THE WORLD IS OUT OF JOINT
The disastrous condition of our democracies is revealed in the crisis summer of 2011. An overpowering financial management teaches politics and the elites.
By Tissy Bruns
[This political essay published in: Der Tagesspiegel, 8/22/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.tagesspiegel.de. Ms. Tissy Bruns is the chief political correspondent for Tagesspiegel.]
The emperor is dressed in the most beautiful clothes ever stitched by a tailor. They are made of a fine web of lies and yet from the strongest fabric known to the human community, namely the fear of not belonging. Whoever does not see the emperor’s new clothes is dumb and not fit for his office. The conformity-pressure in Andersen’s fairy tale breaks down in the uninhibited child, as everybody knows. At last the whole people cry out: “But he has nothing on!”
We have not gone so far. This summer we are completely under the spell that makes heads dumb and dizzy.
Every day the television stations turn to the stock exchange to ask the inescapable question: how will the market respond? Politicians and citizens must break its power. Since the crash of 2008, we know nothing is as irrational, dangerous and unproductive as the mob conduct of financial actors who only seek their own advantage.
Financial management has permeated the world for a quarter-century. Sinister dictatorships did not create it. It is an original child of democratic western nations that at the end of the last century removed the chains on the economically powerful that prosperous capitalism had imposed on them. New competitive conditions were on the horizon. Every state thought it had to optimally position “its” economy by lowering costs, cancelling obligations and earning incredible sums of money.
This new capitalism undermines the ideals and strengths of democracies to a greater extent than any external enemy. The “markets” have become a parallel society of the 21st century. They can act oblivious to standards like liability and responsibility that are in force for everyone else. They have the advantage because they know the rules of the many and exploit them to their gain while the many can neither understand nor control the mechanisms with which rating agencies downgrade while states and hedge funds with short-selling bet on the losses and collapse of nations. They always have the advantage since they earn money even in breakdowns and bankruptcies.
The crises that take the rap for the explosions of private and public debts today define the debates in Europe and the US. The thought-prisons in which politics and the elites are caught are worse than all pressures of action. Democracies have allowed their self-confidence to be purchased by the new finance capitalism. The rise of democracy was not possible without the social and legal civilizing of capitalism and without slighting the power of the economically stronger. Aging democracies capitulate to that power.
The deregulation euphoria of democratic governments first made possible the incredible ascent of the financial oligarchy. The fallout that immediately appeared is the abruptly decreased capacity for political self-correction. The inability to learn lessons from this is even more impressive than the list of the many financial crashes. A strange conformism of the discourse around market and state replaced the typical controversies in democracy. That discourse was and is regarded as foolish. That actors of big money are completely dependent on the legal- and property-guarantees of states and central banks seems almost forgotten.
“NOTHING CAN BE DONE AGAINST THE MARKETS”
Pragmatically camouflaged, privatization and deregulation gained the power of dogmas. “Nothing can be done against the markets,” Margaret Thatcher said. Her credo “there is no alternative” became the battle-cry of the neoliberal mainstream overarching the parties. In the transition from the old system competition to globalization, the western world, politicians, economists and philosophers, ennobled “the markets” with the highest seal of quality of democracy. The freedom banner was passed on to the victorious market economy since “the freedom of the markets” guaranteed success and chances in the globalized world economy.
This kind of freedom quickly taught people to fear. To their burden, they saw radical market freedom as a drastic shift of the power constellation between politics and the economy. The spirit of the new age fell on the fruitful soil of a highly individualized society where everyone seeks his or her own chances. No one in Europe went as far as Thatcher who only knew families and individuals: there is no such thing as society. But like state contempt, disdain for “society” gained acceptance as an ideological wonder-weapon to justify all possible restrictions of public services including the police. The disintegration went further in Great Britain than anywhere else in Europe. However social inequality increased everywhere including in Germany to an extent that was hardly conceivable at the beginning of the millennium. Inequality is not a great theme for the national parties.
Finance capitalism has paralyzed the demand for the primacy of politics. Who still believes that legitimated politics gives priority to the public interest over particular interests of all kinds? The thought-prisons in which the democratic public has resigned are worse than the pressures of action. That life derails if politics does not win back its freedom of action over against the “markets” is seldom recognized.
