1 People have stood on the moon — but banks are counted more important than hospitals. My fingertips caress a technological marvel while I write, and my mouse can click out into a greater wealth of knowledge than all the libraries of our mothers and fathers — but we live in a society in which it is possible for old people's homes to run out of money and for children to go hungry.
It's all very simple, everyone is nice, and another world is coming quite soon. This story has all the answers and embodies the very quintessence of perfection. Ian Dury knew what I'm talking about.2 Read on — a new day is just around the corner. And it works wonders as an insomnia cure. Or print it out and wedge it under that wobbly table leg.
The good news is that the reasons for the almighty mess that we're in are simpler than they seem, and that the way to fix them is also clear.
The beautiful flower of political democracy is a delicate plant. It is wilting under the harsh light of an unsuitable climate — it cannot flourish and grow without economic democracy. The democratic control of the legislature (i.e. political democracy) cannot lead to effective decisions about the path of our world when the production of the prerequisites of our continued survival — the economy — is grasped tight and jealously guarded by an independent and unmediated corporate power.
In a 2011 article on the Network of Global Corporate Control complex systems specialists from a Swiss university3 analysed "the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations" and "identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy" (New Scientist, October 2011). The study "combines the mathematics long used to model natural systems with comprehensive corporate data to map ownership among the world's transnational corporations (TNCs)" and uses data on "37 million companies and investors" with details of "all 43,060 TNCs".
The research "revealed a core of 1318 companies" that "represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues" and "the majority of the world's large blue chip and manufacturing firms — the 'real' economy — representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues". Further, "it found much of it tracked back to a 'super-entity' of 147 even more tightly knit companies ... that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth ... Most were financial institutions. The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group."
In other words, 150 or so organisations (mostly banks) control the lion's share of world production. Another 1000 or so control much of the rest. Is it any wonder that when they hit trouble the banks just drive their trucks up to the back doors of the national treasuries and load them with taxpayers' cash?4 Is it any wonder that our democracies are crippled by special interests and corruption? Not that all politicians are corrupt, but all are subject to influence, and the influence wielded by the top 150 companies is so vast as to be almost beyond measurement. (At the top level 2011 summits on the euro and the Greek crisis, for example, the bankers were always present, if not on camera.) As we'll see later we ('the 99%') have precisely zero economic democracy and exactly zero right of recall over corporate executives, no matter how antisocial their policies — and those policies are, by law, directed by pursuit of profit and shareholder dividends, not by the interests of humanity in any shape or form5.
The austerity programmes currently being forced on many populations are partly to do with filling the tax hole that the banks created, but these holes have existed before without austerity being a consequence (after the second world war, for example). The wider reason is that these 150 super companies are all subject to the growth imperative, and, at this relatively late stage in the globalised capitalist game, there are less and less areas left in which they can expand. Your health service, your children's education, our social security — these are the next frontier for corporate profit and shareholder dividends. Scared? You should be.
A lot of nonsense is talked about markets (which don't, of course, create efficient solutions — they create profitable solutions). One thing that markets do often drive, though, is competition. (Not all the time: when the banks cease to be competitive the state bails them out; when a powerful group of companies stitches up one sector then they'll inflate prices. But as a general rule, markets are competitive arenas.)
Competition in a capitalist economy means that companies have to grow (or else your competitor will get big enough to buy you or undercut you or otherwise get their hands on your share of the pie). Of course there are limits to growth: common sense can tell you all you need to know here, but if that doesn't cut it then get a few of your friends or colleagues to rendezvous in the bathroom or the stationary cupboard and then just keep on packing them in. Economists will tell you that 'externalities' mean that growth is unlimited, but your friends will tell you that things are getting pretty stuffy already and stop being such a dozy wazzock. As globalisation has spread corporate competition across the world, so growth gets less and less viable within existing markets. Therefore your school, your health service or your pension become increasingly attractive targets. In 2011 some 270,000 public service jobs were cut in the UK, for example, all so that those poor old big corporations can have a bit more space to grow.
Competition for profit also means that if one corporation or country manages to drive down the wages and social services of their workforce then they automatically put pressure on their competitors to do the same. Otherwise the higher profits of the cheapskates will let them encroach on the markets of the higher paying. Over time this creates a race to the bottom — and the EU's health service, education system and pensions are much more expensive than their Chinese equivalents, for example. This race to the bottom is never-ending because it is built in to the logic of capitalist competition.
