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A capitalism that lacks legitimacy

While Ed Miliband brings Labour into an ever-closer alignment with Tory arguments (and policies) on the economy, it falls to the Financial Times to ask whether capitalism can respond to an historic crisis of legitimacy.

As the FT notes: “The system, in all its different varieties, is widely perceived to be failing to deliver”. This is a genuinely serious question which in turn raises real issues about democracy (or the absence of it) and whether the system is capable of re-enlisting the support it once enjoyed.

Miliband, naturally, is incapable of addressing these matters because they strike at the heart of the system of political rule which acts as a proxy for corporate and financial power in every country (and which he is so desperate to be part of).

In fact, his acceptance today of spending cuts to reduce the deficit, attacks on welfare (even questioning the winter fuel allowance for older people) – in effect, setting out Labour’s very own austerity package – will only deepen the growing hostility to the system itself.

Actually naming its series of articles “Capitalism in Crisis”, the paper of choice for business executives, acknowledges that “democratic legitimacy has been largely lacking” in the measures taken by governments over the last four years.

On both sides of the Atlantic there is now a risk that reasonable aspirations to equality of opportunity are being undermined, accompanied by a growing threat of political instability. Support for open trade and free markets is also being adversely affected.

The significance of this lack of consent should not be underestimated. As a system based on private control of wealth and resources, capitalism actually depends on a measure of acceptance by the 99% which is mostly expressed through the political process.

When consent declines in any significance, the nature of capitalism itself stands revealed and becomes more reviled (which the article points out has happened several times over the last 200 years). “Greedy bankers, overpaid executives, anaemic growth, stubbornly high unemployment – these are just a few of the things that have lately driven protesters on to the streets and caused the wider public in the developed world to become disgruntled about capitalism,” the FT remarks.

In a recent survey about trust, under 50% of Americans and British asked said they had “faith in business to do what is right”. The US and the UK were only just ahead of Russia.

The FT believes that growing income inequality is at the root of the discontent rather than growing poverty. In this they are partly right. In 1975, the ratio of the pay of a CEO to an average worker was 35 times greater; by 2010 the ratio had soared to 325 times. Large sections of the middle-class also did very well in the halcyon days of globalisation.

There’s no doubt that perceptions of unfairness drive many protests. But demands that workers pay for a crisis they did not create through lower pensions, reduced wages and unemployment is about defending an often modest standard of living and brought millions out on strike.

For the FT, as for Miliband, the question is “how to improve the existing model of capitalism”. Here they both run into a major difficulty. The globalisation process created a hydra-headed beast that knows no borders, has more power than nation states and is very much immune to political processes.

The trust survey showed an even greater mistrust of government than of business, which must in part be due to the fact that politics is seen to do the bidding of and be in the pockets of the wealthy. Meanwhile, as the FT admits, “efforts to re-regulate the banking system… have failed to convince many experts that an even larger financial crisis can be avoided”.

In sum, capitalism has little room for manoeuvre and a negligible chance of restoring consent for its continued rule. Of course, it’s not giving up power voluntarily any time soon either. But the opportunities to argue for and achieve a revolutionary democratic transformation of capitalist society are more favourable than for a very long time.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
10 January 2012

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