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All of us live by the logic of finance

Margaret Thatcher promised wealth for all in her new society. First, though, we all had to become ca

We now know that Alistair Darling was not joking when he said last summer that we faced the worst economic crisis in 60 years. The fall in GDP is now the steepest since 1947. But that was a mere blip on the road to postwar recovery. We cannot be confident that the present crisis is similar, or that comparisons with the most recent recessions – in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s – are the right ones. Increasingly, politicians and economists recall the 1930s, with its grisly tales of bank closures, currency collapse, deflation and mass unemployment.

Yet none of these precedents provides adequate guidance. In the 1930s, the majority of Britons had not bought (I use the verb deliberately) into capitalism as they have over the past 30 years. Working-class families then accounted for three-quarters of the population, but less than one-fifth owned their home. Few held a bank account and almost none invested in shares or bonds, either directly or through pension schemes. For most of these families their only insurance was against funeral expenses.

Working-class life was based on cash, with surplus income, rare at the best of times, converted into portable possessions. Debt was widespread - it was sometimes the only way a working-class family, even if it had a regular income, could buy new clothes or shoes - but it was small-scale and local. Many were accustomed to existing on the margins of subsistence, and the dole, pitiful as it was, ensured that the Depression just made life more of a struggle. It did not frustrate ambition or aspiration, because most ordinary people had none. The consumer society had not been invented.

The Britain of 2009 is utterly different. The country was changed profoundly by Thatcherism (as the United States was changed by Reaganism), often in ways that were scarcely noticed at the time and are now forgotten.

The roots of the present crisis lie in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the effects of these years are only now becoming evident. At the time, politicians and economists explained that we were entering a post-industrial age. In future, the most successful countries would earn their living from services, not from the production of goods. Given the history and reputation of the City of London, Britain, it was said, was particularly well placed to lead in financial services.

Finance became the country's fastest-growing industry, expanding at 7 per cent a year on average, and dragging in its wake associated functions such as public relations and law.

The implications went far beyond a change in the economic structure. Just as a society based on industry favoured companies that assured themselves a steady supply of raw materials, so did one based on finance favour companies that assured a steady supply of money from the world's credit markets. Just as industry once required strong domestic markets if it were to flourish overseas, so did finance.

Above all, just as the Industrial Revolution transformed lifestyles, family relations, personal expectations and the very rhythm of existence, so did the financial revolution.

For all of us, the logic of finance has become ubiquitous, from the cradle to the grave. New Labour's "baby bonds" encourage parents, on a child's birth, to invest in a trust fund. Students take out loans to finance their higher education, a device that was preferred over a graduate tax precisely because it compels young people to consider their courses as "investments" with "rates of return". A home is no longer just a place to live, love and raise a family but a speculative investment, a source of security for credit, or "equity" that may be "released"; it turns all of us, as Martin Wolf, the Financial Times commentator, has put it, into "highly leveraged speculators in a fixed asset". With the decline of the state old-age pension (now worth less, as a proportion of average earnings, than when it was introduced in 1909) and, outside the public sector, the almost complete disappearance of pensions based on final salaries ("defined benefit" schemes), millions will depend on the vagaries of the bond and share markets for a decent income in old age.

Deregulation, enhanced by the internet, requires consumers to search for better "deals" on power supplies, car insurance, mortgages, savings rates, phone charges and so on. Social scientists have coined the word "financialisation" to describe this new world, as they used "industrialisation" to describe the old. As Essex University's Robin Blackburn has put it, financialisation "encourages households to behave like businesses, businesses to behave like banks, and banks to behave like hedge funds".

The new order followed the collapse in the 1970s of the postwar economic and social consensus, known as Keynesianism. Trade unions were weakened, partly by legislation, partly by the decline of heavy manufacturing industry. Labour could no longer drive a hard bargain.

