Who wants to be a billionaire?

capitalism3 It is official. The UK has more Billionaires per head of population than any other country. London alone has 72. Makes you proud to be British doesn’t it? The nation where the rich get richer (because they deserve it) and the poor get poorer (serves them right; lazy scroungers that they are.) More locally, to me at least, Scotland has 7 Billionaires, up from 6 last year. This from the BBC;

The Grant-Gordon whisky family tops the Scottish element of the list with a fortune of £1.9bn.

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There are now 104 billionaires based in the UK with a combined wealth of more than £301bn, the list says.

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The Grant-Gordon Banffshire distilling family have ousted Mahdi-Al Tajir from the top spot in Scotland. Al-Tajir, whose interests include a development of luxury homes at Gleneagles, is worth £1.67bn, according to the list.

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Sir Brian Souter and Ann Gloag, the siblings who founded the Stagecoach transport empire, have become members of the billionaire club for the first time. They share a fortune of £1bn – an increase of £270m on last year.

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Other Scots on the super-rich list are Sir Ian Wood and family whose £1.32bn fortune comes from oil services and fishing, and the Thomson family, owners of publisher DC Thomson, who are worth £1.2bn.

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Former Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, who owns an estate in the Highlands, is estimated to be worth £1.3bn, while Jim McColl, of engineering business Clyde Blowers has an estimated fortune of £1bn.

Setting aside the morality of concentrating so much wealth in the hands of individuals, two questions seem important-

  1. Do these people create prosperity for the nation- for working people- commensurate with the position their own assets gives them?
  2. Does their wealth produce anything of worth?

As you look down the short list of Scottish Billionaires, the arguments supporting positive answers to these questions seem weak. Whisky, posh flats, posh shops, mega profits from former privatised industry (transport) paid for by subsidies from the tax payer. There are a couple of industrialists there however. It is impossible to look at this list and not feel that Piketty’s analysis of how wealth rises exponentially, like some kind of run away greed machine, in capitalist economies. I quoted this previously;

Anyone with the capacity to own in an era when the returns exceed those of wages and output will quickly become disproportionately and progressively richer.

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The incentive is to be a rentier rather than a risk-taker: witness the explosion of buy-to-let. Our companies and our rich don’t need to back frontier innovation or even invest to produce: they just need to harvest their returns and tax breaks, tax shelters and compound interest will do the rest. Capitalist dynamism is undermined, but other forces join to wreck the system.

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Piketty notes that the rich are effective at protecting their wealth from taxation and that progressively the proportion of the total tax burden shouldered by those on middle incomes has risen. In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population. As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them.

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Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services. Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part: not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time. Our collective sense of justice is outraged.

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The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war.

Piketty fears a repeat.

Perhaps then we need to watch carefully for those who tell you that the poor and broken are the problem- they are not, they are the consequences of unsustainable wealth creation by the few. Watch too for the convenient scapegoat-makers, the border-closers, the nationalists. They tend to play right into the hands of the super rich. It is a distraction from the real operation of capital, and a convenient way to wall wealth away from taxation. It also pretends that the problem of austerity is caused by the poor outsider, come to steal our jobs, our houses, our NHS facilities. Blessed are the poor, but who wants to be poor? We all want to be Billionaires…

2014- could this be the year we start to reclaim Christianity from Capitalism?

rainbow church, Dunoon

I am not into making new year’s resolutions- I tend not to keep them. However this time of year is the time to take stock, to dream of what might be ahead.

As well as the personal stuff it is a great time to wave some spiritual litmus paper in the stew of culture that we swirl around in. What is there that we can celebrate? What should we protest? How does the life of Jesus within us open us up to new ways of living in this new year?

A year or so ago, I wrote a post reflecting on the relationship between Capitalism and Christianity. This seems even more relevant now as austerity measures hit the poorest and weakest in our economy. Something is wrong– not just at an economic level, but rather in our very ways of being.

There are some encouraging signs that the Church is starting to realise this however- and that we need to be the voice of instability, not conformity. Sometimes it seems that our religion is like smoke blown into a hive while the honey is stolen. The Pope appears to understand this, as does Archbishop Welby.

The problem, it seems to me, is that church often claims to be separate from society (the old sacred/secular duality) at the same time as being indistinguishable from it perhaps in the following ways (as listed in my earlier post but with a few refinements and additions.)

  1. By emphasising personal, individual salvation above all else. The only useful purpose of mission is to save people from hell after they die. This means that active engagement in any other activities (particularly ‘social issues’) is downgraded, or even downright suspicious. For many these activities are only really acceptable if used as a trojan horse to smuggle in the gospel message.
  2. By embracing success culture. We use the same corporate structures, we reward our religious successes as we would our CEO’s, we value hard measurable outcomes, we construct programmes about personal empowerment and success.
  3. We make mission a kind of hostile take over. Business success involves out-performing the opposition, and rejoicing in their bankruptcy. We need to sell more, penetrate all markets, dominate the marketplace, crush to opposition.
  4. Christianity became a lifestyle choice that required no change to the way we live our economic lives. Yes, I know there is the old ‘tithing’ argument around Evangelical churches, but we drive the same cars, live in the same houses, take the same holidays, fill our lives with the same gadgets- or (and here is the sting) even if we do not have these things, we aspire to them. St Jobs is venerated in many a trendy Christian Church every time people meet.
  5. We bought into lives characterised by individualism above the collective. The model given to us by the life of Jesus and the early church was all about learning to live in loving community- how we live for one another, how we hold things in common, how we find ways of including the poor, the weak. Can we still hold these things as defining characteristics of church?
  6. We failed to demonstrate any kind of radical alternative. The best that we have been able to offer is how to live as better Capitalists- more sensible, more responsible, with greater probity. The Protestant Work Ethic lives on- in each one of us who finds comfort in our pews as much as our pension fund (even if both are more sparsely populated than previously.)
  7. We did not see injustice, inequality, poverty, unfair taxation, usury, over-consumption, environmental destruction, as any of our business. Which relates to point 1.
  8. Even where there was visible discomfort with Capitalism, we lacked any coherance, we lacked leadership, we did not become a critical movement. Rather we splintered and focused on totemic side shows live homosexuality and women bishops- all of which destroyed our credibility to speak prophetically into our culture anyway.
  9. Our mission to the poor was conditional on redeeming them to become like us. Difficult one this, but stay with me. There are lots of examples of Christian engagement with the poor, from the good old Salvation Army right through to the new food banks. However, these activities might be seen as cleaning up the edges of Capitalism– but also justifying the dominant ethos. It encourages us to lift people back into becoming productive consumers – just like us. This fails to engage with any idea that we need to become more like them; that the problem is caused by people just like us.
  10. We forgot that the Church exists not to give us a better life, but to serve the lost and the least. If we are serving the lost and the least, how can we have convinced ourselves that our unsustainable greedy lifestyles are God-given rewards for our moral superiority- which we Brits built an Empire on, and then passed the baton to the USA?
  11. We failed to form partnerships with other grass movements for change. Because anything outside of the walls of our particular church is suspicious, we are reluctant to engage with all those good ‘holy’ groups whose members are seeking to redeem and restore- the environmentalists, those working for social justice etc.

Occupy London Stock Exchange protest

I am not happy to leave this list just as a set of negatives, so here are my hopes/prayers for the Church in 2014;

  1. May our evangelical zeal be set free from the tramlines of heaven/hell. May our concept of salvation be much more gracious and generous, and may our evangelists be empowered to be agents of the Kingdom of God.
  2. May we see success for what it always is- a distraction from our call towards personal weakness, humility and love.
  3. May we stop competing.
  4. May we be among the first who chose to live differently- more simply, less driven by crazy consumerism. May we be a new kind of Amish people- not rejecting of technology, but neither enslaved by it.
  5. May our living draw us together, rather than forcing us apart.
  6. May our way of living be genuinely different- may we be consumers of less, wasters of less, sharers of more. May we party hard, love greatly, laugh a lot and weep when the time is right for weeping. May we be the first to demand products that last, that are updateable, that do not denude the environment or depend on the slavery of others and the raw materials dug out of some other part of the world for our own benefit.
  7. May we be angered by injustice, by poverty, by destruction of the beauty all around us, and may we express this anger in protest, in art, in full engagement.
  8. Rise up people who would show the way- give them a prophetic voice. Lead us out of our concrete wildernesses.
  9. May we see first the value in the other, not the rightness in ourselves.
  10. May we see our privilege for what it is; the inverse of the poverty of others.
  11. May we look for beauty and shine light on it. May we seek out flavour to savour with our salt. May we find out where Jesus is and try to join him there. May we seek partnership and friendship with other groups.

Let this be the year of a different kind of revolution…

capitalismrocks

Pope Francis on Capitalism…

My sister challenged me to right something lighthearted here, and leave behind all the heavy economic/theology etc for a while, at least in part because some of it was making her cry (which in my book is no bad thing!)

I tried sis, I tried, but then I come across this;

I am trying not to get too excited by this old man. He is after all human, and like all of us, will be shown to have clay feet. But in the meantime he makes my heart dance.

