Addressing the evils of inequity
Brewster Kneen * Ottawa, 14 July 2011
Inequity has long been the subject of Susan George’s research and writing, and unfortunately, for the vast majority of the human population and the rest of the natural world, it has grown more and more extreme during her lifetime (and mine). As described in her latest book (Whose Crisis, Whose Future, Polity, 2010), a major cause is the sanctity of the banks as private institutions that have replaced the church as the agency beyond question, the welfare of which all must ‘serve and protect’.
“It used to be that states bankrupted banks; banks made loans for war, states didn’t pay them back, and bang! There went the Medici. Now banks bankrupt states: 14 trillion spent by the USA, the UK and Europe to save the financial system is about a quarter of world GDP.” (162)
In Whose Crisis, Whose Future, George identifies the crisis as that of capitalism and its effects on all of us, including global warming and climate change, and their cause; our incredible dependency on fossil fuels. She offers a cogent argument for how to move toward a future for all of us, and not just transnational corporations and their high-flying executives, while her spirit, sly humour, and intellectual acuity make this book a delight to read in spite of her dire warnings and radical propositions.
“It may sound like political heresy, but one can look back on the Cold War with a certain nostalgia. Those times, although terrifying in their own way, also provided a strange kind of stability. The superpowers had to consider every place on earth seriously; none could be treated as unimportant because any place could become a base, a staging area, a strategic pawn for the other side.
“Today the situation is radically changed. There are a great many places that aren’t worth bothering about; they are full of losers, of the excluded, the hundreds of millions that the elites see as ‘rubbish people’, both disposable and dispensable. There are quite a few loser states as well; our ministries of foreign affairs call them ‘failed’ or ‘rogue’ states.” (181)
Susan George describes fear as “the discipline of a capitalist society.” Tony Judt, in his lament for the USA and the loss of hopeful or utopian visions, comments that “It was the fear and disaffection of the middle class which had given rise to fascism.” (Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin, 2010) George elaborates:
“And today many people are afraid – afraid things will get worse; afraid, if they have a job, that they will lose it and, if they have none, that they will never find one; afraid that their children will be worse off than they are. In some countries they fear losing their health care, retirement or unemployment benefits. . .
“At the same time, and for much the same reasons, people are also angry, conscious that we are living under a grossly immoral rule in which the guilty are rewarded and the innocent punished. The banks have received trillions and the top bankers have used public money to continue to pay themselves immoderate salaries and bonuses. Those who had nothing to do with the crisis [of 2008-9] have been robbed twice – once of the relative economic security which the casino crash has destroyed for years to come; once again because their own taxes and those of their children’s children will be spent not on public goods and a better life for all but to restore a thoroughly rotten system.” (195-6)
“Downgrading popular sovereignty is only one aspect of the attack on democracy. The concept of ‘stakeholders’ has nearly replaced the simpler and more straightforward notion of ‘the people’. . . let us recall that having a ‘stake’ always refers to property or bets, never to political rights or political power.
“Contempt for the ordinary person assumed to be politically incompetent, is accompanied by the unbridled and privileged access given to private-sector interests. . . The ordinary person, who used to be considered a ‘citizen’ – how quaint – is now reduced to the status of consumer.” (199)
Not one to be content lamenting injustices and inequities, much of this book is about how we might actually go about addressing them. In doing so, she refers to the condition of the US economy in the 1930s and how it was salvaged by the extraordinary efforts required to win World War II. Now, she writes,
“It is time to undertake and finance a green conversion on a par with the effort the Allies deployed in order to win the Second World War. This is our only chance of escape from a crisis prison, which, as we know, is not just financial but also social and ecological. To do so, we must mobilize the whole of society, just as happened in the early 1940s.” (208)
A key program:
“Nationalize the banks or, better still, socialize them, so that they become citizen-governed, public institutions and credit becomes a common public good to be used in the service of society. Banks . . . should be considered as public utilities. . . Top priority for socialized banks would go to lending to businesses and individuals with a green project, for example the provision of alternative energy or construction of energy-neutral buildings.”(215-217, emphasis in original)
But, we may well ask, how can we justify nationalizing or, better, socializing the banks and other financial institutions such as investment houses and ratings agencies? The answer is really quite simple: we, the people, through our taxes, should not be supporting and bailing out the banks and others for their greed. If a bank is failing, let it fail, while the government utilizes our money to fulfill its responsibilities for the common good.
Instituting (or restoring) progressive income taxes on both individuals and corporations (and actually collecting them) is another essential step, along with taxing current ‘externalities’: “Global warming and runaway climate change are today the universal negative externality of collective as well as individual economic activity.” If the cost of these ‘externalities’ were collected as taxes on those causing them – a straight carbon tax, for example – the economic picture would change radically.
“Transnational corporations see taxes as costs to be avoided, not as necessary contributions to the common good. On other words, when they get an educated and healthy workforce, well-managed water, gas and electricity supplies, efficient public transport to bring their employees to the workplace and law enforcement to protect their property, the companies, unlike the rest of us, have paid for none of this.” (251)
Which brings us back to the evils of inequity which affect rich and poor alike.
* Brewster Kneen is an Editor of The Ramshorn, a monthly newsletter covering what is happening in the food system, locally and globally