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
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?'.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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?
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