In a new feature on RealFare we will be exploring ‘The Alts,’ or the alternatives, that are happening all over the UK and the world. Politicians would like you to think they have no other choice when making cuts or harmful policies, and there is a media campaign that supports that. But, if we step outside this tunnel vision of how things are, we may find the choices made are not always so unavoidable. In the first piece, we talk about Germany and attitudes towards civil liberties….
The coalition have garnered an environment and an attitude that completely blindsides the elements of life that are immeasurable and intrinsic to living. The political and media campaign to blacken the names and lives of an ever extending group of people at the bottom of the social ladder for not working, or not working enough, is, without hyperbole, enslaving us under the Prime Minister’s guise of a ‘moral mission.’
The suggestion of the political line is that only those in work are ‘good.’ Only the “hardworking” or “in work” can feel any sense of moral high-ground. Suspicion is instilled against anyone who can’t or is not in work, however unable they are, and indeed, at the cost of however damaging this rhetoric has been to people’s lives.
Worryingly, the rhetoric goes much deeper as it becomes ever more surgically removed the notion of remuneration. The Conservative Party tagline insists they are “for hardworking people” (apparently). But not “hardworking people who earn a hardworking wage.” Politicians want to “get people into work” but not “get people into work with fair pay” or it seems, even any pay. Instead, further barriers are put up – entry level jobs now ask for work experience and workfare programmes provide a turnstile of free staff to large companies.
Somehow, debating the economy and jobs market has ironically become a debate without talk of money, or the exchange of labour for money. It asks that we offer up our labour for the sense of being ‘hardworking,’ as opposed to the sense of a pay packet. A burden is put on the unemployed to take anything they can, but no burden on companies to pay them.
How can this lead to a recovery?
But like the lie that if repeated enough is believed, we all further distance ourselves from the treatment of others by silently agreeing and legitimising the abuse of desperation and workers during ‘hard times’ in order to increase profit. Working for free/low pay/no pay, and seeking punishment for those not in work, sees us sleep walking into modern slavery as we forever work longer, for less and lower our expectations, demands and voices.
We have been made to feel snobbish for asking for better than a minimum wage job, or in some cases a job that pays us at all. We should be asking, why are people working to remain in poverty? Why are people being made to work for free instead of being paid? Why is paying people a wage they can live on seen as a radical concept and not a value that should be placed at the heart, in the very foundations, of an economy in our ‘developed’ world?
Poverty out-of-work jobseeker benefits are seen as luxuries, as are decent holidays, or time with your family. We are silenced from asking for a life outside our worth to an economy, which for our efforts then immediately turns on us with suspicion, should we fall off it’s troubled, corrupt and risky, state-subsidised, profit-privatised railtrack.
This is why we need to talk about Germany. And other alternatives. Because in an environment obsessed with usurping our values with profit, we need to regain the strength, importance and understanding of the ‘immeasurables’. We are told time and time again, parties have no choice but to make these “tough decisions,” but there is a world of alternatives for us to learn from if we step outside the rigid and well-rehearsed campaign happening here. Of course, everything comes it’s own pluses and minuses and there is always room for improvement. But would the decision to treble tuition fees seem so inevitable if we debated how Scotland has kept it’s education free? Or how Denmark not only offers free higher education but has grants available to all students?
The governing powers have worked well to instil us with an amnesia and incongruence of civil liberties. As workplaces and large corporations play out their race to the bottom of our working conditions, we are expected to follow complacently, believing the faceless, bigger than us ‘we,’ cannot afford to grant us the means to scrape by for our daily work. The guise of living in the ‘free world’ and ‘democracy’ conjures up a belief that those in power will look after our best interests, and thus our hardships must be for good reason, while simultaneously we are sold free work as a gateway to progress.
We are often compared to countries in a way that insists we need more work and discipline. South Korea comes top in education, so ignore the high rates of student suicide and migration, this must mean we need longer hours for children. Michael Gove wants to make public schools like private schools, with longer hours. Again, surgically bereft of talk of investment despite poverty being the main aggregator of a child’s ability to learn and do well. But we don’t talk about Sweden where there is a 99% literacy rate and free higher education for all students from the EU?
And we are rarely compared to Germany. Yet, it has plenty of good ‘measurables’ – measurables being the things government like to talk about – economy, numbers, workers, profit etc. Let’s mention what Germany has on it’s side in terms of these. Though before I do, I must say that these are examples of some strengths in another country and present potential debate or call for alternatives. They are not all perfect, and Germany still has a lot of room for improvement, but there are clearly things we could learn from.
A strong economy which single-handedly save the Euro from a double dip recession
Germany has a strong manufacturing export and this, along with strong economic activity, saved the Eurozone from a double dip recession in 2011. Germany has continued to remain one of the biggest economic forces in the EU since then, and were we to discuss these strengths in the same way the Conservatives discussed South Korean education we would be debating how to create more manufacturing opportunities in our service-heavy country, and also how to increase economic activity.
Most economic activity is created by those with least money, as they spend their money on the essentials they need. However, benefit cuts, wage pressures and rising inflation and living costs has left the worst off even worse off, stagnating what economic activity and growth there could be here.
An abundant banking sector which spreads power and risk…
Germany has three types of banks – savings banks, co-operatives and private banks. All the money is not held by a handful of huge global banks as in the UK. Smaller banks make up a large portion of the sector which spreads the money of the country and allows less room for risk. Indeed, through the recession non-private banks remained strong:
“Two of the pillars—the 423 savings banks and 1,116 co-operative banks—have come through the crisis with barely a scratch so far. Each of these sectors already has a system of joint and several liability, which means that no individual member bank is allowed to go bust. Neither wants to become part of a wider European banking union, in which guarantees extend to weak peripheral banks.
