by Sam Tomlin
“My true adversary…has no name, no face; he belongs to no party; he will never declare his candidacy. He will not be elected, yet he governs. My enemy is the world of finance.” Like many (all?) socialists across Europe, I have greeted Francois Hollande’s victory in the French elections with jubilation and great expectation. From the very first time I heard a snippet on the news of his fearless and provocative rhetoric, something jumped inside me. Beyond the simple message of higher taxes and investment for growth, at a much deeper level he has connected with the electorate (and also people across Europe), I believe, at a very human level, precisely because he has brought humanity back into debates in which it has been lacking. He has dared to question the almost self-evident truth in modern society that in order for humanity to ‘prosper’ or ‘flourish’ we need to rely on wealth and economic growth as a primary function of this prospering.
In this line of thought, values we all (hopefully) wish to expound in personal lives and communities such as love, justice, equal opportunity, sharing and shared responsibility are restricted precisely to the personal and community level. Who would tell their child not to share their toy with their friend, but in order to play with it they need to earn it? These values, however, are seldom seen in the ‘serious’ world of macro-economics where ‘growth above all else’ takes precedence not simply because they help the markets grow themselves, but (as it is sold to us) it will ultimately lead to us being happier. Life, it would seem, hangs in the balance between quarterly growth figures.
This understanding should be challenged for two main reasons. While not wanting to undermine the terrible reality that economic stagnation or recession (as we are currently seeing) will mean less jobs and people being able to make a living, economic growth, as we have known it (devoid of values mentioned above) is not sustainable as the financial crisis has shown. Secondly, even if growth were to continue in a similar pattern to the last decades, does not fit with a generally understood (consciously or sub-consciously) concept of human flourishing. Economic flourishing, as we have known it, is based primarily on a workforce run into the ground, believing the lie that to be successful in life means to earn and have more, which invariably means sacrificing other things we value in theory above all else, but in practice come lower down our priorities. In a recent article, a nurse caring for the dying wrote down the most common regrets of those nearing the end of their lives; the top two were: ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me’ & ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’. Hard-hitting to hear for a work-aholic society like ours.
David Cameron hinted at challenging this approach in 2010 with his opinion-dividing ‘happiness index’: ‘Wellbeing can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society’s sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.’ However, such language did not stick with continuation of market-driven economy type words like ‘productive’ and ‘effective’ taking precedence. This can even be seen in our education system where the EBAC encourages schools to promote more ‘rigorous’ subjects at the expense of subjects more attuned to ‘feeding the soul’ as it might be put. The aim, no doubt is to create more ‘productive’ citizens who can contribute to GDP, again without much regard to other possibilities of measure of human wellbeing.
So what is needed? I am certainly no economist, but I hope the more economically-literate will understand a concerned citizen’s desire to contribute to the debate, and perhaps the time ‘normal’ people were ushered out of such debates should be drawing to a close since most ‘experts’ and financiers haven’t exactly given us much reason to trust them in recent years. Economics should have an ethical & cultural side to them as well as complicated mathematical algorithms that seemingly most economists do not understand (perhaps often created for this exact purpose??)
What is most important to humanity is not wealth, but relationships. Given the choice of a life of wealth & luxury without loved ones, or a simple life with them, I am confident of the answer most would give. If this is true, then an approach to economics which prioritises relationships should take precedence. Cooperatives and mutually owned businesses are one example: where profits are shared more evenly and ordinary people feel more ‘involved’ in decisions being made about their money as they are made in community not just at the ‘top’ above their heads. Building bridges between those at the top and those at the bottom is also essential. Someone once said, ‘The issue is not that the rich do not care about the poor. The issue is that the rich do not know the poor.’ Imagine if bankers, politicians & hedge-fund managers, and generally those in power chose to live in poorer communities. How could you finalise deals you know would bring you short term gain while hurting the poorest people if you live among them & see them on your way to work? It’s much easier on the other hand when you’re picked up from Kensington in your private cab, ushered to your 40th floor office and then taken back by the same means.
Many more creative ideas exist to keep ideas like this alive such as the move your money campaign for a fairer banking system and innovative social enterprises that benefit communities. Civil society needs to be creative in not only protesting (although it must be said the Occupy movement has played a major role in stimulating this debate through protest) and fighting for a fairer distribution of the burden for reducing the deficit on those who can afford it, but coming up with alternatives. Rachel Reeves MP asked a pertinent question at a Christian Socialist Movement event I attended the other night, ‘Is what awaits us post-deficit, just back to “business as normal”, as it was before the crash? Or is there an alternative?’ I passionately believe there must be an alternative based on relationships at its heart, but unless we find one soon, we may have (literally) missed the opportunity of a life-time. Another system is possible, but in order to make it happen, we need to start enacting it, or being the change we want to see in it.