We've heard the bankers' stories. The economists have had their say. But what do the opponents of capitalism make of the global financial crisis? Is this the moment they have been waiting for? Stephen Moss and Jon Henley ask high-profile leftwingers for their views on the meltdown - and whether any good can come of it
Daniel Cohn-BenditStudent leader in Paris, 1968
This financial crisis is for capitalist neo-liberals what Chernobyl was for the nuclear lobby. It's a catastrophe. I hope we all learn lessons from it. But am I optimistic that we will? That's another question. To think that the biggest neo-liberal nation in the world would start nationalising banks ... we're rubbing our eyes in disbelief.
It's not the end of capitalism because capitalism has always had the intelligence to reform itself. It will be the end of capitalism when it's incapable of reforming. However, the belief that the market is god is over. It must now be regulated.
We fought for 20 years to bring attention to climate change. It took us a while, but we were right. This crisis will help us in our arguments for sustainable development - that we need a balance between the environment, society and the economy - but I get no joy from it; it saddens me deeply. Ordinary people lose everything, while the big bankers themselves walk away with millions.
· Daniel Cohn-Bendit was leader of the May 1968 student protests in Paris, when he was known as 'Danny the Red'; he is now a green MP
It's really nice seeing capitalism getting its comeuppance. It had gone too far: I think most people can understand capitalism when it's about companies that make real products, but when it's about organisations that just make money ... that's abstract capitalism, it's beyond most ordinary people - and I include myself among them. I mean, you see the FTSE index, or whatever, running along the bottom of the TV screen and generally it just doesn't impinge at all on the way you live your life, and then suddenly you're told your life is going to take a nosedive. Who understands that?
The truly sad thing is that all this is taking place with a so-called Labour government in power, a government that should have the interests of the majority at heart, but has instead played the role of a pimp.
Maybe a bit of a recession will do us some good. A lot of people have been living beyond their means. We've all done it, I've done it: you feel a bit depressed, you go and buy something. People might now actually talk to each other a bit more, make their own entertainment, all those other great northern cliches. The tragedy is that it will be the ordinary people who will bear the brunt. The guys who are responsible may have to sell the yacht.
Salma YaqoobBirmingham City councillor
This crisis opens up possibilities for alternative economic models as the wheels come off this one, but I'm worried about the immediate social consequences. A leaked report from the Home Office a couple of weeks ago referred to a rise in racism and social tensions. My concern is that we'll now see some ugly racist scapegoating as politicians try to pass the buck.
When the markets were being treated as gods, we were always being promised that there'd be a trickle-down of prosperity. But all that's trickled down has been a greed-is-good philosophy. The consequence is a more unequal, self-centred, crueller Britain. It's important that we should reflect on the kind of society we've become, but also on the kind of society we want to be. Recently, Unicef reported that Britain's children are the unhappiest in Europe, and I think that is not unconnected to an economic climate that forces parents to work longer and longer hours. We hear a lot of talk about youth and gangs and guns; what we don't talk about are the economic policies that would allow families to nurture each other and make young people feel valued.
The very people for whom it was a sacred othodoxy that there should be no government intervention are now coming to the government on their hands and knees begging for assistance. But what about the government intervening on behalf of ordinary people? Why not do something literally concrete on the ground and start building cheaper social housing? Why not put people at the centre of things?
· Salma Yaqoob is a Birmingham councillor and vice-chair of the Respect party
Ken LivingstoneFormer Mayor of London
Sadly, I don't think this will be the end of capitalism. But there is going to have to be a return to a much, much more interventionist state. As a system for the distribution and exchange of goods, you can't beat the market. But the mistake a lot of politicians have made is to think that because the market was good at that, it could be good at everything: it could train workers, create infrastructure, protect the environment, regulate itself. Quite obviously, it can't.
So the real issue is, what sort of international structures do we need to ensure this never happens again? Thatcher and Reagan deregulated massively and let the financial markets do as they liked - and they've turned into one bloody great big rip-off. The good news is, there'll now be a realisation - even George Bush sees this now - that we need international regulatory mechanisms that will ensure, for example, that these people and operations actually pay tax. There'll be a realisation in Britain that while it's certainly useful to host a world financial centre, it has to rest on a solid, genuinely productive real economy. In China now they make things; we've decided we're not interested in that.
Bob and Roberta SmithArtist
Yesterday, at the same time as Lehman Brothers went belly up and Merrill Lynch was bailed out, Damien Hirst made £70m. This tells us that capitalism is not dead. The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer - and in the evening, the rich went to an art sale and spent the small change in their pockets. This crisis is kind of like the capitalist cat shifting on its cushion.
