Lover, I promise you.
I will turn you until
You catch the light.
Broaden our bodies,
To fit the shape of our wanting.
Lover, I promise you.
To kiss soft,
as plate tectonics.
Lover, I promise you.
Act of love.
Of nights drawn long
at the edges.
Lover, I promise you.
centre of me.
Trade you sophistry,
for medicine and bed sheets.
Lover, I promise you.
I will curse and scrap,
And expect you to dab the bleeding.
Stand on your shoulders,
To better see beyond myself.
Lover, I promise you.
I will not be content with being,
Only striving to become.
If I raise my eyes,
It is only to have your gaze meet them.
Lover, I promise you.
Several shades of trouble,
Will colour what we make.
To stake our place,
Amongst the order of things.
Lover, I promise you.
That if we dared each other?
Long hot summers.
I will speak your name,
To know only what words can know.
Lover, I promise you.
If we are empty vessels,
Then love is in the filling.
There is room in me,
Make yourself at home.
And Lover, I promise you.
I will hold your heart,
Thrumming like a hummingbird.
Clasped between my two hands,
Delicate as a moth.
If I could follow the threads of your thoughts
we could sit silent at their source.
or, stepping into night,
we’ll talk violently
To persuade it of our existence.
We trade authors like warm loaves,
vainly seeking wisdom
to not sacrifice imagination
at the crude altar of reality.
I mock your need for certainty
for the concrete.
that which is regardless of ourselves
If I were not so contingent
I would mock myself.
We talk endlessly
Of the slow unfurling of sense
as if we know her,
as if we could talk kings off of thrones.
If I could follow the threads of your thoughts
I would present you the yarn
and convince you of its shape.
You would laugh
and reveal the holes in my arguments.
Gathered as witnesses
to suspended silence
A dance like
courting a mirror.
decrees this performance
so elementally held.
A million sky-arced
as blue-long song.
Singular as action
palmed from the earth
As lightly as
or breath withheld.
We mere earthbound things
intended to gape and grasp
with our dull vanities.
For only breath
and the birds have
Even our thought is
All the Pieces Matter
It will hopefully have become clear that the depressing state we find ourselves in is not due solely to one morbid symptom. Economic inequality erodes trust and fractures our society, where the richest, and then the rest of us, live in different worlds; one characterised by ostentation, and the other struggle. Meanwhile, our reductive view of wellbeing only serves to lionise those who stand at the top of their pile of stuff, sneering at the rest of us, as the body politic sickens and withers. Our ignorance blinds us to the fact that the very goods which we have come to draw our societal self-esteem were produced by churning the earth and heating the atmosphere, hastening the collapse of our rich natural environments, and eventually our societies. The three injustices I outlined are complexly interdependent, but arise from the same inhumane economic system: capitalism.
If the Left is to take economic equality seriously, we must also tackle the growth imperative which locks us into producing frivolous goods of little purpose. And we cannot begin to halt environmental destruction until our fellow citizens live in a society where we all have a decent standard of living, and we stand with each other in relations of civic solidarity, and not merely as sources of profit. We cannot take the epidemic of mental health problems seriously whilst psyches are shattered by the struggle to make ends meet, and manufactured wants pester our sense of worth. And we cannot even begin to enact a just solution to climate change when our sense of common purpose is threatened by a society of competing individuals distracted by an idiotic popular culture, which has almost lost the language and imagination to envision a different world. The Left will only be rearranging deckchairs unless, and until, we call our enemy by its name, and capitalism, with all its egregious punishments, is extricated from our social and political fabric.
A rejuvenated, radical, Left would not be timid in decrying the crimes of our age, and should speak plainly and boldly to the public about the cost we are continuously willing to play to support a system as inhumane, unjust and absurd as the one we live in. The disparate social movements of the Left, doing important and urgent work to address inequality, tackle climate change and restore civil society, should now speak in one voice, as the harms they seek to overcome begin from the same source. Our individual struggles are in fact the same cry for dignity, humanity and far-sightedness, and they do not stop at our borders. The injustices I have outlined are borne by all who toil in a global capitalist system, and the international Left must seek to redress them in concert. But we can all do our part in this nation, within our communities. We must help join the dots, bring the pieces together, and help ignite the discussion that the world we may have condemned to the realms of the impossible can be brought back into the possible, the necessary. What we may have envisioned as the good society, or the just world, is not determined by the imaginative limits of capitalism, but only by the limits of what we can know, and our collective political will.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It should have become apparent that my reading of the state we are in owes a lot to Marx, and Marxism. Marx was, and still is, the best theorist on capitalism, and his predictions have proved astoundingly prescient. In this sense, the Left should pay heed to his words. But to respect and admire Marx’s thought doesn’t work mean we have to swallow the whole corpus, including that of Marx’s enthusiastic followers, as gospel. History should have taught us that we can no longer afford to be doctrinaire, and the rightness of most of Marx’s diagnosis of capitalism doesn’t mean we must become the ideologically inflexible vanguard of the imminent communist utopia. Michael Rosen very helpfully points out that Marxism can be seen as having three distinct modes of action[xxx]; one, as an apparent scientific theory of history and society, two, as a political force, and three, as an ethical stance. Though it may now seem that Marxism is spent as a political force, it is still the richest and incisive critical theory with which to understand society’s underpinnings, as well as the configuration of the present global order. However, it is as an ethical stance – in its assertion that capitalism is oppressive and unjust – that we can draw the most force from Marxism’s analysis. We may jettison the ideas of the historical inevitability of communism, as capitalism obviously seems so rudely perseverant, and no working-class revolution can feasibly be seen brewing on the horizon. But what Marxism can show us is that the call for socialism is not over, and a radical democratic socialism is what the Left must now demand.
