We at Green House cannot entirely agree with Bronwen Maddox when she says that the recent Prospect think tank awards demonstrated that “plunging markets and revolution have prompted radical new thinking.” In one sphere at least that verdict seems questionable: it was noticeable that no green-leaning think tank featured on any of the shortlists mentioned for any of the awardsa disappointing state of affairs given the central importance of environmental policy to the current UK government (rhetorically at least) and to any serious approach to our current problems which looks beyond the short term.
The award winners, admirable though their work is, work very much within the established terms of the debate, at a time when the fundamental premises of capitalism are being called into question very widely and when talk of economic collapse is not confined to the tents outside St Paul’s. It was this failure of the political commentariat, which prompted a group of influential environmental thinkers and writers to launch Green House in mid 2011. Green House differs from existing think tanks in that it sees its work as not just presenting policy options for tinkering but offering deeper challenges to the mainstream so as to “reframe” the debate. It has already published three substantial reports; this month, it will be presenting evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on the green economy; and in January we will launch a new report on giving a political voice to the largest disenfranchised group currently affected by our political decision-making unborn future generations.
Rupert Read, Chair, Green House and Ray Cunningham, Associate, Green House
On behalf of Eastern Region Green Party, the
“The Government is ratcheting up the rhetoric ahead of tomorrow’s strikes. But it is the Government’s own poor handling of public sector pensions that remains a serious concern for workers across the public sector – it looks like we are still some way from the government offering a genuinely fair deal.
“I know that the unions will now want to work even more closely with Government to reach a settlement, as well as to improve community relations and ensure maximum support from the wider public. But time has almost run out.
“I regret the disruption caused by industrial action and feel confident that, nowadays, union leaders only resort to the strike option in special circumstances. But if public sector employees continue to feel that the Government is not listening and the need for action remains, then the Greens will lend support and solidarity to those taking industrial action tomorrow. In the circusmtances, the public back these strikes [See Note to editors below], and so do we: it is a shame that none of the other Parties, not even Labour, are supporting strikes to save decent public pensions.
“It is completely unfair for the government to try to slash workers’ pensions at the same time as the richest 1% in society are still receiving huge salary rises and bonuses. The Green Party believes that instead of paying huge bonuses to a handful of CEOs and bankers, government investment should be made in pensions but also of course in renewables, insulation, public transport, sustainable agriculture and social housing: green jobs, in a true ‘Green New Deal’ for all.
“Investment in a truly green future would see more jobs, and a better future for all.
“It is high time that the 99% of us in Britain who are not bankers nor fat-cats got a fair deal.”
Any job is unsafe in the line of fire
So, the Coalition want it to be easier to hire and fire people (“Cameron’s war on employment rights”, 23 November). This is a deceptive piece of spin.
What they mean is simply making it easy to fire people. We are given a long list of measures that not only make it easier to fire workers, but to do so with impunity, however arbitrary the decision. That is why big business wants these legal changes; and that is why this government will give them what they want.
This has nothing to do with improving the economy, let alone to do with reducing unemployment. It has everything to do with businesses being empowered and workers being disempowered.
Dr Tom Greaves
Dr Rupert Read
[Scroll down on this page to see the letter on the INDY’s website: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/letters/letters-newspapers-feed-the-greed-for-fame-6267628.html ]
Sir, As you report (“Party funding reforms appear doomed”, November 22), reaction from the three main parties to the committee on standards in public life’s proposals to tightly restrict individual donors’ donations and to introduce a “pay per vote” scheme to make up the shortfall has been rapid – and negative. It appears they would rather keep their access to soft money from super-rich individuals, corporations and trades unions than gain access to a large permanent stream of public money.
This telling turn of events points to the broader issue, largely missing from the CSPL approach: the corrosive effect of the dominance of our politics by the interests of a small wealthy elite (for example, half of Conservative funding now comes from financial interests). This elite is holding our politics to ransom, at the very time when economic and climate crises point to the need for radical change. The case for radical party-funding reform, in this broader context, is pressing: the massive inequalities motivating the “Occupy” movement, for instance, will never be tackled by a political system relying on the largesse of the beneficiaries of this system of inequalities.
