April 14, 2009
You couldn’t make it up. Or, if you did, you would be derided by all right-thinking people. It appears that Brown’s next big idea to restore community cohesion, or whatever the latest buzzword is for people getting on with each other, is to compel young people to do at least 50 hours of community work before they leave school.
So let’s get this straight. In order to persuade young people who have little stake in society that they really, really want to become engaged with the community, they’re going to be forced to work for it. How can anyone possibly think this is a good idea? Certainly, we might have more litter picked up, but it’ll do nothing to deal with the underlying causes of disaffected youth – namely, that they see no role for themselves within society.
If you, as a young person, learn that the best you can hope for out of living as a valued member of society is a precarious job in a call centre, then it’s actually a rational choice to not respect that society at all. If you then learn that you’re going to be forced to do work for a community that has nothing to offer you, you’re only going to become more resentful.
This will not work. Not just because it won’t do anything to make people get on with each other, but because if you tell a teacher or social worker that he’s got to supervise thirty 16-year-old lads who really don’t want to be there, then he’s going to find some way to make it palatable for them – which probably won’t involve doing anything actually useful. But it’ll hit the target, and that’s what matters, right?
This policy could not be more New Labour. It’s an imposed central directive that does nothing for the root cause of the problem, and is likely to waste time and money. But people will see youths out on the street (probably in orange bibs) doing something, so clearly the Government is trying, right?
Over Hyde Park, the weather appeared unable to make up its mind. The blazing sun was interrupted by showers of hail, seemingly depending on who was on stage at the time. Whether this counted as some sort of divine disapproval was uncertain, as the hailed-on speakers took it as an opportunity to praise the crowd for braving the weather. And indeed ‘brave’ was the right word – unlike many of these protests I’ve been to, most of the crowd looked like they were unused to mud.
This was the ‘Put People First’ march, whose clarion call was ‘Jobs, Justice and Climate’. Given the diversity of groups under its banner (154 separate organisations at current counting), the lack of specificity in how these goals were to be achieved was probably inevitable. There was a clear consensus on who was to blame for them not being achieved, however, and at the top of that list were the bankers. There was also a clear consensus on who would provide the means to achieve those goals – the leaders of the G20.
Flash forward to Wednesday, and the agenda of the G20 protesters becomes even less focused. Now it’s about simple anger at a banking sector collapsing in under its own hubris. Change is demanded – but what change?
In Hyde Park, only Mark Thomas actually used the word socialism, and only to condemn Labour for not believing in it. Even Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC, limited himself to condemning government incompetence. The focus of the grand anti-capitalism protests – Seattle, Genoa, May Day – has always been on actions the protesters are demanding from the state, or from international organisations. It has never been as a coherent ideology, which has meant their efforts are frequently (and correctly, in today’s case) painted as simple anger with the system. The classic of this has always been the banner which states, ‘Let’s overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer!’
That anger has always been with the state in its role as an agent of change – in essence, it presupposes that the state is the sole agent of change within society. It comes from a statist viewpoint, even if it never describes itself as such. The actions demanded by Put People First are exclusively about what the state can do to mitigate the financial crisis.
At this point, I imagine a lot of you are going, ‘Well, duh, the state has all the power.’ This is wrong. One of the worst aspects of socialism is the disempowering impact it has on the individual; jobs, justice and the mitigation of climate change are on this viewpoint something that can only be provided by the state. The left has been talking the talk of socialism for many years without actually believing it, and it has been left without a coherent ideology of its own.
The original pre-9/11 anti-capitalist movement took its inspiration from the excesses of capitalism as detailed by the investigative journalism of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the work of people like Naomi Klein and John Pilger. These were not political treatises, but rather exposes of the dubious nature of many of the monoliths of corporate world. Again, the language was the same, to do with the actions of states against the villainous corporations. It was moral indignation in a socialist framework, with the meat of the socialism part taken out.
Now in this crisis of capitalism the left has been reduced to merely demanding more government power over the economy, when it was precisely the government’s mismanagement of the rules of credit that brought us to our current predicament. There is no coherency to the movement, beyond the indignation we have seen previously.
The root cause of this indignation has been claimed to be the structure of the corporation itself as a legal entity. Because shareholders do not manage a corporation, and because the managers of a corporation only have a responsibility to create profit for the shareholders, at no point within its structure is there a place for moral accountability. The manager who employs sweatshop labour can claim that he or she is compelled to do so by the duty to create profit for the shareholders, and the shareholders can claim that since they do not control the actions of the corporation, those actions are not their responsibility.
We have seen this in the banking sector. The enormous bonuses given for producing short-term gains were a direct consequence of the duty of the directors to maintain the profitability of their bank and maintain the share price of the company. Therefore the long-term interests of the banks (and therefore the economy based on them) were sacrificed for short-term profit. And yet, no-one is morally responsible.
It is this structure, rather than capitalism itself, which I argue has been the root cause of the anti-capitalist protests over the past two decades, and to which the left must propose an alternative.
Thankfully, we need not look far, as an alternative has been in existence for hundreds of years. In Principles of Political Economy, JS Mill argued for the institution of limited liability partnerships in which every worker would contribute a share of the capital. Today, we call those co-operatives. And they work, and work well, across the world. Indeed, I bank with one. The Co-Operative Bank has been one of the few high street chains to come out of the credit crunch entirely intact. Unlike a corporation, the members of a co-operative are collectively responsible for its actions, as they are involved in both its financing and its day-to-day running. They are the progressive left’s answer to corporatism.
But this leads me to the most important part of this argument. Co-operatives can be set up in law already – there is no need to lobby the state. They create jobs, they lift people out of poverty and are generally environmentally friendly. The only remaining element necessary for change is not the state, but you. Do you want to put a stop to corporate excess? Then find others who feel the same way you do, and compete against those corporations.
The left needs to accept that the agent of change in society is no longer the state, but the individual. The state has a role to play in enabling the founding of co-operative businesses, in terms of providing education, training and start-up loans – but it already does that. Those on the left who wish to see the demise of the corporate system need to stop lobbying the government, and engage with the rest of the population, to tell them that they can co-operate to get themselves out of poverty, and no longer have to rely on provision by the state. Socialism is not the answer – working together at the individual level is.
As I write this, the windows of the RBS branch on Threadneedle Street are being broken. RBS can afford to lose a few panes of glass. But if the 35,000 people who attended Saturday’s protest started banking co-operatively, that would be a different story entirely.