Of all the distressing things about this global moment, the most distressing of all is the seeming resignation of national, local and world publics about the parade of woes confronting them. I’m not offering this as the stereotypical complaint of a self-anointed activist against the apathy of others. I feel the same sense of resignation and passivity.
There is so much going wrong, and so much wrong-doing, in political, economic and institutional life at all scales. Some of the evidence of error and malfeasance is overwhelming. The managers of major U.S.-based financial corporations and their partners within the U.S. government (across multiple administrations) made catastrophic errors of judgment repeatedly over more than a decade while favoring their own short-term interest and caused a global economic crisis that looks to have been the straw that permanently broke the back of the existing system. They ignored or slighted a variety of long-standing prudential warnings from critics, most of whom still get little respect or acknowledgement from the powers-that-be. This isn’t a deep, dark secret that requires a careful inquest. The more details we get, the worse it looks for the people who were responsible for making decisions. All that changes is that the circle of guilt widens and deepens. Not only have the responsible parties gotten off scot-free, the central dicta of market capitalism about the necessary relationship between risk, consequence and reward have been thoroughly trashed by bipartisan consensus among the political elite. If I could play poker with other people’s money, you can bet I’d never leave the table.
What to do about it? There isn’t any mainstream political alternative. In the U.S. you can choose between a party that favors whatever small incremental reforms that the banker class will grudgingly permit and a party that wants to accelerate the complete handover of all economic matters to the financial elite while propitiating their populist wing with some auto-da-fe of the moment. In the E.U. you can choose between the parties that got you into this mess and the parties that have no idea how to get you out of it, between two sides of a long-standing collusion. In much of the developing world, where publics have some say either through voting or mass politics, the choice is often between yesterday’s cronies and parasites and tomorrow’s. Maybe you can even trade a distant authoritarian’s exploitation for some home-town exploitation instead, as just happened in South Sudan.
Even institutions and individuals who can see what a disastrous situation we’re in can’t really afford to challenge it. Non-profit organizations, local governments, union-defended pension funds are all hopelessly in bondage to the current architecture of asset capitalism. If the banker class puts a gun to the head of the stock market and threatens to blow the S&P to smithereens in retaliation for prosecutions and regulations, they’re threatening to take universities, soup kitchens, parks, libraries and retirements along with them, wounding even the folks who don’t have 401ks or skills with continuing value in the 21st Century economy. About the only people who might stand aloof are small-business owners whose entire investment is in their own operation, and even they need customers.
This is conventionally the moment where old-style progressives or leftists leap into the breach and offer social movements and mass action as the obvious alternative. But seriously, is there any kind of comprehensive vision available to light that path forward? There’s a whole bunch of a la carte positions and ideas that can appeal, gain support and fuel a movement for a year or a decade, only to be appropriated and buried deep in a procedural morass within the Beltway or the Hague. That’s pretty much what the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the U.S. or activism in the E.U. amount to: a constellation of often sensible or exciting ideas and visions that sometimes, but not always, share some loose propositional or conceptual connection. There are just as many particular movements and campaigns of that type that are really just another elite-in-the-making looking to substitute (or restore) their own ticket to a gravy train for those who are presently taking the ride to the Reading Railroad and passing Go repeatedly.
There are only a few overarching ideas that strike me as plausible enough that it’s possible to see how to support them politically, concrete enough that they could be implemented under something like our current dispensation, and powerful enough that they could change the nature of the game to almost everyone’s benefit. Comprehensive transparency in government, business and institutional life is one of those ideas that could arguably be just as important to the Tea Party as it might be to progressives, but only if it applies evenly to everything and everyone, which would take activists on all sides agreeing not to be pawns on the chessboard of the political elite.
I’m thinking about this particular issue right now because of the News Corporation scandal in the United Kingdom. What makes it such an interesting moment is that for once, a public as well as political leaders seem not only performatively outraged by a series of revelations about misconduct but are genuinely angry enough to do something about both the specific charges and the larger problem. What I’m wondering is whether this is a case that shows that there are still very strong possibilities for consensus in contemporary democratic publics, values which if trespassed against will rouse people across the political spectrum to demand serious change.
Alternatively, more glumly, I wonder if the only reason that Murdoch and his colleagues are momentarily exposed to real consequences is simply that they overplayed their hand within the private world of the UK (and global) political elite, made too many enemies with gambits and threats that would have seemed too crude and obvious even for Citizen Kane. There’s a big difference between serious reforms pursued because the alternative is political destruction at the hands of an outraged, mobilized electorate and viscerally knifing a Caesar after he’s gotten too big for his britches and accumulated too many enemies, too many scores that need settling.
If it’s the former, that’s a sign of hope. Maybe we’re only one misstep or revelation away from a similar public consensus about other open wounds and pressing crises, one precious alignment away from change as a real possibility rather than an empty slogan. If it’s the latter, well, watching Murdoch & Co. get what’s coming to them is a pretty fair popcorn moment as far as it goes, but there’s only so many circuses left before Rome really starts to burn.