The Books Interview: Andrew Gamble

Could you explain the distinction you draw in The Spectre at the Feast between genuine “crises” of capitalism and mere recessions?
In the past hundred years, there have been two major capitalist crises, one in the 1930s and one in the 1970s. Then there have been a lot of periods of economic difficulty and recession, and sometimes financial crises that haven’t been linked to recession at all – the one in 1987, for example. The notion of a capitalist crisis is best reserved for those periods when much more than just an economic recession is at stake. It’s got as much to do with periods of prolonged political, economic and ideological impasse. And the resolving of it takes several years, and requires important political and ideological shifts to take place. We recognise these periods retrospectively as periods which have reshaped the parameters of political economy.

Are we in the midst of a crisis, in your sense, now?
I think the longer this has gone on, the clearer it is that we are in a crisis. One sign of that is the quite unprecedented measures which central banks and governments have had to take to stop the meltdown of the economy. What is also clear, and this is what makes it a crisis, is that so many of the assumptions on which the previous period of growth was based have been destroyed. So, a return to business as usual looks impossible, though that doesn’t mean there can’t be periods of recovery and growth – there were in the 1930s. The problem is how to get back to sustained growth in the global economy on a stable basis.

How do we do that? Is it a matter simply of returning to the Keynesian consensus of the period between 1945 and 1979?
We can’t do that. We need an imaginative new politics that thinks about new ways in which we can retain some aspects of the individualism that is so prized now in modern society, but at the same time puts greater controls on some of its excesses. But one of the puzzling things about this crisis, in comparison with the 1930s and 1970s, is that at that time there was ideological polarisation – there were very clear alternatives to the crisis on both right and left. In this crisis so far, there has been relatively little intellectual or ideological activity of that kind. And that’s a worry, because it means that alternatives to the status quo are not being properly developed. This is one of the legacies of neoliberalism. It became so dominant and triumphant, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We’ve been living through a time when there haven’t been any serious ideological alternatives proposed. And it does seem very odd that this should persist when events of this magnitude are taking place. There’s a sort of deathly hush on right and left, but it can’t last. There’s a danger of protectionism and populism. With the expenses row, the fragility of the mainstream is very great, and, as we’ve seen, there is an opening for populist parties of the right.

Do you see the scandal over MPs’ expenses as a function of the crisis in some way?
I do. The public reaction is that MPs have behaved in a way that destroys the notion of public service. They have given priority to their own private interests and private comfort, and that sort of individualism is, of course, typical of the era we’ve just lived through. MPs have been representative of the rest of us. But it’s also interesting that older ideas still exist and that people want their representatives to be honourable.

You write that the ambition of neoliberalism was to make every citizen an “independent financial subject”. Does this mean we should regard the current crisis as a political and moral crisis, as well as an economic one?
Yes. And it’s very hard to imagine how we’re going to stop being financialised subjects. Everything about modern society is organised so that we behave in this way. So much of what we value about modern society as individual subjects, the freedom and opportunities that financialisation has given us, all that’s very difficult to unravel, and it’s hard to think of a different way of organising society. That’s why it’s a crisis.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Andrew Gamble is professor of politics at the University of Cambridge
“The Spectre at the Feast: Capitalist Crisis and the Politics of Recession” is published by Palgrave Macmillan (£14.99)