Saturday, December 30, 2006

The death of liberalism.

Apparently, Saddam Hussein was hanged this morning? I know you all probably didn't catch it, but it was a passing news item on some of the broadcasts today. I am not, I should point out, moved by the event one way or the other. His death is entirely superfluous (next to, say, over a million deaths from sanctions and war). Evidently, there will be an attempt to convert it into yet another milestone - or tombstone - on the way to a New Iraq, but not even the most belligerently idiotic could fall for another of those. The mortality I wish to say a few words about doesn't involve a sharp drop and a sudden stop, as per this morning's televised asphyxiation. It's a slower and more ponderous death, but it is nonetheless widely understood. When the apologists for the ever-expanding and increasingly barbaric 'war on terror' ask us to accept that liberal 'values' are threatened, they are pushing at an open door. We see the disintegration, but don't simply try to explain this by reference to various 'fundamentalist' encroachments.

The material basis of liberalism, in the broad and hegemonic sense, is advanced, relatively stable capitalism with high employment coterminous with steady urbanisation. In most of the world, these conditions don't exist, and they will be increasingly sparse. Robert Brenner's book 'The Economics of Global Turbulence' has been reprinted by Verso this year, and it is worth checking out (alongside The Boom and the Bubble and its sequel), not least because it deals specifically with what is happening in the advanced capitalist world, specifically Europe, Japan, the United States and Canada. For a book about economics, it's fairly readable, and the danger signs are everywhere: tumbling profit rates only slowed but not halted by the repression of wages; lower productivity in most sectors; declining investment; growing reliance on debt; growing unemployment and underemployment. I'm not going to try to outline Brenner's explanation for this, since I couldn't possibly do it justice, but suffice to say it involves a the orthodox marxist account of capitalism as an inherently crisis-ridden system with a tendency toward secular decline. This picture has only been occluded by temporary and localised successes where a 'new paradigm' has occasionally been sought - in Japanese and Rhineland capitalism during the Eighties and early Nineties, and in US 'free market' capitalism in the mid-to-late 1990s. But the trend is unmistakeable, and can only temporarily be overcome by, for example, reducing unit labour costs and driving up unemployment.

The advanced capitalist world is in serious trouble, and the resort to increasingly austere measures will themselves produce social problems that it will be the burden of repressive institutions to deal with. If you want to understand why Blair and Bush are rolling back even basic liberal commitments such as habeus corpus, it is because they and the state personnel that they direct, understand the likely impact of the economic programmes they are committed to, and they are equipping the state with the means to deal with it. Social attitudes are less likely to be liberal, and popular political action less likely to take place through traditional venues. Growing numbers of disposable workers creates a popular basis for tumult, not consensus.

How about when the global recessionary pressures move in sufficient concert to bring about a worldwide depression? How about when the oil becomes more and more difficult to find, the prices go sky high and people can't afford to take their cars to work? And when businesses cease to invest, because it's too costly? The truck drivers' road block will look like a genteel farce by comparison with the tumult that will ensue. The bulk of future population growth, as Mike Davis points out, will be in the South, and it will be in urbanised areas with little or no employment growth to accomodate it. The bulk of new work in the world will be informal. That's a process taking place everywhere from Brazil to India to China to the Gulf States, and it isn't exactly a solid basis for liberalism. As more and more people flee to the relatively wealthy metropole, the reaction will be tighter and tighter controls, more 'detention centres' and more intense resistance - the fires and riots at these prison camps in recent years will pale by comparison.

The supporters of the 'war on terror', who tend to be those that do quite well out of the system, think that the empire can save liberal capitalism by reforming 'failed states', repelling the 'fundamentalists' (they may agree or disagree as to the necessity of torture and secret prisons) and spreading 'free markets'. But even if this were a desirable goal, the empire has been liquidating the basis for liberalism for decades, whether in Chile, Lebanon, Iran. It hasn't recently invented the apparatus of torture chambers, death squads and disappearances. These are the means by which it has got things done, whether in El Salvador or Vietnam or Angola etc. It isn't interested in free markets, unless this is restricted to meaning enclosing pubic goods for Western capital. It doesn't attempt to save the system, and couldn't do so if it tried - it is only interested in suppressing internal and external challenges to ruling class interests. The more cynical owners of capital understand that the system is disintegrating and that the wealth of the affluent is going to be increasingly augmented by direct disposession and expropriation. The appeal to national chauvanism may be genuinely felt, but only as an after-effect of its utility - as Eduardo Galeano once put it, they love their country so much that they try to take most of it home with them every day. And they are aware that when the shit starts flying, they want it to be directed at anyone but them. Hence: 'Muslims spread disease in hospitals'; and The Caliphate is Coming.

It might be put off, but it is unlikely to be avoidable: if you think Gaza is only a television image, it will one day be on the streets of London. If you think Baghdad is a spectacle, that spectacle will erupt onto the streets of Washington DC. Liberalism is finished, and the real question is whether we have the resources to replace it with a positive programme for social transformation or whether we will be part of the ruins.