‘A plague on all our houses’

Gareth Wyn Jones assesses the real reasons behind discontent in Europe.

Disgruntled? Disillusioned? Frustrated? Embittered? Blaming immigrants, scroungers, Europe, red tape, corrupt politicians or central government. Welcome to the world of the UKIP and the US Tea Party Movement.

Bombarded by the dream machine telling us that consumption to the key to happiness, that body beautiful will make you desirable and loved, to worship at the shrine of the Sunday Times Rich 500, to holiday with the football stars in Dubai; the people have spoken – a big farat!

Reality that’s the big problem! Trapped on a zero-hours or part-time contracts? No job? Finding your money draining away on rent and basic necessities? Growing debt? Worried by over-stretched health service? Fed up in an examination factory school or on a University rip-off course? Fighting for over-stretched social and community services? Waiting for a cancelled bus service? Fed up with perceived ‘scroungers’ at home and abroad? Or worried by bearded men on about Sharia law or just a too-rapidly changing world?

It’s OK if you are rich and successful.  Tax is optional. You can buy the best services and goods in a monetarised world.  Send your privileged kids off to Eton. Line them up for the best opportunities. Operate on the Starbucks or Amazon model using Her Majesties’ approved tax havens.  Greed is good. But we’d like to be in the trough as well. But the system isn’t working for us, so let’s support someone like Farage, who is plausible, charismatic and speaks to our frustrations. It’s got to be someone’s fault!

Big problem. Is Farage fighting the right dragons? Will his medicine actually help? What is his medicine anyway?  What is UKIP really saying?  Not sure actually! Except – let’s stop immigrants and let’s stop being bossed about by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. That’s good enough for now!

Big problem. Very few are telling it like it is. The system, especially since the 1980s, has been set up to favour the few. The standard of living of the many has barely improved.

Cliché. The rising tide will lift all the boats – but it hasn’t! Its selectively lifting the large luxury yachts and leaving the rowboats stuck in the mud – some getting swamped.

Government is trapped by its own propaganda. They promise, and we want, low taxes. Especially direct taxes. But VAT is a pain too and it catches everyone! The rich play the system so why can’t we? So let’s pay cash! Viva the black economy!  OK, but who will pay for basic services?  Don’t we need a good local school and hospital, a community centre, playing fields, clean streets? Where do we now turn? More privatisation?  Pretty blunt instrument, rarely delivering low costs and quality – and the employees are screwed down hard. Ask the cleaners and carers  – worth comparing costs of UK and US health care and death rates.

The mantra:  choice and de-regulation will drive up standards. But it doesn’t seem to do so – good for company profits though! We end up paying to bail out bankers, for high prices on trains and large bills to energy companies and getting ripped off by Serco and G4.  Worse: the elderly are dumped in miserable old people’s homes. What do we do about the aged? Getting too numerous? More immigrants may help – cheap, willing, young labour – but we don’t want that.

Government is paralysed: they must pander to big business to pay their bills, and hopefully create a few jobs, so they dance to their tune. But business and capital are global and mobile. Don’t much care about community or society. Ready to move at the drop of a hat to somewhere with lower tax, fewer controls and minimal regulation. Hey! at least that exports the pollution. Fortunately pollution is now killing so many in China they are being forced to clamp down. Maybe we’ll get some jobs back after all!!

Right wing rhetoric: be more competitive, increase labour market flexibility, reward the rich (job creators?) with more riches, clobber the poor – malingerers, educate the work force – this equals prosperity. Left wing rhetoric: nearly identical – but, maybe, curb excesses of zero-hours contacts and oh! there are some deserving poor.

Grim reality: competition has losers. Money, power and influence are self-reinforcing and suck resources into a few hands in a few centres. 85 people own as much as half the rest of the world – some 3,500,000,000 individuals. Amazing! But hey! The oligarchs fund our football teams. Isn’t the Premier League the best in the world? – sorry Cardiff! It’s UK policy to make London a tax haven and the rich can fund their favoured charities. We are on a race to the bottom. If we can get rid of EU constraints, we can run harder and get there faster.

An elephant at the bottom of the garden: our prosperity is built on cheap energy and cheap raw materials.  The rates of new oil finds are much less than consumption. The new finds are in difficult, expensive places but demand rises — ergo it will get more expensive. Gas is mostly owned by unreliable sources.  The Government answer – let’s frack. Problem – not much gas in south of England and the natives are restless. But that’s ok, there’s gas is in the north and that makes politics easier. If not, subsidise nuclear power and pay out, for decades to France, China etc. Better than having the lights go out. Don’t know what Farage thinks of this – interesting. But what then of global warming? Don’t we need to cut emissions drastically – aren’t we legally committed? Frack that too! Let’s ignore it. Something will turn up. Maybe the floods and extreme weather wont be so bad. The Somerset levels, the railway in Dawlish, and the Aberystwyth prom were just one offs. Renewables – a bit problematic. Greed is good, denial better!!

Great irony: the response to a crisis caused by free market fundamentalism is to vote for the popularist right. But the alternatives are pretty scarce. Sustainable development is not taken seriously. New Labour is damaged goods (think PFIs, PPIs and Iraq). Re-newed Labour struggling. Plaid seem asleep. Lib Dems – let’s not speak ill of the dead. Let’s agree:  we must go for ‘growth’ and increase the GPD. New improved version available including prostitution and drugs. Any old growth will do. If the money ends up in tax havens – a misfortune to be met with a shrug. But GDP is deeply flawed, ignoring so many social and environmental impacts. So let’s promote “green growth” – usefully vague and ill-defined (must ensure fracking and nuclear power not excluded). Let’s free up enterprise from the dead hand of regulation. But what of landscape, wildlife, sugar-fuelled obesity, alcohol consumption, death and injury at work, bullying, tax evasion, border control – ours is a very complex society. People, companies and governments cheat — maybe we need regulations after all!

