Riots and student protests in the UK, worldwide demonstrations against bankers and capitalism in the bigger advanced economies — it’s all happening. Is there a connecting thread? Undoubtedly. All are markers of a period of quite extraordinary social change.
Until recently, the world’s advanced economies had experienced nearly two decades of the biggest increase in prosperity in the history of mankind. This has been very fortunate for the majority of the population, especially those in the middle classes and above. As British anthropologist, Ernest Gellner, pointed out it in his acclaimed 1997 book, Nationalism, the material improvement in (most) people’s lives creates political and social legitimacy.
Looked at this way, material advancement for the masses — goods, services and experiences — available at high streets, shopping malls and through the internet, is a “universal bribery fund” whereby the social order is maintained — in other words, it takes over from ties of kinship or tribal loyalties in providing social glue. Buying off trouble through consumption, as Gellner also pointed out, is far more effective than the “old method of terror and superstition”, which is still deployed in closed societies like Burma and North Korea (and until recently in Libya, but that’s another story).
Up until 2008 when the banking crisis started to unfold, that is.
Bill Clinton got it spot on when he kept reminding himself of its political significance in the run-up to the 1992 US presidential election in the short, succinct phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In other words, governments in liberal democracies with large middle-class electorates are given power primarily on the basis of their perceived economic competence.
But Gellner went one step further than the former US president; he rightly predicted that modern democracies will be in an awful predicament when the universal bribery fund is not quite so plentiful – ” [when] the cornucopia temporarily dries up or even just slows down, as from time to time in the nature of things it must.”
So, economic growth cannot and should not be taken for granted. It can falter and stutter. When it does governments can lose power very swiftly even if the reasons are beyond its control — lying at an international level (where modern financial instruments and monetary flows create a level of complexity that is difficult for anyone to understand) rather than because of events on the domestic political scene. This is what lies behind the political and social instability of many of the world’s advanced economies — the end, at least for the moment, of a taken-for-granted cornucopia means that political leaders from Barack Obama to Angela Merkel and David Cameron are under considerable pressure to come up with a recipe for growth, while some George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi have been obliged to fall on their swords because they have conspicuously failed to do so.
Commentators differ on what all this means for the countries of North America, Europe and elsewhere. In a recent BBC roundtable discussion , celebrity investment manager Nicola Horlick opined that the advanced economies have reached the limits of their growth potential — they have plateaued in other words, and respective populations will just have to get used to a permanent change in living standards. On the other hand, Will Hutton, chair of the Big Innovation Centre, reckons that current difficulties are a temporary blip, and that the endlessly creative capitalist economies of the US and Europe will renew themselves over the next two decades as well as seeing off the challenge from economies like China.
Whatever the outcome, the big lesson is that economic growth is vital to the maintenance of the social and political order — both nationally and internationally. Even many of the world’s top bankers, traditionally strong adherents of the trickle-down economic theory, have been forced to recognise that normal economic service is not about to resume shortly, and that with the sound of the protestors’ chanting and drumming in their ears it is in their interests that the fruits of growth — the universal bribery fund — should be distributed in such a way that it includes as many people as possible.
Gordon Brown (remember him?) got it right when in a 2006 speech delivered to UN Ambassadors he talked about “a new paradigm that sees economic growth, social justice and environmental care advancing together can become the common sense of our age.” Not quite as snappy or as focused as Bill Clinton’s phrasing – note there are three ingredients rather than one — but it’s not a bad recipe for maintaining stability in complex multicultural societies and a densely interconnected world.
Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton.