Global Policy Forum

Presidents Who don’t Preside

European summits come and go and American presidential candidates and elected representatives run around like headless chickens, at the mercy of de-regulated markets that they are either unable or unwilling to control. By claiming that “the system has become a cockleshell adrift on the ocean, with a demoted captain shouting orders as the hurricane brews” this article of le Monde Diplomatique confronts world electorates with the uncomfortable reality that if the upcoming election year in France, the US or Russia, to name but a few, does not produce the political will to regain the powers currently held by finance, future elections will become democratic rituals empty of meaning.

By Serge Halimi

Le Monde Diplomatique

January 2012

European summits come and go and the White House and Congress bicker endlessly, to no effect. “The markets” are well aware of this, they see the elected representatives of the American people running round like headless chickens, at the mercy of forces they created but are now unable to control. Yet there will soon be presidential elections in the US, France, Russia and elsewhere. The media are concentrating on these, creating a surreal sense of disconnection between words and action. Ordinary people may not expect the candidates to do much, or anything at all, but they do at least know all about their records, their faults, their friends, associates and networks. The attention is on Barack Obama and Newt Gingrich, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, rather than the hedge funds and credit institutions.

But what use are the candidates? Sarkozy, whose monetary policy reflects the interests of BNP Paribas (1), has accused the British prime minister, David Cameron, of trying to make the UK “an off-shore zone in the heart of Europe”. The German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, angrily attacked “the boundless greed, the quest for ever-increasing profits on the financial markets, which are to blame for the economic and banking crisis we have been facing since 2008, a crisis that has come to affect whole countries” (2). It did not stop him from exposing ruined and penniless European nations to that “boundless greed”. As the Bundesbank president, Jens Weidmann, explained to them: “It would be fatal to completely remove the disciplinary effect of rising interest rates. When credit becomes expensive for states, the appeal of further borrowing sinks” (3). If the most heavily indebted countries cannot control the urge to yield to the “appeal”, or the recession precludes any return to financial balance, or their creditors’ “ever-increasing profits” finally strangle them altogether, the European Union will help, by imposing a fine… Private banks will continue to be given all the credit they ask for, at little or no cost. Thus, they will be able to lend to the indebted states, and make a handsome profit.

The comfortable future lined up for capital doesn’t save it from verbal abuse. This is now the paradox that marks all pre-election periods. Last month Obama warned fellow citizens of threats to social mobility and democracy: “Inequality distorts our democracy. It gives an outsize voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists. … The wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century … Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1%. One per cent!” He also insisted that “the free market has never been a free licence to take whatever you want from whoever you can” and that he considered it essential “to rebuild the middle class”.

No one thinks he will achieve that objective, or reduce the hold that money has on the political system, or impose progressive tax reforms. He has done nothing about these for the past three years and has not said how he means to achieve them if he is re-elected. In this respect, he is a living incarnation of what the system has become: a cockleshell adrift on the ocean, with a demoted captain shouting orders as the hurricane brews. If this election year does not produce the political will and necessary means to regain the powers currently held by finance, all future elections will be to no avail.


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