Tuesday, 29 October 2013

"Money has lost its connection with social reality." Interview with Generation Basic Income, part two

In the second part of the interview with members of the Swiss Generation Basic Income, we discuss the effects of introducing an unconditional income, how it will be financed, criticisms of the concept, inequality, and the ugly nature of current policies on welfare.

You can read the first part here

Enno Schmidt, the co-founder of Generation Basic Income, has said a basic income could be “one of the landmark historical moments, like the abolition of slavery or the civil rights movement”. What do you think will be the social effects of introducing an unconditional income?

Che Wagner: To have a right for an income that will make possible a life in dignity without condition is a landmark historical moment for sure! Primarily it represents a question to each and every one of us: do you trust others? Introducing a basic income will pose the question of trust in a fundamental way: what will you do if your income is assured?

Socially this means nothing less than that I am fully accountable for my deeds in the sphere of what I contribute to others through my work, but not in a juridical sense, because the basic income is unconditional. There won’t be a penalty for those who are not ready to contribute anything. But in the social sphere I will have to stand by the things I do for others and there are no excuses anymore, such as I have to do this because I need an income.. etc.

In the aftermath of financial crisis, we are constantly told that public spending cuts are unavoidable and that we must “live with our means”. A basic income is going in the opposite direction. To mouth a hoary old objection, where would the money come from to fund a basic income?

Enno Schmidt: This is a matter of education. Money is created where goods and services are produced that are for sale. Otherwise they could not be bought. What can be produced, can also be financed. We have no shortage of goods. There is not only enough money, there is too much money. But a lot of money has lost its connection with social reality. We do not know what the economy is, what money is, what taxes are. We think the economy is there to make money-profits, that money is a possession of which one can never have enough, and taxes should be avoided. That's just silly. The economy is there to satisfy the needs of others, to do something that benefits others. Money is a legal means to regulate the exchange between performance and need. Taxes are what we pay for the work to which we assign to the state - work, which is not paid by the individual consumer, but work we want to fund as a community. The tax is a division of the process to be generated socially, in part by the private and non-profit sectors. When you buy a computer, you don’t pay for the one you get, but the next, which is already produced. The one you took already was paid for, otherwise it could not be there. And what accounts for its price, is not the stuff that will be available at your desk, but the income of all involved in the production process, so that a computer can be made ​​and given to you. These is also the source of the income of the people who run the government and non-profit work.

All money goes into income. That's one thing. And a second is that there is so much work, as there are people. The income enables you to work. It makes you free, it allows you not to just take care of yourself but also to do something for others, and to live by what others do. This is the situation today. But we still think like it was 150 years ago. Work cannot be paid, otherwise you can buy people. Actually, slavery has already been abolished. But not in our habits.

 Where will the money come from for the unconditional basic income? It is already there. We share sufficient goods. We all have more or less an income sufficient to live on. This level of income will be made unconditional. How does it work? This is a consideration for economists. When all have an unconditional basic income, prices rise or wages fall. Most likely, wages and benefits will decrease on average to about the level of basic income. Because everyone now already comes with an income to work. Income from labour is relieved of the task of ensuring the existence of people. Wage negotiations will take place as free negotiations between free people.

There are objections to basic income from the Right and Left. Conservatives says that an unconditional income would lead most people to sleep late, drink, take drugs and not do anything useful. Some left-wingers say it is unfair to allow able-bodied people not to work while leaving the burden of producing necessary goods on others. How do you respond to these criticisms?

CW: Regarding the arguments from the Right: basic income is an arduous idea and initiative as well and is not about being lazy. The primary question for everyone is: what are you going to do when your existential income is secured? To keep up at this question will be hard and everyone has to deal with it individually. Some may go to sleep late as well but that’s within their own freedom – I don’t see a problem or even an economic issue there.

Regarding the arguments of the Left: with the basic income, people are free to contribute to society what they individually find necessary. For the first time in history that will convert to something we could call a free market situation, where everyone has the ability to say “No”, because their basic needs are unconditionally covered. To produce necessary goods is a question of the need of these very goods or services. Why wouldn’t these goods be produced anymore? It will definitely have an impact on the prices of these goods and services in the sense that quality producing will get cheaper in comparison to quantity and profit-oriented producing.

Large parts of the Left fear the shift of power to the individual who is enabled to say “No” by the existence of the basic income and thereby forget this very shift used to be the one political agenda in their initial formation a century ago. The big difference now is: it’s not a class war anymore but a simple step to empower everyone economically, whatever social class he/she may belong to.

ES: The Left and the Right are used to talking about others and to judge without touching their own heads. Perhaps the conservatives would only sleep late and take drugs, and the leftists live by the actions of others. Today, many have switched off at their workplaces, today more and more people are mentally ill and take legal drugs that are already prescribed to children. There is no way forward, without thinking again.

Does Generation Basic Income have any other objections to capitalism or conventional Parliamentary democracy? I note that you are working directly through a referendum, rather than through the Parliamentary system. Is a basic income sufficient or does society need other changes as well?

CW: I do not want to generalise here because every nation and cultural sphere has its own history. But the idea of the discussion or even implementation of an unconditional basic income is not limited to any borders; it’s a global idea in a globalised world.

I don’t object to capitalism in general because I don’t see a problem in concentrating forces by raising capital to be able to make things and ideas possible – that’s a great thing! But we’re in a situation now, where capital has too much weight and people are controlled by it and can’t live in dignity anymore. The unconditional basic income is able to change this situation not by destroying capitalism but by humanising it.

As you can easily observe, in many countries within the EU plus the USA, Parliamentary democracy is stuck in a deep crisis. In my opinion, the idea of a basic income doesn’t work in a top-down setting and it is only natural that the movement is diverse and carried by people like you and me. Strongly Parliamentary systems and political spheres controlled by parties won’t be able to keep up with such a movement. If people are able to take into consideration individual economic power and self-determination, the question of political rights and power is never far away.

There is another forthcoming referendum in Switzerland, on whether to limit pay differentials in companies to a 12:1 ratio. Does Generation Basic Income overlap with the people behind the “1:12 initiative”?

CW: The “1:12 initiative” is an interesting but rather conventional leftist proposal. We are in contact with some of the initiators and talking about similarities and differences but from the basic mindset, the two initiatives are still very far from each other. The basic income does not want to take anything away from anyone by law. On the one hand, “1:12”, like our initiative is the attempt to socialise our society. But the basic income asks: can you trust your neighbour enough to give him an unconditional income without forcing him to work for it? It can be seen as a very liberal initiative because it does not dictate by law as to what you're going to do with that income in any way. It is not predictable what will happen with this new freedom and that’s the root of all the fear of opponents, including the leftists behind “1:12”. Still, I would definitely count the “1:12” group as part of the Basic Income Generation because they are doing something they really want to do out of an inner decision – in that case being politically active!

Marilola Wili: Those two ideas are not standing in concurrence but do not overlap either. They are two totally different approaches. The “1:12 intiative” wants an income upper limit and to set a ratio by law. The idea of an unconditional basic income wants to empower everyone and ask herself/himself what she/he wants and what she/he is able to do.

ES: Also, the difference is that 1:12  just throws a stick into the gearbox. The thought is good. It is very easy to say this is justice. But nothing moves, because income is only reduced and comes from the side of an isolated regulation. It is one measure. The basic income doesn’t come from the side of a regulation, a measure, a smug sense of justice. As Che said, the basic income is not directed against capitalism, it is just better than that. It allows people to do better and to develop it further.

I wanted to ask about the 1:12 initiative because there is growing recognition, in the UK (as well as in other countries) of the damage caused by inequality. There was book published in the UK a few years ago, called The Spirit Level, that showed that social problems such as mental illness, poor educational attainment, violence, obesity, teenage conceptions etc were invariably worse in countries of high inequality. Also, I think you can trace a lot of causes of financial crisis to too much money at the top of society – money that goes into restructuring companies, mergers and acquisitions, and speculation in shares or commodities like food. Is not inequality – as opposed to solely providing an unconditional income for people – a problem that needs to be addressed?

ES: Yes, inequality has all the effects you mention. But why does nothing change? We know everything. While I am writing these words 20 children will die of hunger. Why do all the good intentions change nearly nothing? We have organisations for everything but something is missing. The old forms of justice do not apply, they have brought us to this point.

It will take a lot more than proposals such as the 1:12 Initiative. It is a distraction and not just because those in power will prevent it. But because the thought has no substance. You might think you could reach 1:12, it is so simple and direct, but it has no reality. The unconditional basic income looks like it is just imagination, but it is very real. Basic income is not against anybody or anything. It eliminates poverty, it does not stick to hatred of the rich. It’s a trap, to always look on the rich. With a basic income, a lot more people can work to ensure that inequality decreases. Then you can look at why some people are so rich, then you can go to the source. Then you can look at the causes and see what to do differently. But that only works if people are strengthened.

In the UK and elsewhere, the political debate on “welfare” is fixated on imposing ever more punitive penalties on benefit claimants, and that includes disabled people, for not seeking work with enough ardour. Hunger and destitution are resulting and more and more people rely on food banks. Does a basic income have the potential to bring about a paradigm shift into this ugly debate?

CW: You’re speaking of one of the core shifts that has to take place, whether a basic income is introduced or not. The problem here is a lack of income and not a lack of work or employment. People need an income in order to be productive and to contribute for others by work. It’s a simple rule you can test on yourself: when is it you’re more productive? In a state of pressure and stress or rather in a state of ease and security?

MW: If the basic needs of everyone are met unconditionally, the stigma of being poor, unemployed or providing care-work would swiftly disappear. That’s only one reason why the unconditional basic income would change a lot in these problems.

ES: We are now in a time of old, outdated thinking and old ideas are becoming more violent because they feel they are no longer correct. But this thinking wants to stay with all its might. It tortures people, it can only assert itself at the expense of others in its falsehood. The backlash can be bloody. We hope not. The unconditional basic income is a way to channel the pent-up energy in a positive and creative track. That way,  the contempt for the people, the misanthropy loses its power.

What does the future hold for Generation Basic Income? If you don’t win the forthcoming referendum, will you continue to campaign?

MW: Generation Basic Income is the main source of this initiative in Switzerland but we’re not bound to the results of the initiative or to borders. We are living the idea of an unconditional basic income. It’s a lifestyle. We are going to continue to engage with the idea and to make it sensible for as many individuals as possible.


The 1:12 referendum was defeated, sadly, by a margin of 66-34 - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/swiss-voters-reject-112-proposal-to-cap-top-executives-pay-in-latest-referendum-8960669.html 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

"We're facing a shift in what work means and it is this generation that can express this shift." Interview with the group behind the Swiss Basic Income referendum

Orson Welles was wrong. While most of Europe labours under the strictures of a failed and destructive economics, Switzerland shows independence of mind. The country will soon hold two referendums. One will ask whether the pay differential in companies should be set at no more than 12 to 1. The other proposes that all Swiss citizens receive a monthly unconditional, basic income, whether they are in or out of work.

We are not the Beautiful interviewed Enno Schmidt, co-founder of Generation Basic Income, the group behind the basic income initiative, as well as two of its members, Marilola Wili and Che Wagner.

Here is the first part of the interview:

There will be a referendum in Switzerland soon on whether every citizen should receive an unconditional income of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,711) every month from the government. When will the vote take place and will a basic income be introduced if you win?

Enno Schmidt: How high the basic income will be is not fixed in the initiative. The amount of 2,500 Swiss francs is only an example. The actual amount will be the result of another discussion and vote in the population. What amount allows a life in dignity? These are questions for the democratic process.

It’s not right to say the basic income will come from the government. The government has no money. It will come from everyone in the community and will be transferred through a levy or tax. The government manages money from the population in order to do what the people have entrusted them. We live in illusions. We live in the idea that we are going to work for ourselves because we get an income on which we live. But, in truth, we go to work to do something for others. And we need an income, regardless of that, to live. Basic income means a new look at everything, not a simple belief in what appears in the newspapers. Today, we pay all the taxes in the prices of goods and services. All taxes on income, on corporate profits and so on are included in the prices. But invisible. The tax or duty for a basic income will be paid in the prices of goods and services too. But visible. Perhaps the process is carried out on behalf of the population by a federal office, but it is quite wrong to say that the money comes from the government.

The vote will take place in two to four years. At present the Federal Council is considering the proposal and examining the consequences. Then the Parliament will do the same. Then the vote will be fixed. If a majority of people vote yes, the federal government is mandated to implement a basic income. But that will be many steps, processes of consciousness and votes, away. This is a long journey in which everyone participates. It is not a shock, not a regulation from above.

We offer this idea and make it clear. It is not our gain if the majority wants it.

 Is the idea that this monthly unconditional income will replace all welfare benefits?

ES: The principle is that each person receives this basic income, unconditionally, regardless of how one lives and what one does. It is set to be high enough to live on and to last a lifetime. What happens then? Today’s benefits, up to the amount of the basic income, fall away. The principle of social assistance or welfare benefits remains. But it will be much less necessary.

What else will happen? Income from labour will be renegotiated. With a basic income, I can say no to a bad deal. And yes to what I really want. With a basic income I already bring an income to employment. Earned income is supplemented with the amount of income that secures my existence. Good work that people like to do, will be cheaper. Poor work that people do not like to do, will be better paid, because no-one can be blackmailed with their existence to do it. Basic income does not necessarily mean more money. It is the unconditional nature of the income that is important. Only someone who has little today will have more money in their pocket with a basic income.

Your group, “Generation Basic Income” has submitted 100,000 signatures to force the referendum to happen. Did it take a long time and a persistent campaign to collect them?

Marilola Wili: It did take a long time to actually get the collection of signatures started. The collecting campaign started in April 2012 and, after the first few months, there was not too much happening on the streets. That’s why we founded the Generation Basic Income in September 2012:  to spend all of our energy on the most important part of the Initiative’s history: collecting those 100,000 valid signatures. Due to the fact that almost all of the work related to collect Swiss citizen signatures was voluntary, our most important virtues were fun and focus on the beauty of this process. We designed little competitions or the format “100 times 100”, where 100 people assured to collect 100 signatures within a certain timeframe and invited them to celebrate those 10,000 signatures in the best hotel in town.

In December 2012 Generation Basic Income decided to get the signatures by April 21st, half a year before handing them in. With that, a boost of engagement was set free and on the day, accompanied with a live-ticker, all of us energetically collected signatures to reach this goal. One of the keys of our success lies in our name: not only is it a political question but we’re facing a shift of the paradigm what work means to us, and it is this generation who is ready to express this shift.

ES: Many people have collected signatures, many older people too. And some, very bravely, alone. Generation Basic Income has put the salt in the soup. It was not easy to find this many signatures. We are not many but we have persevered and continued with a strong will. In the end, we have collected 142,500 signatures, 100,000 are necessary. But only 126,000 are valid [the population of Switzerland is about 8 million].

Is there a groundswell of support for a basic income in Switzerland?

Che Wagner:  For the collecting campaign we always talked about 500,000 people who would sign as soon as you asked them directly. Our job was to reach them in the streets, at railway stations, public squares, on festivals or within families. My experience during all these thousands of encounters was often a spontaneous support. But after a while I met all the arguments, which insist that a basic income is impossible. Nobody is capable of ignoring this idea because it is pointed towards every single person. So, by collecting the signatures I had the impression that the more someone knows about the idea, the more he is empowered to support it, too.

“Generation Basic Income” is the generation that already feels what it is to live a life in the mindset of an unconditional income: to actually do what you want to do and to insist on what you want to stand for. Those are the people who are our groundswell and this is a fast-growing generation.

ES: I don’t think there is a greater groundswell of support than in other countries, but in Switzerland there is direct democracy and therefore we have a good cultural conversation. In Germany, for example, when one speaks of the unconditional basic income, many people immediately think that once again something will be decided over their heads. In Switzerland, people listen and think about it because nothing will happen if they do not want it. They are politically sovereign.

There is a great deal of international interest in the Swiss referendum. Can you say in which countries this is strongest and whether you know of others that are likely to follow the Swiss lead?

CW: With our money pile performance we wanted to provoke the media and the international community to acknowledge this historical moment with a unique picture. But I am still amazed about the strong and enduring reaction the handing in of the referendum had. Apart from Switzerland and other central European countries, there was a big interest coming from the East, with Russia Today (RT) broadcasting directly on site as well as Chinese media. Then, there was response from the Arabic press, which was surprising. The strongest response I felt was coming from some Balkan states, especially Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia, where the idea of a basic income turned into quite a national debate a week after the performance. These debates were also boosting the European Initiative to collect 1 million signatures within the EU with the aim of having a debate all over Europe.

