It would be understandable if the regular Scottish Left Review reader gave a slight sign of resignation at the thought of yet another ‘what is to be done?’ issue. It’s not just that we’ve run a few articles on the theme of ‘reforming the post-banking crash world’. It’s not even that there have been enough column inches on the subject from which to build an airport rail link. It’s that you may well feel that the totality of the suggestions you have heard and read in the last year may sound a little bit underwhelming. It’s not that each of them doesn’t sound like a perfectly good idea, it’s just that somehow they don’t really seem sufficient to do anything much more than ameliorate the worst of the problems. And so it is that many of us may feel like the Cat in the Hat, standing before the giant mess he has created: “This mess is too big and too deep and too tall. We can’t clean it up! We can’t clean it up at all!”. So in this issue we are going to try to delve down below the top-level problems on which everyone now has an opinion and see if it is possible to draw out some of the deeper, fundamental problems of the way we live in the 21st century to see if, in fact, we can clean up our mess after all.
Let’s start by considering for a minute the sorts of things that are being mooted as part of the ‘tidying up’ agenda. First, we have reform of the banking system. There are many strands to this debate ranging wildly in their radicalism. At one end of the scale we have two kinds of neo-liberal approach. One (at least an honest one) argues that crashes are part of the deal, creative destruction, and that we should have let banks fail and let the market repair itself. Now these people basically want government out as quickly as possible. The other strand is much more cynical – continue to support the free market unquestioningly and just pretend that the bail-out didn’t really happen. Both of these stances one would expect from the 0.1 per cent of the world population which benefits from the mess. On the reform side, we have many shades. There is the tokenistic ‘let’s at least inflict a little punishment by taking away their bonuses’ shade. There is the ‘use political leverage to force bankers to be more responsible’ approach (lend more to business, don’t sell risky options to marginal customers), but without any real legislation or sanction. Moving to the more radical side there is a ‘split the risky speculative side from the essential retail banking side to stop the gambling bringing down the bit we can’t allow to fail’ stance (which is hard to argue with, other than that it appears to assume that the speculative bit is a necessary evil). There is also the active state intervention approach which suggests that the retail banking bit should in fact be nationalised and run as a secure public service. And then there are those who want to address some of the root causes of the whole thing by tackling the way speculative financial capitalism works in the first place (such as advocates of a Tobin Tax). What do we learn from all of this? Well, the majority of these proposals do not really appear to envisage a global financial system which is fundamentally different from the one we have. The more farsighted attitudes want to tame the global flow of capital, but these voices have been around for decades and very little of it is reaching mainstream debate. The rest could legitimately be described as taking existing patterns of behaviour and making them more stable and less liable to failure. That does not mean they are not good ideas, but it equally does not suggest a major change in direction.
Then there is the public sector/public service agenda. This is an enormous area which is populated by a dizzying array of interests and prejudices. Broadly, there are ‘less’ and ‘more’ approaches and they all claim to be about mitigating or restoring some larger problem. The hard-core ‘less’ people want smaller government and less spending to reduce public debt and, well after that the arguments are as usual (market best, public sector a drag, makes people lazy and so on…). They don’t stack up, but they don’t have to because all the big money is behind these ideas and as Mr Burns from the Simpsons put it, “What good is money if it can’t inspire terror in your fellow man?”. The soft-core ‘less’ people want exactly the same, but they pretend to be nicer. So now it’s all about ‘targeting those in most need’. There is no difference at all between these positions other than the pose struck – the man cutting off your hand may tell you it’s for your own good or to hurt you, but you’re still left without a hand. On the other side there are a million ways to spend more public money. As a very rough categorisation there are those on the ‘producer’ side who make the case for expansion and conditions (more of us, more pay for us), those on the ‘delivery’ side who believe there is a need for more/better/different and those on the ‘big picture’ side who favour universalism as a social good. From all of this we can see that both sides are basically after a continuity of one half of the Anglo-welfare model – either ‘cradle to grave’ or ‘safety net – but only for the really needy’. Either way, the Anglo model is not really in question, and rather surprisingly both sides tend somewhat towards the ‘servicing poverty’ model rather than seeking to end poverty. There is almost a sort of ‘building things’ debate, but not really. The housing and public infrastructure debate is not really a debate but a sales pitch by the construction sector. That is why we dwell on whether a given road or rail project is a ‘job-creator’ or an ‘environment-harmer’ while on all sides knowing in advance that somehow the budget is going to be at least ten times the original estimate. The next time you hear blasé claims on the economic benefit of infrastructure projects, go and read some of the empirical evidence on the subject – you’ll quickly find that it doesn’t stack up. And yet no-one in the ‘debate’ ever mentions this.
