The God that Failed? Maybe Not.

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.

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4 Responses to “The God that Failed? Maybe Not.”

  1. yourcousin Says:

    We must push forward our message of the state as an agent of progress. The welfare state is a minimum for socialists

    The problem with this statement is that the state has not been an agent of progress. Now this is not always true but too often the state has had to be brought kicking and screaming to something resembling a respectable position only to have them claim credit for the entire enterprise. In America I think of Labor reform and Civil Rights as two examples where the government had its hand forced and were often times actively working against both and yet in the end only claimed credit for any reforms but then placed any future endeavors of those two firmly in governmental hands where they have stagnated ever since.

    If anything the left needs to point out the complicity of the state in this debacle and try to rebuild some of the communal infastructure ravaged over the last fifty years or so.

  2. garibaldy Says:

    That’s a fair point you’re making. And the thing you talk about is fantastically encapuslated in Martin Luther King Day. Community structures are a very good thing, and can play a progressive role like you say. But I do think that ultimately the state remains the most powerful actor in society – as has just been spectacularly proven I think with the banking crisis. Not only with the interventions, but in places like Germany and Spain where regulation has protected the banks. I agree we should not put all our hopes in the state, but without it, we are likely to not get very far.

  3. yourcousin Says:

    I think the points you bring up about Spain and Germany are excellent points as the both the government and capitalists (ie the employing class) are both offset by powerful commual organs such militant unions. Hence making them a remnant of social democrcaries rather than the free market oriented approach of the US. Even if they are only offset by the rhetoric and legacy of these organizations it is still something. I think that as soon as we cede apriori legitimacy to the state we begin the long slow retreat towards the total take over of government by capital. This to me is what we have seen here in the US. Even (and especially) the Democrats bought into and propagated the idea of free markets and free elections as some sort of “end of history” ideal. I am not suggesting that the state will disappear or that it can or should be destroyed, but it ought to be viewed primarily as antagonistic to our aims and treated as such. We ought to remember that Nye Bevin for all his accomplishments was never any more than a minority of his own party. And that within in a generation it was being attacked and dismembered by members of his own party. Though I doubt that Bevin would ever own Blair and his legacy.

    One of the biggest issues is that goverments encourage people to unplug from getting involved in their own affairs. Just like big business unions they have individuals that you go to to take care of your problems that remove it from the immediate context. I am of the firm opinion that the first thing that authority takes away is your responsibilities, before they come for your rights. ie before you turn to your neighbor, to say, “how can we change this?”, you go to the government official to say , “how can you fix this”. Thereby leaving change for better or worse in the hands of often times the same people who made the problem.

    Obviously this is more hypothetical and not the position I take on a day to day basis but I think its an important one to articulate. And indeed I would say that this banking crisis shows that the market is more powerful than the state as it has forced the government into this bailout, largely I would add against its will.

  4. garibaldy Says:

    Germany maybe looks a bit more vulnerable today than it did, but I agree with what you are saying. The reason the state regulates there is exactly because of the power of the organised working class. But without the access to state power – either directly or through directing/limiting choice of action for others – these organisations cannot be as effective. In that sense, Lenin remains totally correct. Socialism requires state power. The danger is in downplaying its role, we abandon it to capitalism. I think this is part of the problem of the legacy of 1968, and of a great deal of environmentalism.

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