Politics, we are regularly told, is the art of the possible. It’s an old truism designed to sort the dreamers from the doers, to marginalise the idealists and elevate the ‘sensible’.
What’s less often pointed out is that politics is also the art of defining the possible. What is inconceivable today may be tomorrow’s commonsense. Sometimes this is a gradual process, as with the protracted battles for women’s rights and gay rights. Sometimes a consensus may take just a few years to crumble, as happened with support for austerity in the UK between 2015 and 2017. In the latter example, the national mood would not have shifted without the pressure of leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, outliers who refused to accept that there was no alternative to ruinous cuts.
In times of crisis, the timeline is shortened even further, old shibboleths hurriedly discarded under the pressure of reality. We are currently witnessing this take place before our eyes, as the Coronavirus pandemic exposes the weaknesses of a global capitalist system ill-equipped to prioritise human health over profit. In the UK and the USA, right-wing governments accustomed to telling their populations they cannot afford to pay for high-quality, universal public services are now spending eye-watering sums on emergency measures intended to prevent the total collapse of their economies.
Talk of ‘magic money trees’ is suddenly conspicuous by its absence. The old pretence that a national economy is analogous to that of a household, and that you can only spend what you have saved, has collapsed. And ideas so recently dismissed as utopian — housing all rough sleepers, for example, or paying everyone a basic income — are either being implemented or seriously considered.
This broadening of the political horizon is a welcome silver-lining at a moment of mourning, fear and uncertainty around the world. After all, the existential threat posed by the climate crisis means we have never needed a more urgent tearing up of the rulebook. Once the coronavirus pandemic passes, socialists and environmentalists will have to fight the reactionary impulse of world leaders to return to a disastrous ‘normal’.
We have now seen what it really means to respond to an emergency — and it makes a mockery of the ‘climate emergency’ declared by Parliament last year. If the Chancellor can pledge billions of pounds to protect businesses, he can do it to protect our environment. If Treasury officials can, in a matter of weeks, set up a Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, they can finance a mass programme of home insulation as part of a Green New Deal. The genie is out of the bottle. All that is needed is the political will.
Moments like this, with the future suddenly up for grabs, are fleeting. After the banking crisis of 2008, capitalists were briefly humbled and a window for change opened. But the left failed to seize the opportunity, the window closed, and a decade of austerity followed. This time, let’s make sure it is the many not the few who define the possible.
by Jackson Caines, Vice Chair (Campaigns) of Islington North CLP