Capital, assisted by deregulation of money movements across borders, held the whip hand. Under the Anglo-Saxon economic model, employers could now hold down wages - if necessary by relocating or threatening to relocate abroad - shed jobs and require longer hours and/or more productivity from their workforces. Faced with the devaluation of their labour, working people had to try and get a slice of the capitalist action. Money, they had to learn, no longer stopped with the wages generated from employment. As Randy Martin, the New York University public policy specialist, puts it in his illuminating book Financialisation of Daily Life (2002), "what once belonged to the workaday world beds down with leisure and domesticity".

This was exactly what Margaret Thatcher wished for. Once, western governments tried to subjugate the working class. The governments of the postwar era, by contrast, tried to pacify it. High wages, good working conditions, decent housing, stable employment, predictable pensions and, crucially, the power of a large state sector to head off deep recession through fiscal intervention delivered the workers’ consent to, even enthusiasm for, a capitalist economy. It also ensured the stable domestic markets that provided the basis for unprecedented economic growth. As the student rebels of 1968 understood, the workers were required not just to produce goods but to consume them, too.

Thatcher offered what you might call a "third way". The working class was not to be enslaved or tamed, but abolished. Everyone would become, in their private if not in their working life, a member of the bourgeoisie, owning a house, acquiring debt to improve themselves, trading in shares and bonds. With such financial commitments, they would be reluctant to sacrifice regular income by going on strike.

Better still, they would vote Conservative, or at least for an alternative party that accepted, as new Labour did, the broad principles of Thatcherism. The spectre of communism or socialism would be exorcised.

But was it possible to create mass capitalism when large sections of the population lacked capital? Could a new liberalised economy - free from the constraints of either government regulation or union bargaining strength - deliver the stable mass consumer markets of the previous 30 years? To these questions, housing, along with the wide availability of credit, was the central answer.

The sale of council-owned dwellings – the best-known of Thatcher’s housing policies – took more space in the Conservatives’ 1979 election manifesto than health, education or social security. At the time, 85 per cent of British voters favoured the policy and, given that the discounts on sale prices to long-term residents could be as high as 60 per cent, it seemed a rare example of the state offering something for nothing. But it was also a form of gerrymandering, as the effect of the policy was to break up the public housing estates that formed the basis of Labour Party mobilisation.

The sales generated £17.5bn over ten years. But local authorities were not allowed to use the revenues - or the proceeds of other taxes - to build new council housing. Moreover, government subsidies to council house rents were reduced in favour of means-tested benefits available to those who rented private as well as public housing. The result was to make council housing less affordable, with rents rising 40 per cent in real terms between 1979 and 1984, and, as it increasingly became a ghetto for those who lacked either the means or the aspiration to buy, less attractive to live in. In a decade, the proportion of the population who were owner-occupiers jumped from under 55 per cent to more than 65 per cent (it is now 70 per cent).

They were assisted by a second revolution: the easier availability of mortgages. Until the 1980s, nearly all mortgage lending to the public came from building societies. The societies' history went back to the late 18th century and they were specifically designed to allow working people to pool and save their resources in order to build and buy houses. The savers were known as "members" and, nominally at least, owned the societies. Loans, financed purely from savings, were largely restricted to members. If savings were insufficient to meet demand, borrowers had to wait, often for several months. A regular income of sufficient size to support repayments, as well as a deposit from one's own resources, was essential. A building society manager would usually insist on meeting the borrower personally. There was no significant competition: managers of the leading societies met monthly to agree their interest rates.

This system was swept away in the 1980s as the Tories allowed banks to enter the mortgage market. If banks were allowed to behave like building societies, the societies reasoned, they should be allowed to behave like banks. The Building Societies Act 1986 gave them the necessary flexibility, including more freedom to raise funds from the wholesale money markets rather than their own savers and to advance unsecured credit. Crucially, it also allowed them, if a majority of members voted in favour, to demutualise and actually to become banks.

Abbey National - which had broken the societies' interest rate cartel even before the 1986 act - was the first to take advantage of this provision and several more followed over the next decade, as members were tempted by lump-sum "windfalls" that bought them out of their ownership rights. Labour opposed the bill but without great passion or conviction. As Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson point out in their latest book, The Gods That Failed (2008), deregulation of all kinds was sold with a leftish slant; regulation, once considered a device to protect the public, was now seen as a conspiracy against the public.

