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A politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism

There are signs that the global financial crisis is giving some solace to forces of the political left. No wonder, for the left has been delivered a plausible story that also goes with the grain of much common-sense wisdom.

It runs like this. The collapse of major banks and investment houses reveals the speculative house-of-cards on which neo-liberal capitalist economics has been built; the actions of governments around the world in bailing out and directly investing in these institutions show that an active state is essential to financial stability. The condition of the political right in the two major states most imbued with the market dogma of the age (the United States and Britain) suggests that an epochal shift may be underway - in which the balance between "private" and "public" is moving back in favour of collective, social and more inclusive (even egalitarian) solutions.

Indeed, the argument continues, the financial-sector's trading can now be seen to have imposed huge social costs, which states (and thus citizens) are now forced to carry. This confirms the folly of building a central part of the economy on a foundation of personal wealth-accumulation, recklessness and unaccountability. The only way forward is to restore to the centre of politics the long-derided idea of the "public" - and with it, associated notions of the public sector, public ownership, and the public interest. This can only be good for the left.

There is truth in the diagnosis - but the conclusion could be misplaced, and is almost certainly too hasty. There are three reasons to question whether the left's pheonix will rise out of the ashes of this crisis.

Whose revival?

The first is that it is not yet clear if measures such as the nationalisation of banks and building societies are going to work. The omens are at best mixed; even after the model designed by Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown was welcomed across the international political and media spectrum, stock-markets remain febrile, unemployment is rising (with much more to come), the strain of "negative equity" and repossession / foreclosure threaten house-owners, and the accumulated debts of the long consumer boom are still to be paid. These endemic problems are likely to make people more fearful and less hopeful - not a good foundation for a progressive politics.

The second reason is that it is hard for most citizens (who are also consumers, voters, taxpayers, welfare recipients) to see where the convincing leftist options are - apart from the worthy aim of bringing the state and the public realm out of cold storage. This aim is important, but it is a preliminary work of restoration rather than of radical change; moreover, it is shared much more widely, and thus cannot be regarded as unique to the left. The political left, qua left, has very little meaningful or distinctive to say about this crisis.

The third reason for scepticism about a revival of the left is that constant references to the precedent of the 1929 crash and the 1930s depression that followed are a reminder that such crises often create fertile grounds for a surge of the right. The first two elections in the global north since the financial crisis took hold saw victories of the centre-right in Canada and Lithuania (admittedly both leading parties are far from the extremes, and neither won an overall majority - though the advance of celebrity-populist parties in Lithuania may be an augur).

More worrying and immediate is what is happening at the far end of the political spectrum in several European countries. Stoke-on-Trent, the English city where one of us lives, is a case in point: here, the hard-right British National Party has already made advances in local-council elections (in the May 2008 elections, it won 24% of the vote in the wards it contested, and nine out of sixty seats). It is likely that much of the "white working-class" in the area (and its equivalents elsewhere) will rally behind it rather than any leftist alternative as economic recession collides with local discontents.

The limits of localism

Such caution about anticipating shoots of progressive recovery is often met by arguments that emphasise the energy and vitality of grassroots campaigns. It is true that local movements can often sustain an impressive standard of commitment even during a downturn. But there is also a problem in their political underpinning - in that activity aimed at coping with increasing levels of insecurity is ambivalent in its character and intentions.

The "transition towns" movement in England, which encourages local experiments in environmentally sustainable living and develoment, is a prominent example. This movement is to all appearances right where it should be: making climate change and "peak oil" the linked starting-point for its analysis of possible political futures. The central focus of the "transition" talk is about resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability, and its implications - including reskilling to cope with insecure supply-chains of goods and provisions as oil becomes scarcer, transport becomes more expensive, and the life made possible by oil recedes into the past.

This approach could in principle be empowering for local communities as they take their futures into their hands and do things that governments are unwilling or unable to do. The transition economy can invent new currencies, experiment with new methods of producing and consuming, and develop new ways of engaging and mobilising people in a community.

