Why has there been no social response to the recession?

15 09 2009

images[2]When Lehman brothers collapsed a year ago, a credit crunch turned into a full blown panic. The result has been recession and a collapse in world trade. But there the similarities (with the thirties) end. Growth is returning. Stock markets are booming. Democratic government survives.

Today’s Times editorial sums up the mood of many in the elite after a turbulent year. It has been tough but capitalism survives more or less intact. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this recession has been the lack of any serious questioning of the market system, despite the negative impact of unemployment and the collapse of world trade on millions across the world.

In the past, recessions have been met with widespread social disorder, even in developed countries. In the thirties of course the recession played a big role in the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis. But even as recently as the  early eighties there were  large scale strikes and riots  in the UK which had an economic background to them. Why is it that this recession has been met with quiescence across the world?

During the summer I read Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels. The most poignant section dealt with the forty years or so that passed after the 1848 revolutions in Europe which helped to inspire Marx and Engels to develop their critique of capitalism. For most of this time the two revolutionaries, Marx in London and Engels running the family firm in Manchester, wrote letters to each other pointing out what they hoped were signs if incipient insurrection around the world. A strike here, an outbreak of political radicalism there, all enough to raise hopes that something big was about to happen. In fact they were living through a period of relative social peace as capitalism began to expand around the world. How many times must each of them pondered on Marx’s profound words from 1852

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

We appear to be living through a period of history in which the question of profound social change is no longer on the agenda. Does this matter? Most people in the world are much better off than ever before. Even in India, China and other traditionally poor countries living standards are rising, although from a very low base.

Yet there is a profound sense of unease running throughout western society. It is not the spectre of communism which is haunting Europe, but the actuality of capitalism. Many people now feel uncomfortable with the benefits which it has brought with it. The French government is leading the way in trying to replace the traditional yardstick of progress, economic expansion or GDP, with a ‘happiness’ index. This is part of a broader backlash against materialism and economic progress exemplified by the influential Green movement. Even in a recession, when many people in the west have experienced directly the misery that comes from lack of jobs and money, these voices have not been stilled.

It would be a terrible thing if mankind turned its back on material progress while so much remains to be achieved in raising living standards around the world to a tolerable level. Marx and Engels objected to capitalism because they did not believe that it could raise the living standards of all in a consistent way andf that it was prone to violent crises. We have seen their critique vindicated once again in the current recession. The truly radical approach today is to insist on the necessity for continued economic growth, and to deal with any obstacles to that. At some point this may mean that people begin to question the ability of the market to deliver that growth and a search for alternatives can begin again. But at present the most important thing to do is to challenge the anti-growth sentiments which are occupying the hearts and minds of many.

It was only at the end of Engels life on the last decades of the 19th century that the new socialist movement began to make itself felt in the world. History does not run in straight lines and is not predictable. Neither does it repeat itself and we should not be deluded into thinking that the mass socialist movements of the past will reappear. But neither should we think for one minute that human social history is over. As long as we want things to change then we can make them do so-but not necessarily in circumstances of our own choosing.

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