But have we not been here before? In Jerry Cohen’s book Why Not Socialism?[xxxi], he asks that even if socialism were desirable, are there still not limits to its feasibility, due to human nature and the present state of our societal technology? In terms of human nature, it is often said that humans are inadequately generous to make socialism work, and any socialist economy – one not based on the profit incentive – would never have the stability of our current model that harnesses public vices – self-interest – for public benefit. It is this second point where Cohen believes we may have an insoluble difficulty – even if we could produce a society of sufficiently generous and co-operative people, we do not currently have the means to harness that generosity to make an economy function. Once human needs were met, without the motivational and informational functions of the market, it would be difficult to know what to produce.
Cohen posits two possible solutions to this problem. One, first put forward by Joseph Carens, is where we have a society that looks much as it does now but with a tax system that redistributes wealth to complete equality, and another which he calls market socialism. In the first system, producers would still work for a cash incentive, but everyone would be under the understanding that they would not keep the money that accrues, but would be working for the wider benefit of society. Cohen thought Carens’ system utopian as it relies entirely on non-self-interested choice, and we may not be at a stage in human history where we could rely on that assumption. However, under market socialism everyone owns the capital of the society in question, but instead of central state planning over the whole economy there would be the chance to formulate publicly owned firms, co-operatives, semi-public firms and other forms of collective ownership. These firms would compete with each other in the market, and consumers would make consumer choices based on preference. Market socialism would reduce inequality, but it would not eliminate it, and both systems still operate as markets, although Carens’ only implicitly.
As Naomi Klein has demonstrated, climate change offers the most urgent claim to reinstate massive public investment, state planning and calling time on the entrenched paradigm of the fossil fuel status-quo. It is not an unhappy coincidence that Big Energy has expended so much lobbying power and dirty tactics to discredit climate science, and create an artificial debate about what awaits us. Climate change means that it is capitalism which must be finally confronted as the driver of profligate and destructive practices, as well as grotesque economic inequality. It is only the state, with its capacity to invest, plan, adapt, mitigate and regulate the private sector, which can come close to organising the war-footing which we must assume if we are to take climate change seriously. In short, it is the socialist state, of the sort seen in Europe post-1945, which is the only institution with the resources to implement the sweeping reforms we need. The Right knows this all too well, and is quaking at the thought of the ‘communist conspiracy theory’ which will put an end to unbridled consumer capitalism.
Conversely, those on the Left who advocate the overthrow of the state, by violence or other means, ignore the urgency with which we must address climate change and environmental destruction. We have lost all time to rebuild from a pre-state beginning, disregarding whether that would even be an attractive proposition; the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has already locked us into years of warming, which we must help the poorest to adapt to. However, even if we were to just avert climate catastrophe, that does not necessitate that we would have also brought about a more egalitarian economic arrangement, nor moved away from a conspicuous consumption social model. I am not yet convinced that the social movements of the Left have put the pieces together in such a way to recognise that economic inequality and a reductive view of wellbeing are heating our atmosphere and plundering our commons. The wider environmental movement must also equally recognise that justice for the environment must also mean a just political and economic system.
Cohen and others have provided us with illuminating ideas in how to move forward; there has been important work produced to help us reformulate an ideology of a radical anti-capitalist Left. One recent idea which is gaining traction is the basic, or citizens, income[xxxii]. This is an unconditional and non-withdrawable income paid to every man, woman and child, by virtue of citizenship. Details about the amount and the frequency would vary upon the circumstances of the society in question, but it would be paid to all without qualification. The income would be enough to provide a certain level of subsistence, and could be topped up with earnings through work. The purpose of the basic income would be to break the link between work, pay and consumption, as people would work less now that a certain standard of living would be guaranteed. This would have the concurrent effect of reducing income inequality, as well as resource use, whilst concurrently increasing leisure time. Citizens would no longer be as ensnared in the conspicuous consumption struggle. The basic income would also replace all other benefits, simplifying welfare provision. The income would provide a kind of social dividend, and could potentially end high consumption rates and capital accumulation, moving closer to an economy that serves human need. The basic income is currently advocated for by the Green Party of England and Wales, and test cases around the world have proven positive[xxxiii]. The basic income stands as a feasible and potentially attractive policy for a wider public which may be otherwise unsympathetic to the causes of the Left.
Regardless of the composition and policy of the socialist system that we advocate, we must share Cohen’s intellectual honesty. We must acknowledge that we are entering partly uncharted territory, and that any new system we advocate will be imperfect, both due to the limits of human nature, and our current knowledge. The entrenchment of capitalist modes of thought may add a further impediment to what we may be able to achieve. But as Peter Singer points out in A Darwinian Left, whilst the sciences of human nature may inform us that humans have a strong biological tendency for hierarchy formation, construction of ‘us and them’ groupings and brute competition, there is also an astounding capacity for co-operation and reciprocity. Just because something is natural does not make it just; it is only the ugly imbalance towards competition that capitalism has created that makes it easier to mask the best aspects of our natures from ourselves and each other. In this way we may make a break with Marxism, and the idea that human nature is entirely socially constructed, but we can also recognise that what is best of the Left – the protection of the weak and vulnerable, the call for the reduction of suffering and the demand for equality – is also part of our nature, and we must continually be informed by our growing knowledge of the kind of creatures we are.
