The pace of change in the perception of ‘society’ and the role of the State since 2010 is unprecedented; we seem to have shifted from a country and a people that were, by and large, pretty tolerant of others, valued the role of public services and bought into the idea of a pluralist definition of Britishness. Those days now seem like a relic of some distant, more naive, past. The rampant ideology of Neo-liberalism is alive and kicking (perhaps in its death throes but still capable of incredible damage). We are now happy to see break downs of our tax payments as it gives us the opportunity to be outraged that we pay for things we do not use. We seemingly identify more closely with the idea of the workless, feckless scrounger than we do the unemployed person as victim of circumstance as categorised by notions of the deserving and undeserving.
The current Randian neo-liberal hegemony view privatisation as the only solution to delivering public services with Frances Maude saying recently was that the private sector would deliver all public services at the earliest opportunity (many happily buy into this notion), resulting in moves to ‘sell off’ Police, Health and Education services within quick succession. This means for working people they will pay for such services at least three times; once for the original infrastructure, once for maintenance and once for use of these ‘new’ private services. The ‘free market’ is seen as the only viable source of efficiency and innovation, the only mechanism to drive social change and we surrender unconditionally to it. The notion that economic growth itself will act as a panacea to all society’s ills is the sugar for the medicine of austerity, but this is based on a falsehood.
Our seemingly unblinking, unquestioning stance accelerates us into a future that is unknown, uncharted territory that may well be extremely toxic to any notion of the common good. We are increasingly atomised; it seems what happens to others is of little concern as our own insecurities take centre stage - if lucky enough to be in work we should just be glad we have a job, keep our heads down and hope the storm will pass leaving our houses relatively unaffected. The assault on our way of life has been carefully stage managed, starting with public sector jobs and pensions many started to feel insecure, worrying for prospects, for homes, for children’s outcomes. Then came the Welfare Reform Bill; playing on people’s prejudices and creating artificial divisions between working people and (as the DWP’s document ‘Social Justice - Transforming Lives’ calls people) ‘the workless’. The question is posed ‘why should you pay for someone else to sit on the dole?’ And we dutifully answer ‘yes, why should we? I’m feeling insecure, so they should too’ These divisions are forced wider by endless reports of changes to a range of State functions; the future seems uncertain, it seems frightening, it’s easy to externalise, easy to blame others.
Then we have the NHS, the single greatest British post-war achievement, a rejection of health inequality, a commitment to the common good, the jewel in our crown. Imperfect, of course, but one of the things that defined ‘us’, our purpose and our self-image. In our state of shock the response to the marketisation of the NHS has been muted, the national media coverage minimal, the protest almost non-existent. This regression to an almost Victorian mindset has taken many by surprise, many on the Left adopting postures that do little to offer viable alternatives to the current dominance of this ‘Chicago School’ ideology.
The problem for the Left is in articulating a viable alternative, the Right have been so successful in determining the narrative of contemporary life that many on the Left have simply conceded, buying into the notion of austerity (even if this is ‘austerity lite’) and helping to facilitate what Naomi Klein would call ‘economic shock therapy’. Additionally, we are experiencing a period of critically confused Government who, on one hand, advocate free-market economics and the small State whilst, on the other, dogmatically interfere in health, education, parenting, policing, internet use (whilst actively rejecting the critical views of professionals in these environments), the very antithesis of small government. This dichotomy evidences a lack of political awareness, knowledge and indeed discipline – a ‘make it up as you go along’ attitude mired in conservative histories whilst navigating a course through the swiftest social and technological changes since the first industrial revolution. The size, number and complexity of contemporary issues has, paradoxically, necessitated an increased role for the State in bailing out the financial sector, this ultimately short-sighted reactionary response will do little to change the markets or encourage more responsible or ethical behaviour; as Edward De Bono would have it:
‘Imagine that you were playing a game of chance such as roulette, with someone else’s money. You were permitted to keep your winnings but your losses were paid for you. The result would be a sort of one-way roulette at which you could not lose. At any particular moment you could not be sure of winning on the next play, but you would know that if you played long enough you would win. You would hardly refuse to play because the process is not predictable and not entirely within your control. On the contrary, you would play as often as you could in order to increase your chances of winning’.
Marxist theorist David Harvey would state that the latest round of privatisations amount to ‘accumulation through dispossession’, that neo-liberalism has failed to create sustainable growth and that as a people our national insurances (health, education, police) are being taken from us; the capitalist elite identifying the public sector as one of the few remaining areas of significant profit in advanced western economies outside of the markets as we are incapable of competing with China in the making of ‘stuff’. The talk of ‘rebalancing the economy’ is at best hopeful and at worst naïve; the assault on the public sector and working conditions for all highlights an acknowledgement that workers’ rights, unionisation and the minimum wage makes the ‘march of the makers’ extremely unlikely but simply dismantling the advances of the past is hardly a solution (despite Cameron’s protestations that he is doing just that, ‘brick by brick’). No-one can realistically envisage a future where UK workers’ rights have been diluted to the point that real competition with China is possible, hence the Governments insistence on ‘new’ industries.
What of the ‘digital economy’ then? The recent $1bn purchase of Instagram by Facebook should give us cause for concern. Instagram has (in less than 2 years) become a major player in the global network but employs only 13 people; if this is the new model of wealth creation the future for old, post-industrialised economies looks bleak with a growing surplus of working-age adults inevitably making subsistence demands on the State. The unfettered markets have failed; what we need is a political solution, however, the demands for free-market economics have forced the Left to sound more conservative and even anti-progress (much of the Left’s rhetoric is enmeshed in preserving the considerable advances of the 20th Century including the aforementioned universal social provisions). The demand now is that this historical perspective be viewed through a contemporary lens and the Left facilitates a debate that counters the heedless rush to dismantle the State. The difficulty is that contemporary culture is immersed in the zeitgeist with no thought for past or future, pursuing instant gratification (echoing the financial markets pursuit of short-term gain) at the expense of all else.
This political solution would be derided by Cameron as ‘putting the politics before the economics’; in our view that is exactly what the Left should argue: that a political solution to the crisis is now the only viable option, people before profits and market (banking) regulation for the common good. Perhaps at this stage the Left can but mount an effective defence of universal social provisions whilst looking to a future that as yet is undefined but De Bono would advise us to ‘dig a different hole’ as looking for solutions to these issues from a palette of old ideas is doomed to failure.
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