No, a good year it wasn’t. 2018 was a year of gathering thunder clouds. On all levels: economic, ecological, political and social.
It became painfully clear that climate change is not just a problem for our grandchildren. Climate disasters were on the rise, including in the US where in the midst of forest fires and floods, the president continued to claim that nothing was going on, that no drastic change is needed, that on the contrary more coal has to be consumed. And the new president of Brazil is giving a green light for a wholesale clear-cut in the Amazon rain forest. Hallucinant. What is done to the causes is so ridiculously little compared to the scale of the threat that one can expect that the weather will not be less extreme this year and perhaps even more disruptive.
On the social level, one of things that struck me the most was the visible growth of the gap between rich and poor. In New York, I see more beggars almost every day as more and more shiny towers scratch the clouds, with luxury apartments sometimes sold for over a hundred million dollars. In Los Angeles I saw tent camps of homeless people occupying endless sidewalks. I witnessed the same in Europe: The poor get poorer, more people are becoming poor and the rich get richer. In most of the rest of the world, this process has occurred faster.
The growing gap is a logical consequence of the supply side-management of the crisis. Massive money creation was the engine of the recovery of the world economy after “the great recession”. The bulk of those trillions went to the supply side: companies, banks and investors. Countries that would venture to favor the demand side risk capital flight and galloping inflation. This “trickle down” strategy worked, to a certain extent. The recovery has been going on for a relatively long time. But if poverty and the sense of threat and insecurity rise so strongly during the recovery, what can we expect when the economy crashes again?
Dancing on a limp cord
The revival began to sputter in 2018. Growth slowed everywhere, except in the US. But even there, the drug of cheap money and tax cuts is losing its effect. Investors are nervously looking for security, with wild stock market fluctuations as a result. The “emerging countries” that were the first with wind in their sails after the recession, lie bleeding on the floor. The debt mountain is getting too high, its growth must be slowed down. The central banks are faced with a dilemma: they must curb borrowing, raise the price of it, but that risks starting a recession. But if they don’t do it, if they leave the interest rate close to zero, then they might postpone the recession, but eventually it would hit even harder. And then they can no longer substantially lower interest rates if the recession threatens to lead to a collapse. Whether they succeed in 2019 in keeping the recession snake in its basket with virtuoso fluctuations of the interest rates remains to be seen. China is already stumbling. All the official predictions (from the IMF, the OECD, the World Bank, etc.) foresee a lower growth in 2019 than in 2018. Nouriel Roubini, one of the only economists who predicted the recession of 2008, expects a new recession in 2020. That would give the politicians a little time. But to do what?
For politicians, the economic context implies very little room to maneuver. At least concerning policies. Rhetoric is something else. Every country is obliged to make itself attractive for capital. Attracting and retaining capital is necessary in order to grow capital, to make a profit, to create employment. The right and the left agree on that. Their dispute is about the tax level, what must be taxed and how much, and how the proceeds must be spent. The left says it wants to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, the right says it wants to reduce the tax burden. They set different priorities, but the economic reality makes the differences smaller and smaller. Even where a left party comes to power, like Syriza in Greece, it is obliged to pursue a “right” policy: to curtail social spending and make the tax regime more attractive to capital owners.
Globalization, automation, austerity: as a politician – as a manager or a would-be manager of the state – you can’t be opposed to that in practice. The need to grow capital sets out the main lines. Politicians spin their storylines within them.
And yet, sharp political disagreements came to the fore in 2018. About Brexit, for example, and about Trump’s tariffs. A no deal-Brexit or an escalation of the trade war against China could trigger the recession this year. But it seems more likely that the “no deal” will be avoided at the last minute and that Trump will de-escalate. Perhaps it is his instinct to recklessly increase the stakes in his poker game with China, but the capital market would force him quickly to cool it. It wouldn’t be the first time. Only recently he announced the “immediate withdrawal” of American troops from Syria. By now, “immediately” has become “whenever we are ready”. Trump repeatedly referred to NAFTA – the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico – as “the worst trade treaty in American history” and then concluded an agreement with the neighboring countries that implicitly reconfirmed NAFTA with the exception of a few minor changes. In each case, Trump was pushed back by what he himself calls “the deep state” to the “straight path,” when he deviates too far from it. Brexit and the trade war with China will in 2019 also probably turn out to be more spectacle than real change.