Instead the media rules of attention are exploited although the people have long not been impressed and wait trembling for the reaction of anonymous snipers. The malicious gloating of the media is often manifest when it is said “world markets react disappointed.” Time and again politics is presented as the unpopular chief enemy that is simply too narrow-minded to understand the cool markets. Editorials and business sections pretend to understand the mechanisms of short-selling, derivatives, hedges or out-performers. They are really only impressed with the insider bluff that can silence everyone because no one wants to be shown up or made a fool with dumb questions.
In their disdain for politics, the media can be certain of great approval but not in their respect for the shrewdness of the markets. Most citizens and even the media believe the markets are only capable of the worst. To understand this, one need not look first to Italy or England. The trust of broad sectors of the population has fallen dramatically that the public, elites, media and the economy play their roles in the democratic system as the constitutions intended. Citizens see detached castes, the rich and the influential joined together in the great i9ntoxication, not mutual control in the interest of the common good.
CONSERVATIVES ADMIT: THE LEFT MAY BE RIGHT
The crisis summer of 2011 reveals the disastrous state of the western world. The world financial crisis returns as a debt crisis for which only the states and their covetous citizens have to answer. With an amazing tendency to self-abasement, politicians join in this clear assignment of responsibility. That creditors will pay extra when they are granted e3asy credit is not a free enterprise tautology.
The failures of politics after 2008 catch up to politics. Bailing out the banks with the money of taxpayers proved to be the last straw. Politics was too cowardly to take the bull by the horns: “too big to fail.” The mammoth banks are still “too big to fail.’ From the 2008 crisis management, they learned the anti-free enterprise lesson that they had a comprehensive insurance from the states. Citizens learned the opposite. The billions that had to be spent increased the state debts, double in Spain, multiplied by four in Ireland and raised 20 percent in Germany. Practical constraints followed credits and economic packages for the bank crisis: cuts for sound budgets. Pensioners, families and normal citizens pay for them, not the banks.
If this crisis summer gives rise to hopes, they are the tears in the fabric of that conformism that has captivated us. In their distress, four states prohibit short-selling and no one grumbles about an attack on freedom. The financial transactions tax is discussable. The “Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung” Sunday newspaper published the confession of the British Thatcher biographer Charles Moore: “I am beginning to think the left was right.” Editor Frank Schirrmacher drew a parallel of the British dismantling with the current values discussion in the CDU. New accents penetrate the incomprehensible daily debates over euro-bonds, bailout mechanisms and debt breaks. “Tax me” cry the rich in France, the US and Germany who have a decreasing share in the taxable revenue of their countries.
The greater the assets in a land, the higher the debts, the economists Peter Bofinger and Max Otte say in the “Sueddeutsche Zeitung” newspaper. Otte fears the inflation anxiety is justified. “The states do not have their debts under control and the financial oligarchy is simultaneously helped along. We protect the rich who have captured the state.”
A list of open secrets are that are strenuously hushed up has long circulated in everyday consciousness. Educated citizens who fight loudly for their neighborhoods and good schools and against airport runways and train stations know politics cannot accomplish much any more. The 30, 40 or 50 percent of European populations know this and do not expect anything from politics. For years, they watched how social democratic, liberal and conservative governments dismantled the public sector because “private comes before the state” was the dogma of their governments. These citizens have had it with their parties and with a democracy that they see as an arrangement that only works by and for the higher paid.
Would the catastrophic extent of European youth unemployment have reached the front pages of German newspapers without the riots of British youth and children? Margaret Thatcher’s removal of the regulatory fetters 25 years ago so London City could rise to be the greatest financial center of the world was really a “Big Bang.” The solid British money-houses gave way to American banks and their hectic American financial world. The London City bankers soon earned ten-times their earlier salaries. However the dazzling brilliance was paid with the decline of the whole country. Great Britain has sacrificed its real economy and its youth to the financial economy. At the end, “no society” is the sad reality.
The world has fallen out of joint. The market economy is no longer a market economy if the blackmailing pressure of financial actors is great enough to force taxpayers to ensure their risks. Democracy is no longer democracy when it no longer fulfills what it promises, namely a social system in which very normal people can jointly determine and discuss their lives.
RELATED LINKS: FREE INTERNET MOVIES AND VIDEOS
“FDR,” PBS video, 4 hrs
“The Corporation,”2004, www.hulu.com, 2 hrs 24 min
Barbara Ehrenreich, “Bright-sided.” www.booktv.org, August 2010, 45 min