Five years after Lehman Bros, how do we change the world?
Yesterday marked five years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in New York, and the point beyond which global financial calamity could no longer be ignored.
Five years ago today, I lost my job. Turns out having your probation review for a job in the property market less than 24 hours after the global financial system melted down due to property lending was kinda a bad place to be. I’d known the market was shaky when I’d taken the job six months earlier, but like many in the precariat, any job offer was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Since then, many have lost their jobs. Many more have been manipulated onto more precarious contracts and had their legal employment protections dismantled around them. Countless numbers have been stuck in jobs they want to leave yet daren’t for fear of losing what little protection they have left. Few have received pay rises.
Around us, our governments sell off their assets, desperately hoping that where austerity has failed to re-boot the global economy or shift it’s path to one more beneficial for all, that extreme austerity will somehow magically work better.
Why are so few of us fighting for something better?
Our definition of working class is no longer fit for purpose, and the political mechanisms born from it no longer serve those who built it. A new class structure has arisen, and only those at the top are represented politically. The way we talk about class has not been updated, and many people believe themselves to be politically represented when in fact they are not.
Over the last week or so, I have been watching a series of lectures on the political history of African American women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the things that has struck me is the way in which their political lives are organised. Locally, almost all of the political activity I know about is tied to either a workplace union or a political party. There are isolated single issue campaigns as well, but these are quite limited in their scope, and not a basis for broad social change and political action. The black women I’ve been learning about had very different organisations. Their churches, their Mutual Benefit Societies, their Neighborhood Unions, their reading groups from which they built the National Association of Colored Women.
Our modern model for political engagement on the left in the UK is brittle. So brittle. And so unsuitable for the paradigms to which we have moved.
The modern left can learn from the political lives of the women I’ve been learning about, and from so many others. We need to examine other ways of engaging in politics. Ways that utilise the range of communication possibilities we now possess. The traditional model of working class political organising in the UK is no longer effective. Our working patterns have changed, and our political paradigms need to catch up. We need to define our political selves by the things that we share. Our job titles and levels of income are more diverse, but something almost all of us share is precarity.
Precarity is a far more useful basis for solidarity in the 21st century than poverty or the perceived class of one’s job. I know people without degrees whose job is to operate a photocopier whose homes and incomes are far more stable than others with PhDs and positions as university lecturers.
In a country and a world in which population is rising, the use of part time, zero hours and apprentice contracts has exploded, and workfare schemes are used to pad employment figures. The fact that the number of people in employment is also rising means practically nothing, yet these rising numbers are used to shame vast numbers of people who have fallen off the bottom of today’s brutal employment ladder. A far better measure of work being done and useful economic activity is the number of contracted paid hours.
The zero hour contract has been receiving justified attention recently. An uncertain income is, in the current economy, worse than no income at all. All government benefits assume a constant wage, therefore a shifting wage that changes week to week can leave you worse off than someone subsisting entirely on benefits. And not only financially; the emotional and administrative strain of keeping a household on track with a constantly shifting income cannot be overestimated.
And all the while, the rising number of jobs is waved in our faces and used to make us feel guilty. As though we cannot see the unemployment numbers they’re so desperately trying to hide. As though the fact that there aren’t even any full time jobs to apply for is our own fault. As though if we tried harder, wished harder, looked for more hours per day, somehow there would be a full time job at the living wage or above for every person looking.
Then there’s debt. The public debate on debt has been focussed almost entirely on state debt, and the matter of debts held by members of the public is turning into the elephant in the room. Household and private debt is rising. The state is drawing back it’s support of individuals, meaning we have fewer places to turn should something go wrong. The state is drawing back it’s support of companies, meaning that they are understandably nervous to increase wages in an economically risky climate that our government has failed to stabilise.
All I’m saying is, if the government is sending men in black to smash the hard drives of businesses and individuals, can we the people smash the hard drives at Wonga HQ?
And, journalists. Politicians. Economists. The word, ‘recovery’. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Maybe some or all of the people using this word actually think that a recovery is happening. Maybe they really do think that people’s lives haven’t been ruined.
But people are starving. Stilted. Struggling. Fighting to survive. Wondering if their lives will ever be more than a fight for the basics. Wondering why people are talking about ambition and aspiration as though that will fix things, because the world they live in is not a world we recognise.
Our political leaders and our political institutions have had five years since the problem became unavoidable, and yet they are still using language, statistics and propaganda to avoid coming up with a solution. They’ve had their chance. They blew it.
So how do we change the world?