Central to debate in the run-up to the 2015 General Election was the ‘economy’.
There’s a certain irony to this (though also a grim predictability: the Conservative Party has played this tune at every election since 1979, when it formed an administration which tripled unemployment, squandered the North Sea oil windfall on the increased benefits payments which resulted, and began to inflate an unsustainable housing bubble) as in fact there is little difference in economic outlook between Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP.
Though they certainly differ in the details, all four now fully adhere to a capital- and market-centric system, in which policy is driven (and also dictated) by money.
In this way, we hear arguments from Conservatives that we ‘cannot afford’ services (not only is this untrue in the most simple sense, inasmuch as the UK is the world’s sixth largest state – if we cannot afford something then who can? – it is also untrue in the conceptual sense: for a developed state, the words ‘cannot afford’ are literally nonsense, provided one is committed enough to the provision of what is best for its people to change its own rules).
We hear from Labour that we must ‘work with’ private enterprise to ‘fund’ hospitals, schools, and infrastructure projects (even though in effect this meant the state running up debts which must be ‘repaid’ to those private firms many time over – a little like claiming the £5 you borrowed off Bermondsey Dave at 1,000% weekly interest was a ‘partnership’ to help you ‘meet your immediate housing need’).
The Lib Dems are led to well-meaning but in the end self-defeating money-led initiatives which look progressive only until one spends a moment actually thinking about them (lifting the poorest from tax is a warm-hearted idea, but if one reduces the tax-take in our current system, those who are poorest suffer most, as they are the people who rely most upon tax-funded services).
And UKIP present us with ‘Tory Max’ – the arguments Conservatives might like to make, but have so far shied away from: ‘we can’t afford it’ combined with ‘…and it’s the fault of immigrants and the EU which allows them in’ (even if UKIP’s immigration figures were correct – and it is distressing that a party whose entire raison d’etre is immigration is so often so far from accurate on that – they would still not plug the central, howling gap in all of their arguments: if immigrants are stealing jobs, and tax pays for social services, how can immigration possibly be the reason we ‘can’t afford’ anything?).
In the face of such uniformity of approach (the Green Party comes closest to an alternative – underlying most of its policies is the necessity for a new economic approach – but so far has struggled to articulate it in the face of the blank cliff that passes for economics in the modern UK) it’s easy to forget the central question: why?
It’s a useful question in part because of the direct answers it suggests (perhaps the Conservatives govern for their friends, Labour in fear of the market, the Lib Dems under a mist of misunderstanding of the model and its parameters, and UKIP is literally nothing without the 10 per cent of people who look back rather than forward, always forgetting that like the Doppler effect, the echoes of history may not reflect any truth so much as distance and direction of travel).
But it’s also useful because asking it – perhaps only asking it – opens a new line of inquiry. If we can ask ‘why are things done this way?’, we must then accept that there is another.
From there, we can ask a series of questions ‘how did we come to this model?’ ‘what would happen if we altered this, ditched that, tweaked a third thing?’ can we, in short, innovate our way to a better system?
Because it’s hard to argue that what we have is the best we can do as a species. In the world’s sixth-richest state, the current argument is that we ‘cannot afford’ to improve services – indeed that we must make them worse – even as one million people here rely on charity food hand-outs to survive.
The UK’s five richest families own more money than its 12.8m poorest people, and the former more than tripled their wealth in the years 2010-2015, even as the latter suffered the longest consecutive fall in living standards in recorded UK history.
Some of this is deliberate. The political Right is driven by an economic belief that inequality is good for society, driving production and therefore national wealth (though the current government appears to have forgotten that that wealth is supposed to be used for the good of the nation’s people). But the Tory Party did not invent Capitalism, and far less is it responsible for the existence of money.
In the end, while it may give us a sense of dizziness and shortness of breath to think so, we should conclude that we are not where we are because of some kind of grand plan (whether benevolent, as the Tories claim, or malevolent, as conspiracy theorists everywhere are simultaneously angered and reassured to believe) but by a sequence of unthinking, unconscious accidents.
The discovery of this raw material, at this moment, by a state following this model, led to this outcome. Another material, in another time and place, could just as easily have led us somewhere else.
It’s useful to recognise this because the idea that we are where we are because we ‘must be’ or as a result of some grand plan, prevents thought. It prevents imagination, and it prevents innovation. And those three things are the human race’s greatest characteristics – they must not be shut down in relation to the most important matters facing us as a species.
When it was first used, money was a token. It represented goods, and could be exchanged for goods and services. It was not wealth in itself, nor was it the point of goods and services. It was simply a means to make their exchange simpler and easier.
Yet today, as noted above, money has become something else. It is at the centre of – and is a major determining factor within – all of national and international policy. A tool has become the central purpose of society.
It’s as if we had allowed hammers to become the fundamental purpose and point of all craft and construction – as if we were refusing to build because that cannot be done with hammers, and because all our activity should be about the collection of hammers, and in some cases the free movement of hammers across borders and social boundaries.
It’s absurd. Because it’s the process of exalting a tool to a position way beyond the sensible limits of its abilities and usefulness.
It’s probably not fair to level blame for this. The average politician is generally no more or less intelligent than the average voter (though of course some have been, and have changed the game in sometimes quite striking ways – and they are employed to be more focussed on exactly these issues than anyone else is) and if we have been caught up within this error, perhaps they have been as well.
Even in those cases where some blame could be attributed, it will do us little good now to attempt to hold the dead responsible for the struggles of the living.
And it’s easy to see how in a system in which money has become the central societal element; where everything literally relies on it, is driven by it, and is shaped to suit it, rather than the other way around, politicians and the rest of us are dictated to by it to the extent that even the innovators are trapped within the system and so create debt or come up with ideas which are undermined by the system itself.
But there is an alternative. And we have a responsibility to work on it. To spend our time, rather than blaming the dead, working to improve the lot of the living.
And the first step is to question what money is for.
The fact that this seems like an odd question is central to our problems as a species at this point in our history. The fact is, when someone tells us they want to be rich, instead of simply nodding, or – at best – saying something along the lines of ‘money isn’t everything’, we ought to be asking ‘why?’
Not because there’s no reason, but because the reason, not the money, should be the driving factor. That is, what we do with money is surely more important and enjoyable than simply sitting, staring at figures on a screen, or notes in a pile, and smiling to ourselves – at least, if we are not fetishists (and some of us are).
And this works at a national and international level. What is the point of money? Surely, the only point, if there is any at all, is to provide a decent standard of living for people, to provide housing, food, water, heat and light, to prevent people living on the edge of starvation and death. It’s not to say ‘look at all the money we have’ or to leave it glistening in a pile in the living rooms of the extremely rich.
Because that can’t be the point of humanity. The collection of bits of metal and paper we created and we have assigned value to, cannot be what we aspire to as a species, and cannot be how we judge our success or failure.
And in the end, that is what is missing from the argument about economics – not who is best at saving money, but what is money for, and how can we assure it is used to that purpose?