Dance Me To The End Of Love: Alan Simpson on economics as if caring mattered

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There can't be much wrong with a thoughtful, feeling article on a more caring economics, that arranges itself around a Leonard Cohen lyric. And there isn't.

Ex-MP Alan Simpson writes for the CUSP, in between lines from Cohen's Dance Me To The End of Love (video and lyrics), about what is lost when "progress" is defined only in terms of technology or markets, rather than ethical and moral responsiveness.

An excerpt:

Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove

Right now, if you are lonely or confused, Apple’s Siri can advise and comfort you. Google’s Alexa offers support to breastfeeding mums or can be the evening lifeline for the elderly. Young people can create avatars to “be” them within their social networks or take their place in education seminars. The technologies are doubtless clever and productive, we’ve just ceased to question whether they bring us closer to ourselves or leave us more disconnected.

Modern capitalism has flung society into a crisis that races towards both an ecological and a sociological abyss. The sociological dimension feeds on our insecure addiction to the consumption of “stuff” and upon a propensity to treat the planet as a bottomless pit from which we hoover out all of today’s desires and into which we dump unwanted debris.

Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove

Governments have become obsessed with measuring ‘growth’ by the quantity of consumption, and ‘productivity’ by how much more cheaply goods can be supplied. But how then were workers – those producing these goods at lower cost – to afford the ‘more’ that they produced?

It was the free-market Right – those most opposed to state intervention and public debt – who sold politicians the ‘solution’ to this conundrum (and delivered the crisis that followed). Their answer was unlimited personal credit and private debt.

Deregulated credit-debt became the weapon of choice in a process that has transferred real wealth from the poor to the rich. It also subtly downgraded people’s birthright identity as ‘citizens’, replacing it with the inferior status of ‘consumers’ or ‘customers’.

Consumption has come to define who we are, and what we are worth – enhanced status then being entirely conditional upon an ability to buy.

Our more important dependencies on others – for kindness, laughter, security and recognition – have been progressively replaced by cash transactions. Those without the ability to buy become worth less (a short step from worthless). And those of ‘value’ find their status comes at the cost of making others cheaper.

Little wonder that today, crises of identity, belonging and mental health proliferate. They are the by- products of an economics intentionally polarising between the rich and poor, between the productive and the disposable. Those still willing to dance around dementia’s invisible walls make a mockery of where this economics takes you.

Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn

I’ve just finished this piece after an overnight stint in the Nottingham Arts Theatre. In an act of undoubted negative productivity its staff opened their doors to the homeless. Volunteers came in with the snow, bearing gifts of food, tea and time. Irrespective of their age, gender or race all seemed to be drawn from the stagnant sector of the economy. They represented the compassionate edge of a society that still banks onshore, pays its taxes and looks after its vulnerable.

In contrast, no matter how productive they might be elsewhere, Siri never turned up at the night shelter to lift a finger. Alexa never served a cup of tea or handed out a blanket. No avatars went out into the snow, fishing rough sleepers out of doorways. All this was done by human beings. Productivity and growth never came into it, just kindness and decency.

This is what tomorrow’s economics must be built around. Those who slept soundly last night, protected from the blizzards outside, may not get much of a say in this revolution in economic thinking, but their plea to the rest of us was no less clear.

Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Dance me to the end of love.