Zero-Sum World: Power and Politics

Written by John Cryer MP on 3 January 2011 in Culture
Gideon Rachman's sweeping geopolitical panorama

Gideon Rachman
Atlantic Books, £20

I vividly remember the world of finance during the 1980s as I was, in a way, part of it, working as an insurance underwriter.

This was, as most readers will recognise, the world of the rampant free market, during which Mrs Thatcher led a crusade against what she saw as the sclerotic barriers of an old world: trade unions, the public sector and regulation of virtually any kind. Even those who habitually travelled on buses were told they were losers at one time.

In the world of finance this sentiment was intensified. The big bang, deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation were at their heights. I remember talking to a group of my fellow workers once and asking them where all this might lead, if the wheels might one day come off this free-market juggernaut. My colleagues thought I must be some sort of unreconstructed leftie.

Yet today, millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic have good reason to wonder why governments led us into the economic maelstrom, and a good deal of Gideon Rachman's admirable book deals with the conflicts and forces that took us from the relatively benign world of post-war consensus to where we are today.

It did not seem so at the time, but the cold war world had certainties which are lacking in geopolitics today. There was a clarity in that confrontation between two very different ideologies. That clarity dissolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Rachman clearly shows that the USSR had been rotting from within for decades, and that was what brought about its demise. What he does not make clear is that two of the world's most malign forces - rampant neo-conservatism and the equally rampant fundamentalist Islam - both convinced themselves during the 1990s that their strategy of full-frontal confrontation had brought about the demise of communist Russia.

Nevertheless, this is a superbly written, witty and sometimes picturesque - even picaresque - journey though the modern world. Rachman sometimes comes up with genuinely eye-catching insights. For instance, he says that the antiglobalisation protestors of Seattle were superseded by "a more violent, ruthless and radical rejectionist movement" that we now call al-Qaida.

I found the chapters - of which there are many - dealing with Britain and the US particularly fascinating. Rachman is a balanced writer, choosing words with care and precision, yet he comes close to savagery in his comments about the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. If any single person helped to promote the free-market greed and irresponsibility that led to the banking collapse, one might well say that person was Greenspan.

‘Sir' Alan (he apparently has an honorary knighthood) was a fervent believer in markets. It alarmed me that he turned out to be a devoted friend and admirer of the bonkers libertarian, Ayn Rand. That explains a thing or two.

Interestingly, when Greenspan appeared before Congress he was asked by Congressman Henry Waxman whether he "found that your view of the world, [his] ideology, was not right. It was not working". The former chairman had the grace to say: "Precisely."

Regardless, the author finds much to admire in the US, and justifiably so. Despite the horrors of Iraq, Vietnam and Chile, to name but a few global conflicts, the US has at times been progressive. It also has the strange capacity to throw up genuinely interesting political figures you simply would not fi nd in other nations: Lyndon B Johnson (noted for his domestic policies), the Roosevelts (I am thinking of both Eleanor and FDR), Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.

The final third of the book is titled The Age of Anxiety. To a large extent, this refers to a US that faces challenges from China and Russia, both countries that are far from being in the front rank in their devotion to democracy. The decline of the US's economic might has produced thousands, even millions, of tragedies. Nothing encapsulates this more strikingly than the story of Detroit: the world-renowned motor city which produced Motown Records, an American institution which caught the mood of post-war prosperity and optimism; a city which drew tens of thousands of poor black workers from the south in a successful search for a better life.

The same Detroit is now full of crumbling factories and gargantuan levels of unemployment. Yet, as Rachman says at the very end of the book: "Eighty years after the Great Depression, a strong, successful and confident America remains the best hope for a stable and prosperous world." One could add the hope that such an America will be that of the tolerant and liberal ideals of Obama and Clinton rather than the cynicism and reaction of Bush.

John Cryer is the Labour MP for Leyton and Wanstead

Tags: Gideon Rachman, Issue 31, John Cryer

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