They argue that their business model, working for the public or mutual good rather than for shareholders, is well suited to the mixture of households and small companies (known as the Mittelstand) that they serve.”
The smaller banks have seen their problems, but the private sector has been far more misfortunate and risky. The strength and guarantees that smaller banks can provide should surely be a talking point following the global recession and it’s legacy of austerity here.
The subject was touched on by the Channel 4 programme “Bank of Dave” where millionaire Dave Fishwick embarks on a mission to create a community bank better than the high street. The programme sees him come up against the Financial Standards Authority who seemed reluctant to grant Dave a licence, seeming to take the line that he should “leave it to the other banks” as it is being dealt with already.
All this despite Dave’s community bank being more reliable and risk averse than any of our huge conglomerates. This demonstrates an unwillingness and a barrier in bureaucracy and government to provide alternatives when the current system is clearly hugely problematic for customers.
Could it be that the government don’t want to offer us alternatives…….
Where Measurables meet Immeasurables
Productivity and Work/Life Balance
Germans work on average around 1413 hours a year – one of the lowest rates in the OECD, and much lower than the average 1776 in other EU countries. This averages out at just under 30 hours a week.
Despite this, Germans are still more productive per head, per hour compared to the UK who work much longer hours (an average of 43 per week).
Germans also have an average of 40 days holiday a year including bank holidays. This is much higher than the European average of 27, and accounts for an extra 2.5 weeks worth of time off.
There are still some problems with the gender pay gap in Germany with women taking home 25% less in many cases. Still, the % of women in German government is 35% compared to the UK’s 22%.
The UK has long been recognised as one of the most overworked countries in Europe, but searching for work/life balance, even with the prospect of healthier productivity, doesn’t seem high on the government’s agenda. Maybe this is why we rarely see discussion of these comparisons or debates on the UK working week, despite us being more prone to work-related illnesses. In fact, politicians and media go as far as to trivialise and ignite suspicion about these illnesses to ensure, once again, we are working at any cost to our bank balance and our health.
Again, it doesn’t seem to fit with the current agenda of government’s attitude towards work. In a country hellbent on workfare programmes and low pay/no pay -talk of the work/life balance can only disrupt things.
Attitudes towards civil liberties
Germany and it’s government maintain respect and fierce protection of their civil liberties. This is largely linked to the Second World War, which has meant the country is careful with the power it provides it’s government. But it should serve as a lesson for the rest of us too, because the protection of their civil liberties is a systematic and logical culture born out of understanding of what can happen when governments hold too much power.
Take for instance the recent revelations about GCHQ and NSA and American surveillance of “allies.” German chancellor, Angela Merkel spoke out about the effects and infringement of American tactics on both her and her public.
“Mass surveillance sends the wrong signal to “billions of people living in undemocratic states,” Merkel claimed.
“Actions in which the ends justify the means, in which everything that is technically possible is done, violate trust, they sow distrust. The end result is not more security but less,” she added.”
On a BBC report I witnessed, the attitudes towards spying were discussed from the point of view of several different nations. In this reporter’s package, it mentioned that the Germans didn’t like the idea of spying because it had been used to control and manipulate the population during Nazi Germany. However, when the report moved onto the UK’s attitude towards spying, it was shown as a glamorous business and suggested that Brits thought of James Bond when they thought of spying, and thus it’s aspirational, cool and nothing to worry about.
In some cruel, post ironic twist, that BBC report talked briefly about how one country had learned to resist the infringement of government on human rights through history, and yet in the next breath provided the propaganda to ease through our own surveillance.
Why aren’t we learning from the huge tragedies of Nazi Germany too? Why aren’t we taking lessons from the place where spying and the seizure of civil liberties forewarns us of a dark world?
What money cannot buy…
The focus of our government on work and profit is an attempt to erode the worth of all our other liberties, and to keep us too busy and demoralised to get them back. Whilst at the same time dismantling and hollowing industries of the presence of much else but cold, soul-less, profit decisions. Last year, the respected journal, The Lancet published a report attacking the government for treating our NHS in very much this way:
“Reading headlines last week, such as ‘Struggling A&E units to get £500m bailout’ and ‘NHS managers to get price comparison website’, one might be forgiven for thinking that the current coalition government views the NHS as a failing bank or business,”
This stance is one of the most cynical, and at the same time cunning, ways by which the government abdicates all responsibilities for running a healthcare system that has patient care and safety at its heart.”
The journal, which has been publishing on medical matters for almost 200 years, said the coalition’s NHS reforms meant the health secretary “no longer has a duty to provide comprehensive health services”, having handed over responsibility to a “complex system of organisations”.
We can’t provide care in an environment where the only language is money, profit and work. Workers’ rights, healthcare and education are just some of things that stand to suffer (some already are), with this sort of strategy.
Further, this ‘economic plan’ is not working. Threats, punishment and public shaming have still seen work programmes fail for over 90% of people – who have not found work after 12 months of being enrolled. This is neither efficient, cost-effective or dignified.
Do we need a tragedy to remind us how important our freedoms, protections and liberties are? Because it would much easier to learn from another’s history, and their actions and attitudes towards freedoms now. And with a government so enthused to do away with our human rights, now would be the time to take ownership of what is immeasurably important to our lives.
by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass