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Cooking the Books: Crises and Consciousness

Socialists have often speculated on what might spark off the emergence of the majority desire for socialism that is an essential prerequisite for its establishment. One school of thought has been that it will be a final, catastrophic economic crisis. There have been various theories as to what might provoke this – the rate of profit falling too low, external markets becoming exhausted, the banking system collapsing. In other words, that the capitalist economic system will break down mechanically forcing people to realise that socialism is the only way out.

Although these theories of final collapse are flawed and don't stand up to economic analysis, capitalism is a system characterised by regular economic downturns, some large, some small. So we can get some idea of how people react in a big economic slump, as in the 1930s and after the Great Crash of 2008.

'From Hitler to Trump: populist leaders profit from fear' read a headline in the Times (13 June) reporting on a study in the American scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

'From the rise of Hitler to the election of Narendra Modi in India, the link is often made between populist nationalism and recession. Now this study seems to have found strong evidence for it … Drawing on a survey of people across 69 countries they found that when unemployment rose, people were more likely to say they preferred “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections”.'

The study is not that impressive. It doesn't seem to be much more than a glorified opinion poll in which people were in effect asked 'in a time of economic crisis would you like your leader to be dominant or prestigious?' And it dabbles in 'evolutionary psychology' and in likening human behaviour to that of monkeys and apes (we'll take that seriously when they discover a band of gorillas led by a female equivalent of Mrs Thatcher).

So, the study doesn't add anything to what we already know – that in an economic downturn an increased number of people turn towards nationalism, often of a populist type led by a 'strong leader'. The point is that they don't necessarily turn to a movement to replace capitalism by socialism. A slump is not especially conducive to the emergence of socialist consciousness.

One reason why a turn to nationalism seems a way out in an economic downturn would be that people can imagine a national solution. They are wrong but that doesn't seem completely unrealistic. And, as we are talking about a cyclical not a final crisis, the economy does eventually recover and unemployment drops.

This is not to say that no crisis of any sort could not be conducive to the emergence of a mass socialist consciousness. But it would have to be a global crisis which, unlike a cyclical economic crisis, would not eventually rectify itself.

In his 2006 novel The Last Conflict socialist Pieter Lawrence imagined the global crisis which sparks off the change to socialism as being the world having to face the problem of a comet hurtling in the direction of Earth. A more immediate candidate for such a crisis would be rapidly increasing global warming. We are not there yet (fortunately) and it may never get that bad (hopefully), but, if it did, people would be faced with a choice of the end of the world or the end of capitalism. A no-brainer, surely.