At last someone is using a traditional seat of global power to speak the words of Jesus into the madness of our age. Those in power are rattled. The small people are engaged.

People get crucified for this kind of thing you know.

Contrast the words of Pope Francis with the latest morally bankrupt drivel from the Mayor of London.

Community has to be small, or it becomes bureaucracy…

A socialist mural in Marinaleda.

I have never been a communist, not really.

However, I remember vividly the moment when the idea of communism took hold of me. I remember the discussion as a 15 year old boy around how it might be possible to live a different way- where our lives were not controlled by the profit principle, and where we shared what we have in order to live in harmony with one another, not in competition. It was electric.

Alongside all this was a whiff of something else- radicalism, danger. Our heros were no longer empire builders, but rather the challengers of injustice, the small people who stood in front of tanks or challenged corrupt authority only to be shot in their pulpits. There was a possibility of change, of things being better, simpler, more human.

It was also impossible to ignore the fact that communism seemed to fit remarkably well with the ideas of another radical, called Jesus.

Some people say that ideas like this are dangerous. Perhaps they are. For most of us however, they became the background hum of guilt inside our middle class lifestyles. Slowly our radicalism was buried by salaries, mortgages and the shopping run. It survived only in a few donations to charity, the odd sponsored third world child and the choice of newspaper we read.

I never believed in the inevitable rise of man towards utopia. I always doubted that capitalism would be defeated. Partly this was because we had little reason for optimism after Stalin’s purges and Mao’s cultural revolution. Like many I started to believe that Communism could not survive its encounter with broken humanity- that greed and corruption would always mean that the psychopaths would rise and that without the sharp edge of competition for personal gain we become blunted and lazy, leading to a slow decline. Capitalism was not perfect, but perhaps it could be managed I thought, to mitigate against some of the more damaging effects. Social welfare systems, health systems, progressive taxation to redistribute some wealth, protection under law for workers in employment, education for poor kids to give them a fair start. Democracy as the best compromise solution.

Perhaps these ideas are dangerous too however. They mean that certain hierarchies of unequal power and wealth remain fixed and unchanging. However, what real alternatives are there? Communism is bankrupt after all.

Meanwhile the world is in turmoil. Markets rise and fall, governments react paradoxically by blaming poor people for the excesses of the rich and powerful. All those things that might be seen as mitigations on the pursuit of profit are being slashed- education, health, welfare, social housing, unionisation.

In Europe, this is no where more apparent than in Spain. This from here;

Spain experienced a massive housing boom from 1996 to 2008. The price of property per square metre tripled in those 12 years: its scale is now tragically reflected in its crisis. Nationally, up to 400,000 families have been evicted since 2008. Again, it is especially acute in the south: 40 families a day in Andalusia have been turfed out of their homes by the banks. To make matters worse, under Spanish housing law, when you’re evicted by your mortgage lender, that isn’t the end of it: you have to keep paying the mortgage. In final acts of helplessness, suicides by homeowners on the brink of foreclosure have become horrifyingly common – on more than one occasion, while the bailiffs have been coming up the stairs, evictees have hurled themselves out of upstairs windows.

When people refer to la crisis in Spain they mean the eurozone crisis, an economic crisis; but the term means more than that. It is a systemic crisis, a political ecology crack’d from side to side: a crisis of seemingly endemic corruption across the country’s elites, including politicians, bankers, royals and bureaucrats, and a crisis of faith in the democratic settlement established after the death of Franco in 1975. A poll conducted by the (state-run) centre for sociological research in December 2012 found that 67.5% of Spaniards said they were unhappy with the way their democracy worked. It’s this disdain for the Spanish state in general, rather than merely the effects of the economic crisis, that brought 8 million indignados on to the streets in the spring and summer of 2011, and informed their rallying cry “Democracia Real Ya” (real democracy now).

For most of us, all this is happening on a scale that makes it impossible for us to fully grasp. We might focus on one small injustice, even raising voices of protest, but the entirety of the system is unchallengable, because it is too big. So what we have even in Spain is the call for better capitalism, better democracy, but no clear idea of what this might look like.

All of which is a long pre-amble to the reason for this post.

What exists at a human scale that might still gather real alternatives to all this naked profit-and-loss-boom-and-bust madness that we are dwarfed and diminished by?

For a long time, the idea that ‘communism does not work’ has irritated me. The smug example that is usually used to prove this dictum are Soviet Union collective farms- spectres of mass crop failure, starvation, forced labour and perhaps the worst sin of all, lack of productivity.