Now, several weeks after the event on October 4th, the media response is shifting to the English-speaking world including Great Britain, Australia and the US. There, you can sense that it’s rather an intellectual sphere that is willing to discuss such an issue rather than the broad public.

From the beginning, Germany was the strongest ally in our Swiss initiative. Throughout the campaign, there were Germans involved. I have the hope that not only will basic income become stronger as a topic, in Germany and elsewhere, but also the great tool of direct democracy will attract attention, because it is definitely the key to this whole process. 

ES: I think the most important message of this successful initiative for unconditional basic income in Europe is: direct democracy through referendum – so that the population can implement ideas and it is democratic. Governments in Europe are divorced from the population. You have opinion polls but the population has nothing to say. The lobbies have something to say, however, and money rules. False ideas of economy apply the thumb screws. Basic income is Enlightenment, it is an evolutionary revolution. We are always told we have democracy, but we don’t. Politicians do not want a direct democracy because they will lose power. The basic income strengthens the individual because it speaks to him. It dares a person to think for themselves, to take seriously what one perceives and feels.

Why do you think a basic income is necessary now?

MW: Never in world history were there more products produced, or services delivered and money circulating, than in present times. In Switzerland, and in all western countries, we live in total abundance rather than in scarcity. There is way more than we actually need for consumption. At the same time people live often in fear not to get enough or even are forced to live in poverty. This is a paradoxical situation: Large parts of the people in western societies are living far from the actual reality in their mindsets.

The idea of unconditional basic income helps to uncover this big misunderstanding of our current reality and helps to let go this unproductive and even dangerous fear of scarcity. This idea is able to make things visible and then unpredictably sets human forces free in ways one may have never thought about.

ES: With a basic income people get to what they really want and find important. So much of life is wasted and so many talents remain untapped if we hold to the old ideology of gainful employment and full employment in gainful employment. Lives have fractures; you do not stay in one job all your life. There is a lack of attention, of time for people. This rationalisation puts a limit on living. “We cannot solve today’s problems with the thinking that has brought on these problems,” said Albert Einstein. Basic income is new thinking.

Here is Part two

Friday, 4 October 2013

The blinkers of liberalism: why collaboration is not cause

“I don’t think it helps anyone to see the current imbroglio as simply a function of late capitalism in its most aggressive aspect,” wrote Will Self a couple of months ago in an essay about the success of big pharma in enlisting the cooperation of the psychiatric profession in its demonic bid to sell billions of anti-depressant pills around the world. “I’m afraid,” he went on, “I have to mouth the old lily-livered liberal shibboleth at this point and observe that, yes, we are all to blame.”

Pardon me, but I’m going to be unhelpful. I’m returning to Will Self’s article, not only because I've got OCD and will devote the next 28 posts to it (including his use of the phrase ‘late capitalism’ which really gets my goat) but because it illustrates a ubiquitous misconception in understanding how the problems of our society arise.

Self, who essentially defines himself as a liberal, makes a mistake emblematic of that world-view, in confusing collaboration and cause.

Broadly speaking, reactions to the flaws or problems produced by contemporary society that become impossible to ignore (the financial and economic crisis is a prime example), fall into three camps:

1. Conservative. The economic system, said the free market think tank, The Institute of Economic Affairs, at the dawn of the neo-liberal era in 1978, has no impulses of its own aside from the desires of the people that comprise it. Conservatives emphasise personal responsibility and believe that our economic system merely mirrors our own desires, so any malfunctioning or perverse outcome, is ultimately our own fault. The UK Conservative Defence minister, Philip Hammond blames the economic crisis on “consenting adults” who went on an unsustainable debt binge. Another English conservative, Tim Montgomerie, responds to calls for more regulation by asking ‘how do we put limits on ourselves?’ However, this diffusion of responsibility is only invoked when things go wrong. Success, by contrast, is attributed to the efforts of a talented few. “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them,” wrote the post-war free market economist Ludwig Von Mises in a letter to Ayn Rand. “You are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you.”
2. Liberal. It is here that we first encounter the idea that corporations may have a share, even quite a large share, of responsibility for society’s ills. “If you aren't familiar with the fact that almost all drug trials are funded by those who stand to profit from their success,” says Self in his essay, “… well then you jolly well should be.” But corporations are not alone when it comes to apportioning responsibility. They have a willing accomplice – people. “Although it’s nice to reserve the blame for banks which made lending too easy,” asserts John Lanchester in Whoops!, a book about the credit crunch, “the great British public is just as much to blame.” The insatiability of wants and power relationships, say Robert and Edward Skidelsky in their book How much is enough?  combine to produce “an ethic of acquisitiveness, which dooms societies to continuous, objectless, wealth creation.”

