When Boris Johnson talks about ‘the high skill, high wage future’ he is talking about all our futures. Some of the worst regimes in history have promised a golden future, which has then been used as a justification for the most heinous viciousness, cruelty, violence and barbarity ever seen. Taking the cause of human civilisation backwards not forwards if anything.
A golden future of political, societal and economic justice has similarly been the ambition and design of many a progressive political philosopher, critic of the forces behind tyranny, oppressive political realities of the past, and utopian dreamers too.
Humans work for a better future
Humans have a strange relationship with the future, as the future is the place where individuals do not yet exist and where you as a person eventually will not. So, it is easy to dismiss concerns of the future at times, especially when you have to live your life in the present.
Yet this is to neglect to appreciate how much human struggle and suffering there has been to improve the future. Whether that is on a familial, individual or community level, or whether it is through advances in science, medicine, and engineering; humans have thought about a future without disease, with better distribution of food, improved leisure, and ease of travel. Both well-known and lesser-known people of the past have invested their whole lives in attempts to build a future for people close to them and complete strangers, which has fewer problems or challenges.
Then made it a reality.
People have conveyed knowledge, understanding and experience through time via books, plays, film, art or music. They have built serving infrastructures, technologies, designs, facilities, machinery, and institutions, all so that people can have better futures and often for people they will never meet or know, a number of whom who will live the other side of the world.
Ensuring a future for the next generations
Perhaps sometimes it is better not to think of human history as past, present and future but more like a ‘Long now’. ‘Now’ was once the distant future, but it will be in time the very distant past.
We owe other humans a now; that is what a species who respects and loves themselves and the biosphere must do. To do so we must protect and maintain the now.
Rentier capitalism and the cost for ‘high skill, high wage future’
What is the connection between the ‘now’ and Johnson’s high skill, high wage future? Well if this is a serious proposal like ‘levelling up’, then how we protect the now for future generations has to be the focus of that process. Currently, rentier capitalism stands as a force against this and a force against higher skills and higher wages.
Briefly, rentier capitalism is placing necessary and valuable resources, institutions or facilities like energy, public transport, markets and water into the hands of monopolists or cartelising most things in society into the ownership of the few.
Rentiers, now effective owners of most of the economy, public services, institutions and even parts of the state, then try to extract as much profit (aka rent), from that exclusive position as they possibly can. Demonstrated recently in the record profiteering of the inflation crisis.
Conditions of rentier capitalism
Rentier capitalism is therefore a barrier to a ‘high skill, high wage’ future. When rentier capitalism is in full force, a number of conditions are met. Firstly, keeping wages as low and conditions as poor for as many workers as possible, which often results in high rewards for the executive class and high dividends for shareholders, but lower wages for the vast majority of workers. Evidenced by the recent biggest in two decades drop in real wages and household incomes.
Other conditions of rentier capitalism include:
- Reduce costs on workplace training and investment in employees (skills).
- Reduce expensive infrastructure investments, especially ones which might actually reduce costs or prices to the consumer.
- Skim off things like patient, pupil or employee funding.
- Overcharge through opaque markets and tendering processes for shareholders on government contracts.
- Avoiding investment in greener technology and infrastructure.
- Avoid paying taxes which would benefit workers in terms of public services.
- Keep prices as high as possible.
When the modus operandi looks like this, there is no chance of a ‘high skill, high wage future’ or present, as the majority of people’s wages and money are designed to be funnelled into the bank accounts of the rentiers and often to ones offshore where they pay no tax.
But this is not the gravest danger of rentier capitalism; it is also profoundly undemocratic, posing a risk to the future ‘now’. It is a force which is recklessly and maliciously irresponsible and unaccountable in its relationship to the natural world and politics too. It is a force where there are few-to-zero public controls, as decisions about policies in relation to the natural world are decided too often in the boardroom, privately, not publicly by the people.
Recklessness with the environment
I do not remember the vote where humans agreed it was fine for big corporations to pollute and act so recklessly as to make the world uninhabitable for humans. Do you?
Rentier capitalists do not perceive things like energy, water, sewage facilities, food, health, transport, engineering, education, computing and land as necessary resources and the ingredients to human civilisation. Instead, these are seen as things which can be milked as cash cows, extracting as much money as possible without a care for the future, where no one has any political say or control over these things we all need, other than them.
Society in this rubric is operated like a machine which cannot be negotiated with, and rentier capitalists are consequently chewing up the natural world, human civilisation, economic and societal institutions, the state too, all for short term profit with scant regard for longevity or sustainability.
Rentier capitalists serving their own interests
These rentier capitalists have corrupted politics to serve their interests and designs, turning our politics into oligarchies and in more ancient times that is what they would be called: Oligarchs. Oligarchy is rule of a state by a small number of wealthy people to have their interests served primarily over wider state considerations, the health of society or the citizenry. The rentiers, aka oligarchs, have not only economic ambitions, but political motives too. The insistence that economics is some separate entity to politics is just not true and if it is not a political force then why the need for all those corporate lobbyists around parliaments making donations?