Let’s start by honestly admitting the scale of our problems. It’s not immigration or the EU or scroungers but ‘conventional wisdom’. We’ve built and depend on an unstable, unsustainable, debt-fuelled, globally-damaging, socio-economic system aided by digital technology and controlled by a very few. Yes, it has worked well for some at times. But can it be maintained? Can we continue to turn the treadmill faster and faster? Can it work if the system only favours the few; even Mark Carney and Christine Lagarde, never mind the Pope, are worried. What of the many? What happens as energy and food cost rise? What happens if [when?] sea levels rise 2 meters? Fairness and integrity matter. Innovation also matters. Enterprise is vital. But greed cannot be good.

Maybe we actually need a progressive Europe, sufficiently large and coherent to take on big business, the City and Wall Street and combat global warming. No chance of Westminster doing so – a wholly-owned City subsidiary. Small nations will be picked off. Can we build a Europe where people matter?  Slight chance? But maybe it’s our only hope? There’s an approaching “Perfect Storm”. We are not heeding the warnings, but instead listening to false prophets.

It can get much worse.

Gareth Wyn Jones is Emeritus Professor at Bangor University

7 thoughts on “‘A plague on all our houses’

  1. Our culture is indeed too materialist – in both senses of the word, for they are related – but public policies more likely to increase poverty are unlikely to make people more Spiritual and altruistic. Experience suggests the opposite may be true: for most of us, lack of money does not make us desire it less.

    The surest way of sustaining poverty is to keep telling the poor that they are poor because others are rich. Dealing with the actual causes of poverty – overpopulation, an incomprehensible tax-benefits system that puts the poverty trap on a statutory basis, a failed education system, overregulation that positively discourages employment, and an anti-enterprise culture – is difficult, time-consuming, and unpopular, so it is far easier for self-styled ‘progressive’ politicians to win quick votes by reassuring the poor that their poverty is in no way their fault but some ‘other’ group is entirely to blame. The identity of that ‘other’ group changes with circumstance but the psychology is the same.

    The evidence is clear that individuals who buy into that mentality, and districts, regions, and nations which elect politicians who promote it, are far more likely to remain poor than those who reject it. Anyone wanting a good example of where that mindset gets you need look no further than France.

  2. “We’ve built and depend on an unstable, unsustainable, debt-fuelled, globally-damaging, socio-economic system aided by digital technology and controlled by a very few. ”

    Wrong. It is not controlled by a very few. It is not ‘controlled’ at all. It is the outcome of random discoveries and competitive striving by different groups with no-one in control. Some people do much better out of it than others and have more power and position in the tussle. As such they resist change but they are not in control and cannot prevent change. Where are Xerox and Nokia now? Is Microsoft the force it was? It seems US imperialism cannot control a raggle-taggle army of a few thousand lightly-armed fanatics in Mesopotamia. No one designed the current system and after the 1917 revolution it is unlikely that anyone will try to replace it with a designed system. All we can do is spot individual problems and try and mobilise political consensus to fix them. Global warming is one such problem. Meanwhile like biological evolution itself, human society will evolve blindly. People have always been alarmed by the out-of-control nature of reality; that’s why they invented gods or wrote jeremiads. As my Mum’s old gardener used to say “teleology is for the birds”

  3. A truthful rant that cuts to the nub of the worlds economic problems. A fiat monetary system can only exist with cheap fuel, cheap resources and cheap labour being used on an ever increasing scale. If any of those three things cannot be supplied cheaply and in greater quantities then the system will fail. It can be extended to a degree by recycling or substitution but an expotential system will always crash at some point. Limits to Growth published in the 1970’s is right on track.

  4. The enemy is growth but try telling that to all the modellers who run models that require continuous growth to give them the outcomes they want, and to all the ‘management’ and ‘government’ that relies upon it for their questionable raison d’etre… I seem to recall reading J.K. Galbraith and others in the 1970s which made the point well enough long before super-computers meant that ‘broken’ modelling could be run much faster.

    That doesn’t mean we need the EU, nor do we need to believe in man-made global warming that isn’t happening, nor catastrophic sea-level rise that isn’t happening, nor do we need unaccountable NGOs like the WWF which are funded by the EU to lobby the EU and other governments to con the public that the decision making process is bottom-up when it remains firmly top-down. The proles are still controlled using distraction and unfounded scares.

    The more I look at it the more I conclude that the top-down elites and their groupthink are the problem – they think they are much cleverer than they really are and and they seem to be incapable of learning from present or past mistakes. The EU is an example of a self-perpetuating failed elite hell-bent on growing its influence whatever the cost – Ukraine being the latest example of their failed intervention in things they simply don’t understand. The elites need to be cut down to size before they destroy the lot of us – but they will never relinquish their hold on power willingly.

  5. I agree with the article pretty much whole heartedly.
    “It can get much worse”
    I think it is inevitable that it will get much worse. The question is will the efforts we make it less worse that it will otherwise turn out to be.

    We are actually facing something more damaging than a “Perfect storm”. What we face is not just a
    a combination of unfavourable circumstances but a suite of unfavourable circumstances the effects of which can result in positive feedback making any or all the circumstances even more unfavourable. The “Perfect storm” can’t help but get more perfect.

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