I’ve been reading a lot recently, almost to the point of obsession as my daughter has been going through a good period with her napping and sleeping and there is not much else to do when you can’t leave the house. A few weeks ago my husband had a quick flick though the titles on my Kindle and complained that I was reading things that all shared the same hard left view point and that I should read something from the right (e.g. Milton Friedman) to avoid bias and being sucked into the personality cult of Jeremy Corbyn (too late- go Jezza!). This comment in relation to my reading list got me thinking about the whole left/right/centralist description of politics.
This is my reading list so far this year in approximately the order of reading ( I highly recommend all * items):
- Post Capitalism by Paul Mason.*
- Bullshit jobs by David Graeber.* (An article that describes my experience of employment perfectly, yet is completely at odds with the conventional view of employment)
- The Internet is not the Answer by Andrew Keen
- The Shallows by Nicolas Carr
- The Democracy Project by David Graeber*
- Debt: The first 5000 years by David Graeber*
- The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber
- The Happiness Industry by William Davies*
- The Limits of Neoliberalism by William Davies*
- Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State by Kerry Anne Mendoza
- The New Way of the World by Pierre Dardot*
- This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein*
- Profit over People Noam Chomsky*
- Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez
- Documentary: The Masks We Wear
- The New Rulers of the World by John Pilger*
- Who Rules the World by Noam Chomsky
- Dark Money by Jane Mayer*
- Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter (this is good but stymied by the ending chapter I thought given not everyone can be a CEO, and not everyone is doing work that is worthwhile)
- The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein*
- What About Me? by Paul Verhaeghe*
- Love in a time of Loneliness by Paul Verhaeghe (I do recommend this, but it is incredibly depressing)
- Just Money by Ann Pettifor
- Buying Time:The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism by Wolfgang Streeck*
- Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran (for some light relief)
- The Coming First World Debt Crisis by Ann Pettifor*
- Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
- You don’t have to be stupid to work here but it helps *- Essay by Andre Spicer on Aeon. Bitterly cynical but describes my working life well.
- Imagined Futures by Jens Becker *
- Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schull
Thinking over the things that I have read I’m not sure that hard left (or even left wing) is a relevant description for many of the above books, or that we are even on the old Left-Right continuum of politics any more. Not many of the above books/essays agree with our current economic system , and yes because our current political system is completely inseparable and dominated by economics that makes them anti the current political status quo but does that mean they are left wing? Is what is happening right now in Britain central right politics? If so shouldn’t right wingers be fairly happy instead of banding together to form hard right parties like UKIP because they are so pissed off? Has the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn solely come about because of a reaction to Central-Right policies? Or because of something more extreme?
The Brexit vote united hard right anti immigration nationalists and hard left anti free traders as well as a whole range of people in between, and allowed 17 million people to express the fact that they are not happy with the way things are. And I think that’s because we are very far from a central/moderate type of politics at the moment, but we are also no where near the far left OR right. I think we are closer to the 3rd point of a bloody triangle:
Neoliberalism like most political terms is difficult to pin down to an agreed definition as people use it in different ways depending on their own personal political affiliations. In his book ‘What About Me?’ Paul Verhaeghe neatly summarises it as:
‘People are competitive beings focused on their own profit. This benefits society as a whole because competition entails everyone doing their best to come out on top. As a result we get better and cheaper products and more efficient services within a single free market, unhampered by government intervention. This is ethically right because success or failure in that competition depends entirely on individual effort. So everyone is responsible for their own success or failure. Hence the importance of education, because we live in a rapidly evolving knowledge economy that requires highly trained individuals with flexible competencies.’
For a more in depth description I would read books 9&11 from my list. Because of its free market, anti-government, emphasis on the individual being responsible for their own fate, it’s associated with the right but it has lost any anchor to an actual geographical place or physical reality (the economy must grow grow grow despite the fact we live on a finite world) which I think sets it apart from the right, given they are also associated with strong national pride, respect for family, land and traditional values that impose limits and authority.