In 1986, at least one Labour MP, Austin Mitchell, saw "no great harm in more unsecured credit". A Tory MP proposed that all building societies should be required to demutualise within ten years; in other words, that they should be abolished. Institutions that had survived for 200 years were thus quietly dismantled. An entire model of popular saving was undermined.

Working-class communities had long saved for special needs, such as Christmas or holidays, through local "clubs", often centred on the neighbourhood pub, with a trusted elder, usually a skilled artisan, acting as treasurer. Others, known as "friendly societies" (based, as the name suggests, on personal relationships), provided help in times of ill-health or unemployment. The pre-1986 building societies could trace their lineage directly back to this tradition, which Clive Thornton, then chief general manager of the same Abbey National that so enthusiastically embraced the new era, once called the highest form of socialism. The model, though on a larger, more sophisticated scale and now patronised as much by the middle classes as by the working classes, was essentially unchanged: lending and borrowing was between people who knew and trusted each other (if less intimately than they once did), and the community met its needs from its own resources. It was a world away from the deregulated banking that allowed loans to be split and repackaged as "asset-backed securities" sold to unknown investors on the other side of the planet.

Who benefited from demutualisation? The answer can be summed up in two figures: between 1993 and 2000, chief executives of the demutualised societies got pay rises of 293 per cent against 65 per cent for chief executives of the remaining mutuals. An all-party group of MPs concluded in 2006 that consumers got inferior savings and home loan rates. What the original members gained in windfalls, they lost in higher charges. It is just one example of how financialisation involves a substantial invisible “tax” on nearly all the transactions that ordinary people are encouraged to make: a rake-off by managers in the financial services industry that can amount, according to some estimates, to 25 per cent. Blackburn calls it “insider looting on a grand scale”. No wonder Labour’s scheme for “stakeholder pensions” – intended for people on low or middling incomes who were no longer covered by final-salary schemes – flopped so badly. It set a 1 per cent cap on charges.

A second housing revolution followed legislation on the building societies. In 1988, a housing act introduced the assured shorthold tenancy, which gave tenants - who until then had been notoriously hard to evict - security for just six months, after which landlords need give them only two months' notice, without stating reasons. A second act in 1996, at the fag end of Tory rule, made the assured shorthold the default agreement for any new renting. Henceforth, new assured tenancies became very rare. Lenders and letting agents, recognising the opportunities, introduced a type of mortgage that would allow the small-scale landlord to be treated as an owner-occupier rather than a business.

The stage was set for the buy-to-let revolution, which would eventually involve more than half a million landlords, most owning four properties or fewer, "contributing" (if that is the right word) four times as much to the UK economy as the motor industry. It seemed, for a time, like a win-win for the country: the young, unattached and mobile got a plentiful supply of rentable property while their more settled elders (the median age of buy-to-let landlords is in the early forties) got a new income stream allied to an appreciating asset. All done by the magic of easier credit.

Housing became a national obsession. In an intensely competitive, deregulated mortgage market, lenders fell over each other to offer favourable terms and cared not at all if a high proportion of the money "leaked" to consumer spending. Retired couples were encouraged to remortgage their houses to fund holiday cruises or grandchildren's trust funds. Young couples of all classes stretched their resources to get "on the housing ladder", knowing councils had sold off the best of their housing stock and, for the aspirational family, a council home was no longer an option. Couples in their middle years saw buy-to-let as an additional stream of income, a hedge against redundancy or declining earning power. Second homes became increasingly fashionable. The Tory government abolished rates, which linked local taxes to house values, and substituted first poll tax and then council tax, which was only slightly less regressive. All this created a housing bubble which, in turn, made ownership of houses yet more desirable, even mandatory. Despite occasional crashes, there seemed no end to the upward surge in house values.

