Robin McAlpine: Labour’s economic dream has turned into a nightmare of gambling, pay-day loans and rising debt
ROBIN McAlpine says Labour’s economic dream has turned into a nightmare of gambling, pay-day loans and rising debt
ARRIVE at work with a branded-coffee in your hand. Pop out at lunchtime to browse branded-shoes (women) or upscale children’s toys (men). Read a celebrity gossip mag (women) or a lad’s mag (men). Go home. Change. Get to the pub. Watch corporate football. Drink. Eat. Smile. You’re having fun. Put it on a credit card. Forget it happened. Get back to work. Don’t think about mortgages, think about the weekend. Play poker online – it’s just a bit of fun. Lost? Its only money. Treat yourself to something. That’ll cheer you up. Don’t worry, it’ll be OK. Life’s too short to worry. You’re worth it. This is the vocabulary of fun.
Ten years later you’re standing outside a pawn shop with a pay-day loan in your pocket. This is the economics of fun.
Last week, Harriet Harman expressed her regret over New Labour’s deregulation of gambling, implying she hadn’t appreciated the negative impacts that it would have. But as this policy was designed to transfer wealth from ordinary people to big business, negative impacts were the aim.
It was a variation of US-style “lifestyle politics”. This strategy encourages people to see themselves as “a collection of lifestyle choices” first and foremost and a member of society a distant second, if at all. Define yourself by your possessions, not your politics. “Go snowboarding – leave the governing to us” was the message of the 1990s, signalling the moment politics finally became an elite closed-shop.
In the US, democracy has long been seen as something politicians manage, not something that manages politicians. The more people can be persuaded that politics has little to do with them, the more the political elite can run the show undisturbed.
The debates about so-called political apathy miss the point; people are cynical about politics because they are encouraged to be and they are encouraged to be cynical so they disengage with politics. Political apathy is the great achievement of our political era; they made us give up on democracy voluntarily in favour of skin cream and haircuts.
In Blair’s version, everything was just a bit of fun – so long as three criteria were met. First, if a corporation wasn’t making a profit, it wasn’t deemed fun. Don’t take a 99p frisbee to the park with friends, go ten pin bowling. Don’t play football, watch corporate football on Sky. Don’t join a club, stay home and bet online. Fun was a political means of transferring money from ordinary people into the pockets of the elite.
The second criteria was that fun had to be anti-intellectual. The pornification of women, the infantilisation of men, the deification of celebrity, the sanctification of the pub; fun made morons of us all. Pleasure was best if it was “guilty”, facile, meaningless. Who asks difficult questions when tapping their feet to crap 1980s pop?
The third criteria was that it must only be for the non-elite class. Tony Blair didn’t gamble online, Jack Straw didn’t buy Loaded magazine, Harman didn’t watch English Premier League football in the pub on a Wednesday night, Peter Mandleson didn’t have a Top Man store card. This was fun as designed by the elite, but only for the plebs. It was a sort of social anthropology imposed on the majority by a governing class that would rather put a gun to its own head than join in.
All this fun has transformed how we see the economy. Retail became so pointlessly over-inflated that we still think continued growth in retail sales is an essential element of life, irrespective of what’s bought and sold. If the high street can’t keep on transferring wealth from plebs to the wealthy, the banks won’t like it. Nor will the advertising agencies, magazine publishers, property speculators and others who rely on this empty and vacuous trade in alienation. The real economic or social utility of much of the retail and the service sector is highly questionable, but we are in a trap of its construction. If we stop spending, shops close, people lose jobs, we all suffer. If we keep spending, the debts mount, the economy remains a sham, the next crash is inevitable, so still we suffer.
In our economic crisis it is not empty shops that depress me most, its the ones that are left. On one side of the street there is a string of corporate chains aggressively marketing lifestyle products as if the crisis never happened. On the other side of the street are the pawn shops, pay-day loan shops, pound shops and bookies.
The lifecycle of British capitalism is terrifying – buy rubbish you don’t need on credit you can’t afford and then take it to Cash Converters to get a small part of your pointless outlay back so you can augment it with more credit you can’t afford to buy more stuff you don’t need.
The high street looks ever-more like a machine for processing humans, liquidating their assets on one side so they can be stripped of them on the other.
New Labour was elected to bring social justice to the masses and instead fed them fun. Fun was the cover for an aggressive reorganising of capitalism. Everyone recognises that the outcome is a dangerously unbalanced economy resulting in widespread social and economic failure. But still we plough on. Even on the political left people suggest that getting more money into the pockets of the poor will help the economy because the poor are more likely to spend it, without much thought to where or how they will spend it or what will happen next.
Fun was just a narcotic applied for the political benefit of one social class. It bore no relation to enjoyment and no relation to economic wellbeing. The literature on the psychological and social impact of commercialised fun is widespread, but its link to economics remains less discussed. And with so much wealth transferred from so many people to so few corporations behind the celebration of the Olympics, nothing is changing.
But change it must because the credit-based retail economy, like the financial and property speculation economy, is not only unstable, it has already fallen over. We need a national strategy not to save retail, but to change it.
We need to roll back on the liberalisation of profitable but socially-damaging activities such as gambling and alcohol. We need to start asking some very searching questions about the real social value of advertising and marketing that has thrived on making us believe that endless avarice is normal and acceptable.
We need an entirely new attitude to the informal economy, the many interchanges of value-without-cash that make up the really rewarding parts of our life, such as time with friends and family and going for a walk in the park.
Then we need to rethink our attitudes and vocabulary. That empty feeling when the thrill of the purchase is over, that draining feeling of the crowd dragging you into one more expensive round you don’t want, that sick feeling when the bill comes, stop telling yourself “this is fun”.
Instead tell yourself the truth: “This is shit. I’m worth so much more than this.”
• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation
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