Still, it remains deeply concerning that many on the Left are not taking environmental destruction seriously enough, as this will become the gravest threat to our vision of a good society. By the middle of this century, environmental destruction, and especially climate change, will come to drown out all other matters facing the human project. If iterations of the above systems and policies are not implemented, we will be faced with dire consequences that technologies cannot abate, and the science fictions of geo-engineering can only exacerbate. Lifestyle and consumption pattern change cannot be the whole answer to the dilemma of our commons. Though they will help in the formation of a critical mass pressing for cultural change, the real answers must go to the root of our social fabric, and must be political.
Before the Coalition government closed them down – stating cost savings – the Sustainable Development Commission produced an important report called Prosperity Without Growth[xxxiv]. The report contained the beginnings of a blueprint for a society that took economic inequality, a reductive view of wellbeing and environmental destruction seriously. The report argued that we need a radical reformulation of what prosperity should and could mean. It should be a capacious view of human wellbeing, one that allows for economic considerations to take a modest place in human affairs, and for leisure, community and the arts to become more central. The report puts it best in its own words:
Prosperity has vital social and psychological dimensions. To do well is in part about the ability to give and receive love, to enjoy the respect of your peers, to contribute useful work, and to have a sense of belonging and trust in the community. In short, an important component of prosperity is the ability to participate meaningfully in the life of society. (pg. 7)
The report acknowledges the link between economic growth and a certain level of material wellbeing, a correlation between growth and human development, and the necessity of economic resilience to protect jobs and livelihoods. Economic growth may be environmentally unsustainable, but recession and depression also lead to economic instability and the destruction of livelihoods. ‘Decoupling’, the breaking of the link between economic growth and material throughput, is then examined, but the report rubbishes the idea that increased efficiency under capitalism will reduce environmental degradation; in fact the trend seems to be an increase in resource use. There currently exists no just and ecologically sustainable model of increasing income for all; we cannot grow our way out of climate catastrophe.
However, this grim reading gives way to an optimistic vision of the kind of society we could create. Within the bounds of a steady-state economy – in which physical capital is maintained at a low rate of resource use within the regenerative capacities of the environment – inequality, wellbeing and environmental destruction would be taken seriously. But the authors are honest enough to admit that there currently exists no clear economic model that is stable without consumption growth. We desperately need a ‘macro-economics of sustainability’; a model that is not predicated upon senseless consumption built upon the destruction of the commons which produces vast inequalities. A new model such as this would:
The above list is not exhaustive, but the measures it contains already make the task ahead a daunting one. The social movements of the Left should act immediately, using all our intellectual resources and political will, to help formulate and bring about an economic model of a more holistically prosperous society. The task may be daunting, and our time may be short, but a political-economy that is economically and environmentally just is not only possible, it is necessary. Even if we fail in our task, the fight is still worth having. A macro-economics of sustainability, which protects capabilities for flourishing whilst living within environmental limits, is the answer to those who ask, ‘what would a just world without capitalism look like?’ It may not be the socialism some of us have imagined, but nor would it be the capitalism that so scars our society today.
I have sketched ideas here with a very broad brush, but there is enough here to begin the conversation we need to have on the Left. We cannot begin to solve a problem until we have defined it clearly. But for those who have read this, and now ask ‘what can I do?’, you ask a good question, and possibly the most difficult to answer. The social movements of the Left have been strategically operating in disparate ways, from occupations to divestment to legal petition. All of these actions are vital, and necessary. But we also need to attack where power lives, and with one voice and enemy in mind: capitalism. We stand on the shoulders of those who imagined bold visions of another possible world; it is our task to bring it into the realms of the possible. Those of us privileged enough to have the resources to see the times we live in for what they are have sneered too long at grappling with the levers of power. But time is too short, we need to get our hands dirty. My simple instruction is to join the parties of the Left, reinvigorate the debate within them and run for office. Let’s broaden the vision at the heart of government. We have let those who wish to govern out of a sense of entitlement hold the reins for too long. The unattractiveness of getting into the muck means we have revelled in it too long, and now it threatens to suffocate us.
I understand the perceived quaintness and timidity of this response. But if we are to act at all it must be democratically, and it must be by winning the argument in wider society. I also understand the psychological impediments that grip our minds and stop us from taking the bold action we wish we could take. We are constantly undermined by the thought that what we could do would amount to little, and that it is all ultimately futile. Despite the difficulty of what we need to do, and the grip the Right’s ideas have on our societal consciousness, I think cynicism has become the strongest impediment to our shared vision. We cannot, and should not, act alone. Our power lies in the collective force of our vision. But we believe ourselves powerless, and dare not even start the difficult conversation with those we care about most. We have forgotten how powerful we are, and how deep our shared discontent runs. This is the politics of defeat that the Left has been rehearsing for too long. What could be more insidious than the idea that we are already defeated, before we have even begun?
Despite what we may achieve, there will be no perfect solutions, no sun-drenched utopia. But we can have something better, something more humane than this. We are imperfect, fallible creatures, and our societies will always reflect this. Those of us who denounce the way we live now must speak without certainty of what may come, but with the optimism and hope of what we could achieve. There is nothing inevitable about the way we live now; there is nothing ordained, divinely or otherwise, about our current political arrangement. After all, politics is a fight for nothing shorter than our social reality. It’s long past time that the Left started to fight for what we have imagined possible, not for what will deemed reasonable by the norms of conventional wisdom. We still have so much left to lose, but so much more to gain.