We are working on a report (for GreenHouse think-tank) responding to the CSPL recommendations. Our report will insist that the case for major public funding of political parties cannot be divorced from the case for broader democratising reforms and must include ways of ensuring that public funding of political parties is not used merely to prop up the large central administrations of the main parties that have presided over the crises now convulsing us. For instance: matched funding for party membership subs, with that funding going to local parties rather than to national HQs, would be one measure deserving serious consideration.
Rupert Read and John Hare, Norwich, Norfolk, UK
Jack Guest is a former student of mine.
This film is WELL worth watching! (I enjoyed it a lot)
An Inconvenient Truth 2
Three-part series starts 7 December 8.30pm on Community Channel
Jack Guest, an extraordinary young filmmaker from Cheltenham. After graduating in philosophy and politics, Jack single-handedly funded, directed and produced a film to address the impact of climate change and uncover workable solutions.
Inspired by former United States Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘, Jack travels by boat to Sweden, a country aiming to break its dependency on oil by 2020, to speak with leading politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs. Jack also meets with families committed to reducing their impact on the environment and visits an eco-village completely dependent on renewable resources.
Jack says: “In no uncertain terms we face a huge problem on planet earth and An Inconvenient Truth 2 looks at turning that problem into an opportunity, showing that we can make things work, for everybody. It gives a positive message that things can get better and that change does not have to mean sacrifice."
He asserts: “we already have the answers to climate change and we just need to implement them. The solutions for a stable climate do exist and they can enrich rather than restrict our daily lives.”
An Inconvenient Truth 2 can be seen on Community Channel (Sky 539, Virgin TV 233) on 7 December at 8.30pm.
Jack Guest is available immediately for interviews and happy to answer a range of related questions, call +44 (0)7728 871 028 or firstname.lastname@example.org
To watch the trailer visit: www.youtube.com/agreatfilm
To visit the film’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/aninconvenienttruth2
International viewers can watch or buy the film online from December 10th at www.jackguest.com
For further information about Community Channel please contact Jessica Culshaw at email@example.com or 020 7871 5636.
A high resolution version of this photo is available upon request firstname.lastname@example.org
Summary: Last month’s developments, including the massive crash in silver and copper prices (which have, I believe, come about because people, including crucially industrialists, are realising that there just isn’t going to be the economic activity to use them), presage, in my view, the next stage of the economic crisis. The world is waking up to what may be the end of growth, certainly in the ‘developed’ (sic.) world. If there is growth now in some sectors of the world’s economy, it is likely to be matched or outweighed by decline elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a huge potential disaster is looming and growing in the world, as money itself comes under strain… I predict massive corporate debt crises soon, to rival the growing sovereign debt crises. But the fiat money system itself will likely be in the firing line within a year or two…
This piece explores speculatively some of the scenarios for the next few years which are not making the headlines in the mainstream media. ‘Surprises’ which need to be considered… Now that a permanent and forced end of growth is likely, now that we are actually hitting real global environmental limits that will systemically limit the capacity of the economy to produce now, not just damage it for the future.
In this post, I think all of this through at this current historical moment, so far as these matters can be judged. Then, Brian Heatley, a colleague of mine at the Green House thinktank, essays a reply. That is followed by a very brief further reply by me. The matter is then thrown open to you, dear readers, for debate…
Last month’s actions and predictions by the Fed, ‘Operation Twist’, mark an important change in the world financial and economic crisis. Basically, the Fed is finally accepting that we are quite likely to be entering a prolonged recession, more likely perhaps a Depression. Even perhaps, I would add, a permanent Depression. And ‘the markets’ have realised this. That is the huge significance of the massive drop in silver and copper prices that followed the Fed’s intervention:
“Morgan Stanley attributed silver’s drop to growing concerns about industrial usage and the “high retail component of the investor base”…
Three-month delivery copper fell 4 percent to $7,067 a ton, taking this year’s loss to 26 percent, after earlier today touching $6,800, the lowest level in more than a year. The contract lost 15 percent last week.
