Our leaders still aren’t facing up to the scale of the crisis

Seuman Milne: “It’s hardly surprising that some want to trash the City, but to claim that the G20 protesters have no alternative is nonsense.”

When mass protests exploded on the streets of Seattle in 1999 against the kind of globalisation embodied in the World Trade Organisation, their anti-capitalist message was widely portrayed as utopian. A decade on, as anti-capitalist demonstrators vented their fury yesterday on the social and ecological vandals of the City and prepared to do battle today outside the G20 meeting in the heart of what was once London‘s docks, it looks more like common sense.

The wreckage of the neoliberal order – which reached its zenith in the wake of Seattle and has generated the greatest global economic crisis since the 1930s – is now all around us. World trade is in free fall and, by some measures, collapsing faster than at the time of the Great Depression. While G20 leaders talk of saving or creating 20 million jobs, 25 million are expected to be lost in the wealthy OECD states alone, whose main area of competition now seems to be their relative rates of economic decline. And what in the richest economies means mass unemployment and rising poverty translates into destitution and rising death rates in the developing world.

So it can hardly be a surprise that some people end up trashing the homes or offices of bailed-out bankers – or that French workers have taken to “bossnapping” executives handing out mass redundancies, as has been the experience of astonished Caterpillar and Sony executives in recent weeks. As unrest over the impact of the crisis has grown across Europe, workers are increasingly resorting to direct action against closures and following the example of the successful occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, backed by Barack Obama last December.

The night before last, workers occupied Belfast’s Visteon car components plant after 565 out of its 610-strong UK workforce were sacked on Tuesday, and by yesterday morning the action had spread to its factories in Enfield and Basildon. There is likely to be plenty more of this kind of thing to come, as conflict over who carries the costs of the crisis becomes more overt – and so there will have to be if we are to avoid the return to business as usual that politicians and corporate powerbrokers evidently still envisage across the western world.

Of course, all the talk at the ExCel centre is of regulation, a green New Deal and “partnerships of purpose”. Champions of the failed free market are thin on the ground anywhere these days – even Nigel Lawson and Cecil Parkinson, the Thatcherite architects of the 1980s Big Bang City deregulation, this week turned their backs on the financial mayhem they unleashed. But the fact that many of those presiding at the G20 are the same people who brought us to the present catastrophic pass scarcely inspires confidence in their ability to overcome the crisis.

No doubt some modest progress will be made on bringing hedge funds and tax havens under control, though the US and Britain are holding out against tougher regulation. The transatlantic battle over regulation versus co-ordinated expansion is in any case largely a phoney one. Obama is right that the US can’t be the sole engine of global recovery, but then Germany’s own fiscal stimulus is a good deal larger than its politically hybrid government likes to let on. And if demand is boosted simply to refloat the existing failed economic model – which in the US and Britain includes a crippled, corrupted financial system – it won’t work anyway.

The same goes for G20 plans to inject extra cash into the International Monetary Fund, which claims to have changed the nefarious neoliberal ways that made it a target for the protesters of the 1990s, but is in fact still imposing the kind of structural adjustment conditions which are the opposite of what is needed to pull countries out of the slump. As for today’s expected declarations on action against global warming, they barely count as political window-dressing.

All the signs are that most of the politicians playing to the gallery in London today have yet to face up to the full scale of the crisis, or what will need to be done to overcome it. Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and President Lula are right to single out the Anglo-Saxon model and “white men with blue eyes” for the meltdown – even if that underplays its systemic nature. But this isn’t only a crisis of capitalism or of a particular form of capitalism after all, it’s one of US economic and global power as well.

That’s because it’s the product not just of financialisation and deregulated markets, but also of chronically low American savings and unsustainable levels of consumption – including the massive military expenditure that has underpinned US wars and global overstretch in the years since the end of the cold war. The deficits they’ve generated have increasingly been financed by China and the fact that today’s meeting is of the G20 rather than the G7 – and that its most important meetings are between Obama and President Hu Jintao – is a symbol of the decline of American economic power exposed by the crisis.

The rebalancing of the US relationship with China, which is so far riding the economic storm somewhat more successfully than its western counterparts, can play a part in overcoming the crisis. But right now recovery is being held back by the failure of the US, and even more precariously Britain, to intervene decisively in the financial sector to drive up lending – rather than pour cash into the black hole of bankers’ gambling debts. In both countries, the combination of halfhearted quantitative easing and a refusal to take control of the banks is stifling the impact of tax cuts and extra public spending. In Britain in particular, the limits of crude Keynesianism – rather than direct intervention and nationalisation – are clearly being reached.

Meanwhile, market enthusiasts have once again been complaining, as they did at the time of Seattle, that the G20 protesters have no alternative. It was never true in the 1990s, but now such claims are simply ridiculous. The policies and programmes now pouring out of the international trade union movement, NGOs, political parties and thinktanks – on climate change, jobs, green investment, public services, trade, finance, international institutions and global justice – are voluminous and serious. The problem is not a shortage of alternatives, but a lack of political muscle so far to make them stick.


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