I don't buy the romanticism of the left: you can't kill capitalism, trade is how people operate. But I do think the left's analysis has to be coruscating and hard. The number-crunching, the smokescreens, that particular flavour of snake oil has to be finished; this has to be about real people now. There should be no self-congratulation, no, "Oh good, they're getting their comeuppance," because behind every banker there are ordinary people in bigger trouble.
· Bob and Roberta Smith is the pseudonym of artist Patrick Brill
Caroline LucasGreen MEP
This is a defining moment; the end of the kind of unbridled, deregulated capitalism of the past few decades. We are going to have to return finance to its role as servant rather than master of the global economy, and we're going to have to break up financial institutions into smaller units: mega-banks make mega-mistakes that affect us all.
The way forward is the Green New Deal [co-formulated by, among others, Caroline Lucas and Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott]. We have to tackle a triple global crunch. In the face of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, we're going to have to re-regulate finance and taxation, clamp down on tax havens, split retail banking from merchant banking and securities trading. In the face of accelerating climate change, we have to face up to global warming. And in the face of an oil-price crisis, we're going to have to find the solutions to encroaching peak oil.
The situation we're in now is an opportunity, although it remains an enormous threat also. It's the chance for us to move forward in a way that's sustainable economically and environmentally. This is about real people and real jobs, right now. I really wish we'd managed to get that message through before it happened.
Ken LoachFilm director
This is further evidence, if any were needed, of the fact that the market is not and never can be the answer. (The need to pursue illegal wars is pretty strong evidence too, of course.) You look around the world and you see massive need on the one hand, and massive wealth on the other, and the two never connect. The market is massively inefficient, capitalism is massively unstable and turbulent, and it's insane that we are all bound to this terrible wheel of instability.
The real left is making a lot of noise about this. There'll be a convention of the left during the Labour party conference, all the shades of genuine leftwing opinion, and we'll be hammering all these questions out from a socialist perspective. But if the papers and the broadcasters fail to record it, it's very difficult for these ideas to penetrate the public consciousness. The media just turns a deaf ear; it chooses not to hear it. It's a lot more interested in the careerism of whoever's after Gordon Brown's job.
Will this be a defining moment for the left? It should be, of course but it's very difficult to be optimistic given our history of failure. The war against Iraq was a massive opportunity to create a coherent anti-capitalist movement, to find a real socialist alternative, and we let it slip through our fingers. This is another such opportunity, and we must not let it go.
Is this the end of capitalism? Absolutely not. The key feature of capitalism is that it's malleable. It has been through antiquity, feudalism, the industrial era, it has worn the guise of fascism and now it's wedding itself to the ecology cause. After this latest event, it will take on a new form. It is indestructible and works like the Hydra of Lerne, cut off one head and another grows in its place. Is this the end of society's obsession with money and credit? Not at all.
Chris HarmanSocialist Workers Party
This is a very, very serious crisis of capitalism: it has been the build-up of private borrowing that has kept the system going, and it's coming unstuck. The whole system is unwinding; the other day we saw the biggest nationalisation in the history of humanity and that still wasn't enough. Governments don't know what to do, and it's the rest of us who have to live with the consequences. The Labour party is offering no alternative, the Lib Dems are offering no alternative, the Conservatives are offering no alternative.
This could be a big moment for the left. But we really need to stand up and use the "c" word, say this is a crisis of capitalism and that people are suffering. The thing is, all the media coverage yesterday was of the bankers leaving Lehman Brothers with their boxes, but the people who will really be hit are the cleaners, the secretaries - what did we see of them? We have to build resistance. Because so far we've only seen the minor problems; people stuck in foreign airports or having a bit of trouble getting a job. Things are going to get much, much worse.
· Chris Harman is the editor of International Socialism (SWP)
George MonbiotGreen campaigner
It's only in times of crisis that people are prepared to contemplate taking to the streets. It was noticeable that there were a lot more protests - against road developments, for instance, and against the Criminal Justice Act and other infringements of civil rights - in the wake of the 1991 recession than there were in the mid-90s, when people were feeling richer. Some people, faced with recession, tend to hunker down, but others confront the government and demand a better deal, and that gives the left hope.
A Keynesian solution along the lines of Roosevelt's New Deal could deliver many of the things that the left is calling for - more public spending, more training and education. I'm particularly interested in the idea of a green new deal, which would employ large numbers of people to insulate homes and carry out major environmental works. Remember that the central plank in the New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed three million people.
It is striking that the left has been slow to capitalise on the situation. There is now a good opportunity to build a common front between trade unions, disillusioned labour voters, greens and people who feel that their economic position is slipping.
