Friday, August 29, 2014

Owen Jones - It's socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest of us in Britain

Socialism lives in Britain, but only for the rich: the rules of capitalism are for the rest of us. The ideology of the modern establishment, of course, abhors the state. The state is framed as an obstacle to innovation, a destroyer of initiative, a block that needs to be chipped away to allow free enterprise to flourish. "I think that smaller-scale governments, more freedom for business to exist and to operate – that is the right kind of direction for me," says Simon Walker, the head of the Institute of Directors. For him, the state should be stripped to a "residual government functioning of maintaining law and order, enforcing contracts". Mainstream politicians don't generally talk in such stark terms, but when the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg demands "a liberal alternative to the discredited politics of big government", the echo is evident.
And yet, when the financial system went into meltdown in 2008, it was not expected to stand on its own two feet, or to pull itself up by its bootstraps. Instead, it was saved by the state, becoming Britain's most lavished benefit claimant. More than £1tn of public money was poured into the banks following the financial collapse. The emergency package came with few government-imposed conditions and with little calling to account. "The urge to punish all bankers has gone far enough," declared a piece in the Financial Times just six months after the crisis began. 
But if there was ever such an "urge" on the part of government, it was never acted on. In 2012, 2,714 British bankers were paid more than €1m – 12 times as many as any other EU country. When the EU unveiled proposals in 2012 to limit bonuses to either one or two years' salary with the say-so of shareholders, there was fury in the City. Luckily, their friends in high office were there to rescue their bonuses: at the British taxpayers' expense, the Treasury took to the European Court to challenge the proposals. The entire British government demonstrated, not for the first time, that it was one giant lobbying operation for the City of London. Between 2011 and 2013, bank lending fell in more than 80% of Britain's 120 postcode areas, helping to stifle economic recovery. Banks may have been enjoyed state aid on an unprecedented scale, but their bad behaviour just got worse – and yet they suffered no retribution.
Contrast this with the fate of the unemployed, including those thrown out of work as a result of the actions of bailed-out bankers. In the austerity programme that followed the financial crisis, state support for those at the bottom of society has been eroded. The support that remains is given withstringent conditions attached. "Benefit sanctions" are temporary suspensions of benefits, often for the most spurious or arbitrary reasons. According to the government's figures, 860,000 benefit claimants were sanctioned between June 2012 and June 2013, a jump of 360,000 from a year earlier. According to the Trussell Trust, the biggest single provider of food banks, more than half of recipients were dependent on handouts owing to cuts or sanctions to their benefits.
Glyn, a former gas fitter from Manchester, was sanctioned three weeks before Christmas 2013, and received no money. He had missed a signing-on day because he was completing a job search at Seetec, one of the government's corporate welfare-to-work clients. Then there's Sandra, a disabled Glaswegian who lives with her daughter. She was sent a form asking to declare whether she lived with someone; assuming it meant a partner, she said no, and was called in to a "compliance interview". Because her daughter was not in full-time education, Sandra was stripped of her entitlement to her £50 per week severe-disability allowance. While the financial elite could depend on the state to swoop to their rescue, those who suffered because of their greed felt the chill winds of laissez-faire. Socialism for the rich: sink-or-swim capitalism – and food banks – for the poor.
Socialism for the rich manifests itself in a variety of ways. In 2004, corporations were posting record profits, and yet their workers' wages had begun to stagnate or – in the case of those in the bottom third of the income scale – had started to decline.. read more: