In 2016, I shared an early draft of the book 99% with a friend. When he read Chapter 4, which deals with the philosophy of market fundamentalism, he commented, “nobody serious thinks like this.”
And at the time, that was a plausible reading of UK politics.
When she became Prime Minister, Theresa May’s first speech included the lines,
“That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.”
Distracted by her attempt to deliver Brexit, and in the continuing grip of the narrative of unaffordability, her government did not succeed in tackling these problems. But it was aware of them. And it did take them seriously. Even though, as 99% points out, May and Hammond did little to reverse the damage done by austerity, they did do something. They were, at least in intent, one-nation Tories.
But once Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, and assembled a cabinet largely composed of market fundamentalists, it became clear that there was a risk of a rapid shift in society, in a completely different direction.
Almost every day, there seems to be a new petition protesting about the government’s plans or actions, from the delay in implementing lockdown, through the plans to sign a US trade deal which hands over sovereignty on issues such as the NHS and UK Food standards, to the apparent desire to deliver a no-deal Brexit (which the Leave campaign had promised would never happen) and the – thankfully now reversed – decision not to provide free school meals to the most vulnerable children over the summer.
But nothing seems to stick. Scandals which would have caused ministerial resignations in previous administrations are laughed-off.
It begins to seem as though market fundamentalism is invulnerable, as though nothing can impede its progress.
But this may not be true. In fact, the very thing that has made market fundamentalism so ‘successful’ could be its downfall:
- Market fundamentalism has benefited from a self-reinforcing cycle, based on control of the public narrative and shifting of the blame, which has been the source of its tremendous ‘success;’
- But control of the narrative is weakening as reality begins to bite;
- This means the cycle could start to unwind.
Market Fundamentalism has benefited from a cycle of blame
The cycle relies on relies on two complementary narratives: first that the problems people face are the fault of an identifiable group other than policy-makers; and second that , even if we wanted to, we could not afford to spend more to fix them.
The cycle feeds off people who face serious hardship in their lives. And of course, there are many people who do. But instead of seeking the root causes of the hardship and setting out to tackle them, market fundamentalism seeks scapegoats.
If I can be persuaded that the reason my life is hard is because of immigrants, or baby boomers, or the unemployed, or the EU, or Jews, or civil servants, or Muslims, or the patriarchy, or idlers in the workforce – or indeed virtually any group other than policymakers in government – then I become blind to the root causes. And if I blame them, I can easily be persuaded to vote against my own interests.
On the other side of the diagram, when somebody tells me that, since I am having to manage my own budget tightly, the government should cut its spending, that sounds reasonable to me. When somebody tells me that my taxes are going to support immigrants or baby boomers, et cetera, I believe them. When a politician says that there just isn’t any money, it sounds quite plausible to me. My own hardship makes it difficult for me to see the big picture and to realise that I am colluding in my own impoverishment.
And so I vote for austerity. Economic growth reduces and public services are cut, my hardship increases and with it, my confusion, anger, and despair. It becomes ever harder for me to understand what is happening to me.
So far, this cycle has worked brilliantly for the market fundamentalists.
But control of the narrative is weakening
Keeping the cycle going requires maintaining control of the narrative and, historically, that is something market fundamentalists have done extremely well. But more recently, three factors have emerged which make this far more difficult:
- reality has butted-in to a degree that rhetoric finds difficult to overcome;
- other narratives have demonstrated the ability to cut through; and
- corruption-fatigue may be setting in.
Reality has butted-in
Every government in the world has faced the challenge of the coronavirus. But their responses have differed widely, and so have the results. Looking at the reported figures in each country gives the following picture.
If we look at the total death toll, the UK appears to be the third worst performer in the world. And if we look at deaths per million population, the UK appears to be the second worst. And these are the officially reported figures – which are probably a serious understatement of reality.
The scientific community as a whole has been so unimpressed with the government’s handling of the crisis that a group of leading independent scientists set up Independent SAGE (an alternative to the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). And now, SAGE itself appears to be distancing itself from the government’s strategy: the scientists no longer appear alongside the politicians at the daily briefing, and members and former members have become increasingly critical in public – going so far as to point out that the government’s delay in lockdown was responsible for at least half of the deaths that have taken place in the UK.
In addition to the total death toll, there have been revelations about the handling of care homes, the lack of protective personal equipment for medics and carers, failures of the testing program and of the tracing app.
