In the second of a two-part series on modern capitalism, Gwen Jones proposes some major changes to help fix our broken economy.
Part one of this article described the ways in which capitalism tends to adapt and mutate in response to crisis. It then went on to argue that the current situation represents an end to the long-term pattern; in part, due to a failure of understanding, and in part, due to a failure within the system itself.
The solution lies, perhaps ironically, with the most disruptive force we’ve experienced as a species to date : information technology. With capitalism stalling, we should be looking forwards towards an entirely different model, built around this new and invaluable tool. Let’s call it the information economy.
1. Saving the planet
First, it’s worth outlining the things we actually want this new economy to do. Unlike the neoliberal model, any alternative must prioritise environmental sustainability; the rapid reduction of carbon emissions and the mitigation of the impacts of climate change after that. The key will be investment in technologies that respond to these challenges through sustainable growth - it is not the case that we have to go backwards in growth-time to protect the climate.
The state has a role to play here; one of the most common misconceptions with regards to neoliberalism is that the state is passive. In fact, the state is essential to the survival of neoliberalism via active intervention to support markets, privatisation and the interests of finance. Hence, shifting the actions of the state towards the creation of new markets that produce sustainable, collaborative and socially desirable outcomes - or away from market forces entirely - could put an end to growth at the expense of the planet.
For example, by subsidising solar panels, the state encourages people to install them in their homes. But without proper regulation, these panels will be produced in factories overseas where wages and low and working conditions are poor. So we can go further - by incentivising localised energy production schemes, communities are allowed to self-regulate their own energy supply and use, as well as to sell excess to local businesses, generating positive multiplier effects.
2. Reducing inequalities
The second goal must be to reduce catastrophic inequality by delivering high levels of prosperity to the majority of people. We should first put an end to the state-led deregulation of finance and support for growing privatisation. Shrunken state power and resources force governments to outsource vital services, and a race-to-the-bottom style competition between contractors leads to poor quality provision in areas like housing and health.
In many cases, the state is better placed than private agents to fill these roles - it is larger, better resourced, more able to take risks and less vulnerable to the short term interests of share-holders. Thus, the state has a unique ability to create and shape markets towards a socially productive end. By reframing our idea of the state as an investor and provider, we are able to socialise reward, as well as risk.
3. Harnessing the power of the network
The most important tool in the arsenal when beginning the transition towards an information economy is, of course, the information itself. We live in a world where many of the actions we take, online and in ‘real-life’, are recorded and fed back to a corporate owner. These huge pools of aggregate data are used to better understand consumer behaviour and improve the quality of service provision on this basis.
The real potential lies in what happens when this information is transferred from the private to the public sphere. Info-capitalism relies on knowledge asymmetry; corporations get rich because of what they know and what their customers and competitors do not. A guiding principle going forward should therefore be that the pursuit of knowledge asymmetry is wrong.
Harnessing the power of aggregate information has enormous power to eradicate social challenges, be they poor health, welfare dependency or air pollution. As an example, utilising aggregate patient data sets could have a huge impact on improving the quality and efficiency of NHS service provision.
The capacity of information-rich technologies for solving these sorts of problems will only grow as other structures, like food supply chains and transport and road networks, become ‘intelligent’.
4. A work-free world
Innovation is often kept from vital industries by the availability of cheap and unorganised labour. The need to invest in streamlining or automating production isn’t always viable under these circumstances. In reality, we are quickly moving towards a situation in which this will no longer be the case - this transition can either be managed or unmanaged.
A government serious about moving away from capitalism will gear the development and uptake of technology towards the reduction of necessary work. In an automated world, work is voluntary, many commodities are free and economic management becomes a question of energy and resources, rather than labour and capital.
To secure a smooth transition, we should begin by starting to reshape the tax system in favour of collaborative and not-for-profit industry. These kinds of actions allow market forces to disappear gradually, as a growing proportion of the economy is occupied by non-market actors.
Finally, issuing a universal basic income would make concrete the separation between wages and work. The benefits, in terms of productivity, of automation will be enormous, but it is vital that this growth is shared, and that the old patterns inequality - of widening disparity between wages and productive assets - are not repeated.
Trusting the truth
The sheer scale of these proposals can make them difficult to accept. It’s hard to believe that markets, businesses and government policy will ever be able to keep pace with the information-technology boom.
