I don’t normally write about politics. Embedded in my writing is a sense of values and beliefs, which I believe underpins the way any writer approaches their work. That’s almost inevitable as there are things that we carry and wear like comfortable clothes – you don’t even notice you’re wearing them until they are challenged. If that challenge is long, and slow, you might not even notice that they are being challenged until it’s too late, which is my reason for writing about politics now. I feel that if don’t do something then it may be too late for us to change.
Let me summarise the situation. In the coming election there is a choice between bad, worse, irrelevant, much worse, and absolutely dreadful. You can choose for yourself which offering fits in which slot, and that’s not to say that there aren’t good people trying to do the right thing. The election turnout is likely to be low because people feel that they are not being offered a choice they can vote for, and this is being capitalised upon by popularists like Russell Brand and Nigel Farage, who claim to offer an alternative, though that alternative is remarkably short on detail. The problem, however, goes much, much deeper.
It started in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government. She came to power on a platform of austerity and monetarism, supported by Ronald Reagan in the United States, or perhaps more properly the other way around; Thatcher supported Reagan. It is characterised by the quotation from the character Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street (1987): “Greed is good.” The idea is that as the rich get richer, the benefits cascade to the less well-off and as the economy improves everyone benefits. This is so-called “trickle down economics”. It brought us yuppies, bankers trousering ever-increasing bonuses, and a macho competitive culture based on a trickle-down theory for which there is little evidence. Interestingly, the first use of the phrase was about the Great Depression in the United States where the humorist Will Rogers said, “Money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy”. It didn’t happen then, and it’s not happening now.
There are a number of assumptions that have become embedded into our culture and for me, the most insidious and divisive of these is the zero sum game – the idea that in order to succeed, someone else must fail. This is at the heart of much of current thinking. It’s even even intrinsic to the elections themselves and is so embedded that it is difficult to see. Let me give you some examples:
- Commercial companies take the approach that in order to compete in the market they must beat their suppliers down to the lowest possible margin. They are beaten down themselves by the people they supply until it reaches the consumer who demands ever lower prices.
- Farmers are paid less for milk that it costs to produce because supermarkets use milk as a loss-leader to bring customers to their stores.
- Examinations are made harder so that not as many students achieve the highest grades. Politicians raise the bar while continuing to say that they want more children to succeed.
- Programmes like The Apprentice and The X-Factor promote a winner-takes-all philosophy on a national scale, supported by a media that’s addicted to the income that the cult of celebrity generates.
All of these are based on the idea of winners and losers, and propagate the idea that competition is good, which is a view that underpins the philosophy of market economics, supply and demand, and survival of the fittest. The problem is that it doesn’t deliver what we need. It’s the reason that successive governments have been able to privatise monopolies and sell the assets of the country while our debt outstrips our income. Meanwhile our productivity as a nation is stagnant or falling. We are failing vast numbers of our citizens and our youth is disenchanted, demotivated and demoralised.
Markets benefit everyone. Competition keeps us fit-for-purpose. Greed is good. It’s been the litany of the last thirty years, and it was brought in by the political right and then swallowed by the left, leaving nothing to choose between them. The problem is, it isn’t true.
But is there an alternative?
Well, there is, but it requires a re-think at the most fundamental level and that most difficult of things; a change in culture. We need to substitute the idea that to win someone else must lose, with the idea that we are more successful if we help each other. If we help each other then our overall productivity and output rises and we all benefit from the result.
The idea of Greed is Good was an easy sell because we all like to think of ourselves as winners, but no-one wins all the time, which has become apparent over the last thirty years. What happens is that we cheat each other, which is fundamentally how we ended up in a boom-and-bust economic cycle culminating in a banking fraud so vast that it ruined entire countries.
There is no party to vote for that will do this for us. There are no politicians advancing this cause. We need to do it for ourselves because we are the only ones who can change it. We need to do it at work with our colleagues and at home with our families and friends. We need to embed this philosophy in the small decisions we make every day, and decide whether to climb over each other or help each other reach our goals.
At the moment it’s a philosophy that’s alien to our culture. We’re so used to the idea that we should be winners (and by extension everyone else the losers) that it’s in our language, our play, our morality. This can be changed a little at a time, but in the coming election we are able to demand of our politicians that they shift their thinking too and start to promote co-operation rather than competition, not just in this country, but in all countries. That implies a sense of community that extends beyond our immediate vicinity and embraces each of us as part of a greater whole, affecting us individually and personally.
Only by supporting and helping each other can we leave behind the culture of division, conflict, and disaster that has brought us collectively to the brink of ruin. Change yourself, influence others, help them to change those around them.
Do it before it’s too late.