Every year for nearly 70 years, the Guardian has collected the best of its journalism into a book – the BEDSIDE GUARDIAN. This year, Bedside Guardian 2019 is edited by Aditya Chakrabortty with Paul Johnson, deputy editor, alongside Jonathan Freedland, Zoe Williams Emma Graham-Harrison. The editors were kind enough to ask me to write the Foreword. As it reflects my take on 2019, I thought posting it here might be an apt sendoff for 2019 – a year that will be remembered but not for all the right reasons…
‘The government has failed – it’s time to go back to the people.’ The rousing title of the Guardian’s editorial at the beginning of the year was aimed, of course, at Theresa May’s dog’s Brexit. Alas, its wording carried a universal truth, suiting, as it does, the current situation not only in Britain but also the United States and the European Union, not to mention Brazil, Argentina, India etc. etc.
If one conclusion emerges from revisiting the past twelve months, it is that governments have failed almost everywhere. As a result, there is an urgent need to go back to the people if we’re to stand any chance of finding answers to our existentialist crises – be they climate catastrophe, social misery, geopolitical threats to peace, involuntary migration, or other assorted forms of depravity.
The past twelve months were not the worst of times. And they certainly were not the best of times. Rather, the past year has proved depressingly predictable to anyone who has observed, since 2008, our steady global slide into a postmodern 1930s. The failure of our governments, as highlighted by the Guardian’s editorial, felt almost inevitable. With its roots in France’s National Front, Italy’s Lega, Hungary’s and Poland’s governments, a paradoxical Nationalist International emerged on the strength of Brexit and Trump. The rise of Vox, Spain’s neofascists, proved that recalcitrant nativism is not confined to Europe’s northeast. Bolsonaro’s triumph in Brazil and Modi’s domination in India show that the North Atlantic is a part of a larger disaster, rather than a special case.
Stiffen your upper lip, you are not alone – a message to British friends
When I speak to my despairing British friends, I feel a need to lift their spirits. Not out of solidarity, but because they have no reason, I believe, to feel more downhearted than the rest of us. While their anguish is understandable, I tell them they have good cause to stiffen their upper lip and, despite Boris, Nigel, Labour’s divisions and the overall sorry state of the House of Commons, to remain relatively upbeat about British democracy. I remind them that one of nationalism’s hidden symptoms [SL1] is a creeping feeling of inverse exceptionalism – a false sense that our country, our democracy, our parliament is in a worse state than our neighbours’.
Inverse exceptionalism is a great gift to xenophobic populists as they can weaponise it with the promise to make our democracy great again, to make us proud again. Thus, my unexpected message to British friends: you are not in greater trouble than we are. We all live downstream. The toxic algae engulfing you in Brexit’s wake is a general condition that we all suffer from. If anything, having immersed yourselves in it since June 2016, your democracy is perhaps better suited now to be tough not just on Brexit but also on the causes of Brexit, which can be pinpointed both within and without the British Isles. In short, stop feeling sorry for yourselves, desist self-absorption, and let’s join forces to help the people take back control. In Britain. In Europe. Everywhere.
I know that, during the past twelve months, it was hard to resist the spectre of national humiliation. Theresa May’s strategic error of agreeing to Brussels’ two-phase negotiation (first, London gives the EU everything and only then will the EU discuss London’s demands), coupled with red lines that boxed her into an impossibility, guaranteed the former Prime Minister’s abject defeat. However, the UK media did you a disservice by setting the British Prime Minister’s foolishness, and the House of Commons’ divisions, against a fictional EU that is rules-based, democratic, united and, above all else, competent – a European Union, in other words, that could not be further from reality.
Back in 2015, three days into my tenure as finance minister, the President of the Eurogroup, comprising the finance ministers of EU countries sharing the euro, threatened me with Grexit if I dared insist on challenging the self-defeating, inhuman austerity programme our people had just rejected in a democratic election. Shortly afterwards, at my first Eurogroup meeting, Wolfgang Schäuble, my German counterpart, declared that elections cannot be allowed to change previously agreed economic policies, to which I responded that his words were music to the ears of Chinese Communist Party apparatchiks who think along similar lines.
