Plus ça change: Out with the old and in with the same

Greek and French votes have chosen a change in their leaders but the markets still seem in total control, writes Paddy Woodworth

AM I alone in getting apoplectic when I hear our commentators and reporters chorus, as a matter of fact, that the outcome of the French presidential election doesn’t really matter a damn?

François Hollande, it seems, might as well have stayed in bed, and left his country in the hands of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Or rather, according to a remarkably broad consensus in the chattering classes, France was already in the hands of an anonymous but all-powerful entity known as “the bond markets” — and will remain under its control regardless of who has won the elections.

So what if Hollande was elected because French voters approved his commitment — weak as it was — to renegotiate the EU’s fiscal treaty? The bond markets are the masters of our universe, it seems, and where they point, Hollande must follow.

National Public Radio in the US is often refreshingly independent-minded in its analyses. But it blandly informed us that the markets had not gone straight into attack mode the day after the election result for one simple reason — the markets already know he is going to do what they want, regardless of what he said during his campaign. NPR did not report this as outrageous or duplicitous — it reported it as absolutely normal.

Think about two things that emerge from all this, and that we have learned to accept almost without question.

Firstly, our democracies are powerless to challenge the diktats of speculators, who are making fortunes out of the misery of our middle and working classes which make up the majority of our populations.

Secondly, our democracies have become so corrupted by this shift in power that a politician’s promises — always a debased currency, it is true — are now worth as little as a tinker’s curse... or a cardinal’s apology.

It means the fate of our schools, hospitals, elderly, and helpless are no longer in the hands of voters. We have abdicated all authority to an unelected clique of the super-rich. Almost without exception, our politicians are their mouthpieces.

If the bond market speculators were called ordinary terrorists, we would hunt them down as a threat to the survival of all that we value in our societies. Instead, we submit to their every whim.

We used to believe democratic principles were sacrosanct, that free and fair elections really did open the way to government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Sure, we knew it was messy and that other factors had an impact. But there were checks and balances, the biggest being the confident knowledge that we could throw out one crowd and put another in the saddle and that that made some difference.

Not any more. Think of Eamon Gilmore, so recently the people’s wolfhound, savaging Brian Cowen for “economic treason”; now he is the pet poodle of the very same markets-prescribed tough medicine peddled by Cowen.

“Whoever you vote for,” the old anarchist slogan runs, “the rich always win.” That hardly sounds extremist now; it sounds normal. The markets can give any election result a two-fingered salute the next day.

And now, the French and the Greeks, in their desperation and confusion, are increasingly attracted to extremist viewpoints, with leftist-leaning groups gaining particular prominence.

Does the hard left represent an answer? It does the democratic heart some good to see a real opposition within reach of forming a government in Greece, and challenging Hollande for leadership of the French left.

But these guys would put you asleep with their outworn rhetoric and make you despair with their failure to create a new vision, to embrace new ideas.

In opposing the privileges of the wealthy, the left has often simply substituted privileges of its own. Trade unions have lost any sense of the essential connection between production and reward. That has led to what we might call the Greek dimension of the crisis — a so-called public service that produces very little and consumes far too much.

More broadly, the left has failed because it has bought into the very model of greed-led growth that feeds the capitalist machine, though its collapse may destroy us all. With the selfish blindness of a spoilt child the left often demands something — water, to give one example — for nothing, and that is a vicious circle that nature cannot square.

An even deeper crisis underlies our current malaise. Globally and locally, many of us are consuming much more than our overcrowded planet can sustain. Our deficit to natural capital, and the goods and services supplied by our ecosystems, is at least as threatening as our indebted economies. Yet many others are denied access to life’s necessities, and die of hunger beside monuments to wealth.

The markets which have taken control of our democracies do not grasp these grim facts, and neither do most of their critics. One can only hope that out of this vacuum a new democratic movement, with a deep sense of both economic and ecological responsibility, may yet arise.

Only a broad new democratic movement, clearly committed to bringing markets back under democratic control and regulation, can halt this slide towards disaster.

The challenge is that such a movement would have to embrace aspects of austerity, leading us away from the consumerist-led “growth” model that has given the markets their power over us. It would have to resurrect values like solidarity and community over unbridled greed and competition, while rejecting the lunatic “give us more and more goodies for less and less work” ethos that has corrupted our trades unions and public services, and made the Greek case so impossible to resolve.

* Paddy Woodworth is an author and journalist


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