The financialisation of everyday life must be confronted

Unless we can reverse this financialisation and create a healthier basis for growth, the prospects for working people look grim.

The debate about growth and economic restructuring in Britain ought to depart from the fundamental transformation of UK capitalism during the last four decades. Britain’s economy is now beholden to big finance. Or to put it more accurately, the UK has become financialised, as has the USA but also Japan and Germany. Financialisation is a deep underlying change, and no set of radical or socialist economic policies would make sense unless that was recognised.

The previous decade has cast light on the transformation:

Finance grew extraordinarily in terms of prices, profits, and volume of transactions, but also in terms of influence and arrogance. By the middle of the decade a vast bubble had been inflated in the USA and the UK, the bursting of which was likely to be devastating.

The expansion of finance represented much more than financial excess. Finance had become pivotal to economic activity and to determining economic policy, but also to organising everyday life. Mature capitalism had become financialised. 

In August 2007 the US money market had a heart attack, and in August-September 2008 the global financial system had a near-death experience. Deep recession followed across the world, and then in 2009-2012 the crisis took a further nasty turn. States had become perilously exposed to debt because recession had reduced tax revenues, while rescuing finance had imposed fresh costs on the exchequer. Austerity followed, causing loss of income for working people, unemployment and destruction of welfare. Things became bad enough in the UK, but the impact of austerity in the Eurozone has been catastrophic.

As I argue in my book, Profiting without Producing, published by Verso this November, the crisis has revealed three fundamental trends of financialisation:

First, industrial and commercial enterprises have become increasingly involved in financial operations, often undertaking financial transactions to earn profits. Big business, in particular, relies less on banks, while changing its organisation and investment practices. The ideology of ‘shareholder value’ has become prevalent among large enterprises.

Second, banks have turned toward open financial markets to make profits through financial trading rather than through outright borrowing and lending. They have further turned toward households as a source of profit, often combining trading in open markets with lending to households, or collecting household savings.

Third, households increasingly rely on the private financial system to facilitate access to vital goods and services, including housing, education and health, as well as to hold savings. Everyday life has become financialised.

Financialised capitalism is an economic system of weak and precarious growth, low wages, profound inequality, and deep instability. The ascendancy of finance has resulted in regular financial bubbles, which cause devastation when they burst. Finance first earns enormous profits, and then calls upon society to carry the costs of crisis. Events since 2008, including the imposition of austerity, reflect the enormous influence of financial interests over policy-making, and indicate that financialisation will persist.

On Saturday 2 November I will be speaking at the first conference for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, where I will be discussing ways working people could oppose and reverse financialisation. This is a vital process but it is far from easy. For one thing, it would be necessary to introduce regulation that could prevent financial institutions from engaging in speculative activities. Such regulation must include direct controls on interest rates and on the lending practices of financial institutions, if it is to have an impact. Time is short as yet another bubble is gradually developing, not least in the UK.

But regulation alone would never be enough. Public property over financial institutions must also be introduced as private banks have failed repeatedly, thus causing enormous pain. The UK needs public banks with a fresh spirit of public service that would support investment as well as meeting the financial needs of working people.

More broadly, financialisation of everyday life must also be confronted by reversing the involvement of private financial institutions in housing, education, health and elsewhere. Imaginative, flexible and creative public provision across a range of goods and services would be vital to reversing financialisation.

If financialisation began to be reversed, a healthier basis could be created for pro-growth macroeconomic policies but also for required restructuring of the UK economy to provide secure income and employment. Otherwise, the prospects for working people look far from optimistic. 

Class Conference 2013 will take place on Saturday 2 November at TUC Congress House. Tickets can be purchased here

Britain’s economy is now beholden to big finance. Photo: Getty
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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.