Greed is not good: social critic Stuart Sim on the indignities of neoliberal capitalism

By Sean Illing

“How much inequality are we willing to put up with?”

“How much inequality are we willing to put up with?” Stuart Sim, author of Insatiable: The Rise and Rise of the Greedocracy, told me. “That is the question.”

According to a Pew Research Center study, income inequality in the United States is as high as it’s been since 1928, just before the Great Depression. The trendlines are similar in Europe.

Sim — a former literature professor at Northumbria University in England — sees this data as evidence that the West is teetering on a precipice. His book argues that we’ve allowed the profit motive to pervade every corner of society — from government to finance to health care to education. This is especially true of America, where he believes the politics of greed infects … everything.

The villain in Sim’s story is neoliberalism, the prevailing economic ideology of our time. In the past three decades or so, he argues, policymakers have embraced four overlapping principles:

  1. The government’s role in public services like health care and education should be diminished as much as possible.
  2. Government regulations should be maximally eliminated.
  3. Good and services should be privatized whenever possible.
  4. Free enterprise should be completely liberated from regulatory bonds.

The promise of neoliberalism, Sim says, was that the market would deliver benefits for everyone. But instead, it has incentivized greed, glorified competition, and concentrated wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

When Sim is condemning the effects of neoliberal policies, his book resonates. In the end, though, he fails to deliver a satisfying solution. Most readers will agree that a society addicted to excess will, ultimately, collapse. The question is what to do about it.

Sim’s answer, such as it is, is that Western societies have to do a better job of restraining our greedy impulses, and citizens have to apply more political pressure to their respective governments. But it’s not entirely clear what that means, or why it will work. Whatever it means, it’s not the bold plan progressive activists are searching for.

Nevertheless, I reached out to Sim at his office in England two weeks ago. Given how short his book is on conclusions, I wanted to know what he thinks ought to be done. I also pressed him on a question he evades in the book: Do we need a moral and political revolution?

Our conversation, lightly edited for concision, follows.

Sean Illing

So what’s the “greedocracy”?

Stuart Sim

The title came from my editor, but it is something that’s being mentioned all over the world. It’s widely known that the very top end, the ones controlling the corporations and the tax havens, are endangering us all. This is true in Britain, where I live, and in America, where you live. Those in control of the world’s wealth have, in the last few decades, taken more and more for themselves and in so doing have destabilized the global economy and our collective political order.

Sean Illing

Can you offer specific examples backing up your claim that greed has run amok? I want to be clear about your thesis here.

Stuart Sim

Thomas Piketty’s work (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) provides extensive statistical detail on the economic relationship between the top levels of Western societies, such as the US, and the lower levels. Whereas in the postwar years of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s the gap in wealth between those at the top and bottom had narrowed significantly from prewar, it has since the ’70s and ’80s sharply increased again. His research shows that the top decile’s share of national income in the USA has risen from 30 to 35 percent in postwar years to 45 to 50 percent now. Salaries at the top end have soared, while those at the bottom have in real terms declined.

Neoliberalism has fought regulation of economic life very successfully, and this has been exploited by those in control of large corporations and multinationals, to increase profits. Globalization is good news for corporation profits, but bad news for the working population in general.

The pressure on governments to deregulate the financial sector and cut taxes (to encourage entrepreneurs we are invariably told), has led to large-scale cuts in welfare spending, which always affects those at the bottom end of the socioeconomic scale most. Bailing out the banking industry in 2007-’08 has led to austerity programs being implemented by most Western governments, and these hit the poor the hardest.

Sean Illing

You said a second ago that you think these policies have “destabilized” the political order. Can you draw a straight line between the greedocracy and the destructive political consequences?

Stuart Sim

The more that economic inequality has increased, the more the public has come to distrust the political class. One of the consequences of this has been the rise of populist politicians and political parties, claiming to represent those left behind by the system. Donald Trump ran on just such a platform, and various far-right parties in Europe have exploited this public discontent about falling wages and job opportunities as well: the Front National in France, for example, and nationalist parties in Germany and Hungary. Even if such parties don’t come to power, they have helped to change the climate of public opinion, as when it comes to blaming immigrants for causing a nation’s economic problems.

Globalization has reduced the job market in the West, and induced a feeling of powerlessness amongst the general public; immigrants have been turned into scapegoats for this situation, and many parties have made political capital out of this.

The Brexit vote in the UK effectively turned into a campaign about immigration, and the far right were very successful in exploiting this issue. Donald Trump has vowed to build a wall to keep Mexican migrants out of the USA, as well as threatening travel bans on Muslims. The wave of refugees from the Middle East — Syria, for example — that has swept across Europe in the last couple of years has seen political parties deliberately rousing prejudice against them, and in many cases …read more

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