Yet in truth, huge developments like this have revolutionised our society for years; the mobile phone, the contraceptive pill, the internet, modern democracy. The economy should not be off-limits. We live at a point in history where traditions dating back 10,000s of years are being demolished at a rate of knots; it is ridiculous that some still see the end of a 200-year-old economic paradigm as utopian.
Real change is possible, if not essential. In order to secure a future that works, we must not be afraid to challenge our preconceptions and initiate change.
We at Renew have been asking the question of how to reform capitalism in the 21st century. In this opinion piece, writer and Renew supporter Jim Cowan describes how a change in consciousness might help heal a divided society.
Capitalism evolves over time. Personally, I find it helpful to see that evolution in terms of the power relationships between the state, trade, and civil society.
During the industrial revolution, trade and commerce were centre-stage, supported by the state and civil society. The dominating consciousness was the age of reason and free thought.
The end of the Second World War brought a seismic shift: welfare state Britain was born. The state became central, influencing both business and civil society. The dominating consciousness was of the power of administration and professionals to solve problems and get things done.
In the late 1970s, a whole network of free-market thinkers rebelled against this ‘slavery by the state’, leading to the country’s third evolution: market-thinking Britain. This is the Britain we are all living in. Here, markets are placed in the dominant position by government. In return, the government will be fully supported by markets to create a society in which private sector thinking rules.
Since the state championed this thinking, markets and businesses don’t have to; we could call this arrangement cosy. Civil society becomes a dumping ground for the failures and worst human indignities of a materialistic and market-oriented culture.
Does this fact warrant reform? Quite obviously, yes. And what this way of looking at power in Britain suggests is a fourth evolution: a people-centred form of capitalism in which business and the state support civil society.
History also shows us that the effort required for actual reform has to await bigger contributory factors that make the change possible. But are such factors in the offing?
The first thing needed is an evolution of human consciousness that spreads through the population, which no politician or institution can control. This might look like a Britain whose collective brains have not been taken over by market thinking. In this society, people would be freer to become the person they can be; an existential freedom given rein by companies and jobs that recognise it. This genie is already well and truly out of the bottle. For whole swathes of the population, we are no longer just products of a mass society, our inner lives matter.
The second factor is that while civil society may have become a dumping ground, it is at the same time unbelievably resilient, rich and deep. It defines Britain. It is also the very source of humanity and the repairing of the social fabric. My book, The Britain Potential, identifies 50 grassroots initiatives (and there are many, many more). Many are in civil society, but some are in business, and some even in state services. They seem to be enacting this next stage of human consciousness. They are reforming capitalism before our eyes.
This is not being created by elites. The energy driving these initiatives is coming from a recognition that market forces can sometimes lead to inhuman and dysfunctional outcomes. The downsides of the neoliberal version of capitalism seem to be stoking the fires of its self-organising reform.
After the Great Depression, national government had to take on unemployment as a key metric. In the 1970s, inflation became another.
The next key metric for the renewal of Britain and the evolution of capitalism is going to be repairing the social fabric. This is a key metric signalling a moving on from market thinking to a civil society-centred Britain. New start-up parties like Renew are best placed to lead this charge, since the old guard simply have too much baggage to provide the answers.
In the first of a two-part series, Gwen Jones looks at the history of capitalism - and wonders how it might evolve in the future.
The year is 1938. Alone in a Soviet prison cell, one man is awaiting the end to his eight-year-long ordeal.
Nikolai Kondratieff had spent almost a decade as a political prisoner in Suzdal, just northeast of Moscow. On September 17th 1938 - the day his original sentence was completed - Kondratieff was tried again, this time found guilty of anti-Soviet activity and sentenced to death. He was executed in his cell, by firing squad.
At the time, Kondratieff ranked among the great giants of 20th Century economic thought. His crimes were non-existent. All Kondratieff was really guilty of, in the eyes of his Stalin and his secret police, was to think the unimaginable about capitalism: that instead of crumbling under crisis, capitalism generally adapts, morphs and mutates.
In two major feats of analysis, Kondratieff was able to notice a distinct pattern within modern, industrial capitalism. Beyond short-term business cycles, Kondratieff found evidence of longer, fifty-year cycles of growth and decline consistent throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The major turning points of each cycle coincided with key structural changes within capitalism itself – thus, moments of crisis were indicative not of turmoil, but of order.
