We need to begin by clarifying what we mean by radical politics. It is often assumed that radical politics are progressive politics and tend to be linked to grassroots movements. But this is inaccurate historically and in normal usage. For example, it is widely agreed that Mrs Thatcher was radical and Tony Blair was not; Hitler was radical; the anti-war movement was radical; the British National Party is radical; and in the UK and other parts of Europe, extreme right wing movements have been increasing in strength even before the growing recession. Thus, radical politics can come from left or right and can be progressive or regressive. Although I have been discouraged by our editor from focusing on a vision for radical politics and asked more to look at the nature and character of radical politics today, it is impossible to answer the question without some definition of the way in which the term is being deployed.
My view is that humanity now faces a greater challenge than we have ever faced since homo sapiens evolved 160,000 years ago. There have in those years been natural disasters, terrible wars, plagues, flood and famine and more recently the threat of nuclear annihilation. But never before have groups of intelligent and well informed people contemplated, within the foreseeable future, the possibility of a complete collapse of human civilisation, with all the terrible conflict and suffering that would accompany that process. The risk we face now is runaway climate change.
It is now widely accepted that global warming is a reality and an enormous threat. The consensus of climate change scientists is stark and authoritative. There will always be some who deny any changing reality but, even in the USA, despite President Bush’s denial, it is now accepted that climate change caused by human use of fossil We need unprecedented global cooperation to limit carbon dioxide emissions. We also need to create a new, more sustainable way of living on our planet. Instead, the world is led by a foolish elite, fixated on controlling the Middle East and therefore causing bitter division. fuels is a serious threat to the future. However, although the problem is increasingly widely acknowledged there is not as yet a sufficient sense of urgency. Johann Hari summarised the danger in The Independent of 20 October 2008. By 2013, the Arctic will be free of ice. The last time greenhouse gases were at rates equivalent to those of today, was 50 million years ago. The last ice age was only six degrees colder than today. Soon, our emissions will make a two degrees rise in temperature inevitable. This means countries like Bangladesh and the islands of the South Pacific will be inundated and hundreds of millions of people displaced. This is a terrible prospect, but if we cooperate to deal with this crisis, we could stop the warming rising further and stabilise our climate at a higher temperature. But if we go beyond two degrees, we will create the real danger of an unstoppable escalation. At three degrees, almost all our ice will have melted. This means the ice will cease to reflect a third of the sun’s rays, back into space as it does now. At three degrees of warming, the Amazon burns and releases more carbon and the Siberian peat bogs release vast quantities of methane. Very soon, human civilisation collapses and human life becomes unliveable.
Radical politics has to deal with this prospect. It means that we need unprecedented global cooperation to limit carbon dioxide emissions. We also need to create a new, more sustainable way of living on our planet. Instead, the world is led by a foolish elite, fixated on controlling the Middle East and therefore causing bitter division. They are also tied to an economic model of unsustainable consumption that is incompatible with long term sustainability.
More immediately, we are living through a major crisis in the international financial system and belatedly, governments have startedThe highest priority for radical politics is to generate an international commitment to halt global warming and develop a more sustainable way of living. To achieve this, we need to end the current conflicts that are undermining the prospects of international co-operation and to create a more equitable world order. to take co-ordinated action to avoid the financial meltdown that would throw the world into a deep and long depression. So far, they have acted to prop up otherwise bankrupt banks by injecting tax payers’ capital. This is by no means the end of the story. There are still dangerous assets on many banks’ balance sheets and the coming world wide recession will mean further mortgage and credit card defaults and corporate bankruptcies. This will impose greater strain on the solvency of the banks.
There is suddenly more talk of what we have learned from Keynes and even Marx, but as yet no agreement on co-ordinated international action to help the less well off to weather the crisis. In addition, much of the commentary assumes that all that is needed is better bank regulation so that we can get back to the globalising boom. But clearly an economic system that pumps out credit so that the same old houses treble in price and encourage people to take on unrepayable levels of debt, inevitably led to bust. Seventy two per cent of the US economy is consumption, and it is two thirds of the UK economy. The boom years were built on sand. Underneath the constant shopping, was massive production of consumer goods in China and a greedy, wasteful way of life that was completely unsustainable financially and environmentally. This era was also accompanied by an increase in inequality and an increase in family breakdown, addiction, obesity and mental health problems.
