Thinking Your Way Through a Labyrinth of Contemporary Issues
Everywhere we look in the Western World we see crisis and decay. The very foundations of democratic belief in the system that has reigned supreme look not only shaken, but crumbling.
The origins of this can be traced back to a single moment. The year, was 1979 and strike was in the air. In every country in the West, strikes were hammering away at the workplace as businesses went under, inflation ran rampant and growth flatlined. Somehow, somewhere we needed an answer, the answer came in the shape of a strange lady with a commanding voice. Margaret Thatcher. In the United States, it was a smooth talking Hollywood actor a year later, Ronald Reagan.
Between the two of them, they revolutionised the system, shook it up and changed the game. No more of these pesky regulations, no more of this idea that there should be a link between the office of the CEO and the office of the worker. To put it in the immortal words of Gordon Gekko, diagnosing our crisis before it ever arose. Greed, is good.
Since 1979, we have been sold on the idea that we can pay less tax, have a higher standard of living and pay only for the services we want rather than all the services we need to provide. It’s an important choice, why should I pay for child benefit? I don’t have kids. Why I should I pay for poor black kids to go to university? my kids aren’t disadvantaged! Why? Why? Why?
The reason, that the opposition of the time could never truly give, was because it makes our economy fairer, it makes our economy healthier and it makes our economy stronger. Yet, a strong economy breaks the system because our system is not designed around mutual prosperity, it is designed around the right amount of inequality. Too much, and the system fails. Too little, and the system fails.
What was Thatcher and Reagan’s solution to the challenges of better and cheaper goods coming from the East? Shut down all support and use the challenge to undercut the social net. A company sank or swam on its own. The Government should get the hell out of the way and let the pistons of capitalism go to work. Cut regulations, make it easier to fire striking staff and crack down on workplace rights. Afterall, if people work harder, productivity goes up and the best companies can challenge those in the East. This brutal philosophy of survival of the fittest worked, for a time. The social nets impaired by the cuts weren’t too overstretched because at this point, costs remained reasonable. It’s the economic example of the frog in hot water. Drop it in at 100C and the Frog leaps out. Drop it in at 20C and slowly turn up, the frog goes nowhere until it’s already dead.
We, the people, are like the frog. If prices had ratcheted up straight away, we’d have revolted and voted for something else. But if they go up slowly, we don’t really notice and up and up and up. Consider this, putting aside the sexist connotations of society at the time, the salary of a parent, usually the man, working at the time could provide a comfortable life for his ‘ideal’ family of a stay at home wife and two kids. That salary would keep the house, pay for the car and put the two kids through Uni. Then the bills start going up because now, more and more services are being privatised. We’re paying a little less tax, so at first it’s absorbed. But those prices keep going up.
But now, Feminism is really starting to get going and not a moment too soon, because those wages? They won’t cover a family anymore. Now with the woman of the house also working, we’re comfortable again. She’s working part-time so she can still do her unpaid labour at home, it’s a little bit of adjustment but we make do.
Here’s the 90s, the rip-roaring optimism of the Third Way as we’re sold the idea that we can have it all, low taxes, a healthier but not totally generous social state and rising wages, and wages do rise a little as the computers kick into gear. But that starts to slow down because those computers are now eating up jobs. Sure, they’re also making jobs in Silicon valley in the big start-ups, but those jobs are going to fresh round the ears graduates, not older workers with families. Not middle-aged men and women with families to feed and no other skills. Those bills? They’re still going up.
Look here! Look at this fantastic thing called the credit card! It means you can spend your needs, pay a minimum fee and that’ll keep you ticking over. The debt will grow, but that’s tomorrow’s worry! Use the card! It’s so convenient! Whilst you were looking at the card, that debt pile really started to grow. But nobody noticed.
Fast forward a few more years, infrastructure is crumbling. In the USA, the Republicans are back with their big millionaires tax giveaways rather than the big spend they need. In the UK, Tony Blair spends big fast but slows down to stave off accusations from the Tories. But now 9/11 has happened and everyone feels very very vulnerable. It’s a new age and new ages are often heralded by wars and by God were we going to get one. Bush launched his new crusade, for oil, for revenge or for family pride it doesn’t really matter. He got his war and he dragged everyone else in. And that war became a blackhole of resources, it swallowed money and humans as it dragged on, and on, and on. Trillions spent and nothing to show, and all that money had to come from somewhere.
By this point, people are starting to panic, that rising tide of capitalism has risen past their heads. Both the parents of this ‘ideal’ family are working, they can’t afford to pay for their kids Uni anymore they’ve got this giant pile of debt they need to pay off, but can’t. They’re overextended, they’re desperate. But those bills keep going up. Inflation keeps going up. But those wages, they didn’t go up. They stayed low. They stayed where they were in the 80s.
Then it came. That reckoning. The Credit Crunch, the Great Recession. Call it what you want but what it is, is a gigantic system failure. In desperation to stop this reckoning right the way through the 2000s, regulations were slashed throughout every industry, you had social democrats going further than Thatcher and Reagan ever dreamed in de-regulation. Corporate America found it could have socialism for them and free market capitalism for the rest. Generous terms were offered to make sure jobs stayed here, because jobs leaving was the worst thing.
It didn’t matter most of those companies didn’t pay tax. It didn’t matter that they paid their workers so little that they ended up needing help from the government to keep them above the breadline. It didn’t matter that the welfare state had become an incubating machine for corporations to profit from. Because the only thing that mattered, is that people had jobs.
