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Reading between the lines

The sky might fall

It's not the 1930s again, says Phil Mullan

  • The Return Of Depression Economics, Paul Krugman, Allen Lane/Penguin Press, £16.99 hbk

Paul Krugman's tour of the world's recent economic and financial turmoils does justice to his reputation as a lucid writer on economics in the mould of JK Galbraith. A pity, then, that the book's misplaced doom-mongering (captured in its bogeyman title) overshadows his interesting insights.

Like many others these days, Krugman assumes that capitalism is on the verge of a major crisis. Even while conceding that the travails of the past two years fall short of the catastrophic 1930s slump, he anticipates worse to come and advises us to 'cross our fingers'. Although the world's money markets have been relatively calm since he wrote the book, Krugman insists that he has not overreacted. Instead, at a book promotion at the London School of Economics in June, Krugman perversely warned his audience of the dangers of complacency: 'It's a scary world, and it is even scarier because things are looking better now....The sky didn't fall in this time, but it may well do soon.'

On a theoretical level Krugman is sure that the world has already returned to depression economics, since 'for the first time in two generations, failures in the demand side of the economy...have become the clear and present limitation on prosperity for a large part of the world'. Describing himself as a 'free-market Keynesian' he counsels the need to return to the theory of the original Keynes and to the economics of demand management and state intervention. In Japan, for example, he advises the authorities to print money and generate some controlled inflation in order to kickstart the economy out of its liquidity trap. More generally he shares the penchant for greater market regulation, especially of financial institutions and, in some circumstances, of capital flows. Krugman's arguments for more regulation well illustrate the loss of confidence among free marketeers over the past few years.

Given his understanding of economic history, it is disappointing that Krugman is not more sensitive to the big differences between the 1930s and today. He starts to go astray by equating the impact of the Second World War, which successfully 'jumpstarted' capitalism again, with the implementation of the general theory of employment, interest and money. It was not Keynes, nor Keynesian policies, that rescued world capitalism from the slump. Instead, it was the brutal economic and political impact of the war which allowed production to recommence on the fresh foundations of new advanced capital goods and a more quiescent and exploited workforce.

Krugman, like most economists, including his mentor Keynes, pays too little heed to these deeper structural issues relating to the inner workings of production. Instead they focus on secondary and derivative issues such as levels of demand, quantities of money, interest rates, evidence of financial chicanery, and states of confidence. As a result of this aversion to analysing what is happening in production they can get carried away with the regional financial crises of the late 1990s and put them on a par with the Great Depression. Ridiculous; in the 1930s world manufacturing production fell by a third in three years, world trade fell by a quarter, and tens of millions lost their jobs. In the late 1990s, by contrast, world production and trade have grown each year, and in many big Western economies unemployment is falling or is at historic lows. Meanwhile, many of the East Asian countries which were hit hard by the financial turmoil of 1997 and 1998 are already growing again, and in some cases, rapidly. There are peculiar restraints on capitalism these days, but its condition is far from a return to slump.

Despite the catastrophic tone, however, there are enough sensible observations and interesting insights to make the book worth a read. Krugman senses the significance of the end of the Cold War and the absence of any plausible alternative to capitalism for conditioning our political and economic times. He believes that conditions have changed, but is rightly sceptical of the superficial exaggerations of the globalisation and the New Economy theorists. He notes that the effects of the recent crises in some Asian and Latin American countries seem so 'disproportionate' to the causes. He registers the peculiarly protracted and restrained character of the Japanese recession, and the resulting drawn-out process of the lowering of economic expectations. He identifies the phenomenon of self-fulfilling, or self-validating, panics.

In the end, and notwithstanding the desire to substantiate his 'return to depression economics' thesis, what peeks through the narrative is that (a) things are not that bad at the level of economic fundamentals, and (b) there is a marked tendency for the reaction of capitalists and politicians to small crises to make things much worse (though he tends to overemphasise the reactions of fund managers as a particular problem). Ironically, Krugman's own conclusion, calling for greater regulation and more state intervention in the economy, can only tend to constrain production even more, and so help create a different form of economic disaster than the one he anticipates.

A sceptical feminist

Gender isn't everything, says Tessa Mayes

  • Sacred Cows: Is Feminism Relevant To The New Millennium? Rosalind Coward, HarperCollins, £16.99 hbk

Burn your gender spectacles! this is the message from Ros Coward, a Guardian columnist, who wants to bring feminism up to date. The trouble with old-style feminists, she argues in Sacred Cows, is that they see the whole world in gender terms. The sex war has changed but feminists continue to chant the same mantras: women are oppressed and men benefit from patriarchy. She asks: 'Is feminism relevant to the new millennium?'