Cohen, G. Why Not Socialism (2009) Princeton University Press
Fisher, M. Capitalist Realism (2009) Zero Books
Jackson, T. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (2011) Routledge
Judt, T. Ill Fares the Land (2010) Allen Lane
Klein, N. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) Simon & Schuster
Pickett, K. and Wilson, R. The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009) Penguin
Piketty, T. Capital in the 21st Century (2014) Harvard University Press
Sandel, M. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2013) Penguin
Singer, P. A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation (2000) Yale University Press
Skidelsky, E and Skidelsky, R. How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life (2013) Penguin
[vii] See Dawn Foster on schools: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n09/dawn-foster/free-schools and James Meek on hospitals: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n18/james-meek/its-already-happened
[xv] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/10/12/imf-austerity-is-much-worse-for-the-economy-than-we-thought/ Also see Paul Krugman’s excellent piece on the ‘Austerity Delusion’: http://www.theguardian.com/business/ng-interactive/2015/apr/29/the-austerity-delusion
[xvi] The full text can be read here: http://www.econ.yale.edu/smith/econ116a/keynes1.pdf The specific reference I talk about in this section can be found on pg. 5
[xx] I have taken this section mostly from Jerry Cohen’s ‘Against Capitalism’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJtSXkZQf0A) which is an eloquent and excellently argued exposition of anti-capitalism by someone who has said it much better than me.
[xxii] As quoted in Fisher, M. Capitalist Realism (2009) Zero Books
[xxiv] See http://www.thebiodiversityconsultancy.com/biodiversity-offsets/ for a taste of the technocratic jargon used to defend these new commodities.
[xxvii] See http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/why-are-carbon-markets-failing on the CDM and http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21576388-failure-reform-europes-carbon-market-will-reverberate-round-world-ets on the ETS.
[xxxi] See Chapter IV: Is the idea feasible? Are the obstacles to it human selfishness or poor social technology? Most of this section is taken from the above chapter.
[xxxiii] See http://www.guystanding.com/files/documents/Basic_Income_Pilots_in_India_note_for_inaugural.pdf for an example in Madhya Pradesh, India. For a pilot study in Namibia see http://www.bignam.org/BIG_pilot.html
[xxxiv] Download it for free here: http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php?id=914
Frederic Jamieson wrote that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism[xxii]’, and any assessment of the state of the environment would be right in being terrified we will see his proposition become a reality. Whilst he may have not been talking of the environment directly, I believe many would agree intuitively with the statement when we soberly measure the environmentally destructive practices that define our age. ‘The world’ in this sense of course does not mean the planet we inhabit will be rendered a lifeless husk or a scorched cinder as imagined by Hollywood screenwriters, but instead the world as we know it, the people, places, communities, cultures and values we cherish are threatened by the almost wholesale destruction of the environmental conditions which have allowed humanity to flourish. This is perhaps the defining and most unconscionable injustice of our age.
The Stockholm Resilience Centre, along with the Australian National University, developed a framework of ‘planetary boundaries’, nine ecological markers reflecting a ‘safe operating space for humanity’ within the natural environment, which if humanity exceeded could lead to ‘irreversible and abrupt environmental change’[xxiii]. According to their research we have already overshot 3 of those boundaries – biodiversity loss, land use and chemical pollution – and the rest are in a perilous state. The environmental challenges we face – soil erosion, ocean acidification, aquifer depletion, deforestation, decreased crop yields, chemical run-off, massive species and biodiversity loss – reads like a eulogy to the tragedy of the commons, a punishing and pitiful cost to pay for the fruits capitalism now bestows. With popular environmental consciousness still in its nascent stages, time has served only to cement destructive practices into our social fabric, rendering any work to reverse the damage piecemeal, and sometimes futile.
How did we find ourselves here? Our present economic system is predicated upon a shallow and short sighted rationale that cannot be sustained on a planet of finite resources. It is not ‘market failures’, or ‘inadequate regulation’ that is the ultimate cause of this destruction. It is it the very logic of capitalism that churns the earth and corrupts our life-systems. In a society and political culture with a denuded sense of common purpose, the destruction of the commons is barely seen as a tragedy. In fact, it is considered a necessary step in our technologically determined ‘progress’, if it is even remarked upon at all. The market hums to the 24/7 demand for foods from every country and season, consumer electronics built from recklessly extracted minerals and energy intensive leisure pursuits. Whilst the richest lavish themselves with more and more resource intensive toys, and the rest of us rush to catch up with them, the link is systematically ignored, or denied, between our way of life and environmentally destructive practices. No mainstream political party would dare admit that we cannot sustain this exploitation of our shared natural heritage, and if we were globally all to aspire to the lifestyles of the richest of us, we would speedily secure the age of environmental collapse.
As Michael Sandel has noted in his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy, the extension of the reach of the market reshapes how we value previously non-market entities, prioritising market values and ‘crowding out’ others. Places of outstanding natural beauty – our national parks, lakes and peaks – when enveloped by the logic of the market become merely assets on the economist’s ledger; ancient woodlands are no longer valued for their serene silence but for their timber yields, the beauty of fens and valleys is reduced to a new asset class to be monetized and exchanged.
Capitalism’s rush to extend markets into more and more spheres of the social world has rendered places we love and value intrinsically as commodities, commodities which are blind to the interaction of shared culture, identity, value and meaning which has led to communities fostering and protecting them for generations. The perverse logic of capitalism finds its most insensitive expression in the new commodity of ‘biodiversity offsets’[xxiv]. Now that nature can be ‘adequately’ valued in monetary terms, the destruction of natural environments can merely be offset by constructing a new eco-system elsewhere of the same monetary value. The deep history and sense of awe inspired by our commons is boorishly swept away by the logic of capital.
