Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Beware of the sharks.

They say some species of shark can never stop swimming. They require forward movement to force water through their gills and hence breathe. Even if apocryphal, the story has some useful applications.

Around five years ago, our local independent garden centre closed, leaving a large, increasingly derelict space on the edge of our small town, about half a mile from the centre. It was not long before pinstripe-clad fins were spotted in the area.

At about the same time, a group of local residents was coming together to create a Neighbourhood Plan under the then-government’s localism agenda. The aim of these things is to build local control (shark nets?) into the statutory planning procedure.

It was a long and complex job, that took several years to complete, and this week it appears that it has cleared its final hurdle before going out to local referendum. This is quite a coincidence, because it is the very same week when a building company has launched its marketing campaign for the fifty or so Noddy houses that it is currently building on the site of the former garden centre.

Throughout the intervening period, the Neighbourhood Plan team put considerable effort into engaging with first the land agents promoting the site, and then the building company that bought it. Their aspiration was to produce an architecturally innovative, environmentally-sustainable development which would steer the emphasis away from car-reliance and create a model for the area.

I had several meetings with one of the pinstripe sharks as part of this process, and to begin with, the noises were smoothly consensual. But then the site was sold on, and the building company that bought it refused to engage with the local group. The excuses why certain things “couldn’t be done” mounted.  As a result, we have been left with just another cloned housing estate, planned entirely around the car with, apparently, the blessing of the local authority’s planners who still require major consideration for multiple car-use in all new designs.

So much for localism; the Big Fish have been fed again – and will now go off to prey on some other unsuspecting community. It makes the glossy sales blurb for the development all the more infuriating since it trades heavily (and sometimes inaccurately) on the beauty, strong community and local amenities of our town, while at the same time having made no effort whatsoever to preserve or enhance or them, to say the very least.

Businesses are like sharks; it seems they must move ever onwards, otherwise they perish. They have no sense of fair play; once they have eaten the minnows, they move onto other fish. They have no sense of restraint; cash is their oxygen, and they care not how they acquire it, or how much damage they do in the process. Cynicism is just part of the plan; I doubt they appreciate irony, either.

Decades ago, this nation was seduced by the shark-like charms of private business. We had a succession of Prime Ministers who championed it over the allegedly hopeless public sector. We were encouraged to become shareholders as the nation’s assets were sold off.  I remember, even as a teenager, having reservations about this – but I could see that a nation in which the proceeds of such enterprises were returned to the populace through widespread, small dividends might just work, and accountability to such large numbers of shareholders could even be argued to be democracy of a sort.

It didn’t last. The sharks quickly ate all the smaller fish; today the small private shareholder is a rarity. Privatisation has turned out not to be a form of democratisation, but the opposite. Most of the fodder is funnelled towards, and then circulated amongst, the large financial predators that constitute the majority shareholders. It’s that – and the fact the successive governments have done little to restrain their appetites – that causes market cynicism such as that shown by the building company mentioned above.

We have another one circling; at least in this case, it did engage, and has made some nods towards local wishes. But it was still immediately apparent that it would ultimately do largely what it wanted, while perhaps throwing a minnows a sweetener or two. It only shifts it swim-forward focus, we were told, to the extent that the Law requires it to do so. Which is Not Much. Again, the democratic wishes of the local population will be over-ridden by the profit-lust of the corporate sharks.

This pattern repeats itself throughout businesses and across the nation; it is how they survive. But it is an inherently selfish motive, always seeking to tip the scales decisively in its own favour, while never letting the fixed grin shown to customers slip for a moment. Even small businesses do it – they will (nearly) always sell you more than you really want if they think they can get away with it. Caveat Emptor! Beware the teeth!

Covid 19 has stirred the water. The placid shoals of consumers on whom companies feed have largely fled to safer places. Yet “The Economy” has been enough of a consideration to compromise – for some, fatally – the health measures that needed to have been taken much sooner. Those sharks need to keep swimming, come what may.

