Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

We've had enough of greed ... but just how much is that?

Four years ago, Lehman Brothers threatened the entire global financial system. More evidence of systemic banking and moral failure emerges each week. What is to be done?

A good place to start is a short essay by John Maynard Keynes on 'National Self-Sufficiency'. It was published in 1933, four years after the Wall Street Crash. Keynes confronts the "decadent international but individualistic capitalism" that caused the crash. Its "self-destructive... calculation governs every walk of life... It is not just, it is not virtuous - and it doesn't deliver the goods."

Sounds familiar, but what shall we put in its place? How can we rethink political economy? What will be the moral values and policy ideas that will provide the majority of people with a decent standard of living and the opportunity to get on in life? Liberal market orthodoxies have led to a financialised economy, poor levels of productive wealth creation and double-dip recession. Millions of working people are at risk of poverty. The share of national income going to wages has been falling for three decades.

But how can we change when economic orthodoxies dominate? Neo-liberalism might have caused the crash but is still in the driving seat. Where might we begin? In How Much is Enough?, Robert Skidelsky, the UK's foremost Keynes scholar, and his philosopher son Edward offer their answer. It must be an economy that can create the good life of reduced work and increased leisure. In their thoughtful book they extend Keynes's ethical arguments beyond the Bloomsbury milieux of his time.

Our meaning and purpose does not lie in the endless pursuit of money nor in an allegiance to abstract principles.

It lies in the society of our relationships with family and friends, the places in which we live, and if we are fortunate, in convivial work. The Skidelskys claim a social liberal tradition imbued with the ideals of dignity, civility and tolerance. Liberalism, they argue, stands for basic human goods. They identify seven: health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure. The first duty of the liberal state is to uphold these basic goods. If it fails to do so the limitless desire for wealth will be left unchecked.

Will we again ignore this call to imagine a better future? The answer will be decided by politics. David Cameron (below) won the leadership of the Conservative Party by drawing on some of the same Aristotelian ideas of the good life. The idea of a Big Society which values civility and relationships has widespread support. The problem has been a failure to put it into practice. Cameron's Big Society has failed because he is trapped in the legacy of Thatcher's economic revolution. The Labour Party made a mistake in dismissing Cameron's pro-society politics.

That is changing as we rediscover traditions of cooperation, collective self-help and mass movements of self-improvement. Our better businesses are recognising there is more to life than the bottom line. Creating social value increases economic value. Our public services need good relationships to work effectively. These and a sharing of responsibility are vital to the health of society.

Yet these are just early skirmishes in a wider intellectual war of position. We must hope that a new political philosophy is being forged. It is, in short, a revival of a politics of virtue. It is an exiled Labour tradition.

Morally, what is our economy for and how do we rebuild the social sphere? This is the new political centre ground. Labour should inhabit these spaces beyond reasons of narrow self-interest, because it tells us what we have lost.

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