The war-and-peace options are even more straightforward – either lots more or lots less and the distinctions in either side matter little. Which is only to suggest that more ‘nukes, fewer guns or more guns, fewer nukes’ is a debate for those who want to kill people one way or the other. Equally, the pacifist-minded ‘less’ and the pragmatically-minded ‘less’ are both of the view that we should try to avoid killing (with one side more inclined to stay ready, ‘just in case’). What this addresses, though, is the ‘capacity to do harm’ question. The ‘what drives us to consider harm in the first place?’ question is one which is not really at the heart of most of the war and peace debate. (This does a disservice to many who are squaring the questions of international law, global resource allocation and conflict resolution, but they are hard to find unless you look very carefully.)
Then there are the big global moral issues – poverty and the environment and so on. These are in some ways the most dispiriting because the genuinely strong force of public feeling has been met head-on by big corporations which no longer try to prevent action but rather to subvert it. So it is that we’re still messing around with better light bulbs and forgetting that we didn’t really make poverty history at all. On the big picture side there are those who hope technology will save us, those who say we need to live differently without providing a plan for how to get there and those who don’t care.
On the media side there is simply no debate – but then again, since debate can by definition only take place in the media (they can talk about it in parliaments but you can only hear about it from a third party) that isn’t that surprising. The despicable assault on the BBC by its biggest rival (an outraged member of the Murdoch clan assuming the moral high ground while grubbing venally for any way to make even more money and monopolise even more of the public space – imagine!) is matched only with the cowardly appeasement of that position by Labour and Tory politicians.
Another two areas where there are debates but in name only are ‘moral values’ and ‘democracy’. The first of these still boils down to an argument between the 1950s and the 1960s – deference and manners or liberation and tolerance. This is especially depressing because we’re moving backwards not forwards. Careful use of ‘moral backlash’ (a 1980s American phenomenon where the conservatives tried to fight back against the gains made by liberals in the 1960s and 1970s) has got us acting as racists and misogynists again – tabloids love tits and hate gypsies. We were supposed to have got by this a while ago. Meanwhile, the debate on democracy is the very pinnacle of tinkering at the edges. A small group of academics worry about PR, local participative decision-making and so on. Frankly, none of them really imagine any real change in the world resulting from these changes – the aim seems more like greater legitimisation for the status quo. In the heart of this is education, but then who is arguing for education as anything other than a tool of economic development these days (social mobility being a function of economic development)? And stuck on the side is ‘recreation’ – but here there is less debate than in any other area. In fact, simply to suggest that you have an opinion on someone else’s leisure pursuits is enough to get you shot these days – it is a complete and unbending axiom that leisure time is ‘free market’ and if that means bottom-scraping lowest common denominator and ever-deteriorating stupidity and shallowness then rejoice because the people have chosen. There is simply no room to suggest we encourage people to aspire to something better in their personal life – anyone other than corporations marketing products who tries to suggest a way to spend your free time is an elitist snob and must be told to shut up immediately.
