The party hasn’t started
As the economic system built by the rich for the rich collapses, pessimism abounds. The argument seems to go like this: if the rich couldn’t build a better nation, a better Europe, a better world, then no one can. It is perhaps best summed up in the title of Robert Peston’s series: “The Party’s Over”. This position is profoundly wrong.
In a sense, the European economic collapse isn’t that complex. After the crash of the 70s, richer people said that, if we handed our wealth to them, then they would invest it better. And so they would build for us a new world of untold prosperity and happiness.
And so we handed them the profits of our labour. We privatised to them, and we cut their taxes. We allowed them to bust unions so that their share packages could soar as average wages stagnated. We cut back regulations and we gave them every chance they asked for to ‘create wealth’. And they failed. Because if you give rich people money, they don’t invest it in those things society needs to become more prosperous. They don’t have some magic skill to spot a need. They just buy stuff they like. Or, if the mood takes them, they gamble with it. Building new factories or investing in genuine research – these things are hard. They take time to deliver a payback. Speculation, derivatives markets, these things give a quicker payoff. But they aren’t investments in a prosperous civilisation. They don’t create true wealth.
And so, having promised that they would deliver rapid economic success, they didn’t. Growth rates stalled. They did however, concentrate more and more wealth into their own hands. And with wages failing to rise with workers’ output they realised they had a problem: if people didn’t have enough money, how would they buy stuff from their companies? And so they needed to lend. We were all encouraged to believe that the houses owned by banks were really ours, and to borrow against this asset as its price rapidly grew as more and more sought to get in on the spiralling act.
Then, the bubble burst. We realised that the surplus tat we could now afford was paid for with money lent to us by the very people who had in the first place taken it from us on the promise of making us rich.
And now that this system – a system designed by the rich for the rich – has failed, we are told that the party is over. We are told that our future is bleak. For if the rich couldn’t make things better for everyone, then how can we make things better for ourselves? “If our way didn’t work” they tell us “then there isn’t a way which can”.
And this is wrong because it misses a fundamental point: this system failed to deliver happiness. It failed to enrich the majority, and it is killing the planet. We knew before 2008 that it had profoundly failed. We already needed urgently to replace it. And it is wrong because it misses this too: We were told that we had to hand our economy to the rich because they were the wealth creators, they were the Übermensch: Nietzscherian super heroes who would rescue us from the squalor of our ignorance, of our incompetence and of our idiocy. And this was always a lie. The truth is that humanity is awesome. As my brother, Gilbert, once wrote:
“It is a myth that the world contains only a handful of ultra brilliant people and that if one exhausts one’s stock of them, then one has lost one’s most important resource. Fifth century Athens, for example, produced in one generation some of the most important thinkers and writers of all time, geniuses like Plato and Euripides and Aristophanes. At the time, the population of the whole of Attica (most of whom were illiterate, of course), was about the same as present day Lowestoft. Humanity is swarming with geniuses. What matters is creating the circumstances to nurture them.”
I would go further. There is a glint of genius in everyone. In a society structured not to plunder material resources for the benefit of the few but to invest in, nurture, and release the potential of us all our collective capacity for improving civilisation would surely be boundless. Those who said they should be entrusted with our wealth and our power lied. They stole. They conned. And now their veil has slipped. And now we have something truly exciting – we have the chance to start again. To build something new, something which is ours.
What we will build we don’t yet know in detail. Ideas are forged in debate and in the fire of struggle. But we do know this: the utopia built by the rich was theirs not ours. Robert Peston tells us that The Party’s Over. He’s wrong. There was a party, but most of us weren’t invited. Our best days are ahead of us. The fall of the Übermensch allows for the rise of the people. We live in the early days of a better world. First, we just need to imagine it, and then to build it.