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Saturday, 15 October 2011

Democracy, Debt and Doubt

As the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meet in an autumnal Paris they are all acutely aware of the historical context of the meeting. They have all been briefed on what happened to the global economy in the years from 1929 to 1936, and what were the particular effects of the Great Depression on their own countries.

 The Chinese have studied how the impact of the depression on a country that had notionally been through a democratic revolution, but which had seen only minimal structural change in the economy, was rendered even weaker than before and more susceptible to the imperialist ambitions of Japan. Those ambitions led to one of the most brutal colonialist wars in modern history, and left the unoccupied areas of the vast country prey to warlords. The Japanese withdrawal was followed by a partial Soviet occupation [of Manchuria] and a no-holds-barred civil war in whose aftermath the communists inherited a prostrate economy and a disintegrating civil society; which the new regime began to restructure on doctrinaire lines that represented a 'historial discontinuity'.

Japanese and Russian representatives in Paris knew that the debilitating effect of the depression on the the old industrial countries had left those former 'international policemen' unable to intervene in faraway countries, which were left to pursue whatever policies were selected by their non-representative regimes: Japan decided upon reckless imperial expansion and intensified political oppression at home; while the then-Soviet Union stepped up the incompetent processes of collectivisation of agriculture and overambitious industrial expansion combined with oppression on a gargantuan scale.which left the country in an advanced state of debilitation ahead of the German invasion of 1941.

Germany, France and Italy recall all too clearly that the depression was seen as the context for the consolidation of Mussolini's power in Italy and Hitler's rise to power in Germany. The restoration of national morale in Italy and Germany under the Fascists fostered the hubris that led them into aggressive war; while the absence of such a fillip to French society and the French economy helped to ensure the collapse of France in 1940 and the willing acceptance of their occupiers and of their puppet government by most of the French.

The English-speaking countries all recognise the Great Depression as perhaps the most decisive step in the shift of global economic  pre-eminence from Britain to the USA, which both suffered serious social problems as their economies plunged into the depression. Canada, Australia and New Zealand were forced to increase their autonomy from the 'mother country' during the 'thirties, in the worst of economic circumstances: only to find themselves in 1939 responding to the call to support the British war effort - which they did unstintingly, though  their role in the Second World War proved to be a major step in their maturation as sovereign states. The depression also signalled the coming of the end of the British Raj in India: although the imperial power was able to mobilise the sub-continent for the war, despite the fact that the unsustainability of the regime in the postwar world was evident.

Every other participant in the present Group of 20 'leading nations' has memories of the trauma that affected them in direct consequence of the Great Depression: so they all share a determination to take any sensible steps to prevent any re-run of that cataclysm. But they lack a clear and radical economic perspective from which they could possibly devise any 'magic bullet' solution. The nature of the economic crisis is becoming clearer: its potential political fallout is recognised. But the search for a solution lies in economic policy, and the men and women who have this formidable responsibility are looking for guidance into a soup of discredited economic theory, imperfect statistics and glib back-of-a-fag-packet propositions. They will not find any answer to their dilemma in the resources that are currently available to them..

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