Perhaps the optimists are right and our economy will soon be back to business as usual, with continuous growth delivering generous public services and desirable consumer goods. But the evidence rather suggests that we’re going to have less to spend on those things in future. We know that the young will be re-paying the cost of their own higher education, that workers will need to be saving more for their retirement, and that when they do retire their pensions will be smaller. At the same time the prices of essentials like food and energy are likely to rise. Does anyone imagine that incomes will increase in order to compensate for all this ? Apart from bankers’ bonuses, obviously.
At first sight a long pause in consumerism looks attractive, since Capitalism’s most obvious success has been in converting the Earth’s resources into pollution and landfill, and there’s scant evidence that money and what it can buy brings contentment. One welcome change, for example, would be a decline in the use of increasingly expensive private motor transport. That would cause serious inconvenience for a few people and oblige widespread changes of attitude, but the potential benefits are impressive. Fewer vehicles on our roads will allow public transport to be more efficient, and let cyclists get around more safely. Those who regain the habit of walking regular short distances will enjoy improved fitness and health. There will be less noise and pollution in our environment. We may even feel able to ease off from the hectic lifestyles which have only been made possible by motor cars.
There’s a long list of other products and services which we could manage without: minor treats, rewards and consolations on the one hand and, on the other, those more significant purchases motivated by the desire to be seen as fashionable, tasteful or prosperous. Unfortunately, all that stuff which panders to our whims rather than meets our needs has become fundamental to our economy – producing and providing it is currently how many of our citizens earn their living. With unemployment rising and pressure on government budgets it’s no wonder that politicians are hoping that a return to economic growth will save them from the difficult decisions that a new sort of economy will require.
However, I’m hoping that phrases like ‘ we’re all in this together’ imply a genuine recognition that some significant re-distribution is going to be essential, in order to avoid both social injustice and social unrest. First, we might make clear that a 50 pence tax rate does not mean taking half of someone’s income, but only half of what they get above a level which is already more than most people can ever aspire to. Secondly, we might vigorously pursue international agreement that individuals and companies pay the full taxes due in the countries where they live or do business. Perhaps we might stop worrying about those who prefer to leave rather than make a fair contribution, and simply close the door after them.
Thirdly, we might require that citizens who receive unearned income, whether as benefits or pensions, are still expected to do something in return for the essential goods and services they use. There are already plenty of good examples of voluntary work, but we shall need to develop expectations that volunteering goes along with the benefits of being a citizen. There’s much important work to be done in the fields of education and social care that we couldn’t afford to pay for even when we had economic growth, but it could now provide the most satisfying ‘leisure’ activities that any of us will ever have.
As for paid employment, some redistribution will be necessary there too, although it’s less obvious how that transition can be achieved. The decline in consumer spending will be making much non-essential work redundant, so we shall need to begin sharing the jobs that still need doing, by reducing everyone’s working hours and enjoying some of that increased leisure we were once promised as a result of new technologies. I’ve no easy answers as to how we might move in that direction, so I shall be watching our politicians for signs of recognition that radical change is not just desirable but inevitable. If we are to cease relying on economic growth, and emerge into a new and more satisfactory phase of Capitalism, we shall need to remember that while owning and consuming are attractive, the things that matter most in life need cost very little at all.