According to Kondratieff’s work, which later became popularised as ‘wave theory’, each long cycle begins with an upswing, fuelled by the roll out of new technologies and high levels of capital investment. As the rate of investment slows and saving by banks, corporations and individuals increases, the rate of growth slows up. The trajectory is still upward, though – recessions are short and shallow, and overall growth is strong.
Next, a downswing starts. The supply of accumulated capital is too great to be invested in productive industry, so more of it gets trapped within the finance system. Interest rates fall, as the abundance of cheap capital suppresses the price of borrowing. Wages and commodities prices follow, ending eventually in a depression.
The past two centuries exemplify Kondratieff’s waves almost perfectly – the first cycle began around 1790, prompted by the emergence of factories, and ended in around 1848. The second, this time fuelled by the roll out of railways, factory-produced machinery and stable global currencies, came to an end with financial crises in the UK and USA, which triggered the long depression of the 1870s-90s. Heavy industry and mass production drove the wave of the 1890s to 1945, eventually brought to its knees by the Second World War.
In the fourth (and final) wave, automated factory work, mass consumer goods and nuclear technology combined to produce the longest period of sustained economic growth in history. Decades of rising wages, the expansion of welfare, and access to integrated global markets led to a middle class explosion across Europe, the US and emerging economies. This was the era of ‘never had it so good’ - an expression which rings hollow now.
The punctuation point for this cycle is obvious. In 2008, global capitalism imploded. A poorly regulated and overinflated finance system eventually succumbed to a crisis of liquidity that almost brought the world to a standstill.
Rampant financialization had effectively, by this point, allowed many in the West to live for years off bad debt, their entire lifestyles funded by the availability of cheap credit. Wages weren’t growing, but we were still borrowing – hence the emergence of the subprime mortgage, non-existent until investment banking made it so. In the run up to the crash, banks across Europe had outstanding loans tens or hundreds of times larger than their respective national GDPs. In Iceland, the ratio of private bank assets to GDP was 1000:1.
The seeds of the next wave had been planted with the rise of information technology and the dot-com revolution of the 1990s. But while both have grown exponentially, the cycle has stalled. The West is still reeling from 2008, now over a decade ago, and recovery has been painfully slow.
Government balance sheets are overstretched, deficits still running high after billions were issued in bank bailouts. The public sector has been squeezed to crisis point by austerity, and wages in real terms have remained stagnant for years. Interest rates across most of the developed world are near zero, or below zero in some cases.
In short, the rapid take-off of a new capitalist growth cycle seems very far away indeed.
If Kondratieff was right, we should be expecting a new upswing any day now. In fact, it’s already long overdue. As mentioned, the seeds for this new paradigm have been planted; information and communications technologies have revolutionised the way in which we operate – at the individual and global levels.
So why no boom? Why no sunny uplands?
The problem lies with the way the world dealt with 2008, as well as with neoliberalism itself. The neoliberal model, which we have now come to recognise as ‘capitalism’, crumbled under the weight of its own contradictions. And yet, 10 years later, few have been resolved. The risk pooled within this instability has also been magnified - many of the techniques governments used to deal with the crash have already been expended. Interest rates have almost nowhere to go, and national deficits are already too large to take on another major bailout. There are no more bullets left in the gun.
In order to protect the world against crisis, and to secure a more prosperous future, the life support that has been used to sustain the existing system for years must finally be switched off.
Instead, we must pursue a revolutionary new approach to capitalism; one that prioritises wages over assets, equality over monopoly, and innovation over financialisation. The old ways of both the right, and the left, must be shrugged off - the 21st century will surely offer more than can ever be lived up to by business as usual.
Renew Regional Coordinator and prospective parliamentary candidate David Burling gives his take on the damage that Brexit could do to our country.
As October 31st looms large in the window of Command Module “Brexit”, a tricky balance needs to be struck by our leaders to ensure that our country re-enters reality safely. We mustn't crash through the atmosphere into eternal inertia, burning up in the heat caused by division and hatred that appeared after the referendum to leave the European Union.
