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The Erosion of Public Goods: Time to Rally

24/02/2011 1 comment

The Middle East is engulfed by the rage of millions. Its heartening to see so many realise their rights and finally mobilise to oust their dictatorships and demand a better quality of life sans white people, tanks and jets. Western governments are eager to piggyback on this public outrage despite supporting said tyrants for decades. This rage is not isolated.

We are inspired to take every breaking story as self-contained, sensitive to the inner dynamics of the event and the history of the town, city or country. Recent stories, such as  the protests in Wisconsin, the 50,000 projected job losses in the NHS here, and the upheaval of ancient regimes in the Middle East are all incredibly different issues, but are they?

I believe there is something more at work here, and to notice as such is considerably dependent on assessing the various strands of history which have led different populations to demand a better quality of life. The working and middle classes have simply had enough, everywhere, and are finally waking up to the possibilities of living in a democracy.

We band the word “democracy” around like its a done deal in the West – like its a product we manufacture and sell to the world with an ambiguous one-glove-fits-all instruction guide. Make no mistake, the democratic deficit in the West (see U.K) is a stark problem we have to address at length for there to be any progressive legislation which tackles gross inequality.

Therefore, we must be careful not to make “the banks” a scapegoat. No doubt, they are grossly dangerous organisations which actively promote inequality and simply reward wealth with wealth, but they, like everything which operates in society, are dependent on legislation which allows them to do what they do. Banks are simply not accountable, governments are.

The recent history in the United States regarding the two major (now homogeneous) political parties is a testament to what has befallen all Western countries to some degree or another regarding this last point. Nowhere in the world has such a metamorphosis taken place in the political arena given the strength and diversity of its culture.

During WW2, taxes were at an all time high in the U.S. During the boom of the 60’s and 70’s, this started to change because of the emergence of a strong pro-business, free market lobby. The Republicans enjoyed the attention of these lobbyists and took it upon themselves to pen friendly legislation. Nothing has changed there. What of the Democratic Party?

Back then, the Democrats relied on a strong labour movement embodied by powerful unions, who, without the vast riches of giant corporations, could still do one thing all political parties valued above all else: organise the electorate. Yet, the labour movement was soon splintered and abandoned by the Democrats.

This was because the activists on the left became disillusioned with lacklustre and unimaginative union leadership. Their usefulness spiralled into oblivion as different bodies of the movement started pulling in other directions, such as the growing anti-war sentiment, or feminism, or the environment. What was a clear mission became blurred by the broad spectrum of interests which emerged from the movement.

For big business and the Republicans, their interest was the singular goal of acquiring wealth, and therefore power – together creating a working relationship to acquire both respectively.

Thus, the cynical leadership of the left saw unions as becoming defunct, inefficient, and unable to do the one thing they wanted them to do – organise behind the party come campaign time.

This snippet of American history is vitally important to understand what happened there next, and what is happening here today.

Big business saw its opportunity to hold both parties in thrall to its financial muscle. The Democratic Party finally towed the line the corporate lobbyists were setting in order to keep pace alongside the Republicans. Taxes have steadily been in decline since the 60’s, and during the last 30 years, the top 1% of the population have been raping the income chart.

 

This is not to mention corporate tax levels, which have plummeted despite astronomical profits.

Reason? “We create jobs with that money”. Yes, you do, and pay them 185 times less than what you get (if they’re lucky). This is while co-opting the labour market by standardising that low wage amongst fellow CEOs and Gov. officials at the golf course on Sunday. Ahem, back to reasoned assessment…

 

Charts courtesy of motherjones.com – where you can find many more revolting ones to shake your fist at.

Now, to be in the American government, one has to be rich. Super rich, in fact. Campaign costs are always footed by corporate interests eager to have friends on both sides writing the law. It is a classic business model: dominate the market by controlling all production outlets – Kind of like Starbucks opening two shops on the same road. You win or you win.

The consequence in politics is that you limit choice and freedom.

The second half of the 20th Century can be remembered as the 50 years where the siege against public goods in society swayed in favour of big business. The U.S. has taught us that much, as they serve as something of a blueprint for the current government in the U.K. as it pursues increasing the wealth and prosperity for the blue-blooded upper classes.

It remains a fact that political parties don’t care about the electorate. To them, voters are an alien mass of hands and feet which somehow gives them power. What they do value is those who can organise the great unwashed into making a favourable decision at the ballot box. The policy has always been about seeking stability – at home and abroad.

That is, stability in funding for the political party, and the stability of low trade costs for the corporate friends who had bankrolled them into office.

The outrage in the Middle East shines a great fat light on this point. The U.S. and other Western governments have admitted to seeking stability over democracy in this region, and achieving neither (Condoleezza Rice in Cairo, 2005). They will want you to believe this sentiment has changed. It hasn’t.

The West are vocally supporting these uprisings not because they view democracy as an objective good, but as something contingent on the same old fashioned notion of stability. Now, they think Arabs living in oppressive dictatorships will behave better in a democracy. It has nothing to do with democracy as an idea in and of itself – it is still secondary to stability.

This is a microcosm of a larger point. The assault against the public good, as seen with its steady erosion in the U.S, the old/new Conservative ideologues in the the U.K, and flagging kleptocracies in the Middle East, and all the dictators around the world propped up by one foreign element or another – it all comes down to a great and engineered shift in risk.

Public goods are the bedrock of society. Not only do they limit the market with regulations, no access zones and such like, they give citizens a space where they do not have to relentlessly keep competing with each other economically. The key to big business strategy here is destroying all public goods and replacing them with individual and involuntary risk.

The risk element is important to understand, as seen with the recent financial crisis. Banks failed at the roulette table and the taxpayer bailed them out. This embodies the individual paying the cost vs. business undertaking risk. This is also why the wealthiest 1% have enjoyed such a grotesque rise in income over the poor over the last three decades.

When we win, they win bigger. When they lose, we lose bigger. This relationship is a relatively new phenomenon and has only been brought about by legislation enabling corporate entities to have more rights and lower rates of tax than the individual. A bank is liable to pay 1% in corporation tax on profits of £11.6bn. The individual always loses.

And the working individual must lose for big business to succeed in the way it has done. Corporate strategy focuses on keeping people collectively weak and dependent. It is a weird dynamic, because on one hand, new technology is personalising our media and simultaneously bringing people together regardless of government or corporate interests.

Yet, the same corporations depend on our weakness to organise to demand accountability in government, and better conditions in society and the workplace. They want to provide the leadership and the laws, but are creating the conditions with which we can empower ourselves once again.

It is the old capitalist joke: they would invent the only weapon that could destroy themselves if they thought they would be made supremely rich by it.

And they have.

The protests in Wisconsin are a throwback to the dogged labour movement which is steadily awakening once again. The downtrodden workers of the wealthiest country in the world remember the public good wistfully now more than ever. Sometimes when you are at your lowest, you are at your highest.

The people in the Middle East are fed up with their installed dictators, and one by one, by popular will, these dictators will fall on their swords for the public good, for better working conditions, and for a free and democratic vote – something we cannot even do here in the West given the myriad of business interests involved in a modern political campaign.

In the U.K, we are in the middle of it all, and by virtue of that and our history, we can contribute to the cause only by example.

This means not repeating the mistakes of the past by identifying a handful of leaders who will ultimately fail under the combined pressure of the entire corporate lobby with all its instruments of coercion and persuasion.

This means going after those accountable as an organised network emboldened by what democracy is capable of delivering here and everywhere it is championed. The public good is not just the street lamp, or a bench, or a park. It is workers rights, fair wages, health care and the freedom to organise.

The stories are indeed standalone, but the movement is global.

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