[Dehai-WN] Weekly.ahram.org.eg: Britain, France, US: And, the winner is...

[Dehai-WN] Weekly.ahram.org.eg: Britain, France, US: And, the winner is...

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Mon, 24 Oct 2011 23:14:37 +0200

Britain, France, US: And, the winner is...

In the lifestyle sweepstakes, the answer is "none of the above", concludes
Eric Walberg

20 - 26 October 2011


The economic and social experiments in the past three decades by British
governments from left to right have left the plucky Brits reeling, as this
summer's unprecedented bread and ipod riots showed all too conclusively. For
a year now, fiscal austerity and financial chaos have left Britain's economy
in a nasty cycle of low growth and rising unemployment.

But unlike Greece, which was forced into recession by misguided European
Union taskmasters, Britain has inflicted this on itself. Austerity was a
deliberate choice by Prime Minister David Cameron's ruling coalition of
Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Britain's jobless numbers are the
highest in more than 15 years, with unemployment 8.1 per cent and rising, as
the government slashes public-sector jobs -- more than 100,000 have been
lost in recent months.

This call to "balance the books" is also being preached by United States
President Barack Obama, where even higher unemployment figures (9.1 per
cent) and far worse financial woes can only exacerbate the American economic
downturn. By slashing government spending, hundreds of thousands of jobs
will be lost there too, with the expected downward multiplier effect as
citizens are force to rein in their spending, leading to ever higher
unemployment and ever falling government revenues.

Austerity is politics masquerading as economic policy, intent on lowering
wages while maintaining the profit and interest income of the rich in hard
times. It rests on the myth that all government spending is wasteful and
eats into potential private investment, and is unnecessary to recovery. Just
as bad as this hidden agenda is that the result of this political
stab-in-the-back is to actually increase the government deficit -- the very
opposite of what is intended.

But if things are bad for Britain, it can perhaps find some consolation in
the fact that, for the first time in more than 100 years, British living
standards have risen above American standards, according to an Oxford
Economics (OE) report. It explains that increasing incomes for Brits and
longer holidays (Americans average two weeks per year vs five weeks in
Britain) and free healthcare mean that the Brits are better off than the
Yanks, whose real income today is about the same as it was in the 1970s.

It is perhaps not unusual that a British study might conclude that Brits
have the edge on their American brothers. After all, as Mark Twain was fond
of saying, there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics" (ironically for OE,
the term was coined by British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli). But what
about Britain vs Europe? A study published last week by the uSwitch.com
consumer website claims that Britain has the worst quality of life in
Europe, and -- surprise -- France the best.

British workers work three years longer and die two years younger than the
French, while they pay more for fuel, food, alcohol and cigarettes. The
study compared 17 lifestyle factors in France, Spain, Denmark, the
Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and Britain, and
estimated that while Britain had the highest net household income, this was
eaten up by a much higher cost of living.

British workers work the longest hours (apart from the Poles) and have the
shortest vacations. Britain is also near the bottom in terms of health and
education spending, and -- though through no fault of their own -- sunshine.
The French come out on top in all these categories. Said Ann Robinson, head
of consumer policy at the British firm: "We earn substantially more than our
European neighbours, but this level of income is needed just to keep a roof
over our heads, food on the table and our homes warm." The report will
please no one (except the French) so we can assume its gloomy conclusion is
unfortunately on the mark.

Sifting through these "damned lies", it seems that the quality of life in
Britain is the worst in Europe though still better than in the US. But this
is to be expected, given the 20th century imperial legacy of Britain, Europe
and the US. Britain was the "great" empire of the 18th, 19th and early 20th
centuries, and in keeping with the logic of empire, was, at its peak, able
to amass wealth from its empire and impose its pound sterling as the world's
reserve currency, with all the economic and political advantages that
implies, putting even lowly workers among the beneficiaries.

The imperial dreams of France and other European powers were nipped in the
bud by the insatiable Disraelis (and Churchills). But empire has its dark
side. Economically, the inflow of gold and wealth to the centre eventually
turns into an outflow, as capitalists and bankers look abroad for greater
profit. Meanwhile, the state is left financing colonial infrastructure and a
growing military, necessary to keep the natives in line and to keep the
colonial revenues flowing to the motherland. And then there is the need to
quell competing empires (the French again, not to mention the Gerries). The
18-19th cc wars with France and the 20th century wars with the Germans
bankrupted the British empire, and finally left the US as the empire's heir.

The exact same logic has plagued the post- WWII American empire with results
that are only too obvious today. It faced off against the Soviet Union and
now is mired in the futile attempt to conquer the Middle East and Central
Asia, destroying itself in the process -- and leaving the American people
with falling living standards.

Despite Britain's lack of natural resources, by shedding its empire and
adopting socialist policies, its quality of life actually improved
dramatically after WWII. A smaller pie more equitably distributed is far
better for the masses than a huge, fractious banquet for the elite one per
cent, where only crumbs are passed on to the 99 per cent.

The continuing British malaise today is the direct result of two poisonous
factors. First, the continuing imperial pretensions that its elite has,
prompting its governments, Conservative and Labour alike, to send troops to
the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya to support its own residual
empire or that of its imperial comrade- in-arms. The ongoing imbroglios in
Afghanistan and Libya are now draining British coffers of billions of
pounds, even as its government slashes the social programmes thanks to which
the British worker's standard of living has now risen above his/her hapless
American counterpart.

The malaise is also the result more broadly of the neoliberal policies of
the Iron Lady, who managed to realise her perverse philosophy that "there is
no such thing as society" by dismantling much of the social welfare
structure of post-WWII Britain. The result was far from what prime minister
Margaret Thatcher expected. Her ideal was a return to Victorian liberal
values, but instead of the Victorian virtues of stability and thrift, the
result was a largely proletarian society, characterised by shiftlessness
("flexible labor market"), low inflation and high personal debt, where the
state now promotes only the interests of the corporate individuals, and
suppresses truly "liberal" social forces like unions. It is better called
market totalitarianism. "As Marx perceived, the actual effect of the
unfettered market is to overturn established social relationships and forms
of ethical life -- including those of bourgeois societies," laments critique
John Gray.

The only saving grace for Britain is that it is no longer left holding the
imperial bag. It can always pack up and leave -- with apologies to the
Yanks. It is now a "postmodern state", along with its fellow Europeans,
content to let the Americans make the decisions about who to invade. As for
the smug French, their neo- Napoleon at the helm seems intent on catching up
with the poor Brits in the race to the Euro- bottom, and repeating all the
mistakes of the 20th century in his hallmark frenetic style.

If French President Nicolas Sarkozy has his way (pushing for more imperial
interventions, cutting pensions and education spending, raising the
retirement age and much more), the next study could well show the French
"winning" this race. But not to fear, since the Americans, as the current
imperial bag-holder, are guaranteed to be at the bottom of the heap


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Received on Mon Oct 24 2011 - 17:14:56 EDT
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