Climate change is the paradigmatic case of capitalism’s destruction of our environment. It not only places a time limit on us to deliver just action, it almost renders politics obsolete, as its effects will exacerbate all other human and ecological crises until it renders all else trivial. There is no need to again restate the dread-inducing scientific predictions and consequences of climate change[xxv], needless to say the threat to everything we hold dear, in concert with the many other kinds of environmental destruction that it will worsen, is existential. What matters most is the perverse logic driving the chaos. Macroeconomic policies predicated upon the ceaseless search for growth, and a frenetic commodity culture, strip the earth’s natural resources and heat our atmosphere, all at the altar of profit.
Arguments calling for lifestyle change, though well intentioned, ignore the fact that we are all deeply embedded in an economic system that demands consumption, and carbon emissions, due to the logic of capital accumulation. Systemic prerogatives are causing fossil fuel companies, as well as individuals, to race to produce and consume, and it is destroying our precious ecosystems. Capitalism’s tendency to industrialisation produces mass practices, such as intensive meat and dairy agriculture, which are profligate and carbon intensive[xxvi]. Those who argue that environmental destruction is a cost we should be willing to pay to raise living standards ignore the fact we still live in a world where millions still go hungry, despite current food production being able to meet everyone’s need. This all adds up to a grim picture of a global system that is despoiling what should sustains us.
Capitalism drives environmental destruction. The fundamental logic of capital accumulation, or economic growth, buttresses a consumerist culture of over-consumption, waste and a tendency to industrial-scale production. Consumption, growth and the extension of the market should be seen as driving climate change, rather than our only solution to it. Our global economy is heating our atmosphere and defacing the commons at an alarming rate, and only by confronting the systemic rationale driving this destruction will we avert ecological catastrophe. The solution must be a systemic paradigm shift in our economy and politics, not more toothless regulation.
Capitalism cannot solve climate change. Market solutions that have so far been implemented – such as the EU’s Clean Development Mechanism and the Emissions Trading Scheme – have fallen far short of the action needed to begin to take climate change seriously[xxvii]. Though putting a price on carbon would a bold step in the right direction, it would not confront the growth imperative. Technology, though it will certainly play a part in the solution, cannot be the be-all-and-end-all panacea it is often deemed to be. A recent NASA study found that technology can change the efficiency of resource use, but it also has a tendency to increase per capita consumption and resource extraction. Increases in consumption will negate any potential increases in efficiency[xxviii]. The problem is one of the system we live within, the marketization of more and more of the social sphere, and the values it inculcates.
Capitalism changes how we value the environment. Economic discourse on adequately pricing ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘externalities’ into market evaluations serves to provide an academic veneer for business-as-usual arguments. The environment must be defended on the grounds that it is not merely a repository of resources for exploitation and production of goods with exchange value. It must be defended as part of our common natural heritage, the source of the conditions that allow humanity to flourish and a benign climate to make a home, a perennial source of awe and beauty, and a great humbler as to our place within the wider, wild world. Those who seek to vandalize our natural environments only to enrich themselves perpetuate an unfolding tragedy, which ultimately harms us all, for a short-term spike in their profit margins. Cruelly, the result of the ascent of capital is that we almost seem to have lost the language to defend the commons on its own terms.
In her book, This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein succinctly illustrates that global governmental hesitation, digression and hand wringing over climate change now leave us only with radical options to defer disaster[xxix]. For that is the brute choice climate change places before us, we must take bold and radical action now to make the unthinkable unlikely. The human project is now burdened with the choice between pragmatic, but fallible, choices or the status quo, or as it should really be named, the unconscionable. We have lost the luxury of time to gradually bring about the most ideal political arrangement. We must make the difficult choices to decarbonise our economies, and we must make them now.
Most pressingly, climate change will eventually undo any and all progress in society that we have come to cherish. If we allow climate change to take its course, the most abhorrent consequence will be that the poorest and most vulnerable, and those who have done the least to bring us to such a perilous state, will be those who suffer most. Climate change is a global problem which will require a global solution, one cognisant of the contributions of corporate polluters and the richest nations which have benefitted so radically through their exploitation of resources globally. Only the Left can apply the appropriate corrective to this collective action problem. It is the only political force which can lead the adaptations, and ultimately mitigate the worst effects of climate change and environmental destruction in a manner that is equitable, and recognises the historical responsibility of the richest nations. Enough time has been wasted, we must start now.
A Reductive View of Wellbeing
John Manyard Keynes, writing in his 1930 work Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, spoke of how he looked forward to the day when, at around 2015, capitalism would have provided all we would need, and increased technological efficiency would mean the average working week would be around 10 hours[xvi]. When this point was reached, there would be no further need for economic growth, and capitalism would have served its purpose, being a means to an end towards the good life. 2015 has arrived, and from this vista we can see that capitalism has become anything but a transitional stage.
The central macroeconomic policy of the mainstream political parties, Left or Right, has become growth, which requires continued consumer spending to maintain. But this policy aim has mistaken a means for an end; we are operating on scarcity economics when there is an abundance of wealth, and we are ignorant as what to use it for. Governments consistently encourage us to spend more to stimulate the economy, even though the material conditions for a good life are already in our grasp. Conspicuous consumption, the race to acquire more and more stuff, is taking a serious psychic toll, which finds expression in anxiety and mental health problems[xvii]. We are locked into an absurd and senseless materialism, the purpose of which capitalism has obscured.
