Saturday, November 20, 2010
our present moral bankruptcy
I usually enjoy the Economist blog (about Eastern Europe) but a recent post – giving the surprising news from the World Bank that the economies of the most recent members of the EU had managed the global crisis very much better than anticipated - grated. It grated since (however true its comment) it implies that the solution to our problems is for the lower paid to make the sacrifices (as they generally have in countries like Romania) - whereas the truth is the exact oposite. It is the pig-swilling greed of the wealthier which has contaminated our social systems in the past few decades; brought most of us (except them!) low; and which must now be brought under effective check.
Since the mid 20th century, various maverick voices such as Leopold Kohr (The Breakup of nations); JK Galbraith (The Affluent Society 1958); EJ Mishan (The Costs of Economic growth 1967); Ernst Schumacher (Small is Beautiful 1973); and Marlyn Fergusson (The Aquarian Conspiracy 1980) – to mention the main names - have warned us against the blandishments of consumerism. In the 1980s some of us got hooked on community enterprise and business (as we called it then); the social economy (as we discovered the French called it); or social enterprise (New Labour’s phrase) – which got some support from the EU and other governments. Somehow, however, the political point got lost. The ventures were seen mainly as a way of helping marginalised people back into the economy. Only the Greens (and writers such as Richard Douthwaite) kept the more fundamental critique alive – but the energy the Greens have had to devote to the Energy and ecological questions has also diverted them from the larger issues of our economic system.
The literature became more personalised – how to reduce one’s ecological footprint and live simply. Very commendable – but basically being a modern version of Voltaire’s retreat to cultivation of one’s garden (Candide). In the last few years, the critique has come back – with books such as Oliver James’ Affluenza (2007) – arriving just in time for the latest global crisis. The publication in July 2009 of The Spirit Level – why equality is better for everyone seems to have crystallised the contemporary discussion in Britain – and Daniel Dorling’s Injustice – why social inequality persists is a rather tougher ride which gives historical perspective whereas The Spirit Level gives the comparative view. Dorling’s book has the same caustic humour and philosophy as JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society which introduced to the phrase about private wealth and public squalour. Tragic that – after such warnings – we have reached this same point of having to persuade so many people of the declining returns from private consumption and the benefits of collective consumption ie state spending on public goods such as railways!
Thanks to Tudor banus for "Inondation"