Already we have seen the value of the Pound drop to its lowest level in two years. With economists talking about “parity with the dollar”, there is a real risk that rhetoric designed to reassure the Tory heartlands is going to have real-world impacts on millions of people across the UK.
A weaker Pound means higher import prices, which means higher food & energy prices, which means higher inflation. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is already highlighting that the current household income squeeze is as negatively felt like the 1992 or 2008 crises. With the potential of GBP dropping in value, the impact on the poorest in society could be devastating.
The rhetoric around Brexit needs to be measured. Our leaders need to show the responsibility of their office by choosing their words carefully. A 'Do or Die' mentality has no place in pragmatic politics and unpicking forty years of integration and mutual cooperation deserves much more respect than is currently offered.
The current administration has been stuck in an ideological tailspin, arrogantly asserting that it can “deliver Brexit” without the skills or the competence to see it through. Our politicians need to come together to form the necessary structures that will progress this project and deal with it as the infrastructural challenge that it is. If revoking Article 50 is the way to facilitate this, then it should be done without delay.
Brexit is not simply about tearing up a treaty; it is a fundamental change in the way the UK does business with the world. This was a message that was lost during the referendum debate and has been absent from political discourse ever since.
For me, I see this chaos continuing under a Johnson or Hunt administration. I feel we are destined to watch this car crash in slow motion for some time to come.
For another Renew take on Brexit, check out this long read.
Despite being more sympathetic to Brexit, England's northern communities are facing spending cuts after Brexit. That's a problem.
Between Leavers and Remainers, urbanites and country dwellers, old and young, rich and poor, those who put the milk in before(!) and after, it can often seem as though there is more that divides us in Britain than unites us. But in a rapidly changing world, the Un-United Kingdom has a way of pressing onward. The British identity continues to evolve, becoming broader and further-reaching to accommodate our changing population. In spite of our many differences, we’re remarkably good at coming together.
However, this kind of team spirit becomes a whole lot harder when what divides us is more than superficial. Our national economy remains starkly divided, along a line which partitions North from South. The divide is such that deprivation has led to a 20% higher chance of early death in the North of England than the South East. What’s more, the ten cities in the UK with the lowest levels of employment are all in the North.
It’s no secret that imbalance within an economy is dangerous, both to the health of the economy overall and to the population living under it. In light of this, we’d expect the powers that be to be doing everything in reach to heal this most troubling of disparities - but no such luck. Surprised? I think not.
In fact, the north of England is facing huge cuts to its regeneration budget post-Brexit, a lobby group has claimed. Its director, Henry Murison, expressed concerns over whether funding - currently earmarked by the EU for the UK’s most deprived areas – would be re-allocated to wealthier parts of the country by Westminster after October 31st.
Successive governments have shown no aversion to investing disproportionately in the richer areas of London and the South East. Analysis of government figures by the IPPR found that London was to receive £4,155 per person in 2018, 2.6 times more than a person in the North almost 5 times more than in Yorkshire and the Humber. More than half of UK transport investment is concentrated in the South, and over £700mn more per year in arts and cultural funding is splashed out in the South than the North.
England currently receives close to €1bn a year from the EU’s two largest funds, €380mn of which is spent on projects in the North East, North West and the Humber. Under current EU rules, money must be allocated to projects designed to boost the economy and stimulate growth. While the government has pledged to replace EU money after the UK leaves the bloc, it will no longer be subject to the same criteria. European funds prioritise the lowest income areas, but as mentioned, the UK government has a history of putting performance over need.
Given its less than impressive track record, it’s hardly difficult to imagine the ease with which Westminster could turn it’s back on the North after Brexit. The government’s pledge to match EU funding has already been called into question, following accusations of ‘questionable maths’ and the addition of extra funding streams without a commitment to maintaining the overall level. The government has so far failed to begin a consultation on its new funding plans despite promising one before the end of the year. Meanwhile, EU funding will cease in April 2020.
Without a plan for successive investment, many regions face a ‘cliff-edge’ after Brexit. What too many politicians fail to realise is that the long-term prosperity of the UK as a whole depends on reducing the disparity between North and South. Sustainable growth cannot be area-specific - it must be all-encompassing and inclusive. Contrary to what’s currently being forecast, regional economies require urgent investment if the cycle of low expenditure, low productivity and low pay is to be ended and if the UK economy is to be effectively rebalanced.