“Copper is clearly in a downward trend as investors see no improvement in the macro environment, only deterioration,” Zhang Zhenghua, an analyst at Minmetals Futures Co., said today by phone from Shanghai.”
In other words: silver and copper, which (unlike gold) are still bought primarily as genuine commodities for their actual use (speculative and ‘savings’ use of silver is still well under 50% of its use), have plummeted in price because manufacturers think that they are not going to need much silver or copper in the next several years. Because they finally have woken up to realise that we probably are not going to have net economic growth.
The mania for economic growth, combined with elite determination not to take proper control over banking and not to make the banksters pay for this crisis, and combined of course with financialisation itself, have unleashed a disaster. A disaster that could have been prevented by a genuine Green New Deal. Now, we are in the midst of a growing sovereign debt crisis, because the banks’ losses have been socialised. That crisis shows no sign of ending. And on the verge of a massive corporate debt crisis: balance sheets are going to unravel, as plans that were made on the basis of predictions of expansion are reined in. The de-leveraging will continue to unwind and probably escalate, as expectations fall. (See http://www.financialsense.com/contributors/nicole-m-foss )
The actions taken to try to deal with these escalating crises without taking power from the bunch of bankers who have ruined the world economy are putting fiat currencies themselves at risk. ‘Quantitative easing’ has further enriched elites without putting more money into the hands of the populace at large: A Citizen’s Income should have been used instead, with the newly printed money. Money itself is finally starting to come into question. As yet more QE happens in Britain, we now don’t know whether we are destined for runaway deflation (in my view, the likely outcome) or runaway inflation (which is what is currently being worried about in public).
Why is QE being tried? One reason is that QE is being used to stop the nominal banktruptcy of financial institutions (and now also governments) become an actual bankruptcy. But also: In a desperate bid for growth, through a zero-sum-game of export-led ‘strategies’, in the context of an unwillingness to take banking into social/public control. Most roads lead back to growth-mania as increasingly the cause of our troubles.
For now, the U.S. dollar is safe. But for how long can the game of the U.S. printing money without anything to back it up continue? The U.S. economy is in a dire state. Will other countries allow it to leech off them, through the dollar being a reserve currency, forever? (Further: is the US prepared in effect to lose its sovereignty to China? And what if the Chinese don’t want it as a vassal?)
The printing of more and more money, the real inflation underlying dubious government stats purporting to show that inflation is not getting out of control (see e.g. http://www.shadowstats.com/ for some provocative analyses; also http://www.shadowstats.com/article/hyperinflation-special-report-2011 )…; will money as we know it survive the current crisis? This inflation is lowering the real value of people’s houses and much more besides without them really noticing. Relative to the value of gold, house prices have gone through the floor in the last few years. So we are undergoing the deflation that we need to make the money match the real economy — but the price is being paid by those with small assets rather than large assets. This is why the ‘We are the 99%’ message is now more pertinent than ever…
As mentioned above, this pro-elite inflation is hovering in uneasy balance with the massive deflationary tendencies inherent in the vast destruction of debt-based money that has occurred and that may accelerate in the deleveraging process. All that is needed now is some countries to default and a load of banks to fall like nine-pins, and we could fall into a more or less unstable deflationary Depressionary spiral, which will impoverish billions. (Watch this video, which caused a sensation:
BBC speechless as trader says collapse is coming; Goldman Sachs rules the world and the euro eurozone collapse is a certainty:
Moreover, the short term effect would already be dreadful: If government defaults begin the main problem is the freezing up of the credit/trade systems that we rely on for our basic necessities.
This huge ongoing disaster may well have been caused in part by the limits to growth and the unwillingness of governments and peoples to face up to them: See http://rupertread.org/rupertread.org/wordpress/?p=335 .
