Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Inequality of Choice

Following the major industrial action called last year, and with further industrial action being planned to disrupt the Olympics this year, the debate over the size and continuation of public institutions has, and looks set to continue to be, at the forefront of all policies and actions of the Con-Dem coalition.

With the shift to greater forms of privatisation continuing to run ever onwards the unions are now, in the words of the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hassan, left as “the last defence for maintaining Britain’s public institutions”.

With the forming of free schools outside of Council remits and the selling off of parts of the NHS to private entities the last remaining bastions of socially democratic Britain are currently under threat. They have been targeted as a weight around the neck of the individual in an increasingly technological and individualistic society. Any form of higher taxation, lack of choice of payment or lack of choice of proprietor is seen in the same light as a lack of choice socially, a viewpoint supported by one of Britain’s self-appointed ‘New Progressives’ Nick Clegg. The two are seen as one and same when they clearly fall into two separate spheres of reason that are united by the desire for liberty.

There is no doubt that there has been a positive recent shift in Britain’s social viewpoint. The challenging of racism, sexism and homophobia is now common place in society with choice and diversity seen as the key element to the betterment of the individual. The choice to be what you want to be is paramount. These positive social changes however have occurred at a time of major economic individualism. Education, healthcare and housing to name a few, are now often seen as issues which fall to the choice of the individual without any form of collective conscience holding sway.

Thus taxes have been sold as an irritating necessity, rather than a contribution to betterment, that can be tolerated as long as they are low and offer choice with money rather than more equality without. The ‘freedom of the market’ ideal of the last thirty years encourages the idea of greater cash flow in all areas and for all services with the individual alone responsible for their actions. You pay your money you take your choice. The individual Taxpayer, rather than society, deserves value for their money.

No more is society referred to in a political sense yet one cannot escape the constant media barrage regarding issues surrounding ‘the Taxpayer’. Private companies offer and the individuals compete for their services with cash and credit; boom and bust possibilities for all. Individuals take on huge debts themselves hence private debt is now around four times higher than public debt. Each individual is morphed into a limited company of the self.

As a result, those with ideals stepped in equality, liberty and collectivism need to come up with an economically reasoned alternative to this if they wish to buck the trend of the rise in economic individualism. Highlighting how democratic public institutions in key service areas, rather than private bodies, improve the liberty and choice for all individuals - akin to the social choices they demand and enjoy today - is the key place to start. This liberty can be achieved by helping form greater power equality through democratic involvement in output which in turn creates freedom from the oppression of powerful, undemocratic economic bodies and gives individuals a greater and fairer stake in the system they work in and/or vote upon. Also, with these institutions the individual spends less on key services and thus has more hard cash to spend on goods, maintaining a healthy market economy in key areas.

Akin to how the 18th century philosopher Thomas Paine talked of the need for individuals to be free from feudal landlords, individuals in modern society find their liberty restricted by large, undemocratic, often trans-national, corporations of which in 2002, 29 where part of the richest 100 entities in the world. As this total was found in a UN report published ten years ago one can assume the current total to be higher. Furthermore, the figures do not include non-limited companies described by writer Peter Wilby as being “equity funds that take over businesses such as MG Rover, the care home provider Southern Cross and Manchester United so that they cease to be public limited companies with shares traded on the stock exchange under strict rules. They do not...have to abide by rules of corporate governance, announce financial results or publish senior executives' remuneration”.

The fear of the big state and its control has led to the now unspoken dominance of these corporate bodies and the individuals who run them. The News International scandal allowed a small peak into the dimensions of this unrestricted power and influence that now strangles the liberty of individuals on a grand scale.

When highlighting these ideals critics of improving and increasing public institutions often stress the lie that as Britain is a developed state, and allows all the chance to try and gain a plethora of material goods, enough equality has arisen. Of course it hasn’t. Inequality of wealth in Britain is now at it’s highest since 1918 causing a glut of social problems as highlighted in Wilkinson and Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’ (2009).

With the rise of UK Uncut and the Occupy movement, support for the Robin Hood tax and strong vocal opposition regarding the cuts exemplified by the recent victory against the government’s workfare policy, the economic dissent at neoliberal policies is growing. Now real progressives have a chance to react to this and cement the facts into the mainstream about how economic choice espoused by neo-liberals gives powers to some individuals but also weakens the power of many individuals, as well as numerous groups, in society drastically. If an essential service sector allows all in an unequal society to do as they please in terms of choice and compete in a market environment then those with the most have the greater power to succeed as seen so chillingly in Britain’s education system of economic apartheid.

The best alternative to this is strong public institutions free and available to all where possible, supported by an extension of democracy through changes in the electoral system with greater proportional representation and greater power to councils and regions. As devolution has indicated, greater regional powers are appreciated when gained, opening up the possibility of elements of regionalisation of nationalisation and a change to the “civil-serviceised” nationalisation that was predominant during the post-war consensus.

As the unions prepare to defend public institutions they have a chance to push this new political path and speak to those in society who are outside of their remit, to those in society without any cooperative protection. Those in the corporations and companies who have no stake in the output of their labour. Those who have no power over the decisions that affect their everyday working lives. Those who need public institutions to increase their restricted liberty. Those like the one million people now working in call centre jobs, more than worked in the mining industry at its peak.

For without these public institutions, services will not exist for all but exist for the benefit of a minority - the minority with the most. Without them the poor do not benefit, society does not benefit and the individual does not benefit for society is split. The individual is alone. The indivual is economically powerless. He is without freedom. The choice of the freedom to choose is no choice at all in an unequal Britain. Society has to espouse greater economic equality to gain the freedom the individual so desires and strong public service institutions are one of the ways, if not the key way, to heightening this liberty for they help make one and all truly free.

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