Tuesday, 21 January 2014

On The Big Red Bus to Oblivion

Two stories and images have struck home more this week than any sleazy Lib Dem shenanigans, UKIP weather forecasts or Putin lectures on sexual tolerance.

One was the report of a near riot outside a 99p shop in Wrexham in the Welsh borderlands, where police had to be called when an "everything 50p" sale came to a premature end, to the anger of a number of customers. Some wags have sought to make light of it, but there is nothing funny here - we live in a consumer society and we are measured by our possessions. How tragic and desperate that some people in what is still the fourth richest society in the world are reduced to tears of rage when the cheap items sold by these outlets go up by 49p. But what the would-be jokers miss is that these reductions likely represented to some cash-strapped victims of bankers' austerity a brief chance to be able to buy something and own it, perhaps to feel a little more like some of their more affluent fellow citizens.

Fellow citizens, if that's what they still are, like Steve Smith, founder of Poundland, a chain of similar shops, selling off everything at £1 per item. All these little brass coins gradually added up for Steve, who sold off his empire for £50 millions and at 51 has retired to a 13 bedroom mansion with its own swimming pool and in-house pub. Citing his own poor roots and determined hard-working, Steve epitomises the capitalist dream, the handful of genuine rags-to-riches stories used to sell the system to everyone else. If only everyone had his acumen, energy and luck (the latter random event is bizarrely praised as a virtue in this fairytale narrative), well by this time next year, we would all be millionaires, to coin a phrase. Except, of course, there are neither the pound coins, nor the indoor swimming pools, to go round.

Running on empty - the double-decker of privilege
But Steve Smith is small beer compared to the people represented by the other image that has jarred this week. This was of a bus - a red, double-decker London routemaster with enough seating to hold 85 people. A big bus?  Perhaps, until it was explained that it was being used to represent the findings of research by Oxfam that demonstrate that a mere 85 people own more wealth than the poorest half of the human race combined.

Yes, that's right: 85 people own more than the poorest 3,650,000,000 (or so) humans on the Earth COMBINED. That big number includes the billion or so people who go to bed hungry each night - as well as the 85 children who die from hunger every 15 minutes.

This is in a world where there is enough food, right now, to feed not just the actual global population of 7.3 billion, but rather one of over ten billion people more than adequately. However, a socio-economic system based on mind-bogglingly skewed inequality, unaccountable private ownership and full-on profit-seeking will never be efficient enough nor sufficiently humane to put the needs of ordinary humans first. If there were any doubts about that, they were fully and finally laid to rest when we saw in recent years speculation by international traders in so-called food futures drive the price of basic food staples up and their supply down in several poor countries, leading to real hunger and bloody riots.

This is a world now where everything is a commodity - from Nestle seeking to patent natural plants like fennel to the ongoing war of attrition by the biotech industry to copyright even naturally occurring human DNA. If corporations want to own our genetic blueprint and the natural patterns of our food, how on earth can we ever sanely view their intent through any sort of benevolent prism? Or believe any half-hearted claims of corporate social responsibility for the common good to be anything but expired, self-serving marketing ploys?

It is not tenable - as with the banking crisis, the peak oil squeeze and the mounting tidal wave of personal debt, the current state of affairs is an economic system incrementally spiraling out of control - whether over a few years or a decade or two is perhaps the only real question. Like some great oil tanker stuck on auto-pilot and headed for ever-nearer reefs, the owners and officers are jumping ship. Strikingly akin to the off-worlders in the film Elysium, they are leaping into their sanitised, hermetically sealed bubbles of privilege, whether in countryside mansions or on hubristic artificial world-shaped islands off Dubai, perhaps hoping to it sit out when the crash comes, insulated from the mess they have made.

So let them board their big red bus. It's running on empty and headed to oblivion.

But we don't need to go along too. Because we really, really don't need them. We can do better. Let's wave them off, and start again. Like we meant to all along.
Move along please - nothing to laugh at here.

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