There was a stark reminder of this oligarchical political reality recently when an angry Nadine Dorries told Members of Parliament off with an extraordinary, and what should be far more significant and controversial rebuke, about the vote of no confidence in Johnson. That donors had effectively bought the government and Johnson was their man, so they must support him. Confirming the political reality that wealthy private power has more say in our democracy than elected officials or citizens.
Although probably the best evidence of oligarchical corruption of politics domestically and worldwide is the huge influence that oil and gas lobbyists have on policy and politics. They are a force influencing politics, decisions and policy where there are no votes, no accountability, no responsibility, and no representation given to citizens.
It is tyrannous and a totalitarianism.
Global South hit hardest by climate change
The consequences of inaction of corporate pollution, destruction of the environment and the violence used in service of that power are often offshored to other parts of the world, kept out of the public consciousness and instead passed onto future generations. The Global South has seen the worst consequences of human-induced climate change so far. However, with widespread droughts, threats to global food security, extreme weather events, wild fires and rising sea levels the Global North will suffer too.
Science tells us that inaction on human-induced climate change will lead to irreversible, irreparable damage where species will be extinct and billions of human lives lost, confirmed by the IPCC reports, which some scientists argue has been watered down in terms of laying out the full consequences.
This oligarchical force is murdering the future of human civilisation and is the reason why so many scientists are becoming political activists and why this force is so dangerous.
There can be no ‘high skill or high wage’ future then.
Yet, all the rentier capitalists wish to do is enclose off the natural world and Earth’s resources. They want to dominate and control markets, and extract profit through a rigged political system of monopolised, cartelised or exclusive market power, something explored in an earlier article in relation to the world of fashion. There I argued that only worldwide rule of law and government can put an end to the problems of uneven legal jurisdictions, problematic abuses of sovereignty and irregular international legality which facilitate these injustices and destruction.
Incarceration for protesting
Only a miniscule amount of the population worldwide accrue obscene wealth and political power in this oligarchical system. Even then many of those wealthy people are miserable and paranoid, whilst protestors against this reckless and destructive force to the biosphere are now being placed in jail after being regularly characterised in the oligarchically-owned press and media as crazy, and outright murdered in increasing numbers.
Johnson and the classics
Boris Johnson is a fan of the classics, Pericles especially; he has a bust of him in his office.
Aristotle, however, is more relevant to this political reality. Aristotle warned centuries ago about a politics captured by oligarchy, raising concerns that it would lead to an entirely irresponsible and unaccountable executive which is capable of destroying ‘the city and the citizens’, otherwise known as everything!
This is now especially pertinent to modern British politics where rentiers and oligarchs are the prevailing political power. Johnson currently assists that force, but it applies internationally, as Putin, Biden and Xi do too. Oligarchies often rub up against each other, and as seen in Ukraine and China, this can lead to militarism and war.
What is even more insidious is that this force controls people with increased oppressions and attacks on dissenters domestically, and overseas with corruption of foreign elites, neo-colonialism, war and violence. Until British politics (and global politics too) meaningfully addresses this oligarchical force, there will be no future.
Sugar-coating the truth
This is despotism: the jackboot of violence abroad and the luxuries afforded by and to oligarchs at home in the developed economies ensures compliance, apathy, acceptance and complacency. There is an illusion that nothing is wrong, that there are no risks, and that current actions are sustainable: we know now that they are not!
That is why the oligarchs and the rentiers are so dangerous as they can sugar coat tyranny in developed economies with consumerism to win over mass consent. That is why Aristotle, thousands of years ago, warned of the corrupting risks of an oligarchical political force which could destroy civilisation.
The politics of now is dangerous; the powers that the oligarchical minority enjoy are more dangerous than any of the despotic and totalitarian regimes of the past, which had conspicuous weaknesses. Today, there are more subtle controls on public discourse, support and politics, offsetting its destruction to the future and hiding its violence, corruption and oppressions from the public, elsewhere in the world: in the Middle East and the Global South.
Rhetoric about freedom
The oligarchs and power-holders today use rhetoric and ideology, words like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ to cover up what is actually destruction. A liberty or freedom which destroys the liberties and freedoms of others or future generations is not freedom at all, it is a tyranny.
A tyranny predominantly on the most defenceless, disenfranchised and currently unrepresented group of people in politics: future generations, literally the babies of the future.
Let us call this force what it evidentially is: infanticide. Infanticide is common amongst other species but occurs naturally to protect the genes of the species for survival, not to oversee the demise of that species in its entirety.
So, until Johnson and other world leaders are prepared to act with a duty of care, to act in loco parentis, like a wise parent would do, then the world is in trouble from the most dangerous political force that there is: oligarchy.
High skill, high wage myth
The ‘high skill, high wage future’ is a myth for the main reason that the current economic and political orthodoxy prevents it. Unless plans are made to protect the now, there will be no future, highly paid or otherwise for humanity, lost through environmental destruction and war.
Who should own the future? Those currently destroying the biosphere or those who protect it?
This is bigger and more serious than most people appreciate. It is the ultimate political question of this generation.
The consequences of the wrong choices are increasingly evident every day, and the brutality, viciousness and cruelty of actions and decisions now, are all the more apparent and visible in the present. Foreshadowing a far worse future, brought to us through the injustices, corrupt choices and political unthinkingness of the present.