We live amongst the ruins of economic philosophies. Socialism has been too slow. Communism lies in ruins. Marxism is beyond the pale. Collectivism never really took off. Capitalism is evil. You go on, add to this, for nothing has stood tall and proud, both economically and ethically.
As we walk through the ruins of these economic philosophies, we pause to pick up some artefacts along the way. Oh look, social housing – what a good idea it was, we exclaim. We put it down again, remembering the gun ghettoes and the highrises that led to things like Grenfell and worse. It wasn’t all bad, but we did not make it work, as it should. We stroll along, crunching over bits past and forgotten, unaware of the good ideas we are cruising past, crushing them to dust. Magpie like, we look for the shiny ones that fell, but only recently. There are so many to find. I even found a public library in that trash pile recently, and a part of me died as I threw it back, knowing how much good it did while it lasted.
Capitalism and it’s trickle down was the hope we were sold, but then, I realised, the only thing that trickles down in real life is slime along walls that leak. Those on the floor tend to slip on it, and we blame the slime, not the building. Capitalism, as they call it, has failed they say. The grand building is all facade, for it is top heavy. All the money has risen to the top, there is not enough for those down below. Look, no healthcare, terrible housing, failing schools and barely any savings. These are the wages of capitalism, they say. I wonder. I wonder if they mean Capitalism, or corporatism.
Because capitalism had barely time to find its foundations when the corporate ganged up to play, and play it did, creating bigger and bigger leagues to win. Soon it became all about big, and leagues and winning. We’ve even forgotten how it started, have we not? I remember sitting at my mother’s knee, and sitting outside my father’s classes, his booming voice ringing out as they taught me about perfect markets. Perfect markets were not about corporate gangs, they were about people buying and selling. About fighting to look after your interests, with equal rights, and equal weight. Ceterus Paribus, they started. We were fooled by assumptions, we took them for granted.
Corporations, they ignored them. Their businesses were built on finance and products and profits. What did they know or care about utility, that delicate fragrant flower that gave out beauty, and fragrance, and wellness and happiness and then could be sold at the market in exchange for a meal, and a safe roof and a warm fire. The flower sellers could sing, as could the farmers, and the cobblers. For they were building more than spreadsheets.
The lies we told ourselves were quite incredible. Bigger is better, we learnt. Sure, bigger begets more, but is that better? Did you remember to count in the songs we sang, not to cover up the hollow in our conscience as we pushed our vendors for cheaper materials, but the songs that came from happy lips that loved the work they did. Did we remember to count in the little bits of good that we did for our communities, because we cared about people, not just because CSR was good PR and more.
There were more lies. We taught ourselves double entry accounting, accrual, valuations and internal rates of return, discounting everything and screaming now, now, now. Now and forever, for all accounting survives on the going concern concept. We thought we were forever, we were infinite. We forgot that when we puff ourselves up so much, the bubble bursts. Our hubris was our own, and it was hungry, eating up the earth and the air and all above and below.
When we looked around, we found holes in the ozone layer, dust where grass should be, smoke where fog could be, and our lights were dimmed. So we turned it up, chopping even harder and faster. We were the wood and the axe, and we chopped up what made us. We mocked the fool who sat on the branch he was chopping, not realising that he was us, and we were doomed for the fall.
We fall, and as we fall, we see the debris around us. The pieces that fell with us, some just before. Some, ready to fall upon our heads. We know this cannot last, and as we walk amongst the ruins, we know we have much here that is worth saving. The sun is still shining upon us. So much of what we have built is good, and deserves to go on. Capitalism may be dying, but not all of us are convinced that we can use its parts to build something better.
In all the civilisations that we built with our flaws and our genius, we also founded some beacons. I remember memorising history at school, and all good kings were remembered for the wells they dug, the roads they built and the grains they distributed. They were not remembered for their grand statues, for even Ozymandias must fall, nor for their grand palaces, for each grand palace or temple will be built upon by the next generation. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and our glory must perish. What remains is the institutions we build for others.
It is the parks, the libraries, the hospitals, the roads – it is the public good that sustains us. And this is what we must learnt to sustain. Capitalism is not corporatism, capitalism is about personal transactions building institutions of exchange.
From the debris of the past, let us find ways to build public institutions, this is how we will survive. We have some great examples even in dismal times – a National Health Service in the UK that saves lives regardless of whether you are rich or poor, a public broadcasting service in America that is funded by donations and grants that tells stories that matter, a railway network in India that holds prices so that people can find better opportunities for work in distant towns, and still go home for love and renewal.
We will survive this only on the strength of public institutions that serve the larger good. Our measly accounting and financial toolkits forgot the world of good, and brought us close to our doom. We share this world, the sun, the water, the air. Even the air that contains the virus, and that shows us again, that we are either saved together, or we all perish together.
This is us then, at the crossroads again. The path to growth lies crumbling to dust, but the path to good is steep. Our choice now, whether we go, dust to dust, or have the muscle to make the climb. For we shall be saved by the institutions we build.