Why we haven’t had a revolution

Michael Lind writes: More than half a decade has passed since the recession that triggered the financial panic and the Great Recession, but the condition of the world continues to be summed up by what I’ve called ‘turboparalysis’ — a prolonged condition of furious motion without movement in any particular direction, a situation in which the engine roars and the wheels spin but the vehicle refuses to move.

The greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression might have been expected to produce revolutions in politics and the world of ideas alike. Outside of the Arab world, however, revolutions are hard to find. Mass unemployment and austerity policies have caused riots in Greece and Spain, but most developed nations are remarkably sedate. Scandal and sputtering economic growth appear unlikely to prevent another peaceful transition of power within the Communist party of China. And in the US, the re-election of President Obama and the strengthening of his Democratic party in the US Senate reflect long-term demographic changes in an increasingly non-white and secular American electorate, not the endorsement of a bold agenda for the future by the Democrats. They don’t have one.

In the realm of ideas, turboparalysis is even more striking. On both sides of the Atlantic, political and economic debate proceed as though the bursting of the global bubble economy did not discredit any school of thought. Right, left and centre, the players are the same and so are their familiar moves. Public debate is dominated by the same three groups — market fundamentalists, centrist neoliberals, and mildly reformist social democrats — who have been debating one another since the 1980s. Someone who went to sleep like Rip Van Winkle in the 1980s when Reagan and Thatcher were in power and awoke today would find nothing new in the way of economic theories or political doctrines.

By now one might have expected the emergence of innovative and taboo-breaking schools of thought seeking to account for and respond to the global crisis. But to date there is no insurgent political and intellectual left, nor a new right, for that matter. In the US, the militant Tea Party right, many of whose candidates went down to defeat in this year’s elections, represents the last gasp of the Goldwater-Reagan coalition, not something fresh. The American centre-left under Obama is intellectually exhausted and politically feeble, reduced to rebranding as ‘progressive’ policies like the individual mandate system (‘Obamacare’) and tax cuts for the middle class which originated on the moderate right a generation ago. In Britain, the manifestos of various ‘colour revolutions’ — Blue Labour, Red Tory and so on — have the feel of PR brochures promoting rival cliques of ambitious apparatchiks rather than the epochal thinking the times require.

Why has a global calamity produced so little political change and, at the same time, so little rethinking? Part of the answer, I think, has to do with the collapse of the two-way transmission belt that linked the public to the political elite. Institutions such as mass political parties, trade unions, and local civic associations, which once connected elected leaders to constituents, have withered away in more individualistic and anonymous societies. One result is a perpetual crisis of legitimacy on the part of political elites, who owe their electoral successes increasingly to rich donors and skilful advertising consultants. New political movements are hard to found. At the same time, anachronistic movements can continue to raise funds or entertain audiences, even if, like America’s conservative movement, they lose election after election.

But there is a deeper, structural reason for the persistence of turboparalysis. And that has to do with the power and wealth that incumbent elites accumulated during the decades of the global bubble economy. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “Why we haven’t had a revolution

  1. hquain

    Lind always strikes a powerful pose, but I’m a little worried about the underlying doctrines here.

    “The greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression might have been expected to produce revolutions in politics and the world of ideas alike. ”

    Isn’t the implication here that the GD itself was the focus and source of many a revolution? What would those have been? Fascism and communism got their start in the chaos after WWI. Britain, France, the US were all mightily struck by the GD, yet their governmental structures were quite stable. Furthermore, in the Lesser Depressi0n, the plutocracy sailed through undamaged after a brief hiccup and is now back to flourishing. Even with a casual glance, it looks to be a little more complicated than he’s rhetorically presupposing.

    What about the lack of ‘new ideas’? (Merely to complain in this way is to mark yourself as a high-end intellectual.) Everybody knows that the current situation devolved directly from the deluded deregulation of the 90’s, the Bush tax cuts, and the wars. To have circumvented those disasters and their consequences, there was no need for brilliance and genius-level innovation: “don’t be stupid” would have sufficed. And will still suffice. There’s plenty of sensible ideas around. The hard part is getting traction for them — not thinking them up.

  2. delia ruhe

    We are living in postmodern times, and the current crisis, as Gramsci once put it, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Postmodernist thinkers are good at deconstructing the codes and the master narratives, but they have no program for change. That is, I think, what hquain means by high-end intellectualism.

    Reagan and Thatcher freed us from “society” — “There is no such thing as ‘society,'” said Thatcher, “there are only individuals” — “and family,” said Reagan and his “family values” tribe. If you can’t find a job, says Romney, borrow some money from your parents and become an entrepreneur. Hey, what a great idea, why didn’t I think of that.

    Well, what happens when you fall for that? When you embrace a vision of the world as seen through the narrow prism of economics? Where you are no one unless you are Homo economicus, wheeling and dealing, 24/7, in the market to “maximize your utility”? Where is the space for the invention of “new ideas”?

    Right-wing think tanks have replaced the university as a major source of ideas, and academics went along with it. So fewer and fewer of them sit in anachronistically named and progressively underfunded “humanities” faculties churning out their expert theories for the edification of other experts. High-end intellectuals, indeed.

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