A few days ago I found myself watching a TED talk by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie is as engaging a speaker as she is a writer and she took to the TED stage to discuss what she calls the notion of a ‘single story’. The idea is a simple one: a single story is created by showing a nation (or continent) and its people as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again until that is what people believe them to be. To illustrate the point, Adichie uses an example close to her heart, that of the poor, sick and war ravaged Africa, crying out for the help of the benevolent white man; a narrative that treats Africans as unfit to control their own destinies. She also points to the stereotype of the lazy Mexican immigrant, any US Republican voter’s worst nightmare. In both cases, the story is blind to the realities of the individuals and communities tarnished by this lazy stereotyping. But within this critique lies the purpose of this single story. Whoever writes the past can control the present, and whoever illustrates the characters can also define the plot. The single story of the Mexican immigrant may be a depressing generalisation but it is also a powerful weapon for the American far right.
As events unfolded in the seemingly never ending Greek ‘crisis’ over the last few days I kept coming back to this idea of the single story. Since the crisis began we have been constantly told that the bloated Greek public sector must pay the price for years of mismanagement; that the Greek people must stop shirking blame and face the full consequences of living beyond their means; that the Greek government must not expect something for nothing from its friends and partners at the eurozone negotiating table; and, most importantly, that the responsibility for the entire mess lies in Athens. While a quick glance on social media sites will of course show that many people have seen beyond this myopic version of events, it is still the voice of the mainstream media that holds influence in the majority of countries. Controlling the narrative is the key to political success.
“Orderly debt restructuring has been done hundreds of times, hundreds, like with Germany in 1953”.
As the leader of Podemos has rightly pointed out on many occasions, sovereign debt restructuring is nothing new. Why, we may ask, should post-war Germany be helped to meet its financial commitments and rebuild its shattered economies, but Greece and other southern European states should not? Well, the standard narrative on the right is that after an initial helping hand, German productivity and fiscal acumen allowed it to become a regional manufacturing powerhouse. After West Germany had sufficiently re-established itself as a responsible and affluent member of the international community, it was then helped to reunite with its crumbling, post-communist sibling. The beauty of this simplistic version of events is that it is essentially a story of redemption and triumph over adversity, and so lends moral weight to Germany’s central role in contemporary European affairs. It does not, however, hold up to scrutiny of the facts. It was Germany’s central position in the cold war, as well as its divisive position in post-war Europe that made the USA aggressively promote it as a new capitalist powerhouse on the continent. By promoting the European Coal and Steel Community (the precursor to the modern EU) with German participation, the USA embarked on a project to strengthen the Deutschmark as an additional pillar of capitalist strength, and work towards the creation of a vast trading block. Nowhere is the commitment to rebuilding the German economy clearer than in the details of the 1953 debt restructuring, where debt repayment was tied to export revenue. Creditor nations therefore had a vested interest in buying German exports, thus allowing the indebted nation to repay its debts and become ultra-competitive on the global scene.
But in the 62 years that have passed since, the rules of the game have changed beyond recognition. The European project has boomed into a vast bureaucracy overseeing a continental marketplace. With the advent of the single currency at the beginning of the century, the Eurozone members committed themselves to the observance of strict financial rules in exchange for the so-called stability of a single unit of currency designed to reduce transaction costs and promote financial security within the bloc. It is now widely known that countries, including Greece, failed miserably to meet the requirements of euro entry but were admitted anyway through a combination of financial fraud and European bonhomie. Although this may look like a tragic mistake in hindsight, it was crucial to the project that the southern European countries join the single currency in an irreversible manner. As soon as Greece, Italy and Spain were locked into a currency position which did not allow for default, they had sacrificed their only effective means of making their economies more competitive in the face of German exports (which, as I previously discussed here, are made so competitive by breaking Eurozone rules). In short, they were therefore doomed to run current account deficits vis-à-vis Germany ad infinitum. But to make matters even worse, the lack of mechanism for fiscal transfer within the Eurozone (with the original rules explicitly removing this possibility) meant that there has never been any way for the German surplus to be recycled within the union in the interest of stability and balanced growth. The single currency has been deeply flawed from the start.
The post-2008 political landscape in Europe has been littered with public discontent and protest. In Spain and Greece this has manifested itself in revolt against the European establishment and a refusal to be bound by the financial practices of the past. In England, immigration has raced to the forefront of the political agenda, while in Scotland and Catalunya nationalism has come to the fore in a way that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. In France the National Front has eroded support for the rightwing UMP while simultaneously appealing to much of the working class. Even Germany has not been immune to an element of political unrest.