Robert and Edward Skidelsky, in their book How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, attempt to explain how we find ourselves in this dismal position. Keynes knew that technology would increase efficiency, but capitalism’s monetizing trend also altered our relationship to how things are valued. Instead of the productive powers of capitalism emancipating us from struggling for our needs, Keynes completely underestimated how unbounded human wants could be once unleashed by the powers of capital. The combination of our status-seeking natures and the modern permissibility of avarice mean that our wants now find endless expression in consumer society and competition for status.
The nature of the modern workplace has changed to reflect the fevered demand for growth. Constant assessment ensures conformity to central efficiency diktats, and increased mechanization leads to mind-numbing workdays that do little to nurture or challenge. Continuous comparison and evaluation in the social sphere has led to a drastic increase in mental health problems[xviii], most prominently anxiety and depression, conditions that reveal a fear of others, a reflection of a society where your fellows are deemed only as competitors and evaluators in the race for more[xix]. Political participation has drastically declined, as the very idea of the common good is mocked by the scale of social isolation and atomised individuals distracted by more material comforts.
What has driven this race for senseless consumption? The Marxist philosopher Jerry Cohen eloquently explained[xx] how in the midst of seeming plenty, we are still left wanting. He explained that capitalist competition has produced a remarkable increase in our power to produce things. But the fundamental aim of corporations under capitalism is to make as much money as they can, not to satisfy human need. With increased productivity – more output per unit of labour – businesses are presented with two options, reduce work and extend leisure, or increase output whilst labour remains constant.
Increased output may seem a good thing, but since so much work in the modern word is menial, repetitive and meaningless, human wellbeing would be increased by having more leisure time. But capitalism is biased towards greater output, as this ensures greater profits for the owners of capital. Therefore, a consequence of increased production is increased consumption, and an endless, senseless chase for more and more consumer products, because, and only because, firms under capitalism are geared to making money, and not serving the interests of human need.
Cohen also pointed out that the same system that overworks people when it is profitable to do so will also dispense with them when it is no longer profitable to employ them. Instead of a balanced lifestyle of work and leisure, we have unneeded overwork and wasteful unemployment. How could this economic system be said to be meeting human need, when we are told the only way to self-esteem is owning the most recent consumer electronics, whilst others are out of work and facing destitution?
Capitalism demands growth, which in turn demands continued consumption. Making growth the primary macroeconomic policy has produced harmful symptoms. We are all captive on the consumption treadmill, where unrestrained competition – based on self-interest – is celebrated. Failures in this race lose their self-esteem by thinking it is largely their own fault[xxi], whilst the supposed winners are unsatisfied with what they have. This has produced an atomised society with an increased prevalence of mental health problems – the way we live is making us sick.
Capitalism creates wants. In a capitalist society, we will always want more goods than we can get, and our wants will never be satiated, for if they were, owners of capital would lose their profits. As a result, our society is choked by a glut of agitated advertising for more and more products that are soon rendered outdated by planned obsolescence. The possibility of liberation from want is precluded by the artificial scarcity capitalism produces.
Capitalism limits our view of the good life. By ensuring that most human labour and time is spent in the pursuit of more and more stuff, we are severely restricted in pursuing our potential. Human flourishing is deferred in pursuit of mere accumulation. Materialism has produced a paradigm shift where education is no longer seen as the pursuit of self-improvement and self-knowledge, or an investment in an active citizenry, but a way to ‘highlight yourself in the labour market’. Politics has been discarded as a means of emancipating human life, and citizens instead view themselves as consumers.
What is most depressing about this picture is how senseless it all is, how absurd. That all our human ingenuity and imagination should be wasted on a system such as this is an insult to human dignity. Throughout most of human history, only a monied few have had the time and resources to cultivate their talents. But that situation no longer pertains. We have the technology to ensure that degrading labour only has a modest place in human life. But capitalism denies this liberation, and instead keeps most of us shackled to unfulfilling work, and continues to deny the emancipatory education that would unlock our full potential. Society should not be held hostage to the whims of the capitalist economy, and those who toil with us in this impoverished view of society should not be considered as simply sources of profit. The Left cannot continue to ignore this fundamental failure of imagination at the heart of how we live.
We have once again suffered the frustrated hopes and plunging disappointments of another election cycle. We have held our noses and voted tactically, we have rehearsed old arguments and been unmoved by new ones, and steeled ourselves for another result that falls far short of our imaginations. We are weary of discredited economic arguments that continue to punish, of radical hopes that are continually confounded and of visions that cannot escape the narrow bounds of mainstream political imagination. We are sick, and we are tired.
And now we are faced with one of the worst of possible outcomes, a Conservative majority. But aside from the surprise result, the election was unexceptional in one vital way: the most pressing matters about the way we live were barely discussed. The supposed party of the Left gave a flaccid performance, barely raising their voice to express the anger we should all share against inequality, destruction of the commons and short-sightedness. Instead, we were condemned to more mediocre managerialism, a damning indictment of the parlous state of our politics.
It’s time we asked ourselves, once again, what the Left should really aspire to, what values it must defend and what vision of society it should bring into the realms of the possible. I, for one, am not content with the assumption that this is the best of all possible worlds; that we can sit dumbly satisfied with the system we find ourselves in. We need bigger ideas, and better arguments, but most of all we need a bigger vision. Technical, but necessary, reforms about the electoral process and lobbying should be merely the forerunners to deeper expressions of how we should live, and what we owe each other.
