Centrism the myth
We’ve all heard the adage about how the left and the right cannot agree and the proper course is in the centre. Clinton and Blair did a lot of posturing about the third way, and the principle-free concept of triangulation. Initially they mostly they said it was in fact a business friendly politics, in the UK Gordon Brown spent a lot of time wining and dining in the City, demonstrating he was harmless and helpful to the leaders of finance capital. Given all were great lovers of capitalism you do find yourself wondering what extra friendliness they needed to exhibit. When Blair/Brown took over the economy was growing rapidly from a seemingly endless credit-driven release of spendable money, without any evidence other than magical thinking they thought that they had solved capitalism’s boom-bust cycle, and the growth would continue forever while Britain in particular and global capitalism in general sailed off into a sunset of ever higher wages and better funded social programmes without having to tax the rich. If you can remember that far back, it was called the end of history. Clinton had a lovely weasel phrase socially progressive, but fiscally conservative. Brown revitalised now absolutely mad-seeming Tory policies like the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), guaranteeing huge profits to lenders and effectively paying out many times the nominal market cost of the loans to build schools and hospitals, and giving those payments priority over running the institutions thus built. If everything had carried on with no crash it was a good bet, but as it turned out he was an idiot. To be fair, everyone involved in this believed the nonsense and Brown was no more of an idiot than most of the other chancellors world wide. PFI kept the loans off the main government books and gave the appearance of probity and controlling spending, keeping promises to the electorate sick of wrecked infrastructure while storing up trouble for those of us living in the 2020’s and beyond if the assumption of infinite growth proved to be wrong.
In his public persona Brown appeared to be an avuncular man of principle, a student activist in the anti-apartheid movement and so on. But when the government cleaners in Scotland won a sex discrimination case that meant millions needed to be found to pay their back pay he instructed his minions to find a way not to do it, attempted to tell the union leaders not to press for it. This is empire socialism again. It has no principles but a made up pragmatism, and didn’t want to be seen to be spending more than the budget allowed, even for the most socially just and unforeseen of reasons. This would play badly in press, and Brown couldn’t have that muddy his chances of The Sun backing his candidacy for leader.
Curiously they never said how the instability had been solved, and we discovered later that it was a con driven by the banks to suck money out of the credit bubble by selling it back to themselves and loaning it out again over and over on ever more risky investments after downgrading the risk by lying about it. The boom was fundamentally built on fraud, allowed by the reregulation and massive cutting back of the regulators of the Thatcher era in the UK, and Regan and Clinton in the US, along with most of the other capital markets at the time. Laws put in place to stop rip offs and mis-selling, of setting your customers up to take losses while you hoovered up the money, were repealed or just ignored. Eventually it blew up and we had the crisis of 2008.
A Ponzi scheme is a fraud where you appear pay high interest to your current investors from the money given to you by the next set of mugs coming through the door, and then spend what remains on rich people’s toys. It works until you have no more mugs coming in through the front door or your original investors want their money back. Ponzi himself lived a charmed life for many years before it was discovered. At this point the entire Western finance system was one vast Ponzi scheme, and hardly anyone faced any consequences or censure for their part in the crash.
The third way was never mentioned in the aftermath. Like a lot of ideas we’re told to be keen on by the corporate media, when they are no longer useful everyone develops amnesia. There was a desperate scramble to keep the banks from collapsing and socialising their fraud so the working classes of the world ended up paying for it, again. Fiscally conservative now meant socially conservative because there was a squeeze on the economy and tax revenues across the whole planet. The benevolent social justice mask slipped, came off, and was forgotten. Once again, as the saying goes if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. If you don’t have principles, you can’t live by them, and any action that seems to cover your arse is allowed. Any lie, half truth or pretence becomes acceptable. The usual short-term amnesia meant that no-one was to blame, and eventually business as usual but much-needed services were cut past the bone. Pragmatic approaches and “reforms”, which is code for doing what they needed to keep the broken system running and cutting everything else, meant the 99% ended up footing the bill like they always do. This isn’t the parochial down your street in the West, it’s the global 99%, the mostly brown-skinned people empire socialists disappear from their minds most of the time when it is inconvenient.
Why have I told this series of anecdotes in a section about centrism? Because this is what centrism is in reality. We had reached an impasse, both in the UK and the USA. People were tired of the cutting and selling off the family silver at massive discounts to people who would hike prices and reduce services, they were tired of seeing things they cared about destroyed. The dried out dregs remaining of Thatcher’s party were all compromised, just as people were tired of the casino-driven poor-robbing Reganomics elsewhere, and there was no-one even halfway credible to run the country because they’d been in power so long and practically every non-bonkers Tory politician was either fatally compromised or widely hated.
So we needed a new broom, we needed something to give people hope after nearly twenty years of being kicked in the head over and over again. Working class people wanted an end to the grey pain of high mortgages, decrepit schools, crumbling hospitals and universities, crumbling infrastructure. They wanted the political equivalent of Apple to appear with some shiny new ideas that make the world a better place, they wanted the post-war boom back, and the credit boom allowed us all to play pass the parcel while pretending it was. It’s no accident that Blair’s campaign song was Things can only get better, the next line I’m down on my knees, begging didn’t seem to register. They also needed to retool for the information economy.
There was a barrier to further rip offs. People were tired of them and they weren’t making sense any more. For example, Thatcher’s crew had used the manufactured disdain for the railways to help justify selling them off, but really it didn’t make sense. The lunatic obsession with marketisation had lost some of its lustre. The real purpose of privatisation of needed services, which was to take them out of even the semblance of democratic control and make profit for the 1%, was becoming less credible. Nowadays they don’t even pretend to be selling things off to the public, shares go straight to the hedge funds mostly and ordinary investors trying to take advantage of the discounts get squeezed out.
So we had the third way, the old way with a shiny surface, a brilliantly polished turd blinding us with its magnificent lustre. The temporary boom allowed some repairs, new buildings were built with the most expensive PFI capital that you can imagine. There was a new consensus, boom slump was over, and eternal growth would make the world better for everybody. It felt like we were living in the optimistic last ten minutes of a Star Trek film, just after the long speech about how the world can be a better place, and whatever their universe has as the equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. It was as if trickle down economics turned out to be true after all. If you are too young to remember the election of Blair, the whole country seemed to be full of optimism. We had finally got rid of the venal incompetent dolts, and a new era of growth and self-respect was on its way. What fools we were.
Centrism lives in the narrow confines of the Overton window, the currently manufactured consensus, and if the window moves, it will follow. We had a consensus in the capitalist class that they could run their bubble forever, while there was enough spare cash floating around in the economy Brown and his cohort spent it on repairing some of the damage from the Thatcher years, and it looked great from the outside. It wasn’t just Blair/Brown or Clinton, it was across the world, it looked like capitalism had not only won, but wasn’t going to fail again. In the end Clinton turned out to be a poor-hating rapist maniac with an enabler wife, and Blair an empty carousel in a war zone that was later burned by Brown.
Post Blair/Brown the window has moved to the right, to something approaching outright fascism with rigged markets being the only solution to everything, and centrists moved right along with it, all zombie market lovers. Most recently our incompetent Tory government give massive contracts to their friends and no-one bats an eye, there isn’t even the pretence of a level playing field. This is why the relatively moderate proposals in Labour’s last manifesto were seen as so radical. We’re teetering along the edge of the cliff, and the old normal is so far behind us very few people can even remember what it was like any more.