Photo credit: DulcieLee
Common Sense, Common Good, Common Wealth by Dan Hind
(Dan will be speaking at the Great London Street Party on Saturday May 26th)
Let’s start with the good news. The argument about capitalism is over and its opponents have won. The crisis that began in 2007 has exploded the old common sense about political and economic organization. We now know that an unexamined credit system presents an irresistible temptation to insiders. Unregulated markets are an absolutely terrible at securing the common good. Our current arrangements are bankrupt, both literally and intellectually. The apparatus of expertise and prestige that was used to silence opposition to the demands of the rich has collapsed.
Now the bad news. The guardians of this old common sense have, for the most part, refused to admit that anything is amiss. Politicians aren’t fools. They have no choice now but to ignore the obvious and act as if they know what they are doing. They were the advocates and the beneficiaries of what turned out to be a gigantic irresponsibility laced with outright fraud. But so what if they were wrong? They are, after all, in Britain at least, still in charge.
Many in the media, too, cannot bring themselves to admit that they missed the biggest story of their lives. An unsustainable debt bubble inflated while they chatted to their prized contacts in the City and in Westminster. To admit failure would raise awkward questions about the structural weaknesses of print and broadcast journalism. Broadcasters and newspapers cannot illuminate what other powerful interests want to leave in the dark. Their best policy is to stick to the consensus that exonerates them, for all its manifest absurdity.
But there are reasons to be hopeful. The occupations and assemblies in Britain last year, for example, were obviously part of a much wider phenomenon. They consciously imitated Occupy Wall Street, and ran in parallel with occupations in hundreds of other cities worldwide. They were also one point in a series of moves against the established order. They followed, and were influenced by, what happened in the Arab world and in southern Europe. Events in one country inspired people in another. Techniques and styles of action were adopted and adapted to local conditions. This process is going to continue, in ways that are hard to predict. This international dimension makes it more difficult for its critics to dismiss what is happening as a jamboree for extremists. It is the established order that is looking increasingly extreme.
The sequencing is unpredictable. Progress is very far from certain. The governing powers still have some cards to play. They are brilliant at framing matters in simple, easily understood terms that are radically misleading. And the media, as I said, are in large part taking their cue from them. And yet there are signs that their combined power to set the terms of debate is waning.
We are starting to see important changes in the electoral field. Until recently, voters were content to punish incumbent governments for high unemployment and cuts in public services. This has benefited established right-wing parties in many countries. But people are starting to support parties that offer some substantial hope of change, even if it means dispensing with dogmas about the need to satisfy the markets. Politics is no longer defined, implicitly or explicitly, as ‘arguments about things that the rich don’t much care about’.
Greece, which has been living with the policies favoured by the extremist centre for longer than most of Europe, is moving towards a radically different politics, in which the shortcomings of capitalism as a system can be openly acknowledged and addressed. This would have been impossible to imagine in the years before the crisis began.
France has elected a socialist president. Responsible opinion rushes to assure us that François Hollande is a moderate, a technocrat. But he was elected against an upsurge in support for both the National Front and the Left Front. As an aside, the leader of the latter, Mélenchon will run against the former, Marine le Pen, in June, in what will be an important test of the relative strength of those who blame immigration and those who blame the financial sector for the crisis. At any event, President Hollande knows that he cannot govern from the extremist centre without putting his presidency and his party in grave danger. The French socialists have seen what happened to Pasok in Greece. Elites, too, are capable of learning from events elsewhere.
In Britain, too, there are signs that things are changing. In March, in the Bradford West by-election, George Galloway took more votes than the three main parties’ candidates combined. The news media presented this as a setback for Labour. There was more to it than that. And this month a clear majority of the electorate didn’t bother to vote in local elections. Average turnout was around 32%. This and Bradford West are evidence for a remarkable indifference to the political drama staged in Westminster.
The occupations last year derived some of their energy from the exhilaration of trespass. Faced with the transgressions of the governing powers, people transgressed back. They gathered where they wanted and took control of their immediate circumstances. There is an important lesson here, for those who are sick of the shambling, mumbling imitation of public debate that currently surrounds us. And there’s a challenge, too. Can we show the same energy in an effort to occupy and transform the governing institutions of the country?
As movements of protest become movements for change, their challenge to the existing order becomes ever more pointed. The stakes get higher. We can no longer be content with complaint. If we are serious, we need to meet and deliberate, on our terms, in ways that seem right to us, about our response to an ongoing, and deepening economic, social, and environmental crisis.
I am not suggesting that we form an Occupy party, or anything similar, at this stage. I am suggesting that we meet as political publics, and establish programmes that address the needs of most people in the country. The candidates and the campaigns can come later. First we must discover the extent, and hence the limits, of our power. In assembly we can do far more than we realise, far more than our opponents want to admit.
Most people want to be able to discuss the future in ways that respect evidence and reason. At the moment mainstream political and economic debate has a fantastical quality. Only those claims that conform to the old, exhausted dogmas can be permitted a hearing. Capitalism has failed. So we need more capitalism. Finance has proved ruinously expensive. So we need to set finance free.
It is time to break out of this suffocating nonsense. And we’re the only ones who can. Whether that’s bad news or good news depends on what we decide to do now.
Dan Hind is an author and journalist. His publications include The Return of the Public and the e-pamphlet Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty.