United Kingdom

new internationalist
issue 188 - October 1988

[image, unknown]

The politics of greed and the path beyond

The New Right holds
sway throughout the West.
Chris Brazier looks at the
lessons to be learned
from its domination.

Photo: Poly-press / Camera Press Earlier this year I returned to Britain after a spell in Nicaragua. I came from a country beset by every kind of hardship and shortage. Drought had made the harvests of rice and beans disastrous. Yet I never saw anyone begging for food. Whether it was a product of wartime or of revolutionary solidarity, you felt that the spirit abroad was 'We're all in this together'.

The contrast when I arrived back in London - one of the wealthiest cities in the world - was extreme to say the least. Twice in a week I walked round the corner to be accosted by a boy begging for money to buy food. Since then I have seen girls as well as boys begging - and have even had a child knock on my door. Some are as young as 12 years old, yet they all share the wary, hardened look of street kids from San Paulo or Bogota. If I start asking questions about where they are sleeping or whether they have families they shy away, sensing that my interest might turn into a phone call to police or social workers. Better to take my money and run.

I find this shocking. True, I live in an area of London which has seen better days. True, I have seen infinitely worse things in Indonesia, Kenya and India. True, if this had been New York I would not have been surprised. But this is my home - a rich country which has had a strong social welfare system ever since I was born. How could this happen?

Forgive me, readers from Australasia and North America, if I pursue this local British example a little further. Back in the early days of Margaret Thatcher's reign, at a time when unemployment had trebled, people were told to 'get on their bikes' and look for work. Many young people have done exactly that and headed for London. But now a technical change in social security regulations has made it impossible in practice for unemployed 16 or 17 year olds to have their rent paid.1 And since last month they have been denied any welfare support at all unless they are holding down a training place with an employer - something well-nigh impossible when they are sleeping rough on the streets, under the bridges down by the Thames or amid the rubble of derelict buildings.

Once in this position they are locked into a downward spiral, prey to the twin dangers of hard drugs and prostitution. One in five teenagers seen by the London housing charity Centrepoint admit to being involved in prostitution and one in three to using drugs. It is the ultimate free-market solution: unable to sell their labour, their skills or potential, these teenage boys and girls sell the only thing they have for which there is a demand - their bodies. And the easiest escape from these sordid experiences is through a drug-induced high. The welfare organizations which would once have helped them before they tumbled onto the street have been so hard-hit under a cost-cutting New Right government that their safety net is in shreds.

This year happens to be the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. Translate its plot into the modern idiom and what do you get? A boy, product of a one-parent family, is living in a children's home and finds the regime grim. He joins a firm of undertakers as part of a Youth Training Scheme but is beaten up by the other trainees. He is picked up on the street by another homeless boy and takes his place in a sordid London underworld based on the exploitation of young people. Just about the only difference is the modern engagement in prostitution rather than pickpocketing.2

Bonanza for the wealthy
Harking back to the horrors of Dickensian London may seem over-the-top. Perhaps this is because there is so much money around. The buildings become more glitzy, the shops overflow with consumer goods, and those of us in work are doing quite all right out of New Right economics. Those on high incomes are making their fortunes. Back in April, when the fate of homeless teenagers was being decided, the top rate of income tax - already reduced in 1979 - was cut from 60 to 40 per cent. Of the £20 billion ($33 billion) the Thatcher Government has given away in tax cuts, the top 10 per cent of income earners have received 47 per cent, or an average of £4,500 ($7,400) a year; while the bottom 10 per cent of wage earners have received just two per cent, or an average of just £120 ($200) a year.3 Meanwhile the underclass of unwaged people has received less than nothing, since the communal provisions which they need more than anyone else have been cut to help pay for this bonanza.