We are currently caught up in one of the largest and most momentous revolutions in human history – whether we know it yet or not. We’re living through perhaps the most fundamental transformation of our environment mankind has ever seen.
The war is not being fought with rifles, bayonets or nuclear force – this time around, the weapons of choice are big data and smart technology. Quieter maybe, but more insidious that its predecessors; the information revolution is changing the way we shop, vote, govern and even think.
We’re quickly waking up to the fact that pivotal changes are underway. But, as tends to be the case with such periods of upheaval, it’s almost impossible to say where they’re headed until they get there. With the conclusion of the digital revolution still a very long way off, we won’t be granted the luxury of hindsight as a means of understanding this change. It’s not for want of trying either – academia across disciplines is riddled with attempts to explain our new and interconnected world.
In the face of such uncertainty, we have a tendency to revert to what we know - ideas that have helped to explain the past but are no longer helpful in trying to understand the future. We see this all the time in our politics, but it often leaves us staunchly on the back foot and ill-prepared for challenges to come.
In her new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff puts forward a welcome new attempt to describe the effects of digitisation. The focus is not necessarily the workings of the Facebook/Google/Amazon clan themselves, but rather, on the ways in which they are shaping the wider context of global capitalism as we know it. Zuboff describes the new evolution of capitalism that has emerged from big tech as ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ – a system that both relies upon and utilises big data to achieve its ends.
So-called surveillance capitalists – online service providers in their myriad forms – are able to monitor the behaviour of their user bases with a remarkable degree of detail and accuracy. While many of us feel comfortably veiled in algorithmic obscurity, in reality, tech giants are covertly collecting hundreds of thousands of bytes of data each day; data which can be fed back into improving algorithms and making predictions on the behaviour of their users. Much of this happens without explicit or obvious consent.
At best, these processes contribute to service improvement, creating more user friendly interfaces and intuitive design. At worst, the acquisition of behavioural data is used to develop highly sophisticated machine intelligence capable of predicting what you will do now, soon and later. As these techniques improve, usership grows – a feedback loop which, without regulation, could continue indefinitely. Prediction techniques and their ability to influence human behaviour are already having huge implications for the political and economic landscape, creating and shaping new markets and voting behaviours at the whim of the corporations that control them.
Digital hegemony is already well-established and will become yet more deeply entrenched as data is used to facilitate its own growth. It’s becoming increasingly important to re-examine the way we look at the wider system as the power dynamics within it begin to shift.
Traditionally, economic theory has relied on the assumption that market forces are dynamic, unpredictable and ultimately unknowable. The State should refrain from attempting to regulate or constrain markets on this basis, just as agents in a market-place are free to compete with each other in mutual ignorance. But with the rise of big tech, these fundamental principles have changed. It is essential that our assumptions about markets change with them.
Global tech firms now know too much to be granted the same licence as other free market actors - after all, under their influence, markets are no longer truly free. There’s no easy fix, either - the acquisition of user data is so deeply inherent in the operations of online service providers that self-regulation would be almost impossible.
Rather, it may be time to rethink our unquestioning faith in free-market economics - if for no other reason than the fact that markets are demonstratively becoming less and less free. The governing principles of the 20th century are becoming increasingly less relevant as time progresses, and less able to cope with this rapid, systemic change.
The absence of state regulation risks the rise of insurmountable monopolies that wield too great an influence over our markets, our behaviour and our democracy. Legislation against this will no doubt be hugely challenging, but the consequences of shying away from the problem will be more challenging still.
The frequency of extreme weather events is ratcheting up, in Britain and across the world. America is coming to the end of its wettest year on record and flooding is becoming ever more commonplace across the Midwest in particular. Heatwaves are on the rise in the UK; by 2050, scientists predict that heatwaves akin to that experienced in 2018 could occur every other year.
Warmer air also means heavier and longer-lasting precipitation events, hence the patterns currently being observed across the US. If global carbon emissions continue to go unchecked, a 30% increase in rainfall in the Midwest is possible. And this won’t be without consequence; in a region still reliant on agriculture, heavy rain, sodden soil and disruption to planting and harvest seasons could have devastating effects on the local economy.
