Since time immemorial, grumpy old men have been complaining that things ain’t what they used to be: “Kids today are dreadful and their parents are even worse.” It’s a caricature, isn’t it? Perfectly true, mind you. But still a caricature and so hackneyed it’s not worth saying. In fact it’s probably even “normal” (lots and lots of ironic quotes around that much-abused word) because as you pass fifty, then sixty and find you’re nudging seventy a huge shift of perspective takes place. All those pushy mums and their jargon-spouting, preening males are more pitiful than insufferable. In any case they’re not my beef here. No, the ones who really piss me off are my peers. We’re the ones who’ve fucked up. The world has gone seriously wrong and it’s happened on our watch.
The last time I was able to cast a general election vote, in 1974, it went to the Conservatives, or rather to Ted Heath; and hindsight now confirms that I made the right choice, even if it was futile. A Labour win would not have changed much in the long term: they still had to get their relationship with the unions sorted out and that struggle would have left a Labour government no time or energy to do anything else. It was best pursued in Opposition, a thankless task for which Kinnock has never received due recognition. But if Heath had survived, that just might have changed things for the better and for the whole world. For Heath had spotted the coming sea change and rightly identified the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. In terms of perspicacity, that warning was right up there with Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”. A Heath victory might have kept Thatcher at bay and with her the Reagan-Thatcher alliance which was to serve as launching pad for unfettered and unprincipled capitalism.
Absolved of any remaining scruples about the pursuit of wealth and power by any and all means at its disposal, international capital promptly set about trampling on the social compact which had been the secret of its success. David Simon provides a timely reminder of what used to be good about capitalism:
It took a working class that had no discretionary income at the beginning of the century, which was working on subsistence wages. It turned it into a consumer class that not only had money to buy all the stuff that they needed to live but enough to buy a bunch of shit that they wanted but didn’t need, and that was the engine that drove us.
Capitalism worked not because it was a great leveller — inequality was always built into the system — but because the degree of inequality was perceived to be reasonable. Everyone got something out of it. But that was only possible because the unwritten rules recognised the importance of both voices, capital’s and labour’s, and ensured that neither of them was able to silence the other. Not any more. Real wages are plummeting and have been for years because without the unions there’s no one to defend them. The working poor have long been a reality in the US and are emerging in Europe, especially the UK, with people holding down two jobs and still struggling to feed their families. We’re back to subsistence wages. Capital has won out, it’s achieved everything it ever wanted; and the losers will be the people — all the people except the very rich.
Nowhere is this clearer to see than in the small print of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the US-EU free trade zone currently being finalised in secret, which in all likelihood will include a toxic mechanism called investor-state dispute settlement. Montbiot outed this one a few weeks ago:
Where this has been forced into other trade agreements, it has allowed big corporations to sue governments before secretive arbitration panels composed of corporate lawyers, which bypass domestic courts and override the will of parliaments.
This mechanism could threaten almost any means by which governments might seek to defend their citizens or protect the natural world. Already it is being used by mining companies to sue governments trying to keep them out of protected areas; by banks fighting financial regulation; by a nuclear company contesting Germany’s decision to switch off atomic power. After a big political fight we’ve now been promised plain packaging for cigarettes. But it could be nixed by an offshore arbitration panel. The tobacco company Philip Morris is currently suing Australia through the same mechanism in another treaty.
Now, it doesn’t take much imagination to see what this sort of agreement
could will do with legislation designed to cope with the effects of climate change. Want to ban the sale of petrol/diesel burning cars from, say, 2025 on? Try it and we’ll sue. Want to outlaw fracking, replace carbon trading by carbon taxes, stop subsidising all means of power generation except renewables…? Try it.
The general public is lamentably, totally ignorant of the sheer scale of change we need to bring about in the next few decades if we are to ensure the survival of anything like civilisation as we know it. The so-called captains of industry surely know better, even if they refuse to admit it. But they want to make sure that large-scale change comes about on their own terms. And they are well on the way to achieving that. The financial markets have had sovereign governments under the cosh for half a century already, as Harold Wilson and François Mitterrand found to their cost; now they’ve found a way to push them aside all together.
But how far does their thinking go? When the oceans rise and the storms strike and power stations go down like dominoes; when the chaos sets in; when money becomes worthless… what will they do? Do they really think they can go on for ever, in walled or even underground towns powered by small nuclear reactors, like so many land-locked aircraft carriers?
All their money won’t help them then. Can they really think their power (in both senses of the term) will suffice? I don’t know. I don’t understand what seems to me to be wilful stupidity.
But they are “us” — my generation. This is the world we have brought about. Those of us at the top of the pile have actively sought it, seduced by wealth and short-term power; the rest of us, too easily satisfied, too idle to take an interest, too cowardly to oppose, have let them get away with it.