I think it’s been a while since a UK general election generated this much high feeling in so many people. This week saw the UK turn mostly blue (Conservative) over the border, and almost completely yellow (Scottish National Party) here – two sides of the political spectrum dominating at two ends of the country.
None of the major UK-wide parties were offering a real challenge to the neoliberal public spending cuts that seem to have become orthodoxy in Westminster. So, Scots voted in droves for the anti-austerity SNP, galvanised by last year’s referendum in which 45% of the population voted to leave the UK – many of whom were motivated by precisely these apparent ideological differences between North and South.
The geographic division only seems to be getting stronger; right-wing representations of so-called Scottish “nationalism” during this election have probably helped push voters in England towards the Tories. And now we all have to live with the results.
In the past months I’ve been reading introductory books on capitalism, socialism, markets, neoliberalism, Marx, capitalist realism… trying to understand history, trying to find some believable formula for a happy world or country. I think there is plenty we can learn from our experience so far, but haven’t yet: for example, that a market-based system achieves large-scale coordination better than any central planner could ever have the information to do; but that it is essentially a complex system, like tectonic plates or the climate, and as such it is prone to large-scale extreme events – crises, in other words. Many seem not to realise financial crashes are an inherent part of a capitalist system (and of course, certain politicians are all too keen to exploit that ignorance and blame them instead on government overspending). The extent of austerity and neoliberalisation is correlated with worse economic performance – that is an empirical finding we can take note of, and runs counter to what most people seem to believe. Unbridled capitalism reliably produces a hugely unequal power-law distribution of wealth – power laws being another hallmark of complexity (the distribution of fault sizes in the Earth’s crust is another example: loads of tiny ones, a few really huge ones, and all sizes in-between); and inequality is bad news, since it is correlated with a whole host of social problems across the board.
But does debt-financed public spending (i.e. Keynesianism) reliably help a market-based economy out of a slump? The answer from history seems to be, “maybe”. Sometimes it seems to have helped, sometimes it seems not to have. It’s one thing to make general statements characterising a system; it’s another to make specific predictions about what will happen if one strategy or another is adopted by a government in a particular time and place. It would probably be a lot easier to have political consensus if incontrovertible predictions were possible. All opinions are – in large part – faith. (Perhaps this is why politics is just as divisive as religion?)
It seems to me that if we want to live happy and healthy lives in a market-based economic system, we need the complexity of the market to be bracketed by strong social institutions that prevent the elite at the top wielding excessive power, that protect us from the worst of the economic earthquakes, that temper the incessant and unsustainable “growth” imperative, and that constantly seek to re-level the playing field – globally as well as nationally. The trouble is, capitalism will always by its very nature create an elite class, and achieving a counter-balance to their class power is an uphill struggle and any balance difficult to sustain. Countries that do it best have a long history of doing so; and even they struggle to maintain it in the very long term.
One difficulty is that the elite have always had the resources at their disposal to convince the masses into voting against their own class interests. And there is always a spurious reason to be found for the pain. The rise of far-right anti-immigration parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is a logical consequence of the disaffection of the masses coupled with their lack of understanding of its structural causes. In UKIP people find an outlet for the same frustrations that have turned so many Scottish voters to the SNP; the difference is in where the blame is placed for the way things are going: on lenient policies that let too many foreigners in, or on the neoliberal policies that make conditions so hard for the poor – locally and globally.
But we live in an age where it is easier than ever to make yourself heard, to connect with others, to form groups, to become educated. Media, in the larger sense, is much more democratic than it’s ever been – and we’ve probably only just scratched the surface of how this can be utilised. Perhaps things are not as hopeless as they seem.