'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ghosts of Elections Past, Present and Future 

An incisive piece by Tariq Ali in the Guardian Unlimited, a surgical political autopsy of the death of New Labour, that grand project whereby the British Labour Party would not only become electable again, but the dominant, unassailable political force in Britain:

The fact is that New Labour's time is up. When it came to power waving the Union Jack in 1997, the social landscape had already been wrecked by Thatcherism. The phallic architecture of the deregulated financial companies dominated the city, the old gents and their cozy networks were consigned to clubland. Silicon and pharmaceutical firms, funded by Japanese and American capital and immunised against a trade-union movement, neutered by the state, sprouted along the M4 corridor southwest from London and Reading.

The old textile towns were reduced to the status of cemetries; iron and steelworks had been ploughed to rubble. The old working class was dead. In the transference of class wealth and power, Thatcherism and its neocon New Labour worshippers were eminently successful. Wealth disparities had increased during the Blair/Brown years. The "modernisation" had fallen manifestly short as a solution to long-term problems of productivity and investment, leaving aside the archaic political structures of the British state. Many of the cash-starved utilities had foundered in private hands. Schools and hospitals continued to deteriorate. As railway privatisation proved a disaster, New Labour "radicals" were thinking of how the "revolution of choice" could privatise health and education.

From the start New Labour was pledged to consolidate the Thatcherite paradigm rather than offer anything different. Blair's model was to depoliticise Labour (and the electorate) by preaching against the sin of "ideology" (ie social democracy) in the name of a new, beyond left-and-right, trendy Starbucks-style capitalism. And so it was decreed that Labour should become little more than a British version of the US Democratic Party with cheerleaders and all, though it is more remiscent of the Republicans. Domestically, Brown would aim for fiscal-surplus levels usually only demanded of the Third World, to be ameliorated by a few low-cost anti-poverty measures. Globally, New Labour would, in its own words, station itself "up the arse of the White House and stay there". This was 10 Downing Street's instruction in 1997 to Her Majesty's new representative in the United States.

Of course, it is not difficult to find ascerbic eulogies about the death of New Labour. Consider, for example, this one by lenin over at Lenin's Tomb. Like mushrooms after a spring rain, they have been sprouting all over after the calamitous performance of Labour in local elections earlier this month. With the exception of Labour activist diehards, nearly everyone in Britain believes that the Tories will win the next parliamentary election.

As lenin emphasizes in his obituary, the right will be the beneficiaries of the collapse of centrist politics of neoliberalism in both the US and the UK unless the left responds to the crisis with urgency and imagination. I couldn't help thinking, though, as I read Ali's commentary, that I was actually reading something published in, say, 2013 or 2015, after the first term of President Barack Obama, an allegorical piece, if you will. Exuberant supporters recall the acolytes of New Labour in the mid-1990s.

Unlike the Democrats of the past, we are breathlessly told, Obama appeals to evangelicals because of the sincerity of his religious beliefs. He is pragmatic, willling to work with Republicans, Democrats and people of all kinds in a post-partisan political world devoid of ideological values. Just as Blair and Brown devised a political and economic strategy to persuade Middle England to vote Labour instead of Tory, Obama is going to shatter the red state/blue state paradigm, and possibly even rout the Republicans in parts of the old Confederacy.

Apparently, if elected, Obama is going to create a new governing coalition by withdrawing US forces from Iraq, and reinvesting the peace dividend in the US. But he remains a neoliberal free trader, anti-NAFTA rhetoric in Ohio and Pennsylvania to the contrary, and his intention to withdraw from Iraq is more tactical than strategic. He will inherit a Bush policy of regime change in Lebanon, Gaza and Iran, and has expressed no willingness to reverse it. And, of course, he considers Afghanistan a good war, and justifies the need to withdraw from Iraq partially on the basis of the need to provide more resources to fight the Taliban.

What will happen if President Obama discovers that Afghanistan is an even more intransigent conflict than Iraq, as explained recently by Ted Rall? What will happen if President Obama finds himself incapable of addressing increasingly sour economic conditions because of the constraints of neoliberal policies adopted over the last 30 to 40 years? Or will an Obama presidency be marked by a complete failure to significantly depart from an Bush policies, leaving us with hundreds of thousands of troops remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan, commodity price stagflation and the continuing shrinkage of home ownership among middle class Americans?

I guess that I shouldn't dismiss the prospect that the process of creative destruction associated with capitalism will result in another spin of the wheel of fortune, moving us out of the depths of economic distress into a brief new age of prosperity and contentment. But isn't it arrogant to assume that Americans will continue to benefit from it as we have done for over 200 years? So, I just have this feeling that 4 to 6 years from now, I'll look back at this Ali commentary, and recognize that one need only update it to incorporate the contemporary American context.

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