Housing thus allowed neoliberalism to deliver what, up to the 1970s, Keynesianism had delivered through high wages, secure employment and guaranteed pensions: buoyant, confident consumer markets and a population that had an interest in preserving the existing political and economic order. The new economic order could not otherwise bring to the masses the stable and rising living standards that it promised.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, it brought deep recession and chronic unemployment, the consequence of the instability of a globalised and deregulated financial system that allowed capital to cross national boundaries at a single computer keystroke. In Britain - and even more so in America - it brought gross inequality of incomes. Average US wages, in real terms, are no higher than they were 30 years ago and in Britain, too, they have stagnated over the past five years.

Credit, normally secured on rising house values but increasingly unsecured, was the rabbit in the neoliberals' hat, as they discovered during the recession of the early 1980s. In 1982, under Sir Geoffrey Howe's chancellorship, controls on hire-purchase, which strictly regulated the amount that could be borrowed, were abolished. Credit cards were then in their infancy, confined to sections of the younger and more affluent middle classes. Now, they are held by some two-thirds of the UK adult population, the highest proportion in Europe.

Colin Crouch, professor of governance and public management at Warwick University, describes the effect of this unprecedented liberalisation of credit as "privatised Keynesianism". J M Keynes argued that, when economies needed stimulating, governments should take on debt. Under the privatised version of his doctrine, individuals do the borrowing.

By the end of 2008, UK personal debt had risen to nearly £1.5trn, more than twice the national (public-sector) debt, and more than 170 per cent of disposable income. When the government incurs debt on a comparable scale - as it has done in its efforts to soften the effects of the recession - Tory politicians and economists ask how it can ever be paid off. No similar questions were asked as private debt ballooned.

The dominant political message of the past 30 years was that the private citizen was on his or her own. Risks previously borne by the state or employers were transferred to individuals, particularly in pension provision. Britain moved towards the stage where, beyond a bare minimum “safety net”, each of us was required to make provision for financial security and social care in our old age, for our children’s post-school education, for our housing, for our capacity to survive spells of unemployment or illness.

As Robin Blackburn puts it in his book Age Shock (2006), citizens "have to learn how to hedge risks and spread income over their life cycle". Each individual needed "to convert himself or herself into a two-legged cost centre and profit centre, with loans and insurance used to shift costs to where they can most advantageously be borne". Collective provision, whether through the state, local authorities, trade unions or mutuals such as the building societies, was discouraged. Like those who travelled on trains or buses, those who relied on such supports were failures.

Anybody who failed to buy shares in privatised utilities, to grab the offer of a windfall from demutualisation, or to take advantage of the tax breaks for owning private pensions or equities was a fool.

New Labour and, in the US, its Democratic equivalents, did little to question this philosophy or to reverse its effects. The idea that individuals should become, as the Blairite guru Anthony Giddens put it, "responsible risk-takers" was fundamental to the Third Way. The US Democrat Philip Bobbitt, nephew of the former president Lyndon B Johnson, explained with approval in his much-praised Shield of Achilles (2002) how the welfare state had been succeeded by the "market state", which abdicated responsibility for the well-being of its citizens and merely provided them with opportunities.

Financialisation is now unravelling, with the state striving desperately to shore it up. With financial institutions facing bankruptcy and credit markets frozen, it can no longer deliver prosperity - or the illusion of it - to the masses. Ruination, which capitalism so regularly visited on the Victorian middle classes and which was portrayed so often in the fiction of the period, threatens to envelop millions. The promises of neoliberalism are revealed for what they were: a sham. An ideology that seduced most of the population is broken. The psychic and political consequences are incalculable.

Milestones on the road to financial ruin

  • May 1979
    Margaret Thatcher becomes prime minister, promising "a property-owning democracy"
  • October 1980
    Housing Act gives five million council tenants right to buy homes at discounts of up to 33 per cent
  • 1982
    Geoffrey Howe relaxes rules on credit, making it easier to borrow
  • 1986
    As a housing boom gets under way, banks want a share of the action Building Societies Act begins process of relaxing rules on mortgage lending
  • September 1990
    Student loans introduced. By 2008 average student debt on graduation in England and Wales exceeded £17,000
  • April 2001
    Tony Blair announces "baby bonds" of up to £800 per child to be invested for their future
  • October 2008
    Bank of England reveals cost of crash in UK to have reached $2.8trn

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009