29 September 2008

Bowled for six

This morning we see the final act of the asset-stripping of local communities that began when the Abbey National gave up its mutual status, under the pro-market encouragement of the dying Thatcher government, in 1989. Wikipedia helpfully provides a list of the spate of demutualisations that followed: it shows that many of our building societies are now controlled by Spanish bank Banco Santander.

I imagine the original founders of these societies as bewhiskered gentlemen in Batley or Huddersfield, but the reality is that they were more likely to have worn flat-caps than top hats. They were working people clubbing their savings together so that one after another they could save themselves from rapacious landlords.

The building societies were part of the mutual society that developed in response to the growth of capitalism. As a challenge to domination by rentier interests it is unsurprising that the high tide of capital power saw their dismantling. In the loadsamoney culture of the 1980s the members who voted for the paltry £1500 or so of shares (most of which they turned into cash) had lost their sense of the way that owning assets protected them. Their ancestors had learned this the hard way; they may well be learning that lesson in the years to come.

Mr Bradford and Mr Bingley, those sober, suited gentlemen in bowler hats would never have gambled their investors' money on self-certified mortgages and buy-to-let cowboys. We have, perhaps, been dazzled by the proliferation of multi-coloured bowler hats, a classic piece of financial illusionism, but the hard realities of a capitalist economy remain. Money means power and the more assets you control the more powerful you are. Trying to take on the big boys in property speculation was a sting perpetrated on the foolish by the confidence tricksters. And the building societies that working people worked so hard to create now belong to banks which follow only the interests of capital.

In my home community of Stroud we are going back to learn from our ancestors. The recession does offer us opportunities as a community, since assets such as empty property and even - conceivably - land will fall in value. Although we are poor, we are many. Just as the Miners’ Welfares and working mens’ clubs of Northern Britain were built on the sixpences of their working-class members, so we are establishing a ‘tenner a month’ fund which we hope will generate enough cash to buy community farms and workshops.


  1. Interesting post, on the money. Thanks.

  2. A Timely Collapse

    It seems to me that this collapse in the banking and finance sectors is timely for us all. The path we have been on has clearly been leading us to almost certain ecological Armageddon at a faster and faster and more and more efficient pace. We have been dragged by the demands of the debt based economy into mortgaging and discounting the future of the planet and the next generations. Finally the system is being found out.

    An economy like a house cannot be built on confidence but needs real and solid foundations. The deregulated markets have produced economies built on sand.

    I cannot see many reasons to lament the collapsing of this awful unjust edifice. 3 Billion people continue to live on little more than a dollar a day and struggle with continual struggle and poverty. In the wealthy world loneliness and insecurity stalk the population waiting for the slightest signs of weakness. Education is reduced to preparation for the market rather than any form of reflective or broadening questioning.
    The value of peoples labour has become increasingly detached from their worth and importance as to be insulting. Footballers and market traders on millions of pounds a year while the carers of their parents get £6 an hour for a night shift.

    There is a long long way to go before this situation fully unfolds. As yet the real fundamental flaws in the way the pack of cards has been established are still not being discussed. And who knows, maybe peak oil has been reached and the economic turmoil is reflecting the fundamental limits to growth that we need to respect and honour.

    The pound, dollar and euro need to fall to match the values of the emerging economies - we need to lose our reserve currency advantages - maybe lose four or five times our international buying power. We need to lose our psychological expectation of global advantage to create a more fair and equal world. We need to learn to use our resources more wisely, share shops in every street for cars, tools, washing machines etc.

    We will lose pension power and share value but that is okay, money cannot be expected to make money, only return its true labour value. We need to live on one planet worth of goods not three or more. We have to fight to distribute what is available to avoid suffering and hopefully the anger people feel at being offered false promises can be channelled into a community solidarity.

    We need to talk up the truth of this 'crash' and the necessity of this 'Jubilee' time. If we don't and miss the lessons being thrust at us then the outlook could be gloomy and scary.