Friday, 25 January 2013

The cuts haven’t worked; it’s time to challenge austerity more strongly

This week, yet another expert lined up to warn that that cutting public spending at the rate Osborne insists on has contributed directly to a triple dip recession, and has not helped growth in any way.

Among many others, Nobel prize laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have repeatedly argued that austerity is counter productive to growth, even if we accept – and many don’t – that perpetual ‘growth’ is either realistic or desirable.

Figures released this week by the Treasury show that both government spending and the deficit are on the rise compared to this time last year. In other words, exactly the opposite of what the government said would happen. The conclusion that the austerity program is ideologically driven is getting harder and harder to dismiss.

The idea of an ideologically-driven government is not a problem in itself, provided that a majority agree with the ideology. That is by no means the case with the austerity doctrine – it was presented as a necessary evil, at a time of general panic over the 2008 crisis, and a deeply exhausted Labour opposition. Even in that climate, Cameron and Co. couldn’t get a proper mandate, and events since have done nothing to build confidence that their ideas have any pragmatic foundation at all.

Between now and the next election the burden of proof should shift from the government’s critics to the government themselves. Labour should pursue this more aggressively than they have been doing so far – it’s not enough to dispute some cuts while generally agreeing that deficit reduction is the priority.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls should spend the next two years wresting the agenda back – they should firstly cast doubts on whether we need to reduce the deficit at all. As Stiglitz and Krugman have argued, growth can be better stimulated by keeping more money in the economy via public spending, which can be offset by progressive taxation measures, such as the Robinhood Tax.

Labour should refuse to engage with the idea of benefit cuts and cuts to public spending, except to ridicule it. Francois Hollande’s socialists recently won a majority in France on just such a platform, and at the time of writing, the markets have not brought fire and brimstone to France.

Labour taking such a sharp step to the left may be against the public mood, and there might be a price to pay in the polls, but with two years until they face election, they can afford to pay that price right now. Also it’s impossible to know how many currently disengaged voters would migrate to Labour if they presented themselves as a properly left-wing alternative.

There will be plenty of time to be centrist when the election comes nearer, and by moving to the left now, they could shift the axis of the whole debate. George Osborne has provided them with the perfect starting point. His austerity measures aren’t working – that’s fact – so it’s on Labour to sketch an alternative.

Originally posted on Liberal Conspiracy on 24 January 2013

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Is Lenin still relevant?

This past week has seen a public debate in Russia over whether Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s embalmed body should be removed from Moscow’s Red Square, where it has been on public display since his death in 1924, and buried. Embalming has no history in Russia, so this was perceived as a weird thing to do at the time - and went against Lenin’s own wishes - but in the 89 years it has been accessible to the public, the body has become a site of pilgrimage / tourist-attracting oddity, depending on your viewpoint.

The fact that the placing of his body is still a hot topic of discussion in Russia shows the attachment that many still feel both to Lenin as a historical figure, and to the memory of the Soviet Union which he imagined, created, and ruled for its first 7 years. The few remaining communist states today still pledge their allegiance to the set of ideas loosely termed Marxism / Leninism, as do various socialist movements in the rest of the world. So does Lenin still have anything to teach us, or are his ideas a historical curio, like his embalmed body?

Lenin wrote a lot in his lifetime, but some of his key ideas concern the nature of the state. Lenin imagined the state as an instrument of control, both directly – through violence – and indirectly, through politics and culture. He thought that the state sets the parameters of what’s possible, and democracy functions within those parameters. It follows that those who control the state machinery control everything that happens in it, standing above democracy, because they dictate the conditions and parameters that shape democracy.

If you think about it, this analysis has a lot of resonance today. In the west, every political party takes it as gospel that international markets reign supreme, and that the role of politicians is to ensure that the markets continue to look favourably on their country. The invariable outcome is that states are run for the benefit of those who are already immensely rich and powerful, As far as mainstream politics goes, there genuinely is ‘no alternative’. Slavoj Zizek eloquently makes the same point on Cif last week.

