The situation embodied by Philip Green is simply the outgrowth of the 'greed is good' culture fostered in the 1980s and ever since, by Conservatives and New Labour. This kind of neoliberalism is completely unsustainable of course. It threatens to lead to a form of dystopian neo-medievalism(1), as follows
At some point there'll be nothing left to sell off. In this bleak vision of the future the non-rich will not be able to afford an education, because the only education worth having is beyond their reach(2). There will be minimal mobility around the country for the non-rich: travel within the country will be unaffordable, because train fares will have been allowed to become astronomical and 'eco-friendly' taxes on cars and fossil fuels will remove that form of travel;(3) there will, of course be little or no public transport; in any case the privatised toll roads won't be open to them;(4) the non-rich will be unable to afford decent health care.(5) Uneducated and able to transplant themselves to new areas only with difficulty, the poor will become rooted to their own areas and prey to ever more exploitative employers, with hardly any forms of social safety net other than that provided by charity.(6) Zero-hours contracts, pinning you to service in one place, whenever needed but with no guaranteed employment are a form of serfdom anyway. 'Social cleansing' will move the poor out of some zones, separating socio-economic groups from each other.(7) The rich will probably move from one compound or 'gated community' (castle?) to another by helicopter.(9)
Meanwhile, the rich, dodging tax (ever lowered in any case to keep them on-side) in any case, keep their wealth off-shore and can shift their allegiance from one country to another, like the higher nobility of the Carolingian world, according to who is willing to pay the sort of price in influence and resources.(9) The state has lost its legal monopoly over coercion and legitimate use of force as - in order to reduce public spending - policing has been farmed out to privatised 'security firms', who primarily maintain the integrity of wealthy gated communities.(10) Largely unanswerable to public scrutiny, these do the bidding of the rich and keep the poor in their place. The capacity for defence and operations abroad has been massively curtailed by the reduction of the armed forces to what can be afforded on the meagre remaining fiscal income, while responsibility for the great bulk of military actions behind their 'teeth' at the front or cutting edge of operations is farmed out to privatised 'defence contractors', who, needless to say, will - like medieval noblemen with their retinues - exercise a profound influence on whether and where any military action can be undertaken, probably according to the loot that is possible.(11) At this point we have a social formation in which the relations between on the one hand, the 'government' and the élite and, on the other, between the élite and the rest of the population, closely resemble that which existed in, say, the late ninth century. In effect, a neo-feudalism. More than that, a situation brought about by the serfs voting for feudalism!
'How on earth was that possible?', ask historians in the future. Some will note that the great periods of social reform came against the backdrop of revolution: the French revolution/s and 1848 for the earlier nineteenth century; 1870 and the Commune, and the anarchist violence in the late 19th century; Bolshevism for the period after WWI; the threat of Communism and the Eastern Bloc (not revolutionary but threatening to the elite) after WWII. Where was the threat after 1989? For the first time in 200 years the traditional élite had nothing to worry about from social revolutionary idealists and ideologies. The 1970s, from the CIA-backed squashing of Allende's Chile onwards, had seen the discrediting of social democracy; the grim realities of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and their ultimate failure, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and Mao's China discredited the traditional far left. The only threats were now the uprisings against global capital of the West's exploited former colonies, which, not least because of the frequent use of a supposedly radical Islam as a rallying cry, could easily be parlayed by the élite (increasingly controlling almost all news outlets) into an existential threat for all westerners, a racist bogeyman that distracted people from the mounting inequalities and injustices in their own society, and from the root causes of the troubles in Islamic areas. The growth of petty-nationalisms across Europe led the same way.
This piece of dystopian science fiction is a grim reading or projection to extreme-but-logical outcomes of trends currently well attested. I doubt this is anyone's aim, because the thing about neo-liberalism is that it has no long-term aims; it is all about the here and now - the shaky unsustainable get-rich-quick schemes I mentioned last time. But you have to wonder where the steady reduction of tax, the erosion of workers' rights, the dismantling of the state's educational, health, social security, police and military functions is logically going to lead. After all, large swathes of even the US population (and the US is always the avowed model of the neoliberals) support moves in precisely the opposite direction. Would the mass of the population continue support the reduction of the state to these levels? If so, there would come a point - as with feudalism, serfdom and the rest - when the only way of bringing about change was violent. I for one do not want to live through the horrors of a revolution. Indeed, as I would not be the first to say, the best hope for the future may lie in capitalism's own capacity for self-preservation and reinvention. We might see this even now in the IMF's rowing back from neoliberalism and austerity, or the progressive politics glimpsed in the US. I fear though that something needs to be done pretty soon, for everyone's sake, rich or poor. As it happens, I think that that can probably (for the reasons implicit in the description above) only be done by thinking in terms of blocks bigger than nation states, like the EU.
I dare say this all sounds quite mad, and I hope it is, but I have to ask myself at what point, and why, this government of millionaires for millionaires will stop pushing us in this direction.
1: By this I am not using 'medieval' as a shorthand for primitive, superstitious or barbarous (although this vision is all of those) but as a description of a set of governmental and local power relations.
2: This is already happening. The UK government has tried to privatise (i.e. by turning into academies) all local schooling. Academies will overwhelmingly be run by for-profit organisations. Their record in dealing with teachers, the recruitment of properly qualified teachers and head-teachers, in preserving a curriculum without political or religious interference, is well-documented and dreadful. In this scenario only the old private and public schools, priced out of the reach of most, will provide the old-style education and the cultural capital and social know-how (the paideia, if you will) that will permit entry into the circles of government, law and business. As the cap is removed on university fees and other measures are brought in that are designed effectively to secure the dominance of the ancient universities, people will either be unable to afford a university education at all, or one that is beyond their immediate locality. Further, most universities will not undertake research but be simple teaching institutions. Only a handful of old universities will still carry out research, closely restricted by the interests of private benefactors. More importantly, only they will produce degrees considered to count for anything. These will, even more than now, be inaccessible to the vast majority.
3: This barely requires a footnote. Train fares rise above inflation every year while services are cut back. The only issue is at what point the ever-reducing fiscal income will make rail franchises unattractive and whether then the railways will simply collapse or be reduced to a couple of prime lines, or whether someone will intervene before that stage. Taxes on cars and fuel increase all the time and with pressures from global warming and the simple availability of fossil fuels generally-available motor-transport may be a finite commodity.
4: The UK government has already proposed toll-roads and toll-lanes on motorways. These would, obviously, be privatised.
5: Footnote, again, unnecessary. The current government's moves to dismantle the NHS are well-documented. In this issue, perhaps, lies the one route to change via public protest.
6: See for example the business practices of Mike Ashley, revealed in the course of his questioning by a parliamentary select committee.
7: The Tory 'flagship borough' of Barnet recently, in spite of sustained protest, broke up the community on the council's Sweet Lane estate and sold the property off to a private company. Social cleansing is well-documented in other areas of London and was noted before the 2012 Olympics
8: This, I am told, is already the case in various third-world countries. The rise of the gated community is one of the most pernicious trends in modern British society and urban planning.
9: Many of the French super-rich simply moved to the UK in response to increased taxes threatened by François Hollande. The threat of the withdrawal of financial investments is regularly used to blackmail the UK government. With no industries left, this is the danger of having the 'unregulated financial 'wild west' of the City as your only economic asset.
10: Already the case in (again) Barnet, where the 'pretend police' can already be seen strutting about the streets or sitting in their cars designed to look as much like actual police cars as possible.
11: Halliburton. Dick Cheney. Oil. Need I say more?