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Adrift on a sea of troubles

As the New Year begins, governments everywhere are in a state of permanent crisis. New Ross Perot-style parties rise and fall overnight. And nobody has a clue what to do about the devastating economic slump. Politics seems to have lost its old meanings and moorings. So what's going on? And what comes next?

Frank Richards puts the sense of drift in world politics in the context of these unstable, post-Cold War times. On the pages that follow, Living Marxism writers examine what the political malaise means around the world

Political debate? What political debate? It is now so rare to encounter a real clash of views that genuine political controversy risks becoming an endangered species. Political passion is conspicuous by its absence in all Western societies. Instead of commenting on major and substantive issues, journalists deploy their investigative skills to examine such questions as 'Should the Queen pay tax?' or 'Why has Norman Lamont failed to keep up the payments on his credit card?'.

The media often reflects upon the way that the issues are trivialised during election campaigns. Episodes like the 'battle of Jennifer's ear' during the 1992 British general election are used to illustrate the vulgarity of politicians. American candidates are frequently criticised for not tackling the issues and focusing instead on controversies of the 'Did Bill Clinton inhale or not?' variety.

No big ideas

No doubt all of the politicians concerned can be pretty vulgar and small-minded. Yet these criticisms are largely misplaced. Candidates do not trivialise the issues. On the contrary, it is the political culture of our time that is trivial, the very character of political life today that is banal. There are no big ideas, and no hotly contested alternatives. In these circumstances there are no lofty issues which philistine politicians could possibly trivialise.

It is commonplace to hold forth on the subject of the decline of left-wing and radical ideas. However, the same experts who shout out that 'Marxism is dead' at every opportunity still seem oblivious to the exhaustion of capitalist politics. The truth is that it is not just left-wing ideas, but all established ideas which appear to lack relevance today. If the contemporary intellectual climate is anything to go by, it is evident that capitalist society is in serious trouble.

One of the most striking manifestations of that trouble is the silent death of economic theory. Suddenly it seems that everyone has become embarrassed about trying to offer an alternative way of resolving the economic crisis.

Opposition parties are now in the peculiar situation of having no economic policies which are substantially different to those of the government. In Britain, opposition parties can do no better than to declare that the government is pinching their policies. In the United States, president-elect Clinton has already provided reassuring signals to Wall Street indicating that his policies will not represent any major departure from the failed practices of the Bush administration.

The failure of the capitalist economic imagination is particularly striking in relation to the problems of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. When the old order collapsed, this region was said to represent one of the great investment opportunities of all time for capitalism. Today it is a growth area for one thing alone - the employment of Western economists.

Banal retoric

The multitude of Western economists who invaded Eastern Europe have proved conspicuously irrelevant to the real problems facing those societies. Their banal rhetoric about the free market and even more banal privatisation plans have failed to connect with the dynamics of economic life. The considerable economic pain inflicted upon the population has not been matched by any positive developments. The failure of capitalist policies even to match those of the old decrepit Stalinist system is an embarrassment which has the potential to discredit the whole of contemporary economic theory.

In the old Stalinist world the situation is so appalling that people are even beginning to re-elect some of the revamped communist parties. That the old Stalinist politicians can make a comeback in Lithuania so soon after the collapse of their system illustrates the unviability of the capitalist economic policies which were supposed to save the East.

The stagnation in economic thinking is paralleled by the dearth of political ideas. An inspection of the specialist journals of political theory today shows that most writers are not so much discussing new ideas as complaining about the absence of political inspiration. At the more mundane level of party politics, attempts are made to launch popular political 'initiatives'. However, once the publicity packs have been sent out and the press conferences held, each of these initiatives only reveals its own lack of content.

Paper policies

The British government's Citizen's Charter is a case in point. The series of paper charters on improving public services are a collection of meaningless gestures designed to create the impression that the government is really doing something. They are public relations exercises which are at best irrelevant, and are more likely to irritate than to enthuse the citizenry. Anybody who has to endure travelling on British Rail on a regular basis will only become angry when reminded of the empty promises in the infamous Passenger's Charter.

The vacuous nature of contemporary political thinking is well illustrated by the British government's recent publication of a league table of schools, based on their examination results. No doubt some twisted mind in the Department of Education believed that this initiative would enhance the reputation of the government by making the Tories appear serious about raising academic standards. Instead the confused and ill-prepared presentation of how schools performed provided yet another source of embarrassment for the government, by raising questions about Whitehall's own standards.

The lack of credible policies is by no means unique to the British government. It is a common feature of world politics today. During the last few months of his presidency, for example, it has become something of a commonplace in America to denounce George Bush for his inertia on the domestic front. This criticism is entirely misplaced. It is not so much a lack of will or energy, but an absence of ideas that explains the stagnation of the Bush administration. There seems little doubt that a year or so from now the failure of political vision offered by the Clinton administration will also be apparent.

The absence of political debate and of policy innovation reflects a far deeper problem than the failure of individual politicians. It is the result of the new circumstances - both economic and political - which are outside the control of any Western government.

It is often suggested that the current sense of political drift is a product of the economic disturbances caused by the global slump. There is little doubt that economic factors have contributed to today's political confusion. But economic insecurities do not automatically translate into political ones.

What's changed?

For example, the severe recession of the early eighties did not create the same sense of political dislocation. Indeed, that recession coincided with a period in politics when the right, led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, was going confidently from strength to strength, and when conservatism seemed to be in the ascendancy. So what has changed? Why is it that economic problems appear to be so much more difficult for governments to contain today than they were a decade ago?

The end of the Cold War has been the decisive factor in shaping today's political crisis. For 40 years, the Cold War provided the underpinning for the intellectual, ideological and institutional framework of Western politics. In a world that was polarised between Nato and the Warsaw Pact, both domestic and international concerns were interpreted in the context of their implications for the Cold War.

Good and Evil

Ruling political parties such as the Italian Christian Democrats or the American Republicans were defined not so much by what they stood for, as by the fact that they were against communism. The right's law and order campaigns and its moral drives to promote family values were based upon the assumption that a world polarised between West and East was also one split between Good and Evil.

The anti-communist culture of the Cold War provided a social cement which played the crucial role in maintaining order and stability in the West. As long as it prevailed, any threat to stability could be contained through the deployment of Cold War politics. Militant trade unionists could be isolated as reds under the bed, and people protesting about anything from peace to civil liberties could be marginalised on the grounds that they were patsies for the Soviet Union.

It has now become clear that the very effectiveness of Cold War culture has proved to be the undoing of the Western political elites. For as long as the Cold War influenced the direction of political life, Western politicians and ideologues didn't have to think very much. Most of the time, the rhetorical injunction to 'Get back to Russia' was sufficient to dispose of opponents. The absence of any systematic intellectual defence of the capitalist system itself did not seem to be a particular problem, as long as that system's critics could be neutralised by the use of relatively shallow Cold War rhetoric.

On its own account

The Cold War also affected popular perceptions of the West. The existence of the Soviet world made the Western nations look comparatively good. The problems of capitalist society were obscured in a world where the Soviet threat could in the last resort be blamed for every ill, and where the grim images of life in the East acted as a kind of negative advert for the West.

Western societies are now deprived of the 'benefits' of the Cold War. Capitalism today has to justify itself on its own account. Politicians and institutions need to legitimate their actions in new ways. Parties can no longer excuse their existence on the grounds that they are reliably anti-communist. These are serious problems.

What possible justification can a corrupt patronage machine like the Italian Christian Democrat Party find for its existence, now that it cannot rail against the Communist Party? How can Western governments justify their huge expenditure on defence in the absence of a credible enemy? Without the excuses of the Cold War era, the Western establishment stands exposed. Its rhetoric can no longer divert attention away from the fundamental problems facing society. The rhetoric of democracy and of free enterprise no longer pays much dividend. As president Bush discovered during his attempt at re-election, cheap liberal-baiting does not have the desired result any more.

Ironically, then, the collapse of Stalinism and the weakening of the left has not left the right unscathed. Bereft of Cold War ideology, the Western right is confused and exhausted. It does not know what to argue or what to fight for. In 'winning' the Cold War, it lost its one justification in life.

The decline of Western politics is the direct consequence of the new post-Cold War environment. A system of politics which was intimately linked to institutionalised global East-West rivalries cannot be utilised effectively today. Such politics no longer have any relevance. Moreover, changing circumstances have called into question the political institutions and conventions of the entire postwar era. In a period of transition from one political cycle to another, a sense of drift is inevitable.

Exhaustion factor

Things are changing, and it is becoming evident that past precedent cannot provide a reliable guide to understanding current events. The exhaustion factor has taken its toll on the old political arrangements. For example, in most societies the traditional political parties have ceased to play a central role. Party political debates are less important than they once were, and longstanding alignments are now open to serious modification.

These days every situation seems to contain a potential Ross Perot. Political disenchantment provides temporary openings for individuals and new organisations which are not tainted with the legacy of the past. The new regional parties in Italy are the beneficiaries of this disenchantment, as are the far-right groupings in Germany. The unexpected electoral advance of the Irish Labour Party in November's general election indicated the fragility of traditional loyalties and alignments. The voting patterns of the past do not represent the shape of things to come.

As the old rules of political life cease to apply, Western societies are experiencing a degree of instability. There is now considerable public awareness that capitalism is undergoing a profound crisis of some sort. Consequently there is more than a little fear about the future.

At present, instability is limited by the absence of effective oppositional forces, and disguised by the absence of any fundamental challenge to the system. In the absence of major social struggles such as militant strikes, Western governments can ride out their scandals and other difficulties. The British government, for example, can now live with all kinds of scandals and mistakes in the certain knowledge that its ineffective parliamentary opponents will be unable to make any durable gains from its difficulties. Governments can go from one scandal to the next without running the risk of paying any major penalties. This is why the underlying instability in Western societies has not yet turned into a full-blown political crisis.

A matter of time

Nevertheless, it can only be a matter of time before the failure to resolve any of society's problems deepens the public perception of crisis. The mismatch between the demands of society and the 'solutions' on offer from politicians is now so great that it calls into question the legitimacy of entire Western systems of government. The prospects ahead are for a protracted period of instability.

When a profound sense of social dislocation confronts an exhausted political culture, the one thing we can be sure of is that the world will be an unstable place. Of course, instability is not a direct threat to capitalist society. In the absence of radical alternatives, instability can be experienced by many people as a cause of fear and insecurity. In this way, it is possible for instability to benefit the advocates of reactionary politics as much as those of progress. The question now is, in whose favour is this instability to be resolved?

An opening

In a period of confusion such as the present, the mismatch between the realities of life and the old political solutions provides an important opening for those who want to construct a revolutionary alternative. Those who have no links with the exhausted traditions of mainstream capitalist politics have an important advantage. Their imagination is not weighed down by the deadening traditions of the past 50 years.

Critics of capitalism are free to engage society as it now unfolds without having to prop up outdated conventions and prejudice. At a time when the old politics are exhausted, this gives them the unique capacity to provide clarity and insights about what lies ahead. Those who can come up with convincing answers to the new questions of our time will earn the right to play a significant part in resolving the crisis facing humanity today.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993

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