It’s the economy, stupid!

James Corville, the campaign strategist for Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, supposedly used the phrase “The economy, stupid!” to keep his team ‘on message’. Since then it has become a truism of political commentators at election time – that the dominant issue is always the economy. This dominance of the economy in political thinking has been around for a long while, but, like a cancer, it has grown. Now it dominates everything, and is causing all manner of problems. Two of these problems are particularly serious: imminent climate / environmental breakdown and rising social inequality. And whilst the former is potentially the more serious of the two, the latter is the cause of the anger and social discontent that gave rise to the Brexit vote and the election of popularist politicians like Donald Trump.

There is much I could say against our dominant economic model, but I will restrict myself to its most insidious feature – economic growth and the accumulation of wealth as the end goal and raison d’être of all economic activity. I say insidious because this goal appears as the saving angel of all our woes and problems, as the solution to all our ills. But this particular angel’s glittering clothing covers a malevolent devil, an evil that is not only goading us to slowly destroy the environment upon which human society depends, but is directly eroding the very structures of human society through the promotion of inequality. The pursuit of wealth has become so accepted as not just an aim, but the aim of human activity, that to question it appears to fly in the face of common sense. But question it we must. We need to replace this common sense with some good sense.

Naomi Klein has coined the phrase extractivism to describe our economic attitude to the planet Earth. Certainly since the dawn of the industrial revolution, this attitude towards our natural environment has been one of a resource to exploited. Not only has our planet been viewed as one vast store of raw material to be extracted and used for the generation of wealth, it has also been used as a vast sink into which all the waste from our economic activity can be dumped. Dumped free of cost. A cost that has been neatly bracketed out of our economic calculations as an ‘externality’, as something we can ignore. Unfortunately for us, these ‘externalities’ are now making their presence known. Out of sight can only remain out of mind for so long. Thanks to the gradual build up of these ‘externalities’, principally (but by no means exclusively) carbon in the atmosphere, we now face a climate breakdown that potentially threatens the very future of human life. Our planet is biting back.

This generation of wealth is usually defended as being necessary, as the only way to acquire the money that can be spent to alleviate poverty, provide essential public services, and to generally improve the quality of human life. Yes, the argument goes, the owners of industry and multinational corporations are the immediate recipients of this wealth, but due to the ‘trickle-down effect’ everyone benefits. The main problem with this defence is, quite simply, that it’s false. The evidence says something different. Across the world, particularly in the richer countries, inequality is rising. As national economies grow, the rich seem to get progressively and proportionally richer. And even though there is generally a slight rise in the wealth of the least well off, this has not been accompanied by an increase in happiness or wellbeing. What it has been accompanied by is an increase in mental and physical illness. The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in rich countries, the levels of relative poverty, is by far the biggest cause of a whole range health issues.

But the effects of this increasing wealth gap are broader and deeper than the levels of recordable ill-health. It is also causing an incipient growth in social discontent and anger. People have been led to believe that the wealth being accumulated by the ‘elites’, by the leaders of business and industry, by the leaders of corporations and governments, will trickle down and make their lives better. But these improvements are not happening. People are feeling let down, cheated out what they believe to be theirs. Public services are being cut. Traditional jobs are disappearing. Yet rather than blame our economic system, the economic model that is actually producing this rise in inequality, people are blaming those people who the rich are setting up as scapegoats: foreign workers, immigrants, the bureaucrats of the European Union. Rather than challenge our dominant, cancerous economic model, people vote instead for Brexit and Donald Trump in the vain hope of a solution to their ills.

It is, however, too simplistic to blame the Trump-Brexit supporters for a failure to see the true cause of their discontent. And however tempting it might be, it is also too simplistic to blame the wealthy owners of business and the politicians that champion the pursuit of growth – they are, after all, only doing what they have been brought up to believe is just common sense. And simply blaming people only fans the flames of social discontent. No, what is needed, and needed as a matter of extreme urgency, is a public debate and critique of our dominant economic model. Alternative models, ones that truly meet the needs of all, ones that respect the limits imposed on them by our planet, need presenting to the public by as many politicians on the left as possible. We need to be encouraged to exercise some good sense, rather than just accept what we take to be common sense.

Feeling an alien in the country of my birth

This is going to sound a patronising thing for a late middle-aged white male to say, bearing in mind the relative ease and comfort of my life, bearing in mind the lack of prejudice directed against me. But a few days ago I was made to feel a potential outsider, an alien in the country of my birth. Why? Because I came across the Rural Conservative Movement. Not only did I find that what they believe in to be offensive to my sense of reason, to my philosophical attitude to life, but I felt it to be a potential threat to the very notion of who I feel myself to be.

They advertise themselves as believing in:
• A full, clean Brexit
• Immigration reduced to near zero
• The primacy of British culture and values
• The primacy of our Christian faith
• Protection of our rural heritage
• The traditional family
Whilst I can seriously question the validity of all of these beliefs, it was the “primacy of British culture and values”, and the “primacy of our Christian faith” that made me feel most ill at ease, together with the various graphics that accompany these statements. These graphics, overly romantic drawings of ‘traditional’ rural life, are reminiscent of those used by the Nazis in 1930’s Germany.

I have nothing against British culture and values, except that I have no idea what they are. Accepting the general definition of culture as “the values, ceremonies and ways of life characteristic of a given group”, the immediate problem becomes that of defining a given group of people bound together by an identifiable set of values and practices. When has there ever been such a group of people living in the geographical location of the British Isles? Our history is that of a multitude of different settlers and invaders bringing a diversity of different values and social attitudes with them. The most that can be said is that with time, different groups of people have found a way of living together. A number of generally shared or common beliefs and values, social practices and ceremonies have emerged, have become an identifiable feature of that group. But they will never have been adopted or believed in by everyone in that group. Not only that, but these values and practices will have differed across the country, and changed with time. I accept that a degree of uniformity emerged across the country, but only a degree. I totally reject that there ever has been, or ever can be, a defining set of British cultural values and practices.

But it’s worse than that. The implication is that if you do not ascribe to this defined set of values you are not part of British society, and therefore not welcome; that whatever values you happen to hold dear, they are of secondary importance to those of the mainstream. But who is going to define these mainstream, accepted British values? Who would dare to stand up and declare a definitive set of such values? And more importantly, how many of them do you need to hold? And to what degree? To be regarded as ‘British’, do you need to hold dear all these values, to the highest degree? If not, where do you draw the line? And what happens if you happen to fall on the wrong side of this line?

I have, however, much against the Christian faith. I’m not however prejudiced against Christianity. I regard all faiths with equal distain. My reason? Because they are faiths. People hold them to be true because they want them to be true or because they emotionally feel them to be true, not because there is any verifiable evidence that they are true. I will totally concede that religion has served a purpose during the course of human social evolution. In the absence of scientific knowledge, they have provided a narrative, an explanation and purpose to human life that has allowed for a degree of social cohesion and therefore supplied us with an evolutionary advantage. But as the tenets of the different religions are shown to be false or contradictory to knowledge capable of being scientifically tested, they need to be dropped. We will never be in a position to deal with the challenges humanity faces if we hold onto superstition rather than pursue scientific explanations.

But maybe it was the Nazi overtones that unsettled me most. The implication that there is some pure sense of Britishness to be found in a traditional past, in some mythical period of our history when everything was well with life, before it was contaminated by time, foreign cultures and alien religions. If such a belief can be fostered (a totally false belief for which no evidence can be found) then all manner of violent behaviour becomes ‘justified’ in fighting for its restoration. I didn’t end well the last time it was tried. And it will not end well if tried again.