Rivers, especially those in smaller basins, are already prone to flooding and will become more so if conditions worsen. This is all too real a possibility for those living in low lying areas close to the banks. Even very large rivers like the Mississippi are unable to cope with the higher discharge brought on by heavy rain or rapid snowmelt; the Mississippi has reportedly reached historically high water marks in four of the past seven years.
Human intervention hasn’t helped. Many river channels are narrower than at any point in their history due to excessive engineering and the construction of artificial levees, ironically designed to keep flood waters at bay. A reduction in channel width combined with a higher channel flow make the sudden levee failure more likely. Devastation to the city of New Orleans following Category 5 Hurricane Katrina remains a poignant illustration of this; flash flooding following a levee collapse left the city underwater and up to 1,800 dead. Hurricanes like Katrina, too, are predicted to become stronger and more frequent as a result of climate change.
While America still has its fair share of those who doubt the severity (or even existence) of climate change, instances of extreme weather are beginning to shape attitudes for the better. A Green New Deal is now firmly on the agenda, both in Europe and the US. The Midwest, industry-heavy and generally viewed as a hotbed of climate change denial, has recently elected several governors committed to meeting emissions targets set during the Paris accords. This is in stark defiance of Trump’s pledge to pull the entire US out of the agreement.
Recent polling shows that the proportion of Americans worried about the climate has almost doubled in since 2013 and young people in particular are more concerned than ever before. Many cited direct experience of extreme weather events as having strongly influenced their views.
While awareness is undoubtedly a vital step forward in the fight against climate change, it may be too little, too late. Reaching emissions targets will require a major shift both in how we conduct our day to day lives – fewer flights, animal products and petrol-powered cars - and how our global economy functions. The latter demands strong, decisive governmental action with regards to fiscal and industrial policy; an urgent shift away from an oil economy and heavy investment in renewables and waste reduction.
Governments rarely act in the absence of incentive, though. Mounting pressure from the electorate will be essential if green policies are to make it onto the agenda and stay there. This is an area where individuals can have a profound impact on the biggest fight of our century; support for politicians and parties who make climate change the defining policy issue of their agendas will eventually produce the leaders Earth now demands.
Voters who are duly worried about the changes our climate is undergoing can no longer afford to be apathetic. That, more than any, is the message to shout from the rooftops.
London resident and member of the New York Bar John Nucciarone breaks down where the UK’s European strategy went so wrong.
David Cameron’s negotiations with the EU in early 2016 were both rushed and amateurish. Discussions should have commenced under his first mandate and the obtaining of emergency breaks on free movement within the European Union should have been made part of broader EU-wide reform.
External EU border security, the allocation of refugees between member states, the 3% of GDP deficit rule and Euro were all issues which Italy, Greece, Poland and the eastern Europeans were seeking and needed support with. Served well by London’s employment market, these same member states, along with the Baltics, could and should have been recruited to persuade the EU power brokers that emergency breaks on the mobility right were more than a reasonable demand by the UK.
Cameron could easily have taken the position that the banking crisis of 2008 and the fall of Communism were both epic events which resulted in a historical movement of peoples into both London and the rest of the UK. The emergency breaks he sought would be aimed at the tail end of such times and not free movement in general. Helping the UK obtain emergency breaks would be in the long term interests of these member states and would be more than a suitable price for the UK helping resolve the issues of immediate concern to them. It is just such an alliance that could have taken the reins in negotiations with Paris, Berlin, and Brussels.
If the Tories had kept to this type of traditional British foreign policy, we would not be looking at Brexit, a Salvini, Le Pen, an AFD electoral alliance or the Hungarian and Polish governments on the sidelines waiting for someone to talk to.
Misguided and old-style European nation-state leadership
The gatekeepers of the de facto EU political leadership structure, however, are the ones that created the conditions that led to these developments.
The European Union will eventually tear itself apart if Brussels, Paris, and Berlin continue to think that every economic, political, and cultural policy without exception could or should apply in the same manner and form to every member state despite the different social consequences for the various member states.
Liberalism, multilateralism and leadership are not found in expecting societies which have come out of 45 years of communism to react in the same manner as western European societies when dealing with refugees.
Nor were these progressive characteristics present when the EU scolded Poland for its use of coal as an energy source but stayed silent when Germany began to do so after the 2008 banking crisis. France, which preaches to Italy when it comes to refugee allocation but then does not take in the numbers to which it agreed, cannot then expect to be listened to by its Italian partner.