My conclusion is that the highest priority for radical politics is to generate an international commitment to halt global warming and develop a more sustainable way of living. To achieve this, we need to end the current conflicts that are undermining the prospects of international co-operation and to create a more equitable world order. This means that we have to build a less consumerist, throwaway style of life. This is a massive but achievable challenge that can only be met by reducing inequality within and between countries. The promise of constant growth and consumption will have to be replaced by a commitment to adequacy for all, more frugality and human satisfaction achieved less through consumption and more through scholarship, the arts and altruism. We need a system capable of major technological innovation and progress that is not based on unsustainable consumption. This is the kind of civilisation that religious leaders, moral philosophers and political idealists have dreamed of. It has now become a necessity for our survival. It is in this context that I am looking for the forces of radical politics. In the OECD countries, they include the green parties and environmental, anti-war and peace activists. They also includes many of the development NGOs who advocate a more equitable world order, but they are mostly dependent on government funding and charitable status and therefore are unable to act as a radical force for political change. Nowhere have these forces managed to break through sufficiently strongly to achieve significant change or political progress. In fact, there are few, forceful radical forces as yet emerging in the OECD countries. There are, however, radical forces at work globally and they will help to drive major change.
Developments in China
The first major driver of change is China’s incredible economic development which has helped drive the global boom which is now coming to an end. That country of 1.3 billion people has been undergoing its own industrial revolution and providing the post-industrial OECD countries with flood of increasingly sophisticated, low cost consumer goods. China has created a new model of authoritarian capitalism which is stirring increasing interest in the poorer countries of the world as they hope to emulate the speed of China’s development. China’s massive dollar holdings, alongside those of the rest of Asia and the Middle East have also helped to keep the global boom going by financing the US deficits and enabling American consumers to live beyond their means and to act as consumers of last resort for the global economy.
But this arrangement cannot be sustained in the long term. It is not widely reported how much dissent and agitation is bubbling away in China. Workers and peasantsWe have to develop a new economic model. Instead of fossil-fuel based, automobile centred, throwaway economy, we will have to have a renewable-energy based, diversified transport system, and comprehensive reuse and recycle economies. Otherwise civilisation will collapse.
Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute are protesting, just as they did when Western Europe and North America were undergoing their industrial revolutions. It seems inevitable that organisation and agitation amongst the low paid factory workers of China will inevitably intensify as they demand better treatment at work and greater social benefits from the great wealth that they are generating. This is one of the major forces of radical politics today which is unleashed alongside a deeply polluting industrialisation at a time of global environmental strain. The Chinese people deserve to enjoy more of the wealth they are creating. They also deserve a decent health service. History tells us that their consumption will increase as will their agitation. This implies a big change in the nature of the Chinese regime and a shock to US consumption patterns, the ramifications of which are likely to be deep and complicated. But the prospect of Chinese people demanding a bigger share in the proceeds of their economic development has wider consequences.
According to Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC, who is one of the leading US environmental analysts, if growth in China continues at 8 per cent a year, by 2031 China’s income per head for its 1.45 billion people will be equal to that of the US today. He said:
China’s grain consumption will 3 then be two thirds of the current grain consumption of the entire world. If it consumes oil at the same rate as the US today, the Chinese will be consuming 99 billion barrels a day – and the whole world is currently producing 84 billion barrels a day, and will probably not produce much more. If it consumes paper at the same rate that we do, it will consume twice as much paper as the world is now producing. There go the world’s forests. If the Chinese then have three cars for every four people – as the US does today – they would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars compared to the current world fleet of 800 million. They would have to pave over an area equivalent to the area they have planted with rice today, just to drive and park them.
Mr Brown, who has been tracking and documenting the world’s major environmental trends for 30 years concluded:
The point of these conclusions is simply to demonstrate that the western economic model is not going to work for China. All they’re doing is what we’ve already done, so you can’t criticise them for that. But what you can say is it’s not going to work. And if it does not work for China, by 2031 it won’t work for India, which by then will have an even larger population, or for the other three billion people in the developing countries. And in some way it will not work for the industrialised countries either, because in the incredibly integrated world economy, we all depend on the same oil and the same grain. The bottom line of this analysis is that we’re going to have to develop a new economic model. Instead of fossil-fuel based, automobile centred, throwaway economy, we will have to have a renewable-energy based, diversified transport system, and comprehensive reuse and recycle economies. If we want civilisation to survive, we will have to do that. Otherwise civilisation will collapse.
Our conclusion has to be that if the OECD countries are entitled to enjoy their current way of life then the people of China and India as well as Africa and Latin America are entitled to the same and the future will be catastrophic. The planet simply cannot cope with all the people living in this consumerist and greedy way.
This means that the old model that saw the developing world becoming like the OECD countries is neither desirable nor possible. And the inequality of the world, with 20 per cent of people living with material plenty in a world in which a billion people remain abjectly poor, is also unsustainable. As the poor of the world urbanise and see very clearly how others live they will not be willing to tolerate the suffering and poverty they currently endure. And thus if we want our civilisation to survive we have to learn better to share our knowledge, technology and capital to make the world more equitable both between and within nations. All people have to have access to the basics that they need and to education and health care and the freedom to be themselves, express their ideas and be treated with respect. And within such a world order we have to evolve a new way of living that ceases to 4 make economic growth the purpose of politics and instead looks for genuine sustainable development and find satisfaction in our lives without the expectation of increasing economic consumption. Within such a world order, we are more likely to be able to reach agreements on curbing carbon dioxide emissions so that over a number of years we converge on an equal entitlement per head to a share of what our planet can bear.