The rating agencies (who are the current weapon of choice in the continual battle to keep this logic of the system from becoming obvious enough to provoke revolt) are downgrading government debt as a way of turning the screw on politicians who haven't yet signed up enough of their nation's public sector to corporate incursion.
It all makes perfect sense — unless you want a decent health service, or good schools, or a comfortable retirement.
It is time to remember that our species can cooperate, not just compete. It is time for the 99% to be selfish and say to the 1%: it has been nice having you around, strutting in your finery and making up amusing stories about the inevitability of it all, but now you have to rejoin the rest of us. You can't have more money just because you already have money. You have to work for a living. More specifically, we need economic democracy, not just a meagre measure of political democracy.
Le Guin summarised our collective situation very well:
...the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are the most social. In human terms, most ethical... There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness. (Ursula le Guin, The Dispossessed, 1974)
Come on: let's be strong!
All good stories should have at least two beginnings. Here's another one:
In this age of permanent war, of the impoverished old and the starving child, and everyone and everything in between crushed ever smaller and smaller by the weight of all that crap that engulfs us, there is, unfortunately, a sense in which no one's to blame.
That's the thing. There's the rub. No one's to blame.
If we can pick someone to blame then we can just be angry, or bitter, or holier-than-thou. But the truth is that we're all caught in the same grinder, we are all grains in the same pepper mill, wounded already by glancing blows from the rotating blades beneath us, inexorably drawn ever closer to crunching extinction by the gravity of our situation, jostled by our fellow unfortunates and hoping only for today's pasta to be adequately seasoned before we become part of the chef's finishing touches, our own finish inconsequential at the end, in that fatal whirl.
But no one's to blame. Ok, I have to qualify that: a million bad decisions are made every second — but the point I'm trying to make is that we are not just the victims of bad ideas, and fixing our problems will be both more and less than changing our minds. There are structural reasons for our bad decisions, in fact. We must change the structure.
No one's to blame because we are all caught in the same savage trap, and that trap is presided over by an inhuman force, a force both alien and alienating and above all profoundly deaf to all human voice, all human anguish, all prayers silent or spoken or screamed to high heaven and beyond. We can blame it, but it is an it, and not a who. No one's to blame. Capital is to blame, and capital is a thing.
What? How? Why? (Not who, obviously. Haven't you been listening?)
Capital, by the way, is just a big Big BIG chunk of money. (Actually, in this day and age, an inconceivably vast sum of money. In any case you can't blame it. There's nothing mystical here. But there is a god almighty fuckup, and we need to do something about it. And pronto. So read on.)
One more thing: the fact that no one is to blame is actually also the good news. It means we have a better chance of fixing it all. We are all in the same boat, after all, and it becomes more and more obvious that we all need to stop it leaking. Read on.
- First published as the introduction to this book.
YOU'LL SEE GLIMPSES
Ian Dury, 1980
They think I'm off my crust as I creep about the gaff.
But I'm really getting ready to surprise them all.
Because I'm busy sorting out the problems of the world.
And when I reveal all, I may get a crinkly mouth.
I've given my all to the task at hand unstintingly.
When it's all over, I'll rest on my laurels.
Here for a moment is a glimpse of my plan:
All kids will be happy learning things.
The wind will smell of wild flowers.
Nobody will whack each other about with nasty things.
All the room in the world.
They take me for a mug because I smile.
They think I'm too out of tune to mind being patronised.
All in all, it's been another phase in my chosen career,
And when my secrets are out, they'll bite their silly tongues.
All I want for my birthday is another birthday.
When skies are blue, we all feel the benefit.
Glimpse Number 2 for the listener.
Everyone will feel useful in lovely ways.
Trees will be firmly rooted in town and country.
Illness and despair will be dispensed with.
All the room in the world.
They ask me if I've had the voices yet.
They don't think I know any true answers.
It's true that I haven't quite finished yet.
When it all comes out in the wash, they'll eat their words.
I've got all their names and addresses.
Later on I'll write them each a thank-you letter.
Before I stop, here's a last glimpse into the general future.
Home rule will exist in each home, forever.
Every living thing will be another friend.
This wonderful state of affairs will last for always.
This has been got out by a friend.
- Vitali, Glattfelder and Battiston, PLoS ONE 6-10, 2011.
- It is easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk. Bertolt Brecht.
- Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility. Ambrose Bierce.