That is why I see this as a moment to put forward a rejuvenated case for a radically different vision of this country, a Left vision, but not one that continues to triangulate, seeking ‘average’ voters in the centre, and certainly not one that frames our aspirations for society in the terms of the Right. It must be a positive vision, but not an idealistic one. We must simultaneously work to open up the potential that all people possess, and protect the environment that allow us to flourish, whilst being ready to admit that man’s nature is not perfectible. But fundamentally it must be a radical vision, nurtured, argued fiercely for and made possible by the Left – as no other political force can deliver it – and it must be a vision that does not continue to ignore the fundamental moral absurdities and injustices at the very heart of how we live.
At the start of his account of the decline of socialism in the UK after 1945, Ill Fares the Land, the historian Tony Judt defined our times concisely:
‘There is something seriously wrong with the way we live today. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing’.
This is the primary idea that any radical Left should start from: We cannot, as a society, continue to live as we do – it is unjustifiable; too much suffering is being visited on our equals, too much human potential and time has been wasted on the Right’s spurious arguments. The Left needs to find the moral high ground again, and we cannot do that without striking at the heart of what is wrong with the way we live.
The society in which we live has been disfigured by an economic system that produces a number of grievous symptoms, but which can be defined in one term: capitalism. Capitalism, simply defined, is an economic system where capital – privately owned – is invested for further accumulation and profit. But it is also is a system that leads to concentrations of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, which denigrates efforts to form a common purpose, which wreaks havoc on natural environments for profit and prioritises the consumption rat-race as the paramount social goal. It is also a system that we are repeatedly told by political elites is the only option, having the most insidious effect of all, imposing limits on the boundaries of what we imagine possible. We were told that we had witnessed the ‘End of History’, but the necessary demise of Soviet Communism does not negate the continued need to challenge capitalism. The false dichotomy – designed to make us cower – between the status quo and the gulag must be shown for what it is: a failure of imagination.
Capitalism is a term that the ‘electable’ Left has grown embarrassed to use – let alone criticise as a system – as it’s modern expression as the economic rationale of neo-liberalism has been internalised by both sides of the apparent two-party divide. But it is a system that asks us to abandon commitments to egalitarianism, and to social and environmental justice, that we can no longer afford to pass over, and it is a system that any radical Left that takes these commitments seriously must critique, attack and disassemble, in order to build again. There of course exists no purely capitalist society – the social security state built by the Labour government post-1945 is a striking example of building for the collective good – but capitalism as a model of political economy has been the ascendant mode in recent human history that now dictates our very vision of what a good society can be.
There are three major injustices that I believe capitalism perpetuates, and any rejuvenated Left political programme must attack capitalism on these grounds if we are to take the demands of social justice and egalitarianism seriously. Those three injustices are:
But for us to meet the demands of justice we cannot tackle these injustices in isolation, they are interrelated in such a way that only a radical new conception of society, one that attacks capitalism for weaving these harms into the fabric of our political culture, can begin to make our vision harmonise with our reality. It will be up to the social movements of the Left to ensure this radical new conception is fostered by government policy, and therein will lay the substance of our fight. These are not new ideas, and the above is by no means an exhaustive list, but any radical Left vision must militate against all three, in a course that recognises their interrelatedness, to take our commitment to our values seriously.
The Left should rightly be celebrated for making social equality a norm of our everyday discourse. Until very recently, racism, sexism and other markers of ignorance and prejudice could go unchallenged in public. It is due to the work of the many activists and thinkers on the Left that we now have a space – cherished, but fragile – where how we were born should no longer dictate whether or not we are treated equally in society. Governments have responded in kind by passing legislation ensuring women’s rights and equal marriage. This should be a source of pride for all Britons.
There is, of course, a long way still to go. Rhetoric about immigration can often turn into the blunt-edge of bigotry, women are still held within the strictures of male norms of beauty – and still held responsible for being victims of sexual violence – and bigotry and bile still finds those who have the audacity to express their sexuality. It would be pre-emptive to talk of emancipation for women and minorities, whatever its composition. But as a recent Ipsos MORI survey demonstrates[i], discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity or sexuality – is declining, as younger, generally socially progressive generations replace older, generally less progressive generations. There is, of course, nothing inevitable about this trend continuing. The far-right has seen a resurgence in recent years throughout Europe, with violent nationalism being a particularly ugly symptom of our times. The progress the Left has achieved must be consistently built upon, and we must be vigilant.
But as many critics on the Left have pointed out, identity politics – despite its gains – can have a fracturing effect on the sense of a universal common purpose. We cannot continue to perpetuate affirmations of difference on the Left whilst trying to build for the common good. What was most concerning about the Ipsos MORI polling is that younger generations, and the population as a whole, have become more economically conservative. Support for social security, or for increased state spending on welfare or more progressive taxation, has been eroded. Years of sucessive right-wing governments has shifted the political discourse to a position where we no longer believe tackling inequality is important for the health of our society. For the Left to bring about a more egalitarian social and political arrangement it must militate on the basis of social class and socioeconomic status, as this operates as short-hand for who has power in our society, and is still the clearest indicator of someone’s life chances. Though class distinctions are no longer as delineated as they once were, we still live amongst grotesque inequalities that must be dismantled on the basis of civic solidarity. Therefore, the Left must argue based on universal principles. Therefore, the inequality I wish to talk about is economic, and specifically wealth inequality.
First, it must be stated that ours is not a poor nation. There is enough wealth in this country so that no citizen should have to suffer for the basics that comprise a life. The only impediment to egalitarianism has been the lack of the political will to bring about the right economically distributive arrangement. Yet still the economics of scarcity are allowed to dictate the terms of who will struggle and who will succeed. The Left must challenge this persistently retold delusion.
