After the crisis -- what's left?

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One year ago, the collapse of Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers announced a major crisis of financial capitalism. The subsequent rescue of American banking and finance cost U.S. authorities $12.8 trillion. For anybody who has questioned, and contested the logic of the dominant ideology, the serious problems hardly came as a surprise. The more pertinent question is: does the financial crisis offer new, and better prospects for the left?

One year is hardly enough for the general public to convert to an anti-capitalist economic outlook, just because of widespread financial upsets. An increase in anti-government attitudes is a more widespread outcome of the rescue of financial capitalists at least in the U.S. All the same, at this juncture it is fair to ask what the left has to say about the way ahead after the crisis.

Predicting the next wave of progressive change is not going to make it happen. But understanding how change occurs is a necessary part of political life on the left. Indeed competing ideas about how change comes about are a staple of left politics. The two basis models of change bequeathed to the left by its ancestors are revolution, and the parliamentary road to socialism. The 1960s New Left rejected both of them. Partly it was guilt by association. The Soviet Union 50 years after the 1917 revolution inspired loathing, not admiration. The British Labour Party had few defenders among people looking for meaningful change.

Well if not revolution, or the parliamentary road what is to be? For most left critics the real political question was as much who, as what. The New Left looked to youth for ideas and artists for inspiration. Traditionally the left expects class conflict to lead to change. The empowerment of the working class remains the goal. Mobilizing workers politically is an organizational objective that needs to be constantly re-affirmed by trade unions and left political parties.

The struggle against capitalism has been more like guerilla warfare than open confrontation. Largely speaking the battlefield has been cultural, not economic, about identity not class, and the results have been encouraging. Gay and lesbian activists have won battles for recognition and public acceptance. Women have made progress towards equality and justice. The environmental movement has clamored for more public space, and gotten greater official attention. But, in the main, the right, not the left has gained ground on the issues that matter most: who gets what, and how shall we decide what is to be done.

The ruling class of American capitalism is not about to overthrow itself. To the contrary it has mobilized support at a level barely comprehensible to the world at large. To what extent has it de-legitimated itself in the process?

The financial crisis has discredited many voices, overturned authoritative sources and created a critical swell of opinion. Why, all of a sudden, was unparalleled help and assistance available to the destroyers, and none forthcoming for those who lost their houses and see their livelihood destroyed?

Within trade unions, and the wider popular sector of NGOs, the task is not new, push back and move the debate onto favourable grounds. Capitalism has failed, again, does not produce the goods, and needs to be replaced. Sanity needs to prevail.

The old Soviet Union failed when the people who had defended a system based on lies, gave up repeating the lies nobody believed in any more. So it will be with American-style capitalism. When enough people reject capitalism, it will become pointless to apologize for it. We are not there yet, but we are closer than we were just over a year ago.

Duncan Cameron writes from France.

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