Economic crisis and climate disasters are knocking at the door and neither the left nor the right has a solution. As far as the climate crisis is concerned, the right has its head is in the sand, while the left drafts agreements that are sand in the wind. On the economic and social level, they do not have a real alternative either. They want to increase expenditures A and reduce expenses B and vice versa, as if that would fundamentally change anything.
You would think that the lack of options would lead to a moving harmony between politicians, but the opposite is true. The tone of the political debate has become even more bitter in 2018. Even harder, even more mendacious. Precisely because there are no fundamental differences on socio-economic policy, the symbolic differences are emphasized. In 2018 and undoubtedly this year too, the main theme used for this was and is immigration.
Not that immigration is not a real problem. The fact that so many people are driven to leave their familiar surroundings and are prepared to face the greatest dangers to get somewhere where they can have some hope for a future, shows how miserable and hopeless life in many places on earth has become. This happens, among other things, precisely because the economy is so efficient: thanks to automation and globalization, production requires less and less working time, and more and more people become “superfluous”. Of course, there is a suction effect that lures the “superfluous” – the most enterprising among them – to the countries where capital is concentrated; where there is still a demand for labor power.
But in fact, on this issue too, there is a broad consensus between right and left. Both accept the need for a controlled immigration. The Western economy needs immigrants but in moderation. Almost all the politicians are against “open borders” and, in theory, also against the ill-treatment of refugees. That there are differences within that consensus about what this means in practice, is undoubtedly true. But the main lines are set.
Liberal democracy is the political mirror image of the free market economy. Large and small companies compete for the same market, the same voters. They sell ideology, sentiment and personalities. They sell a brand. The smaller companies are looking for their niche. They all want in the first place to grow, just like ordinary companies. To this end, they constantly update their profile. The narrowing of the basic differences makes them reach for symbols with a strong emotional resonance. The immigration debate is very suitable for this. It generates violent emotions that can determine electoral behavior to no small degree. Candidates for office probably received from their pollsters graphs that looks like this:
(The line “A” expresses the empathy for immigrants, the line “B” the fear of immigrants and curving line the number of votes that can be expected.)
On this basis they can choose their slogans and symbols. Nothing illustrates the symbolic nature of their disputes better than the current political stalemate in the US over Trump’s wall. For the undocumented immigrants, that wall would only be one obstacle more in their obstacle course. A $ 25 ladder would suffice to clear it, as the Mexican former president Vicente Fox pointed out.
To achieve the stated goal – to stop illegal immigration – it is a particularly inefficient means. That’s good for the American economy – for capital – because it needs the undocumented. Trump himself has undocumented employees in the kitchens and on the grounds of his golf clubs in Florida and New Jersey. But the wall is a symbol that says, our own people first, foreigners out. The wall evokes protection, against the outside world, against an uncertain future. The wall is a fist, a boxing glove, a monument to white America. A thermometer that measures the fear of the future.
The partial shutdown of the public sector as a result of this dispute will soon cost the American economy more than the 5.7 billion dollars demanded by Trump for his wall. 1 The fact that the Democrats nevertheless did not budge shows that the wall — which is just a detail in the budget as a whole — is also for them an important symbol, allowing them to profile themselves on values that are important for many voters: anti-racism, empathy for refugees, etc.
I’m not saying that symbols are unimportant. They manipulate thoughts. They spin a story in which people want to believe. There is a broad and deep desire for a breaking point with the status quo, for a different future than the one which seems to be coming. Politicians have nothing to offer in that regard. They have no plausible strategy to escape from the systemic crisis. No wonder, then, that the tendency is increasing to give that desire a target, a scapegoat that can be chased into the desert, taking all sins with him. Immigrants, especially those with a different skin color, language and religion, are ideal for that role.
