The issue is not that the rich don’t care about the poor, it’s that they don’t know the poor – economics and relationships

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.

Is there more to life than quarterly growth figures?

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.

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7 comments
  1. Great post. I agree with the thrust of what you’re saying, that money should not be the object but rather meaningful human relationships.

    However, I do see this as something of a false dichotomy. Money of course should not be a goal in itself. Nor should growth or development for development’s sake. Nor should long hours of gruelling work with accompanying time spent away from friends and family. But there are perhaps two things missing from this account.

    Firstly, people have always had to work very hard to achieve a decent standard of living. Historically, that might have meant many long days and years farming one’s own land, providing one’s own produce – and in many places, that is still what is required. In the modern world, that means working long, hard hours to earn the money to purchase the food, entertainment, medical supplies, and education that is necessary for the flourishing of one’s own family. To this extent, hard work and endeavour is to be praised, and not looked down upon. Only in the historically abnormally wealthy west is it possible for large sections of the population to even contemplate a comfortable existence without strenuous endeavour.

    Secondly, there is a very important role for growth and economic development. 0% growth and an absence of technological development is just fine and dandy if you don’t have a growing population and/or increasing strains on global resources. But in an increasingly overpopulated world, we need to constantly provide more resources to feed more hungry mouths. At a national level, it is only through focussing on economic growth and development that, in the long run, states such as those in sub-saharan Africa or the forgotten regions of India will ever achieve a moderately comfortable existence for their currently largely impoverished, often malnourished, frequently violence-ridden populations.

    That’s different from saying that for example western states need to grow in per capita terms. But if we want to maintain something like our current standards of living – including good healthcare, decent education, and so on – we need to ensure that we do not backslide in terms of our per capita GDP.

    • josephmarkus said:

      Sam, I think you’re probably right. There is an intermediate point for the market and for growth between Luddite(ism) and neoliberal(ism) which, to some extent, is essential.

      Your point that money shouldn’t be a goal in itself is a good one. Aristotle said this in the Nicomachean Ethics: “[W]ealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else”.

      A contemporary example of that is Bhutan, which measures its gross output in terms of Gross Domestic Happiness. What we measure (however that is achieved – it might difficult to find objective indicators for happiness, although presumably the Human Development Index probably comes close) changes what we do.

    • @Sam B – “people have always had to work very hard to achieve a decent standard of living.” I wouldn’t say that applies in all cases!

      • Joshua Mellors said:

        In fact the vast MINORITY of cases.

  2. sjtomlin1 said:

    Sam – good points. I’m not seriously suggesting we get rid of economics & measuring GDP etc. I’m advocating a place where we don’t have to RELY on them as the primary measure of success in humanity.

    I also agree re working hard, but I’d say that working hard in most of human history was generally much more aimed at working for the common good of a community or village than for personal profit and gain which it has become, I again come back to the Guardian nurse survey thing: at the end of people’s lives, many of those who have prioritised work above other things and worked ‘strenuously’ as you put it often regret it and wish they had spent more time with loved ones even if that would have meant less luxury.

    Finally – the luxury we enjoy in the West is unsustainable and I guess the point I’m trying to (perhaps not very well) get across is: if we did try so hard to keep increasing our wealth & standard of living we could focus on things which did make us happier & it would be more sustainable anyway. Imagine if everyone who could afford it started working 4 days a week instead of 5 and dedicated 1 day to community work or even just being with their family.

    Beyond this, however, acknowledging some of my ideas may be a bit airy-fairy, I believe there must be some way to have economic growth which has relationships at its heart. We can’t just ‘go back to normal’ after the deficit has been dealt with – we’ve seen it’s unsustainable and unjust on the poorest in society. I’m just trying to throw some ideas out there to stimulate debate.

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