All of this has filtered through into public approval ratings: as YouGov reports,
“Approval ratings in the UK and USA continue their decline. Only 41% of Britons say the government is managing the outbreak well, versus 56% who say it is mishandling it. This gives a net score of -15, down from -6 the week previously.
This means that domestically the British government are seen by the population to be handling the crisis less well than Americans think of their own government.”
The government’s strategy for handling the virus risks landing the UK with the worst of both worlds: a severely damaged economy and one of the highest death tolls in the world.
And, of course, a no-deal Brexit, which looks increasingly likely, would hit an already weakened economy still fighting the pandemic. We have had a taste of supermarket shelves empty of essentials – that could happen again early next year.
That would be a further painful dose of reality.
Other narratives cutting through
And it is not just COVID.
Climate change activists like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have managed to raise public consciousness about the extent of the climate emergency. The idea that the solution to climate change can be left to individuals or markets without government intervention is plausible to ever fewer people.
And this is a fundamental threat to market fundamentalism. If we accept that an emergency like COVID requires government action, and so does an emergency like climate change, then there is a very real risk that we may conclude that emergency like mass impoverishment also requires government action.
And on the other side of the diagram, the narrative of unaffordability is itself under threat. It is becoming increasingly obvious both that there is no obstacle to further borrowing and that governments with their own central bank have no problem creating money when they need it. In the UK, the Bank of England has created around £750 billion through quantitative easing.
The third factor is corruption fatigue.
You can sit almost anywhere on the political spectrum and still feel that laws should apply to everyone and that there should be some restrictions on how people can make money for themselves and their friends.
And there have recently been enough cases that suggest that this government does not think that way to cause a loss of trust.
Here, for example, is the Financial Times:
“There are rule-makers and rule-takers, and no one doubts in which category Dominic Cummings sees himself. As Downing Street fights to save the UK prime minister’s chief strategist, it is this notion of one law for the powerful that will prove the most corrosive.”
And the Daily Mail:
“Cash for very big favours: Murky links in a £1billion property deal involving Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick and billionaire tycoon Richard Desmond as row threatens to engulf No10.”
And the Times:
“A small family-run pest control company was handed a contract worth £108 million to procure personal protective equipment for frontline health staff at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. PestFix, which has only 16 employees and net assets of £18,000, was turned overnight into one of the government’s largest suppliers of PPE last month.
It is one of a number of companies to have been awarded multimillion-pound contracts to provide facemasks, gowns and visors despite lacking experience in the field.”
The award of this contract is now facing a legal challenge.
The government is losing its moral authority. And an increasing number of journalists are reporting accordingly.
Even the traditionally right-wing Economist has said,
“The painful conclusion is that Britain has the wrong sort of government for a pandemic—and, in Boris Johnson, the wrong sort of prime minister.”
The Cycle Could Start to Unwind
As more people begin to realise the extent of policy failures, and the impact that they have had – not just on the COVID death toll – the credibility of the divide/blame/rule message decreases.
And on the left hand side of the diagram, a rapidly increasing number of people are becoming aware that, if the government can create hundreds of billions at will to prop up the banks and to fight COVID, it could do the same to fight poverty and tackle climate change. As we have discussed before, the availability of money is not a panacea – but it certainly helps.
And if the loss of credibility becomes widespread, the electability of the Tory Party diminishes sharply.
According to the Daily Mail,
“I have already had two people come up to me today and separately say ‘I think Boris may have to go,’ one Tory MP told me last week. ‘There’s no way you would have been hearing that even last month.’ …
The impression among Conservative MPs is that the Prime Minister has lost his grip, and the Government has lost its way. And incredibly, less than a year into his premiership, some are starting to seriously consider whether Boris Johnson may have to be replaced.”
The Tory Party has a choice: leave Johnson in post or choose a successor. If they leave him in post or pick a market fundamentalist as successor, that would be playing double-or-quits. They would go into the next election with a large majority, but a record of abject failure.
They would have to bet everything on their ability to control the narrative and paint that failure as an outstanding success. If they win, they could turn Britain into Singapore-on-Thames; but if they lose, they could destroy their party.
If they pick a one-nation leader, they could change direction. They would probably still go into the election with a poor record, but they could more credibly disown it. It might not win them the election, but it could stop the destruction of their party and of the post-war social contract.
And whoever wins, if they are not market fundamentalist in orientation, they could implement five steps to preserve our democracy and safeguard our social contract.
If this matters to you, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.