The level of denial about this is astonishing; governments seem prepared to trash everything on the unrealisable altar of their desperate bid to restart economic growth. Thus we are getting the environmentally-trashing economics of 3rd world ‘development’
– and of the destruction of the countryside envisaged under the new planning laws that this Coalition government are bringing in in Britain.
Let’s take stock. The disaster was allowed to happen by governments unwilling to strongly regulate haute finance. And it has been and is being hugely exacerbated by the refusal to contemplate anything but growthism as the way out of the crisis. Because it is this refusal which has motivated the horribly-risky ‘strategy’ of printing vast sums of money, thus putting money itself at risk.
What is needed is a strategy to deal with all of this that does not fantasise a way out via a return to growth. We need to put finance back on the leash, swiftly: Vickers, for instance, represents too little, too late, and too slow: http://www.greenhousethinktank.org/files/greenhouse/publications/Banking_summary1.pdf (See also http://www.opendemocracy.net/blog/ourkingdom-theme/rupert-read/2009/07/14/the-bank-of-britain-a-proposal : this proposal has since become Green Party policy. It stands diametrically opposed to the obscenity of allowing the banks to return to the private sector, at this delicately-balanced moment in human history).
We need a Green New Deal not as a ‘stimulus’ but as a transition to a dynamic equilibrium economy: See my piece on this in http://clients.squareeye.net/uploads/compass/documents/COM_Good_Society_Green_Society_04.pdf .
We need to go beyond Tim Jackson’s (excellent) challenge to growth, and redefine prosperity through the idea of a REconomy: cradle-to-cradle processes incentivised, rationing not just of carbon but also of other virgin resource use (so an overall supply side resilience is secured), and, alongside this, rethinking how we incentivise appropriate technologies that match positive human-scale behaviour-change. The greatest challenge, that is, is replacing the growth-based identity with a provisioning one.
We need simultaneously to put in place a broader series of measures that will build resilience in the event, now probably likely, of the kind of vast crash and Depression indicated above. For instance, local currencies.
We need to warn people in plain terms that growthism, banksterism, and enormous gambles with our collective future have put the world on the edge of an unknown precipice. We need to talk about the risk of a Depression such as the world has never seen before; of an end to money as we know it. There is far more than the Euro now at stake. The news is full of the travails of Greece, Italy, and (soon) Spain and France. The banking system teeters on the edge of complete meltdown. For if the Euro tears apart and some of these countries default, there are far too many banks that will not be able to stand the strain.
Meanwhile, the refocusing on real assets – the sacrificing of anything and everything (including the celebrated British Planning system) to the chimera of growth — is accelerating ecological impacts and, ironically, pushing us towards a more ultimate economic collapse (See e.g. http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2008/climate-geo-engineering-with-carbon-negative-bioenergy/ ). The ‘investment’ and exploitation in real resources around the world is truly devastating. It is not just a market Depression, but underlying collapse that is looming. And a huge land- and resource- grab is in process — which may be accelerated by processes of collapse (There will be super-rich waiting eagerly to pick up the assets of the en masse bankrupted and immiserated).
We need to be warning people now about the disaster that is unfolding. In the event of dire cataclysm, we need to be able to say entirely truthfully, ‘Unlike the others, we told you so’. We need, for instance, to tell people plainly, now: your savings, the savings of the 99%, are at risk. The (commercial) banks are not safe, and perhaps now they never will be.
Meanwhile, think tanks are piling over each other to have the best growth strategy – see http://www.lexcomm.co.uk/latest-news/think-tank-quarterly-the-growth-edition/ . Even Compass’s ‘Plan B’, for all its virtues, is still resolutely growthist.
But the environmental crisis will now almost certainly be permanent (non-renewables are not going to get more plentiful by themselves; we will hit more limits to growth, not less, as time goes by); the system will keep wandering into new crises making growth impossible.
The only people who see the really massive disasters coming are a small minority who are prepared to think the unthinkable and challenge hegemonic normalising assumptions. Like the tiny minority (including Dean Baker, Ann Pettifor, Larry Elliott, Nouriel Roubini) who saw the 2007-present crash coming, and were willing to guess how big it might be.
