A politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism

Published on openDemocracy, by Andrew Dobson and David Hayes, oct. 22, 2008.

There are signs that the global financial crisis is giving some solace to forces of the political left. No wonder, for the left has been delivered a plausible story that also goes with the grain of much common-sense wisdom.

It runs like this. The collapse of major banks and investment houses reveals the speculative house-of-cards on which neo-liberal capitalist economics has been built; the actions of governments around the world in bailing out and directly investing in these institutions show that an active state is essential to financial stability. The condition of the political right in the two major states most imbued with the market dogma of the age (the United States and Britain) suggests that an epochal shift may be underway – in which the balance between “private” and “public” is moving back in favour of collective, social and more inclusive (even egalitarian) solutions …

… The next horizon:

That is why, if the management of change can’t simply involve a return to the centralist-corporatist politics of the 1970s, it can’t rely on a thoroughgoing localism either. As people seek security in troubled times there is a danger that the state will become overburdened, and citizen-based localism will struggle to fill the gaps. The chasm between expectation and reality could then be filled by a politics of disillusion – which is usually (in effect if not always in intention) a politics of the right which seeks to exploit the prevailing social sentiment for divisive and xenophobic ends.

The problem is that the space where people could organise their collective security in some key liberal-capitalist democracies – namely, the democratic public realm – has since the late 1970s been systematically eroded. This is especially true of the levels of government where social security (in its most general sense) is achieved (or not) on a daily basis: the local and regional levels. This democratic public realm is where the relations between citizen and state can and should be reformed. Every opportunity should be taken to revitalise it, and to fortify the democratic institutions that are the strongest bulwark against the chauvinism of which Will Hutton warns.

2008 is the year of a triple shock: the global food crisis (which made the realities of food-insecurity palpable), the global oil-price rise (which put localised transition on the agenda as never before) and the global financial hurricane (which gave the state as agent a new lease of political life). The long-term consequences can at present be only dimly discerned. At this stage, it can be said that together they do provide opportunities for the political left (in its broadest sense) which were barely imaginable at the start of the year. But it is also true that dislocating financial and energy crises offer promising ground for the political right.

The world is opening up to new possibilities and dangers. The future may belong to ideas that emerge genuinely out of this crisis, rather than to those (as it were) foisted onto it. Low-energy cosmopolitanism? Bring it on – but it will prove a tough nut to crack. (full text).

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