Moreover, France, which has an economy reliant upon public spending to function, cannot but raise eyebrows when it advocates an EU Finance Minister, just as Spain does, when with its youth unemployment rate of over 32% and large numbers of citizens searching for work in London, makes noises about joining the Paris-Berlin alliance.
The return of old Europe
Fanning the flames of nationalism in Europe has generally not ended well and this is what Stephen Bannon, the right-wing American political activist, is poised to do with his academy in Italy.
Bannon's goal of dismantling the EU may have unintended consequences, as European revolutions often do. It may see judicial independence in Poland further eroded and Viktor Orban moving to reduce economic freedoms in Hungary after already curtailing political ones by his attacks on state media and academic freedom.
For these reasons, a Europe in which populism and nationalism are becoming mainstream is not in the interests of the UK.
The future viability of the EU rests with both a French realisation that this project cannot be a search for France’s lost glory on the world stage and a German acceptance that the Eurozone has provided it with an inherent economic advantage that needs to be addressed.
The British would do well to realise that they cannot view the EU solely in economic terms and as a source of cheap labour for its hospitality and other low wage industries.
When Harold McMillan decided it was in the United Kingdom’s interests to join the European Economic Community he was simply pursuing 400 years of English and British foreign policy of ensuring that no one country dominate the Continent. At that time he had France in mind; things have not necessarily changed since then.
Jobs are no longer a route out of poverty:
Getting into work is the best route out of poverty for families in the UK. At least, that’s the line the British government takes.
The cabinet seems very proud of the fact that the national employment rate, currently 74%, is at its highest ever and unemployment, at just 5%, is at a near-historical low. As of April this year, minimum wage for workers aged 25 and over stands at £8.21 per hour, up from £6.19 at the end of 2012. At first glance, you might think that these glad tidings mean that there are now fewer poor people in the UK. We live in complex times, however, and it’s unwise to take the Tory’s self-affirmations at face value.
More Britons might be working than ever before, but the rate of absolute poverty in the UK has been steadily climbing over the past ten years after housing payments are taken into account. Rough sleeping has soared by a whopping 165% since 2010. Life expectancy has stagnated, and millions of children are going to school hungry every day - and numbers continue to rise. There are now 2000 food banks across the UK, having sprung up in their thousands after the financial crisis (before which there were just 29).
Not least, the composition of households living below the breadline has changed for the worse. A decade or so ago, the number of poor people living in ‘working’ households was 40%. Today, it’s over half. Most disquieting is the effect of this change on children - nearly 3 million children from working families are now living in absolute poverty.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Pensioners, for example, a group largely shielded from cuts, have seen a huge decrease in levels of deprivation - the number of pensioners living in absolute poverty has fallen from 50% in the early 90s to just 15%, thanks to welfare benefits and a generous state pension which is adjusted for inflation. The numbers of people in work also shouldn’t be dismissed entirely; anxiety levels are down and general wellbeing in the UK is up, which can likely be attested to increased pervasiveness of stable employment.
But Britain’s workers really are struggling, and Britain’s experience shows that being in work is not always enough to keep afloat. Austerity has hit working families hard, and benefit cuts have left thousands struggling to stay above the breadline. Working families with small children have recently seen their child benefits frozen and working tax credits unpegged from inflation, now rising at only 1% per year.
It’s not just the government’s austerity programme that’s to blame, however; after all, as numbers of working poor have risen, many un-working families have been lifted out of poverty. Housing prices are an obvious culprit - since 2009, the average cost of a home in Britain has increased by 10% in real terms. Londoners are some of the hardest hit by the housing crisis, spending a third of their disposable income on rent.
Changes to the labour market have also damaged worker’s long-term employment prospects. Full time work is increasingly scarce, and more and more people are trapped in unstable, part time or temporary jobs. This issue hits those at the bottom end of the labour market, whose skills are typically least in demand, disproportionately hard and many do not work enough hours to make a living wage. The IFS estimates the number of workers in the bottom quarter of the income spectrum in relative poverty as 21%.
The logic behind Conservative welfare reforms has been based on incentivising people to get into work. The centre-left is equally guilty; Clinton’s benefit cuts were aimed at tackling dependency culture and promoting personal autonomy. Blair’s ethos was largely the same - encourage people find work, and stay there. The above presents a challenge to the intellectual basis these types of reform.
