“No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”
Those words were spoken at the dawn of the neoliberal era in 1980 by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and they sum up the attitude that led to the Global Financial Crisis – which ‘celebrates’ its 10th anniversary today.
The Thatcherite ideology was pretty simple: deregulate financial markets, lower taxes, privatise state-owned industry, let companies and individuals get as rich as they possibly can, and all will be well. Yes it will lead to inequality, but it will also increase wealth; and wealth will “drag up the poor people”, as Mrs Thatcher put it.
It was an ideology that extended beyond economics. It became a religion.
Britain in the 1970s was in crisis. The quasi-socialist ‘post-war consensus’ – government ownership of industry, a massive welfare state, and a pact between governments and trade unions – had hit a wall. Inflation was going crazy, wages were failing to keep up, and efforts to bring the economy under control by cutting public sector pay led to massive, nation-crippling industrial action. By the end of the decade the population was sick of unions, and wanted to give Mrs Thatcher’s radical new vision a whirl.
I was born in London four years after Thatcher came to power, and by the time I became conscious her once-fringe ideas were mainstream.
In the environment I grew up in, if you didn’t accept that there was, in a deep, cross-party sense, “no alternative”, you were at best a well-meaning naïf, at worst a wicked (but obsolete) socialist. London in the 1980s and ’90s was a city that really lived by Wall Street protagonist Gordon Gekko’s memorable mantra: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
The UK and the US were the epicentres of this ideology. US-based economist Milton Friedman and UK-based economist Friedrich Hayek were the new movement’s spiritual leaders; Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were its political agents. It quickly spread around the globe.
Australia, it seems, was spared some of the excesses of the new wave that has become known as neoliberalism. That may be because it happened during the Hawke-Keating government, and while that government did buy into a good deal of the Thatcherite policies, it managed to implement them in a more conciliatory way.
As a Brit with Aussie parentage, who has grown up in both cultures, Australia has never seemed to me as intensely money-worshipping as the UK was before the GFC.
Before being the operative word. The GFC didn’t hit Australia nearly as hard as it did the UK, and as a result there doesn’t appear to have been a particularly profound ideological shift.
But in the UK the shift is unmissable. The 2008 crash devastated the UK’s real economy, not just its share market as in Australia, and the effects are still being felt. The population is utterly disillusioned. Two huge events of recent years demonstrate this: Brexit, and the rise of the UK Labour Party’s very left wing leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Brits no longer openly worship money, and those that do worship it do so quietly and shamefully. That’s because of the GFC.
I went back to live in London for 18 months in 2015, and worked as a financial journalist. I was struck by how unflashy the City of London had become. It almost seemed ashamed of itself. That’s not to say the finance industry was actually better. But it wasn’t as openly arrogant as it used to be.
What I’m getting at is it’s no longer really acceptable to worship money the way it was in the decades leading up to the GFC. This is a huge cultural shift, and we clearly have the GFC to thank for it. It was a hard lesson to learn, and it hit those least responsible for it – you know, “the poor people” – the hardest. But that ideological shift away from rampant greed is surely the one positive legacy of the GFC.
Britain is now paying a high price for its ardent conversion to the gospel of money. So is the US. Australia has got away with only minor scars – partly thanks to good policy, but probably more so because it’s in Asia and has loads of iron ore.
That puts Australia in a privileged position: while the Brits waste the best part of a decade trying to figure out Brexit, and the US spend perhaps as long courting disaster under President Trump, Australia can watch and learn the lessons of the GFC and the neoliberal experiment without feeling its pain too harshly.
And hopefully the whole world (climate, economics and geopolitics permitting) will come out the other side a bit less greedy.