As Hollywood unleashes its remarkable hybrid cartoon-and-real-life-actors version of Tintin, we learn that the quiffed-up, intrepid and dog-loving Belgian reporter’s first, unpublished, outing was in fact an adventure in Bolshevik Russia. Hergé was apparently worried that he might have characterised post-revolutionary Russia as being too harsh and inhuman. Not so, according to some descendants of the régime’s victims. Tintin’s jaundiced view was “broadly accurate”.
The initial years after 1917 were unremittingly cruel and inhuman. It didn’t exactly get better under Stalin. Collectivisation of the farms alone accounted for millions of deaths. The Bolsheviks were of course themselves replacing an inhuman and cruel system. The revolution didn’t happen because everyone was contented and well looked-after under the Czars. The capitalist system that we are now told has triumphed finally and insuperably since the end of the cold war, has itself been largely built first on the profits accruing from the European enslavement of African peoples, and subsequently on the unremitting exploitation of the labour of Europe’s own working class.
Until this latest crisis, the extraordinary productivity of capitalism has enabled the labour on which it depends to be bought off with steadily increasing living standards, subsidised by the cheaper labour of the developing world. But even this cheap labour pool is being relatively enriched. Despite the appalling consequences both environmentally and in the human price paid by workers, from the victims of Bhopal to poisoned agricultural labourers, it is still possible for the proponents of capitalism to excuse their own obscene riches by pointing to the drips of enrichment that trickle down to the world’s poor. Indeed, not only possible but also enthusiastically undertaken and embraced.
Until this latest crisis? It’s early days of course, but the austerity now being visited on many Europeans, as the contagion of sovereign debt financed by private capital moves seemingly irresistibly from Greece, to Italy, now perhaps to Spain and even France, is creating a radical discontinuity from the course of Western capitalism to this point. As I wrote here recently, so far from capitalism gradually increasing the wealth of the average Greek, it now presides over a sudden halving of their prosperity. It remains to be seen whether such austerity is politically deliverable.
And so, across the developed world, we see the first stuttering glimmers of resistance. The occupiers of Wall Street, the London Stock Exchange, and so many other symbols of capitalism, may be easily ridiculed as having no coherent programme, no manifesto, and obsessed more by the eschewing of leadership and the insistence on deciding everything by a kind of plebiscite than they are by political organisation, but they are beginning to question the hands that have fed them. That is an important matter, and I suspect more important than whether St Paul’s Cathedral has closed its west doors for the first time since the blitz. How we love to alight on the dramatic but irrelevant detail.
But if this is indeed the beginning of something, it will inevitably have, eventually, to progress from cosy protest to political movement, with all the associated challenges of answering the question that’s thus far a very long way from being answered: if not capitalism, what?
Not, Tintin belatedly reminds us, the kind of economic planning that disfigured the communist revolutions of the last century. Markets clearly do not always work in the self-correcting and naturally “intelligent” way that the free marketeers would have us believe, but replacing the markets with a centralised bureaucracy has proven itself to be worse, not better, for the mass of the people. If no markets won’t work, and a radically free market doesn’t work, then some sort of constrained market is the only remaining option. The task of agreeing those constraints, making them democratically accountable, pitching the balance between freedom and constraint in the right place, is both urgent, and mind-blowingly complex and conflicted. But it’s the task that we should be addressing. For all their naivety, and all their fragility, the current protests might yet be where the seeds of a new order are being sown.