How winning the cold war almost cost us our soul

‘The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members’

As Boris Johnson recovers from a near miss with Covid-19, the entire country has rallied to his support – as they have for NHS and front line care workers. This is without a doubt how it should be – always, not just in times of crisis. But why should, and does it take an existential crisis to dissolve our tribalism?

From 1945 – 1980 our social bond was a little tighter; the NHS, Welfare and State education systems had been forged in the afterglow of WW2 and the wealthy accepted income taxes of up 83% in order to create social cohesion, in recognition that: ‘united we stand and divided we fall’. 

In the 70’s and 80’s the oil crisis, and the clash between evolving economic models started to unpick that social contract, and while modernization is a necessary aspect of social evolution, a key misrepresentation occurred which has damaged the national well-being of myriad countries. 

Communism Vs Capitalism

In simple terms, Communism is a politico-economic model that creates the structural building blocks for society, politics and economics. It pervades all aspects of day to day life and is in many ways closer to a religious doctrine. Capitalism at its crudest, is an economic system that allows for the fluid movement of goods, services and finance. Capitalism isn’t perfect but it’s a highly efficient and effective way to handle a globalized world.

Contrary to popular belief many of the ideals that under-pinned Marxist-Communism were virtuous: trying to ensure a bigger slice of the pie for workers, whose blood and sinew drove the latter stages of industrialization and did the brunt of the fighting in two world wars. However, the over-bearing version that emerged under Lenin and Stalin morphed into a sinister and unwieldy (Soviet) super-state.

However, it’s worth remembering that most of the West’s center left political parties have their roots in the peoples struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and most progressive policies to do with enfranchising women and the poor or decriminalizing homosexuality have come from left or center left parties. If you’re a young – low income – lesbian – Conservative voter in the UK, I’d have a quick skim over historical voting patterns.

As memories of WW2 faded, the battle between East and West became increasingly ideological. Initially the capitalist west was socially – democratic, a more balanced form of capitalism that still valued the societal bonds of the post war period. But as the rhetoric heated up in the Reagan-Thatcher dominated 1980’s, capitalism morphed into a more ideological phenomenon. Money and greed were good, but critically so was individuality. ‘You’ could achieve whatever you want, ‘you’ should have whatever you want, and ‘your’ individual social status was more important than a balanced society where a gap between rich and poor is allowed, but moderated (CEO’s typically earned 20x of a base employee’s salary in 1970 where as now the figure is 2-300x).

Reason burned at the stake

Increasingly, those who oppose unfettered capitalism have been branded as socialists or communists, especially in the US. By turning capitalism into an ideology, reasoned political debate has been stifled (see universal healthcare in the US) and corporate wealth prioritised above all else. In the US, bastion of wealth creation; social mobility is lower than in boring/sensible Europe, state education is a lottery, and millions of Americans have no access to acceptable healthcare. In the UK it was deemed acceptable to slash key public services in the wake of the GEC (Global Economic Crisis) just when the country needed its government to steady a listing ship. Money had usurped people as a countries most important asset.

We have been told that the poor should sink or swim, and that immigrants should leave. And yet the poor have fought our wars and immigrants are now saving our lives. At the same time we leave gaping holes in our tax laws for the likes of Facebook and Amazon to sail through, while normal people and small businesses carry the burden. The UK has tax havens that you can literally see from the mainland, while Delaware in the US and Monaco, Luxembourg and Switzerland in Europe all stymie attempts for corporate tax to reach national treasuries.

Time for a re-set not a revolution

It’s time to remember that capitalism is an economic system that can be married to a wide range of social values. We do not need to overthrow capitalism but we need to make it work for a much greater number of people. The origins of communism and socialism were about creating fairness for more people, but didn’t convert well into all encompassing systems of government – that doesn’t mean that all their ideas were a waste.

As it is, our own economic model has been hijacked into a highly intoxicating cash-cult. As the gun lobbyists like to say, its not the gun that kills people but the person firing it. Hopefully a global pandemic will remind us all that a fluid economic system needs to be in the hands of those who value all of us.