Anger in the Middle East
The second major force for radical change that is at work is the widespread and deep anger amongst the people of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. This is the intensified polarisation which has been used to justify massive increases in defence spending which in the US constitutes half of global defence spending and is now in excess of US spending at the height of the Cold War. It was President Eisenhower who warned the American people in his retiring address as President that they should “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . .by the military-industrial complex.” It is impossible to explain the US counter productive response to the attack on the twin towers without taking account of the influence of the military industrial complex. It is also rationally impossible to explain the quantity and quality of US military spending and the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through a calm consideration of the US’s legitimate and important interest in countering the ideas of Al Qaeda.
One consequence of US policy towards the Middle East (which is so abjectly supported by the UK and, post Iraq, by the EU), is that the military power of the biggest economy on earth, the Rome of our era, has been shown to be vulnerable. The US was unable to defeat the resistance in Iraq. NATO is in considerable difficulty in Afghanistan and Hezbollah has shown that it cannot be controlled by the military power of Israel, the major US ally and greatest armed power in the Middle East.
The Middle East is the source of most of the world’s oilOne consequence of US policy towards the Middle East is that the military power of the biggest economy on earth, the Rome of our era, has been shown to be vulnerable. at a time when we are massively increasing our levels of oil consumption and are also approaching peak oil when half of the available oil reserves of the world have already been used. This implies a long term growth in the price of oil and as bio-fuels are increasingly used to create substitutes for oil, a long term growth in the price of food, which means continuing food shortages in the poorer countries. This nexus of forces produced two sources of radical political energy. The first is the anger of the people of the Middle East which could easily topple one or more of the pro-American dictatorships of the region. Few people expected the fall of the Shah of Iran; the turbulence and anger of the Middle East could easily produce similar regime change. In addition, the forces of resistance, that are increasingly critical of the sectarian attacks on civilians justified by Al Qaeda’s ideology, are strengthening in Palestine, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Some of these forces are progressive in that they seek to resist occupation and dictatorship. Others are reactionary and oppressive, but they are powerful and radical forces, and without a major change in US and general western policy towards the Middle East are likely to be radical political forces likely to bring about major change in the existing global order with potential consequences for oil prices and the global economy.
To settle the conflicts in the Middle East will require a return by the United States and its allies to a system of international law and strengthened multilateral institutions. Western support for Israel’s grave breaches of international law in the Occupied Territories undermines the authority of international To settle the conflicts in the Middle East will require a return by the United States and its allies to a system of international law and strengthened multilateral institutions.law more generally. The inability of the UN to enforce adherence to international law undermines its moral authority. In order to create a more peaceful, just and equitable international order, we will need to build a stronger United Nations which reflects the current balance of population in the world and is capable of deploying force effectively to deal with the growing problem of weak and failing states. In order to uphold the authority of international law, we will need all states, including the United States, to accept the authority of the International Court and the International Criminal Court. We are a long way from US acceptance of these realities, but we must hope that the failings of its unipolar moment and the coming turbulence, may lead the US back to a belief in multilateralism and international law.
The third major radical force at work in the world is the combination of population growth and urbanisation in the poorest countries. In 1800 there were fewer than 1 billion people in the world. By 1960, it was 3 billion. It is now nearly 7 billion and the projection is that we will reach 9 billion by 2040. At least 1 billion of the new people will be born in the poorest countries. In addition, in Africa and more generally in the poorer countries, urbanisation is intensifying. Humanity has just reached the point when more than half of us are urban dwellers. In 15 years’ time this is projected reach 65 per cent. The poorest countries have seen improved economic growth in the last decade but there are still 1.2 billion people desperately poor, ill educated, malnourished, lacking health care and suffering shortages of water and sanitation. They are about to be joined by another billion people living alongside them and imposingIt is easy to see how forces of the radical right might strengthen in response to economic recession, government rhetoric on terrorism and the growing movement of people across the globalising world. further strain on land, water and other resources. In addition, the effects of climate change will hit the poorest countries hardest because they have such weak capacity to adapt. They will experience more floods, agricultural disruption and the likelihood of more conflict caused by shortage of basic resources. In addition they are urbanising. The history of Western Europe and North America suggests that urban populations are likely to be less passive than the rural poor. The prospect of political protest, riot and disorder is great. There is a risk that this protest will conflate with the resistance to the ’war on terror’ which is spreading through Somalia into Africa. Such protest could be captured by political movements of right or left, or simply lead to a spread of massive disorder.
