Well, what a day. I didn’t quite manage to stay up all night last night, but it’s not every day you wake up a spine-tingling speech by a politician who has become a global symbol of hope for better things. Incredible stuff. Can he do it? Yes he can, I really really hope he can.
Today’s result, coupled with the fall-out from the credit crunch, creates a lingering sense of the old order giving way. If Obama’s election feels like a positive manifestation of that shift, my recent attendance of two speeches by current government ministers here feel like rather more negative evidence of some deep changes that are beginning to shake the foundations of politics in this country. After both speeches I was overwhelmed by a sense that the ministers were anchorless, value free, almost apolitical in their views. One was defending a policy despite a growing body of evidence about its stupidity (which he openly acknowledged). The other was only able to defend ‘Labour values’ as the opposite of a Conservative party that she caricatured as Little Englander and anti-equality. Both of them felt lost, unable to speak passionately about values or the society they wanted to live in. I got the feeling that anyone asking either about ideology would be treated to eye-rolling frustration and accused of being hopelessly dated and idealistic.
Both events would count as deeply depressing whatever else was going on, but the economic turmoil combined with the exciting developments in America made them doubly so. There is a real opportunity – right now – to start to describe a world where we care about the future as much as the present (yes you can, Avner Offer!), and where we define ourselves and our relationships to others by so much more than consumption alone (yes you can, Arlie Russell Hochschild!)
I explored these thoughts in a fascinating conversation with D earlier today. We were thinking about the fact that the relationship between the state and the market has probably changed forever. No longer is it possible for government to abdicate responsibility for shaping the market, kneeling at its altar as if it is bigger than any other force. True, many of the old countervailing forces – trade unions, a manufacturing sector – are not there any more to balance the emphasis on financial capital, but the UK government’s action over the credit crunch proves that governments *can* shape markets. And popular opinion – for now, at any rate – seems to imply that people would like them to do so.
This relates to another huge shift – about the relationship between the present and the future. The credit crunch has enabled a debate to open up about whether we have been living in a sustainable way. Of course, many people have been asking this question for years now, but this time, it feels like its part of a much more accessible and popular discussion thanks to the fact that cheap mortgages have connected global developments to everyday life for many people. Jonathan Rutherford has talked of ‘indentured consumption’, and it feels a little like Obama has become a conduit for a collective desire to find a new way of living – a way that is more sustainable, and a way that makes it possible to feel hopeful for our children’s lives as well as our own.
This is heady stuff. I don’t believe that either of the major parties in the UK has yet grasped the opportunities current events present to politics. But today, listening to Obama’s victory speech, gives me hope that they might just take a deep breath and start to talk about the possibility of an alternative future. That would get my vote.