Why I’m feeling strangely Austrian
By Gideon Rachman
The old is dying and the new cannot be born: in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear.” That statement from the Prison Notebooks of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci was a favourite of student Marxists when I was at university in the 1980s. Back then it struck me as portentous nonsense. But Gramsci’s observation does resonate now – in an age of ideological confusion.
Old certainties about the onward march of the markets are collapsing. But no new theory has established ideological “hegemony”, to use the concept that Gramsci made famous. Some ideas are, however, gathering new strength. The four strongest emerging trends that I can spot are, in very broad terms: rightwing populist, social democratic-Keynesian, libertarian-Hayekian and anti-capitalist/socialist.
Each of these new trends is a reaction against the dominant ideas of 1978-2008. Back then, for all the nominal differences between communists in China, capitalists in New York and the soft left in Europe, their agreements were more striking than their arguments. Political leaders from all over the world talked the same language about encouraging free trade and globalisation. Increasing inequality was embraced as a price worth paying for faster growth. Deng Xiaoping set the tone when he declared: “To get rich is glorious.” Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher could not have put it better.
In post-crisis Europe, however, rightwing populism is on the rise – from the Freedom party in the Netherlands to the National Front in France and the Northern League in Italy. The populists are anti-globalisation, anti-EU and anti-immigration – the common thread being that all these forces are felt to be hostile to the interests of the nation. Hostility to Islam links Europe’s populist right to parts of the Tea Party movement in the US.
There is some overlap between the populists and the libertarian Hayekians – but the two movements have different obsessions. In the US, Ron Paul, the maverick Republican, carries the banner for libertarianism. He fondly recalls dining with Friedrich Hayek himself and watching an inspiring denunciation of socialism by Ludwig von Mises, another economist of the Austrian school. That explains Mr Paul’s otherwise baffling remark, after last week’s Iowa caucus, in which he said: “I’m waiting for the day when we can say we’re all Austrians now.”
The libertarians are unusual because they argue that the current crisis is caused not by an excess of capitalism, but by too much state intervention. As far as the Austrian school is concerned, the Keynesian “cure” for the crisis of capitalism is worse than the disease.
Mr Paul is the purest advocate of a powerful conviction on the American right that the US is afflicted by an over-mighty state. The urge to slash the government back into the 18th century is not a common one in Europe. But Paulite suspicion of central banks that threaten to debase the currency is powerfully echoed in Germany – where the Hayekian right is horrified by the operations of the European Central Bank, and by bail-outs for bankrupt nations. This ideological trend is not confined to the west. In a recent article, Simon Cox of The Economist argued that policy debates in China about the state’s role in reflating the economy also pit Hayekians against Keynesians.
In the west, the fiercest opponents of the Hayekians are the Keynesian-social democrats. Their belief in deficit spending as the key to stimulating the economy often goes hand in hand with a call for a more active and expansive state. In Europe, where there is little scope for more state spending, the social democrats are arguing for much tougher regulation of high finance, a revival of industrial policy – and a renewed stress on tackling inequality. While efforts to label Barack Obama a “socialist” are silly, it is fair to label him a social democrat. The US president does not reject capitalism, but he does seek to soften its edges through a more active state that promises universal healthcare and redistributive taxation. The fact that inequality has become a global concern from China to Chile, and from India to Egypt, suggests that this is another trend that has gone global.
The failure of the hard left to capitalise on the economic crisis testifies to how profoundly communism was discredited by the collapse of the Soviet system. But mass unemployment in Europe might yet produce the conditions for the revival of an anti-capitalist movement. Greece’s two far-left parties are currently at about 18 per cent in the polls. The diverse groups that campaign under the banner of Occupy Wall Street contain some genuine socialists. And China has a powerful “new left” movement that pays lip-service to Maoism.
Events will determine which of these ideological trends sets the tone for the new age. Most people will be buffeted by personal circumstances, and by the news.
Under normal conditions I would probably sign up with the social democratic tendency. The Tea Party is not my cup of tea. But I spent the weekend reading newspaper accounts of the ever more incredible figures that may have to be poured into the bail-outs for banks and countries in Europe. Then I turned the page to read of demands for more protectionism and regulation in the EU. For light relief, I then went to see The Iron Lady – the new film about Margaret Thatcher. The whole experience has left me feeling strangely Austrian.