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A Political Review of the Noughties

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Tonight (December 31st) not only marks the end of 2009 but also the first decade of the new century/millennium.

The noughties (as the media have finally decided to christen them) have been at times politically tumultuous both domestically and internationally. It was a decade when the US asserted itself as the predominant imperialist power on the planet after being attacked on September 11, 2001. It was the decade when capitalism once again became unstuck. It was an era when neoconservatism reigned in the United States while Third Way politics were practised in the UK and New Zealand. Elsewhere, the world was forced together into a globalised embrace but there were still signs that another alternative, non-capitalist world could emerge.

While its too early to make a definitive judgement of the past decade, in my view it will be increasingly seen as the time when neoliberalism with its attendant focus on market freedom, monetarism and free trade predominated - that was until the events of September 2008. The collapse of Bear Stearns, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac and Lehman Brothers in the US exposed the lie that boom and bust could be done away with once and for all. Greed was the name of the game for wealthy fatcat financiers as they excessively mortgaged both the poor and working classes to the hilt in order to make excessive profits. Property speculators rode the back of this tidal wave until it crashed with the collapse of the global real estate boom in late 2007. Only then was an old (and some thought forgotten) foe of the unregulated free market revived - John Maynard Keynes (or more precisely his ideas).

From late 2008 and into the last year of the decade, governments from the US to Great Britain to Japan to China backpedalled on 25 years of free market nostrums by seeking to countercyclically stimulate economies before they crashed and burned. Capitalism had to be saved from itself and by the end of 2009, the Keynesian medicine that had been applied the world over appeared to be working.

However, what happened politically during the first and middle parts of this decade?

In New Zealand, the new century heralded a supposedly new political dawn. Helen Clark became the most popular new prime minister since the invention of polling. The nation was on an economic high, sustained by rising commodity prices and an effectively devalued dollar. In the midst of these good times, the new regime attempted to turn back some of the worst aspects of New Right policy including the Employment Contracts Act, high tertiary fees, market rentals for state housing and low pensions. Accordingly the ECA was replaced by the Employment Relations Act, tertiary fees were frozen, state housing rentals became income related and pensions were raised. But the main party poopers were the forces of high capitalism who included the Business Roundtable and the Employers and Manufacturers Association. They put their foot down and said that the new Labour-Alliance Government could not cross a certain boundary and staged a capital strike in mid-2000 which induced a mini-recession. Helen Clark and then finance minister Michael Cullen took notice and, for example, subsequently moderated the new ERA which became just a watered down (but still union friendlier) version of the old ECA. Labour's backtracking on these policy fronts created tension not within Labour but more within its Alliance coalition partner. This was to have terrible ramifications for the New Zealand left who, with the Alliance's splintering, were deprived of a political movement that could counterbalance the more right leaning Labour Party.. To cut a long story short, at the end of the decade, the Alliance is only beginning to rebuild while Labour languishes in opposition as National becomes resurgent once again under John Key.

Internationally, the decade began with Bill Clinton preparing to exit the White House. His replacement, George W. Bush made his Republican predecessors, namely Ronald Reagan and Bush's own father, George Senior, look like Communists. After winning the election thanks to his Daddy and Ronnie's appointees at the US Supreme Court, Dubya set about remoulding the world in his neoconservative image. Therefore, September 11 provided the tragic (and excellent from Bush's perspective) excuse to deal a few blows to some mortal American enemies, these being Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. At the same time, Bush and his oil industry buddies could satiate their lust for petrochemical dollars under the guise of liberating Iraq from Hussein and Afghanistan from the Taliban. Eight years on and it is America's first black President Barack Obama who now continues the wars that Dubya started with no sign of Osama and no end in sight either to the religious duel fest that is post-Saddam Iraq.

Also this decade, Tony Blair said goodbye to the prime ministership after his instinct for going too far to the right cost him his job. By contrast, in 2000, both Blair and the 'New Labour' brand were seen to be a winning combination. Utlising the Third Way ideological platform (if it could be called that) developed by Professor Anthony Giddens, Blair's Labour Party (as did its Helen Clark-led New Zealand counterpart) enunciated a philosophical position supposedly part-way on the spectrum between social democracy and the free market. In other words, New Labour was just Thatcherism with a human face in that it retained much of the laissez faire policy framework whilst dressing it up in the language of social justice. No one could be fooled as while the Third Way platform helped Tony Blair lead Labour to stunning victories in 1997 and 2001, it was clear by 2005 that the magic had worn off. After Blair agreed to act as George Bush's favourite foreign poodle in the wake of 9/11, the British public decided that it was time for him to go, a point that Gordon Brown, his finance minister (and longtime rival) was only too eager to push at every opportunity. Accordingly, the Iraq fiasco sealed Blair's fate. And by 2009, the Third Way of Blairite lore had been watered down under new PM Brown.

Elsewhere in the world, there were significant geopolitical shifts taking place. The European Union continued to grow and become an ever stronger force within global capitalism. But, undeniably, India and China became the newly emerging capitalist powers of the decade. Aided by free market inspired growth (of the same kind that felled the US), these two countries particularly began to throw their global weight around. Just behind them are Russia (which in 2000 was almost a failed state under Yeltsin) and Brazil. All of these nations and groupings have sought to exploit their natural resources in order to grow their economies. In the next decade, watch as these nations prepare to challenge the US's political hegemony.

But if one wants to know what a true political revolution looks like, then look no further than Latin America. In this decade, that sub-continent gave hope to all those who believe in democratic socialism (as I do) that there could be a better, non-capitalist future. The rising progressive stars of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Paraguay's Frederico Lugo and Ecuador's Rafael Correa have raised the hopes of the poor masses who live in Latin America that there is a democratic way to achieve economic and political empowerment. The mainstream capitalist media seek to vilify these leaders for simply giving hope to the poorest and most downtrodden peoples on the planet. They better be careful though as they largely ignored Hugo Chavez's recent speech in which he stated his intention to set up a Fifth International of socialist and left parties from around the globe. I predict that the emergence of such an international could provide impetus to the global democratic left going into the new decade.

One of the greatest challenges that faced the planet during the noughties was how to tackle climate change. In the 2000s, scientists continued to warn of the life threatening implications of runaway global warming. We could see the evidence of this all around us in terms of violent storms, floods, droughts,  fires, retreating snowlines and floating Antarctic icebergs. Still our politicians and policy makers don't seem to give a stuff as aided and abetted by a coalition consisting of global multinationals and the newly emerging powers of India and China, the recent climate change talks in Copenhagen ended in failure. Yes, it is true that I have blogged that they were a success but after nearly a fortnight (at the time of writing) of adverse coverage, I have to say that my earlier blogs were erroneously based on hype rather than real information. As the decade ended, the collapse of the Copenhagen talks clearly illustrated the failure of political leaders to heed popular concerns about the deteriorating environment. Look for climate change then to be THE defining issue of the new decade.

As we head out of the noughties, we can only hope for the best. It is really up to us to pressure our political leaders to provide the better world that most of us want in terms of a clean environment, poverty elimination, respect for human rights and social participation for all. In my view, it may mean that we will have to consider taking a non-capitalist path to achieving that. Going forward from here, that is what I intend to join my political comrades in doing.



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