It is a discourse that teaches us to think in terms of “our people” and “the enemy”. It is implicit war preparation. “You will not replace us!” Trump fans chanted on right-wing demonstrations. Some of them changed that into “Jews will not replace us”. The identity of the enemy can change – China is a more likely candidate than the Jews in that respect — but the story remains the same.
The goal of the politicians who use this discourse is, of course, to win power and to tie the population ideologically to them so that they can exploit it better. Viktor Orban, about the most extreme anti-immigrant among the European leaders, thought he had succeeded so well in this that he could impose forced labor on Hungarian workers. The resistance that arose against his “slave law” was one of the few points of light of 2018. Whether that resistance is sufficiently massive and radical to make Orban retreat remains to be seen.
A point of light
A brighter point of light was and is the (still not extinguished) movement of the “yellow vests”. The working class has been for too many years under the steamroller of “neo-liberalism”, a policy driven by the systematic search for lower labor costs. The yellow vests movement is in the first place a massive refusal to continue to undergo this situation.
It arose spontaneously, not planned or organized by a party or trade union. From the start, the yellow vests resisted their interference. They do not tolerate leaders who pretend to speak and negotiate in their name. Their struggle is not democratic, it is a rejection of electoral strategies. Most of them may have voted, for the left, the right or the center, but they do not wait for their “representants” to make things right, instead they trusted in their own, direct action. And in this, it didn’t matter whom you voted for, whether you voted or not, to which union you belonged, whether you were employed or unemployed. People came together into their neighborhoods with others whom they used to ignore. A unity was forged, despite the often considerable differences in social background and political opinions.
The movement did not respect democracy and did not respect the law. It understood that the laws are there to repress it and broke them on many occasions. It is true that the “casseurs” among them sometimes engaged in pointless acts of random destruction. Often more cool-headed yellow vests try to curb them. But the vests also see the violence on the other side, and in the confrontations with the brutal “forces of order” the casseurs are among the bravest. The government and the media use their excesses to portray the entire movement as a band of thugs. Furthermore, it accuses them of being inspired and stoked by the far right. But despite this propaganda, a large majority of the population in France continues to support the movement according to the polls. That shows the depth of the discontent.
Of course there are people among the yellow vests who have right-wing ideas, who are against immigrants. The yellow vests have jumped into this conflict with all the ideological baggage they already had. The common struggle changes their viewpoint but we cannot expect a miracle. When the struggle weakens – which now seems to be happening – the presence of the far right and the far left will probably become prominent. There are some pickings for both when the struggle loses steam and the lack of concrete results drives disappointed yellow vests back to the electoral arena.
There’s no room for triumphalism here. Yes, the struggle was massive and radical. But it failed to spread to the work places, where the real dormant power of the working class is and where capitalism is the most vulnerable. Without forging that link, it cannot go further. And, yes, it inspired resistance in other countries, but many yellow vests continued to brandish the national flag and failed to see that their struggle must be international.
So, is it worth it? What will the movement have achieved? Concretely not much, I’m afraid. Yet it was – perhaps – a not insignificant step towards a better world. That is what the yellow vests want. A better world, a world for people, not for capital. They do not know how to get there, they only know that the current road is not leading to it. So, they were honest when they did not make any specific demands, except for the dismissal of Macron (the latter again for the symbolism, not because it would change anything). But at hundreds of yellow vests meetings there was a lot of discussion about how the world could be organized differently. All kinds of ideas did the rounds and the most popular ones (“more referendums!”) were not necessarily the best. But at least they tried what proletarians everywhere, in 2019 and beyond, have to do collectively in order to survive: imagine a different world. It’s a start. Massive, radical and questioning: hopefully we’ll see more of that in 2019.
1The fact that so many public sector employees so quickly had to turn to food banks and other charities to survive illustrates what we wrote earlier about the growing gap between rich and poor and the growing debt burden of consumers.