I'm starting to think that the Left might actually be right
What with the the phone-hacking scandal, the eurozone crisis and the US economic woes, the greedy few have left people disillusioned with our debased democracies.
It has taken me more than 30 years as a journalist to ask myself this question, but this week I find that I must: is the Left right after all? You see, one of the great arguments of the Left is that what the Right calls “the free market” is actually a set-up.
The rich run a global system that allows them to accumulate capital and pay the lowest possible price for labour. The freedom that results applies only to them. The many simply have to work harder, in conditions that grow ever more insecure, to enrich the few. Democratic politics, which purports to enrich the many, is actually in the pocket of those bankers, media barons and other moguls who run and own everything.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was easy to refute this line of reasoning because it was obvious, particularly in Britain, that it was the trade unions that were holding people back. Bad jobs were protected and good ones could not be created. “Industrial action” did not mean producing goods and services that people wanted to buy, it meant going on strike. The most visible form of worker oppression was picketing. The most important thing about Arthur Scargill’s disastrous miners’ strike was that he always refused to hold a ballot on it.
A key symptom of popular disillusionment with the Left was the moment, in the late 1970s, when the circulation of Rupert Murdoch’s Thatcher-supporting Sun overtook that of the ever-Labour Daily Mirror. Working people wanted to throw off the chains that Karl Marx had claimed were shackling them – and join the bourgeoisie which he hated. Their analysis of their situation was essentially correct. The increasing prosperity and freedom of the ensuing 20 years proved them right.
But as we have surveyed the Murdoch scandal of the past fortnight, few could deny that it has revealed how an international company has bullied and bought its way to control of party leaderships, police forces and regulatory processes. David Cameron, escaping skilfully from the tight corner into which he had got himself, admitted as much. Mr Murdoch himself, like a tired old Godfather, told the House of Commons media committee on Tuesday that he was so often courted by prime ministers that he wished they would leave him alone.
The Left was right that the power of Rupert Murdoch had become an anti-social force. The Right (in which, for these purposes, one must include the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) was too slow to see this, partly because it confused populism and democracy. One of Mr Murdoch’s biggest arguments for getting what he wanted in the expansion of his multi-media empire was the backing of “our readers”. But the News of the World and the Sun went out of the way in recent years to give their readers far too little information to form political judgments. His papers were tools for his power, not for that of his readers. When they learnt at last the methods by which the News of the World operated, they withdrew their support.
It has surprised me to read fellow defenders of the free press saying how sad they are that the News of the World closed. In its stupidity, narrowness and cruelty, and in its methods, the paper was a disgrace to the free press. No one should ever have banned it, of course, but nor should anyone mourn its passing. It is rather as if supporters of parliamentary democracy were to lament the collapse of the BNP. It was a great day for newspapers when, 25 years ago, Mr Murdoch beat the print unions at Wapping, but much of what he chose to print on those presses has been a great disappointment to those of us who believe in free markets because they emancipate people. The Right has done itself harm by covering up for so much brutality.
The credit crunch has exposed a similar process of how emancipation can be hijacked. The greater freedom to borrow which began in the 1980s was good for most people. A society in which credit is very restricted is one in which new people cannot rise. How many small businesses could start or first homes be bought without a loan? But when loans become the means by which millions finance mere consumption, that is different.
And when the banks that look after our money take it away, lose it and then, because of government guarantee, are not punished themselves, something much worse happens. It turns out – as the Left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few. The global banking system is an adventure playground for the participants, complete with spongy, health-and-safety approved flooring so that they bounce when they fall off. The role of the rest of us is simply to pay.
This column’s mantra about the credit crunch is that Everything Is Different Now. One thing that is different is that people in general have lost faith in the free-market, Western, democratic order. They have not yet, thank God, transferred their faith, as they did in the 1930s, to totalitarianism. They merely feel gloomy and suspicious. But they ask the simple question, “What's in it for me?”, and they do not hear a good answer.
Last week, I happened to be in America, mainly in the company of intelligent conservatives. Their critique of President Obama’s astonishing spending and record-breaking deficits seemed right. But I was struck by how the optimistic message of the Reagan era has now become a shrill one. On Fox News (another Murdoch property, and one which, while I was there, did not breathe a word of his difficulties), Republicans lined up for hours to threaten to wreck the President’s attempt to raise the debt ceiling. They seemed to take for granted the underlying robustness of their country’s economic and political arrangements. This is a mistake. The greatest capitalist country in history is now dependent on other people’s capital to survive. In such circumstances, Western democracy starts to feel like a threatened luxury. We can wave banners about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, but they tend to say, in smaller print, “Made in China”.
As for the plight of the eurozone, this could have been designed by a Left-wing propagandist as a satire of how money-power works. A single currency is created. A single bank controls it. No democratic institution with any authority watches over it, and when the zone’s borrowings run into trouble, elected governments must submit to almost any indignity rather than let bankers get hurt. What about the workers? They must lose their jobs in Porto and Piraeus and Punchestown and Poggibonsi so that bankers in Frankfurt and bureaucrats in Brussels may sleep easily in their beds.
When we look at the Arab Spring, we tend complacently to tell ourselves that the people on the streets all want the freedom we have got. Well, our situation is certainly better than theirs. But I doubt if Western leadership looks to a protester in Tahrir Square as it did to someone knocking down the Berlin Wall in 1989. We are bust – both actually and morally.
One must always pray that conservatism will be saved, as has so often been the case in the past, by the stupidity of the Left. The Left’s blind faith in the state makes its remedies worse than useless. But the first step is to realise how much ground we have lost, and that there may not be much time left to make it up.