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An epoch of excess?

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Mark Easton | 17:31 UK time, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

tom_wolfe226pa.jpgTwo years ago, on an upbeat floor of the New York Stock Exchange, American writer and journalist Tom Wolfe was asked what he made of it all. He paused and said: "We may be witnessing the end of capitalism as we know it."

He has subsequently said that he didn't expect anyone to take him seriously, but there are some who now regard him as a prophet of gloom.

Those who predict that, economically speaking, "the end of the world is nigh" are no longer dismissed as misguided oddballs. Indeed, there seems to be some consensus that we have now witnessed "the end of capitalism as we know it".

Conservative leader David Cameron said in a speech today: "when they look at capitalism today too many people see markets without morality, and that's what's got to change". He added that "we need capitalism with a conscience".

Former Labour Minister Alan Milburn, also in a speech today, echoed the sentiment. "Unfettered markets didn't deliver. Regulation didn't work. And greed produced gluttony which in turn has given the world a deep and painful bout of indigestion."

Wolfe's "Master of the Universe", the multi-millionaire Wall Street trader Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities, now epitomises the source of global economic strife.

It is striking that Mr Milburn, the champion of Blairite market-driven public services, should feel the need to defend capitalist structures.

"Those licking their lips at the prospect of an end to market capitalism - as distinct from an end to this particular form of unbridled financial markets - are gorging on a beast that still has life in it", he said this afternoon.

David Cameron argues the same point. "People don't want to abandon markets, they want us to reform markets so they work properly," he said this morning.

Is it a tweak to an engine that is misfiring slightly, or has the big end gone? Do people believe the machine needs retuning... or redesigning?

Reading Gordon Brown's thoughts on the global crisis last week, I was reminded of Tony Blair's memorable phrase after 9/11: "the kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux". In his foreword to the Public Services White paper, Mr Brown wrote:

Times of profound change are often the catalyst for fundamental revaluations in how we think and act. The present financial crisis is changing the way governments serve the public: forcing us to reflect anew on the role of the state in a truly global age.

Al-Qaeda attempted to weaken Western capitalism with terror. But in the end, it was far more threatened by its own greed and, as both Messrs Cameron and Brown put it, its lack of morals.

The prime minister puts it this way: "Both state and market must be underpinned by the ethics of opportunity and responsibility, and thus the question is not whether markets tame government or vice versa: the question is how we tame both with an ethic of fairness and duty."

meltdown226.jpgNext month, at the G20 meeting in London's Docklands, we are told that "known activists" are "plotting a series of demonstrations". Anarchists and environmentalists are "re-emerging and forming new alliances", according to Cdr Bob Broadhurst at Scotland Yard.

But how different is the rhetoric of "G20 Meltdown" from that of mainstream politicians?

"Capitalism has been heating up our world for years, melting the icecaps, burning up the rainforests, pushing the planet to tipping point", the protesters claim. "Now we're going to put the heat on them.

"Their tax-dodging, bonus-guzzling, pension-pinching, unregulated free market world's in meltdown, and those fools think we're going to bail them out. They've gotta be joking!"

This argument can no longer be dismissed as a fringe manifesto from the usual suspects. What Alan Milburn describes as an "epoch of excess" is to be discussed by the Archbishop of Canterbury among others at a Guardian debate next Monday. The flyer says that the expert panel will discuss whether "a devotion to the free-market model has weakened community ties, created a moral vacuum and left us more vulnerable to the recession".

The former speech writer for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Peggy Noonan, has been reflecting on public reaction to the downturn in the United States. Last week in her column in the Wall Street Journal, she wrote this:

People sense something slipping away, a world receding, not only an economic one but a world of old structures, old ways and assumptions.

And the previous month she was even more portentous:

This isn't like the stock market crash of 1987 or the collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2001. People are not feeling passing anger or disappointment, they're feeling truly frightened.
The reasons:
This isn't stock market heebie-jeebies, it's systemic collapse. It's not just here, it's global.
It's not only economic, but political. It wasn't only mortgage companies that acted up and acted out, so did our government, all the governments of the West, spending what they didn't have, for a decade at least.

Forty years ago, Joni Mitchell's anthem for the Woodstock festival described how "we've got to get ourselves back to the garden".

There was a powerful sense of society restructuring itself around the participants - a feeling that the "kaleidoscope has been shaken".

As I read of a Woodstock revival this year, apparently "free and totally green" in contrast to the consumerist events of 1994 and 1999, I recall another few lines from Mitchell's song:

I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it's the time of man.


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