Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: We must challenge the supremacy of capitalism

Our obsession with growth and profit is obscuring what matters in life
June 14, 2023

So much political rhetoric now involves the word “growth”. Politicians say we must make the economy ever bigger—though they are often vague as to how it is to be achieved. They warn that growth won’t be won easily. That it involves effort. The public is admonished for an apparent reluctance to return to work, as if many—like dustbin men, nurses and teachers, for example—ever stopped. Early retirement? That’s a bit lazy, isn’t it? Moving to the country? No, you must get on the suffocating Tube five days a week and toil alongside scores of colleagues in a vast open-plan office. Stop only working when you feel like it, like in your home or even—shock, horror—in your garden. Stop prioritising spending time with your family—that was alright while we were hiding from a deadly virus, but not anymore. It’s time to get back to the “real world”, where we buy things and queue to get coffee in cardboard cups. And get rich. Isn’t that what you want? 

I watched a repellent TV programme recently about tax dodgers in Monaco. A stinking-rich woman, her face overstretched, her lips ballooned, talked of her day filled with manicures, dress fittings, cocktail parties and balls. I was struck by the stark contrast between her and a woman interviewed in the news programme that followed, who talked of her three jobs and careful shopping and cooking which, along with her positive spirit, get her through abject poverty. She was fiercely alive and proud, whereas the Monaco woman was dead, and terrified of falling down a meaningless social hierarchy. 

Having been forced, during the pandemic years, into more simple lifestyles, some of us are questioning what we want out of life, and deciding that it is not always growth and profit. Particularly as growth for some often means loss for others. That struggling young woman, for instance, could have done with the help from taxes avoided through clever financial schemes in Monaco. How much do we need, as opposed to want?

We need to fight for what matters: the creativity and community that enriches our souls, not just our pockets

The recent experience of a friend of mine has brought home to me what we lose when economic growth is prioritised over the quality of people’s lives. My friend is approaching retirement, having contributed much to society all her life. She has spent decades in a houseboat in the Chelsea boatyard on Cheyne Walk. This community has existed since 1935, growing considerably after the war, when living quarters in London were scarce and barges came back from use in the Normandy landings. I have always enjoyed the place as a lovely, quaint and slightly ramshackle landmark in London, where several actor, writer and artist friends have lived. They have not had an overly comfortable existence, but the beauty of the location and the sense of camaraderie more than compensate for the lack of material luxury. 

Sadly, a property developer acquired the yard in 2016 and seems to want to replace the homes of its many elderly inhabitants with very big, floating luxury vessels that are more like flats. This will provide the company with a considerably increased income, as some of the boats will be rented out for a whopping £16,000 per month. The residents are fighting back, but they don’t stand much of a chance. The owner has the argument of “growth” on his side. Supposedly, the higher taxes these richer residents will pay—plus their higher spending—will benefit the public purse and trickle down to the needy. More money breeds more money: well, that’s what they say, anyway. On the other hand, many elderly people may be rendered homeless, their boats almost valueless without the mooring and a quaint part of London history will be destroyed. But money is God. 

The old systems no longer work. Change is essential. As we move into a strange new world of climate catastrophe and employment transformed by AI, we need to fight for what matters: the creativity and community that enriches our souls, not just our pockets.

We need a revolution in our attitudes. To rethink our priorities. We must challenge the long-held, supinely accepted supremacy of money, the banks, capitalism. As Tennyson wrote: “The old order changeth yielding place to new.”