I want you to rank the following things in the order of importance that you would give them, the least important at the bottom and the most important at the top. Forget about practical considerations and judge them as things in themselves as far as you can.
Someone to love who also loves you
A 2 week vacation to any destination of your choice
I'm going to go out on a limb here and take a bet with myself that virtually no one put "money" at the top of the list. I say this because, judged in isolation, I think people, freed from their own ideologies and the ideological influences of society, become more intimate with each other and more minded to their own personal well-being. So I'm expecting (and hoping, to be honest) that you put "someone to love who also loves you" or maybe "a friend" at the top of your own personal list. But you were and are free to choose to order that list as you like and you must justify your order to yourself alone, if you can.
My title today, and the subject of this blog, are somewhat sarcastically approached. The subject, in broad terms, is money. More tightly conceived, it is to shake readers from normality in relation to economics. It is to shine a light into a few dark corners to show that the way the world works financially is not a given but a choice. When some get rich and some are poor somewhere down the line that was a choice and one that we, in some small measure, consented to. Immediately as I wrote this line the Boston Tea Party comes to mind. This was, famously, an incident concerned with American colonists not wanting to pay British taxes. And so they dumped all the taxed tea into Boston harbour. Essentially, it was a financial dispute. The aggrieved colonists felt that they no longer owed money to the British Government and so they refused to pay. Eventually this led to the American Revolution (which, it sometimes seems, some Americans are still fighting today).
I used to live in Germany and, for part of that time of my life, I lived in Berlin. Berlin is quite a fascinating city and often quite a liberated and liberating one. It is a hotbed of ideas, musical and often political. It seemed to me, as one coming from often apathetic England, that many more people in Berlin were engaged with society and everything was much more social in its arrangement. Politics there, to my mind, was much more about every day people and their thinking than it was about a few self-appointed people discussing or deciding things in a detached way. This is probably because in Berlin the people in general, the polis from which we get politics in the first place, might be asked in a referendum what should be done. It seems a form of democracy in which more people are involved and to my mind that can only be good. If democracy is going to be used then it should be as direct and as little beholden to power bases as possible.
But I digress. My point in mentioning the political background of Berlin is that one day whilst there, on a balmy summer's day, I was handed a leaflet in the street. It was from one of Germany's smaller political parties, the Pirate Party. (For reference, Berlin is covered in political and other kinds of statements. You see them all over lampposts and basically anywhere public you can stick something. Its like everywhere is a public noticeboard.) This party is somewhat counter-cultural, especially in relation to the two main parties of Germany who largely follow Western capitalist models of society. The leaflet was about a proposal that the Government should pay every adult of working age €10,000 per year (with no obligation at all on those receiving the money). With this €10,000, to be thought of as a subsistence grant, pretty much every adult should be able to feed and clothe themselves for a year. Of course, this amount wouldn't cover luxuries. You could not live the life of the rich and famous on this. But it would mean that people, in general, should find themselves able to feed and clothe themselves. The proposal was that if you thought you needed, or even if you just wanted, more money than this then, of course, you were still free to have a job or make money by some commercial enterprise such as having a business. With this you could drive your big car or pay for your expensive holiday or whatever else your heart desires.
Now put the details of how it might or could work to one side. I wonder if anyone reading this has an immediate ideological problem with people "being given money for nothing"? Because, as always with me, its not so much the "what" as the "why" that I care about. And so I wonder if I have any readers who struggle with or flat out disapprove of the idea that people should get money just for being alive to help them stay that way? It wouldn't really surprise me if I did because we live in a Western society deeply infected with individualism and the idea that you get what you have through the sweat of your brow. (In past blogs I have argued that this mentality was historically encouraged by rich people who needed poor people to work for them.) So the idea that Government, an evil concept in the mind of American colonialists and extreme individualists alike, might just take it upon itself to make sure that people don't starve by just giving them money seems somewhat completely unfair. After all, that's someone else's money the Government is giving away, right? Maybe you even think its yours.
Such a scenario is to cut right to the heart of the politics of money. Some people would put it at the top of the list I presented in opening this blog. Some people in our actual world have dollar signs in their eyes and their lives are dedicated to making as much money as possible. They see in dollars happiness, freedom and every pleasure of life. Most people in our society, either actively or passively, are capitalists. The guiding principle of capitalism is that a free, open market decides the price of things. But have you ever noticed how many capitalists, especially the successful ones, don't like the market to be either free or open? Have you noticed how companies try to become monopolies so that they can leverage the market in their favour? Have you noticed how sometimes cartels get formed so that prices can be rigged? Have you noticed how, in financial markets, bankers and others cheat the system to make vast sums of money - for themselves? Have you noticed how business gets together with politicians to set the rules of society in the favour of their bank accounts? I remember how a man now putting himself about as a philanthropist, Bill Gates, in the late 90s throttled and killed a plucky little web browser called Netscape (which later morphed into Firefox I believe) because he wanted his new Internet Explorer to be the way that everybody connected to the Internet. In Europe the EU eventually ruled Microsoft's practice of bundling IE with Windows illegal and Microsoft were thereafter forced to offer a choice of numerous browsers to users when they installed Windows for the first time.
