Make no mistake, the purposeful exclusion of growing numbers from economic activity is an integral aspect of the economic system. The argument that there is no alternative to current arrangements carries with it an explicit acceptance that economic ‘realities’ make full employment impossible. This is utter nonsense, yet without fundamental change, exclusion will only get worse. The technology that should be delivering more comfortable lives and increased leisure time is instead accelerating the process of exclusion.
There’s nothing inevitable about this switch from a society which recognizes the efficacy of an inclusive economy to one that creates wealth only for those it needs to employ. The logical conclusion is a society in which all land and capital is owned and controlled by a small minority, while the majority are permanently excluded. This is a recipe for acute social breakdown, the beginnings of which were visible when rioting broke out on the streets of several English cities in the summer of 2011. Given the denial of basic economic rights to so many people, it’s surprising there hasn’t already been greater social disorder.Since the disastrous neo-liberal project began three decades ago, and the world emerged, culturally disoriented, into the dazzling false promises of globalization, economies worldwide have suffered a lack of demand. This has been compensated for by taking on unsustainable levels of debt. Technological advance has been complicit in the process of exclusion because of the way it has been used to increase both output and efficiency. We can create more things more cheaply by using machines instead of people. But if all the land and capital is applied in the pursuit of improved efficiency and increasing rewards to that capital, then what happens to people who no longer have jobs? They cannot find work because they have no means of accessing the other two factors of production, without which their labour is useless.
There is a serious disconnect at the heart of our consumer-culture-driven economy: people are constantly told they should aspire to endless material consumption, but are actively denied the means of doing so. There are plenty of reasons for disliking the abundance of consumer tat sold on our high streets, but if people want it why not put them to work making it, and pay them a proper wage so they can buy it? Because, though this would be socially beneficial, it wouldn’t be ‘economically efficient’. In other words the return to those who supplied capital would be reduced in favour of wages for the people who actually did the work. In the draconian modern economy, while consumption is good, paying wages should be avoided wherever possible.
Today, economic outcomes have become divorced from the notions of justice and fairness that we are encouraged to believe are the foundations of society. We no longer live in a democracy but a plutocracy where power is exercised by a minority in their own interests. The real Greek tragedy is that democracy has been forcibly ended where it first began. Real democracy, democracy which shapes the economic landscape, has never been properly established, anywhere. In the early part of the twentieth century, while women still struggled for the right to vote, enlightened individuals conceived the welfare state as a means to mitigate the worst consequences of an economy which excluded so many people. But in doing so they limited our ambition in respect of creating a more just society. True justice may have been impossible then, and at least the welfare state has served to moderate the worst manifestations of injustice, but this cannot go on forever. It’s time we were more ambitious, and there’s never been a better opportunity.
How did we let this happen? Simple: a perfectly achievable democratic ideal has been sacrificed to elite power, corporate lobbying and rent-seeking business activities, with politicians of all parties taking the side of the wealthy. Herman Daly suggests that “People are too forgiving. They just don’t understand what has been done to them.” He’s right, people do not understand; but not because the issue is complicated or because there are difficult moral decisions to be made. As Noam Chomsky says, “I don’t think there’s anything deeper than what’s on the surface. Intellectuals have to make it look complicated – that’s part of their job.” The evidence on the surface is overwhelming. It points to gross injustice visited by a minority on the majority. All this is justified by an amoral economic system to which fashionably ignorant politicians and economists still insist there is no alternative.
Progress towards a more inclusive and just society is dependent on our ability to force what is currently left undebated and unsaid to the centre of public discourse. Only in this way can we begin to redraw our cognitive map.
Historically, an all-powerful church was complicit in encouraging the belief that the world naturally divides between rich and poor, and that elite power constitutes the natural order. The medieval church was the mass media of its day. For thousands of years it did a thorough job controlling the cognitive map. The church gave moral permission to plunder – in Britain one outcome is the class system. Troublesome groups who did not fit in were shipped to other parts of the world so the system could function smoothly. Life was cheap, and the poor had no access to the knowledge necessary to challenge the status quo. That was life. Today the continuance of the elite power model comes at a cost so great in terms of lives, suffering and planetary destruction that it has to be stopped. Like Gutenberg’s printing press, the internet has given us the means to disperse the cloud of ignorance and apathy. We have the ability to meet virtually in person and to ensure that everyone has access to the truth about what is going on, what the consequences will be, and how there is a viable alternative. But we must find the collective courage and determination to make it happen.
Unfortunately, there is no middle way here: once we recognize that current economic arrangements not only condone but actively encourage rent seeking, we can’t simply regulate or legislate to moderate such behaviour. Billions of people are denied the right to work for a decent living while the system conspires to crush the entrepreneurial spirit that’s desperately needed if we are to escape the current crisis and begin to build a new society; one in which corrupt finance, social violence, inescapable poverty and environmental breakdown are effectively addressed.
Excerpt from Four Horsemen: The Survival Manual.