I think we may be about to see that crash get way bigger. I think we should warn people. Herewith then, my warning.
The time has come for a zero-growth solution to the world’s problems. The alternative don’t bear thinking about.
I wish it were the end of growth but it is not – a reply to Rupert Read from Brian Heatley
I agree with most of Rupert’s piece. Regulating the banks, providing a nationalised utility bank, local currencies, the dangers of inflation arising from quantitative easing and above all challenging the assumption that growth is the only way out of the crisis is all common ground. But one thread throughout the piece worries me.
This is Rupert’s most important claim that the world economy is now actually hitting environmental limits that are preventing further growth:
Now that a permanent and forced end of growth is likely, now that we are actually hitting real global environmental limits that will systemically limit the capacity of the economy to produce now, not just damage it for the future.
I think this claim is wrong, and essentially wishful thinking. I’m not saying that the world economy should not stop growing to prevent catastrophic environmental damage in the future, and I’m not saying that the world economy will not at some point in the future be stopped from growing by environmental constraints. But it hasn’t happened yet.
The first and very simple point to make is that the world economy has not stopped growing. The current recession is an OECD phenomenon, affecting primarily Europe, the US and Japan. China, India and many other countries are still racing ahead at high growth rates, if a little slower than before. Here’s a graph of real growth rates over the last five years for the principal economies (figures from the World Bank website at http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG):
The world as a whole is the thick black line, and for the world as a whole there was one year of negative growth of 2% in 2009. World growth in 2010 was 4.2%. The four principal OECD economies, the US, Germany, Japan and the UK largely tracked the world economy but at a lower overall level; the UK has shown an especially weak recovery. China and India both slowed, but from much higher growth rates.
So it’s simply not the end of growth globally, and so perhaps it’s a bit premature to start asking why growth has come to an end. The UK, because of its special characteristics (an over-large finance industry and a doctrinaire right wing government seeking an excuse the shrink the state seem to me to be the main special factors), may well be entering a depression (by which I mean a prolonged recession), but there is little evidence that the world is.
Rupert supports his contention that we may actually be hitting environmental limits with reference to Sarel Sarkar’s new book, The Crisis of Capitalism, at http://www.oekosozialismus.net/The+Crises+of+Capitalism.+Saral+Sarkar.+2011.pdf
Now I’m a great admirer of Sarkar, especially his earlier Eco-capitalism or eco-socialism which I put on the Green House book list. But I think the case he makes here is thin.
Sarkar’s main point is that commodity prices for non-renewables (mainly fossil fuels and minerals) have risen, reflecting the exhaustion of finite deposits. This has fed through into the main economy; the main mechanism he cites in the book (pg 197 onwards) is that increased commodity prices reduced the incomes of poorer Americans, and led to mortgage foreclosures, precipitating the whole banking collapse.
The claim about rising commodity prices themselves is very complex, involving many different commodities over a time period. Rupert cites very low copper and silver prices as evidence of lack of demand in the economy as a whole. But equally that is evidence against exhaustion of those minerals and the limits to growth case. Perhaps a lot more important is the case of oil; its use is so ubiquitous with few close substitutes that it has the potential to depress the whole world economy, as it did in the early 1970s. But the evidence is mixed. Peak Oilers claimed their moment had come when the price reached $150 a barrel in 2008, but the price has now dropped back to an unexceptional $80 (see http://www.nyse.tv/crude-oil-price-history.htm). Yes, the price will rise as it gets harder to extract, but enough to choke off growth? The West will, immorally, use war and support for client dictatorships to secure cheap supplies. We’ve only used half of it, there’s (regrettably) an awful long way to go yet. My guess is that it might be possible to mount a better case around another ubiquitous item, food, and I’m looking forward to seeing Tom Lines’s forthcoming piece. But my point is we need far more careful treatment of the whole range of commodity prices, and of their behaviour in other economic cycles, before we can be sure that ‘limits’ are dominating the picture.
