A truly free market is an unobtainable myth, yet so many still retain it as a guiding light, as a destination to gear policy towards. I understand the fears of a shackled market, unable to be efficient and competent. It isn’t what keeps me up at night (I worry more about the destruction of our way of life through sweeping inequality and climate change) but I can understand how this is bad for businesses, and therefore not particularly desirable for society as a whole.
Where I depart from the neoliberal script, however, is I realise that the state isn’t the only player that can influence and distort a market. Large corporations threaten the stability of markets and the strength of our democracy far more than a socialist state does, be it through governmental influence, price-fixing, or simple, brutal monopolies leaving consumers little choice.
To truly rein in these giant superpowers, some of which have more GDP than a small country, we need state intervention. Governments need more power to control big business and stop them becoming the monsters we witness in the likes of Wal-Mart and Nestle. But it’s too late even for that to be able to combat the massive multi-national corporations we already have. If only we had some sort of international collection of states that collectively agree upon laws and work together to implement them… that’d be one way of trying to limit the power of these corporations.
But of course the EU is looking set to actually usher in a new age of unbridled corporate power instead of fostering more democratic markets structures. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is the biggest issue no one is talking about. It is an agreement between the EU and the US that would allow corporations to sue governments for any perceived loss of profit brought about by their policies. This dangerously tilts power into the hands of the wealthy, crippling democratically elected governments to combat issues such as climate change, inequality, worker’s rights... the list goes on.
At the heart of the debate around business regulation and the power of corporations is an age-old axiom - inequality. With TTIP looking set to enter the European stage, a friendly Conservative government in power (with a hopeless Labour opposition in toe) and FTSE 100 chiefs' pay soaring, things are looking excellent for big business in the UK. Contrast this with the declining standards for the poorest in society at the moment - huge rises in food bank usage, stagnating or even declining wages, the demonization of benefit claimants and unions… The power balance in this country is being tilted dangerously out of control.
This is something that should concern left and right-wingers equally - for it strikes at the very heart of their ideologies. Traditionally, the motivating force behind the left is a yearning for equality, whilst for the right it is an equally strong commitment to freedom. This is, of course, a terribly brutal way of defining two massively varied ideologies that have centuries of history behind them, but broadly speaking these seem to be the ideals each side appeals to when galvanising the troops. And whilst simplistic, there is also a beauty to viewing the divide this way.
Both values (freedom and equality) are noble, worthy goals to aspire to. And, in moderation, they are not necessary in conflict, and this is the point. The point of politics is to balance these two forces, to ensure that they can be kept in a happy state of coexistence. By taking this approach, of viewing these values as the driving force behind the two sides of the divide, an understanding between age-old enemies can begin to be reached.
If you had complete freedom, with absolutely no restrictions, you would inevitably end up with a survival-of-the-fittest sort of world, whereas complete equality would perhaps be embodied in a totalitarian, communist state. With a survival of the fittest sort of world, in the end not everyone would be free - those who were the strongest would consolidate their power and wield it over those who were ‘weaker’. And this is why a truly free market is impossible - if you allow businesses to do what they want, some will be victorious at the expense of others until you end up with monopolies and oligarchies that distort the freedom of the market… and that, of course, also entrenches inequality.
How we frame the discourse around ‘inequality’ needs to change. There needs to be a recognition that it doesn’t just concern material wealth - it also encompasses our democratic power, and ultimately our freedom. Whilst opposed in the extremes, freedom and equality have a complex relationship when moderated. Allowing a widening gulf between rich and poor may increase the freedoms of the wealthy, but it erases the voices of millions whilst subjecting them to poverty at the same time.
The consolidation of corporate power represented in TTIP and the entrenched inequality it and other current Conservative policies bring about are crucial issues that should be at the top of everyone’s agenda, no matter what political camp you come from. If you care about freedom then great - fight against the undemocratic influence mega-corporations have over our governments, our markets, and our lives - not the socialist principles that are trying to redress the balance of power in society. Let’s cut across divisions in the spectrum just this once, to tackle inequality and corporate power, to create a freer, more equal society for all.
By Bradley Allsop