Once upon a time, the minority who owned our country also governed it, inevitably in their own interests. When they wanted to make a different use of their land, they simply drove off the people who’d been farming it. When their mines proved less profitable they simply reduced the wages of the men who laboured in them, or they closed them down. Democracy has placed some requirement of accountability on those who own and govern; economic growth, and the exploitation of people in other countries has brought a measure of ownership to many more of those who are governed, but the fundamental relationship hasn’t changed. Those who have the power to protect their own interests continue to do so – we have yet to find Plato’s philosopher kings.
Now the phase of continuous economic growth is ending, and we’re gradually recognising that the processes that made Capitalism possible were never sustainable in the long term. We are going to have to adjust to a new way of living which I characterise as the Cuban way, a society where any resources left over when basic needs have been met are invested in health care and education. Many of the goods and services we’ve come to consider essential to our happiness will become increasingly inaccessible, due to declining disposable income and rising prices.
The end of Capitalism’s ‘work and spend culture’ need not be a disaster, provided that we manage, collectively, to support high standards of health care and education. Anyone who doubts the overriding importance of those services should try being sick and ignorant. The relentless consumerism promoted by Capitalism served to prevent social unrest, along with the development of state welfare provision for those who did least well from the markets. Those who owned the bulk of capital benefited both from that social stability and from their disproportionate share of the fruits of economic growth. It’s a moot point whether wealth made them any happier than those lower down who were being pacified by lesser treats and consolations.
The current credit crisis is, I suspect, the last of a series of crises which Capitalism has survived by doing more of the same, printing money to spend on consumer goods and maintain employment, without much consideration of the social and environmental consequences. As the seriousness of the situation has become clear I’ve noted recognition that ‘we’re all in this together’ coming from unexpected political quarters; but I’ve yet to be convinced that those who’ve done best from the system which has now run out of steam are actually ready to give up much of what they and their ancestors gained from it. There’s still too much talk of getting back to growth, and of finding ways to provide health care and education more cheaply, so that other forms of consumption can prosper.
The dangers of the transition to the post-Capitalist phase are obvious: unrest at home among a growing sector of the population which already feels excluded from society, and international conflicts as nations compete for markets and scarce natural resources. Nothing new there really, but a greater urgency without economic growth to ease the tensions. I’d like to end my first post on a note of optimism, but hesitate to predict how those who have the power to prepare us for the future will behave when their own interests are threatened. This transition could be orderly, given goodwill and a willingness to compromise all round, or it could be chaotic if everyone insists on holding on to what they have. However, of one thing we can be confident: the future needs to be rather different from the past.