But where there is no food, the sharks will eventually starve and fade. That is what is happening to many businesses right now. I find it hard to sympathise; during the plentiful years of consumerism, those sharks grew fat predating on the rest of us. They relentlessly championed their right to do so, both politically and through that bewitching consumer grin. They were the real consumers, not us.  Now that times are hard, I see no reason why we should listen to their new tune. If the sharks really want markets to be so Free, then they can’t complain when they make businesses fail, as they are doing in large numbers at present. That’s the Quid pro Quo.

The more adaptable will find new ways of surviving anyway, and those that can’t probably are no longer needed. Not that many don’t have a good amount of body fat to survive on for a while yet.

Others are doing much better from the new habits of the shoals: those who provide entertainment or hobby supplies; many in the shoals have themselves discovered resourcefulness that they never knew they had. All sorts of amazing, innovative and sometimes downright crazy things are becoming popular in the virtual universe. The small fish are coming back into their own.

So let’s play the Free Marketeers at their own game: those who can adapt should survive in this new world where the gratuitous consumption needed to feed their endless appetites is no longer society’s main preoccupation. Those who can’t, we just don’t need any more. No need to shed any more tears than they did as they relieved us of our hard-earned cash often in return for little of much value, while despoiling our communities and environments in the process. Things referred to euphemistically as “externalities”.

There is, however, one problem: those businesses also employ the majority of the shoals of worker-consumers. The lost companies do also represent lost livelihoods and careers, often shed in the most cursory of ways – and potentially much hardship. Unemployment is rising – but many are also finding new directions that they would never have expected only a year ago. We need to nourish these new enterprises – the online artists and musicians, the writers, comics and posters of amusing memes, the small online craft community, the 3D printers and the hobby-orientated suppliers. We need to find a way of remunerating them for their new and creative communal activities – and encourage many more to join them.

The point of an economy is to serve people’s needs, not the other way round. Those needs are now different.

So forget the whinges of the airlines – what use are bulk-fliers when few people need or want to fly? What use the huge stores that have struggled to maintain their supply chains when we most needed them? Let them wither; if demand returns in the future, rest assured, someone will spot a business opportunity and things will re-start. We just need to find a cost-effective way of cold-storing the assets in the meantime, if we can. Those bits of the old economy that are still needed will be re-born in a way dead people can’t be.

Free Markets are an ideological luxury: created not, as claimed, to benefit the many, but to allow a few to grow very rich minimally servicing them. If that were not so, they would engage in fewer anti-competitive practices where they feel they can get away with it. That is the nature of business: it is self-interested – and we are now living in a less self-interested age.

The problem is the incomes of those who lose their jobs. Yet we already have something of an answer: despite years of denial, it turns out that the government can, when the need arises, conjure almost limitless amounts of money out of thin air. It is only a construct after all – and one whose day is past. The need for income to support people in living reasonable lives is vastly out of kilter with the ability of any economy to generate and distribute the cash to provide it. That is why so many are in permanent deficit. And unrestrained markets actively funnel it in the wrong direction.

It has always struck me that expecting so many people to depend on the relentless swimming of what is in effect a glorified, unequal bartering system for their survival in the modern age is both primitive and insecure, not to mention environmentally unsustainable. Similar could be said for universal public services, whose quasi-commercial models are now also facing economic and behavioural contradictions that might not have existed under alternative models. Once again, the State has stepped in, because you simply cannot allow hospitals, schools and public transport not to operate just because they have become commercially unviable. There is a lesson there.

I don’t claim to have “The Answer” – but somehow, we need to decouple the supply of income to those who need it, from the shark-like behaviour of their (former) employers, swimming ever forward, irrespective of the damage they do with their huge income disparities, poor products, and social and environmental damage. There is supposedly a matter of balancing the books – but maybe that is a concept whose time has finally passed too? When companies are able, through technology, to make the mega-profits that many do, perhaps national debt is less of a problem than it might seem. We simply need to divert those flows to where they should arguably have been going all along. Perhaps the time of the Universal Basic Income has also come.

This not a call for a command-style economy, whose shortcomings are all too real (though the Chinese have perhaps shown to be less so than western mythology would believe). But traumatic events such as pandemics have prompted fundamental change in the past, and there is no reason why they should not do so again. Perhaps we simply need to accept that the sharks’ natural environment is gone forever – and put something more equitable in its place.

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