After years of failed austerity in Europe, we have reached the point where we need more politics or, if you prefer, more political input into economic decision-making. The reason offered for this has been an assumption that a closer connection between the democratic political process and economic decision-making will help both alleviate some of the harsher aspects of capitalism and reaffirm a social contract (albeit one accepting of capitalism) that guarantees peace and prosperity. It is difficult to resist the perception that the people of Southern Europe reject austerity. One could argue, however, that the rejection is not simply of austerity, but of something greater. The rejection is of the lack of ownership of policy, it is a condemnation of powerlessness and of disenfranchisement. When the predominant response to financial crisis has been to hand the keys to supposed experts, then what is the reason for the public to accept the expert medicine, especially when it does not seem to be working? Indeed, there is scant evidence that it is, and as Joseph Stiglitz recently noted: “To say that the medicine is working because the unemployment rate has decreased by a couple of percentage points, or because one can see a glimmer of meager growth, is akin to a medieval barber saying that a bloodletting is working, because the patient has not died yet”.
If the prescription is correct, why not argue its merits in the political arena and convince the public as to its adoption? Isn’t that what a democratic polity is supposed to be about, choice? Why are we all so keen on choice, yet restrict it to our consumer experience? Why indeed do European governments (especially in Britain) assume we need to choose schools and health providers, to rate our GPs and get rid of our schoolteachers, yet it considers us unable to debate and vote on the content of economic policies? Why are we meant to be intelligent enough to pick insurance and financial products that would baffle a maths professor, yet we are considered inadequate to follow a debate on the best way to climb our way out of the hole the financial collapse has left us in? Is this all a little convenient? Are we being flooded with information about things that do not matter so that we acquiesce about the things that do? The fictional fire-station captain in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451 perhaps describes best the elite’s attitude to citizen choice:
“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet give him none … Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change”.
Are we being told to fear the markets so that we keep quiet and do not challenge a legal system that allows sentiment and market whim to govern our fates? Is the universe of technocracy, that has so quickly descended upon Europe as a response to the economic and debt crises, a blessing or is it a cloak for the imposition of a ‘dictatorship of finance’? Are our new (unelected) rulers benign or are they disinterested in the fate of those who have less, who are unemployed or studying at the wrong school? Is the system we have one that can persist, or one that will crumble? At which point does the reaction to capitalist excess turn into a revolution or, in the absence of a motivating ideology that can channel reaction to creativity, just anarchy? Ultimately, how does one resist faceless technocracy and shake the domination of economic orthodoxy? An open debate about what capitalism is for, what financial markets are for, what should be the rewards for those that run the commanding heights of the economy and to what degree wealth should be redistributed, forms the basis upon which a better system can be built. In order to have this debate we need political platforms that propose different visions of social and economic organisation. For this to happen, we need to break through the fear of reprisals from the markets. We need to reassert our status as homo sapiens, rather than homo economicus, to allow ourselves to think without being boxed in by neoclassical assumptions. We should be free to be economically irrational if we are to remain socially engaged.
The solution is not therefore to withdraw from law, in its traditional incarnations, but to embrace it. In order to avoid having the corrosive effects of de-politicisation combining with the crisis to threaten the stability of the political system through a lurch towards extremism, we need to recapture the role of law as a tool to achieve social peace, as a conduit to equity and the defender of justice. If this entails a shrinking of market freedom, then so be it. Now is the time to stop arguing about the means to achieve ill-defined outcomes and to have a discussion about the goals of a market economy. Now may be the last opportunity we have to offer an opinion, as a democratic society, about what economics, finance, the law, are for and how they are used. If we choose not to ask these questions we may have in front of us a future of scientific technocracy that may or may not be benign, or worse, a future where the pretence of democracy is abandoned and with it our freedom is lost. Now is the time to stop asking for choices for consumers and start demanding choices for citizens.
The Greek election on 25.1.15 is the first opportunity for politics to make a come-back to European policy making. The world is watching and for good reasons!