Our fight is not with the Chinese, but amongst ourselves

4 02 2010

 “Since the crisis, developing countries have lost interest in the old Washington consensus that promoted democracy and liberal economics. Wherever I go in the world, governments and business leaders talk about the new Beijing consensus — the Chinese route to prosperity and power. The West must come up with a new model of capitalism that’s consistent with our political values. Either we reinvent ourselves or we will lose.” Times

The recession may be over, and I stress the ‘may’, but the deep damage done to the confidence of western leaders remains. Anatole Kaletsky’s article in today’s Times, written as a review of the mood at Davos last week, reveals how deep the loss of confidence is. Let us review what forms the damage has taken.

Firstly, the recession has accelerated the economic balance towards China and the east. Secondly, it has destroyed the Reagan/Thatcher rhetorical commitment to free markets which underpinned most western economies. Thirdly it has revealed the ideological bankruptcy of western political parties. Kaletsky is right to point out that the failure of the meetings at Davos, and we could add of all of the global summits since the recession started, to address these issues is symptomatic of the crisis itself. There has been a studied refusal to properly debate the recession and its consequences. The western ruling elite has spent its time in the modern equivalent of a bar room brawl rather than addressing the main issues.

Kaletsky’s proposed solution is that western capitalism should reinvent itself. His suggested routes for doing this are themselves a symptom of the limited imagination that exists within the western elite. In fact, while appearing to want to challenge the Chinese model, Kaletsky’s solutions look suspiciously as if he wants to get as close to it as possible.

Do Western political systems need to be reformed to make them more conducive to compromise and rapid, consensual decision- making instead of the political paralysis that now threatens the US? Do we need an economy in which government plays a bigger role in finance, energy, environment and strategic infrastructure investment, but actually reduces public spending and taxes by backing away from some of its traditional, and ruinously expensive, responsibilities for health, pensions and education?

A political system which is based on consensus is what the Chinese Communist party enjoys. It is the antithesis of openly contested democracy. The ‘political paralysis’ which infects western governments is a product of the lack of any coherent political programme for change which can force its way on to the political agenda and persuade the majority in a democracy to support it. It is not more compromise that is needed, but more contestation.

It is not at all clear what western societies need to do in order to continue to make general progress. At present it seems as if the market is the only route. It may be, as Kaletsky suggests, that the state needs to play a more central role in developing the economy. But if this is the case there is even more need for a vigorous democracy to exist which can challenge and guide the state. At the very least we need an open public debate about the role of the state. It is not the form of politics which needs to be changed, but the content. Giving the state more powers without strengthening democratic control over it takes us closer again to the Chinese model.

Even Kaletsky’s final summation of the ‘choice’ facing us is wrongly framed. What we are trying to win against the Chinese is not continued global dominance by the west over the east. If it were only that why we would care? Capitalism is firmly entrenched in China and there is no threat to the market. If the stakes were only about which capitalist country comes out on top then most of us probably would not care very much. What is at stake is the future of democracy.

The experiment in democratic politics, which began with the Greeks and was taken up much later mainly in the west, is now weaker and feebler than at any time in the past sixty years. We do have a fight on our hands, but it is not with the Chinese. It is with our own narrow perceptions of what is possible. We suffer from a failure of political imagination and a climate of low expectations which infect every area of life. Any challenge to the status quo has to begin by taking on the pessimistic, risk obsessed cultures of the west.

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6 responses

4 02 2010
William Wardlaw Rogers

Can’t remember who wrote it (Tom Peters/Peter Drucker?)
– Marx read his Darwin but he got it wrong, Capitalism does not implode, it evolves.

Enjoyed post r.e China and narrow scope for models of governance.
Working on ‘Project Youtopia’ – Working with Creative Industries to hold dialogue around ways to govern Utopia. Not blue sky thinking but visualising the necessary decision making and resource allocation systems within that blue sky.

Futurism and seeking to articulate options for world orders then knowing the framework that would support each of them is the first task.

Then work out when and under what conditions such possibilities may emerge.

The ethics of supporting/engineering such conditions is another conversation entirely.

4 02 2010
Robert Hennecke

The PR China is a single party state of the theoretically communist variety but in reality is much more like a far right wing dictatorship in reality seeing as medical care and eduction for the masses has gone by the boards. Having such a setup makes it considerably easier t “manage” thorny issues such as grabbing land for a dam or a mine and telling the residents to beat it or else. Consensus I would imagine is definitely much more likely given that only people of like mind are likely to be part of the politburo or people’s commissars etc… Is this a society on which to be modelled ? I say no, no at all costs, no despite possible economic difficulties because to accept their way of operating we say goodbye to the very meaning of the enlightenment and head down the road to tyranny. If it were possible for everyone who wanted to leave the PR China to leave that country and flee to the west the planes and boats would be filled for years and 25 % or more of their people would happily leave so it can’t be all that well run.

7 02 2010
bridgette

“The ethics of supporting/engineering such conditions is another conversation entirely.’

Looking forward to that conversation.

12 02 2010
UK politics is broken beyond repair-no coalition can fix that « UK After The Recession

[…] is a case of right diagnosis, wrong medicine. Anatole Kaletsky made similiar points recently by implying that what we need is more concensus politics, like the […]

16 02 2010
The great social paradigms are dead, long live the next ones (whatever they are) « UK After The Recession

[…] Our fight is not with the Chinese, but amongst ourselves […]

12 04 2010
Ten questions to ask your candidates about the UK economy « UK After The Recession

[…] The UK economy is slowly but surely slipping down the international rankings of economic size. Do you think it is possible to reverse the UK’s relative economic decline? If so […]

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