Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a delightful re-telling of the story of Jesus in a secular and historical context, finding its humour in the conflict between orthodox and invariably religious interpretations of the time, and a more ‘enlightened’ understanding, based on archaeology and academic research. As it wends its way through its telling of life in a Roman colony, the real politique is surfaced in the resistance movement the People’s Front of Judea (PFJ). During one of their serious and clearly well intentioned meetings, the leader Reg berates the Romans for their oppression of the poor Galileans, asking in a fit of rhetorical pique ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ One lonely voice suggests ‘the aqueduct’, which Reg grudgingly concedes. Another suggests ‘sanitation’. Several others venture still more technologies, which Reg attempts to summarise thus: ‘All right, but apart from the aqueduct, sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’
Liverpool won yesterday. I don’t like soccer. I don’t watch it (unless Liverpool are playing), I don’t play the game, nor have I any interest in its tactics, development, or the circus that surrounds the professional game. But because Liverpool won yesterday, I feel better today. I have been a fan of Liverpool since I was eight or nine years old, when in order to belong in my class at school, I chose a team (there were two choices; the other was Manchester United. I hate Manchester United.). Even though I’m much older now, and deeply understand the naivety of choosing to support a foreign team playing a foreign game where grown men (often racist, always straight, and sometimes with a penchant for violence) kick a ball around a field, it reaches deep inside of me when they win, and when they lose. Sport is an extremely powerful social force, and in the past thirty years, bankers and politicians have learned how to control that force in an unprecedented way.
I was asked a question recently about the role of the church – in particular the Roman Catholic Church – and how it could be reinvigorated. What is it missing, my interlocutor asked, in order to connect? The discussion led to some interesting thought connections. In the first instance, there appears to be a question about what role the church truly played in social structures – relative to the state – in more ‘successful’ times. In truth, it appears that the Church served as a quasi-state structure.
Bob Neuwirth‘s 2011 book on The Stealth of Nations looked at informal economies and structures. We’ve discussed informal economies this on this blog before, but also informal justice systems. That concept was about current day emerging countries, but if we go back fifty, one hundred years, there were limited formal state structures as we understand them today even in Western developed economies. Police forces are a relatively recent innovation, and in their earliest days they were sporadic at best. Hospitals and schools run by the state are similarly – broadly speaking – an innovation of the twentieth century. Before that, disputes were often resolved by community leaders – priests – and healthcare and education, such as it was, was provided by Churches. Whatever the Spiritual function, the practical matters of social organization were arguably far more important.
We mentioned in the last post a scenario where capital transcended human ownership, and became – through law – an entity in and of itself, lording it over mere humans. It sounds far-fetched, but is it? The discourse on inequality is about wealth accumulation of a small number of people, but it is essentially a discussion about the centralization of capital, where fewer and fewer people control that capital. Now, as the number of people controlling the capital decreases, the question arises: what happens if it gets down to two people, or one person, controlling the preponderance of capital? There are political answers to this, and social answers, but – for now – let’s consider the financial side.
In the West, Capital is generated primarily through the corporate-legal structures of western liberal democracy. In essence, companies produce goods and services, and accumulate assets and profits. They grow through acquisitions – other assets – and increase profitability. However, most companies are moving now towards virtualized infrastructures. What that means is that companies own less and less of their own assets, and become, essentially, capital generators, rather than capital owners. Let’s take a hypothetical example…
The coalition negotiations in Germany appear to have stalled on the question of whether Chancellor Merkel will authorize further European capital (read: German capital) for Irish banks. Further more, the SDP is trying to force Ireland to raise its corporation tax rate, an incentive that has diverted investments away from the rest of Europe in key areas such as the Internet and Biotechnology. This is not the first time that Germany has taken on the appearance of a reluctant bully in Europe, forcing itself on the weaker nations who are not deserving of its largesse. It is of course symptom, not cause, and the true reason for the current difficulties – perpetuated now for five years or so – is the structural failure of the European project to manage economic diversity.
There is some great wealth in Europe, concentrated in pockets such as the Ruhr valley, Northern Italy, Southern England, and other places. Big industries such as auto manufacturing and pharmaceuticals employ hundreds of thousands, while financial services help to facilitate the trade of those products all over the world. The wealth, however, is poorly distributed if we consider the wider context.
Outgoing Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao today added his voice (not for the first time) to those warning against rising inequality as a threat to China’s development. Imbalances in economic growth he warned were threatening the success of the economy. “We must make ensuring and improving people’s wellbeing the starting point and goal of all the government’s work, give entire priority to it and strive to strengthen social development,” he added. It is a common refrain, and one that goes to the root of modern statecraft.