That is a fairly trivial example of how powerful businessmen try, even when they already have a dominant position, to get even more power and even more money. There is, of course, an endless list of much worse ones. As I said above, my example Bill Gates today likes to present himself as a humanitarian and a philanthropist. He sprays around billions of dollars like it was so much confetti and I guess we are all meant to think what a great guy he is giving away his billions. These are caring capitalists, right? In the last few days Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame has stated he will do the same thing. He aims to give away 99% of his $45 billion fortune in Facebook shares.... leaving him, his wife and their new baby with a mere $450 million to live on. What a great guy, right? And, by the way, Mark thanks you for allowing him to set up a company which sells your lives and information to the highest bidder where they are doing god knows what with it. Mark is profoundly grateful we live in a society where this can be bought and sold. His no doubt fabulous house and large swimming pool are entirely down to the fact you uploaded your holiday snaps to Facebook and tagged all the people in them. You might say that Facebook is an enabler company to a capitalist society in general in that it collates people and their likes and dislikes so that commercial entities can profit from them. And, oh, isn't it fun?! (It needs to be fun so that dummies, I mean people, will take part.)
Needless to say, these billionaires do not impress me and I find it hard to understand what I, and people like me, have in common with a billionaire. I imagine that if I had $45 billion dollars or something closer to $79 billion like Gates then it would be the work of a moment to me as well to give billions away. After all, who needs even $5 million dollars in the whole of their life? I would guess that most people get by, somehow, on far less and barely earn a couple of millions in their entire working lives. So giving away your billions leaving the odd few hundred million for yourself is no big deal. Its no hardship. We should not imagine that these people are really giving anything up because, for them, it is trivial. Its like you casting loose change at a guy in a cardboard box on the street. If it was going to bite or really affect your pocket then you wouldn't be doing it and you can bet they wouldn't be either. So let's call it what it is: public relations budget. Those with extreme wealth have long been aware that those with much less or even nothing look longingly at them and quietly seethe. And so they see the value in good public relations. "I gave all this away" is a great line to reel off at a party of the well heeled in society or at a news conference for public consumption. Yes, I'm that cynical. More importantly, so are they.
For I say don't look at the figures and don't be bamboozled by the big numbers. That's what is there to blind your eyes. The amount of money is the wow factor that neatly takes your attention away from what matters. What matters is that the world isn't changed. People are still poor. People still die. People will still let the poor starve and the not very rich suffer with medical conditions because they can't pay for them. People still live under bridges, in boxes and sleep on park benches. The fact is that even if we had ten times as many Bill Gates's and Mark Zuckerbergs the world would still be the same. The solution is not pieces of paper with numbers on. A very rich capitalist or even 100 very rich capitalists are not going to turn the world into a paradise. What they are going to do is keep it a world where there are a few exorbitantly rich people and lots and lots of poorer people. The odd few billions here and there, whilst welcome, not least to those getting great PR from helping a few poor and sick people, is welcome if I'm not to be overly churlish. But you need to look past this to the bigger picture.
And so you need to ask what role you play in the great capitalist dream (or is it a nightmare) that is our world. Many people this Xmas will get technological devices as presents made by Chinese people made to work 16 or 18 hours a day and housed in great warehouses so that they are right by where they work. Every year some commit suicide due to the working conditions. Are you happy with that? Or is it a case of "out of sight, out of mind"? How many of the every day, trivial but very real abuses that capitalist business practices inflict upon ordinary people are you aware of? Do you know how supermarkets work to drive down prices so that when you go to the store things appear very cheap? Are you aware of the environmental affects of having stuff jetted and transported around the globe so that you can have the thing you want that you have seen blanket advertised? My point is that we all play a part and we all have a responsibility. The ones who make the money and who suck on the capitalist teat need a great deal of regular Joes and Joannas from which to get rich and fat and so they need to tie most of us in to their capitalist dream. But let's be clear: not everyone is meant to benefit equally from the dream. Capitalism doesn't work if EVERYONE is a millionaire.
The world doesn't have to be this way. Sometimes, I think this is the most important thought in the world.