3. Leftist. The problems are systemic. To blame individuals, be they consumers, men or bankers, for disastrous outcomes is just finger pointing and a way of distracting attention from what is actually happening. Employees and consumers, rationally following the paths set out for them by this economic system, will inevitably generate booms and busts and seemingly intractable social problems. As an example, consider how consumer borrowing leapt up in Britain after 2000 just as earnings growth slowed to a trickle. The cause of the financial crisis of 2007/8 was not “reckless banks” or irresponsible borrowers but too little money at the base of society, leading to the implosion of derivatives such as mortgage backed securities, and too much money at the summit, destined for speculation. “Few recognise the system as the problem,” says Marxian economist, Richard Wolff, “rather than this or that group reacting to the system’s demands and pressures.”  According to this systemic approach, consumerism is not a regrettable quirk of human nature, but the glue holding the system together, and a glue that has lost much of its adhesiveness.

Consuming ants

The criticism of this perspective is that it robs people of a sense of their own volition. “Even if consumer preferences can diverge from real needs, they cannot be entirely independent of those needs; they cannot be simply “instilled” in us by the “productive apparatus” or some other such monster,” say the Skidelskys in How much is enough?  “To assert this is to deny individuals all agency, to reduce them to ants or drones”

At a common sense level, the liberal perspective conforms to what we intuitively know. “It might seem as if it is the average citizen, you and I, who are the main problem,” says a writer for social ecologist magazine, New Compass. “Who else is driving polluting cars, buying plastic toys or eating food grown on the other side of the planet?"

We can blame advertising, but advertising cannot shape desires out of nothing, protest the Skidelskys. It cannot, they point out, persuade us to buy dog turd. Advertising has to have something to latch on to in the first place and that something is “intrinsic” human wants.

But the liberal perspective is, in my opinion, a gigantic red herring, a major stumbling block that needs to be overcome to understand the society in which we live. Of course, humans are to blame - our intrinsic desires make this economy function. But you can say the same of any social system; potential human desires are not just consumerist. Nazism rested on human desires, just as this neoliberal capitalist society does, just different desires – the desire to belong, to merge into a larger whole, not to think,  and to blame others for things that are not their fault (a facet of “human nature” which never went away and is returning with avengance). The question that needs answering is not why human nature is always so corruptible, so weak, so easily directed, but why certain “intrinsic” human desires are encouraged endlessly, in particular societies, but others are left to rot. In short, what drives this society, the one we inhabit and are so loath to seriously interrogate?

A cracked mirror

 Will Self embodies the liberal capacity to see and yet not see. In his Guardian essay, he refers approvingly of James Davies’ book, Cracked: Why Psychiatry does more harm than good. “The sections of his book,” he writes, “that deal in particular with the way big pharma has moved into markets outside the English-speaking world and effected a wholesale cultural change in their perception of sadness (rebranding it, if you will, as chemically treatable "depression"), simply in order to flog their dubious little blue pills, make for chilling reading.”

Yet, at the same time, Self insists, “we” are to blame, even though we find it hard to acknowledge this uncomfortable responsibility – we go to the doctor feeling awful and we acquiesce in whatever they suggest (in this case swallowing SSRIs) will make us feel better. To add weight to what Self is saying, consider the opinion of Dr Ramin Mojtabi, a professor in public health in the US. “It’s not only that physicians are prescribing more [anti-depressants], the population is demanding more,” he says. “Feelings of sadness, the stresses of daily life and relationship problems can all cause feelings of upset or sadness that may be passing and not last long. But Americans have become more and more willing to use medication to address them.” This is the perfect encapsulation of the liberal case; pharma companies may be pushing the anti-depressants on to us with machine-like eagerness but we are only too happy to oblige. In fact we are biting their hands off to get them.

