Melancholia descended upon the world this week. The latest movie by Lars von Triers contrasts the personal conflicts of a family with the end of the world as we know it. While two sisters go quietly bonkers, a giant planet appears in the night sky and heads directly towards Earth. Much has been made of the metaphorical references to von Triers own struggles with depression, but, for me, the movie touches on a different horror unfolding before our eyes.
Anyone whose team has, like mine in recent seasons, been involved in a relegation battle since before Christmas, will be familiar with the sense of foreboding that comes with reading the sports pages. Over the past few weeks, I have felt that same sense of dread when tripping through the financial section. Maybe it’s desperation that focuses the imagination, because I couldn’t help but see ‘Melancholia’ as a metaphor for the coming crash.
As the giant planet shatters the Earth in the opening sequence, all I could think of was the bloated financial markets running out of control, smashing into the real world and destroying the hopes and dreams of millions. In the long two hours of film that follow, the market crash metaphor just grew in size as the super planet loomed larger on the horizon. Everyone could see it coming and understood what it meant, but no-one seemed able to work out a response.
For those of us frustrated by the melancholy mood that seems to have gripped the population in the face of the on-coming financial crash, the party conference season won’t have offered much hope. Although Labour’s Ed Miliband began groping toward an alternative to the free market orthodoxy of New Labour – his rather clunky designation of ‘predator’ companies – our three main parties remain chained to a globalisation agenda that is about to go off the edge of an abyss.
At least Chancellor George Osbourne took the opportunity to declare that the free market model was broken and no longer fit for purpose. Of course he didn’t actually say that, but his announcement that the government was going to take responsibility for getting loans to small businesses was an admission that his core beliefs were wrong – the markets don’t always do what is economically and socially beneficial for the country.
While those on the planet free market cling to the notion that the only way to encourage growth is to cut taxes and regulations for entrepreneurs, in the real world we are facing a crisis in demand. The economy isn’t stalling because business people are being constrained by an over-powerful state – quite the opposite. The British state is currently doing all it can, within the Tories own ideological straitjacket, to encourage growth. However, the current financial crises are revealing the lie behind the free market myth that only entrepreneurs create growth, therefore all financial encouragements must be directed solely at them.
We are now seeing that, when it comes to growth, consumer spending is the most important engine. If people don’t have money to spend, then globalisation, a project that relies on quick turn-over and tight profit margins, swiftly grinds to a halt. With prices rising, wages continuing to flat-line and credit becoming scarce, consumers are staying at home.
Even those with money to spend are hanging onto it, spooked by George Osbourne’s recent announcement that he intends to make it harder for employees to challenge their dismissal. Only a Tory politician could claim that he was going to cut unemployment figures by making it easier for bosses to sack people.
We need to change the balance in our economy to ensure that a greater percentage of profits are paid as wages to workers rather than as dividends for shareholders. Yes, investors should expect a return on their money, but since the power of the unions was broken in the 1980s, wages have been seen as little more than a hindrance to the profitability of the stock market. To increase demand, we need to put our economy on a different trajectory.
There was precious little sign that this realisation might be beginning to dawn on our political leaders over the three weeks of the party conferences. Instead, a glimmer of hope appeared with the emergence of opposition to the globalisation project in its heartland. On the day that the Liberal Democrats assembled in Birmingham for their conference, a few thousand protesters marched through downtown Manhattan under the banner ‘Occupy Wall Street’.
By the time Ed Miliband delivered his ‘predator’ speech to the Labour Party conference, OWS had begun to make headlines following the use of pepper spray by the NYPD against passive demonstrators. And when the Prime Minister stood up before his party to make a speech in which he declared equality to be a form of oppression, events on the Brooklyn Bridge had catapulted OWS into the mainstream media. Even President Obama was forced to offer a lukewarm nod of recognition.
Of course there have been some on the Left who have cast scorn on OWS and it’s lack of a list of demands, seeing similarities with the anti-globalisation movement of the past decade, which was unable to translate its anger into an ideology that could be supported by those unable to attend the mass demonstrations. However, the difference between then and now is that anti-globalisation activists sought to challenge the financial sector when it was at its height. For most people, it delivered – unevenly – but many still felt they had better prospects under globalisation.
Now that notion has been challenged by the markets themselves, whose failure has driven many families to the brink of ruin. Public opinion is shifting towards a belief that it is fundamentally unfair to allow those who created the financial crisis to continue to get wealthy while working people struggle to pay their bills.
Is that idea alone capable of motivating a mass movement for a fairer economy? There is always a danger that, just as the nascent Tea Party movement was hijacked by fundamentalist Christians with their book that has all the answers, OWS could be taken over by fundamentalist Marxists, who have their own book that solves all your problems.
In part, the demand for an instantly formulated set of goals reflects a desperate need for right wing news outlets to have evidence that allows them to condemn those gathered in opposition to the status quo. We should not allow our enemies to define the rules by which we are allowed to act. Neo-liberalism is not an ideology, with a programme and list of demands, just a bunch of powerful people doing things in their own self interest. OWS has come to challenge that power, by gathering together a bunch of disenfranchised people and empowering them to act together in their own self interest.
The time may come when OWS needs to nail a set of demands to the doors of the New York Stock Exchange, but for now, just the fact that so many people across the United States are willing to take a stand against globalised capitalism is inspiring. It shows that, unlike the poor souls in ‘Melancholia’, we are not resigned to our fate, that, as the bloated financial markets career out of control, we are busy working out a new trajectory for our economy, one that will ensure that such a devastating crash never happens again.