Moreover, to go back to the main thread of the Sarkar argument, there are problems at the other end of the chain of causation involving the incomes of poorer Americans. There were quite a lot of things in the last decades affecting the real incomes of poorer people in the OECD countries apart from commodity prices for non-renewables, some positive some negative:
– increasing incomes through rising productivity and technical change
– the bonus that has come from the import of far cheaper manufactures from China etc
– a general tendency for tax rates and the share of government expenditure to fall
– changes in other commodity prices, especially agricultural prices
– the increase in the share of profits and rents from 30% in 1980 to about 50% now and the corresponding fall in the share of wages and salaries, squeezing in particular those on lower incomes
– the increasing debt of poorer people (through credit cards etc) which meant more of their income went to interest
and without a detailed and above all quantitative analysis it’s wrong to assert that one of these is the dominant factor and so in some sense the ’cause’ of the crisis. I say quantitative because it does matter how big the different effects are. My gut feeling (or perhaps it’s political prejudice) is that by far the biggest factor is the rising share of profits and rents in the period, the declining incomes and power of working people, brought on by Thatcherism, Reaganism, free movement of capital and the neo-liberal triumph. And that that has produced in the end a good old crisis of lack of effective demand; workers actually spend wages and salaries, while profits and rents are not necessarily spent, so if the share of the latter increases the economy is in trouble (I didn’t make this up by myself, it’s essentially David Harvey’s analysis in The Enigma of Capital, and more accessibly at http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/06/28/rsa-animate-crisis-capitalism/ .) It seems to me that it would need a rather more dispassionate and quantitative survey than that presented by Sarkar to get his argument properly off the ground.
Rupert says that Sarkar argues that there is a second mechanism; this is a crisis of the limits to growth because environmental limits have reduced profitability. Profitability in real-world investments have fallen, because of increasing costs of extraction, increasing pollution-effects, etc., and this has systematically biased the economy to become a bubble economy based around parasitism (financialism). I’d like to see some data to support the profitability point before believing it. And as I point out below, disentangling this effect, if it exists, from for example political determinants of the share of profits, requires detailed quantitative analysis.
None of this proves the assertion that growth is already ended by the environmental crisis is wrong. I’m merely arguing that the case that it is right hasn’t been shown. And quite apart from the environmental case that growth has ended, other arguments that growth has ended seem to me to ignore experience. Depressions have happened before (1820s, 1870s, 1930s), have been hugely destructive and unpleasant, but after a vast loss of capital, a generation lost to unemployment and sometimes war, growth has always ultimately returned. If we haven’t hit environmental limits, why is it different this time?
It is tempting when you believe that the right course for the world is to end its addiction to economic growth, to think that the limits to growth have finally come, that reality is anyway on your side. In the slightly longer run it is. But the sequel to one of the founding texts on limits, Limits to growth, the 30-year update, written but five years ago, has industrial production peaking around 2020 (page 169), which I agree is desperately close, but is not 2010. I don’t think we are quite there yet; the next recession maybe. None of this is an argument that we should not be pushing for the alternative of no growth now, and at least in the context of UK politics seeing the current depression as an opportunity to advance a new paradigm. But this is while we can still choose to do so, not because we are being forced to quite yet.
Growth hasn’t ended yet: mine was a conditional prediction – a reply to Brian Heatley from Rupert Read
Thanks to Brian for his cordial and well-informed reply. I won’t do a substantive further reply; people can make their own minds up. Just a couple of quick clarifications:
I concede, of course, that growth hasn’t yet ended (though some of the stats coming out from countries such as China are liable to be unreliable, artificially boosted by scared local managers and officials, etc.). My point in my piece was that the ecological limits to growth combined with social and financial buffers that we appear to have hit are hatching a massive disaster. I think that many in ‘the markets’ now believe that we are in the end-game for growth and for the Stock Market etc. . They may succeed in dragging it out for a few more years, via QE, more trashing of the environment, etc. – but desperate measures such as these will only hatch a bigger crash, when it comes. So: mine was a prediction, my best guess: overall growth will soon crash to a halt and reverse. If it doesn’t, then the crash will be all the bigger and more systemic, a few years later. The only way out of this is a controlled move now towards the kind of policies etc. recommended by us in the Green Party and like-minded others, which would require a planned end to growthism.
