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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.