- In the lifestyle sweepstakes, the answer is "none
of the above"...concludes Eric Walberg
- The economic and social experiments in the past three
decades by British governments from left to right have left the plucky
Brits reeling, as this summer's unprecedented bread and ipod riots showed
all too conclusively. For a year now, fiscal austerity and financial chaos
have sent Britain's economy into a nasty cycle of low growth and rising
- But unlike Greece, which was forced into recession by
misguided EU taskmasters, Britain has inflicted this on itself. Austerity
was a deliberate choice by Prime Minister David Cameron's ruling coalition
of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Britain's jobless numbers are the
highest in more than 15 years, with unemployment 8.1 per cent, as the government
continues to slash public-sector jobs -- more than 100,000 have been lost
in recent months.
- This call to "balance the books" is also being
preached by US President Barack Obama, where even higher unemployment figures
(9.1 per cent) and far worse financial woes exacerbate the economic downturn.
By slashing government spending, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be
lost there too, with the expected downward multiplier effect as citizens
are force to rein in their spending, leading to ever higher unemployment
and ever falling government revenues.
- Austerity is politics masquerading as economic policy,
intent on lowering wages while maintaining the profit and interest income
of the rich in hard times. It rests on the myth that all government spending
is wasteful and eats into potential private investment, and is unnecessary
to recovery. Just as bad as this hidden agenda is that the result of this
stab-in-the-back to the "99 per cent" is to actually increase
the government deficit -- the very opposite of what is intended.
- But if things are bad for Britain, it can perhaps find
some consolation in the fact that, for the first time in more than 100
years, British living standards have "risen" above American standards,
according to an Oxford Economics (OE) report. The OE explains that increasing
incomes for Brits and longer holidays (Americans average two weeks per
year vs five weeks in Britain) and free healthcare mean that the Brits
are better off than the Yanks, whose real income today is about the same
as it was in the 1970s.
- It is perhaps not unusual that a British study might
conclude that Brits have the edge on their American brothers. After all,
as Mark Twain was fond of saying, there are "lies, damned lies, and
statistics" (ironically for OE, the term was coined by British prime
minister Benjamin Disraeli). But what about Britain vs Europe? A study
published last week by the uSwitch.com consumer website claims that Britain
has the worst quality of life in Europe, and -- surprise -- France the
- British workers work three years longer and die two years
younger than the French, while they pay more for fuel, food, alcohol and
cigarettes. The study compared 17 lifestyle factors in France, Spain, Denmark,
the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and Britain, and
estimated that while Britain had the highest net household income, this
was eaten up by a much higher cost of living.
- British workers work the longest hours (apart from the
Poles) and have the shortest vacations. They are also near the bottom in
terms of health and education spending, and -- through no fault of their
own -- sunshine. The French come out on top in all these categories. Said
Ann Robinson, head of consumer policy at the British firm: "We earn
substantially more than our European neighbours, but this level of income
is needed just to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table and our
homes warm." The report will please no one (except the French) so
we can assume its gloomy conclusion is unfortunately on the mark.
- Sifting through these "damned lies", it seems
that the quality of life in Britain is the worst in Europe though still
better than in the US. But this is to be expected, given the 20th century
imperial legacy of Britain, Europe and the US. Britain was the "great"
empire of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and in keeping with
the logic of empire, was, at its peak, able to amass wealth from its empire
and impose its pound sterling as the world's reserve currency, with all
the economic and political advantages that implies, putting even lowly
workers among the beneficiaries.
- The imperial dreams of France and other European powers
were nipped in the bud by the insatiable Disraelis (and Churchills). But
empire has its dark side. Economically, the inflow of gold and wealth to
the centre eventually turns into an outflow, as capitalists and bankers
look abroad for greater profit. Meanwhile, the state is left financing
colonial infrastructure and a growing military, necessary to keep the natives
in line and to keep the colonial revenues flowing to the motherland. And
then there is the need to quell competing empires (the French again, not
to mention the Gerries). The 18-19th cc wars with France and the 20th century
wars with the Germans bankrupted the British empire, and finally left the
US as the empire's heir.
- The exact same logic has plagued the post-WWII American
empire with results that are only too obvious today. It faced off against
the Soviet Union and now is mired in the futile attempt to conquer the
Middle East and Central Asia, destroying itself in the process -- and leaving
the American people with falling living standards.
- Despite Britain's lack of natural resources, by shedding
its empire and adopting socialist policies, its quality of life actually
improved dramatically after WWII. A smaller pie more equitably distributed
is far better for the masses than a huge, fractious banquet for the elite
one per cent, where only crumbs are passed on to the other 99.
- The continuing British malaise today is the direct result
of two poisonous factors. First, the continuing imperial pretensions that
its elite has, prompting its governments, Conservative and Labour alike,
to send troops to the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya to support
its own residual empire or that of its imperial comrade-in-arms. The ongoing
imbroglios in Afghanistan and Libya are now draining British coffers of
billions of pounds, even as its government slashes the social programmes
thanks to which the British worker's standard of living has now risen above
his/her hapless American counterpart.
- The malaise is also the result more broadly of the neoliberal
policies of the Iron Lady, who managed to realise her perverse philosophy
that "there is no such thing as society" by dismantling much
of the social welfare structure of post-WWII Britain. The result was far
from what prime minister Margaret Thatcher expected. Her ideal was "a
return to Victorian liberal values, but instead of the Victorian virtues
of stability and thrift, the result was a largely proletarian society,
characterised by shiftlessness ("flexible labor market"), low
inflation and high personal debt, where the state now promotes only the
interests of the corporate individuals, and suppresses truly "liberal"
social forces like unions. It is better called market totalitarianism.
"As Marx perceived, the actual effect of the unfettered market is
to overturn established social relationships and forms of ethical life
-- including those of bourgeois societies," laments critique John
- The only saving grace for Britain is that it is no longer
left holding the imperial bag. It can always pack up and leave -- with
apologies to the Yanks. It is now a "postmodern state", along
with its fellow Europeans, content to let the Americans make the decisions
about who to invade. As for the smug French, their neo-Napoleon at the
helm seems intent on catching up with the poor Brits in the race to the
Euro-bottom, and repeating all the mistakes of the 20th century in his
hallmark frenetic style.
- If French President Nicolas Sarkozy has his way (pushing
for more imperial interventions, cutting pensions and education spending,
raising the retirement age and much more), the next study could well show
the French "winning" this race. But not to fear, since the Americans,
as the current imperial bag-holder, are guaranteed to be at the bottom
of the heap.
- Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly <http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/>http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/
You can reach him at <http://ericwalberg.com/>http://ericwalberg.com/
His Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games is available