We as a civilisation always pride ourselves on our superiority to previous civilisations, yet this superiority is often more apparent than real. What cannot be denied is our technological progress, even in the depths of the longest post war depression, none were reduced to the extremities experienced in the depression of the 1930’s. The material wealth of the majority is greater than that of the well off middle classes in the inter war period. However what has changed little is civilisations tendency to barbarity. The brutal civil wars in the former Yugoslavia should have ended any assumption about the superiority of European civilisation. In case we forget it was the same civilisation that gave rise to the death camps in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. What tends to go unremarked is the casual reversion to barbarism in our governing classes, whenever their social position is threatened. Surely the reaction of the European governing classes to the great financial crisis of 2009 has revealed the essential inhumanity of this group, which continues to be the constant characteristic of this group, whether it takes the form of violence against their peoples or a sustained camping of suppression and impoverishment against their subject peoples.
In any financial crisis the first and over riding instinct of the governing classes is to protect their wealth. The instinct of the Greek governing classes was to deny the bankruptcy of their banks as that would have meant them accepting large financial losses, instead they transferred the blame to hard working masses of the group population claiming it was their fecklessness that caused the country’s bankruptcy. Early retirement, the bloated welfare budget and over staffed public services became the accepted cause of the Greek crisis. The distraction from the real cause with generous EU bank bailouts enabled the Greek governing classes to carry on as before. In fact they collective behaviour worsened, there looting of the country’s wealth increased, they spirited there assets out of Greek banks to safer bank havens within the EU, undermining further the solvency of Greek banks. If these banks had been declared bankrupt at the beginning of the crisis it would have been impossible for the super rich to spirit their wealth out of the country. By transferring the blame for the crisis to the majority they could transfer the costs of the bail out to them. This was achieved by impoverishing the majority through wage cuts, job losses in the public sector, cuts in public sector pensions and these savings financed the reduction in the national debt necessary to secure EU loans and the banks bailout. One consequence is that Greece now has the highest level of youth employment in the EU in which 1 in 2 of all young people remain unemployed.
This is not to deny that there were problems with the great economy and that some changes would have had to be made to put it on a sounder financial footing. What has happened is that the guilty party has escaped with their wealth intact. In a society as unequal as Greece in which the super rich hold a disproportionate share of the nations wealth, when that group as a whole refuses to pay tax, government finances become unsound. The government has rely to a disproportionate extent on borrowing to finance its activities. Add to that the property and asset speculation indulged in by these groups a crash was inevitable in Greece, even without the crash of 2009.
While Greece is an extreme example of a malfunctioning modern capitalist economy, the UK is also trapped within the same malfunctioning economic spectrum. The UK’s problems are not as severe as those of Greece, it is a difference of quantity not kind. When David Cameron (as reported in The Guardian) announced that austerity was here to stay, he announcing the that his government would do its utmost to perpetuate the malfunctioning economic system of the recent past. Britain’s governing classes make their income from speculative trading activities whether in property, equities or commodities. All of which result in a transfer of income from the wealth poor majority upwards to the wealth rich minority. Generation rent illustrates this process well. It is estimated that only 2% of the population are landlords and although the figures are not available given Britain’s unequal distribution of wealth it’s reasonable to assume a small proportion of that 2% own the majority of property. I don’t think it would be wrong to assume that 10% of that 2% own the majority of properties. With increasing numbers of young people trapped within generation rent these landlords are able to take an increasing share of the income of young people through increasing rents.
Much speculative activity is only profitable if interest rates are low. If it costs next to nothing to borrow money the most speculative of speculative punts become possible. Cheap money is secured by reducing the demand for money. Austerity and the relative or actual impoverishment of the majority frees up a greater proportion of the banks assets for speculation. It also by reducing the demand for money keeps interest rates low. Britain financial markets have become the world’s speculator’s playground. Any punt in the speculative London housing market will lead to a profit on resale in a few month’s time.
A socially unequal society need not be unstable, as is demonstrated by the survival of aristocratic agrarian societies which persist for hundreds of years. What are unstable are societies in which the wealth of the super rich is founded on speculation, as in the UK. They are liable to volatile swings in business confidence as speculation is based on the feelings of traders about the future. Such violent swings in the wealth of the nations assets means much public spending becomes unsustainable. Much of the financing of public sector expansion in Gordon Brown’s Chancellorship was dependent on taxes on speculative activities. In the property boom stamp duty and capital gains tax on speculative property trading financed much government activity and when the property boom ended much funding of government activity ceased.
Forget the headlines about much of the world’s wealth being secreted in tax havens, much of that money is secreted in Britain, in offshore accounts. The immense amounts of money stored in Bermuda and the Cayman Isles can earn no profit in such impoverished economies, it is instead recycled to the high profit financial centres such as London. An account in a tax haven is merely a fictions recycling of money to hide it from national governments. In the example of the UK it is true that this tax haven money never leaves the UK shores. It was the IMF that labelled the City of London as the world’s largest tax haven.
In unequal and volatile society the government can only maintain itself in power by resorting to increasingly brutal and repressive measures. One of the most effective ways of doing so is to deny the representatives of the people power, in the Republic of classical Rome it was done by murdering the representatives of the people, the tribunes. One such unfortunate tribune one of the Gracchi had his skull split in half and the top half of his skull was used a cup by one of his enemies. David Cameron’s government in following on a long succession of governments that have emasculated the Trade Union movement, so effectively removing the voice of the people from the political process. There political representatives in parliament have been seamlessly absorbed into the new ruling classes. One of the selling points of new Labour was its ability to mange the trade unions better than its rivals in the interest of big business.
However even this is insufficient, if denied a voice in the political process dissent will take other forms of expression. Letters in today’s Guardian (21st Nov. 2013) write of extreme repressive measures taken against the most mild of opposition movements, the student protestors. What threat do the children of the middle class pose to the system? The answer is very little, but nevertheless the student protestors are subject to constant police harassment. If a blue print is needed for a repressive British government, it comes from the government of Lord Liverpool (1812-27). Whether consciously or not the government seems to be following the Liverpool rule book. It has even introduced its own gagging law, not too dissimilar to the measures taken by Lord Liverpool to suppress the radical publishers.