Saturday, 12 September 2009

On Anniversaries

The last fortnight or so has been a time of anniversaries: the outbreak of WW2, 9/11, the collapse of Lehman Brothers. All of them lovingly covered in depth in the Press and on TV. After all, it's easy copy. You don't have to do the spadework of a real news story, just gently remind everyone of what happened in Event X, list the plans to commemorate it and get a few talking heads to intone on Event X's significance. Happily for our media friends you can usually rely on a new someone or other each year to come forward with a different perspective. So this year we've had 'WW2 -The Polish Version' in the mainstream media. (I'm as one with B& T on that one by the way).

Except the Credit Crunch/Financial Crash of course. We haven't even agreed what to call that, much less decided what it means. Peter Clarke expands on this point in the Guardian today with the help of a variety of the allegedly Great and Good: Skidelsky, Keynes biographer, says Keynes is back; Peston admits he thought things would change faster; David Hare wants to know why no politician has thought all this through as yet; Fay Weldon gives us a plug for her new book. And so on. Meanwhile Wiliem Buiter in the FT says, almost in the style of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, that he knows noooothing, albeit in a very erudite way. Krugman in the NYT says the whole economics profession got blindsided - but other economists seem to believe that their profession didn't pay enough attention to their own nostrums. The Crash is certainly a Great Event, worthy of an anniversary - but no one has a convinicing narrative, there is not yet an established Myth to reinforce or to attempt to knock down.

It is, in short, as yet a Phoney War that no one quite knows how to characterise at the moment - because it isn't finished and may yet have barely begun. Who knows if we're about to bounce, 'V' style, into a sunny upland future of a new Long Wave upswing or be seduced by a false dawn ? What will come to be seen as the defining moments of the financial crisis have yet to occur. Sure, unemployment has risen. Sure, some familiar firms have got belly up. Nonetheless, we're told that on all sides that the formal conditions that indicate a technical end to Depression are looming on the horizon. Perhaps. The real story - the anniversary signifier, the thing our children will remember it for, the Dunkirk, Barbarossa, Kursk and D-Day of this economic crisis as it were - lies ahead.

I can't help but believe that this story, when it emerges, will focus on the three re-negotiations of power:

  • The inevitable one that will occur in my lifetime between the 'West' as we have traditionally understood it and the BRIC countries, especially China. People who make things aren't going to put up with not getting anything but a fraction of the fruits of their labour for ever and a day;
  • The renegotiation of power we need and which I hope for, but which may never materialise - the one between the merchants of relentless growth, and the planet. This can only be done through re-distribution - because, as Chris points out, just stopping economic development per se kills babies. But more babies - and toddlers, and other children, and adults - will die unless we act to stop the potential for runaway climate change. So redistribution is key;
  • The renegotiation between state and civil society and the organised power of Capital. This is the most complex of all in some ways - and perhaps even less likely to happen than a coherent response to climate change. But we need such a renegotiation if all this is not to happen again.
Happy anniversary.

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