Democracy & the Great Recession

John Keane

Eighteen months into the deepest economic slump since the Great Depression of the 1930s, one thing is abundantly clear: the world economy is once more suffering the incalculable shock effects of a massive market failure.

The bursting of the global credit bubble, predictably, is paralysing virtually all market sectors in most countries, even those (like Japan) that took earlier measures to fit 'bank proof' shock absorbers to their economies.

Governments have been dazed by the scale of corporate debt issuance and 'securitisation' - the risky bundling of debts on such things as mortgages and credit cards. Panicked reactions and contradictory stopgap measures are multiplying.

Trying to calm jitters, the International Monetary Fund's Dominique Strauss-Kahn has recently pronounced that the world faces a 'great recession'.

Suddenly, as if through overnight conversion, politicians rail against 'greedy' bankers and corporate fat cats. Moralists are out in force and talk of victories against banks by 'people power' (John Prescott, former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) is having a field day. Scapegoats - Bernard Madoff, Sir Allen Stanford, John Thain - have become household names. So have words like 'bail out', 'toxic debt' and 'rescue packages'.

"To the extent that democratic institutions have failed to live up to their own standards of citizen equity we can speak of democracy failure. But there is a more troubling sense in which countries such as Britain and the United States have suffered democracy failure."

Of significance - Obama's 2009 budget points in this direction - is the appearance of first-stab efforts to formulate redistributive policies that protect citizens against unemployment, loss of savings, deteriorating public infrastructure and other effects of the bursting bubble.

Such moves against the old free market consensus resemble slamming shut the gates after the horse called Equality has bolted. Among the documented effects of the credit bubble is that most democracies experienced a 30-year widening of income and wealth inequality.

The whole trend - toward hour-glass shaped societies - has been bad for democracy. It has spawned an underclass. Middle-class people were deluded into thinking they were growing richer by the day. The spirit of solidarity so necessary for citizenship was corroded by market selfishness.

The present bursting bubble is deepening these undemocratic trends. In poor countries, according to the World Bank, only a quarter of governments have the resources to cushion their citizens against the great recession; net capital flows in their direction have fallen to less than a fifth of the level two years ago.

In richer countries, where 'de-leveraging' is rife, mortgage defaults among the poor are rising. Private wealth levels are plummeting (the Asian Development Bank has estimated that the equivalent of a year's global economic output has so far been lost in financial assets alone).

Pension funds are threatened; in Britain alone an estimated 90 per cent of final-salary schemes are technically now under-funded. As companies slash dividends, preserve cash and reduce employment, trade unions find themselves challenged. Bank bailouts and other mega-forms of government intervention are sharpening the sense of many citizens that while the rich get billions the people get pennies.

Then there is the most worrying threat to equality posed by the bust: that when the huge rescue package bills are finally presented, governments will try to rebalance public finances through spending cuts and increased taxes that have further socially regressive effects.

Hence the searching question posed recently by Richard Bruton, the Finance spokesperson for Ireland's opposition Fine Gael party: 'The banks bailed out the developers, the government then bailed out the banks, today the taxpayer is being asked to bail out the government once again. The question I ask is: who is going to bail out the taxpayer?'

To the extent that democratic institutions have failed to live up to their own standards of citizen equity we can speak of democracy failure. But there is a more troubling sense in which countries such as Britain and the United States have suffered democracy failure.

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