Coward notes that women's new status is the product of this 'dramatically successful social movement'. Children are learning that mum won't always be the one doing the washing up, and dad is negotiating a new role for himself. More women work, have better jobs and suffer from less sexual discrimination. Women want it all, and are on their way to getting it. 'Feminism', she writes, 'had an enormous impact on society, probably a greater impact than any other social or political ideology this century'.

Yet unlike many feminist writers, Coward recognises that feminism cannot claim all the credit. The economic shift towards the service and finance industries and a culture that no longer privileges men have been more important factors in women's entry in to the labour market. Companies seeking part-time staff are motivated by profit, not by the demands of feminist parents. Men have been targeted as the source of social problems, making women seem relatively more important in spearheading change.

Feminism isn't dead, says Coward ('I'm still a feminist'), but young women are uninspired by its rhetoric. They don't join feminist campaigns, call themselves feminists or say Andrea Dworkin is their heroine. Contemporary feminists should consider the problems of the 1990s, not act as if they're still burning bras in the 1960s. If not, feminists are in danger of adopting an outlook she terms 'womanism': 'a popularised version of feminism which acclaims everything women do and disparages men.'

Womanists claim that bold assertions of female sexuality are liberatory, while expressions of male sexuality are threatening or dangerous. For Coward, their view that women are always the victims of men in personal relations ignores the effects of female power, while calls for positive discrimination for women end up discriminating against men. Coward argues that such rigid thinking wrongly assumes that men have no interest in women's equality. It dismisses contemporary men's problems as the product of jealousy and testosterone, rather than a response to the real dilemmas raised by real changes in the labour market and the family. Feminism, she says, is in danger of 'allying itself with socially divisive and bigoted ideologies which attack and blame poor men for all society's problems'.

In terms of intimate relations Coward agrees that feminism should no longer transpose simplified male power theories on to 'nebulous' behaviour in private life. Most men do not rape women, some women emotionally dominate men, and legal intervention in to private relations appears as an unwarranted intrusion, which ends up victimising men when they are at their most vulnerable.

However, it is not that Coward wishes that intimate relations were less of a priority in politics; it's the anti-men view of such relations that she attacks. Coward wants to revamp feminism to offer a new perspective on people's private lives. Rather than focus on war between the sexes she wants feminism to concentrate on a more peaceful equality at home for both sexes. 'Feminism changed what we value as a society, making the aims of sexual intimacy and equality, equal parenting, and non-hierarchical family relations part of the democratic ideals of any modern society', she writes. 'So, as a set of ideals which will always require vigilance, feminism remains as relevant as ever.' Whether that is a good thing or not today depends on how you see the transposing of the petty and the personal on to the wider public agenda.

Read On Read On Read On Read On

  • Crimes Of War: What The Public Should Know, Roy Gutman and David Reiff (eds), WW Norton & Company, $19.95 pbk

Crimes Of War is an A-Z handbook of legal definitions, descriptions and case studies publicising international humanitarian law and giving examples of its abuses. As Roy Gutman and David Reiff note in the preface, the book was conceived as a handbook for reporters, because 'coverage of contemporary conflicts increasingly is available to the public without a filter or a framework or context'. The framework they seek to impose, of humanitarian law, provides the book with its central contradiction.

The editors believe that conflicts can be understood in terms of breaches of international humanitarian law, the 'crimes of war' of the title: 'The goal of these conflicts is often ethnic cleansing...not the victory of one army over another.' Theirs is a world of evil political leaders (Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic figure highly in the 140 entries), whose power is based on human rights abuses. The handbook is designed for reporters to be able to identify these abuses, in order to encourage the international community to intervene and at a minimum to hold the abusers accountable through international war crimes tribunals.

The fundamental flaw in the argument is that the law cannot recognise their attempt to reduce every conflict to two sides of abuser and victim. The formal letter of international humanitarian law is 'frustratingly counterintuitive', since it makes no moral judgements:

'International humanitarian law, as the contents of the book exemplify, does not address the causes or origins of a particular war, or which side was right and which side was wrong, only the method by which it is fought. So it is entirely possible, for example, for an aggressor to stage a war of conquest in accordance with the Geneva Conventions or for a defender to commit war crimes in a legitimate war of self-defence.'

International humanitarian law cannot provide a filter or framework for understanding or taking sides in a conflict. For this reason the contributors have to perform academic contortions to justify why Iraq's 'indiscriminate' use of unguided scud missiles was worse than US carpet-bombing (pp162-8), why ethnic cleansing by the Croats was the fault of Slobodan Milosevic's 'support for Greater Croatia' (p56), and why Trnopolje should be called a 'concentration camp' even though it was a holding centre (p103).