The appeal to individual financial self-interest has been the hallmark of the New Right worldwide. And since the NI last turned its attention to this phenomenon in 1984, it has stopped being the province of just Reagan and Thatcher and bitten deeply into all of our lives. Canada has been subjected to its first long period of Conservative government since the 1960s - admittedly this is a milder strain of the virus but Brian Mulroney is still sufficiently infected to bulldoze through a free-trade deal with the US which will threaten all that is unique about Canadian economy and culture. In both Australia and Aotearoa (NZ) the Labor Party has assumed power and become sufficiently the natural party of government to gain re-election. Yet they have done so by rejecting left-wing policies and adopting the economic approach of the New Right.

The result of this sea change in all our readers' countries has been to increase unemployment, accentuate poverty and shift even more wealth from the poor to the rich, as the statistics on the facts page show.

So why has the New Right gained such a stranglehold? Partly because it has put its finger on real problems which needed addressing. There is usually a kernel of truth at the heart of each of its proposals. This strikes a popular chord but is then twisted into the service of right-wing interests.

Let's take a typical New Right message on health. This involves telling us about the importance of a better diet and avoiding cigarettes and alcohol if we are to stay healthy. In itself this is admirable, a message that would not sit too ill in the pages of the NI. But look more carefully and you realize what is left out. The message emphasizes individual responsibility but ignores the larger forces which affect our health: environmental pollution; racism; housing conditions; worsening health and safety standards at work; and so on. We are left as atomized individuals, blaming ourselves, unable to make the connections that might prove inconvenient for big business and its friends. And if even sickness can be laid at the door of our own irresponsible behaviour, think how much easier it is to blame people for their own unemployment or poverty.

In recognizing this confidence trick we must not throw the baby out with the bath water: we should accept the need for individual responsibility and campaign against the wider social conditions that contribute to ill health. After all, none of us would need to be so careful about our diet if private industry were not so irresponsible in its attitude to food production.

The underlying agenda, pushed at every turn, is the encouragement of self-interest. The guiding principle of the New Right is that the greatest public good will be achieved by every individual looking after their own best interests. It believes that greed or financial self-interest is the very engine of progress, and that human development and technological advance has been achieved only by the endeavours of millions of individuals competing against each other for more wealth and status. As Ivan Boesky said: 'it's okay to be greedy now'.

It is easy enough to take issue with this view, to assert that there is another dimension to the human character not rooted in self-interest - the side that responds to need and suffering, that is spontaneously kind and generous to others and that puts human values above monetary ones. It is easy enough to call up our own authorities to characterize greed, such as Erich Fromm: 'Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.' Or Henry Fielding: 'If you make money your god, it will plague you like the devil.'

But it is not so easy to make an alternative moral philosophy as dynamic as the New Right's simple appeal to the lowest common denominator. Bruised by its onslaught, the twin temptations are for us to capitulate, accepting that the free market is sacred; or else to retreat into safe old dogmas in the hope that one day, maybe not until after our deaths, we will be proved true prophets in the wilderness.

We must give way to neither temptation. But keeping up our resistance is a tough job and we need hope to sustain us. That hope might reside in three things: the Greening of the Left; the possibility that democracy might blow up in the New Right's face; and the changes within the superpowers.

Crusading angel. Jesse Jackson has uncovered a wellspring of idealism in Reagan's US.
Photo: Roger Hutchings / CAMERA PRESS

The Greening of the Left
The New Right proclaims socialism is dead. It could hardly be expected to claim otherwise. But the propaganda job done on the word 'socialism' has been so effective that it has been landed with almost as bad a public image as the older bogey word, 'communism'.

The Greens are not yet tarred with the same brush. In part this is because they are not yet enough of a political threat for the propaganda machine to move into gear. But it is also because environmentalists have almost as many criticisms to make of traditional socialism as of the Right. They point out, above all, that the insistence of both sides on ever more industrial growth is liable to leave them without a planet to argue over pretty soon.

Socialists are just beginning to realize the enormity of what the Greens are saying. But they should be natural allies for each other in this battle to protect our collective inheritance. The Right's belief in the innate virtues of private industry means it cannot afford to take on board Green ideas. It can concede to specific campaigns - saving seals will hardly bring down the walls of Mammon's Jericho. But to accept the whole Green package would be to undermine everything on which its world view is based.

