Isn’t it amazing how fast history moves sometimes? The last time I wrote an article for Eurocritics, unregulated free market capitalism was still popularly considered to be quite a good idea. That was less than two months ago, in a different world; a world in which you’d have been likely to have your sanity questioned had you suggested that George W. Bush’s administration would soon be making massive urgent interventions in the market to keep Americans in their homes, or that the UK government would shortly be stepping in to nationalise banks.
But all of that and more has happened. The names of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have become internationally known because of the crisis caused in the US by the collapse of the two giant mortgage lenders. I woke up recently to hear on the radio that the UK government has just bought a major interest in the Royal Bank of Scotland, where I am a customer. Job insecurity is no laughing matter, so I resisted the temptation to ask the friendly staff in my local branch how they felt about suddenly becoming civil servants; I just have to trust that the changes won’t affect their ability to look after my overdraft.
I’ve been saddened to hear about the effects of the financial crisis in Iceland, the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited, where the national economy came close to collapse. I can see the effects closer to home, too: suddenly there’s a severe shortage of job opportunities being advertised in my local paper. When I visited a recruitment agency in Leeds recently, I was told that there was just one area in which new jobs were being created rapidly: debt collection. The queues for bargains at my friendly neighbourhood discount food shops in Bradford have never been quite so long.
I’m genuinely sorry that so many people are suffering because of the economic problems, but at the same time I’m relieved that deregulation is now thoroughly discredited (a word that seems singularly apt) just as surely as Communism was discredited by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The economic era that gave us Reaganomics and Thatcherism has now been pronounced dead by no less an authority than Francis Fukuyama, the economist who previously saw the free market as the natural final state of human society and announced ‘the end of history’. Fukuyama has now admitted that ‘…there are certain jobs that only the government can fulfil’, and called for the rebuilding and revitalising of the American public sector. I am no economist, but I like to think that the species I belong to is capable of more than just mercilessly competing and trying to sell things to one another, so I’m glad that greed is no longer believed to be good. As our credit is crunched, we can see all too clearly where over-consumption has led us.
Meanwhile, in the midst of all the economic chaos and worrying news, I’ve found one personal consolation: I no longer have any difficulty in finding people with whom I can have a good discussion about politics. A crisis of this magnitude causes lots of people to watch the news more closely and to look to our elected leaders for some sort of solution. The state of the global economy has drawn more attention to the US election, and probably decided its outcome, as the Republicans have taken the blame for the crisis. This is at least partially fair, since they have been the loudest American cheerleaders for the free market, and Reaganomics certainly carried the Republican brand. The true extent of the Bush administration’s culpability for the present crisis is endlessly debatable; it’s hard to gauge how much control national governments can have over economic changes as seismic as the ones currently shaking the planet. But in hard times, incumbent politicians tend to get punished by the electorate.
them. In troubling times, people naturally look for hope and reassurance rather than for more reasons to worry. Barack Obama has at least sounded like someone trying to bring his nation together to combat problems. The personal attacks on Obama from the McCain/Palin camp have seemed irrelevant, a bout of petty name-calling as the house burns down.
The stories that emerged about McCain and Palin’s personal wealth and extravagance were also given greater power by the difficult circumstances in which many voters suddenly found themselves. If you’re worried about the mortgage payments on your family’s only home, then reading that John McCain owns seven homes can hardly inspire confidence in his ability to relate to your hardships. Meanwhile, the Republicans’ spending of $150,000 on clothes for Palin seemed staggeringly insensitive, the supposedly down-to-earth Alaskan visiting the most expensive, exclusive designer shops just as many voters were buying their own clothes from charity shops or budget stores.
In one limited sense, the imminent election is now less important. Whoever is handed the reins of government will be dealing in damage limitation; there will be no magical remedy to fix things quickly coming from the White House or anywhere else. President Obama or President McCain will be overseeing increased government intervention in the economy whether it suits them ideologically or not. But for a wide variety of other reasons, the election still matters enormously. The new President will certainly need to be calm under immense pressure, and Obama has gained great credit by retaining his cool in the face of some outrageous attacks while McCain has appeared irritable and impulsive on the campaign trail.
And then there are the questions of war and peace. Leaving aside all the moral and humanitarian questions about the American presence in Iraq, the USA needs a less aggressive foreign policy for financial reasons; the American economy simply cannot afford the vast cost of war on multiple fronts.
International co-operation is going to be required to solve the international economic crisis. The election of Obama would have huge symbolic importance in convincing the rest of the world that the world’s most powerful nation would in future be using its power in a more conciliatory manner. I can only agree with the editorial verdict in a journal that endorsed President Bush at the last US General Election, the Financial Times: ‘The challenges facing the next president will be extraordinary. We hesitate to wish it on anyone, but we hope that Mr. Obama gets the job.’
Anyway, we’ll soon know, and I won’t be lonely in my waiting. For one thing, the coverage of the election by the BBC and by Britain’s serious newspapers has become comprehensive and excellent lately.
What’s more, it so happens I spend a lot of my social time around the University of Bradford, where one of the specialities is archaeology. Many of my friends have been trained in that science, and even the most conservative church regulars among them are affronted that the most powerful politician in the world could conceivably soon be Sarah Palin, a believer in creationist theories that they know are demonstrably absurd. The student union bar there is staying open till 4am on the morning of November 5 so that we can watch the results come in while clutching a glass of something calming or celebratory. Hopefully I’ll be back here soon afterwards to tell you what the atmosphere was like. But if I’m a little late, I’m sure you’ll understand.