Thursday, 10 February 2011

The poverty of nations

There’s a contradiction at the heart of the Coalition Government’s attitude towards capital. More than ever, we are told that money is a core value and simultaneously individuals are told to value money less.

The money contradiction

On the one hand, massive cuts are being made to save money. Libraries, hospitals, leisure centres, Post Offices, and miscellaneous front-line services are taking cuts and being closed because the national debt apparently must be reduced. Last week, it was reported that rural public transport links are to be cut because they are making a loss and being subsidised by profit-making urban transport links. The implication is that money is a more important concept than others: education, knowledge, communication, security, and leisure are all superseded by the need to generate money. Profit stands above any other metric as a measure of success. If something is unprofitable, we are told, it is unsuccessful.

On the other hand, the Coalition’s flagship idea – the Big Society – requires its practitioners to show detachment from money and a keen desire to engage in non-profitable pursuits. The Big Society aims to get communities to take over public services which are currently run by local or central government. In this spirit, people are being told to volunteer more, to give their time and skills freely, and to help their communities by working for nothing with few resources.

The Big Society concept was dealt two blows last week
The issue of bankers’ bonuses has become a battleground for this kind of debate about capital. On the one hand, we are told that bankers deserve their bonuses because they have valuable skills that deserve monetary compensation. On the other hand, Big Society volunteers are told that they should put their valuable skills to work for free. The difference lies in the skills: a banker is skilled at making money by manipulating existing systems; a childcare worker is skilled at raising and educating children. Again, this indicates that monetary gain is the value most prized by society.

Debating and defining

This cognitive dissonance and this widening gulf between those who value money and those who don’t prevents proper debate and real argument. Increasingly it seems, debates involve parties arguing past one another: this is a generalisation but it generally involves liberals on one hand arguing for values beyond money and conservatives on the other arguing that money and profit need to be preserved. One of the core lessons of philosophy is that to debate properly one must first define one’s terms: our current political and ideological debate is hampered by the different parties using different definitions and different value-judgements about money.

The value (or lack thereof) of money

This part is my opinion and involves, as mentioned above, a liberal defining his terms by arguing for values beyond money. In my opinion, society is unbalanced by the extreme valuing of money.

Images like this alter our perception
of what 'success' is
The latter half of the 20th Century in the West has seen the acquisition of money become the driving force of many individuals. Part of this due to aspirational television and other media coverage raising our lifestyle expectations. Part of it is due to the continued unabated success of those who seek extreme wealth – including those who do so immorally or illegally. We’ve now reached a point where all political debate comes down to money, all argument is reduced to cost/benefit analysis, and all values are subservient to the pursuit of self-interest encoded in the capitalist terms of money.

As Philip Pullman pointed out in his brilliant speech on public libraries and market fundamentalism, there are other values besides money. There is knowledge, education, learning, the pursuit of intelligence, community, charity, sharing, togetherness, friendship, sentimentality. Money is valued so highly because our whole system of living is based on it but we shouldn’t forget that it needn’t be this way. We needn’t allow every discussion to be degraded to discussion of profit and loss. As the example closest to my heart, libraries are valuable because they enable learning and knowledge: if they cost money, so what? If profitable enterprises subsidise them, so what?

Hidden within the heart of the Big Society concept is a good idea: the idea of working together and rising above monetary concerns for the good of community. This idea sounds like socialism but the policy the Coalition is pushing is traditional Conservative ideology. The good idea at the core is hidden by ideological actions: shrinking the state, cutting public sector budgets to reduce the deficit, and shifting responsibility for state-run services onto individuals and communities. I believe that a large state should support communities and values beyond money: the Big Society idea argues that a small state should generate money and leave communities to support themselves.

There are things in this world that should be preserved precisely because they transcend monetary concerns.

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