Modern industrial civilization is founded on the ruthless exploitation of the earth. 'Most of today's decision-makers,' argues the Brundtland Report,4 'will be dead before the planet feels the heavier effects of acid precipitation, global warming, ozone depletion or widespread desertification and species loss. Most of today's younger voters will still be alive... and will be the harshest critics of the planet's present management.'

Public concern - whether environmental, political or religious - has to look beyond corporate account books at the society and planet we will bequeath to our children. We need to merge common concerns about communal interests into a coherent alternative vision that transcends the old ideological labels. For there is every chance that the fusing of Green with Red would produce an idea new enough, with enough internal logic and conviction, to see off the New Right.

The second arrow to our bow is democracy. The New Right spends a lot of time talking about this - but usually only as another way to denounce the Soviet Union and pile the weapons higher. In fact it would run a mile from involving people fully in the decisions that govern their lives.

Democracy should be our territory. And it is high time the Left stopped fantasizing about what it would do with power and started thinking about how to hand over that power to the people it aims to represent.

The beauty of a campaign for democracy is that it is a means which contributes to its own end. Each jealously kept government secret forced into the open, each extra consultation with ordinary people, increases their political understanding and their demand to participate. And democracy has the added virtue of being something which the Right cannot denounce because of the official lip service it still pays to the ideal.


The beauty rising in the beasts
The third source of hope is the sign that the tide might just be turning within both the superpowers. The single most important political development today is Mikhail Gorbachev's reform program in the Soviet Union. It promises to remove the millstone which has hung round the Left's neck since Stalin's tyranny was revealed. The image of socialism may even be transformed from something grey and forbidding into something altogether more bright, open-minded and forward-looking.

In the heart of the Soviets' old adversary, too, there are signs that something is stirring. People in the US may be beginning to yearn for something more positive and sustaining than the chauvinism which has been the hallmark of the Reagan years. Recently there has been a string of magazine articles from around the country suggesting that a renewed spirit of altruism and activism is emerging. Much of this may be wishful thinking - wouldn't we all like to believe that the 1990s will be an era of idealism and progress towards social justice, exploding out of our current gloom just as the 1960s did out of the McCarthyite 1950s?

But on the other hand the remarkable success of Jesse Jackson's campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination suggested that they might be on to something. Who would have thought that a black candidate with such a radical message would have inspired so many Americans of all races, ages and classes? It is true that opinion polls suggested George Bush would gain a landslide victory if he were up against Jackson. But look at those polls from the other way round. Over 30 per cent of Americans were saying they'd vote to put a black radical in the White House. Would Martin Luther King have dreamed that this could happen as soon as 1988?

So maybe even in the heartland of the Politics of Greed people are tiring of being shut up in solipsism, locked within their own self-interest. After all, who would want the polarization between rich and poor to reach the levels of Brazil or India? Who would want electrified fences and security guards outside their homes as in the comfortable Kenyan capital, Nairobi? Who would want to equip police and security forces with the kind of power and technology they would need in a modern industrial society built on such divisions?

Yet these are the logical outcomes of the social trends pursued by the New Right. Our task, yours and mine, is to show people that self-interest does not consist entirely in that extra dollar in the pocket. That it is in everyone's long-term self-interest to build a society based on co-operation and justice rather than on greed. That way any deeper descent into this nightmarish, high-tech update of Oliver Twist may yet be avoided.

1 One way those over 16 were able to survive before was to lodge in seedy bed-and-breakfast rooms and have their rent paid by the welfare office. These were not living conditions any parent would choose for their child but it did at least mean they had a roof over their head. But the change in the social security regulations in April has meant that rent is paid two weeks in arrears - and then only if the teenager has already paid for two weeks' board out of their own pocket. In practice they don't have the money and the renters demand immediate payment.
2 Thanks to Nick Hardwicke. Director of the London housing charity, Centrepoint for suggesting the Oliver Twist analogy.
3 House of Commons Hansard, April 29, 1988.
4 Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987.

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