Journalists have stopped talking about the 1930s. In a development which is as alarming as it is apposite, they’re beginning to mention 1789.
When this crisis first erupted in 2008, people compared it to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Rightly so, too – did not the 1930s depression start with a Wall Street Crash, and then morph via financial instability and declining confidence into a world-wide depression? The parallels were too close to ignore and Britain’s response – replacing a discredited Labour government with a coalition government which implemented an austerity programme – almost identical.
As time has run on, however, you will have noticed that the references to the 1930s have diminished … as too have the rather simplistic calls for a Keynesian reflation à la New Deal. People have found out what FDR himself found out in the 1930s – that the solution is not so simple in real life. Instead, the British nation – government, industry and people – seem increasingly to be hunkering down for an extended (maybe permanent) period of decline and difficulty.
The one thing they ALL missed about the 1930s was that they went on for a decade, and only stopped when a world war enforced an explosion (literally) in government spending.
[Interjection off-stage: “But this is a kind of a war, isn’t it – a war against economic recession?”
Well, yes, you’re right, and the parallels with the 1930s haven’t stopped, as I will come to later in this article … but people’s focus has changed, and that’s what I want readers to realise.]
A change of focus
The recession has been going on a long time now – long enough for people to begin to get over the initial shock and to start to look about and see what is happening around them.
Even the Labour Party has begun to realise that the cuts aren’t being applied fairly – that we’re hammering the unemployed and disabled, and giving tax breaks to the former 50p taxpayers.
But you don’t have to look very carefully before you realise that the issue is about much more than simply a government which has misjudged where to make its cuts. You do not need to know very much before you realise that this crisis has ceased to be an economic problem, and is becoming increasingly a social and political crisis.
Because it is becoming clear that what has been one man’s disaster has been another man’s opportunity.
On the continent, today, we are being told that Europhile technocrats are drawing up plans for a greater federalisation of Europe, with all that means for national democracy and self-determination. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is increasingly linking increased German intervention to increased German influence and – however philanthropic the surface intention – one can’t help wondering whether the Eurozone crisis is being played by certain interests for their own advantage.
In Britain, the contrast between the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ in the recession is even more stark. I won’t even bother to describe the recent outrages as ATOS has declared undeniably terribly-disabled people ‘fit for work’ (1, 2, 3), or to contrast them with the continuing obscene bonuses for bankers and directors – you have been living in a alternate universe if you have missed them.
Similarly, my twitter feed is full today of outrage about the unemployed people who were duped into working untrained and in appalling conditions marshalling the jubilee – a perspective which jars uncomfortably with the pageant of privilege and excess we are watching on our TV screens.
It is not simply – as dictators through the ages have realised – that a good Triumph takes people's minds off the problems back home. It is the truth that a procession sorts out the nobs from the oiks – those whose destiny is to rule, from those whose purpose is simply to stand and serve.
The return of the aristocracy
The most telling article of all about this process of social delineation, which you may have missed, however, is by George Monbiot in today’s Guardian.
Forget the apparent focus of the article, which seems to be about environmental matters. Look instead at the social and political information that he supplies along the way:
* that the rich have taken advantage of the recession significantly to increase their ownership of land (paragraph 6);
* that we live in a Britain where an aristocrat can have a have a chat with his gamekeeper about pesky buzzards, swan down to Westminster, and introduce a law to destroy buzzards (paragraphs 1-3);
* that we live in a Britain where a very limited measure to grow a few more trees on the moors can unleash a rich-man’s storm and cause a hasty withdrawal of the proposal before it even sees the light of day (paragraphs 11-12).
The outrage of Monbiot’s article is not so much that we live in a Britain where “anything that cannot be shot and eaten is shot and hung from a gibbet” or even where “the countryside reverts to a playground for the rich”, but that
as Britain heads towards Edwardian levels of inequality … the aristocracy is back in charge.And it against this background that I return to my initial observation, that journalists have stopped talking about the 1930s, and are starting to mention 1789.
Towards a Revolution?
1789, of course, is the date of the French Revolution – not of the 'French Revolution' we all know from our TVs, with the guillotine and Napoleon, but the real French Revolution, which overturned absolutism and introduced the world to liberté, égalité and fraternité
The crucial article is by Nick Cohen: No wonder the working man despises the elites, in which he comments:
They forgot that perks that no one notices in ordinary times can in crises become as intolerable as the tax exemptions of the aristocrats and clerics were to the French revolutionaries of 1789. In a crisis, the elite has to convince the masses that there is a rough equality of sacrifice – a connection between them and us – or lose legitimacy.and in which Cohen quotes – even more appropriately – Thomas More’s Utopia:
"God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the commonwealth"And suddenly you wonder whether the 1930s is the most appropriate parallel for our current situation.
1789 arose out of a government which was incompetent, out-of-touch with the reality of ordinary people’s lives (‘let them eat cake’) and – above all – financially bankrupt. It went to the rich (the king called an ‘Assembly of Notables’) and asked them to consider paying taxes … the nobles simply laughed. All this took place against an entrenched and growing inequality between the poor and the ruling aristocracy … and all it took was a meeting in a Tennis Court and an angry march on the Bastille, and the walls of state and society came a-tumbling down.
I will not labour the analogy. What Mr Cameron needs to contemplate is not so much the fact of 1789 (aristocratic elites, oppression and injustice can survive for centuries unchallenged, never mind untoppled) but the fact that, when the tocsin sounded, it took everyone, not least the government, by complete surprise.
Back to the 1930s
During the 1930s, in America, unlike in 1930s or even present-day Britain, Roosevelt introduced a string of measures (the so-called ‘First New Deal’) to tackle the depression. He accompanied these with a number of ‘Fireside Chats’ in which he appealed directly on radio to the ‘ordinary man’ to support him against the rich vested interests which were resisting his measures.
By 1935, two things were becoming clear:
* The first was that the New Deal was not curing the depression – that even Roosevelt’s huge Keynesian stimulus was in itself insufficient to restore growth.
* And the second was that – unlike our current government, which is quite able to spin a bit of banker-bashing to try to gain street-cred – Roosevelt really WAS on the side of the working man against the rich vested interests.
Consequently, from 1935, Roosevelt introduced a series of measures which are known collectively as ‘The Second New Deal’. These were measures which were not just sticking plasters designed to ameliorate the depression, but measures of genuine social change, which gave the USA a system of pensions, unemployment insurance, disability payments and employment rights which changed the lives millions of poor Americans.
What the British people and the Labour Shadow cabinet need to realise is not just that austerity which isn’t working – fiscal stimulus doesn’t work either.
The real issue was never about the crash or the economy - that is just the background context. The real issues are social and political, and concern a process which has been going on for a number of years, by which increasing amounts of wealth and power have been concentrating in the hands of a very small group of people.
I have no problem with rich people per se – except that they seem nowadays to want to become richer and richer and ever-more powerful.
And the answer – whilst the vested interests drive systematically towards technocratic government, federalism and increasing inequality – is NOT ‘too far too fast’ nor even fiscal stimulus, but a radical and appropriate programme of social reform.
The power of the rich has increased, is increasing, and must be diminished, as John Wilkes would have said if he were alive today.
And, Ed Miliband please note, what we need for this is a new Roosevelt, who can see the need for an 'equalising' programme of social reform, and can force it through by means of an alliance with the ordinary man – if necessary in the teeth of opposition from the rich and the powerful – and pull this country back from the echoes of 1789.