In short, the enemies of democracy and common decency are in power on both sides of the British Channel. So, my message to British friends is: stop wallowing in self-pity and, instead, join us in a common, transnational movement to build a democratic Europe.
A universal condition
Our condition, we must realise, is truly universal. Yes, as Patrick Kielty says in his article on p.000, an EU official said the UK needed to be taken care of ‘like a patient’. But so too should almost every country I know of, including those firmly within the EU. With the possible exception of China, the planet’s major economic zones seem to be governed either by regimes trying their best to resemble the Weimar Republic’s last days or by politicians, Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini for instance, who seem worryingly inspired by the organised misanthropy that followed Weimar’s collapse.
The aftermath of the European Parliament election of May 2019 was quite telling about this state of affairs. The day after the election, the European Union’s ‘liberal’ establishment were breathing a sigh of relief that the extreme right did not fully dominate the European Parliament. Readers of Europe’s mainstream press would be forgiving for missing what would have, a few years before, been declared a shameful result and, indeed, a global emergency: the extreme right had actually won the elections in France, in Italy and in the UK. Only sorrow should flow from our establishment’s readiness to celebrate the smallest of pickings, namely that the fascists did not win everywhere.
Meanwhile, as described in Ed Pilkington’s piece, every day on the other side of the Atlantic, Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro deploy a lethal blend of machismo, fear and loathing with a dexterity not seen since the early days of Mussolini. Worse still, their Nationalist International has a clear plan for the world, in sharp contrast to progressives who are more disorganised than ever: a transactional world comprising reactionary countries divided by lethal borders – as described in Patrick Timmons’s vivid article – but connected by bilateral deals that bypass all democratic mechanisms for limiting the power of multinationals with gigantic investments in fossil fuels, in wrecking national health systems, and with a transparent agenda to level all forms of worker solidarity in their path.
How did we end up like this?
Capitalism changed in the 1970s. The United States turned from a creditor nation to the largest consumer of other people’s net exports. Germany, Japan and, later, China grew on the back of America’s trade and budget deficits. In turn, German, Japanese and Chinese profits flowed back to Wall Street, in search of higher returns. This recycling system broke down because Wall Street and its UK sidekick, the City of London, took advantage of its central position to build colossal pyramids of private money on the back of the net profits flowing from the rest of the world into the United States.
This process of private money minting by Wall Street and the City of London banks, also known as financialisation, added much energy to this global recycling scheme. Under the cover of its very own ideology, neoliberalism, and with political support provided first by Maggie Thatcher and soon after by Ronald Reagan, financialised capitalism generated huge, ever-accelerating levels of demand within the United States, in Europe (whose banks soon jumped onto the private money-minting bandwagon) and Asia. Alas, once the bubbles burst, it also brought about its demise in the Fall of 2008 – our generation’s 1929.
The only significant difference between 1929 and 2008 was the speed and determination with which central banks came to the aid of the financiers. While the majority, in the UK, in the US, in Greece, in Germany too, were treated to the cruelty of austerity and associated ignominies such as universal credit and means-testing (as Francis Ryan describes on p.000), the central banks printed mountain ranges of public money to re-float the failed banks, especially in the UK and in the US. Expansionary monetary policy succeeded in creating a semblance of recovery while, underneath the surface, austerity was destroying our communities – Patrick Butler discusses this on p.000, as well as Helen Pidd and Jessica Murray on p.000.
The European troika, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Brexit, Trump, Salvini, Germany’s AfD, the shrill demands for electrified border fences and so much more were the fruits of this topsy-turvy policy of socialism for bankers and austerity for the many.
Going back to the people – everywhere!