On closer inspection, though, the liberal case does not add up. There would be no need for pharma companies to effect a cultural change in non-English speaking countries if the demand were already present. They have to first create the demand, effect the cultural change and then watch the profits roll in. Secondly, there is an obvious reason why anti-depressants are the current drugs de jour.  They are eminently suited to our neo-liberal, capitalist societies because they have a reputation (merited or no) for enabling people to go on functioning through mental illness. And to function, to hold down a job, is exactly what people must do. They can’t afford to take time off to be ill. In this way, anti-depressants are remarkably similar to the very popular flu “remedies” which ameliorate flu symptoms. But the only cure for flu is rest. The concept of rest now has unmistakable air of decadent forbiddenness.

But the cart before horse logic of liberalism is irresistible to some. “Americans’ appetite for cheap clothes is one of the strongest of the economic forces that led to a boom in Bangladesh,” says an article in the Wall Street Journal, referring obliquely to the building collapse in Dakar which killed 1,129 garment workers “with the resulting race to add manufacturing capacity,” the article continues, “setting the stage for a series of horrific accidents.” The problems are demand-led, in others words. Western consumers’ apparently insatiable demand for cheap designer clothes means that people on the other side of the world are paid peanuts and work in terribly unsafe, sweatshop conditions and are sometimes left buried under tons of rubble. Corporations are merely the middle-men that reflect this insatiability.

But this has it precisely backwards. Consumer demand in the West didn’t inspire corporations to relocate production in China, Bangladesh or Vietnam. The prospect of a massive hike in profits, based on dirt poor wages, did. The technical term is global labour arbitrage, defined by the neo-liberal Economist magazine as “taking advantage of lower wages abroad, especially in poor countries.” According to economist, Charles Whalen, “The prime motivation behind offshoring is the desire to reduce labor costs … a US-based factory worker hired for $21 an hour can be replaced by a Chinese factory worker who is paid 64 cents an hour [and Bangladesh is even cheaper] … The main reason offshoring is happening now is because it can.” (it should be pointed out, in passing, that the transfer of enormous profits back to the US, Europe and Japan, enabled by global labour arbitrage is a prime cause of the financialisation and speculation that lie at the roots of economic crisis).

 Fake plastic flowers

I am not denying for a second that many consumers in Britain and American are hooked on cheap designer clothes. Or that, in the words of George Monbiot, we have entered a state of “pathological consumption” that successfully hawks silver plated ice cream tub holders or talking Darth Vader piggy banks. Or that many people unhappily munch anti-depressants at their own behest. I am not reducing people to ants or drones. But consumerism, not matter how enthusiastically or mindlessly it is practised, is an outcome, not a cause. To try to understand the world without taking into account the seminal role of institutionally selfish entities called corporations, dedicated to maximizing profit and sales, growing and achieving, if possible, monopoly status, is not to understand it at all.

And it is this deficit of understanding that means there is something missing in liberalism, no matter how perceptive it is in other ways. The book mentioned above, How much is enough?, is an extremely interesting, historically nuanced, thought-provoking book about how rich societies have not actualized John Maynard Keynes’ prediction that they would slow down, and enable people to enjoy the good life, and not spend their days solely dedicated to producing and shopping and competing with others. It is co-written by renowned Keynesian economist, Robert Skidelsky. Yet it contains the following assertion: “Experience has taught us that material wants know no natural bounds, that they will expand without end unless we consciously restrain them. Capitalism rests precisely on this endless expansion of wants.” I can’t be the first to notice that this logically makes no sense. Wants will naturally multiply unless some outside agency representing wisdom or the good life (the state?) doesn’t suppress them. But capitalism exists to expand these want ad infinitum for its own benefit. So why should wants expand exponentially of their accord without capitalism? (and I mean capitalism, not the misleading pseudonym, “market economy”) What evidence is there that they will?

This is not to minimize the immense difficulty of changing this society, the fact that, in the words of one commentator, “capitalism has buried itself deep into our psyche by the consumerisation of our lives”. But the task is rendered impossible by misunderstanding the problem in the first place.

To misquote the anarchist Emma Goldman: “capitalism gets the human nature it deserves”.