[I’m pleased to have the opportunity to post this piece by BBC freelance journalist Jonathan Kent; I realy like it.]
Growing up, did you ever play Monopoly or Risk? Did you ever get to a point where you simply picked up the board, chucked the pieces in the air and told everyone ‘this is a stupid game’?
I did and I feel I’ve reached the same point now with the much bigger game that we’ve been suckered into; mindless materialism. Suckered because it’s a game that creates 99 losers for every winner and for 150 years the traditional left has been playing along, simply trying to ensure that more people win.
The time has come to stop playing an unwinnable game and play a different one entirely.
Looking back 150 years to an age when working people had been driven off the land and into the cities, when live expectancy was short, when malnutrition and slum housing were rife, when education was accessible only the a minority, when social security was almost non existent and universal healthcare yet undreamed of; that early socialists saw the problem in almost purely material terms is understandable. Confronted with such deprivation the only decent response was to feed, clothe, house, educate and cure. There are many parts of the world where that still holds true.
But the left has moved beyond trying to meet people’s needs in order to ensure that everyone can live with dignity. The traditional left has bought into materialism the mindless pursuit of consumer crap and in doing so, it has condemned millions to misery. Misery because the material hierarchy for which they’ve signed up condemns most of them to be losers, and it’s the conscious or unconscious knowledge of this that leaves so many people in modern Western societies feeling dissatisfied, adrift and depressed.
Leftist materialism found its purest voice in New Labour. New Labour worshipped the rich. Blair and Mandelson embodied that final capitulation. They didn’t just feel intensely relaxed about others getting filthy rich, they felt really very chilled out at the prospect of getting filthy rich themselves.
I’ve often wondered what the attraction is. Of course most of us can understand why people lust after the first million or so; a nice house, a decent car, big TV, all that stuff not having to worry about paying the bills. But the second million? Or the tenth? Even the one thousandth million?
Looked at in purely quality of life terms the relationship between wealth and wellbeing rises steeply from zero but reaches a point pretty fast where it more or less flat-lines. A BMW gets you from A to B in relative comfort (I prefer the train, so long as I can sit down and not get charged a fortune), but 5 luxury cars don’t get you there any faster or more comfortably. The difference in wellbeing between having four homes rather than three is miniscule next to having one home rather than none. A wardrobe full of the latest Versace dresses and no friends is a poor substitute for a chest of drawers full of hand-me-downs and a dozen people you can turn to when you’re feeling low.
A recent survey concluded that the Mexican telecoms magnate Carlos Slim is the richest man in history because his income equals that combined of more of his fellow countrymen than even legendary rich figures such as Crassus- in Slim’s case his wealth equals that of 440,000 average Mexicans.
Yet Slim doesn’t have 440,000 homes. He doesn’t have 440,000 cars or even 440,000 fried eggs for breakfast. The same is true of Warren Buffett, a shrewd investor but an unassuming man whose modest lifestyle belies his vast wealth. Redistribute their capital and you don’t free up additional resources to be redistributed. You only pump more money into the system and change the price of goods. Take away Slim or Buffett’s fortunes and spread around their cash and you redistribute power, not least buying power, but you don’t create more stuff.
Because here’s the thing. Past a certain point money has nothing to do with standard of living and material comfort; past a certain point it’s about status and then it’s about power.
We are, on a very important level, still the children of our animal selves with our need to survive, reproduce and to have a place within the group. It’s just that these days all that evolutionary programming is at work in the city rather than on the savannah.
Status and power are intimately tied up with survival and finding the best possible mate. Our need to be valued and to be with others that are valued is as hardwired into our brains as is the need to eat, sleep and go to the toilet.