The popular media in the UK - as Owen Jones pointed out in Chavs – constantly perpetuate the caricature of the feckless, irresponsible working class, creating an atmosphere where it’s socially acceptable to hate the poor. In contrast, we have shows like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice, where the very rich are shown as demi-Gods, with a stream of supplicants coming to degrade themselves in the desperate hope of winning their approval, and becoming – even slightly - more like them.

This cultural zeitgeist makes grossly unfair politics, like the austerity ideology, seem like a reflection of the ‘real world’. In turn, the cultural sphere reflects the political ‘realities’, creating a feedback loop which reinforces the status quo from all sides, and makes real alternatives difficult to even conceive of, let alone implement. Where efforts are made – such as Occupy and the student protests – the state is not above using violent means to suppress them. Lenin, who took it as a given that global communism would become an imminent reality, would be turning in his glass display case.

So what’s the answer? Lenin imagined an intellectual vanguard, which would violently seize the levers of state – in the name of the proletariat - and use them to create a different status quo, which would ultimately benefit everyone. The obvious problem with this is that it jars with our current understanding of human rights, freedom of speech, and democracy. The historical experience of the Soviet Union under Stalin is a grim testament to where Lenin’s ideas can lead.

But if we accept the premise that the status quo is fundamentally unfair, and that it’s impossible to significantly alter it through conventional democracy, then what else is there?

Friday, 11 January 2013

Cameron is in trouble over Europe: we can win this debate

David Cameron has suffered two heavy blows this week, as both the USA and Germany strongly criticised his comments on the UK’s future role in the EU. This follows weeks of media speculation about Cameron’s upcoming speech on Europe – which even Nick Clegg wants no part of - where he’s widely expected to say that he will use a renegotiation of the Lisbon treaty to repatriate political powers from Brussels, provided he gets a majority in 2015. Some hope he’ll also announce plans for the long awaited in/out referendum.

Obama’s assistant secretary for European affairs, Philip Gordon, reminded Cameron on Wednesday that the ‘special relationship’ would be considerably less important to the USA if the UK decided to break away from Europe. On Thursday, the chair of Germany's European affairs committee, Gunther Krichbaum - who is visiting the UK this week – waded in to the fray, pointing out that ‘you cannot create a political future if you are blackmailing other states’.  These stern-sounding warnings provide a contrast to the soothing words of Herman Van Rompuy, who has spent the past few weeks patiently reassuring the UK that we’re loved and respected in the EU, like a parent speaking to a petulant teenager who has just huffed upstairs and slammed their bedroom door.

Cameron imagines that the UK can emulate Switzerland, and enjoy the benefits of the common market while staying out of the political arena. But there’s no reason to think that the treatment enjoyed by Switzerland or Norway – who, after all, might eventually fully join – will be extended to a state which undermines the whole EU project at a critical point in its history by flouncing off. There’s something very cynical and self-serving in seeking to renegotiate the terms now, when the EU is in turmoil and its future is uncertain.

There’s a case to be made that an in/out EU referendum at some point in the future a good idea – if nothing else, it would put the question to rest for another few decades, until the European project evolves into its next stage. And after the dust settles on the Eurozone crisis, it will be possible to see what – if anything – we’d be voting to join or leave. But between now and then, EU supporters need to make their case clearly, loudly and often. Further political integration with the other members is a clear path towards eventually plugging European tax havens, which would reduce the risk of capital flight, which would enable us to use progressive taxation. And - as both Clegg and the Obama administration pointed out this week - on all the major global questions, the UK without Europe will always be on the margins.

The consistent failure to make these arguments heard – over decades – has created the current toxic landscape, where the right wing media froth daily about ‘unelected bureaucrats from Brussels’, and otherwise sane people mistake UKIP for a legitimate protest vote. As anger mounts over the ineffectiveness and toe-curling unfairness of the austerity program, and Cameron’s Tories lag behind Labour in the polls, Cameron clearly needs all the support he can muster. But by trying to harness the baseless prejudice and deluded Empire-nostalgia that fuels most Euro-skepticism, he has made himself look ridiculous in front of the whole world.

Originally posted on Liberal Conspiracy on 11 January 2013