In January 2004 Michael Howard, then leader of the Tory party, published a list of beliefs on which the party intended to fight the next election. Among them was this statement: “I do not believe that one person’s poverty is caused by another’s wealth.”
For me this was a defining moment of Tory stupidity and immorality. On a finite sphere, encompassing finite resources, one person’s wealth IS the cause of another person’s poverty.
Unless we all have an equal share of the earth’s natural bounty, some of us have more than our just deserts.
The global situation is so vastly unequal that it’s difficult to imagine anything short of apocalypse having an adequate redistributive impact. But some people at least recognise the fundamental injustice of this situation, work to counteract it, fight to redress the balance. To pretend it simply isn’t there is to exist in a state of extreme moral blindness.
In that one statement, which I’m sure he thought was very smart, Michael Howard exposed the moral vacuum at his party’s core.
Fast forward eight years to January 2012 and we have this:
This is currently being referred to as David Cameron’s “Moral Capitalism” speech. I hope that it will one day be known as his “Moral Vacuum” speech.
It contains a level of double-think that would confound even Orwell. In it, Cameron re-casts the highest unemployment for 18 years as: “The biggest work programme since the 1930s, helping 3 million people.”
And there are other insights into the empty Tory psyche. Take Cameron’s assertion that “open markets and free enterprise can actually promote morality.” This is, he says, because “The fundamental basis of the market is the idea of something for something”.
Perhaps it is no surprise that a nation of shopkeepers should be asked to embrace the idea that morality = trade. But the concept is nauseating. Every genuine moral code I can think of is based on giving, not on trading. Across philosophies and across religions, across times and across cultures, goods have been traded, services rendered, people have worked and work has been respected, but morality resides in compassion, humility, honesty and courage among other archetypal human virtues.
Morality is found in Mercy – giving someone a second (or umpteenth) chance they maybe don’t ‘deserve’; Hope – giving someone a glimpse of a future to look forward to when times are dark; Loyalty – giving someone consistent support or allegiance through life’s ups and downs; Peace and Non-violence, Compassion and Tolerance – giving others the gift of lives free of fear or intimidation; Generosity – straightforward giving, without thought of return and with joy in your heart.
“Something for something” is really nothing more than shopping. “Something for nothing” is where true morality lives, as long as the ‘something’ is freely given.
Victor Hugo places giving at the heart of love: “You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving. The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness.”
Read those words aloud and feel tears spring to your eyes.
In Cameron’s something-for-something world we get: “That’s why I welcome this week’s decision by Fidelity Worldwide Investment to add their voice to calls for the better policing of boardroom pay.” which really just makes you wonder what the ‘something’ was that he got from Fidelity Worldwide Investment, doesn’t it? And reminds us that Michael Gove found time to plug a carpet shop in an education speech. Classy.
However, if we accept for a moment Cameron’s suggestion that “something for something” is a moral position, we will see that capitalism fails even this rudimentary moral test. It fails because at its heart lies profit and profit is – without doubt – “something for nothing”. However, it’s not a something freely given. It’s a something taken by the stronger from the weaker in the process of a trade. Profit is an expression of power.
When we buy goods or a service, what we pay covers the value inherent in those goods or the service. This may include labour and materials; it may include transport and packaging; it may include research and development, design and publicity. We also pay a little bit more than the value of all those things and that is profit. When the costs of raw materials are paid, and the costs of manufacturing, and distribution, and the overheads of the shop that sells you the thing – whatever it is – the bit that’s left over is profit, and that goes to someone who did nothing. Profit is something for nothing. The shareholder who profits didn’t plough or sow, didn’t harvest or mill, didn’t mix or bake. They just waited, and the profits rolled in.
Profit is what the powerful cream off the top of a trade because they can. And it is the stupid and immoral heart of Cameron’s so-called moral capitalism.
There was once a time when profit could perhaps have been seen as a fair future reward for foregoing an advantage in the present. Someone worked hard, saved their capital and then invested it, perhaps risking their ‘nest egg’, the future well-being of their family, in the hope of greater reward later. But now the capital invested has not been hard-earned by investors through their own graft. The capital invested is borrowed from someone else. Who probably borrowed it from someone else. Who borrowed it from someone else. And nowhere in the chain was the money ever ‘real’.
In a world where someone else’s debt to me can be accounted for as my ‘asset’ and where if I want to increase the value of my asset, I simply need to increase the interest I charge thereby increasing the size of your debt, my ability to coerce something out of you in return for nothing of value from me becomes a measure of my worth.
This cannot be morality.
It’s more like the big boy asking for your dinner money. With menaces. It is the dark side of ‘something for nothing.’ Instead of something given freely with no expectation of return, profit is sublimated violence. The extra that the stronger take from the weaker. Because they can.
Everyone that works for less than the living wage, or on a workfare scheme, in one of our big supermarket chains has had some of their time taken from them for nothing in return. How moral is that?
There is, of course, some morality to be found in working. The quality of industriousness is recognised in moral codes in many cultures and times. I differentiate ‘industriousness’ from ‘engagement in paid work’. There is nothing moral about being engaged in paid work which destroys our environment, which builds weapons to help tyrannical regimes oppress their people or which demeans and exploits women to fulfil the sexual fantasies of strangers. There is much that is moral in mothering a child, caring for an incapacitated parent or partner, writing a letter to bring comfort to a prisoner, marching to stop a war, running six marathons in six days to save a health service, badgering the Government through FOI requests to stop the progress of a bill that will bring suffering to those who are sick or have disabilities.
If we find moral value in industriousness, we may find it in children, whose ‘work’ is to learn and grow, in the sick whose ‘work’ is to get well, and in the elderly whose ‘work’ is to pass on their wisdom and experience to those who follow them.
But the empty-souled Tories no longer even seem to see moral worth in work. They see it only in material success. And the ownership of things.
Cameron promises “a complete intolerance of failure”. (No matter how hard you work, there’s no morality in failure). He promises to value the “new, the innovative and the bold.” (There is no virtue in steadfastness, loyalty, quiet competence). He says: “If you take a risk, quit your job, create the next Google or Facebook and wind up a billionaire, then more power to your elbow.” Although if you wind up a billionaire you probably don’t care for Cameron’s endorsement, or what he thinks of your elbows.
Cameron says: “It’s a basic truth that if people have a stake in business, they will support its growth and share in its success.” From which it seems reasonable to infer that unless you have “a stake” in a business you’re assumed not to care for growth or success.
For the new ‘moral capitalism’ it seems we don’t need honesty, compassion, mercy, hope, loyalty, peace or generosity. We have no need of loving or giving. No. According to our millionaire prime minister “We need more shareholders, more home-owners, and more entrepreneurs.”
This is what Cameron means by moral capitalism. One which is “fair in the true Conservative meaning of the word.”
And I think we all know what that means, don’t we?