Things can only get better

Oh no, it’s that global rethink time of year again

December 4, 2009

The much-misued Utilitarian term ‘greatest good for the greatest possible number’ might require a rethink around the notion of we do and how we do it based upon what we, and the planet, can afford, not slavish notions of ‘progress’.

We may have reached the tipping point where humans have become slaves to consumerism. If so, it’s time to question why we’ve allowed a bunch of self-interested geeks to ruin the world and force us into penury along the way, not to give them a second chance. Globalisation has partly succeeded in its promised a redistribution of wealth. Usurers, oil barons and arms dealers, technology monopolists, media monsters, mafias, Chinese tatmakers and certain politicians who promised democratic change and equality but delivered the opposite, have done very well. Their meretricious shamens, economists, have held their coats. Few now question the authority of the dismal science, even if we disagree with approaches – Marx, Hayek, Keynes, Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Friedman and Weber (my favourite, albeit a sociologist) are pertinent examples. None owned a 3G phone. Free Market principles (has anyone noticed the implicit oxymoron of that term?) include dismissing morality as a religious concept (bad thing), while the ‘protestant’ work ethic (good thing) underpins the neo-capitalist flim-flam game (which is the same as the work ethic, but without the work part).

It may be the case that the economics of globalised consumerism have become so embedded that there is no alternative but to ‘bail out’ the greedy and wasteful financial ‘institutions’ which lend the illusion of prosperity and push the problem round the plate. But if so, we are almost certainly prolonging and accelerating misery for all but a few. That’s why, twisting and turning and blustering, ‘world leaders’ are re-nationalising the tools of the free market – capital, the means of production and, covertly, freedom of expression, and preserving monopolies which paradoxically arose out of this whole flawed experiment in global enslavement.

Now the elites whose business it is to promote this destruction as a benefit are in a spot of bother. Globalisation has not brought prosperity for all: in fact the global economy is in real danger of implosion. The gap between rich and poor has grown, particularly in the developed world, where it was supposed to achieve the opposite result. Most of the third and fourth world still lives in destitution, reproducing at alarming rates while losing their rights to the land and skills as to its husbandry. There will be a bigger spot of bother if serious civil unrest ensues. In some places, it has already started. Poverty, gross inequality and desperation, not prosperity, are almost always the root causes.

No, I haven’t gone all Che Guevara – another flawed idealist whose theories were adapted by people whose intent, by and large, was spoiling it for the rest of us. But if economics wasn’t a willing hostage to free market dogma, another set of truths might become self-evident. For example, the credit crunch is a symptom, not the cause of the crisis of capitalism. Measures such as ‘quantitative easing‘ are not solutions, they merely prolong the illusion that money is the end, not the means, of production. We are experiencing the consequences of rampant materialism, hyper-inflation of values and of pretending for too long that we could become a ‘(financial) service economy’, when logic suggests that this is a ridiculous notion. Money is an enabler, not an output. Now we need moneylenders in order to live beyond our means. Global materialism requires us to waste resources, donate up to 15% of the price of a product to value-subtracting fripperies such as advertising and packaging, chatter on expensive mobile phones, drive and fly to places where we stay in hotels largely identical to those in the places we left, while kids in the third and fourth worlds wear leftover tyres on the feet to walk ten miles to a school on an empty stomach – the lucky ones have tyres to wear and schools to attend. If we want to prolong the illusion that we live to consume, and can do so not by producing but by bamboozling, we’ll either need to print more Monopoly money and carry on creating MacJobs or consider downsizing to lifestyles we, and the planet, can afford.

Consumerism has become the default position from which we view the world, yet the objects of our desires are exacting a huge price, not merely in terms of the consumption of raw materials and energy, but also in terms of the stress, greed and strife which results from their pursuit. Here in the UK, we grow 15% less food than we did ten years ago, pay more as a percentage of our earnings for housing, food, fuel, water, heating and electricity, public services, entertainment (TV licence) and communications. We have outsourced the management of our utilities to foreign-owned companies whose pricing does not reflect the 50% drop in energy prices over the past year. While we may we pay less for clothing, cheap bling and plastic washing-up bowls, but that will change as the impact of the exchange rate and Chinese downturn impacts.

We fought two costly wars, in countries which posed us no threat. The US spent $3 trillion to manufacture a war which killed over 100,000 civilians, and accelerated its involvement in another conflict which they cheerfully acknowledge played a key role in the ruin of the former USSR. Shouldn’t we be asking why? This is not a pothole on the road to Shangri-La. It’s the path to Perdition.

I’m going on an economist drive – paying no further attention to the witterings of economists. This slump is deep, we’re in for a period of prolonged austerity and I’m not prepared to pretend it’s part of some greater plan. The rich world needs to force prices down by refocusing on values. The poor, as ever, have got no choice, apart from revolution. They wouldn’t do that now, would they?

John J Kelly.