The problem of capitalism

Let’s start with where we agree. Capitalism increases inequality, and looks set to destroy the ecosphere on which all life depends. I could discuss the arguments in its favour which many, perhaps even a majority, still see as cogent and self-evident. But the overriding point is that none of them address what needs to happen now. The threat to the ecosphere and the increasing oppression of the poor have got to be stopped and reversed. These were the twin inter-dependent aims which led me to the Citizens’ Income principle as an (almost) founder member of the Green Party.

From the outset, there has always been an influential group within the Green Party which agreed with the Citizens’ Income in principle, but they saw the destruction of capitalism as an essential first prerequisite to achieve sustainability with social justice. The CI could wait until capitalism had been smashed. Following the philosophical evisceration of the Labour Party by Tony Blair, the eco-socialist Green group has been joined by an overwhelming intake whose ultimate aim was the destruction of capitalism anyway. They have no objection to saving the planet.

So far as I can tell, most of the new intake have not really applied their minds to the Citizens’ Income. It is redistributive, and it does not obviously get in the way of smashing capitalism. However, they may find the following link on the ‘New statesman’ website helpful:

It explains:

“There are strong right-wing – or, more accurately, libertarian-right – arguments for a UBI. [Universal Basic, or Citizen’s Income] By removing conditionality of benefits, it also removes a method of state control. It is no longer up to the government, for instance, to determine which types of work experience you can do while still being paid unemployment benefit; nor can they shape society by deciding which types of non-labour activities ought be rewarded – carers, community gardeners, political activist or artists all get the UBI without having to prove their worth.

“In fact, it’s the left which should really be wariest of arguments for a UBI. It has the potential to extend market logic to every reach of society, by equating “being a citizen” with “being paid”  . . . if the employee no longer lives in fear that they will be on the streets without a job, their bargaining position is greatly improved. . . . In the end, it’s that outcome which will mean the UBI can never truly catch on among right-wingers – or even the centre-left” [end of NS quotation]

In my book (link on the blog homepage), I point out that when they start to think about the CI, each side tends to see the advantages to the other side first: the rich see that it is drastically redistributive, and the unions fear the power that it gives to individuals.

But what does the CI do about capitalism? I hear some readers ask. Nothing inevitably. It does allow entrepreneurs generally, though the smaller the better, to contemplate a soft landing from the growth rat race. But in allowing people not to work, it allows them not to consume quite as much. Capitalism can only thrive as long as consumers consume, preferably more than before. I agree with the anti-capitalists that it is more dangerous than ever, and neutralizing it is more urgent than ever before. But although the increasing stridency of the calls for it to be smashed appears fair enough, that does not make attacks on it any more likely to succeed than they have in the past. Another hoped for, but not inevitable effect of the CI is that it can facilitate a shift to a more inclusive mind set among natural sympathisers of the status quo, including capitalism. This does depend on an understanding of the key role of means testing. The government’s anti-scrounger rhetoric is proving successful due to the failure of people to grasp the message of the graph at the top of this page, which is that the withdrawal of a benefit is a tax. Ed Milband and Len McCluskey have succumbed to the government line. According to

even the Child Poverty Action Group does not know any better. Iain Duncan Smith is removing means testing  – a good idea – by removing means tested benefits – the  worst possible method. In simply opposing the cuts, the anti-cuts movement lays itself open to being presented as demanding the restoration of a Scroungers’ Charter. But even Polly Toynbee, who has not swallowed the government’s line, appears unaware of the central role of means testing.

But most disappointing for me is the apparent failure of Zac Goldsmith to see the potential of the CI for uniting both sides of the old political divide into a force for eco-sanity. The New Statesman article struggles warily with this concept. I want to see a sustainable planet fit for future generations, where everyone’s basic needs (as defined in their society) are assured. I suggest that that can be done by recruiting people who currently support capitalism, but  who are not all rapacious and heartless. There ere large numbers who will be capable of understanding that means testing is grossly unfair, and the corresponding justice of the Citizens’ Income principle. Whether anything recognizable as capitalism survives in a society which accepts the need for a  communal attitude to wealth sharing, or becomes a thing of the past, is immaterial.

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