In yesterday's Guardian, Jonathan Freedland argued that "nearly all our key institutions have lost trust" - banks, politicians, the police, the press. He concluded that "Labour has to voice this anger", or it will find an outlet outside of democratic politics, with potentially dangerous consequences.
I couldn't really disagree with any of this, but it left me feeling impatient and dissatisfied. Surely 'people are angry and don't trust authority figures' isn't news? The problem is that, as Freedland acknowledges midway through the piece, "the clear alternative ideologies around which collective rage cohered in, say, the 1930s are absent now". He mentions this as if in passing, but surely it's the crux of the problem? It's not enough for Labour to rant and rave so we all feel that they share our anger. Indeed, it seems odd to fault them for failing to do that - they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it from where I'm standing. What they're not really doing is offering an alternative.
They're not alone in this. I've just (finally) finished reading Robert Skidelsky's 'Keynes: The Return of the Master', and one of the things that really struck a chord with me was its observation that the financial crisis has revealed "an ideological and theoretical vacuum where the challenge from the left used to be: capitalism no longer has a global antagonist". Over the last four years, the feeling that capitalism is basically imploding has only intensified, as we lurch from sub-prime crisis to sovereign debt crisis to LIBOR scandal, all the while with rewards at the top continuing to soar even as austerity bites. Yet the result has been business as usual - and, worse, a swing to the right, with the Tories pulling off an amazing sleight of hand in pinning the blame for the markets' mess on profligate public spending.
Basically, it's not enough to point out that people are angry and tell politicians to hop on the anger bandwagon. What's really going to save democratic politics is a clear alternative to neoliberal ideology. At the moment, that just doesn't seem to be forthcoming. Yes, Skidelsky and others have made a powerful case against austerity. But, vital thought that is, it's fighting an intellectual rearguard action. What's missing is a clear and compelling vision of what the economy ought to look like, and how we can get it there. And that's where the left needs to be focussing its intellectual energies.