The 20th century is well behind us, but we have not yet learned to live in the 21st, or at least to think in a way that fits it. That should not be as difficult as it seems, because the basic idea that dominated economics and politics in the last century has patently disappeared down the plughole of history. This was the way of thinking about modern industrial economies, or for that matter any economies, in terms of two mutually exclusive opposites: capitalism or socialism.
We have lived through two practical attempts to realise these in their pure form: the centrally state-planned economies of the Soviet type and the totally unrestricted and uncontrolled free-market capitalist economy. The first broke down in the 1980s, and the European communist political systems with it. The second is breaking down before our eyes in the greatest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s. In some ways it is a greater crisis than in the 1930s, because the globalisation of the economy was not then as far advanced as it is today, and the crisis did not affect the planned economy of the Soviet Union. We don’t yet know how grave and lasting the consequences of the present world crisis will be, but they certainly mark the end of the sort of free-market capitalism that captured the world and its governments in the years since Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan.
Impotence therefore faces both those who believe in what amounts to a pure, stateless, market capitalism, a sort of international bourgeois anarchism, and those who believe in a planned socialism uncontaminated by private profit-seeking. Both are bankrupt. The future, like the present and the past, belongs to mixed economies in which public and private are braided together in one way or another. But how? That is the problem for everybody today, but especially for people on the left.
Nobody seriously thinks of returning to the socialist systems of the Soviet type – not only because of their political faults, but also because of the increasing sluggishness and inefficiency of their economies – though this should not lead us to underestimate their impressive social and educational achievements. On the other hand, until the global free market imploded last year, even the social-democratic or other moderate left parties in the rich countries of northern capitalism and Australasia had committed themselves more and more to the success of free-market capitalism. Indeed, between the fall of the USSR and now I can think of no such party or leader denouncing capitalism as unacceptable. None were more committed to it than New Labour. In their economic policies both Tony Blair and (until October 2008) Gordon Brown could be described without real exaggeration as Thatcher in trousers. The same is true of the Democratic party in the US.