The Eurozone crisis limps on, with each new “make or break” point presenting choices between alternatives that were but a few months ago unthinkable. Those who always thought the Euro was a bad idea, economically, politically, or both, are increasingly joined by erstwhile enthusiasts in speculating that the single currency is doomed to collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. But in a way, although the demise of the Euro would be messy to say the least, the crisis in the zone is merely a wrinkle on the surface of a much more fundamental, and global, economic problem. The Eurozone problems are technical, in the sense that the Euro is a half-baked idea. A fully baked Euro would treat the Eurozone economically (and therefore inescapably, politically) as a single nation state, and this is effectively what Merkel and Sarkozy are mapping out in their latest proposals. If that were to happen, then presumably the entire bloc would have its credit rating down-graded a notch or two, but imbalances within the zone would no longer be a cause of concern in themselves. Poorer parts of the zone would be treated just as poorer parts within existing countries are already treated, and any flows from richer to poorer parts would not be an international, but a national issue. Markets would not be free to speculate against the component parts individually, but only against the bloc as a whole, which is business as usual for any nation state with a floating currency. The only problem – and of course it’s a fiendishly complex and fraught one – is getting from here to there.
But even if that could be successfully navigated, it would make no difference to the underlying problem afflicting the global capitalist market. That is the imbalance, not within countries or the Eurozone, but between economies with massive balances and those with massive debts. But that is in itself only a symptom of something, rather than a cause. And it’s a transitional symptom at that. The transition is from countries who have grown rich at others’ expense that are now staring at a future in which those others are getting richer at their expense. The irony is that China et al are dependent on developed markets, rather than domestic markets, for their wealth. So they need the old markets to collapse gracefully, tiding them over whilst they develop domestic consumption. But that is truly a transitional state. Eventually, if the dreams of the architects of globalisation are to be fulfilled, the world will arrive at a steady state of rich nations trading peaceably with one another, in ways that do not depend on one group ripping off another. As dreams go, I suppose it’s not heinous, but it’s also utopian, I suspect.
However the future might unfold (and the key bit that’s missing from the globalisers’ dreaming is their resolute refusal to acknowledge the planetary and biological limits to their utopianism) the fact remains that during the transition from Western economic and political dominance to Eastern, we in the West are going to get poorer. Certainly relatively, and almost certainly absolutely, too.
Our political system cannot deal with this reality. A whole succession of Western generations have been assured that things can only get better, by which we all understand, richer. We believe it is our birthright. Politicians who do not promise steadily rising incomes do not get elected. On the altar of ever greater enrichment we have sacrificed all sense of equity, of justice, of mutual benefit. We tolerate vast riches for a few, because we’ve been led to believe that unless we give the freedom to get rich to some, we’ll all be poorer. We can’t legislate for the curbing of corporate greed because the beneficiaries of that greed will take their bats and balls home, and we’ll all be poorer. We can’t have a “Robin Hood tax” because if we do the City will be deserted and half our country’s wealth will dry up. No-one dares to question this received wisdom.
Why not? For two main sets of reasons, it seems to me, one with genuine legitimacy, and one with none. The legitimate reasons are that politicians know that they have to promise greater wealth indefinitely otherwise we’ll vote for another lot who will promise it. The illegitimate reasons are because the political class are, by and large, the same as the class that is getting richer and richer compared with the rest of us. It’s no coincidence that so many cabinet members are millionaires. It’s no coincidence that New Labour was so famously relaxed about exorbitant wealth. Our politicians are either exorbitantly wealthy themselves, or are friends with those who are. It is a single club, and no-one, once in it, ever wants to leave it.
There is little individuals can do about the second set of reasons, other than deplore it. But we can begin to give the lie to the first. I am a member of the squeezed middle. My pay is frozen, whist inflation roars ahead. My pension is under attack. But (and this is in itself a symptom of just how distorted our relative incomes have become) not only am I a member of the squeezed middle, I’m also in the top 1% of earners. There are very few of us indeed who are neither poor, nor in the squeezed middle.
If we are to do something about the current crisis, it has to include the managed reduction of the West’s average incomes. A Western worker on average earns about 4 to 10 times what a Chinese worker earns for doing the same thing. At root, it is this inequality that is unsustainable. I would resent it very much indeed if my wealth was diminished whilst a tiny minority of my compatriots continued to get richer and richer: but I also know that even if every super-rich person in this country was suddenly reduced to my wealth status and their excess wealth redistributed to the rest of us, it would still be necessary for us all to become poorer. No politician can tell me that my vote makes it impossible for them to do the right thing, to work for true global equity. I know that if I truly want that – and I do – then I cannot remain as rich as I am. I am willing to vote for managed personal impoverishment. I do not believe that I’m alone.
I have specific reasons for my position that have to do with my faith. To me it’s simple. “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” You don’t have to share that faith to acknowledge the logic of my argument, and if you’re an avowed atheist, but still want global justice, it’s not for me to question why. I want to make common cause with you regardless.
Are any of you prepared to vote not in your own private interests, but in the interests of humanity at large? If you are, it’s about time that all of us who are thus willing told our politicians that they can no longer hide behind their assumptions about us. And just for a bit of fun, you can vote here!