Comment: Why the St Paul's protesters have got it wrong

Dr Stephen Barber is Senior Lecturer in Management at London South Bank University
Dr Stephen Barber is Senior Lecturer in Management at London South Bank University

Here is the challenge to politicians: setting out a vision of what our great riches can deliver.

By Dr Stephen Barber

I am sometimes reminded of that episode of Father Ted when I see anti-capitalist protestors. At a demo, if you recall, Ted held a sign which read 'Down With This Sort of Thing', while Dougal's said, 'Careful Now'.

The truth is that many of the critics of capitalism are clearer about what they are against than what they are for. This is understandable, perhaps, given that it is the perceived injustices which motivate behaviour. And one can say that the very existence of protestors who have been camping in the City, the fallout from the riots, and even the less dramatic disquiet across mainstream political opinion suggests that something is just not quite right.


I address many of these themes in my latest book, which might make uncomfortable reading for some. Because the reality is that however we like to describe our views – conservative, liberal, social democrat – most of us, conscious or not, remain capitalists.

You will not find many people admitting it or even offering themselves to man the barricades of capitalist war. But there aren't too many of us who deviate from the idea of property rights, private ownership and economic growth. And despite the experience of the credit crunch, in the years since the Second World War, capitalism has delivered unprecedented prosperity, living standards, public services, education and health.

Indeed, individually we are rich. But this has created societies driven by consumerism. If you want an example, Europeans and Americans spend about $12 billion a year on perfume – that's about the same as the GDP of Jamaica, just on smelling nice. We have created rich but sometimes dysfunctional societies drenched in entitlement. So the actions of the summer rioters who felt entitled to steal and destroy, right through to FTSE 100 chiefs who last week felt entitled to multi-million pound pay rises, epitomise what we have created.

But is this the fault of capitalism? I would argue not entirely. Rather it is the poverty of ambition that our politics has in determining what we want to do with our wealth. That is the real tragedy of riches.

If we go back to the 1950s and 1960s, during the so-called golden age of capitalism, policy makers had much more ambition for what our wealth could deliver. That might have been welfare, freedom, the environment, equality, you name it. But over the past two decades politicians have limited our economic destiny and rather than being a means, wealth creation has become an ends in itself; indeed the primary focus of policy.

The problem then lies in our politics. Protesters need to realise that there are few easy answers to the most difficult issues of today; there are few 'victimless' solutions whether they be tax rises for an anonymous elite or a Tobin tax on the City. The real way out lies in facing up to these difficulties and grasping the thorniest of issues.

Politics has to be more than something 'done to us' and become much more multi-directional. Perhaps the St Paul's crowd represent a start but there needs to be more coherence and indeed a willingness to form partnerships with mainstream parties.

The answer must lie not in replacing our economic system but rather harnessing it to deliver on our ambitions for the future. Only a renewed politics will be capable of doing this.

Dr Stephen Barber is Senior Lecturer in Management at London South Bank University and an expert in economics, public policy, politics, and political economy. In his provocative new book, Tragedy of Riches, also delivered as a lecture at London South Bank University, he argues that it is our politics rather than our economics that needs renewing.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

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