Years of supine government and immoral capitalism are taking the public realm to the point of collapse, writes Gerry Hassan
THE world as we know it stands on the brink of extinction. It could come to an end next Thursday, we’re told by some. This is not some Nostradamus-style prediction but the stand-off between Democrats and Republicans in the US over whether to raise the debt ceiling.
There have been two weeks of the US shutdown, with numerous levels of government inactive. There have been no food inspections or publicly-funded medical drug trials, while 800,000 government employees remain “furloughed” on leave.
We like to think that the America is a foreign land very different from us and that this sort of thing could not possibly happen here. Well, aside from the different constitutional niceties, it could, because leaving aside religious zealotry in which the US does a fine line, much of the political dynamic that brought the US to this impasse exists in the UK and is growing unchallenged by the day.
This is the ahistorical, asocial, close-to-immoral version of capitalism now being advocated by a wide array of interests. First, a group of unapologetic ideologists is pushing this. They have formed a loose, embryonic conservative alliance which includes the Taxpayers Alliance, Institute of Economic Affairs, and The Spectator.
This group seems to believe that all public spending is bad and that any notion of public good is dangerous and a mirage.
It presents a simplistic view of the world: government and regulation are always the problem, taxes are always a burden and a negative to be reduced, and flat taxes raise more money than progressive ones. It is a flat-earth view of humanity and the world with a one-dimensional understanding of human nature: we are competitive, short-term and only interested in our own economic self interests.
Then there are the forces of privilege, the new class and advocates of elitism. This week, Oxford University’s vice-chancellor said that the university needed to raise student tuition fees to at least £16,000 to be competitive and to match the real cost of the education provided. On cue the elite breakaway group, the Russell Group of universities, came out in support of this, stating that £9,000 tuition fees were in real terms being cut every year.
This is the remorseless logic of the consequences of Tony Blair’s introduction of tuition fees. Even more, it represents the shift from a market economy to a market society, where every form of public good or service is undermined or outsourced.
This, in the week of the Royal Mail sell-off, begs the question of what core functions would the marketeers leave in the control and ownership of the state? We are heading back in time if they have their wish, to the Victorian nightwatchman state of limited government and resultant Dickensian economic and social conditions.
A recent Harvard University study of Oxford University students found that the privately-educated ones had very definite views on state education. They dismissed the public sector which educates 93 per cent of Britain’s children, and of which they had no direct experience.
They saw it as a failure, filled with sink schools, poor teachers, lack of ambition and discipline, and in a worrying connection, saw a link between ethnic diversity and poor performance.
This is the Daily Mail manifesto of state education in England, fuelled by the likes of Michael Gove and Alistair Campbell.
Where does this view of the world take us? Where do the new revolutionaries stop and feel they have remade the state? They have remade large parts of the Western world and Anglo-American capitalism, but like an addict high on their success, they pose the current problems of the West and global economy, as not proof of the failure of their ideas of market dogma and deregulation, but evidence that they haven’t gone far enough.
What impact does this have on Britain? The Tories post-Cameron, at some point returned to opposition, are going to emerge as a party of certainty and dogma about what Britain needs: limited government, anti-welfare, anti-poor, xenophobic and, of course, anti-Europe.
This is the voice of a rather narrow band of Britain: of parts of the south-east, the City and finance capital; it is Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society”, a remark which had at the time an element of nuance, made into a political programme.
This poses huge problems for society and how the future of capitalism evolves. Capitalism was never a pure system of individualism and selfishness, of right-wing utopias and the writings of Hayek and Friedman. Western capitalism has been, for the last century and more, deeply social, based on mutual ties between individuals, companies and the state, and within a culture of co-operation.
Even cultures of competition require co-operation, as citizens, firms and government don’t always act in selfish or short-term interests. Successful capitalism which takes the long view, such as German manufacturing or the Nordics, understands this and the need for banking, investment and corporate governance to be not just about the economic, but social concerns.
The route of Anglo-American capitalism these last three decades has been to undermine the legitimacy of capitalism, as the rich and powerful have burned down the house, reining in social rights, stigmatising the poor, celebrating inequality, and making off with as much of the booty as possible.
Their recipe is a world of untouchable cartels, oligopolies, gated communities and new aristocracies. One where public goods are reduced to a browbeaten BBC providing mindless pap to the masses: there is a distinct Orwellian or Ray Bradbury dimension to this.
We say to ourselves it cannot happen here when we look at America. But the resurgent Tea Party and the right wing zealots of British Conservatism have to be defeated. That requires that we move beyond isolated outrage and anger at individual actions such as the Royal Mail sell-off, and demand of our politics that we find expression of the public good and that we stand up to the new vested interests that are holding our country to ransom.
Time if not for socialism, as has been said of “Red Ed” Miliband, but a politics which breaks with the economic and social orthodoxies which got us into this mess.