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December 01, 2011


Dick Pountain

I think that between the end of WWII and the early seventies, the 99% wanted what Keynsian welfare states gave them: a job, a modest annual payrise, a car etc. The problem arose from the late '70s when, concurrently with the neo-liberal conquest of economic thinking, ordinary people started to want what they saw that celebrities and rock-stars had, and the financial industries realised they could make huge profits from supplying them with the credit to get it. Everyone became a bit of a predator (in Veblen's sense of takers). Is that the same as false consciousness? The fact that it was unsustainable escaped even the economic big guns like Greenspan.

Will Davies

OK, that makes sense. But my question is: does widespread public complicity with this predatory capitalism now matter or not? Should we aim for some 'truth and reconciliation' (in due course) or just celebrate the fact that the illusions have been busted?


Thanks Will. I agree with most of this and it is a brilliant bit of argument.
One thing to bear in mind is that neoliberal governments in UK and USA never attained the support of big majorities of voters, even if they managed to get some landslides thanks to the winner-take-all nature of the FPTP voting systems. You can argue that the apathetic, by not voting against, were complicit and created de facto cultural consensus while the going was good. But the evidence from social attitudes research is that there was rarely a 2/3 majority cheering on neoliberalism.
None of that is to argue that many of us anti-neoliberals don't also have a big stake in the system, typically relying on house price inflation to help us out in the face of desperately poor pension prospects.
The T&R Commission I would like to see would call as its first witnesses and accused the massed ranks of conventional economists and economic journalists of the neoliberal media. Then we can get on to the rest of us semi-complicit citizens in the 99%.


There is an interesting argument to be made that the rout of centre-Left governments during what ought to be one of the great centre-Left moments reflects a deep semi-conscious sentiment among EU and US citizens that we had all this coming and should take our punishment. This is one of the explanations so far for the mild public response to penal austerity in Ireland, and it probably holds for Greece too. Not that many Greeks are on the streets protesting.

Dick Pountain

I think we have to do more than celebrate the popping of the illusion - we need to get the money back! How to do that is not at all obvious - I still don't enitrely understand the new coupling between "real" wealth and money, since the invention of derivatives. I saw a reference the other day that the post-2009 crash destroyed 25% of the world's wealth - what does that actually mean? Do we have to press the resest button via hyperinflation and start from scratch?

Charles Wheeler

"one of the necessary preconditions of the financial crisis playing out as it did was the desperate hunger for mortgages in Britain, that could never have been served without securitisation, given the dwindling savings rate that accompanied it. This hunger came from normal people, wanting to get substantially wealthier, without doing anything to 'earn' that."

If you';re working in London a one-bed ex-council flat in a tower block can be rented for £1k+ a month or bought with a mortgage for £200k - there is little social housing - what's the 'choice'?

Perhaps people just want somewhere to live, rather than 'get wealthy without doing anything to earn that'? How do you think they're paying the mortgage?

As credit was deregulated, so the ability to borrow more and more pushed up house prices - but few gained as a result. Our house might be worth 4x what it was but our children can't afford a mortgage - when we die, our 'estate' will simply be used to pay down some of their debt, if it hasn't been swallowed up in social care costs. We're no wealthier than we would have been had borrowing limits been pegged to 2.5x income as they were in 1980.

The idea that this crisis was fuelled by the greed of people trying to cling to the housing ladder is baloney.

High rents and interest payments have simply entrenched the rentier class at the expense of the rest.

Charles Wheeler

"Lobbying networks were reasonably visible, the untouchability of the City of London was quite evident and pre-2008 books such as Andrew Glyn's Capitalism Unleashed offered a very cogent account of what was going on, and the interests that it was serving. It wasn't that this all happened in secret, it's that most people didn't give a damn, in fact a large number of people - somewhere between 1% and 99%, by my estimate - actively encouraged it and benefited from it. Without justification, public support and popular participation, it couldn't have happened."

er... it's called 'propaganda' - which only has to fool a certain number - even at her height of popularity Thatcher garnered around 1/3 vote - many gave up voting, many more believe what they read in the tabloids (owned and often run at a loss by plutocrats). Many people I know wouldn't know what neo-liberalism means - that doesn't equate to tacit support.

A good e.g. of what was going on 'behind closed doors' is Robert Sherrill's 'The Looting Decade' about the S&L debacle in the US - a dress-rehearsal, or Nocera's 'All the Devil's Are Here' - even the insiders are beginning to 'fess up about predatory lending: http://goo.gl/qHgp5

Will Davies


Thanks for these comments. I may have exaggerated my argument, partly as a provocation. But then the notion of the 99% is also a (very smart) piece of exaggeration as well. You are clearly right in what you say, and, yes, Thatcher never won a majority of public opinion. But the focus on elites and the 1%, while good politics at the present moment, will eventually fall apart as a strategy for reform and responsibility. A lot of people need to get real, not just bankers.

Bruno Latour argues that science proceeds in a 'janus-faced' fashion, in which scientists attribute everything that goes on in laboratories to the work of 'science', and everything that has been spewed out of laboratories to 'nature'. Something similar happens with the economy. Everything we're doing right now is done by us, while everything that was done 5 years ago was the work of 'capitalism' or, in this case, the 1%. There is something a little disingenuous about it.

All that said, I basically accept what you say, and now slightly regret writing the blog post.


Hello. I think that the argument you presented is extremely provocative, and although exaggerated, it brings something important to the fore.

It makes me want to ask the related question: what would a society in which people couldn't be complicit in their own financial fleecing look like? What sorts of educational institutions would we need? What about the press? Is it something that can be done with mere information (which I frankly doubt), or is this a question that needs to be resolved in the political sphere?

For instance, I live in the USA, and what passes for public education (pre-college) here does almost nothing to prepare citizens to deal with the grim meat-hook realities of finance, wealth, and even the most basic economic ideas (even things like employment, etc.).

Just an open question, I guess. But if the pattern you say is true, that there is a disavowal of our past actions, and I think you're clearly correct, it's worth asking what a society where that wasn't possible would look like.

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