Turbo-capitalism’s autumn of discontent

Michael Tomasky opens his latest column (on the opportunity that the economic crisis presents for Barack Obama) as follows:

The basic identities of America’s two political parties have been in place for at least 40 years and, on core economic questions, for 70, since Franklin Roosevelt’s time. Whatever so-called “low-information voters” do or don’t know about politics, they know that the Democrats are the party of working people, and the Republicans are the party of the rich.

It doesn’t end up being as positive for the Democrats as that formulation makes it sound. Since the 1980s, Republicans have been successful in shifting public opinion among America’s middle-class more towards the view that their economic fate is tied up with rich people’s. In addition, a weak union movement – just one in 14 private-sector workers is a union member today – means that class consciousness exists only on the margins.

It’s the highlighted sentence that I found particularly perceptive.The same shift has happened in the UK over the same period, of course, though to a lesser extent than in the US.

But as Larry Elliott points out in an analysis of the likely effect of this week’s events on future economic policy, the British middle classes are increasingly waking up to the idea that their interests may not, after all, be perfectly aligned with those of the rich:

One headline screamed “Don’t let the spivs destroy Britain” – not Socialist Worker, but the Daily Express. For Middle Britain, the traders who bragged about £1,000 bottles of Krug are now as loathed as the bolshie shop stewards of the 1970s. Only rarely is there a palpable public mood swing in Britain; the Winter of Discontent was one; this is another.

Elliott also argues that “having cosied up to the City for more than a decade, the prime minister has belatedly rediscovered his party’s social democratic roots”:

Labour, it seems, no longer believes that the market is king. It no longer assumes that the “masters of the universe” have all the answers. For the first time in living memory it has ceased cringeing and sent out the message that finance should be the servant of the people and not vice versa.

Well, maybe. But in any event, I thought Gordon Brown’s Guardian piece today was another step in the right direction, landing one particularly effective blow on the Tories:

Last year [the Conservatives’] even proposed to abolish mortgage regulations, saying the banks should be left to their own devices and simply “nudged” to act responsibly. You cannot “nudge” your way through a financial crisis.

Until this week, the Tories’ talk of “nudging” and so on could seem like a refreshing new perspective on how government can act in a low-key way to alter people’s behaviour. Now it looks lightweight and dilettantish – a mask for what Brown describes as “the Conservatives’ instinct … for government to walk away rather than intervene”.


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