Monday 1 July 2013

The next big chapter in world history (and we don’t talk about it)

I've been reading William Morris in the bath.  A satisfying venue, I can tell you.  Specifically, I've been reading his Dream of John Ball, written in 1888.

Morris dreams that he has hurtled briefly back to the Peasants Revolt and encountered the preacher who inspired it, John Ball - and spent the night with him in a darkened church, surrounded by the bodies from the first brief encounter with the enemy, talking about the future.

This is what he tells Ball about his own time:

"Yea, friend," I said, "but in those latter days all power shall be in the hands of those foul swine, and they shall be rulers of all; therefore, hearken, for I tell thee that times of plenty shall in those days be the times of famine, and all shall pray for the prices of wares to rise, so that the forestallers and regraters [monopolists] may thrive, and that some of their well-doing may overflow on to those on whom they live."

That seems to be an amazingly percipient view of our own time and the so-called Trickle Down Effect, which fails to trickle down.

Then, there was the latest Economist edition, with its cover feature about 'The march of protest' , with pictures of successive years of revolution, from 1848 to 1968 and 1989 – and then now.

I did write recently about why this might be, asking why people are so angry these days.  But I think the question is more important than that, because something strange is going on – from the peasants of North Africa to the middle classes of Latin America, this has been a slow burn revolution, but it may be gathering pace.

The Economist says it is because democracies are harder to manage.  This is a typically technocratic interpretation, and I think it begs the question.  In fact, I think Morris' explanation to John Ball is nearer the mark.

Because while Fukuyama was praising the triumph of liberal democracy, a predicting the end of history, a new tyranny was gathering pace.

I think it’s time we gave that tyranny an old-fashioned name, which the medieval scholars used to describe the similar tyranny of finance over life: usury.

I hesitate to use the word, because it makes me sound a bit mad, but it does sum up the challenging narrative of current affairs that seems to make so little impact on mainstream politics.

But we need a word to explain how the financial class has become a new kind of landlord, living off the rents and charges of the financial system which funnel wealth upwards – while real wages, and real salaries, haven’t risen in real terms since 1970, and since 1960 in the USA where the process is most established.  More on this in my new book Broke.

I’m sure the British will be the last people to rise in revolt against all this, but it is a tyranny that will affect them very much. 

My very modest semi is worth nearly half a million pounds.  If my own children are to rent or buy anything approaching it, they will have to work at a job they loathe – probably in financial services – for most of their life (another small way in which financial services is driving out the real economy).

Their dreams will be put on hold, probably forever, as they struggle to rent from the new emerging class of usurious mega-landlords.  This matters, to the middle classes here as much as the middle classes in Brazil.

So why don’t our politicians talk about it?  Partly because the conventional left is most responsible for creating it.  The most disastrous banking deregulation was enacted by Clinton in the USA, and by Blair, Brown and Balls in the UK.

The main efforts of the Labour members of the recent Commission for Banking Standards seems to have been devoted to making sure there was no criticism of the last government, without which the whole narrative becomes incoherent.

And so we wait, without talking about the most important issue of the age, while the global revolt – against a governing class which is too close to the systems of tyranny – very slowly gathers pace.

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