We are having to bail out the banks. We are having to tell the weak and the vulnerable that they aren’t getting any more help. We are having to tell people their retirement plan isn’t going to pay as much as they thought, or start when they thought. But capitalism still needs us to pay the financial Masters of the Universe huge sums of money – more in one bonus than most of us make in a year, or two years. Quite rightly some people have spotted that this makes capitalism look like it’s not working, like it’s some kind of system that is run by the wealthy for the wealthy, like it’s A Bad Thing… like it needs defending.
But capitalism does not need defending because capitalism does not exist. Socialism will not save us from it because socialism does not exist either. They do not translate into anything that has a presence in the real world.
What do these words mean? I’m not talking about their dictionary definition or what economists would see as the fundamental things that have to be in place to make a country or region or continent capitalist or socialist.
I wonder what these words mean to taxpayers, benefits claimants, pensioners and all the ordinary people that interact with the capitalist economies and the socialist economies. Capitalism is supposed to have connotations of freedom and a light touch from the state, socialism is about good public services and a safety net for the worst off.
But when have we ever had one or the other? The state always intervenes. There will always be taxes. Anything provided by the state, almost by definition, can only be at best adequate. Even if a service is superb when it is made available to everyone it becomes the base standard. The service doesn’t change but our perceptions do. We can’t help it. And the safety net doesn’t keep people from the bottom, it becomes the new bottom.
But political argument is still driven by a polarity between left and right, socialism and capitalism, tax a bit more or tax a bit less. People who criticise bankers bonuses are stigmatised as traitors to capitalism, people who don’t like paying taxes are branded anti-socialist. We think we have to be one or the other. We think that’s the way we should vote.
Believe in the free market? Vote for the right. Except there are no free markets. Everything is regulated to a certain extent. Everything is taxed at least a little bit. Banks get bailed out.
Believe in welfare and unionised workforces? Vote for the left. Except there’s nothing more capitalist than a union: a tool for leverage in making deals, a way of adding value to a relatively common commodity – people. And do we want state welfare for the vulnerable because we care about them or because we don’t want to have to care about them?
And none of that matters because specifically, individually, in the real world these issues play out for all of us in their own particular way with their own particular circumstances. The left/right, capitalist/socialist, ping/pong of ideas doesn’t guarantee or deny us a good nurse, teacher, bank manager or house to live in. If anything it distracts us from an uneven distribution of wealth and power that has been locked in place for generations.
Ten percent of the people own 90 per cent of the wealth. I’m not sure if that’s precisely accurate. I’m not sure if it refers to the west, the UK or the whole world. It’s a little folk-meme that buzzes around through society to explain and justify everything, like the inevitability of rain in a discussion about the weather in England, like Sod’s Law, like the fact that there are too many people and the money-men ruin everything.
We accept the truth of it broadly because somehow, somewhere along the way we became convinced that that’s what a free and just world looks like. It has winners. There are many more losers than winners. That is the ‘ism’ we are really living under. A vote for left or right is just our choice for how we dress it up.