Finally – and probably most depressing of all – there is the economy and inequality (these are the same thing after all). Here we have by far the biggest debate but perhaps the least variation. Simply put, for the very largest part there is no real conception of a system which is all that much different from the one we have. Mostly we are in the territory of ‘nice growth’ versus ‘any growth’ and then an utterly fragmented discussion of how to get there. We have skills-driven growth, low-cost-driven growth, high-tech growth, environmentally-friendly growth, let-it-rip growth and a bundle of variations. Now, this is somewhat unfair since there are three areas where alternative thinking is emerging – no-growth, measurement and ownership. So for example, the radical movement in the US in particular has been coming up with new ideas on ‘participative economics’ in which control and ownership of industry is democratised and profit no longer put above all other concerns in determining corporate strategy. There is real merit in this thinking, but it is so far away from mainstream debate and the transition stage so sketchy that it is a long way from being a credible manifesto for change. There is a growing strand of thinking challenging the whole concept of growth and this also offers real hope, but it is going to have to find a better way to present itself. Afraid to point out that simply sharing existing resources more evenly would make almost all of us more prosperous without any need for growth for fear of being accused of communism, instead it comes across like a monastic order. We need to get the ideas and their delivery right before we challenge the ‘universal consensus’ on growth. And there is also real hope in the challenge to how we measure. As Will Self put it nicely, when the hell did we start measuring the state of our nation solely on the bass of how much pointless crap we buy in the high street? Why is an expensive house ‘better for us all’ than the same house but cheaper? When will people follow the money from the point after it is marked down as ‘gross domestic product’? – because it doesn’t’ generally go anywhere that makes the people happier or the country better. So all three of these strands of thinking offer hope, but not in the near future. And there is just no debate on tackling economic inequality anymore (although again there are hopeful signs of that changing). Simple ideas like living wage and laws on pay variation are totally alien to all but a tiny minority of people and yet are fairly cautious in their nature. And the financial services sector (in one of its many crimes against the public) has made sure that no-one even understands what to debate when it comes to the complicated ways in which any trickling-down of wealth is prevented. For example, does anyone realise that if you earn enough and are in your fifties you can manipulate pension rules in such a way as to pay less tax than someone on minimum wage, only to release all the money a couple of years later tax free? Why are we incentivising the further enrichment in old age of the already very rich? And that’s an easy bit to understand in comparison to what you can do once you get into the realms of off-shore banking. Even standard pay deals are iniquitous – even if a boss keeps getting the same three per cent pay rise of the workers, it stretches the real gap between their respective wages wider and wider every year.
In total, if we add up even the best of the ideas which have made it into even the fringes of the mainstream, we have an agenda which is far too close to a case for continuity. We know something is wrong but we are not really equipped to tackle it yet. Or at least that is how most people feel.
This attempt to try to cover the entire public debate in 2,500 words is somewhere between stupid and foolhardy and almost certainly insulting. But it at least gives us an overview of how we are thinking about how things are organised. If we are to put our finger on the fundamental issues of how we live now in an effort to think more hopefully about how we might live tomorrow, we need to be tough on the assumptions and approaches we are currently taking. After all, does any single one of us think that we are close to a solution for this awful mess we have created? If we do not break it down into its constituent parts then we will never be able to clean it up. The mess is too big, but the causes may not be. And so if we want to really tackle the mess we need to start thinking about its cause and spend a bit less time raking over the debris. This issue will therefore look at five underlying problems we face in the reform of society. We hope it can help people consider the day-to-day problems we now face.
Money and measuring. Money is not necessarily the root of all evil, but it can almost always be found at the root of all evil. We all tend to think we know what money is and what it is for, but in fact most people really only have a sketchy idea of what are the implications of how we manage money, how it is used and how we measure it. For example, the vast majority of us don’t even know where the money is, who has it or what they do with it. It is telling that when we are asked how rich we are individually we always get it wrong and we always overestimate (this has been done lots of times but as an example, 40 per cent of the UK population report being in the top 15 per cent by income, which clearly can’t be right). We hear the official tales of ‘prosperity’ and it is all about growth and GDP. But we don’t understand GDP because if we did we might not like what it measures – the measure of prosperity we use includes all those massive theoretical gambles that the City of London was making as if they were real productive activity, or as if there was any conceivable mechanism for that money to trickle down in our direction. As Neil Davidson outlines in his article on this subject, we have simply encouraged massive disparity in wealth. We do not talk about the fact that the rich do not ‘shop locally’ and so this wealth disappears from the UK quite quickly, to the benefit of none of us. We pretend that because it is measured in ‘money’ then it is real wealth, and there aren’t many on any side inclined to demur from this view. And yet we should know better; we have lost sight of Marx’s observation that money is a relationship and that in fact it is more a measure of power than of prosperity. But all of our political system is set up in such a manner that this is disguised and the interests of power are disguised as the interests of what might be called ‘money/prosperity’. If we keep swallowing this myth, it will be hard to achieve fundamental change.
