“The financial markets vote daily for, or against, the government of every country and its policies”. That kind of sentiment, which sees the markets as a kind of opinion poll, or even an actual ballot, reflecting the public’s assessment of the government of a given country, used to be widely heard. In the era prior to the crash of 2008 and the subsequent economic crisis, many people believed that the markets did indeed represent a popular assessment of a government’s performance and prospects, at least in the sphere of economic policy. To be truthful, there was a time when I subscribed to that view.
However, we now know that the whole idea of the markets as a quasi-voting mechanism was completely inaccurate, even in the good old days of the great bull market. Today’s markets are far too rigged, by direct and indirect government intervention on a previously unimaginable scale, and by systematic skewing by technologically-advantaged players, to be considered representative of anything. But the markets of the 90’s and the early years of this century did reflect people’s views — just not all the people, or even most of them. Rather, they were like British parliamentary democracy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when only landowners had the vote, so that the country was run by and for the people who literally owned it.
That concept of “shareholder democracy” – promoted by right-wing economic thinkers in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and one which Margaret Thatcher and other leaders of her ilk sought to realize via privatization and other methods of reducing government involvement in the economy – was a more recent version of the old landowner-vote system. Whether Thatcher and her peers actually believed in this concept, or just used it as a political spin, is open to debate. But what is clear is that it didn’t work. Although more people owned shares, either directly or via pension funds and other indirect investment vehicles – thereby becoming minor owners of major corporations – they were unable to impose their views and preferences even on “their” companies, let alone prevent those companies using their growing clout to influence policy, laws and mores in their countries and globally.
The simplest proof of the utter failure of the attempts to create a wider capitalist democracy/ shareholder society is the relentless and seemingly unstoppable rise in the pay and perks of senior executives. The mass of shareholders do not believe that the bosses of most companies are worth even a fraction of what they cost (read: award themselves via crony-filled boards of directors). However, they are unable to prevent this ongoing scandal, and their ‘representatives’ from the investing institutions are unwilling or unable to even try to stop it.
In short, the idea that the financial system, via the markets, represents the general public is utter nonsense. On the contrary, it represents a very small – but increasingly rich and powerful – elite, the “1%” that the Occupy Wall Street movement has identified as the “them”, as opposed to the “99%” that are comprised of us. However, the OWS movement in the US has so far generated little more than hot air. In Europe, on the other hand, those “us vs. them” sentiments are far more powerful and take much more substantive form. In fact, as the crisis deepens and country after country imposes upon itself austerity – meaning that the elite impose austerity on the rest – the idea that the financial system could in any way reflect the will and desires of the general public is absurd.
Against this background, a series of critical European elections opens on Sunday, with the first round of the French presidential elections. The second and decisive round will follow on May 6 – which is also when the Greek people will, at last, be allowed to vote on the future of their country, after it has been effectively conquered and crushed by the European elite, via its key institutions. Later in May, an Irish referendum will determine whether the Irish people are prepared to continue to swallow dose after dose of austerity. In June the French will vote again, this time for representatives to parliament.
These elections are going to be genuine expressions of public opinion, because all classes, groups and areas of societies and countries will participate. They will not be perfect expressions of democracy, for many reasons: because many people won’t vote, because the candidates have not presented their true views or addressed all the burning issues, and so forth. But they are as good as we will get, to find out what the public really thinks and wants.
If it turns out that a large percentage of the public supports candidates and policies that are opposed to the EU, the euro, the neo-liberal capitalist model, and the entire panoply of ideas and policies espoused by the liberal Establishment – and in Greece that will certainly prove the case –that should come as no surprise. On the contrary, it is more than likely that extremist views and candidates will attract considerable support. That is unfortunate, but understandable and inevitable under the circumstances. The alternative is to continue to impose the elite’s agenda on the population, until the people rise in revolt and sweep away the elite – again.