But where will the politics of resilience lead? It should be recalled that the progressive, inclusive politics of the past two centuries has been accompanied by a fossil-fuelled energy binge. As society powers down, what will become of the outward-looking social and political advances that have accompanied the age of energy excess? The transition-towns movement - and similar initiatives that are motivated by ideals of self-sufficiency, eco-community, and simplicity - seek to manage the shift from oil dependency to post-oil security. It is less clear that they offer anything to say about the equally difficult and equally necessary challenge of combining localism with cosmopolitanism.

When their security comes under threat and when a familiar order begins to break down, people generally look to their own before they look to others. A number of recent post-apocalypse novels has painted a bleak picture of life after environmental catastrophe has wreaked its havoc (Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army, Maggie Gee's The Ice People, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road among them). A politics of fear shadows this fiction, the signal (which imaginative artists are so often among the first to perceive) of a wider quality in the collective emotional temperature.

In an overheating world where already hard-pressed citizens are faced with new and prolonged economic difficulties, the avoidance of harm to self and family and "tribe" can come to supersede the preventing of harm to others. The scrabble for scraps can leave little room for cosmopolitan sentiment.

An echo of such warnings is evident in the comment of Will Hutton - one of the most acute analysts of the financial crisis - who speaks of the dangers of "fragmentation", where in times of hardship the temptation to blame (and the encouragement to blame) people or groups regarded as "other" increases. Hutton goes on to argue that "stories about why we should fragment are even more poisonous than the fragmentation itself".

The limitation of a politics of resilience is that it can so easily become defensive, reactive, insular (a characterisation that fits much of what remains of the political left as a whole). The whole point of the transition movement is to manage a move beyond - rather than merely respond to circumstances that have got out of control. This managed approach to change could in principle permit a soft, cosmopolitan landing in a world that is (in ways unimaginably different from the 1930s) globalised, connected, and plural. But to do so will require creating structures that can mediate between local initiatives, and a larger politics that can articulate these links. In the absence of such structures and politics, the sound of the wagons circling could drown out cosmopolitan sentiment.

The next horizon

That is why, if the management of change can't simply involve a return to the centralist-corporatist politics of the 1970s, it can't rely on a thoroughgoing localism either. As people seek security in troubled times there is a danger that the state will become overburdened, and citizen-based localism will struggle to fill the gaps. The chasm between expectation and reality could then be filled by a politics of disillusion - which is usually (in effect if not always in intention) a politics of the right which seeks to exploit the prevailing social sentiment for divisive and xenophobic ends.

The problem is that the space where people could organise their collective security in some key liberal-capitalist democracies - namely, the democratic public realm - has since the late 1970s been systematically eroded. This is especially true of the levels of government where social security (in its most general sense) is achieved (or not) on a daily basis: the local and regional levels. This democratic public realm is where the relations between citizen and state can and should be reformed. Every opportunity should be taken to revitalise it, and to fortify the democratic institutions that are the strongest bulwark against the chauvinism of which Will Hutton warns.

2008 is the year of a triple shock: the global food crisis (which made the realities of food-insecurity palpable), the global oil-price rise (which put localised transition on the agenda as never before) and the global financial hurricane (which gave the state as agent a new lease of political life). The long-term consequences can at present be only dimly discerned. At this stage, it can be said that together they do provide opportunities for the political left (in its broadest sense) which were barely imaginable at the start of the year. But it is also true that dislocating financial and energy crises offer promising ground for the political right.

The world is opening up to new possibilities and dangers. The future may belong to ideas that emerge genuinely out of this crisis, rather than to those (as it were) foisted onto it. Low-energy cosmopolitanism? Bring it on - but it will prove a tough nut to crack.

David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy. Andrew Dobson is professor of politics at Keele University.

Editorial Notes: Related from Paul Rogers at open Democracy: A crisis-opportunity moment.

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