I hope to write more for TMP Online in the coming weeks with another ‘A Lib Dem’s perspective on the coalition’ piece. It’s very hard to formulate my thoughts on that, simply because I feel that the country is going to be so profoundly affected by the coming austerity that party politics will pale into irrelevance. Granted, that’s probably exactly what they want me to think. But as I said to a Trotskyist friend the other day, ‘Don’t worry, I’m still on the right side of the struggle. Just.’
I’m such an uptight person that I can’t even write a proper disclaimer. Let’s see how it should be done:
Beavis and Butt-head are not role models. They’re not even human, they’re cartoons. Some of the things they do could cause a person to get hurt, expelled, arrested, possibly deported. To put it another way: Don’t try this at home.
Disclaimer out of the way, I am pretty angry about what has been a strongly held tenet of the British left since the financial crisis began. An initial slight irritation was the left’s hyperbole about the fall of neoliberalism. Though motivated by a desire for a better world, it was intrinsically a negative impulse, celebrating the destruction of (or more realistically, slight damage to) a hated system but making no reference to any progress in the development of badly needed alternatives: grassroots democracy, alternative local economies and environmental sensibilities. As someone who still regards themselves as being on the left because I advocate this sort of shift in society, I felt that both angles of this lazy and triumphalist argument – namely ill logic and schadenfreude – were giving people like me a bad name.
A more fundamental problem than the analysis of the crisis is the analysis of how it should be solved – or at least how it shouldn’t be solved. Slogans like ‘Why should the workers pay for the bosses’ crisis?’ have been making the rounds since 2007, but I was a bit disappointed to see them advocated in a recent Naomi Klein article, as I’ve always rated her.
For me this brings up an immediate question, which doesn’t seem to have been addressed in anything I’ve read on the subject. Outside an ideologically-motivated (and I say that with approval) core, how many people were demonstrating and acting against the capitalist system during the boom years? Is it possible that many people still had as little influence in government affairs and market economics as they do currently, but were broadly satisfied with the outcomes they were receiving?
This is not to obscure or belittle the fact that the poverty gap widened under New Labour. But from those talking about the bosses’ crisis, you merely have to descend a few steps down a gentle ideological gradient to get to quite a significant contingent of often middle class people bashing the bankers and thinking that their analysis is really quite clever. It isn’t.
Do you have a bank account? If so you’ve lent money to a bank. In turn they will lend it to other people, often other financial institutions who will lend it on once more and so on. Do you know who they’ve lent your money to and exactly how it’s going to pan out? No? Then you’ve taken a gamble with it. It’s a small gamble, because purely in terms of functionality for individual customers, the banking system is not disastrously broken, and confidence tends to be sufficiently high that people don’t all queue up at once to take their money out, as happened with Northern Rock in 2007. But it is a gamble nonetheless and, because the money has moved beyond your control, a gamble with ethical implications.
Are there people in the world who you wouldn’t lend money to if they asked you? Arms companies, big pharmaceutical companies, maybe BP’s unaccountably annoyed you recently? Do you know that your bank is not lending your money to these people on your behalf? More importantly, as long as you’re getting a good rate during the boom years, do you care?
A similar issue can be seen with public sector pensions – the fact that conditions may be under threat for existing pension scheme members is a travesty, as they entered the job in the expectation that this would not be the case. But the ethical implications at the receiving end shouldn’t overshadow those at the sharp end. Are you angry and worried that your pension might be restricted? Were you angry and worried, as organisations such as FairPensions are, during the boom years when your pension was rolling in nicely through investments in petroleum, arms, mining and a host of other industries which you might regard as unethical, under-regulated or irresponsible?
Bashing the bankers – or, more pragmatically, regulating the bankers – does need to happen. And bonus culture, expenses culture, etc. can rightly be regarded as obscene when the minimum liveable income according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is only £13,900 gross per year and many people, including most living on benefits, do not have that. But if we allow the apportionment of blame to distract us from a deeper analysis of how we can improve society, then the bankers and bosses have won and the rest of us have lost.
One key to the whole issue for me is information and understanding. If more people had more knowledge about practical politics and finance, and more understanding of the wider political picture, a more sophisticated and ultimately more useful analysis might prevail.
Time is the other key to the issue. I recently gave a brief talk on the need for a shorter working week and had it rightly pointed out to me that this has been a fundamental concern for worker activists for many decades and even centuries. Perhaps it’s time, as unemployment rises and more jobs are needed, to bring it more to the fore of the debate again. Combined with more ability and opportunity to invest the extra time in practical projects at the local level, it would become easier both to get things done – and to see who was truly on whose side.
I don’t fundamentally believe that any amount of adversarial language, on its own, is going to achieve a better society. That’s going to take local initiative, local civic organisation – including on a commercial level – and a whole lot of legwork. So blame the bankers if you must – but don’t forget that unless we also work hard to make ourselves and our communities independent of them, we’re letting them off the hook.
I’m often wrong about things. Keen to show me the light? To discuss any issues around this post, local or national politics, or anything else, just leave a comment. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter @majeedneky or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/majeedneky.