Our parasitic economy: joining the No campaign

A society dependent on the financial, social and existential insecurity of its people has failed in one of the basic goals of democracy.

Deborah Padfield
13 February 2015

Three propositions.

Firstly, that a stable government like ours, ruled in the interests of a small minority, depends on the willing cooperation of the majority ('us').

That in turn depends on 'our' acceptance of certain attitudes as normal, necessary and therefore responsible. We no longer see the abusiveness of the system towards others and indeed ourselves; or if we do, we accept it. They, we, become expendable.

And finally, such fatalism is destructive. No human systems are invincible or inevitable, and we must question them. As moral, social, thinking beings, it's our job.

Trickle-up not trickle-down

Inequality has become a buzz-word. It's not news that the income gap between the top 10% and the rest has widened since the late 1970s, or that earnings - especially after housing costs - have stagnated or fallen in the last decade. Only the top 10%, and overwhelmingly the very top, has been exempt.

Inequality of security is broader, and relates closely to wealth. Few with households earnings below the top 10% can save and invest in the financial market and/or property. Whether or not wealth breeds exponentially as Piketty claims, it multiplies, and access to it is unequal. Lucky ones inherit. But "[around] a third of all UK households has either negative net worth – debts greater than their assets – or net financial assets worth less than £5,000."

This intensification of wealth and income isn't accidental. Since the 1980s the UK has chosen a financially-based economy made globally attractive by emphasising 'share-holder value', short-term company profits over long-term investment, and top-end high pay plus bonuses.

Investment is milked from employees and industries all down the chain. The UK prides itself on a 'flexible' labour-force, where pay stagnates, insecurity rises and work intensifies.

Property prices are kept high, partly by development companies focused mainly on building for higher-end sale. Local planning authorities are influenced by their need of income: they too are locked in. Private tenants and outright owners are on the increase, with fewer mortgagees. Access to owner occupation, a source of security and wealth, is narrowing.


Broad-band Precariat 

One of the joys of Citizens Advice is the variety of people we meet - of employment, income, health, capacity and education. But across that range of people, we seem to see more similarity of problem and of intensity. We workers look at the situation from every side, chew on it with the client and each other, and too often see no way of breaking through. We can only advise on managing, not overcoming, the crisis. The margin of safety is narrowing for even the hitherto comfortable.

Security depends on more than individual income. A low-paid person may live well and a high-paid one in poverty. A net income of £60,000 puts you in the top income decile if you're partnered without children, the ninth if you've two children. Two childless adults working 30 hours on the minimum wage are in the fifth decile, in the second with two children. Add in some variables - other household income, family size, costs of housing, transport, childcare and fuel, existing debts, illness or disability, relationship breakdown, employment prospects - and the situation may change radically.

It's uncertainty that wreaks havoc. A low but steady income is manageable. I'm unsurprised that one in seven UK workers is self-employed, on a falling average wage. Our CAB is seeing more 'self-employed' clients. Few have distinct saleable skills and fewer know how to manage accounts, tax or national insurance. One recently was induced to give in his notice and do his old job 'self-employed'; others are offered work (no fixed hours) on condition that they first register self-employment. Permanent work is on the rise, but mainly for those with skills in high demand.

Lacking a buffer of savings or scarcity-skills, comfortable people can quickly slide. Uncertain hours play havoc with the housing benefit and tax credit claims on which 'hard-working families' depend. For agency, zero-hours and self-employed workers, a missed bus can wipe out a day's pay or even the job. The same missed bus readily means loss of jobseekers allowance for a minimum of four weeks, housing benefit also stopping. Hence come hunger, cold and missed debt payments triggering legal action, including housing repossession.

It's a house of cards. Financial insecurity brings emotional stress and vice versa: relationships break and sick absence puts jobs at risk. Once debt starts rising, it's hard to escape. Interest and charges are expensive; so is ending consumer contracts. Property downsizing is costly, slow, disruptive for children and longer (dearer) journeys. There are no ready answers.

Why aren't there more protests?

National necessities: don't rock the boat

Partly it's lack of choice. People on the edge must cling to the security they have, even when it's less than they should have.

People come to the CAB with employment problems. We look at grievance and mediation procedures and offer free one-off advice from local solicitors. But in the end, most people need immediate answers: how to maintain an income, from the employer despite their bad practice or from the benefit system while seeking a new job. Employment rights become theoretical in the face of no income, no legal aid, and Tribunal fees.

It's similar for benefits and tax credits. 2012/13 saw a fall in tax credit claims but a dramatic increase in HMRC's use of penalties, alongside a fall in appeals. Appealing is slow; the tax credit (like the benefit) system is complex; time, energy and legal advice are in short supply. 

Again, house prices trap those struggling to enter the housing market or to up-size, but mortgagees depend on stable or rising prices. Calls for house-building are muffled by owners' unwillingness to undermine property values: they cling to what they have. As the proportion of tenants rises, support for building should increase. But while twice as many housing association tenants as home-owners supported local housing development in 2011, nineteen percent more owners than tenants voted. Who has more political influence?

People are locked into the status quo. As state welfare becomes increasingly 'unaffordable', households depend more on their small pension pots and so on the stability of the market where they're invested, increasing their reliance on the very financial industry that milks them.

We're told there is no alternative. The 2008 crash, that hardly hurt the wealthiest, gave them a useful tool. By manipulating anxieties about the deficit and focusing on 'tough' and 'necessary' decisions, government bolsters a sense of inevitability around their interpretation of 2008 and ways forward. So they legitimate both transformation of the public sector and an undiscriminating call for 'growth' that leaves no room to explore the kinds of growth and employment needed. 

There is anger. 2008 kindled resentment against 'fat-cat bankers'. Occupy is one of many movements calling for change. But despite strong economic arguments, a coherent alternative has not emerged. The Commons BIS committee was near-contemptuous of a witness from 38 Degrees last November, speaking on the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership. Such dismissiveness would not have been viable with a more politically sensitive issue; remember Gordon Brown's Gillian Duffy immigration moment.

Instead of exploring fundamentals, we have been guided by Westminster and media reports to resent 'benefit scroungers' and migrants. Cutting costs and getting access to ill-paid jobs rather than reshaping the economy is the imperative. The tactic largely works. The greater the workers' insecurity, the greater the resentment towards those perceived as dodgers.

Attention is diverted. Rather than rocking the boat we accept that we're in it, directing our anger against those easily blamed for its unseaworthiness.

National necessities: spending

One security is financial. Another is existential. Identity, status, self-worth: these are defined partly by consumer goods. Participation in the national sport of shopping has much to do with 'belonging'. This is what's demanded by the economy. The current recovery is based on increased spending. The media need advertising revenue. Manufacturers, retailers and sellers of credit press us to buy.

It's a cruel trap. CABx work hard to help people minimise their outgoings, maximise their income. Often the sums won't add up. So many goods are necessary. Agency workers without a mobile can't get the call to work. Families without computers and broadband can't do homework, manage finances, apply for jobs.

People at the bottom spend far more on necessities relative to income than those at the top. For discretionary categories, from holidays to audio, relative expenditure falls. But there still is spending, and expenditure, on necessities and non-necessities, depends on debt.

Too much debt becomes destabilising for economy and household, but it too profits the finance industry. Household debts are bundled up and sold. 'Securitization' is back.

So our economy demands that we act in ways that undermine, even shatter, our personal security even as it drives us to seek such solid ground. It is parasitic upon its people.

Why does this matter?

A society dependent on the financial, social and existential insecurity of its people has failed in one of the basic goals of democracy.

And this is not just about 'us', inhabitants of the official economy. We profit from those yet more insecure. Migrant workers are easy targets; it's easy to ignore our dependence on the abusive conditions of their work. And what of the slaves in our midst in the UK? Again, migrants, slaves and 'we' probably wear clothes made in the life-sucking factories of south and south-east Asia.

A parasitic society breeds parasitism. We accept one another's expendability. Hurricane Katrina exemplified the difference between richer and poorer people's ability to escape disaster. The UK's gated communities reveal the determination of those who can afford it to escape the social consequences of poverty and inequality.

All these costs, to produce an economy that is itself insecure. According to the OECD, our national debt (as distinct from the deficit) is not worryingly high in relation to history and other economies. It points to the economic dangers of polarised wealth and income, and heavy dependence on unskilled jobs. Not only are our policies destructive, they are stupid.

Moving forward?

No human systems are invincible or inevitable. Economic systems grow from political decisions, formed in turn from moral choices. There is no inevitability.

This article was prompted initially by Hannah Arendt's 'Eichmann in Jerusalem'. In a heart-stopping moment, she shows the people of Denmark refusing to cooperate in the Final Solution. Their refusal was infectious: German officials in Denmark became 'unreliable'. Nazi dictatorship, like neo-liberal oligarchies, depended on popular acceptance of and collaboration with the status quo as necessary, inevitable. Change comes with readiness to question: to recognise the myth.

It comes also with the willingness to enter imaginatively, at least to some degree, into what it's like to pay the costs. Humankind, maybe uniquely, developed imagination, compassion and a moral sense. It's there for us to use. No one is expendable.

The power of global finance is not supreme. It is channelled by national and international law and regulation. Like water, it seeks out cracks in the defences; democratic national and international bodies must chart and stop the breaches.

There's a telling little point in last year's British Social Attitudes report. While 36% of respondents thought government does not explain its decisions to voters, for only 24% did government explain less than they expected. Similarly, while 23% felt that political parties did not offer clear alternatives to each other, for only 9% was that a failure against their expectations. Our expectations are well below our perception of what's possible.

That speaks of hopelessness about democracy. To be hopeless is to accept the myth of inevitability. But as in Denmark, it is possible to build a culture of 'no'.

There are activists, economists and politicians out there, exploring what's possible. There is no need to cooperate in abuse.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


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