Although the principles underlying these movements may differ greatly, it would be foolish not to wonder if there is a common denominator running through European protest. If history has taught us anything it is that the lines separating socialist uprisings from fascist popularity are not as clear as we may like to think. Political movements often thrive on the charisma of their leaders and their ability to build a narrative that chimes with the misery or discontent of the public. In Germany’s broken socioeconomic structure of the 1920’s it could easily have been the communists who came to power on a wave of popular support instead of the National Socialists. But the Nazis were more adept at political maneuvering and public manipulation. One of the many lessons available from this episode however is that most individuals are not remotely concerned with political ideology. Instead they back parties that offer the best guarantee of personal and collective security. This security can and does take many shapes, but it is the desire to protect one’s self and one’s security that is at the core of electoral and public decision-making. But electoral decisions are also often made with rejection in mind – rejection of the incumbent political force and policies. Under these circumstances, a clear and workable alternative vision matters less, since the public desire to oust those who have led them into darker times will often be sufficient to create political change. This is the predominant theme in modern politics and since voters are often hard pressed to identify the core differences between candidates, a vote for one is largely just a rejection of the other.
But the current wave of demonstrations across Europe is about something greater than electoral choice, it represents a rejection of modern politics. The SNP, UKIP and the Catalan nationalists may promote very different ideals but all try to tap into the disenchantment of voters in the face of globalised, neoliberal politics administered from a distant centre of power. All seek to recapture a real or imaginary notion of local identity from the clutches of external bureaucratic institutions. All offer a vision of the future which appeals to those who want a greater say in shaping their local culture and society. As citizens feel increasingly distant from the centre of power they strive to have a greater say in organising their communities in a way which is consistent with their own beliefs and identity rather than those of policymakers in London, Madrid or Brussels.
With capitalism in the doldrums and a general election nearly upon us it is the season to reflect on how we might manage to convert the neoliberal, market-driven free-for-all of our current society into something we might actually like to live in. Will Hutton set the ball rolling in the Guardian yesterday with a lengthy promotion of his new book, which lays out a new framework for building “smart societies.” Hutton’s critique of the existing order raises some salient points and only those living on the moon over the last generation or three could have failed to notice that “problems in the British economy and society run deep.” He is also right in asserting that, if “there are no networks of reciprocal obligation, and no acknowledgement that human beings associate in a society they can construct, redesign and reform around those principles, then we are all reduced to atomistic consumers and workers – serfs who are no more than notations in the spreadsheets of companies and public bodies alike.”
The problem with Hutton’s analysis, however, is that he still puts business and wealth creation at the heart of society. “The aim of any manifesto for change” says Hutton “must be to create the smartest economy for Britain – it is the only route to prosperity in the decades ahead.” Refining the mechanisms of wealth generation is all very well but surely this should not take precedence over the social and human fabric of the world we live in. Unfortunately, Hutton is a little sketchy on this issue and even though he is adamant that businesses should not solely tools of stock market speculation, he also declares that “companies are organisations of genius, solving problems, innovating and delivering great goods and services.” ICI, GEC and Rolls Royce are all used to show Britain’s great industrial tradition but he conveniently forgets recent allegations of corruption and bribery in the latter.
“There is no moral justification for extreme poverty side by side with great wealth.”
Inequality was the hot topic in economics and political economy in 2014. Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, ‘Capital’, hit the best-sellers list and brought an overdue and welcome look at the historical evolution of wealth distribution in the developed world. Politicians, business leaders and celebrities all weighed in with their analysis of Piketty’s research and brought inequality discussion firmly into the mainstream. I finally got round to reading it towards the end of 2014 and found myself in agreement with much of what was written, particularly with the compelling case Piketty makes for the historical evolution of inequality. The crux of the matter, says Piketty, is that over the long-run returns to capital (r) are larger than economic growth (g) and so there is a tendency for wealth to outgrow income, leading to increased levels of inequality. This central point of his analysis has made some waves in the economics community and there has been a predictable backlash from some quarters. Nonetheless, it makes for compelling reading up to, that is, the point where Piketty proposes measures to reduce inequality (more about this later).
Although ‘Capital’ is already old news, it is been in my mind over the last couple of weeks due to a few interesting developments. Firstly, it was a shock to see President Obama move towards tackling inequality in his State of the Union address in January with a few Piketty-influenced measures. Raising capital gains tax to 28% for those with incomes over $500,000, closing a popular tax loophole for the rich, and imposing a new levy on firms with assets over $50 billion, were all interesting measures, and not ones we would normally expect from a US President. Although the sentiment is right, it is still hard to justify the wealthy paying less in capital gains than regular mortals pay in income tax.
Like many people I am fascinated by the political changes taking place across southern Europe. Syriza’s victory in Greece has taken us into unchartered political waters and it remains to be seen what the impact of this will be in Greece, Europe and beyond. In thinking about this I have found myself wondering what it is we are really witnessing here – does the Greek election signal a change in the political landscape and a long-term shift to the left or is this just a temporary backlash against corruption and austerity which may be swept away within a matter of months? Is this movement backed by a change in mindset of the electorate or are the people just voting for the most tangible change due to widespread desperation?
This train of thought motivated to write an article on the psychological issues around these emerging left-wing political movements. Although I have already submitted this for publication elsewhere I would like to share it here also, with any feedback being welcomed! Due to its length I’ve decided to post this in several sections over the next few days so today I start with the first two sections…