Where next for Occupy Wall Street? Conspiracy theory and the financial crisis

There has clearly been a concerted effort by a wealthy elite to bring us to our current state of pla

Conspiracy theorists have long said that the financial crisis is not a failure of regulation, of taking the eye off the ball, but rather a Machiavellian exercise that has been implemented over many years by free market liberal capitalists, wanting to erase the state and let the market work its wonders.

I want so badly to believe that it wasn't planned, that it was simply stupidity, lack of leadership and a too-big system out of control. But two events last week have finally brought me closer to believing the conspiracy brigade. First was the shocking admission from a City trader on the BBC that "Goldman Sachs rules the world", which rapidly went viral on the internet for its sheer bold-faced honesty. Even the conspiracy theorists thought it was a yes-men stunt, and couldn't possibly be true.

But the exposure of a secret letter from the European Central Bank to Berlusconi -- in which they press for action to privatise public services and overhaul the unions in order to "restore the confidence of the markets", was the final bit of evidence that convinced me.

Of course, I wasn't naïve. I knew that free marketeers were trying to dismantle the state and take over everything -- I just didn't think that it could be so well-mastered and designed, by campaign strategists of the highest order.

As a campaigner, I know when we plot a campaign strategy, its important to take the long-view. We design the opening up of political space through mobilisation and other tactics, and we build in opportunities to take advantage of key political moments. We make sure we identify and inform allies on the inside. And hopefully, after a few years, we will have won our case. But whereas the campaigns I have worked on are about fighting for human rights and the environment, the free marketeers' campaign was to overturn a system that values public goods over private enterprise, replacing it with one that values the wealthy and sees the poor as entirely expendable. Whereas the former might be based on a three or five year horizon, theirs had a 50 + year timeline. And it's finally coming to fruition on a global scale.

You can imagine Milton Friedman and a few other men sitting around a smoke-filled room at the Chicago School of Economics, back in the late 1960s, mapping out a political future with a severe global crisis at just the right moment, so that their dream of a state-free-future would become a reality. "Let's pick a country to start out with and learn some lessons," they might have said. So they started with Chile in the 1970s, pitching themselves as economic experts, and advising then dictator Pinochet to cut public spending and let the corporate sector takeover. No matter that the result was inflation of 375 per cent and 30 per cent unemployment, while eradicating the middle classes.

"This is the pain they have to endure" Friedman and his cronies said at the time. "We'll need a few more countries to strengthen our power," they might have strategised in the review a few years later, in the same, presumably smoke-filled room.

Throughout the 1980s, they worked their way through a few more developing countries as an experiment (for these colonial outposts were easy to sacrifice), as their disciples spread into the Bretton Woods institutions and beyond. They implemented their "lessons learned" (prioritise debt repayment, strip assets, privatise public services, increase wealth for the few).

"We'll need to have more influence," they would have agreed, as they infiltrated the right and the left alike -- the US Republicans and Democrats, the Conservative and Labour parties over here -- ensuring that their economic and policy advisors went through a constant revolving door with big business. They would put forward their advocates in every aspect of political and monetary policy. Now we see "expert" groups comprised of ex-Goldman Sachs bankers in Europe informing regulations on the finance sector.

And when they thought about mobilising, they could do no better than the Tea Party and its various incarnations, not to mention the long-standing think-tanks that celebrate "free enterprise", like the Adam Smith Institute or its US-based cousin, the American Enterprise Institute.

So, decades later, many of the original campaigners now long gone, you can see their offspring enjoying a whisky, a round of golf, a ride on their yacht, toasting their success. The master plan is finally taking hold in the US and Europe, the global economic crisis almost certainly a design of their cadre's original making.

Is it all a conspiracy? Chaos theory, of course, is a counter-balance to this line of thinking, but the point is, in fact, moot. There has clearly been a fairly concerted effort by the hands of a wealthy elite to bring us to our current state of play.

The question is, do we simply accept their interim victory as a fait accompli? Or can we learn from their lessons? Like any real campaigner, I'm not prepared to accept defeat, even one of this magnitude. I'm inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement taking off in the US, but simply showing dissent isn't enough. Let's learn from the right. We now need to take a long-term, strategic view, mapping out not just what we don't like and want to change, but also who we need to influence, and precisely how.

This is not a short-term project. But the sooner we do this, the more likely we will, in our old age, still be enjoying public services, watching our children have access to education, drinking clean water under green trees and a clean sky, and looking back on a campaign well fought and well won.

Deborah Doane is the Director of the World Development Movement

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496