A spectre haunts the gatherings of the political elites of much of the world as they contemplate the imminent collapse of the economic and political model they have fondly supported for the last 30 years. Politicians and economists wedded to the current neo-liberal model of capitalism rail against one possible outcome of the current crisis that they regard as totally beyond the pale, something that is absolutely unthinkable and undiscussable and only mentioned to conjure up an alarming image that will frighten the children.
Yet the spectre is in fact a perfectly respectable economic philosophy invoked from time to time and in different places over several centuries. It has a name – protectionism – often associated with the writings of Friedrich List, a 19th-century professor of political economy who opposed free trade, supported government intervention in the economy and advocated the erection of protectionist tariff barriers to protect a country's industry and agriculture. His book, The National System of Political Economy, published in 1841, was highly influential both in the United States and in Bismarck's Germany. List was an early opponent of globalisation. He accused Adam Smith of "cosmopolitanism", of constructing the notion of a beneficent global community that clearly flew in the face of the facts.
For most people know otherwise. They know, with List, that the global community is an invented phantom. Nearer home, they have no reason to expect that the EU will protect their interests. Indeed, they vote against its proposed constitution whenever they get the opportunity. Europe is moribund, and the only community they know and recognise is the nation state to which they belong, and whose elected government they require and expect to defend their work, their culture and their way of life. Yet governments in the neo-liberal era have other concerns and have manifestly not been doing anything of the kind. As a consequence, as the banks go bust and the economic situation deteriorates, British workers have appeared on unofficial picket lines to defend their jobs, just as the citizens of Bolivia were led to demonstrate spontaneously a few years ago against the privatisation of their water supply. People learn quickly. As Lenin recognised: they can learn in 20 days what they forgot in 20 years.
Such a huge chasm between the faulty ideology of the governing elite and the growing political understanding of the great mass of the people leads eventually to regime change, as has happened in country after country in Latin America during the last decade. This is the spectre, even more dramatic than protectionism, that now looms over Britain and the continental partners with whom it has joined forces in the neo-liberal madness of recent decades. Suddenly, the probability emerges that few of today's governments will be here in a couple of years time; they will be replaced, and replaced again if they fail to come up with credible solutions. And the solutions will be national rather than global, supportive of the local society envisaged by List rather than the failed cosmopolitan vision of the neo-liberals.
Today's crisis is far more wide-ranging than most politicians and commentators are prepared to admit. It will last for at least 10 or 20 years, not just for one. It will go on and on, producing utopian programmes, reverses and changes along the way. This is not 1929, nor yet 1917. It is more comparable to the preliminary rumbles of 1789, to the collapse of the ancien regime and the start of a long revolutionary period of huge untried experiments and uncertainty.
There is an apparent flaw in this argument, of course, for today there is no left or right, and there appears to be no group of impatient intellectuals waiting for their ideas to be seized and picked up by the next group of leaders. The upheavals of 1789 were preceded by decades of Enlightenment debate, with political ideas that could be expanded and promoted by successive generations of revolutionaries. Today, so complete is the grip of neo-liberal ideology on the political and media structures of the west that no alternative ever gets an adequate airing. There seems to be an ideological vacuum.
Yet this is not really so. There are plenty of ideas about and many of them are being tested in Latin America by a new generation of political leaders put in power by rebellions from below. They just remain below the radar of the media and the political class, who pay no attention. Protectionism (in different forms and guises) is one new/old idea; the recovery of history is another. So too is the revival of the economic activity of the state, a state characterised by justice and efficiency, and as different from the Soviet Union as from the delirious construction of the ideologues of neo-liberalism.
In this unfolding scenario, forgotten questions will be asked again: why do we allow the media to be dominated by foreign owners and foreign programmes? Why is our economic activity in the hands of foreign corporations? Why are we forced by advertising to purchase products that we have no desire or need to consume, simply in order to sustain the country's economy? Why do we leave thousands of acres in the hands of private landowners? Why does our country make no effort to be self-sufficient in food? Why do we still pretend that Britain is an imperial country, 50 years after the end of empire? Why do we remain allied to the most dangerous and reactionary country in the world?
Such liberating ideas can only come to the top of the agenda if the present political structure is demolished and swept away. Fortunately, the current systemic crisis is making this ever more probable. Our leaders, of course, ignore the likelihood of their imminent demise and scare us with innumerable arguments: protectionism is perceived at worst as an open door to fascism, at best as a forerunner of a yet more disastrous economic disaster. We should ignore the smoke screen of mystification that they try to erect and welcome the coming seismic upheaval. Then we will have to ride the political struggles of the consequent tsunami wave, and look forward with optimism to a more constructive and hopeful future.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016