways and dam-building, climate camps, anti –racist actions, solidarity with undocumented migrants... The challenge is making and sustaining links to the mainstream political system. Suffer from problems of transience, marginality and ineffectiveness eg Occupy. Like other political families, it relies on its avant-garde ideas permeating (or ‘pollinating’) society, helping to shift the discourse (eg ‘the 1% v the 99%’).

World Social Forums

Once seen as a dynamic new form of local and transnational organising, a horizontal civil society space, has given rise to great hopes and also great disappointment. Funding is running out and political energy too. Inspiring but unwieldy. Will there be another one?

NGOs - associations

A vast biodiversity of competing and cooperating organisations, often run and supported by ‘refugees’ disillusioned with the various political movements listed above. Some are clearly linked to parties, religious bodies, charismatic leaders, and many are funded by govts. Some specific successes (eg landmines…) but limited precisely by their specificity and narrow focus – unable to mount a full blown challenge to the dominant system.

 

Question:

Where do conference participants place themselves in the above system, if at all? Do they have different political perceptions of the left-landscape? Where are the most positive elements and with whom do they ally themselves?

Choosing our roads, finding our actions

So how do we pull all these dimensions together? Many books have been written analysing these subjects in far greater detail than we have the scope to consider here. We offer the following observations:

  1. We recognise that the WRI locates itself broadly in the anarco-pacifist-feminist corner of the political map; not that all in the wider circle would necessarily accept that label, but it comes closest to defining what the movement has stood for over close to 100 years.

  2. We are not in a movement, nor at in time in history, in which setting up rigid doctrines and programmes for all to follow is acceptable; the essence of the libertarian approach is that each individual and constituent organisation / branch must find their own way to defining their analysis, priorities and methods of work. The key lies in effective networking and mutual support.

  3. One of the main conclusions we can draw from the type of analysis sketched out above is that none of the responses to capitalist crisis listed has proved successful. Certainly not in overturning the established order and replacing it with a sustainable progressive alternative. A case can be made for certain regimes in Latin America (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador…) and among the Arab Spring outcomes probably Tunisia can be regarded as some kind of success. But each of these examples could be questioned from several points of view; and each has grown from a particular political background which is not necessarily found elsewhere. Given the immensity of the task, and of the power of the vested interests ranged against us, it is no surprise that we find ourselves facing various types of heroic failure. But history has shown (Cuba?) that even heroic failures can lead to victories later on…It is also a question of how we choose to live. Radical non-violent politics implies an engagement far beyond that of casting a vote for a candidate or party that we think will help bring about change. It implies making choices about the whole range of everyday issues, from jobs and living arrangements to the way we use our resources and talents.. ‘Better to die fighting for freedom then be a prisoner all the days of your life' said Bob Marley.

Question:Is the idea of heroic failure unacceptably pessimistic? What is the life-philosophy behind our politics?

Finally...

What is important is that:

  • we increase our impact by improved forms of cooperation at all geographical levels;

  • we communicate our projects and share the lessons of what we undertake

  • we reach out as widely as we can to the societies in which we find ourselves

  • we prefigure in our lives and work the society we want to bring about

  • we inspire each other through creativity, courage, persistence and other positive qualities

Colin Archer