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Capitalism’s crisis of legitimacy

Capitalism’s current crisis is not just economic and financial.

The recent worldwide recession has led not only to an economic crisis, but also a crisis of political legitimacy for the global system of capitalism. In Britain the ruling elite and in particular the coalition government are attempting to side-step this fact by claiming that “we’re all in it together.” Of course in some ways we are, the impending state spending cuts and inevitable redundancies and reduction in public services to vulnerable people being imposed by these hard-boiled public schoolboys will obviously affect those of us in the working class far more than the small minority of capitalists. The narrative from central government is that swingeing cuts in borrowing and public spending need to be enacted, in order to restore profitability to UK Capitalism plc.

And so in this allegedly different political landscape, we hear new terminology and concepts such as 'The Big Society', 'The New Localism', an increased role for ‘Civil Society’, 'Ethical Consumerism' and of capitalism’s concern for the 'The Environment'.

Are these recent, reformist style trends evidence of the state's attempt to mask the realities of a class-divided society? Over the next few years, what other coping strategies will the capitalist class use to try to find some stability for their system? How can individuals and the working class as a whole respond to this in a way which will best reflect our interests? What sort of future do we want to see?

Possibly the most profound trend that is now emerging and rapidly advancing is not necessarily the recent decline in profitability of the wages system of production, but a decline rather in the confidence of the ruling class to convince us of the validity of their system. It seems the legitimisation crisis transcends the sphere of domestic capitalist politics and extends to the spheres of religion, nationhood and the state, liberal democracy and the most basic tenets of human liberty.

Thatcher’s mantras
When Thatcher was Prime Minister in the 1980s she endlessly repeated the slogan “There is no alternative” (shortened as TINA). In economics, politics and political economy, it came to mean that there was no alternative to the status quo of their economic system and economic liberalism. It is still the main slogan of economic liberalism, arguing that free markets, free trade, and capitalist globalisation are the only way in which modern societies can go, as any deviation from their doctrine is certain to lead to disaster. Thatcher's affinity for the phrase led to the author Claire Berlinski choosing it as the title for her biography of the former Prime Minister.

In the early nineties, Francis Fukuyama wrote a book named The End of History and the Last Man, which in a similar strain argued that liberal democracy had triumphed over so-called communism, actually authoritarian state capitalism, and the historical struggle between competing political systems within capitalism was over, though apparently there could still be future events. This trend dovetailed into a political fashion for “Rugged Individualism”. Indeed, Thatcher in her third term of office regularly claimed “There is no such thing as society.”

Change of rhetoric
Today, far from Thatcher’s ‘There is No Alternative’ rhetoric, we now get an apologetic, “We’re All in this Together” from our so-called leaders.

We now have an offer from the state for us to be part of the “Big Society”. At first sight this apparently bold initiative at rolling back the state may seem appealing. But strip it to its core and one suspects other motives.

In a speech in Liverpool on 19 July to re-launch what critics say is a vague idea, the still newish Con-Dem Coalition Prime Minister David Cameron insisted that what he terms “the Big Society” is at the heart of his policy agenda:

“We need to create communities with oomph! Neighbourhoods who are in charge of their own destiny, who feel if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them.”

And with one eye on the detailed government spending cuts that were to be announced in October, Cameron insisted his attempt to revive community action was driven by “great passion” rather than the need to save money:

“It is not a cover for anything. This would be a great agenda whether we were having to cut public spending or whether we were increasing public spending.
“This is not about trying to save money, it is about trying to have a bigger, better society.”

I wonder how many people really believe him.

And while all that and far more is going on, we as apparently individual, and certainly individuated, citizens are micro-managed keenly by armies of state officials in terms of our health, personal habits, children and domestic waste disposal. We are implored to consume ethically and to be mindful of our Environmental Impact and Carbon Footprints.

It seems capitalism in the coming decade is likely to be a miserabilist, reactionary affair in which personal responsibility and self-reliance is propounded as the dominant ethos within society. Is this the future we want?

This scenario could be so very different. How can we reach for the sort of world many people long to see, a world in which poverty, hunger, war and ruination of the quality of life for the majority of people can be abolished? That means going beyond capitalism to a society in which things like money, nation states, official government and production for profit are abolished.

“Capitalism is only unbeatable as long as everybody thinks it is. As soon as everybody thinks it is finished, then it will be finished. We therefore need to keep in touch with what other people are really thinking. And we need to explain, tirelessly, where the only viable future for the Human race lies – in that post-capitalist society of common ownership of the world. It is impossible to be neutral in this struggle.” (Ron Cook, Yes, Utopia!)

Andy P Davies