How things get done. John Barker’s article on the role of the big consultancy firms in both creaming-off profit from the taxpayer while at the same time distorting public policy in ideological ways leaves one scratching ones head. How is this allowed? How can such glaring inefficiencies and mistakes be permitted? But it stretches even further; the people of Britain know at the point that the cost of a big project is given that this is not what it is going to cost us. Can anyone think of a big public project that came in on cost? And generally we’re not talking here about five per cent cost overruns – it is more likely to be cost overruns of 500 per cent. IT projects have been particularly visible, as have some of the construction projects, but there are a plethora of contracts that have got out of control. And we expect it, accept it and do it again. It is worth noting that this phenomenon is limited to public sector contracts, but that it is not only a public sector phenomenon. There was a news report about a group of engineers for the Lotus car company who wanted to prove the viability of really exciting electric sports cars. They did this on their own and managed to produce a car with a better performance than the petrol version for £250,000. As they themselves point out, had they done it inside the company that is the kind of money that they would have had to spend on consultants to agree a codename for the project. The cost of actually delivering would probably have been at least 100 times bigger. We expect this now. All the processes of ‘getting things done’ have been hijacked and booby-trapped by the consultancy and contract service industry. We are leaking wealth right across our society and it is all falling into the hands of the same kleptocracy. The unbelievable thing is that we are all complicit and wasting money is Government policy, because so long as the waste keeps landing in the pockets of CBI members then all the Money Gods remain happy.
The way we think. We all think that we know what it is that we want, but do we know why we think it? There is an endless litany of self-reinforcing myths that suggest that we ‘know what we want’ and that, by extension, we are getting it. Freedom, choice, the empowered commuter, lifestyle shopping and so on all make us believe that this is what we want. And then we have an education system and media which drive the issue home lest we ever doubt the truth of what we want. But we’re not happier or more fulfilled and we’re not really better off so how come, if we’re getting what we want, we don’t seem to want it so much after we’ve got it? And why did we start hating and fearing people from different ethnic backgrounds again? In his article Robin McAlpine argues that it is because we have become oblivious to both the strength of the ideology in which we’re engulfed and have lost sight of many of the means through which it is propagated.
The purpose of work. There is one overarching ‘good thing’ which we all celebrate – jobs and work. New jobs created? Hurray! The fact that we are cheering because we are all up to our ears in debt, barely four weeks away from defaulting on some payment or other, that we face endemic job insecurity and that we believe anything – poor pay, terrible hours, crushing boredom – beats falling behind in the race to having a ‘model life’. So how is it that the more we work the less well off we get and the less happy we are, and how is it that all the promises of the future that were once put in front of us have been so completely subverted now they are in front of us? The answer, argues Isobel Lindsay in her article, is that work is now much more about control than about productivity. We work not because it is valuable but because it ties us into a bigger web of reliance, all of which reinforces the position of only the very most powerful. We work more and are less happy. And this is the triumph of technological modernity?
Why we fight. All discussion of national defence issues is accepted to be irrational from the outset. We are not supposed to make decisions about threats which exist (bluntly, a strong, rich nation like ours doesn’t face any) but either to imagine threats where they are not or to think about threats which might possible appear in the future. These are both strange places to start a debate – would we be designing an NHS for diseases that don’t exist or because of a plague that might one day happen? The answer is no, because the NHS is actually used for the purpose it is supposed to be used for – to provide a heath service which is universal and national. The defence industry, as Alan McKinnon makes very clear in his article, is about imposing power on others in the interests of multinational corporations. That is why it is so important that we all accept the irrationality of the debate before we start. It’s about ‘our boys’ and bravery and poppies and bombs on the street. Except it really isn’t. Which is why we can talk endlessly about whether we have enough helicopters for our wars but never about whether we might have too many wars for our helicopters. The same neoliberal resource issue which drives economic policy also drives defence policy.