What has destroyed every previous civilisation has been the tendency to the unequal distribution of wealth and power – Henry George (writer and economist)
Capitalism is dying out all over the world. It has been doing so for the last 2,500 years at least – ever since the Gracchi brothers in Ancient Rome challenged some of its precepts (and were duly murdered for their pains). Indeed, here and there, for a very brief period of time, capitalism did die out – before happily resurrecting itself again in one form or another.
The reason for its indestructability is that it is at once both natural and popular. At heart we are all capitalists; so where does the immorality enter?
The man starts up his small business – a grocer's shop, say. He knows his customers and his small staff are all local. He works hard; not only during the day but at night when he checks his stock and updates his accounts. He hardly ever has a holiday. He does earn more than the average of those around him and lives in a slightly larger house and drives a newer car. Finally, he retires and passes the business on to his family.
They expand it; opening up stores in other towns and divesting into other markets. They begin to (inadvertently) distance themselves from their customers and their staff. Ultimately, it is all too much work and they are pleased to sell out to a larger concern. In turn, this larger concern gets taken over by an international company.
Let's assume that this international company is run by an honest board, whose sole aim is to run their company well (perhaps a big assumption). The moral imperative upon them is to keep their company in business; to do so they need to make profits – above all else; above service to the customer (although the two aims are related), above loyalty to their staff, above the quality of their goods and services.
To achieve this, they set themselves up in a country that does not tax them; they employ cheap labour from overseas, they (slowly) lower the pay of their staff relative to the cost of living, they employ more part-time staff (less union trouble and less break time), they subtly reduce the quality of their goods and services: they keep their suppliers waiting for their money and use every excuse not to pay in full; all this to stay competitive with their opposition.
And they become involved politically; they come to believe that one of the larger political parties in their main country of operation has policies detrimental to their trading arrangements so they start donating and supporting the other main party: the media outlet they have invested in begins to run stories favourable to the party they support and hostile to the others; they even encourage one of their directors to become a candidate for 'their' political party.
Lastly they, in some countries, even begin donating to the other party in order to have influence and some control over it. Through this, they begin to gain enormous and undemocratic power and influence in the nation. As they see it though, they are only acting in their own best interests which they are obliged to do for the sake of all their employees, customers, share-holders and directors, and in order to keep trading.
So, where is the immorality in all of that? Right at the start: and it lies with the laws, rules and regulations of the nation where it all began – or, the lack of. If you ask how else could it be, there is a simple and one word answer: Norway. Before considering that nation, let's look at Scotland.
Much of our land is foreign held.
Our oil industry is totally owned by large, international concerns.
Most of our airports are foreign owned.
Our energy raising and distribution systems are totally owned from abroad.
Our rail system is run by a foreign government through its subsidiary company.
Our vaunted whisky industry is largely foreign owned.
Our grocery retail and distribution system is mostly foreign controlled.
Our banks are not our
banks, and most of our building societies are also owned outwith our borders.
That means a slice of our financial system is controlled by overseas owners.
Much of our processed food manufacturing is foreign owned.
Our bottled water companies are largely foreign owned.
Our salmon farming industry is totally foreign owned (by Norwegian companies, if you please).
Now this is not all totally bad and the foreign companies concerned do bring opportunities to the table and they must not be slighted. Indeed, many are pro-Scottish and do endeavour to support Scotland; also, our agricultural, forestry and fishing industries are still mainly in Scottish hands and that represents a major part of our economy.
But back to Norway (a non-EU nation); Norway is one of the two most democratic countries in the world and this provides the people of Norway with a much greater degree of control over themselves; it is no coincidence therefore that the average Norwegian is considered to enjoy the highest quality of life in the world compared to the average citizen of other countries and Norway comes sixth in the highest GDP per person (ranking only behind such extremely rich countries as Monaco, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein – Britain is 24th). It is also considered the country where the wealth is most evenly distributed (Iceland is another contender for this accolade).
There are a number of factors involved in such ratings but one stands out. The Norwegians have an almost unique set of laws ensuring that Norwegian businesses remain Norwegian. This, in turn, has encouraged a high level of public ownership in Norwegian undertakings and their world-leading democratic system guarantees a high level of oversight on business activities.
Place this all against what the SNP want for Scotland; they want us in the EU which runs on ordoliberalism of Germany; this is a theory that supports the role of the state to simply provide the necessary 'order' for the private sector to work within it. The state becomes an indirect player in the national economy and thus does not define investment conditions nor controls prices. It also means the central bank of the country is distinct from the state.
If you thought the SNP were still left-of-centre and you want to read a hymn to ordoliberalism, then I recommend Grasping the Thistle
by right-wing businessman Dennis MacLeod and that insider in the SNP, Michael Russell. Indeed, the book is poorly written and the arguments convoluted, but what comes through is frightening – well beyond ordoliberalism. It advocates an end to the NHS, embracing totally the free market and a drastic cut back of the welfare state – including the adoption of massive tax cuts. In short, its premises, if carried out, would make Scotland another USA.
Thankfully, not all the leadership of the SNP would agree with Michael Russell, but their determination to make a so-called independent Scotland part of the EU flashes a warning light. The SNP are a party set on independence and, to do so, must also gain backing from the Right as well as the Left.
Scotland can indeed be independent but, if we go down that route, we must ensure independence means controlling our own assets and take our lead from nations like Norway and Iceland (and not as part of the EU). Yes, it will not be easy given the present situation (and the increasing climate crisis) and we may have to look at partnerships with our countries' present resource owners. It will, however, ensure that a controlled capitalism stays alive in Scotland and wealth disparities stay within bounds.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow