Perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s most famous quote was “there is no such thing as society” which she said in an interview in Women’s Own magazine, October 31 1987. Today even the Conservative party would not defend this statement. Indeed, on my radio show, Agitpop, just before the last election, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown the Conservative MP for the Cotswold constituency for the last 15 years, made it clear that the Conservative party are now great believers in “society” and indeed David Cameron’s flagship policy is his notion of the Big Society.
But Thatcher’s far more powerful and successful mantra was “there is no alternative”. This expressed the idea that all alternatives to late 20th Century corporate capitalism had been discredited and that it remained the only viable economic and political system. In turn this led Francis Fukuyama to posit the ludicrous notion that political history was over and that economic liberalism had triumphed for eternity.
It seems that this notion of “no alternative” as been incredibly pernicious and has become deeply ingrained in the popular consciousness. Many believe that this lack of hope, this perception that political change is simply not possible, has led to the public apathy around democratic politics and the disengagement of the politically active from political parties into specific interests groups.
Yet capitalism as we know it today is in no way a natural phenomenon, it was deliberately constructed between the mid 18th-mid 19th Centuries by the conscious creation of a legal framework that permitted previously outlawed economic activity.
[And just to be clear here Capitalism is not synonymous with trade. Trade is the simple exchange of goods between individuals and groups and has probably taken place in human societies from the beginning of organised tribal societies. Trade at this level is a fairly simple and egalitarian activity. You have something I want or need, I have something you want or need and we swap the items to mutual satisfaction.]
Capitalism however is a system specific to modern industrialised urban societies in which the means of production (which can be land, buildings or technology) are owned by a small wealthy elite. As they own the means of production they also take all the profit resulting from the labour of others. The legal framework that allowed this to happen consisted of (i) allowing wealthy people to “invest” in (i.e. loan money to) other people’s productive and/or money-making activities in return for a share in the profits made in the venture. (ii) Allowing banks and other wealthy institutions to lend money in return for interest.
Historically both of these financial mechanisms were illegal and morally frowned upon. Indeed, for very nearly 2,000 years Christianity specifically forbade the practice of usury (lending money for interest) on theological grounds. Jews, who suffered no such religious constraint, were tolerated in Western Europe because they would lend money for interest – but they were despised for doing so; one only has to look at Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock to get a clear idea of how deep the Elizabethan antithesis towards usury and usurers was.
Contrary to the contemporary understanding of private capitalist enterprise, early examples of using investment for profit were in fact state instituted and colonial in nature, as in the East India Company and South Sea Company which resulted in the famous South Sea Bubble of 1720 – one of the earliest examples of the inherent instability of capitalist systems.
So the idea that the capitalist system is somehow natural, somehow an inevitable result of human nature, is simply nonsense; it is a system that had to be deliberately created by a wealthy elite to guarantee and extend their wealth and power.
Once the capitalist system was created the idea was then propagated that market forces are like natural forces, that they are unpredictable and uncontrollable; that no one – individuals, businesses or even governments – can tamper successfully with markets and as a result attempts at organised National economic planning and governance is useless at best, destructive at worst; and that human beings are powerless in the face of such economic forces of nature. This notion results in justifying the inevitable inequalities that arise from the capitalist system. The capitalists are saying, “We’d love to help all you poor people, honestly, but it’s just not the way the world is, sorry,” which is very convenient if you happen to be rich.
Yet the system is an entirely human abstraction that only exists in the form of legal entities. Indeed, money itself is an abstraction, merely a symbolic representation of true value. There is nothing natural about markets or money.
There is also a contradiction in the position of the free-marketers in that while they claim it is not desirable or even possible for governments to successfully intervene to regulate or control markets they do believe that governments should and must intervene to sustain the system. Indeed, in 2008 the governments of the world intervened by giving hundreds of billions of pounds of tax payers money to privately owned businesses to sustain a system that through it’s own actions had brought itself to imminent collapse – just like the South Sea Bubble back in 1720. So the defenders of the free-market ask us to accept that there is “no alternative’ to this system and that governments cannot and should not try to protect their citizens from the worst excesses of the system but that governments can and must intervene to prop the system up if it brings itself to a potentially terminal crisis.
The idea that “there is no alternative’ is of course simply partisan political rhetoric that is designed to make the population passive. To instil the idea that the rich and the poor have always been with us, that there have always been the leaders and the led, exploiters and exploited, and that individual political action to bring about change is pointless and hopeless.
But since the enlightenment the central idea of Western culture is that human beings can change and should things, indeed this idea has been adopted by capitalism itself in the form of the notion of the dynamic entrepreneur who changes the world through transformative businesses; Richard Branson, Freddie Laker and of course the Daddy of all entrepreneurs, his majesty, the honourable, the charitable, Bill Gates, have surely all changed the world.
So it is not change in it self that the free-marketeers regard as being impossible, it is only political change that they think is out of our grasp. But where on earth have they got this idea from?
From the mid 19th Century onwards political and social change in the Western world has been profound and extraordinarily fast. Even after The Great Reform Act of 1832 the electorate of England & Wales was less than 650,000 and entirely dependent on property ownership, the vast majority of the male population and 100% of women were excluded from the democratic process. Less than 100 years later (1928) we had universal suffrage, a Labour Party a politically engaged Trade Union movement and a political system completely transformed.
These political changes were not brought about market forces and don’t let the free-marketeers bullshit you that they were; these changes were brought about by the political struggles of individuals coming together to risk everything to bring about political change; individual men and women who suffered imprisonment, transportation and execution to achieve the political freedoms you and I benefit from today, and they did so because they believed change was possible.
Barack Obama’s 2009 election mantra “Yes we can!” specifically appealed to this enlightenment idea that human destiny is in our own hands and not in the hands of Gods, Kings, Corporate Managers or market forces and perhaps it is this that his opponents are so scared of, because their accusation that he is somehow a socialist tyrant is clearly laughable. But even Obama’s mildly social democratic version of progressive change is a threat to the capitalist elite because if they admit that actually our political destinies are in our own hands, rather than in the hands of ungovernable market forces, then perhaps it won’t be long before people start to think about what other changes they might want to make to this system which has half the world eating themselves to death while the other half starve.
Homo Sapiens have existed as a distinct species for over 200,000 years, agriculture was developed about 10,000 years ago and urban civilisation about 7,500. Capitalism as an economic system has existed for less than 200 years. So for over 190,000 years human beings existed in small, nomadic, tribal groupings, and based on anthropological studies of surviving tribal societies, organised by an essentially egalitarian system of communal governance. How on earth can the free-marketeers credibly maintain that 21st Century free market capitalism is the natural order?!
Looking forwards in time similar questions arise; is it credible to believe that the current Western form of capitalism and liberal democracy is going to still be in place in 10,000 years? 1,000? 500? If the rate of technological and social change of the last 200 hundred years continues all we can safely say about the future is that it is going to look very different from the present; there is no reason on earth to believe that current economic and political systems will persist.
Even in the shorter term there are political alternatives everywhere we look in the world. In Scandinavia there are the stable and successful social democratic, mixed economies of Sweden, Denmark & Norway; in Venezuela there is the widely popular socialist government of Hugo Chávez, in Cuba the communist government under Fidel Castro persists despite a 40 year economic blockade of the country by the USA that has failed to bring it to it’s knees. On the other side of the political spectrum Africa is rife with military and civilian dictatorships and Burma is struggling to free itself from a totalitarian regime. Even in emerging capitalist nations different forms are emerging. Russia has descended into a brutal form of gangster capitalism and in China a terrifying form of state capitalism is developing that is successful could fatally undermine the free-marketeers assertion that capitalism inevitably leads to political freedom.
Human beings invented capitalism and both ancient and modern history shows us that there is nothing inevitable about it as an economic system and that the only limit on political and economic alternatives is human imagination. History also shows us that democracy, liberty & justice are no more natural than totalitarianism and elitism and that we must constantly fight for them.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society