Where next for Occupy Wall Street? Conspiracy theory and the financial crisis

There has clearly been a concerted effort by a wealthy elite to bring us to our current state of pla

Conspiracy theorists have long said that the financial crisis is not a failure of regulation, of taking the eye off the ball, but rather a Machiavellian exercise that has been implemented over many years by free market liberal capitalists, wanting to erase the state and let the market work its wonders.

I want so badly to believe that it wasn't planned, that it was simply stupidity, lack of leadership and a too-big system out of control. But two events last week have finally brought me closer to believing the conspiracy brigade. First was the shocking admission from a City trader on the BBC that "Goldman Sachs rules the world", which rapidly went viral on the internet for its sheer bold-faced honesty. Even the conspiracy theorists thought it was a yes-men stunt, and couldn't possibly be true.

But the exposure of a secret letter from the European Central Bank to Berlusconi -- in which they press for action to privatise public services and overhaul the unions in order to "restore the confidence of the markets", was the final bit of evidence that convinced me.

Of course, I wasn't naïve. I knew that free marketeers were trying to dismantle the state and take over everything -- I just didn't think that it could be so well-mastered and designed, by campaign strategists of the highest order.

As a campaigner, I know when we plot a campaign strategy, its important to take the long-view. We design the opening up of political space through mobilisation and other tactics, and we build in opportunities to take advantage of key political moments. We make sure we identify and inform allies on the inside. And hopefully, after a few years, we will have won our case. But whereas the campaigns I have worked on are about fighting for human rights and the environment, the free marketeers' campaign was to overturn a system that values public goods over private enterprise, replacing it with one that values the wealthy and sees the poor as entirely expendable. Whereas the former might be based on a three or five year horizon, theirs had a 50 + year timeline. And it's finally coming to fruition on a global scale.

You can imagine Milton Friedman and a few other men sitting around a smoke-filled room at the Chicago School of Economics, back in the late 1960s, mapping out a political future with a severe global crisis at just the right moment, so that their dream of a state-free-future would become a reality. "Let's pick a country to start out with and learn some lessons," they might have said. So they started with Chile in the 1970s, pitching themselves as economic experts, and advising then dictator Pinochet to cut public spending and let the corporate sector takeover. No matter that the result was inflation of 375 per cent and 30 per cent unemployment, while eradicating the middle classes.

"This is the pain they have to endure" Friedman and his cronies said at the time. "We'll need a few more countries to strengthen our power," they might have strategised in the review a few years later, in the same, presumably smoke-filled room.

Throughout the 1980s, they worked their way through a few more developing countries as an experiment (for these colonial outposts were easy to sacrifice), as their disciples spread into the Bretton Woods institutions and beyond. They implemented their "lessons learned" (prioritise debt repayment, strip assets, privatise public services, increase wealth for the few).

"We'll need to have more influence," they would have agreed, as they infiltrated the right and the left alike -- the US Republicans and Democrats, the Conservative and Labour parties over here -- ensuring that their economic and policy advisors went through a constant revolving door with big business. They would put forward their advocates in every aspect of political and monetary policy. Now we see "expert" groups comprised of ex-Goldman Sachs bankers in Europe informing regulations on the finance sector.

And when they thought about mobilising, they could do no better than the Tea Party and its various incarnations, not to mention the long-standing think-tanks that celebrate "free enterprise", like the Adam Smith Institute or its US-based cousin, the American Enterprise Institute.

So, decades later, many of the original campaigners now long gone, you can see their offspring enjoying a whisky, a round of golf, a ride on their yacht, toasting their success. The master plan is finally taking hold in the US and Europe, the global economic crisis almost certainly a design of their cadre's original making.

Is it all a conspiracy? Chaos theory, of course, is a counter-balance to this line of thinking, but the point is, in fact, moot. There has clearly been a fairly concerted effort by the hands of a wealthy elite to bring us to our current state of play.

The question is, do we simply accept their interim victory as a fait accompli? Or can we learn from their lessons? Like any real campaigner, I'm not prepared to accept defeat, even one of this magnitude. I'm inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement taking off in the US, but simply showing dissent isn't enough. Let's learn from the right. We now need to take a long-term, strategic view, mapping out not just what we don't like and want to change, but also who we need to influence, and precisely how.

This is not a short-term project. But the sooner we do this, the more likely we will, in our old age, still be enjoying public services, watching our children have access to education, drinking clean water under green trees and a clean sky, and looking back on a campaign well fought and well won.

Deborah Doane is the Director of the World Development Movement

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.