As we experience the mounting economic crisis and the growing environmental crisis, it is easy to spot major historical forces of resistance and protest that are evolving across the world. What is less easy to know is how the people of the OECD countries will respond to the downturn. The movements that are organised around the values that could carry the world through the coming crisis – a belief in equity, internationalism and regulation of markets was built in the nineteenth century. The labour and social democratic parties were built on the democratic and human rights values of the French revolution, to which were added the nineteenth century socialist movements, values of solidarity and equality, internationalism and market regulation. Almost all of these parties have weakened during the last two decades and absorbed the values of neo-liberalism and to varying extents neo-conservatism which originate with the radical right. They have experienced a general weakening electorally and/or a movement to the right when in power. The new consumerist, post industrial economy has weakened the trade union movement. The membership base of all parties, but particularly the parties of the left, has weakened and crumbled. In addition, there has been a move to the right in Europe in response to the growth in the number of asylum seekers that result from post Cold War disorder, aspirations for a better life amongst the displaced and rising environmental strains.
It is very easy to see where forces of radical resistance to current global trends will arise. I have attempted to draw an outline of these forces in this article. It is also easy to see how forces of the radical right might strengthen in response to economic recession, government rhetoric on terrorism and the growing movement of people across the globalising world. The ‘war on terror’ and its erosion of the rule of law and basic civil liberties, demonstrates a movement to the right by those in power. One response to uncertainty which we have already seen displayed is to foster a sense of fear and hatred of ’the other’. Given the likelihood of displacement of hundreds of millions of people as a consequence of global warming, there is a high likelihood that governments in the OECD countries will become more fascistic in their response.
The big question we are left with is where and how the political forces that can organise a solution to the growing crisis can gather. The values of the right are incapable of mobilising the spirit of international co-operation and equity necessary to carry the world forward. The forces of the The values of the right are incapable of mobilising the spirit of international co-operation and equity necessary to carry the world forward. The forces of the social democratic left are gravely weakened. social democratic left are gravely weakened. Many people put their faith in civil society and look to the development and environmental NGOs to create new political movements. I have no faith that development NGOs will help to create a new political movement. They depend on charitable giving and government grants. They tend to speak on behalf of the poor of the world, but not be of them. The mobilisation known as “Make Poverty History” which organised around the G7 meeting in Gleneagles demonstrates their frailty. They want to sound radical, but stay on good terms with governments and keep issues of global poverty separate from contentious arguments about foreign policy. The environmental NGOs are mobilising for a more radical agenda. In their early days, they were seen to care more for trees and animals than human beings and to be opposed to development in the poorest countries. Their arguments have become more inclusive and concerned for suffering humanity. But pressure groups, no matter how popular and radical, are not a political movement. They work to try to shift public opinion and the political system but not to take power. The green parties have tried to make the move into the political mainstream, but with very limited success so far.
My conclusion then to the question “What is radical politics today?” is that it has to be internationalist, committed to global equity and reduced inequality at home. There is an obvious conflation of green and social democratic forces that might be able to create a global movement capable of carrying these values into effect. But currently the social democratic forces are in decline, green political movements are weak and movements of the right in the ascendancy.
In the fog of the future, I see a rise of fascistic movements. It is worth reminding ourselves, as did Edward Nugee in a letter to the Financial Times on 16 October, of the effects of the 1929 crisis on Germany. Gustav Stresesmann, who was Chancellor and Foreign Minister during the Weimar Republic, did much to stabilise the German economy between 1923 and 1929. But the New York stock market crash of 29 September 1929 brought a halt to US loans which had largely underpinned the rebuilding of the German economy. Unemployment soared and Hitler was the only one seeming to promise a way out of the crisis. In the election of May 1928, the Nazi party had won 810,000 votes and 12 seats in the Reichstag. In the election of September 1930, it won 6, 409,000 votes and 107 seats, and in July 1932, 13,745,800 votes and 230 seats. Hitler did seem to restore Germany’s economy in his first 18 months in power, so that Winston Churchill said in 1935 “One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope that we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.” Churchill changed his view of Hitler the following year.
Obviously, history never exactly repeats itself and the fascistic forces of the future will look different from those of Nazi Germany but contain the same politics of division, hatred and national aggrandisement that cannot solve the problems that we face. I have no doubt that in response to the rise of such ugly forces there will be a gathering of the forces of generosity, capable of mobilising the world to deal with the coming crisis. I am afraid it will all get nastier before we see a rise in generous, radical politics, but I suspect that history is about to speed up in front of our eyes and all who oppose the radicalisation of fear, ethnic hatred, racialism and division have to be ready to create a new movement that contains the solutions to the monumental historical problems we currently face.