TOPICS: US election race unlikely to cure crisis

Gary Younge

As markets plunge, banks fail and traders panic, the core principles that have underpinned western economic and political culture for a generation have been thoroughly discredited. Less than a month ago the invulnerability and inviolability of unregulated global capitalism was common sense. The system that leaves half of the world living on less than a dollar a day, with some so impoverished that they are eating mud cakes and selling their children into bondage, was apparently working well. To suggest otherwise was to be dismissed as extreme.

But such orthodoxies can collapse even faster than markets. By the end of last week the US treasury secretary Henry Paulson was literally on one knee before Nancy Pelosi, Democratic speaker of the House, begging her to save the bailout deal. Later George W Bush warned of the entire American economy: “This sucker could go down.” Suddenly, government intervention in markets, reining in executive pay and placing controls on the flow of capital are good sense.

While the gravity of the crisis is clear, the prospects for transformation remain remote. The fact that this meltdown took place during a presidential election should be fortuitous. It ought to provide the two candidates with an opportunity to lay out different visions of how they would tackle the situation at a moment when the nation is intently focused on politics. If ever the country needed leadership, it is right now. And here are two men vying for it.

Yet the financial crisis has, for the most part, made the presidential campaign seem less relevant, not more. The credit crunch and the election are taking place as though on a split screen. There is a connection between the two — Barack Obama has bounced back as a result of people’s attention being refocused away from lipstick and pigs and back on to their mortgages, retirement accounts and jobs. But it is not a substantive one. For while the crisis has changed the electoral conversation, nobody is seriously looking to this conversation for new ideas, let alone a solution.

The notion that there might be alternatives to rapacious capitalism have been all but banished

from the public square. That limited discourse leaves us with limited options. Those who claimed that the government was the problem now cast it as not just the ultimate, but the sole solution. Good sense demands a thoroughgoing reappraisal of a system that’s in a state of collapse; common sense requires we subsidise it in perpetuity for fear that it breaks down. That sounds like nonsense. “If you beat your head against the wall,” Gramsci once wrote, “it is your head which breaks.” Right now the American public has a terrible headache. And it doesn’t seem as if this presidential race is going to cure it.

It will be the task of whoever wins on Nov 4 to manage US’ decline in status and power and a consequent further deterioration in Americans’ standard of living. This process will be painful and could be protracted. Little wonder, then, that nobody wants to talk about it.