George Osborne delivers his first budget and insists that it is fair. I’m not sure what he means by this, but it is hard to see how it can be. Regardless of what Mr Osborne wants, he simply lacks the political levers needed to control the economy or to decide who bears the burden of the recovery. Of the three key controls, he has access to (and by no means full control over) just one: the UK public sector, including the livelihoods of millions who not only did not cause this recession but also are the main victims.
As for the other two areas – the private sector and the global economy – what can he say? But, being a mainstream politician who therefore cannot confess that the social system he works in is profoundly dysfunctional, he has no power over the UK private sector, especially the banks. I know from my one personal experience that the banks are doing very well at the moment, thank you, and despite a piffling bank tax, will do even better in future. But George cannot do anything about them, because they are his mates in the City – not exactly the Tories’ targets of choice – and because faith in the beneficence of untrammeled markets and big business is in the very the bedrock of Tory thought. Indeed, I suspect that most Tories cannot imagine what taking the City to task would even mean (and I doubt that many Labour or Liberal politicians would do any better).
But even that is a relatively small problem. The real reason why the private sector is free from political action is not that it is sacrosanct but that it invulnerable. Capital will simply go somewhere else. The reason it is free to do this is not that this is some sort of natural phenomenon – the mysterious workings of the market – but because we lack a political system with the span of control, the competence and the willingness to take action on a global scale. There are no true global or inter-governmental political institutions, and such economic institutions as do exist at that level – the WTO, IMF, etc. – have effective power only over the weak (and therefore, like the poor in this country, the very people who require support, not budget cuts), and remain committed to the market ideology that got us into this mess in the first place.
At the moment this gap can be filled only when the politicians of all the major economies can agree on a common policy. But that is extremely unlikely, because the very mobility of capital that allows banks and others to flout local economic controls also creates a bidding war between struggling national economies that forces national politicians to make their own economies as attractive as possible to global capital.
Tough luck, George. But you can do something about it. You can start to admit that the global economy requires direction, not only to escape from the present recession but also avoid future problems with the environment, with global development, and so on. Secondly, you can agree that that direction must be active – not just ‘market forces’ and more than regulation but positive organisation (or at least active alignment) of its basic forces with the world’s basic needs. And finally, you can start to campaign for the truly global political system, without which any aspirations to a coherent economic system are completely forlorn.
You won’t, of course, and neither will your Liberal or Labour counterparts. Because you are, after all, a mainstream politician for whom the present system is so all-encompassing that you cannot even imagine what it is. Asking you to grasp the nature of global society is like asking a fish to point at the sea it is swimming in – obviously everywhere, but so pervasive that it cannot be conceived by any run-of-the-mill fish like you. So we all limp along, with little hope for anything but the weasel words of a well-intentioned bloke who is unable to solve the problem he is confronted with, but too immodest to concede that there is nothing he can – or will – do.