But here’s another thing value doesn’t have to be measured in financial terms. There are plenty of circumstances where people have won status, respect and even a more desirable mate not through being rich but through giving more through being indispensible to the group. When your people are starving being the person who knows how to grow food gives you a value that being able to hand out gold coins does not.
The trouble is that the left has capitulated and plays a game where value is measured in purely material terms. As the Archbishop of York John Sentamu said the other day; “it is hard to imagine a more powerful way of telling someone that they are of little value than to pay them one-third of 1% of your salary.” Yet even if we manage to reduce income disparities which we most certainly should in a world where value is ascribed in purely monetary terms, nurses, carers, teachers and so many others are never going to be paid enough to reflect their real value to us. We have to change the game.
Just think; if we refuse to run on the materialist hamster wheel, if we refuse to coo and ooh and aah over someone’s new car, bigger house, shiny handmade kitchen and designer clothes, those things start to lose their value.
If the natural reaction to someone with five cars was ‘what a wombat’ (apologies to wombats everywhere btw) rather than ‘wow, like your cars’ the incentive to own five rapidly diminishes. Of course if you’re reading this you’re probably the kind of person that would tell the owner of five cars that they’re a wombat (you’re so polite I’d expected more anglo-saxon). If we can persuade all the other people who have been conned into playing this sucker game to do the same then we’re onto something.
It’s tough. It’s tough to tell people, especially ones you like, that you think the rubbish they buy is just that. After all when someone has bought loads of stuff to bolster their self esteem it’s pretty crushing to be told it’s just so much tat. Perhaps better to tell them you like them for themselves but that their tat gets in the way.
So just imagine what it would be like if we were valued for what we gave rather than what we took, not so much for financial giving as the giving of time, concern, support and love. Imagine the sort of race that would produce to be top dog and there would be a race because we’re programmed to want to be valued, however that value is handed out.
I’m talking about a system which creates lots of winners because that sort of value generates more value we become valued because we give of ourselves and those we give to feel valued because they receive our love, time, concern and attention. It’s a virtuous circle and the resources involved are infinite not scarce. It’s a recipe for a happy, sustainable society.
It won’t be easy. Not only have millions invested a lot of their hopes and dreams in stuff but some very big and powerful companies have invested millions (upon millions upon millions) in creating an addiction to things, anything that can be sold to them.
But we can make a start. Let’s stop complimenting people on the stuff they’ve bought and start complimenting people on the good things they do or just for being a good person. A pebble rolled down a hill
So much for financial status addiction, but as for what money buys you when you already have status power the answer there is hardly new. We want democracy. We want power to rest with the people and we want those we elect to govern on our behalf to do just that to govern for the 100%, not just the 99% and certainly not just for the 1%. Where corporations and the super-rich have accrued power for themselves, we want it back. They can have their share, like the rest of us; a ballot paper, a pencil and if they want to use it a voice. But they don’t get to use their money to buy a megaphone to drown out the voices of the 99%.
But whatever we do we should remember this; human nature is what it is it may not be quite a constant but it evolves at the speed at which continents drift very slowly. We mustn’t aspire to perfect people. As Christopher Hitchens noted; “It is only those who hope to transform human beings who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment.” Mao and Hitler and Pol Pot all hoped to transform people and ended up slaughtering them.
Rather we should aim to improve society so that it brings out the best in people rather than the worst. We’ve found that while greed may be a powerful force for growth, it’s also a poisonous, polluting force that corrupts those it touches and crushes those that stand in its way. If we want a society driven by more wholesome urges; the desire to help, to care, to nurture, to discover, to create, to beautify, to understand then we must reserve our respect and reverence for those who embody such values.
So let’s focus on needs and let’s focus on deeds and let’s stop measuring our worth by the stuff we own as someone I once loved said to me; you don’t own your possessions, they own you.
I can’t believe it! This is not a man, somehow, who I had thought would die.
An important thinker, a big big influence on me as on so many others, and someone who (each time I had the privilege to interact with him directly) was unfailingly thoughtful and decent.
READ his brilliant book, ‘THE GROWTH ILLUSION’.