Jobs simply aren’t doing enough to keep people out of poverty. With burgeoning housing costs and a skittish labour market, low-paid workers with volatile incomes are in need of a safety net, as well as a job. Universal credit in its current incarnation (which involves a five week wait period before claimants receive their payments) is a meager exacerbating the problem, rather than healing it. In this kind of climate, it is essential that social policy focuses on more than just employment.
It’s often said that a free press is essential to a healthy democracy. When compared to standards elsewhere in the world, the British press looks to be doing pretty decently.
We shouldn’t get too carried away, though; in the absence of a Xinhua News equivalent, control over our national media has been granted to an entirely different (though perhaps equally troubling) faction. Most British media outlets are controlled by a tiny and very wealthy elite, who are typically as elusive as they are unaccountable.
It was Napoleon who once argued that “four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” Judging by the situation today, he seems to have been on to something.
News broadcasters wield tremendous power over politicians, who for the most part, do everything they can to avoid unfavourable coverage. It’s easy to see why, given the considerable influence papers can have on voting behaviour.
With SW1 at their heels, media moguls are free to present whatever version of events they so choose – however far this may deviate from the truth. Indeed, Brexit has made this more obvious than perhaps ever before.
It’s no secret that some of Brexit’s major backers have already got richer as the rest of the country’s economy has wavered post-2016. All the while, it’s been easy enough to funnel public anger towards Westminster and Brussels and away from their own misgivings – unchallenged by a government more than happy to dance to their tune.
If anyone needs convincing, they need only look back on Westminster’s response to 2016. Its unquestioning insistence on respecting the referendum result, despite the serious legal failures of both major Leave campaigns, is telling to say the least. In any other circumstance, such violations would have been more than enough to entirely cripple any mandate. In fact, the only thing preventing courts nullifying the result altogether was the fact that it wasn’t legally binding.
Yet, politicians were complicit and the right-wing press in particular was handed full control of the narratives surrounding the referendum. Why? Put simply, being tarnished with the ‘Enemies of The People’ brush doesn’t exactly strengthen your electoral prospects.
Of course, we’ve come to accept a level of bias in major publications as being pretty much par for the course. Most papers are unashamedly prejudiced in their political leanings, and after all, sensationalism is how they sell their wares.
It’s no secret that people are drawn to papers that create echo chambers for their own views – a problem no doubt, but the phenomena’s very existence relies, at least, on a conscious public awareness of newspaper bias. We’re perhaps less susceptible to spurious headlines from the usual suspects, but they’re by no means the only offenders.
Worse, arguably, is the bias that now exists within broadcasters with an explicit duty to be neutral. I’m referring, of course, to the BBC. BBC complaints have reportedly been flooded by remain voters angry at the lack of coverage given to pro-Remain MPs and anti-Brexit marches.
Despite his recent outburst on BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Farage has a lot to be thankful for. Even his most pernicious claims, and those of others on his side, continue to go largely unchallenged despite their (in some cases obvious) untruth. Lest we not forget, talk of leaving the single market was “absolute madness” until an overnight U-turn in the direction of a no-deal; a decision that flew seemingly under the radar of the mainstream media.
Last week, an episode of a BBC panel show was cancelled, due to it featuring the interim leader of new pro-Remain party Change UK. The feature was deemed inappropriate to run during election time. Meanwhile, Farage’s countless fish-related photo-ops continue to get air time (needless to say, the fish do not look best pleased).
While it might be doubtful that the BBC is harbouring an express pro-Brexit bias, it’s easy to see where it’s unwillingness to challenge key Leave supporters has come from. The corporation is consistently under pressure from the reactionary right, and its fearfulness of this is palpable.
It is hard to imagine a world in which even the most popular frontmen of Brexit will escape the process unscathed; as the realities set in and public opinion turns against them, the democratic process will hold them to account. But writers, journalists, media fat-cats – the less discernible architects of Brexit – are unlikely to suffer the same consequences. People will be buying The Sun long after Rees-Mogg is cast into political irrelevancy.
We must maintain a free press, but there is no freedom without responsibility. Our media is responsible for public education, which we cannot do without if we are to place trust in democracy.