The Guardian editorial was right: It is time to ‘go back to the people’. But Guardian readers who interpreted this as a simple call for a second referendum were wrong. Our democracies are too damaged for a quick fix. In Britain’s case, in particular, the demos cannot be put back into a broken democracy simply via a second vote. Something more is needed.
In the run-up to the June 2016 referendum, I addressed several anti-Brexit meetings. The one that sticks in my mind took place in Leeds, where I shared a platform with John McDonnell to campaign for the DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) line of ‘In the EU. Against this EU!’ Afterwards, a lovely old lady approached me to tell me why she could not agree: ‘My dear boy’ she said tenderly, ‘if I vote to remain, it won’t be you or Jeremy in 10 Downing Street to fight to transform this EU. It will be Cameron, who will treat the result as a vote of confidence in himself and a licence to hobnob with the Brussels people who crushed you and your democracy.’
Every time I encounter demands for a second referendum by people keen simply to annul the first, I think of that lovely old lady. However much I wish Brexit had lost, telling her to vote again, until she gets it right, is not something I would ever do. It would confirm in her mind that a vote is allowed to count only when it does not change anything. It will remind her of the power that she, her children, her neighbours and her community have been denied ever since trade unions and local authorities were neutered. So, if we are going to go ‘back to the people’ let’s do it properly.
Bankers and neoliberals never let a good crisis go to waste. Nor should we. The Brexit crisis is our opportunity to rethink democracy in the UK and to do whatever it takes to ‘go back to the people’. Similarly ,across the EU, in the United States, in Africa, in Asia. Of course, this is easier said than done. ‘None of us are free’ if ‘one of us is chained’, as the old rhythm-and-blues song proclaimed. The British people will never be given full power to decide their future if the Germans, the Greeks, the Brazilians or the Nigerians are denied it. Anti-Semitism will never die if Islamophobia is not snuffed out too. As Edward Said once said, the Palestinians will never be liberated if the Americans and the Israelis are not emancipated also.
In the past twelve months, in the midst of all the soul-searching and despair caused by the Nationalist International’s triumphs, the idea of democracy proved its resilience. We saw the idea of Citizens’ Assemblies gaining ground, especially after its successful deployment in Ireland. We noticed that Aristotle’s definition of democracy (as a system in which the poor, being in the majority, govern) is making a comeback. We admired children across Europe who decided that it was time to act like adults because the ‘adults in the room’ were behaving like spoilt brats (see Jonathan Watts’ remarkable profile of Greta Thunberg on p.000). We saw young women win office in Trump’s America, ready to confront patriarchy, exploitation and climate change.
On a personal note, the past year has been a rough diamond. In the May European elections, DiEM25, our Democracy in Europe Movement, did something crazy: we ran in seven countries simultaneously. We wanted to demonstrate that transnational progressive politics is possible. I stood as a candidate in … Germany, while a German comrade stood in Greece. For our manifesto, the Green New Deal for Europe, we consulted thousands of Europeans over the course of three years. And our list of candidates in each country, from Portugal to Denmark and from France to Greece, was selected by an all-member vote, where the Germans also had a say on the candidates in Greece and vice versa. In the end, we attracted one and a half million votes but won no seats in Parliament. On election night, however, the Greek Prime Minister called a snap general election for six weeks later and MeRA25, our DiEM25 party in Greece, won nine seats.
Campaigning across Europe nearly broke me. But it also convinced me of the deep well of progressive energy waiting to be tapped in a Europe that to the naked eye looks beholden to the fake clash between an austerian establishment and the xenophobic ultra-right. Discovering some of the most progressive people I have ever known in the midst of conservative Bavaria, meeting poor brave pensioners putting up a fight against fracking in North Western Greece, supporting Sicilian comrades in their struggle to shield migrants from Salvini’s attacks – those were the precious moments that over the past twelve months helped me counter Bertrand Russell’s tendency to despair at ‘the unwillingness of the human race to acquiesce in its own survival’.