by Jonathan Todd
People make their own history, as Karl Marx knew and Angela Merkel and Barack Obama cannot deny, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. Over hundreds of years America has evolved to a fiercely divided, uncompromising polis wedded to a system demanding compromise. Over decades Europe has achieved monetary union. Thousands of years of history hang over its fiscal consummation, which is required to avoid collapse and further calamity. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
One of the ironies of Marx is that communism was supposedly inevitable, but his tombstone declares that the point is to change the world, not interpret it. What’s to change if history’s terminus is already determined? What was the point of agitating publications like the Communist Manifesto if we were all, in spite of ourselves, destined for communism?
Such publications imply that Marx himself may not have seen communism as quite the iron certainty that rigid interpretations of his writing suggest. But one of the divisions between Marxism and much of the rest of the left concerns the extent to which we are prisoners of history. Parties such Labour predicate themselves on an assumption that the institutions of advanced capitalist democracies can be moulded to serve socially just ends. Ed Miliband’s father, of course, like other Marxists, thought this naive.
Recent economic events seem to vindicate Ralph Miliband. Political leadership seems oxymoronic when our nominal leaders appear only witnesses to events that they can barely fathom, let alone command. (In the non-economic sphere, our Tuscan prime minister is similarly bemused by the revenge of the lumpenproletariat). Nothing has happened to undermine James Carville’s famous wish to come back as the bond market and intimidate everybody. It’s these markets that are in the box seat and our political leaders that are cowered.
What they demand are credible plans from governments to repay their creditors. This isn’t unreasonable. I expect you’d want to see credible repayment plans before you leant non-trivial amounts of money. The governments of the third and fourth largest economies in the eurozone, Italy and Spain, seem increasingly unable to produce such plans. The downgrade of the USA, though unjustified, speaks to a similar lack of confidence in America’s ability to manage its debts.
While events seem to lead towards the largest country in the world that still professes to be communist, China, being an ever more dominant geo-political force, the Marxists should not be too triumphant. The markets are, of course, as powerful as James Carville’s wildest dream and Ralph Miliband’s bleakest nightmare. But they do not remain beyond the capacity of political leaders to have them becalmed. That is if political leaders do what it says on their tin; lead.
This doesn’t mean interpreting opinion polls as immovable. Germany, for example, could swing behind the full steps required to save the euro if Merkel articulated them well enough. It means seeing your electorate as intelligent beings capable of being won over by the force of your argument and your actions. Merkel and Obama can still do this. But only if they stop being intimidated not only by the bond markets but also by opinion polls, their political opponents and their own inevitable failure to hold in their minds every relevant fact and figure.
As the Irish leader, Enda Kenny, has said the answer from Merkel, whether the question is bailouts or debt restructuring, is always no – until it is yes. We all know the big question hanging over all of this: will the single currency underwrite the debts of all of its members? These debts would be eminently manageable under such an arrangement; so long as the political will to enact such an arrangement can be found. It is for Merkel to find this will. If she cannot, then she should say so speedily. The longer she delays the worse the fallout when she confirms her inability to rise to her historic purpose.
In spite of the tea party and the fractious nature of US politics, things are more straight-forward for Obama. He has no unprecedented, continent-wide institution building project to contemplate as a matter of existential necessity. His outlook would suddenly look much rosier if he could only say yes, we did achieve growth rates in 2011 equal to the hardly spectacular rates of 2010.
Can the US really not grow at 2.8 per cent this year? Can unemployment really not be significantly reduced from the historic high of 9.2 per cent? While markets fret over the ability of governments to manage their debts, they are also increasingly worried that the US cannot do better on growth and unemployment. Surely if the social democratic faith in the power of government is justified then Obama can prove them wrong?
Merkel and Obama can rise to their challenges or we succumb to capitalism’s latest crisis. These crises will not, however, give way to something as pleasant as Marx envisaged communism to be. It will be something with much more of a Chinese flavour.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.