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Bankers and rioters share a common impulse: take what you can and stuff society

The Tory mantra is more to the point than many of them realise. Taking advantage, squeezing every last bit out of the system, illegally if necessary and without any regard for the effect on everyone else – because you can – is now endemic at all levels of society.

  • The bankers did it by deliberately mis-selling sub-prime mortgages to Ninja people (no income, no jobs or assets), but securitising them – trading them on around the world – allowed the bankers to make huge profits before the roof fell in.
  • MPs took advantage of the expenses system, even fraudulently switching their designated second home to enlarge their gains.
  • Big corporations set up the most dense and impenetrable chains of companies to avoid tax and to maximise the use of tax havens.
  • Newspapers used massive phone hacking, a criminal activity, to keep ahead of rivals and drive up their sales, even abusing the public trust in the most degrading manner.

In each case help yourself to it wherever you can, and the rioters were no different, except that they had no internal system that they privately controlled. And it links too to the overhang of breakdown in the international financial system. Here’s why.

There was, for a quarter century after the Second World War, a (relatively) balanced capitalism which included the idea of a social contract and at least a limited sense of responsibility for each other in communities. It was also a time of very low unemployment – in 1965 just 0.5%. There was a slow but steady real terms increase in average wages and a huge building programme to provide decent housing for all classes, with Parker Morris minimum standards for Council housing.

That changed in the 1970s when the dollar came off convertibility in 1971 and the world gradually shifted away from the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. The era of unchained, deregulated, free-for-all capitalism gathered momentum in the 1980s with the neo-liberal market uber alles theme of the Thatcher-Reagan regimes. Money and power, already highly unequal between the classes as in all capitalisms, ballooned unstoppably. The elite became ultra-rich, the managerial and professional middle classes grew comfortably well-off, the wages of the skilled working class stagnated, the army of those on very low wages and with job insecurity steadily expanded, and a repository of workless households with little or no hope smouldered at the bottom.

Corporate power (and corporate abuse) expanded as the trade unions were squashed. The concept of a social contract and a moral responsibility to each other was discarded as old-fashioned, and replaced by dog-eats-dog mentality, a ruthless and uncaring individualism. The results, as we now see, were inevitable.

That system is now facing terminal collapse at all levels – the winding down of the US economy, the unresolved crisis in the Eurozone, and the implosion of British society. Inculcating a sense of moral responsibility into British society (desirable though that is in principle), while leaving intact the underlying system that blows it apart, will achieve little or nothing.

All of the profound breakdowns that we have seen in the last 4 years are deeply inter-connected. There will be no sustainable reform till the tensions and contradictions in the system as a whole are tackled.

That is the semi-revolutionary challenge for the decade ahead.

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