This could end in only one way and it did end in that way. Total collapse. I still remember how it felt in 2007/2008 as the global economy fell down around us. I still remember being told in school that it’s not going to affect our futures. I still remember being promised that it’ll be a temporary bump.
I’m writing in 2018 and it hasn’t changed, only gotten worse and worse and worse. So much so that it looks like our way of life is ending.
To be truthful, it is. Forget Trump, forget Corbyn, forget Macron forget all of these movements it time for politicians to stand up and tell the truth. We can no longer bandy this idea that we can have it all. A low tax, high wage economy with a high social structure is not possible. The unregulated market has failed. Pandering to multinationals will not work. Failure to invest is not something that should be a mark of pride by the state.
Those are things voters don’t want to hear, people like to be told they don’t need to pay tax. They like to be told that when they’re millionaires and billionaires, they won’t have many obligations and they can sit in their pile as the world burns. It’s true, there are more billionaires and millionaires now then there has ever been before, but at what cost?
Schools are crumbling, buildings falling down and society is in collapse.
Our faith has gone where it always has, we’re looking for someone to blame. We like to think we’ve conquered the worst instincts of man, and yes, it’s mostly men driving this machine, but we haven’t. We’ve gone right back to where nearly all of our ancestors have since the dawn of time. Blame the different.
Blame the foreigner, he’s taking our jobs. Blame the foreigner, he’s taking our benefits. Blame the foreigner, he’s causing crime. Blame the foreigner, he’s eroding our society.
We’ve seen where that goes, but it doesn’t matter. We want the comfort of faux-protectionism. We want the comfort of knowing that if we follow along and blame the foreigner, they will leave (if we’re lucky and not something worse) and the economy will heal itself and we’ll go back to the way it was.
That all-pervading fear isn’t going to fix this. It takes courage and the belief in doing what is right, over what is easy. It’s time now for a generation to stand up and to accept the responsibility of shouldering this burden, a burden placed upon them by their greedy elders who thought they have their cake and eat it. Make no mistake, this isn’t the fault of millennials growing up with zero agency in the decisions that wrecked our world. Nearly every millennial was still in school when the crash happened. This is the fault of our parents and our grandparents. Those that bought what Thatcher and Reagan sold and sought to profit from it.
The solution isn’t going back. We can’t go back. We can no more reindustrialize than we can turn back time. We have to move forward and we have to move past the hatred and fear. It was wrong in the 1800s just as it was wrong in the 1900s and it is wrong now, in 2018 to give hatred and fear and bigotry the freedom to prey on our worst instincts and our weakest moments.
We need now, more than ever before, the courage to stop the rot. This is the time where we throw away meaningless phrases like “Anti-Establishmentism” and move away from the idea that non-participation in politics is the only way forward. Decisions are made by those who show up. Ideas are heard because of those with the courage to speak. Worlds are built by those who roll up their sleeves and get involved.
The answers aren’t simple, they’re complex and it means facing up to the fact we may not live to see the success of what we begin. But we do so because it is right for us to do so. It means we’ve got to rebuild our economies not in the shape of what came before, but where we are now. That means that it’s not wealth envy to get the rich to pay more. That means it’s not wrong to put regulations in place to stop companies acting in a reckless and dangerous manner. That means it’s not wrong for the government to get involved and help the people to prosper.
It means in the USA, they need to get away from the reality tv glitz and start moving into the grim and often boring world of politics, where ideas are discussed not around only their selfish merit in the short-term, but their utility across society. It means that the USA needs to invest in their country by fixing their institutional problems. It means black and other minority communities need the help they’ve been starved of in their entire history. It means women finally need to be paid equally for the work they carry out. It means that everywhere, there needs to be a great national effort to rebuild America not for the few, but for the many.
In the United Kingdom, it means moving our economy away from London. It means investing in roads and schools and teachers and doctors. It means reversing damaging and pointless cuts and privatisation. It means recognising that sink or swim simply doesn’t cut it anymore. It means having the courage to move towards ideas that we consider political heresy. The unregulated market isn’t a free market.
Greed is not good. Society needs to breathe free, free from corporate avarice, free from the lies of politics and free from the crippling insidious fear that drives humans mad and sends them into the worst corners of their existence.
Now is the time for a million individual heroes, every single person doing their bit to pull in a unified direction. Now is the time for opportunity to be given to the many, not through force of arms, but the force of the ballot box. Now is the time to not accept the lie of ‘tough choices’ when the real difficult decisions lie cast aside conveniently kicked into the long grass. Now is the time for everyone everywhere to challenge their politicians to be better and to do better. To stop infantilizing and dumbing down but to talk frankly of real solutions and real ideas. Now is the time for a new generation to step forward and create a new world out of the old, to tear asunder the desiccated husk of the broken economies and false narratives. To create not an illusion built upon a mountain of debt, but a real tangible future built around mutual prosperity and the common good. Now is the time to create that fabled world where the economy grows not for the private vaults of a few rich men, but where wealth cycles around the community. Where our prosperity is not dependent on the exploitation of children a world away. Where our success is not contingent on propping up that which cannot be supported any longer. Selflessness is hard, but this is our time to rise above our worst selves to pursue the dream of something more, the idea that we can be our best selves and we don’t need to degenerate into soulless husks to pursue success. It’s an idea for today, it’s an economy for today, it’s a world for the generation of today.