David Chandler is the author of Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton, available to Friends of LM at a reduced price.
Phone (0171) 269 9224 for details

Read On Read On Read On Read On

  • The Fight For The Family: The Adults Behind Children's Rights, Lynette Burrows, Family Education Trust, £5 pbk

  • The War Against Parents: What We Can Do For America's Beleaguered Moms And Dads, Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Houghton Mifflin, $14 pbk

Both of these books deal with a perceived war against parents. As a one-time organiser of Haringey's gay rights campaign against the repressive Clause 28 of the Education Act, I instinctively recoil at the political mobilisation of family values and parents' rights. After all, doesn't standing up for the family mean keeping women tied to hearth and home, and persecuting lesbians and gays? In Haringey, those attacking gay rights called themselves the Parents' Rights Group.

Poring over these pro-family arguments, there is indeed evidence of reactionary thinking. Clearly Lynette Burrows strongly disapproves of homosexuals, whom she associates with paedophilia. And Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett are excessively hung up about rap music and 'violent videos'.

But it would be easy to use these objections as an excuse not to take the problems raised here seriously. What is being argued is that the family is under attack by a hostile political and welfare system and culture, and also, say West and Hewlett, by a destructive economy. The War Against Parents presents shocking evidence of the economic difficulties faced by the family in the United States - dwindling incomes, longer working hours, falling levels of home ownership. West and Hewlett argue that these conditions accelerate the break-up of families, especially the relatively falling incomes of men, who find it more difficult to play the role of breadwinner. For them, the market is undermining the social structure of family life.

But more sickening is the outright attack by a welfare and childcare system that is hostile to families. As West and Hewlett say, 'Over the last 30 years, thousands of professionals associated with our burgeoning child welfare bureaucracy have developed what can only be described as a parent-bashing mentality'. Many professionals 'are now firmly convinced that the American family is largely dysfunctional' and 'that a majority of parents have the potential to abuse children'.

Lynette Burrows deals with a specific and extreme example of that hostility to the family - the dogma of children's rights. To the proponents of children's rights, she notes, 'parents are assumed to be hostile to the interests of their children until proved otherwise'. Burrows' patient research uncovers a tiny network of self-serving professionals and campaigners who have helped to promote the destructive doctrine of the rights of the child. It is those attacking the family and advocating more state intervention in private life who are the worst reactionaries today.

James Hughes

Read On Read On Read On Read On

  • Abortion Law And Politics Today, Ellie Lee (ed), Macmillan Press, £40 hbk

The politics of abortion today differs vastly from that in 1967, when David Steel's Private Member's Bill, which subsequently became the Abortion Act 1967, was being debated in parliament. This collection of authoritative essays compiled by Ellie Lee highlights the subtle changes of emphasis that have occurred within the abortion debate and seeks to 'refocus' that debate on the 'needs and interests' of women, in relation to abortion and abortion services.

Not only has the political climate altered during the 30 years since the introduction of the Abortion Act, so too has the medical and scientific environment within which the parameters of the Act operate. In the 1960s women needed access to safe medical termination of pregnancy within the law, and the opening chapters of this book graphically describe the circumstances defining that need. Arguably the introduction of the Abortion Act in 1967, acknowledged by Sally Sheldon as 'a triumph for its time', went some way towards addressing women's requirements.

Yet many of the contributors to Lee's book identify shortcomings related to its contemporary application. Perhaps the central theme of the book is the 'woman's right to choose'. Jo Bridgeman discusses the appropriateness of rights discourse where it focuses attention on the apparently competing rights of fetus and woman, and Maxine Lattimer considers factors that influence women when they are exercising that choice. The complexities of choices to be made are further expounded in the fascinating insights offered by Marie Fox and David Nolan into the involvement and interests of men in relation to abortion and abortion law. In addition, there may today be more and different choices to be made. The availability of prenatal testing and new reproductive technologies, as described by Janet Hadley and Juliet Tizzard respectively, presents new and different dilemmas to be addressed by perspective parents. Medically assisted conception brings with it choices about how and when to embark on pregnancy, and these may be linked with issues raised by prenatal testing about whether and when to terminate a pregnancy because of fetal abnormality.

Public opinion and commentators on both sides of the pro-choice divide find it problematic that the law permits abortion on grounds of fetal abnormality throughout pregnancy. Ann Furedi confronts the argument head-on. She disputes the current presentation of the debate and proposes that it should be
rearticulated to present the issues positively, as being concerned with the legitimate aspirations of pregnant women to bear healthy children, rather than as being inherently discriminatory towards people with disabilities.

Abortion Law and Politics Today engages fully with the contemporary debates surrounding abortion law. The central section, which introduces international perspectives and outlines comparisons between British abortion law and the legislation applicable in other jurisdictions, firmly underpins the philosophical and social foundations of the present legal framework. As such, the book certainly succeeds in its aim of generating debate and helping to locate women's choice at the centre of that debate.

Dr Hazel Biggs

Abortion Law and Politics Today is available to Friends of LM at a reduced price.
Phone (0171) 269 9224 for details

Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999



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