19 September 2008

Remember Globalization? Remember Capitalism?

Seeing a MSNBC puff piece for Battle In Seattle, itself a puff piece that romanticizes and glorifies the know-nothing thugs who set out to destroy capitalism by smashing the windows at Starbucks back in 1999, I was reminded of those not-so-long-ago days when, we were told, global capitalism was rendering national governments obsolete.

Multinational or transnational corporations were too big, too powerful, too quick-moving and adaptable to be reined in or even troubled by government. The New World Order (remember that?) would see everything being run by corporations, which, depending on which end of the political spectrum you inhabited, would be either an Orwellian nightmare or a far more sensible and efficient arrangement.

All that ideological posturing and dogmatic folderol vanished faster than John Q. Public's 401(k) when things started getting scary for the financial institutions of the world. AIG may have had its tentacles in nearly every country in the developed world, but just like a trust fund kid who blew his load on whores and cocaine, wasted no time in running back to Big Daddy, Big Daddy in this case being the good old US government and its long-suffering taxpayers.

By the end of the week, capitalism itself had been put in abeyance. A couple of the crankier crankypants on CNBC and Fox were bellowing about how "We might as well be living in the Soviet Union" because their favorite hedge fund had been temporarily banned from short selling what was left of the financial system into the ground, but apart from them, there was near-unanimous agreement that the most radical governmental intervention in the marketplace since the days of FDR was not just desirable but absolutely necessary.

And it's hard to argue against that notion, regardless of what strange bedfellows it might entail. As the Guardian's Larry Elliott put it, "Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Hank Paulson, the Goldman Sachs tycoon who became US treasury secretary, have done more for socialism in the past seven days than anybody since Marx and Engels."

The question is, will it work? Although honesty requires me to confess to being as baffled as anyone up to and including President Bush about the precise nature of what is going on in the murky and opaque worlds of high finance, I do have a hunch that odds are probably no better than 50-50. Well, I hope they're better than that, not least because I'm getting a bit long in the tooth to relish the thought of living through Weimar-style hyperinflation or Mad Max Armageddon antics (when I was 20 I would have been positively salivating at the prospect). But I'm not counting on it, because it just may be that America, the banker and fiscal guarantor of last resort for much of the planet, may have already spent itself into terminal decline.

Which means, presumably, that I'd better not be counting on those Social Security payments to cushion the travails of my declining years. Question: in terms of the economy, is it likely to make much difference at this point whether McCain or Obama is elected in November? Maybe. If McCain gets elected AND if he keeps Paulson, Bernanke et al. on board AND if he keeps his own nose out of things (as Bush, in an uncharacteristic paroxysm of judiciousness, appears to be doing), we might muddle through. If, however, McCain, who has been appearing increasingly loopy and demented these past few days (or maybe he's always been a wild-eyed pathological liar and we just didn't notice) decides to put some of his own "ideas" into effect, he could have us waxing nostalgic over Herbert Hoover.

Obama, on the other hand... He has yet to display the Rooseveltian (or Kennedyesqe) timbre that the times call for, but at the same time, he hasn't said or done anything too foolishly awful. With the right staff and advisers, and some plans a bit more specific than "Change We Can Believe In," he could make a difference. For the better, I mean, though if he starts channeling his inner Jimmy Carter again, we're in big trouble.

In the long run I'm sure things will work out somehow, but we all (most of us, anyway) know what Keynes had to say about the long run. If my parents could get through the Great Depression and World War II, I suppose I can handle whatever the Masters Of The Universe (now, apparently, a wholly owned subsidiary of USA, Inc.) have cooked up for us. Eventually, should I live long enough, I may even be able to look back and laugh, but at the moment I'm more inclined to agree with Rudge, who, asked to define history, replied, "Well, it's just one fucking thing after another."

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