According to the Equality Trust, ‘people in the bottom 10% of the population have on average a net income of £8,628. The top 10% have net incomes almost ten times that (£80,240)’[ii]. But the picture is even starker at the upper echelons of the income scale, ‘In 2011, the top 1% had an average income of £248,480 and the top 0.1% had an average income of £922,433’[iii]. When wealth is considered as a whole we learn that ‘the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9.5%’[iv]. The UK is now one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.
But why is wealth inequality so bad? Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showed in their important book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, that eleven different health and social problems are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries:
These are ‘pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, [and] encouraging excessive consumption’[vi]. These health and social problems ultimately have destructive effects on our societal cohesion and trust, affecting all of us, not just the poorest in society.
Those with the highest incomes also have the ear of those in the corridors of power, and the influential media outlets, which allow them to lobby for further economic deregulation for the uses of their capital. This has resulted in the privatizing trend, dressed up as neo-liberal economic theory, which has made previously public services, which aimed to serve the common good, lucrative acquisitions for private profit. Utilities and rail have been wrestled from public control, and education and healthcare are in the midst of being turned into profit-making ventures for private firms[vii]. The fact the UK is still denied the excellent rail services of the continent is a detriment not just to social mobility[viii], but our enjoyment of our country; as a natural monopoly, rail should not benefit private contractors, but instead the public. Specious arguments for the unassailable efficiency of privatization in all social spheres continue to be parroted, even when an example such as the US health care system – where everyone must pay for personal insurance – continues to be one of the least cost-effective in the world[ix]. These privatizations serve only to increase inequality.
Excessive executive pay – counter to the economic arguments of those who try to justify such grotesque remuneration – actually decreases worker productivity, as workers perceive their pay to be unfair, and are therefore less committed to work[x]. Research also suggests that lowering the wage of a low-paid worker decreases their productivity by a greater amount than increasing the wage of a high paid worker increases theirs[xi]. Not only that, but workers whose pay is so low that they struggle to afford the basic cost of living find it more difficult to work due to the anxiety of their financial position[xii]. The economic arguments of the Right that try to justify such income disparities are not borne out in reality, yet still we tolerate arguments for more deregulation, further financial remuneration to attract the ‘best and brightest’ and higher salaries for executives to encourage ‘aspiration’. The excesses of our society barely conceal the poverty of our civic solidarity.
What has driven inequality? Research by the Equality Trust shows that a strong minimum wage and the strength of worker’s bargaining power all decrease income inequality. Coupled with increased union membership, wages are driven upwards, whilst the pay of the highest 1% is decreased[xiii]. Today, union membership has fallen from the highs of previous centuries, and membership coverage is uneven. It does not take a historian to see that the dismantling of union power by successive right-wing governments has had a disastrous effect on inequality of wealth in this country. Together with the privatization of public services designed to level the playing field, wealth inequality disparities in the UK have become some of the worst in the developed world.
Inequality is caused by capitalism. The logic of capitalism demands the unimpeded of flow capital into more and more markets – so called ‘creative destruction’ – which has seen the recent marketization – via neo-liberal privatization – of health care and education. As Michael Sandel stated in his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits of Markets, ‘we have gone from having a market economy to being a market society’. Without state regulation and protection, increased marketization will continue to see the dismantling of institutions aimed at levelling the playing field for the poorest in society, for the benefit of the owners of capital.
Capitalism cannot solve inequality. The stagnation, and recent fall[xiv], of real wages is the result of capital’s power over labour, and of the profit seeking thirst of the owners of capital. Lower wages meant that banks began recklessly offering cheap credit to those who were struggling to afford the cost of living, which ultimately led to the financial crash of 2008. Crises such as this are inherent to capitalism as a result of the inequality produced by capital’s strength over labour. Another ideological symptom is the current fad for economic austerity, an entirely counterproductive strategy as the IMF sheepishly recently admitted[xv], which sought to rebalance the deficit by punishing the poorest and most vulnerable. To add insult to injury, most of those now in receipt of state benefit are currently working, another stunning example of the rank stupidity of our economic system, where the state has to subsidise worker’s wages as employers no longer pay enough to live on.
Capitalism concentrates wealth in fewer and fewer hands, creating economic and social upheaval. Thomas Piketty’s seminal work, Capital in the 21st Century, amply demonstrated this concentrating trend, and showed how it is not income alone that we should be concerned about, but wealth, as the richest in society now benefit from profits, inheritances, dividends, interests and rents – all income from their capital – as opposed to the rest of us, who mostly rely on remuneration from our labour. But Piketty’s prescription does not go far enough; a simple progressive wealth tax will not meet the demands of social justice.
There has been nothing more detrimental to the social contract than the creation of two distinct worlds within our society, one where the richest traverse with ease through gated elite establishments, enjoying all the benefits their excessive wealth can accrue, and the other where the poorest struggle in the face of poverty of opportunity, resources and choice. This is the cost we are apparently continuously happy to pay to allow the richest in society to take more than their fair share of our society’s abundance. The Left must find the voice the attack this fundamental injustice.
But the Left must challenge the inequality that capitalism produces not just using economic arguments, but fundamentally on a simple moral principle: that it is unconscionable that so many must struggle and suffer when so few have no need for their riches – it is sickeningly unjust. As we will examine in the next part, inequality should no longer be tolerated as we may grow ourselves out of scarcity. We live in an advanced economy of abundance, and the question of economic inequality has been deferred for too long. Any radical Left vision must insist on the rightness of this principle, and make plain the fracturing of community, waste of potential, and denuding of common purpose that inequality produces in the whole of society.