This Government Has a Very Jaundiced View of Capitalism

Neither left, nor right, talks about the economic elephant in the room. Our present economic system is organised solely around the idea of consumption, not production. The left doesn't get this, and the right doesn't care so long as those in command of the economy remain untroubled.

I wrote recently on these pages about the Conservative part of this Government, and how its opponents seem to have misdiagnosed its driving ideology (if the collection of grievances and resentments that make up modern Conservatism can be described as 'ideology') as one of deliberate immiseration of the poor and vulnerable, when in actual fact it is just an anti-intellectual attempt to erase thirteen years of Labour Government from the national memory. Far from being doctrinaire conservative ideologues, the Conservative part of the coalition seem to be confused Marxists: "From Each According to their Greed, To Each According to their Need to Be Incentivised" would be an apt description of a punitive bedroom tax that won't save much money and tax cuts that would only count as an incentive if the richest weren't too rich to notice.

The hoopla about a sociopath killing six children and whether a culture of benefits contributed to this more than, say, his handlebar moustache is indicative of a Government weaving and bobbing in the hope that this will somehow pass for a strategy. Osborne wasn't clumsy talking about Mick Philpot, and Cameron wasn't forced into defending a vulnerable Chancellor. They saw a chance and took it. Forget six dead children, and certainly forget whatever reforms they think it is they are making to our social security system, the Conservative worldview thinks that the real crime is not to live beyond your means, but to get others to pay for it.

Neither left, nor right, talks about the economic elephant in the room. Our present economic system is organised solely around the idea of consumption, not production. The left doesn't get this, and the right doesn't care so long as those in command of the economy remain untroubled. A traumatic international demand shock (but not, importantly, a global one - this is a recession limited to the major financialised economies of Europe and America) has exposed the nature and the fragility of our economic system.

Rather than all being middle-class now, we are all consumer-class. Economic life is organised around the principle of consumption in the erroneous belief that this will drag everything along with it. Forget the faux conservative-puffery about chickens coming home to roost, the irresponsible feckless facing monumental debts for wide-screen TVs and 4x4's as some sort of punishment for gluttony. A debt-culture, and yes a benefits culture, are the logical results of structuring the economy around consuming things rather than producing things. The right feels resentment towards any entitlement, even towards the molly-coddled disabled with their parking bays. Entitlements just offend the conservative notion that in a marketised economy those with most money must be most virtuous, but entitlements are inevitable if the only economic purpose of the individual is to consume.

Do you recall George Osborne being against consumption before the crash in 2007, against British people supporting British business? The language on all of the right, and most of the left, is nothing other than more growth is a good thing, always. How can you be pro-growth and against debt? The huddled masses of Africa and Asia can yearn for IPads and BMWs as their economies can increase productivity for decades and decades; but we can only pay for more through debt.

Without a fundamental shift in worldview away from consumption and a reorientation towards production, this will never change. Camborne's view of people as only partially autonomous economic agents, whose sole purpose is to feed the machine of finance through consumption by amassing debt, does nothing to address the structural causes of recession and seeks only to rebalance the economy away from the weak and towards the strong.

As obtuse and misrepresentative as it is, at least the American Tea Party seems to talk about and be made up of the kind of wealth creators that the right always idolises. Small business owners, contractors and storekeepers, campaigning furiously for their Medicare to be taken away and for billionaires to be given another tax cut. Modern Tories don't bother with small business anymore. Like all politicians they like being photographed in factories, which is where we think that we work even if most of us don't. But the small businessman doesn't ever seem to be included in this Government's plans. The strivers that Camborne loves so dearly, the self-employed builders, the hair-salon owners, what have they actually been offered by this Government other than the feeling of savage vindication that comes from punishing neighbours with curtains drawn early in the morning when they leave for work, or wide-screen TVs blaring late at night when they return? Determined to drag people down, this Government offers nothing to actually raise people up.

The one industrial sector that always seems to need special attention (timid wallflowers such as they are) is finance. The abusive lover who has hurt us before and may leave at any time, but who we love so much because we just know they can change. What offends most about this economic myopia is that at least Tebbit and Thatcher at the height of their pomp had put in the intellectual hard work. They had risen through the ranks of a party and parliament that didn't much care for women or the working classes (sorry, Grant Shapps, the striving classes) through sheer tenacity, and then bent it to their will through strength of character. Camborne, if it needs repeating, didn't come across their conservatism through hard knocks, they just saw the world as it was and felt little desire to change it. Their resentment is wholly unearned.

Those on the left have spent such a long time avoiding being tainted with the 's' word, that they seem not to have noticed that the Government doesn't really believe in capitalism either. They don't believe in producing things, they just believe in reducing the consumption of certain groups of people. Reports that Labour is most closely associated in people's minds with welfare scroungers have created a skittish and incoherent opposition too scared to flesh out what One Nation Labour - actually a quite exciting intellectual positioning, if only they could pin it down - means in terms of policy.

The near-inevitability of a triple-dip recession, coupled with this Government's refusal to even consider demand-side depression economics, means that Labour has nothing to lose in defining itself more clearly. The British economy is not going to suddenly perform like China's, even if it does teeter back into growth. Before the election, Milliband and Balls have the political and economic space, vacated entirely by the Conservative party, to define what an alternative economic policy to business as usual might look like.

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