Today however, I read this about a small Spanish village called Marinaleda ;

When the 1,200-hectare El Humoso farm was finally won in 1991 – awarded to the village by the regional government following a decade of relentless occupations, strikes and appeals – cultivation began. The new Marinaleda co-operative selected crops that would need the greatest amount of human labour, to create as much work as possible. In addition to the ubiquitous olives and the oil-processing factory, they planted peppers of various kinds, artichokes, fava beans, green beans, broccoli: crops that could be processed, canned, and jarred, to justify the creation of a processing factory that provided a secondary industry back in the village, and thus more employment. “Our aim was not to create profit, but jobs,” Sánchez Gordillo explained to me. This philosophy runs directly counter to the late-capitalist emphasis on “efficiency” – a word that has been elevated to almost holy status in the neoliberal lexicon, but in reality has become a shameful euphemism for the sacrifice of human dignity at the altar of share prices.

Sánchez Gordillo once suggested to me that the aristocratic family of the House of Alba could invest its vast riches (from shares in banks and power companies to multimillion-euro agricultural subsidies for its vast tracts of land) to create jobs, but had never shown any interest in doing so. “We believe the land should belong to the community that works it, and not in the dead hands of the nobility.” That’s why the big landowners planted wheat, he explained – wheat could be harvested with a machine, overseen by a few labourers; in Marinaleda, crops like artichokes and tomatoes were chosen precisely because they needed lots of labour. Why, the logic runs, should “efficiency” be the most important value in society, to the detriment of human life?

The town co-operative does not distribute profits: any surplus is reinvested to create more jobs. Everyone in the co-op earns the same salary, €47 (£40) a day for six and a half hours of work: it may not sound like a lot, but it’s more than double the Spanish minimum wage. Participation in decisions about what crops to farm, and when, is encouraged, and often forms the focus of the village’s general assemblies – in this respect, being a cooperativista means being an important part of the functioning of the pueblo as a whole. Where once the day labourers of Andalusia were politically and socially marginalised by their lack of an economic stake in their pueblo, they are now – at least in Marinaleda – called upon to lead the way. Non-co-operativists are by no means excluded from involvement in the town’s political, social and cultural life – it’s more that if you are a part of the co-operative, you can’t avoid being swept up in local activities outside the confines of the working day.

Private enterprise is permitted in the village – perhaps more importantly, it is still an accepted part of life. As with the seven privately owned bars and cafés in the village (the Sindicato bar is owned by the union), if you wanted to open a pizzeria or a little family business of any kind, no one would stand in your way. But if a hypothetical head of regional development and franchising for, say, Carrefour, or Starbucks, with a vicious sense of humour and a masochistic streak, decided this small village was the perfect spot to expand operations, well – they wouldn’t get very far. “We just wouldn’t allow it,” Sánchez Gordillo told me bluntly.

This is one tiny village, even if others are starting to copy what they have done. I am sure it is no utopia. People will squabble and fall out and scratch at one another. The Mayor probably has too much power and charisma and it may well all go to his head.

What it leaves me with mostly is this- community works only in the small scale.

Love is only possible in the press of real relationships. It can not exist in abstract theory. It is not real unless tested in actual shared lives.

We all need to believe in something bigger, something better. For this village it has become a unifying factor. They see themselves as an egalitarian oasis in a mad unsustainable capitalist desert. I admit I am inclined to agree. I liked what the Mayor had to say- “I have never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle, but I am a communist or communitarian,” Sánchez Gordillo said in an interview in 2011, adding that his political beliefs were drawn from those of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che.

All this to me is a call back towards real community- let us forget the big scale, the macro economic choices of a distant and devalued government. Let us live an alternative- called community.

How this looks in your locality will have to be different to mine- but the central ideas will be the same, be they the ‘Christian heresy’ that is communism (according to CS Lewis) or actually those words of Jesus that we conveniently ignore.

Where did I put those olive seeds?

I do not agree…

occupy-london-protests

 

A bit of fun this- although laboured and rather too worthy.

I am still trying to write what I am calling ‘poetry of protest’ as mentioned here. This one might be more or less within the rules I set for myself then, but only just. Here it is anyway;

I do not agree

 

I do not agree with economists

Who monetise success

I do not agree that pounds or pence

Ever show us at our best

 

I do not agree the skin we’re in

Should make whom we’re becoming

I do not agree that some are born

To only test the plumbing

 

I do not agree with generals

Their guns can rot to rust

I do not agree, their meat machines

Cause in me disgust

 

I do not agree when those in power

Line the pockets of their friends

I do not agree that might is right

When the poor are thus condemned

 

I do not agree that we should comply

We are formed in evolution

I do not agree that nothing turns

This worlds in revolution