In many ways, as countries around the world hold their breath and hope that they emerge from recession, the most interesting question is whether this crisis has been a mere stalling of the capitalist system, or whether it reveals fundamental flaws in the economic orthodoxies by which we lived until a few years ago.
There seems to be little hope for the latter possibility in any immediate way. What was striking at a political level throughout this global crisis was the failure of the Left to deliver the intellectual coup de grace to the status quo. The best that could be said for them is that Keynesianism, a credo declared dead (at least by Anglo-American policymakers) for the last thirty years was reanimated in groups like the G20 with consensus that fiscal stimuli were a pragmatic response to recession. But this was not a vibrant new idea, it was a desperate rehashing of an old cure that only crudely suited a new problem. What was absent was a rival ideology to step up and lead the bewildered, mass-unemployed citizens of the free-market world out of the desert.
“For many people this is the new anti-capitalist ethic, targeting the profligate consumption that dominates mature capitalist economies”
Perhaps it is the suspicion that many feel towards anything ‘ideological’. In Britain we have had 12 years of a government that strove to be anything but, for fear that it would startle the comfortable middle-classes and drive away the money-makers in the City. So, instead, it might be interesting to look at what ‘ideas’ have emerged, however tentatively, and consider whether they could grow into ideologies of their own to rival, or at least contest, the capitalist behemoth that even as I write appears to be reviving across the globe (except, that is, in Britain).
Add financial crisis to environmental crisis and you get many vociferous calls for ‘sustainability’. For many people this is the new anti-capitalist ethic, targeting the profligate consumption that dominates mature capitalist economies in America and Europe, calling for a radical overhaul of our way of life, championing a return to the ‘good life’ of simple and ecologically sound consumption. Is this an ideology? I think a plausible case can be made; a set of ideas can be extrapolated from the basic impulse of sustainability that has the potential to form the basis for a political, social, and economic system.
There is a swathe of the electorate articulate enough and organised enough to campaign for such an ideology – a new moralism could form the rump of this movement, claiming that consuming less is a duty we have to the planet and to each other. It may even subsume parts of old ideologies that have been effectively homeless in the last few decades: social justice, equality, and an idea of freedom that is not based upon our role as consumers.
“Those who argue for sustainable-living too often do so from the privileged position of material comfort”
I do not believe that this will emerge as a popular political force in the years ahead, politics and people do not work like that. It sounds wonderful in practice, the realisation of a “steady-state” economy unshackled from the need to produce more to maintain its own viability. But no one has presented a realistic vision (much less an economically-sound blueprint) for how this would work; some have tried, including Thomas Malthus’s fear-mongering about population growth and J.K. Galbraith’s model in ‘The Affluent Society’. But essential to sustainabilism (if we can call it that) is a limiting principle, one that puts ceilings on earnings, on profit, and some would argue on innovation.
Mass-consumption capitalism may be epitomised by tanker-loads of plastic toys shipped from China to Pound Land, but it has also been the driving force behind the iPod, the laptop computer, the mobile phone, and myriad products which have revolutionised our lives from communication to culture. Those who argue for sustainable-living too often do so from the privileged position of material comfort; it is a curiously upper-middle class aspiration, to conspicuously consume less, and it is easy to doubt how enthusiastic even these people would be when it came to the hard choices of what to give up (the flight to Mauritius, the MacBook Air, the espresso maker?).
Capitalism has indeed shown itself to be in need of rebalancing over the last few years, away from arcane finance and oil, towards social justice and addressing the needs of the many not the wants of the few. But in truth, there is little hope for the world if the innovative force of capitalist production cannot turn its profit-seeking impetus towards making greener cars, planes and power sources. The poor, in developed and developing countries alike, will not and should not be willing to forgo the trappings of progress just because those with abundance think that it is vulgar to go on consuming as we do now; unless we harness the innovation, we are faced with more than a Tom-and-Barbara style back to basics, we face increasing poverty and a handicap in the fight against disastrous climate change.