John Gray writes: The Occupy movements have been attacked for being impractical visionaries. In fact it is the established political classes of the west that are wedded to utopian thinking, while the protesters are recalling us to the actualities of human experience. Based on economic theories that left out human beings, the global free market was supposed to be self-regulating. Now a process of disintegration is under way, in which the structures set up in the post-cold-war period are visibly breaking up.
Anyone with a smattering of history could see that the hubristic capitalism of the past 20 years was programmed to self-destruct. The notion that the world’s disparate societies could be corralled into a worldwide free market was always a dangerous fantasy. Opening up economies throughout the world meant ordinary people were more directly exposed to the gyrations of market forces than they had been for generations. As it overthrew existing patterns of life and robbed large numbers of people of any security they might have achieved, global capitalism was bound to trigger a powerful blowback.
For as long as it was able to engineer an illusion of increasing prosperity, free-market globalisation was politically invulnerable. When the bubble burst, the actual condition of the majority was laid bare. In the US a plantation-style economy has come into being, with debt-servitude for the many coexisting with extremes of volatile wealth for the few. In Europe the muddled dream of a single currency has resulted in social devastation in Greece, mass unemployment in Spain and other countries, and even, for some, reversion to a life based on barter: sucking society into a vortex of debt deflation, austerity policies are driving a kind of reverse economic development. In many countries a settled bourgeois existence – supposedly the basis of popular capitalism – has become an impossible aspiration. Large numbers are edging closer to poverty and a life without hope.
History tells us how perilous this process can be. It has been taken for granted that a sudden collapse of the kind that occurred in the former Soviet Union and more recently Egypt cannot happen in advanced market economies. That assumption may be tested severely in coming years. While totalitarian mass movements of the sort seen in the 30s are not going to return, Europe’s demons have not gone away. Blaming minorities and immigrants is a perennially popular response to economic dislocation, and ethnic nationalism can be hideously destructive. In the US the continuing demise of the middle class could engender a style of politics even more rancorous and unhinged than that prevailing today. A figure such as Father Coughlin, the Depression-era radio demagogue, shows what can be expected as the economy continues its slide. With the rise of trigger-happy politicians like Mitt Romney and the need for Obama to act tough, it would be unwise to rule out the prospect of another major war.