As international economies wobble and systems threaten to fall down around us, now is a very good time to be asking questions about what life is for, what we actually want, and what we consider important. It’s easy to be carried along by the flow of the prevailing culture, but that doesn’t make it optimal, or even good. Governments like GDP, they like tax revenues, high employment. What governments care about is money, and because this is the priority, we are all encouraged to live lives that move money around in ways that make governments happy.
The current wisdom that market forces can fix everything doesn’t stand up to any serious consideration. Market forces are short term, are not driven by demand but by what demand is imagined to be, coupled with then selling the idea. Market forces do not fix inequalities, show compassion, do blue skies research or anything else very interesting most of the time. The idea that we can have infinite growth with finite resources seems inherently flawed to me, but our whole economic system is based on ideas of continuous growth. We put money before quality of life. We treat the acquisition of physical wealth as the priority, even at the cost of our health, families and happiness.
Increasingly people are talking about the ways in which the whole philosophy underpinning modern western life doesn’t work. I saw on facebook yesterday material rejecting the idea that rich people generate wealth. That’s been a political assumption for a long time. Rich people are good for the economy. Rich people make jobs and wealth for others. Without our rich people, we would all be in trouble so we should look after them, keep them happy, make sure they stay rich. I don’t believe wealth trickles down, but I do think if the poorest people have a decent standard of living, you know, by definition, that everyone else is fine economically too. If we decided instead that small businesses, and workers were the real powerhouse of economic growth, we’d organise a lot of things differently. We give big business and the superrich too much leeway only because we believe that we can’t get by without them. What if we can?
There is scope for real change, but until we start questioning the norms, it’ll be hard to achieve. So let’s start asking those questions, and encourage people around us to ask them as well, and think. Let’s ask our politicians as well. Do we want a system that is all about the movement of money? Or should we be thinking more about quality of life? Could we perhaps reject the idea that wealth and quality of life are entirely connected, and that striving after money is the only solution to everything? Could we perhaps instead be talking about people getting to live meaningful, rewarding, happy lives without automatically equating that to working as a wage slave? Could we stop seeing financial contributions as the only useful contribution a person can make to their community?
Money is a way of moving things round and getting things done. It’s a tool, but it is not a measurement of anything else. If the insanities of the financial sector are anything to go by, the acquisition of it may have far more to do with a willingness to gamble than with ability, merit or effort. Money attracts money, the absence of it makes it easy to get into debt and difficulty. Money is not the impartial system we want it to be, nor is it inherently fair. Your best chances of being rich are still to be born into a wealthy family.
I’m not proffering any answers today, just questions. What actually matters to you? What makes you happy? How do you want to live? If you were made ruler of the world tomorrow, how would you change things? If you had the power to redesign the systems, to reinvent the structures we all use, how would you do it? What are your priorities? None of us is going to wake up tomorrow and find that we can start putting plans into place, but where we live in democracies, our ideas can count, and the more of us share them, the more impact they will have.
I think the era of capitalism is coming to an end, because it just doesn’t work. I have no idea what comes next, but there is the potential for it to be wiser, more compassionate, more sustainable, more human. We need to stop collectively worshipping currencies, and start figuring out how to live.