This post is by Alfie van den Bos – Secretary UoY Green Party
Surely these are good times for the Greens, no? This week bankers lost their knighthoods and were forced to reject vast bonuses whilst mainstream politicians united in attacking the gross excesses of capitalism at a bank now owned by the state. As my party has somewhat critical views of excess consumption, I should be happy, shouldn’t I? Yet instead, watching David Lammy and Mel Phillips laying into Hester and Goodwin on the BBC’s Question Time simply made me angry.
Firstly, there is the issue of hypocrisy. Lammy was a key figure for the rise New Labour, his young, energetic character provided a useful contrast against the tired politics of the Major government. This also means however, that he was part of a political movement that, in the words of its chief architect Peter Mandelson was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, and for years supported disastrous light touch regulation on large corporations such as RBS and encouraged a culture of risk and excess. After just under two years in opposition, Labour has got more Balls than just its shadow chancellor to make such statements. Melanie Philips, a commentator for the rancid Daily Mail publication, is also guilty. Had Mandelson expressed concern at the excess of the rich, no doubt the Mail would have accused Labour of socialism and class warfare. It was precisely this fear of media backlash against any intervention in the economy that forced politicians to avoid regulation, at great cost to us all. Indeed the political and media class is still guilty for urging negotiation to stop the excess on million-pound banker bonuses while demanding immediate coercive action to limit the ‘excesses’ of the poorest, most vulnerable members of our society.
Moreover, the whole debate essentially misses the point. No one made these complaints when bankers got offensively large salaries and bonuses in the ‘good times’. This suggests that when the economy is growing that such hedonistic rewards are somehow deserved. That upholding and expanding a system that leads to great environmental and social injustice worldwide, that promotes the idea that making money is all that matters in this life, that ‘greed is good’, is of merit to society. Such an opinion is morally, culturally, economically and socially corrupt.
For me, one of the main ideas behind the Green Party, and its associated movements, is that we should limit consumption not just for the good of the planet, or to stop us all being wiped out by disasters that we caused, but for our own good as individuals. The problem is that currently the cultural expression of this excess capitalism is that one must always consume to be happy, that contentment with life is something that is always one purchase, one holiday, one subscription away. Vital to this is to create the illusion that everyone is happy but you. This can make individuals very unhappy and depressed, as has happened to me.
In the past, when we had a more social democratic form of capitalism, that limited such excesses, cultural depictions of wealth had a doubled edged sword. The Texan oil barons of Dallas had all the money in the world but lived desperately unhappy, unenviable lives. By contrast today’s culture, linked to unrestrained consumerism shows the rich as leading glamorous lives, their fulfilment guaranteed by limitless consumption possibilities. Just watch any populist TV show today and you’ll see what I mean.
It does not matter how much a contribution Stephen Hester can make to humanity, no one needs £1 million. This is why the Green Party would bring in a high pay commission to limit such excess, while the living wage would boost the incomes of those at the bottom who work just as hard. In doing so we would create a fairer, more equal society. The merits of this are sound. Studies show that once income reaches a moderate level, happiness is no longer proportional to wealth and greater wealth is just meaningless excess that makes both the top and bottom less happy. Indeed the Equality Trust has predicted that greater equality of wealth in the UK would halve social ills like murder and obesity rates and reduce by 2/3 mental illness. Just look at the US, they may be richer, but, with sky-rocketing crime, obesity and poverty, it would take a brave person to claim that they are happier.
Of course, the Green Party does not strive towards an abolition of capitalism or the creation of total equality in all things, but what we must stress is that none of us needs the wealth of bankers to be happy and successful. True happiness comes from valuing the relationships with fellow human beings in your life, it is a state of mind. People are not happier than you because they have more enjoyable experiences, but simply because they are a different perception on life, less concerned with base wants. Living a life at peace with the environment and your fellow human beings, measuring life and worth by other means than wealth, that is a bonus worth far more than anything offered by the banks.
This article was originally the first post as part of the UoY Green Party’s regular column in The Yorker