The disaster we have yet to face

Jacques Attali finds disturbing similarities between the financial tsunami and the climate crisis we

A good chess player plays several moves in advance. Today, it is important to anticipate the path of the current financial crisis and ensure that what has begun does not become even more brutal in 20 years' time.

But it is even more important to ask ourselves what the economic crisis reveals about our ability to control all our tsunamis, financial and otherwise. Foremost is the worst imaginable tsunami: an uncontrollable disruption of climate leading to panic and instability of the kind we are currently experiencing.

For the stakes of such a climate crisis are high. The current financial tsunami will, at worst, provoke a major recession, whereas a climatic tsunami will, at worst, destroy humanity. Am I exaggerating? No. First, the data: the cost of the ecological impact of CO2 emissions from countries in the Northern Hemisphere from these "toxic products" - to employ a phrase that has been used to describe financial derivatives - has been put at $3trn, perhaps more than the losses that will arise from the financial crisis. This ecological impact will only grow, and with it the effect on temperatures, on oceans, on glaciers, on storms.

If climate instability accelerates as quickly as the financial crisis has unfurled, if we discover, as in the case of the economy, that not only is there no pilot in the aeroplane, but there is not even a pilot's cabin, then at a certain point the trends could become irreversible. We could even find ourselves in a situation where the global increases in temperature are final and where no human action can prevent the poles from melting, the deserts from growing, the sea level from rising, or hurricanes from becoming more numerous and more powerful.

Then, species of animals would disappear, life under the sea would become almost impossible, hundreds of millions of people would be forced to move, to flee deserts and coastlines, without knowing where to go. The temperature could rise so high, beyond the 4, 6, 8 degrees of which the most pessimistic hypotheses currently speak, that vast areas of the planet would become uninhabitable. Natural phenomena could disturb underwater deposits, leading to a huge release of methane into the atmosphere, asphyxiating humanity. Even the best-informed and richest would be unable to act or find refuge.

It would then be too late to lament that we hadn't listened to those who warned us, or to regret not having acted when there was still time. It would be too late to regret not having taken modest, sustainable measures that would have been enough to reverse the trends and to inaugurate a formidable period of growth based on simple available technologies that would have helped us to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

It may be an extreme hypothesis. But it is no more extreme than the hypothesis made by many economic experts in recent years, that a sub-prime crisis would lead to a general loss of control over financial derivatives - toxic or not - and to the total breakdown of interbank lending; to the weakening of hedge funds, of businesses, of nations and to the huge, lasting and uncontrollable global depression that now threatens.

In both cases, we find ourselves confronted by collective intelligence. Market economics is a sort of golem, or clay creature, without intent, capable of benefiting humanity, but also of destroying everything in its path because it has no concept of ethics. As with every golem, now may be the time to engage our brains, and our sense of good and evil in order to master it, before it escapes us.

Jacques Attali is a former president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

Translated by Daniel Trilling

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times