Opportunity knocks for the next economics idol

So there's really no new model for how to run this economy, and nobody's even, I think, thinking about that question, much less an answer."

-Doug Henwood, of Left Business Observer, on The Real News Network

Well, maybe not no one. I was watching a BBC report on the massive French strikes this week against government attempts to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. The BBC reporter looked as frustrated as King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail at these irritating, insulting French types. Surely they must learn to accept hard economic reality. But the placards behind him read, Travailler moins gagner plus -- Work less, earn more -- which I took to mean that you deserve your hard-won right to retire and revitalize your life after decades of often dull, soul-killing work. The line is a play on President Nicolas Sarkozy's slogan, Work more to earn more.

I admit at first I was as shocked as the BBC. Work less -- are they nuts? But they raised an old, crucial question: Does the economy exist for people or do people exist for the economy? That doesn't tell you what to do economically, but it reminds you to examine the direction you want to head, and whether you've wandered seriously off track. People from places with traditions of questioning their ancien régimes -- like France, South Africa or Mozambique, all in the last month -- keep raising those issues.

The policies to get there, however, fall to leaders, experts etc. -- and they're the ones who seem out of ideas. The most prominent critical voices, such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, repeat a few Keynesian notions: stimulus, regulation, more stimulus. The new Austerians, like our own Harper government, want to do even less: back off, cut programs and taxes, and wait for "the American consumer" to start spending again. With what -- the credit cards and housing bubble that precipitated this?

Capitalism has shown great resilience, as it lurched from crisis to crisis. In a way, that's its definition: to lurch resiliently between crises. It would be foolish to say this one is categorically unique. There once was a member of the South African Communist Party known as Comrade-The-Contradictions-Are-Sharpening. And yet, this does seem different, if hard to define. I keep hearing people say: We don't make things any more -- and it has the ring of truth. That didn't just happen. It's the result of deliberate policies over the past 30 years that freed capital to wander the globe and find the cheapest prices for labour or anything else. Among other effects, that undermined the power of unions, which had sustained the earning levels of the middle sectors, providing the tax base for social services. It was a sort of system, no matter what you label it, but it's hard to see how it could be reconstituted now. There's a new (sort of) system in place and no one seemed to worry about how to maintain general prosperity at home under it.

The point is not that this new system will collapse, à la Comrade-The-Contradictions, but that there is an opportunity for "a new model" to emerge. Maybe they should give a big prize or hold a reality TV contest. It was refreshing to hear Fidel Castro this week admit that the Soviet version of communism he built in Cuba didn't work, "even for us." He could be one of the judges. He seems to have an open mind. If Keynes or Marx were around for this round of capitalist calamity, they surely wouldn't be promoting their old agendas any more than Freud or Stanislavsky would, in their fields.

It's an opening, that's all. As Sam Gindin, once the guiding spirit of the Canadian Auto Workers, says: "I don't think you have to convince people that capitalism isn't wonderful. You just have to convince them that there is something they can do about it." Aye, there's the rub...

This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

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