What we have now with neoliberalism is a global financial system where there are no controls on the movement of capital. Capital is not bound by borders or nation states it is above them – its the ‘international community’ its the IMF the World Bank, the hedge funds, the private banks, the giant corporations that can choose where to have their headquarters depending on the most favourable tax regimes, the offshore tax accounts… It’s the aviation industry that allows the international community to exist not being held to international climate change agreements despite being a major source of C02 emissions, not to mention air pollution and noise pollution that detrimentally affect the health of populations living near airports (I live under a flight path. I no longer ever want to go on a plane). It’s English becoming the dominant language and business-management speak trickling down to apply to everything (‘efficient’ healthcare providers???? ‘successful’ parenting??? WHAT DO YOU MEAN???? If I raise her to be a good consumer do I get a prize?).
It’s competition being embedded into everything and there being global league tables to rank everything from universities to corruption to happiness. It’s the answer for every woe to be to get an outside ‘independent’ body to audit the situation (who is measuring the measurers?? And what kind of measuring system are they using when very few things can be reduced to numbers without qualitative judgements being made?) and introduce more transparency and even more competition (but note this absolutely does not apply to breaking up big global private monopolies such as Google or Amazon).
It’s everyone individually being responsible for their own success or failure and encouraged to be an entrepreneur , who’s authentic and has their own ‘brand’, and nobody then taking responsibility for how their actions affect anyone else (oh you actually believed our marketing campaign and ate/drank our products on a regular basis and now have health problems? You must be an idiot.).
It’s not accepting that there are any physical limits to anything, the earths resources (see book no.12) or even our own bodies- athletes needing to push further and further to make those ‘marginal gains’ and seemingly all of them taking some kind of drugs (illegal or medically necessary) to do so, and every ‘successful’ person feeling the need to complete a marathon/triathalon/iron man in their spare time.
It’s as Wolfgang Streeck describes aptly in chapter 2 of ‘Buying Time’ the separation of capitalism from democracy as governments burdened by massive debts (brought about in large part by minimal taxes on the rich as they benefit from being able to freely move their capital about) have to satisfy not only the needs of their citizens who democratically elected them but also their creditors – the international investors who want confidence that above all else that governments are able to service the debts they owe them now and in the future. Whilst citizens do not want to vote for a government that imposes harsh austerity measures and cut funding for vital public services and environmental protections, creditors clearly do , and markets or currency values will take a tumble as investors pull out if governments don’t make the ‘tough economic decisions’. And the swathe of citizens, myself included, who are also investors (have a claw on the property ladder, savings, a job in a multinational firm or a work related pension) feel torn between the two positions, not wanting the economic meltdown that is threatened but also not wanting public services we rely on and environment we live in to be destroyed and to have to stand by and watch as the poorest in society get trampled on.
And its all of us, though we try as hard as we can to separate our consumer selves from our concerned citizen selves, knowing that with practically everything we buy there is some degree of human misery involved , not to mention environmental degradation (cheap clothes made with child labour, phones that only last a year but were made in factories with suicide nets, food picked and packed by immigrants working for devastatingly low wages and pumped full of pesticides..) but feeling unable to make any other choice without rejecting society altogether (if you do not consume more than you need to survive, how will other people know what your status in society is?).
So I don’t think we’re at a point where we are anywhere near the centre. Or anywhere near the right or left. We’ve abandoned our sovereignty and democratic process not in the EU but in the global financial markets, and we’ve lost parts of ourselves that care about others to consumerism and the logic of competition.
And the brilliance of the simple ‘logic’ of the brightest and best getting the most rewards means that those who are failing (and if you are not at the top of your profession you are failing) feel they only have themselves to blame and rage is turned inwards and manifests itself as depression/anxiety/self-harm instead of directed outwards to make any kind of societal change. On the off chance there is any rage left to spill over its directed by politicians and the media at immigrants/elites or both (e.g. in the case of Trump).
So how to change society and get us back to some kind of localised democratic ground that allows us care for and protect our physical selves and the environment we live in rather than push them to the limits, when society has already changed us?