Why we need a new understanding of "Islamism"

As Islamic political parties take power in the Middle East, outdated and static perceptions are unhe

Following the Muslim Brotherhood's victory in Egypt's election, William Hague has said that Britain must engage with elected Islamic governments in the Middle East.

This is a marked contrast to David Cameron's visit to Egypt last year, when he refused to meet with Islamic politicians, saying they were "extreme" (I note that he has shown no such qualms on his state visit to Saudi Arabia today).

The Foreign Office denies a difference in tone, saying that it is still correct to view the Muslim Brotherhood as an extreme organisation. However, writing in the Times (£), Hague says:

It is true that parties drawing their inspiration from Islam have done better at the polls than secular parties and there are legitimate concerns about what this will mean.

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Either way, we must respect these choices while upholding our own principles of human rights and freedom and urging the highest standards.

Hague is absolutely right to say that Britain shouldn't unilaterally refuse to engage with a democratically elected government because it doesn't like its principles. But it is interesting that such an article is necessary (shouldn't it be a given that we respect the choices of other countries' free elections?).

Many, many people throw around the term "Islamism" (which, crudely, refers to the notion that Islam is an ideology as well as a religion) without very much understanding of what it actually means. Too often, it is part of a dichotomous "them vs. us" mindset, which explains why Hague's starting point is that we should automatically suspect an Islamic government.

Like so much commentary on Islam, this completely deletes nuance. When you consider that Islam is practised worldwide by a billion people, it is bizarre to assume that the religion -- or its political manifestation -- is monolithic. On the most basic level, people tend to be surprised when I say that one side of my family is Muslim but not particularly devout. We are so frequently bombarded with images of extremism or burka-clad women that many find it difficult to conceive of someone who identifies with the religion while living a largely secular life, for example. Think of the many different types of Christians -- from Jehovah's Witnesses to those who have been christened but not set foot in a church since -- and you have an accurate point of comparison.

By the same token, political Islam can take the poisonous, corrosive form that we have seen in al-Qaeda, but this is not the be all and end all (I hope I do not need to reiterate here that the vast majority of Muslims abhor these practices). Likewise, Islam in governance can certainly be regressive, as in Saudi Arabia, which bans women from driving (NB. Where are the government's "legitimate concerns" about this?). But this is certainly not the only form it takes worldwide. Moreover, a simplified understanding of terminology engenders a static understanding of the phenomenon, and ignores the fact that like any other ideology, Islamism is capable of evolution.

It is entirely possible (though of course far too early to say) that this is what we will see in Egypt. As the last 84 years have proven, the Brotherhood is nothing if not adaptable. The Economist reports:

It says fixing Egypt's ailing economy should take priority over promoting Islamic mores. The Brotherhood would probably prefer a centrist alliance that would not frighten foreign powers or alienate Egypt's army, which remains an arbiter of last resort.

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Whatever the outcome, Egypt looks set to join a broader regional trend that has seen a more pragmatic, tolerant form of Islamism rise to dominate the political scene, by way of the ballot box rather than the gun barrel.

Quite apart from the specifics of what is happening in Egypt today (which I will not explore in detail here), the west's relationship with Islamism is a long and complex one. It has defined the post-communism generation, and the way it develops could define the next. Hague writes that:

[Islamist parties'] success is partly a legacy of the refusal of governments to allow the development of meaningful opposition parties in the past. It may also be part of a tendency to vote for groups believed to have done the most to oppose dictatorship and corruption and to offer basic welfare.

To a great extent, this analysis is probably correct, although it ignores the fact that Islamism as a political movement is largely a reaction to the west. It is no coincidence that the Brotherhood was born out of British-ruled Egypt. "Eject imperialism from your souls, and it will leave your lands," said founder Hassan al-Banna.

Continuing to take too simplified a view of the Islamic world (such as it exists) will do nothing but drive it even further away from the west.

As Edward Said wrote in 1980:

So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists.

In the intervening 32 years, very little has changed. Now, with a new political reality in the Middle East, there is the opportunity for a more mature, nuanced understanding of the region, as a shifting entity, a real place with real ideas, rather than a statically fixed comic book villain. There is the opportunity, but is anyone truly optimistic it will happen?

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?