· George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist
Max KeiserFormer broker
This is not a blip. It's extremely significant. We will see a shift in power away from the US, and towards the developing world - to countries such as Brazil and the Gulf states that have commodities to sell, and to China, where the savings ratio is high. We are going to see a new world order. America as a driver of the global economy is finished.
The left has nothing to say about any of this. And because the left has no economic programme, we will see the rise of social unrest. We are already seeing it in the US. The left has no real response to that either.
· Max Keiser is a former broker, and presenter of The Truth About Markets on Resonance FM
Tony BennFormer Labour minister
I remember the 1930s. What the Depression did then was to stimulate antisemitism. I met Oswald Mosley in 1928 when he was a Labour MP. The next time I met him he was wearing a blackshirt. Where there is fear, there is scapegoating, and that is very dangerous.
Blair and Brown based their politics on a belief in the market: the market answered all your needs and the state had to be kept out. That confidence has now collapsed and New Labour is seen for what it is. You can't, as New Labour believed, nurse capitalism.
I believe a new labour movement will emerge from this with a more realistic sense of how capitalism works. There is a left convention at this year's Labour conference, a sort of parallel conference. This year's Labour conference is the first in my lifetime when you will not be allowed to vote, so the left convention will get a lot of attention. At last, after a period when we've been told to trust the gamblers, there are many relevant ideas emerging on the left.
Lindsey GermanStop the War coalition
This growing crisis will mean misery for working people and shows that everything we've been told about the free market has been false. At the same time, it's a big opportunity. Millions of people will be questioning why this has happened, what's wrong with the system, is it 1929 all over again? The left needs to put forward answers. People have the right to work; we have a housing crisis, so why not employ people to build more houses? We are facing great challenges, but there is also a historic opportunity for the left to remake itself. Capitalism has had its chance and failed; now it's socialism's turn.
· Lindsey German is Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition and Left List candidate in this year's London Mayoral election
Sheila RowbothamSocialist feminist
In the late 19th century and also in the 1930s, the impact of depression made people begin to question whether the free market and a completely unfettered form of capitalism was the best form of organising society. In both periods it encouraged on the left the idea of a complete social transformation through revolution, and also encouraged people to devise various schemes for social reform. The problem now - unlike in the 1880s, when people discovered the ideas of socialism, and in the 1930s, when it seemed that communism was the solution - is that the left doesn't have a coherent alternative vision.
The Labour party has always been ambiguous about whether it is trying to make capitalism more efficient, or whether it is trying to soften its harshness. Since the 1970s, the left has been much weakened, as neoliberal ideas became totally ascendent. Under Blair, the idea that the Labour party was committed to any redistribution was pushed to the sidelines. I would like to see a new kind of left - a left that would relate to the present predicament. There is a consensus forming that says an unregulated financial system is a disaster, but whether that new left can be formed is questionable. I'd be very glad to see it happen.
· Sheila Rowbotham is professor of gender and labour history at Manchester University
George GallowayRespect MP
I think the end of capitalism will be a process, not a single event. But each event we've seen so far has gone deeper than people have predicted, and we don't know how deep this one will go. It could well be that it marks the collapse of at least a major section of the capitalist economy: the financialisation of the economy that has been powering ahead since the deregulation and neo-liberalisation of the Thatcher-Reagan years.
As far as the left is concerned, well, the Liberal Democrats have effectively moved to the right in the face of this week's events, and New Labour, with a few honourable exceptions, abandoned that territory a very long time ago. Now I would have thought - in fact, I know - that among the public in general there is a much bigger and a much wider audience for progressive ideas than there has been for some time. But what the left still has to overcome is its inability to speak in a language that ordinary people can understand. And to stop arguing about dead Russians.
I'm in New York right now and the feeling here is quite visibly one of panic. I've just met, quite randomly, three people who were helping their friends clear their desks. Apparently, 12,000 jobs went, just like that, and Wall Street represents 20% of the city's jobs and something like 90% its tax base. So there's a definite sense here of systemic crisis.
A great financial economist and historian called Michael Hudson talks about how the US economy is basically fictitious, based on pretend earnings and pretend values. This will only genuinely become a crisis of capitalism if people generally become aware that much of the growth and prosperity produced by capitalism is a fiction, and if the consensus about where the real global value lies shifts radically. In other words, if people stop believing that apparently wealthy countries actually are producing wealth.
I don't immediately expect to be living in some kind of Mad Max world. But this could be the death knell of the time when we were all singing the beauties of free-market capitalism.
Get Hotmail on your mobile from Vodafone Try it Now!