Rowan Williams, the impressively bearded Archbishop of Canterbury, has once again demonstrated his flair for publicity and for alienating his own flock, by saying that the still more impressively bearded Karl Marx had it partly right about capitalism after all, in an article in the Spectator. In an often sharply-worded and perceptive article, Williams details how the trading of debt has been the motor of “astronomical financial gain” over the last number of years. But, even more than share prices, this wealth has been generated by a collectively sustained act of wilful self-delusion – as he points out, the truth is that “almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by almost equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders”.
How has such a situation been allowed to come about? It is here that Williams turns to Marx – “Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves”. In other words, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, the belief in the power of the (ahem) “free” market has become unbridled, and this ideological commitment has both underpinned and justified the massive expansion of privitisation and debt that has lain at the heart of finance capitalism for the last decade and a half. US foreign policy under Bush has provided a clear example of this millenarian belief in the power of the market, but we should not forget that it could also be seen under Clinton (in attitudes to South Africa, Yugoslavia, and of course our own wee country) and the consistent attitude of New Labour and other European states, especially in eastern Europe.
Williams’ article raises a number of important issues for the Left. In some senses we have been here before. In 1998, the growing understanding of globalisation and the collapse of the eastern Tiger economies 150 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto led to much comment about the relevance of Marx’ critique of capitalism. And now we see the same thing. The question for the Left is how to ensure that a serious critique of the systemic instability of capitalism can emerge from the current crisis, and not simply wither on the vine as much of the critique of globalisation did in the 1990s. The recognition of the power of Marx’ analysis must be extended beyond rather brilliant but eccentric prelates. In order to achieve that, we must make the point again and again and again that this is not simply the result of an accident, or of bad choices, or of poor regulation. Rather, it is a result of the predatory nature of capitalism itself. A system based on exploitation will always seek ways around regulation, and seek to exploit the vulnerability of ordinary people in the face of powerful corporate and financial interests. What some historians have described as the “gentlemanly capitalism” personified in the City of London has once again shown itself to be purely piratical, just as it did in the imperialist madness that preceded the First World War.
The struggle for social justice is – more today than at any time since the 1930s and possibly ever – also an ideological struggle. We on the Left must take advantage of the opportunity afforded us by this crisis to promote our message clearly, in the language of today. The Republican Party in the US, in its initial rejection of the Paulson rescue plan, has posed the question in stark class terms – why should Wall Street be privileged over Main Street? Why rescue those at the very highest echelons of the elite at the expense of the ordinary citizen? This is a message that we on the Left can certainly get behind, and giving it our spin, turning it to our advantage is essential. In the battle to stop the Tories being elected in the UK, the Labour Party has a golden opportunity to introduce radical progressive measures such as are (remarkably) being discussed in the States, for example a government-enforced ban on foreclosures. A new language and a new vision for new circumstances should be offered by the Labour Party. Electoral interest points towards it, as do the instincts of many of its members. The only thing that can stop is the belief in the necessity of the market that has been driving New Labour. In its own struggle for survival, we can hope that it will be driven back towards the left. We must consistently point out the reality of free market ideology, of corporations and merchant bankers – leave us free to profiteer when times are good, but bail us out when our own stupidity and the contradictions of our system overwhelm us. Arguments about the ineffectiveness of the state are no longer sustainable. We must push forward our message of the state as an agent of progress. The welfare state is a minimum for socialists, and now we have a chance to reverse some of the damage done to it over three decades if we act boldly enough.
That is the task for the Left. To mobilise our resources, physical and intellectual, behind not only a critique of the faults of capitalism, but a vision of a different future. We may not get a better chance for decades.