The form of capitalism we are living under today is defective and it's wrecking everything generations have achieved. If it goes on for three more decades we will be unrecognisable. Something must happen, but what?"
So said Tariq Ali on Saturday at Conway Hall as it hosted the Hazlitt Society's annual memorial lecture.
Ali was this year's speaker – at 67 one of England's grandest and yet most public-friendly intellectuals, he is usually to be found debating in town halls or bookshops, on Newsnight or Al Jazeera.
He used the occasion to ask the question now on many people's minds: as bankers and politicians frogmarch us into financial catastrophe, and armed police are turned on angry, rioting citizens: "Is Capitalism a Threat to Democracy?"
Ali was a canny choice for the lecture and not only because his question is the right one to be asking at this time. He has much in common with William Hazlitt, the early 19th-century writer of "embattled and paradoxical" essays who was also something of an outsider, neither Whig nor Tory but a restless man with strong convictions and various talents.
Like Ali, he lived by his wits, without sinecure, and the radical tradition he laid claim to – "the good old cause" he called it, meaning the dream of a democratic republic and the ongoing struggle against superstition and unthinking convention – is one the two men share.
In an introductory talk, Paul Hamilton, professor of English at Queen Mary University, delineated this tradition, rooted in the Glorious Revolution and the subversive writing of John Milton, revived again with the hopes of the French Revolution and the Romantic poets, but squashed by its failures and the European settlement after the fall of Napoleon when Europe was reconstructed under monarchies, leaving its people, Hazlitt thought, "like wretches in a slave ship".
As Hazlitt looked to history to explain the spirit of his age, so Ali argued that in order to understand the crisis now engulfing us we must consider the ideological battles that brought us here.
He began by attacking the received view that capitalism and democracy are inextricably linked, reminding us that democracy is not a by-product of the economic system but something that was hard-fought for in a struggle from below.
It took three revolutions, the English, the French and the Russian before universal suffrage was attained. Prior to this, as Hazlitt observed, monarchs ruled regardless of the people's will, with only the "authority of the skies".
After the Russian Revolution, with the rise of the trade union movement and labour and socialist parties in Europe, the elite were compelled to permit "all reforms possible" within the system for fear of revolution spreading. From 1919 to the 1970s an unprecedented series of democratic advances ensured a higher standard of living for the bulk of working people. Health and education systems were largely subsidised by the state and this social contract staved off the threat of revolt.
But in the 1980s and 1990s a counter-revolution took place. The orthodoxy became "only the discipline of the market is acceptable"; so the market was allowed to run its course unhampered by regulation.
Privatisation took place in America and in most of Europe regardless of what people wanted.
In Britain, for instance, the transfer of the railways into private hands was opposed by 75 per cent of the population.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Wall Street declared that capitalism had won the war of ideas: there was no need for further social reform, resistance now was negligible. By the time of the Iraq war disregard of the people had become "nearly universal". Despite some of the largest mass gatherings on record, with millions protesting in London, New York, Rome and Madrid, war went ahead anyway.
The effect of this was to create an overwhelming sense of demoralisation and alienation from the political process.
For a long time bitterness and cynicism was internalised in a "nothing we can do" attitude.
When the banking system collapsed in 2008 and it was bailed out to the tune of millions of dollars globally there was little organised opposition. Democracy was so whittled-down that all parties agreed on the same course of action. "Today," Ali observed wryly, "Labour behaves as if it too were in the coalition."
The scenario painted by Ali might seem like one of powerlessness and defeat but his was not a counsel of despair. Who, after all, had predicted the Arab Uprisings? "The battle for democracy is still being fought.read more