It's time to reclaim our economy for global justice
By Kara Moses
What is the economy? An abstract pseudoscience constructed by experts that has little to do with the average citizen? Simply the way money flows through a society? Nick Dearden, Director of Jubilee Debt Campaign, opened the Crash conference in Birmingham by putting this question to the audience. Answers included ‘life, the universe and everything,’ but Dearden summed it up as a form of social organisation that affects the way we live on almost every level, how we relate to each other, how we experience the world on a day-to-day basis.
If the economy affects our lives on so many levels it would make sense to try to understand it, especially following the catastrophic collapse of the financial system in recent years, ever-rising inequality and now severe austerity wreaking havoc here in the UK and the rest of Europe. It is clear that something is seriously wrong and something needs to change. But what? And how?
Crash, organised by the Jubilee Debt Campaign and People & Planet set out to explain the financial crisis and what to do about it, bringing together a diverse range of over 120 people from anti-cuts activists and environmentalists to global poverty and social justice campaigners and simply interested people not fighting for any particular cause.
The day consisted of talks and participatory workshops on a broad range of topics from tax justice, creating localised economies, how to communicate about economics, direct action, the effects of austerity and working together to take effective collective action.
I can find the language of political economics abstruse at the best of times but Dearden explained it in a way that was accessible and meaningful. He explained how the US created the world debt crisis in the 1970s by making the US dollar the world currency and recklessly lending huge sums to third world countries, essentially exporting their own massive debts after overspending on the Vietnam war. How neoliberal economics allowed companies to grow to huge multinational proportions with incredible influence over governments. The idea being that wealth would ‘trickle down’ to all levels of society – the reality being that the wealth trickles down one or two levels and the rest floods offshore to tax havens, leaving the majority of people worse off while the top 1% reap huge profits.
Neoliberal economics and its austerity agenda have often been pushed on developing countries in crisis in return for loans. Promised with ‘development’ and economic prosperity, these countries are ordered to cut public spending on health, education and development, abolish welfare, privatise in order to make profit and deregulate trade to encourage an influx of cheaper goods, such as food for example, into the country. But what this means is that local farmers can’t compete with heavily subsidised foreign food and are pushed out of the market – and the country becomes dependent on foreign corporations that take all of the profit back out of the country because of deregulated capital and tax breaks – meaning the people actually become worse off and the only the foreign private sector elite benefit. 54 countries applying these policies actually went backwards in terms of human development indicators.
The austerity agenda we are seeing now in Europe has been attempted in Latin America, Africa and South East Asia – and has never worked. Currently, austerity is having a huge impact in Spain and in Greece where youth unemployment is now over 55%. Murder, suicide and HIV have dramatically risen. Free healthcare is a thing of the past and an openly fascist party controls large areas of Athens. And this is still being heralded as the solution? Austerity only serves to protect the richest members of society who enjoy tax cuts and are allowed to avoid massive amounts of tax, while the poor majority foot the bill. Inequality is rising and these flawed economic policies are at the heart of it.
Hearing these complex ideas presented in such an intelligible way had a strong impact on me. I am an environmentalist. I have spent my life working to try and solve environmental problems in various ways. But I kept seeing the same pattern recurring time and time again: the cause of environmental destruction was nearly always some irresponsible company or government placing profit before anything else. I was beginning to realise that it was the socioeconomic system that was driving the destruction, that reformist approaches of tinkering with a system so inherently flawed were simply not enough. I could quite have easily have come from a social justice background and come to the same conclusion.
The Crash conference crystallised these embryonic thoughts, filling in the gaps in my knowledge and helping me realise that environmental and social justice are inextricably hinged upon economic justice. Broad economic justice underpins the only realistic way forward to achieve a fairer society that doesn’t destroy the planet and exploit its people. This may seem obvious to many. But within the broad movement of people working for a fairer society, we can too easily become blinkered by our own pet issues and tactics, focus on our differences rather than what unites us.
Perhaps it is too great a simplification, but I am beginning to believe that regardless of the focus of our struggles, whether we are fighting for environmental justice, gender or racial equality, world peace, workers rights or socialist revolution, we can all trace our causes back to equality, justice and a socioeconomic system that undermines both. The global economy unites all activists, all people, and we must come together to bring about change that will ultimately address all of the issues we are working on. By sharing and learning from each other and working through and beyond our differences we can build a powerful movement that can cannot be ignored.
So it was as an environmentalist-turned-anti-cuts-activist that I attended the Crash follow-up meeting last month. Since Crash, I have shifted my activism focus to the anti-cuts movement in Birmingham, a rapidly growing movement of people fighting the false logic of austerity. The meeting was attended by a diverse group in terms of age, gender, background and focus. We discussed the gaps and challenges of the nebulous economic justice work already happening in Birmingham – lack of information, understanding and unity in the movement – and how we might plug those gaps by working together.
For me, Crash was a turning point. I think that it could also be a turning point for Birmingham, acting as a catalyst to bring together diverse groups and individuals to work towards a shared, broad vision of economic justice. There is growing unrest and anger at the huge and disproportionate cuts being implemented by Birmingham City Council, a crisis that can be taken advantage of to galvanise people, particularly those with no previous involvement in activism. With a strong, unified movement we can capture that energy and build a strong resistance to the false logic of austerity and failing neoliberal economics.
We can take inspiration from what is happening in Latin America, where social mobilisation has been so strong that in some cases the economy has been reclaimed by the people. In Ecuador, participatory budget decisions are now taken at a local level, they have defaulted on huge debts and formed their own monetary fund instead of being dependent on the IMF and their insistence on neoliberal policies in exchange for loans. Social spending with the money saved has soared, Human Development Indices have increased and poverty has halved.
As Dearden pointed out, we don’t need to understand what a credit default swap or collateralised debt obligation is to have a valid view about the economy. And that view should be taken into account by politicians making decisions about economic policy on our behalf. We need to reclaim our economy for it affects our lives on every level and is fundamental to achieving a just and sustainable future. Educate yourself about the economy, join a local anti-cuts group, take action.
Similar events to Crash are coming up soon in London and Edinburgh – I can’t recommend them enough. Whether you’re an activist, teacher, nurse, mother, jobseeker, student, or anything or anybody else you should get down to one of these events because this affects every single person in society and how they live their lives – and you can do something about it. It’s time to unite against systemic inequality. It’s time for justice.
Kara Moses is a freelance writer www.karamoses.com
econowhat.org.uk – online and local reading groups to help you understand the basics of the financial crisis and what that means for social justice in the UK and the rest of the world