This world of ours

ERIC PRESTON introduces the themes of the ILP’s forthcoming weekend of discussion and political review

‘Many of us are, I believe, confused by the world we have created for ourselves in the west. We are confused by the consequences of capitalism, whose contribution to well-being cannot be questioned, but which divides rich from poor, consumes so much of the energies of those who work in it, and does not, it seems, always lead to a more contented world.’

These are not my words, but the words of Charles Handy, one time oil executive, business economist, professor at the London Business School and author of a number of highly acclaimed books and articles. This is a man who spent much of his life in and around the world of business; a man who thought long and hard about the virtues and vices of capitalism, and who concluded that we are wrong to put our faith in an undiluted ideology of self interest and that we should have trusted our humanity more than the system.

Global economy

This is a man angered by the waste of so many people’s lives, dragged down by poverty in the midst of riches; who in his writings cautions us against triumphalist claims for the Anglo-American economic system; who tells us that there is a hole at the heart of capitalism; that in the pursuit of the goals that it sets, we can be tempted to forget that it is we, the people of this world, who should be the measure of all things, and that we should not be made to measure for something else.

We too acknowledge the value of a market based economy and the gains that accrue from it, but we are also acutely aware that the unfettered global economy of capitalism is seriously flawed. All about us there is injustice, gross inequality, grinding poverty and indefensible concentrations of wealth and power, accompanied by social, economic and environmental developments that are, at best, questionable and at worst deplorable and increasingly threatening.

The simple truth of the matter is that anyone with humanitarian concerns, contemplating the overall condition of the international community and the prospects for this world of ours, cannot help but be disturbed by what they see and what they fear is looming on the horizon.

We are undoubtedly facing a bewildering array of complex and interrelated problems, not all of which, it should be said, can be laid at the door of capitalism. However, there are many that can, and many more that cannot be adequately understood or attended to, without relating them to this dynamic of economic life.

Jean-Francois Richard, the European Vice President of the World Bank thinks that we can sort most of the challenging global problems into one of three categories:

(i) global warming, environmental distress, depletion of global biodiversity, ecosystem loss and water deficiency

(ii) global poverty, infectious diseases, conflict resolution and prevention; (iii) finance and unsustainable debt, trade imbalances, import restriction, taxes and intellectual property rights.

This is a comprehensive list, and yet there are some fundamental factors that are missing or perhaps too well hidden. They are the problems that beget and sustain the concrete problems that Jean-Francois Richard outlines; the deregulated, freewheeling and unsustainable developing global market economy; the insidious but ubiquitous, self- centred selfishness, that was made half respectable by Adam Smith, but which was turned into a universal virtue by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s; rampant consumerism, and the attitudes and values, ideologies and fundamental beliefs that motivate and demotivate people. The problematic power of the USA. The weakness of the United Nations and status of the European Community.

In his article ‘The coming war’ (The Observer, 31 October 2004) Jonathan Dimbleby looks towards a dreadful future that he sees emerging out of the poverty, injustice, resentment, anger, religious zealotry, terrorism and the crisis caused by climate change. He tells us that 60 million Arabs live on less than two dollars a day, and that the number is growing rapidly, with unemployment set to double in five years. He sees this as a breeding ground for animosity and terrorism, and though the ‘neo conservatives in Washington’ may claim that they are ‘winning the war on terrorism’ if not on poverty, Dimbleby clearly does not believe them.

Meanwhile the USA, a nation with 4.7 per cent of the world’s population, is consuming 25 per cent of the annual global energy output, producing 20 per cent of the world’s CO2 pollution and is responsible for 36 per cent of global military expenditure.

In the special millennium edition of the ‘State of the World’, published by New Internationalist and edited by Lester R Brown and Christopher Flavin (1999), there is a report on the research undertaken at the University of British Columbia in the 1990s, where they undertook to measure the land area needed to support populations with resources (including imported ones), and the area needed to absorb their waste. The researchers dubbed this combined area the ‘ecological footprint’ of a population. In some countries, the United States among them, the footprint is larger than the nation’s geographical area, because of a net dependence on imports, or because resources or waste absorption capacity are over-exploited. Indeed, the research showed that sustaining the entire world at an American or Canadian level of resource use, would require a land mass three times that available on earth.

However, if that seems to confirm your prejudices, then reflect on the fact that, by the same reckoning, London needs 58 times its land area just to supply its people with food and timber. And if everyone in the world consumed what Londoners consume, we would also need the resources of three more worlds.

So what happens when the poor of this planet lose hope, or when their despair turns into anger? And what happens when India and other developing countries start to increase their consumption levels, or when China’s environmentally damaging pollution equals or exceeds that of the USA?

These are the questions posed by Jonathan Dimbleby’s article. The choice, he suggests, is stark: we either prepare to suffer a number of equally dreadful developments that are waiting round the corner; or we start ‘to control our profligate use of carbon fuels’ and, somehow or other, persuade the US President that the resources of the planet must be shared more equitably.

Political will

Dimbleby concludes that, ‘as with winning the war on poverty, so with global warming, it is a matter of political will’.

Of course, on one interpretation, this is a truism. If there was a universally held desire and a manifest readiness for self sacrifice amongst the vast majority of the American and western European people and their political leaders, and the executives of multinational corporations, and the bulk of the key players in the economic system, then we could be well on the way towards a solution. However, if he is suggesting that all that stands between us and success is the lack of willpower on the part of key political leaders, then he is guilty of considerable over simplification.

Poverty, terrorism, economic extra-vagance and related injudicious behaviour are linked to, and influenced by, a labyrinth of problems, practices, attitudes and beliefs, some of which are powerful, relatively intractable and deeply rooted in the global community and in the complex structure of the global economy.

That said, it is reasonable to suggest that the star attractions in tomorrow’s pantomime will probably be:

(i) the environment which, if neglected, will put an end to the world as we know it

(ii) the growth and politicisation of religion and, in particular, the fundamentalist religions that threaten non-sectarian, secular, rational and humanitarian government, liberal values, free thinking and freedom of speech – and which in some cases degenerates into terrorism

(iii) the USA, for the time being, the world’s economic and military superpower, which is set on sustaining global capitalism, and which has the power to act unilaterally in furtherance of, or in opposition to, whatever it so chooses.

Unfortunately there is no escaping the consequences. There is no hiding place. The options are all too clear. We can stick our heads in the sand, adopt a fatalistic or nihilistic attitude and let the world do its damnedest. Or we can lend support to, or even join forces with, those in the USA and elsewhere who are seeking, despite their limitations, to influence and redirect the course of events.

This might seem like a statement of the obvious. It does not explore any of the issues that it catalogues in order to better understand the phenomena. It does not relate one to another, or suggest how we might prioritise them and respond to them. It says nothing about how we fashion or might fashion our lives within this ambit. Or how our government operates in light of its commitment to the global economy; how its embrace of the market affects its approaches to education, health, housing, employment, social services, welfare, policing and security. There is no comment on how we as a community might tackle our home grown varieties of crime, our particular drugs problems, the phenomena of binge drinking and the related mindless violence. Nothing is said about sexism, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, or the intolerance of religious extremists and the problems associated with multi-culturalism.

Nor have I touched on the problems associated with the need to secure limited reforms which inch us in the direction of a more socially and environmentally responsible society. Nor have I considered the problems associated with the short termism of parliamentary politics that has to be set against the long term problems of our global capitalist world. Nor have I talked about the weakness of international institutions when set against the strength of capital, or the political strengths and weaknesses of those seeking to oppose the increasingly implausible and somewhat menacing neo-liberalism which has captivated most of our political leaders.

Case for change

We live in a world that we could not have predicted in its every detail, but one that does not entirely surprise us. At the ideological heart of socialism is the understanding that the economic imperatives of the unfettered market economy not only create massive disparities in wealth and power, and exploit resources irrespective of long term effect, but also undermine the institutions, damage the social framework and corrode the values and moral authority on which a good society and interdependent social order depends.

We may still need to make the case for change, although it is increasingly self-evident to most thinking people. More importantly, we need to reassert the view that the world in which we live (this complex ‘run away world’) is not incomprehensible and unfathomable. We can unravel the chain of cause and effect. We can dissect political and economic power. We can understand political leadership, examine the anatomy of nation states and international agencies, and come to grips with belief systems and ideologies.

Daunting picture

The left’s critique of the present is of vital importance in the development of ideas and the contribution it can make to the shaping of informed public opinion. It is essential that the incoherence, contradictions and conflict of interests within the system be exposed, and that the consequences and potential consequences of contemporary developments be manifest. We need to emphasise the essential nature of an ever expanding global economic system that, driven hard by the profit motive, must forever encourage a pursuit of wealth and a self-centred consumerism, and thereby drive us beyond the limits of the earth’s resources and towards a major humanitarian and environmental crisis.

It is important that we resists the depoliticisation of capital and private enterprise and reassert the Marxian insight into this particular source of much contemporary power and this specific cause of many contemporary problems – although without marginalising a whole range of phenomena that cannot easily be fitted into this category, and without aping those ultra-left Marxists who see all political and administrative power as deriving directly from the ownership and control of capital.

I am aware that I could be accused of painting a daunting picture. However, this is not an agenda, but merely a background against which numerous discussions could take place.