Post-Welfare Capitalism and the Uberfication of the University I: Socialism for the Wealthy, Capitalism for the Rest
(Post-Welfare Capitalism and the Uberfication of the University is a series of 3 posts. Together they constitute the draft of an essay, which is itself the first part of a larger project on capitalism and inhumanism)
At first the financial crisis that began in 2008-2009 looked as if it was going to constitute a major a threat to the credibility and long-term viability of neoliberalism. After all, how could the majority of people continue to have faith in free-market capitalism and its ability to deliver growth and prosperity, when it had so visibly brought the world to the brink of economic disaster? Viewed from the vantage point of only a few years later and things have taken on a very different hue. Now what the financial crisis seems to have done is given the champions of neoliberalism an opportunity to carry out, with renewed vigour, their programme of privatisation, deregulation, and reduction to a minimum of the state, public sector and welfare.
We are thus faced with a situation in which the debt of the 1% – the banks having been bailed out to the tune of over £1 trillion of public money in the UK – is being paid off through a process of social austerity, with the debt of the rest of society, the 99%, enlarged to apply to even the most basic aspects of life: healthcare, social welfare and education. The National Health Service (NHS), firefighters’ pensions and local authority libraries are thus all included on the list of things we can apparently no longer afford to pay for as a society. So bad has the situation become that the British state has actually refused to take responsibility for feeding its own population. That role now falls to the charities running the food banks. As a result, the Red Cross is engaged in food aid in the UK for the first time since World War Two. The success of large discount retailers such as Aldi and Lidl (who in the last five years have doubled their portion of the British supermarket spend to 10%), Poundland and Primark provides further evidence of the impact of austerity and high levels of household debt on living standards. Yet not only is the degree of risk and debt born by the 99% being enlarged, it also is being extended into the future. This is occurring most notably in the form of the student debt created by the introduction of tuition fees. According to the latest estimates, many of today’s undergraduates will owe around £44,000 by the time they graduate.
Public money that might otherwise have been spent on food, healthcare, welfare and education (not to mention art and culture) is thus being cut because of the proclaimed need for austerity. Instead it is used to pay to cover for the failures of privately owned businesses. With over 400 people at Barclays Bank alone earning more than £1 million (compare this to Japan, where fewer than 300 executives are paid that amount nationally), it is clearly not the bankers in the UK who are being punished for the mistakes of financial capitalism. It is the students, users of public healthcare, trade union members, and those sections of the population who rely on benefits or are on low incomes: the in-work poor, as they have come to be known. Indeed, because of deregulation, the weakening of the power of the trade unions, and the flourishing of insecure forms of self-employment along with part-time, hourly-paid and zero-hour contracts (there are currently 700,000 people in the UK who are working in jobs that don’t have guaranteed hours), many citizens fall into both categories as a result of not being paid enough to live on.
Thanks not least to the way privately owned businesses, including both the banks and the rail operators, continue to receive substantial handouts and subsidies from the taxpayer, this approach to governing society has been characterised as ‘socialism for the already wealthy corporations, and capitalism for everyone else’. It is a portrayal of our current political situation that finds support in the fact that, as Owen Jones points in his book on The Establishment, ‘while the poorest 10 per cent pay 43 per cent of their income in taxes, the richest 10 per cent pay just 35 per cent’. Indeed, many multinational companies, assisted by banks with arms in Switzerland, aggressively (if legally) avoid paying corporation tax in the UK at all – which of course only serves to increase the tax burden on the rest of UK society, including those businesses that are less wealthy and less powerful.
Yet for all this two-facedness, nowhere is contemporary capitalism’s ability to adapt and refresh itself in greater evidence than in some of the more apparently community-minded developments that have arisen in recent years. Take the emergence from the mid-2000s onwards of what has come to be known as the sharing economy.