Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The greedy ghost of market madness

Fantastic speech here by British author Phillip Pulman on what he calls "the greedy ghost of market madness" and the social, cultural, and democratic dislocation that it causes. 
In this speech Pulman attacks the British Government for its austerity cuts which are resulting in the closure of hundreds of libraries throughout the UK and are hitting the most marginalized and disadvantaged the hardest, whilst delivering tax cuts and more public funds to the wealthy, the corporate elite and business and corporate interests.
Pulman argues that libraries are too precious a resource to destroy. They are he believes, essential not just for the value of reading, but also because of the democratic and civic space enshrined in public libraries and other public services, public assets and public infrastructure.
"there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about.. things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight"
Pulman points the finger directly at all those who place the unfettered freedom of the market at the centre of public policy and social and economic life, as well as those who measure the success of an endeavor or a public service by the metrics of profit.
"...........And it always results in victory for one side and defeat for the other. It’s set up to do that. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”

Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days.

So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit.

The greedy ghost is everywhere. That office block isn’t making enough money: tear it down and put up a block of flats. The flats aren’t making enough money: rip them apart and put up a hotel. The hotel isn’t making enough money: smash it to the ground and put up a multiplex cinema. The cinema isn’t making enough money: demolish it and put up a shopping mall.

"...............The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.

That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.

Now of course I’m not blaming Oxfordshire County Council for the entire collapse of social decency throughout the western world. Its powers are large, its authority is awe-inspiring, but not that awe-inspiring. The blame for our current situation goes further back and higher up even than the majestic office currently held by Mr Keith Mitchell. It even goes higher up and further back than the substantial, not to say monumental, figure of Eric Pickles. To find the true origin you’d have to go on a long journey back in time, and you might do worse than to make your first stop in Chicago, the home of the famous Chicago School of Economics, which argued for the unfettered freedom of the market and as little government as possible.


Breenus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Breenus said...

Wonderful piece. When Geoff Kennett wanted to charge for the use of public libraries he was opposed by those who said, "This will be the end of democracy!"
A few things strike me about these inhumane moves, 1. Conservatives do not want people to be educated. I think it is a kid of cringe, or fear they will be exposed, as uni-dimensional if not just ignorant.
2. Capitalists do not understand capital. If the human mind manages the productive use of material capital why would you not develop that mega capital? It runs the rest.
3. When conservative governments are in power they are responsible for such waste it is criminal, in the cuts they make, which cause waste of human beings, and human richness.
4. You can put a price on anything, they tell us, but it is only one kind of price.

Colin Penter said...

Cheers Mike, Thanks for your comments and interest. I was not familiar with Pullman's work until I read this piece, which I reckon is one of the most articulate and insightful critiques I have read of the stupidity of neo-liberal and market ideas. You are absolutely correct in the points you make.