By Lindsey German
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 330

Money for the banks…

This article is over 13 years, 2 months old
My first thought when the government bailed out Northern Rock last year was, where the hell does it find this kind of money when there's never a spare million for a new school or hospital?
Issue 330

That was nothing. Last month has brought new surprises at the amount of wealth in the system and how prepared governments are to use it to bail out the rich and powerful.

The whole scale of it takes your breath away. Banks lent money they didn’t have to people who couldn’t pay it back and then packaged these debts as prettily as they could and sold them on in such a way that no one really knew where they were. When this game of pass the parcel stopped, everyone panicked and refused to lend to one another.

Now governments have stepped in to nationalise or part-nationalise banks. Gordon Brown has found his first sense of purpose in months by pledging £81 billion of taxpayers’ money to bail out failing banks. There has been what passes for tough talking by this government, and a few banking executives – who after all presided over the financial disasters – are having to leave their jobs without (shock, horror) their £1 million plus bonuses. They probably have some left over from the last lot. One estimate claimed that 1,000 people got £5 million each plus bonuses in the City last year.

The bailout raises more questions than that, however. The most obvious is, why should we pay the debts of banks and not those of the rest of us? The debt being taken on is the equivalent of £11,000 for every family in Britain. Many families will be asking why there is zero tolerance for them when they go into arrears on anything, but unlimited sympathy for greedy bankers.

This crisis should be an opportunity to organise society differently. Take nationalisation. Suddenly it is very popular to shore up a banking system which would otherwise collapse. But why stop at banks? What about the energy companies who profit out of a basic need and the huge insurance companies who are so closely tied to banking and to the housing market?

Nationalisation last time round meant giant bureaucracies. This time we could have them run by workers and consumers in the industry, the people who really know how to organise them and what people want from them. We could dispense with the consultants, the advisers, most of the lawyers and accountants, all of them on huge salaries, and instead pay those who produce and deliver energy a decent wage, and reduce the cost so that everyone can afford to use gas and electricity.

The banks themselves could be non profit making, geared towards saving and borrowing – not towards the crazy speculation which has got them into this mess.

Housing cannot be privatised as it is at present. Why should having a roof over your head depend on your ability to borrow money which you then have to pay back at interest, and why should house price inflation be regarded as a good thing, while all other inflation is seen as bad? Millions of people have been encouraged to “get their foot on the property ladder” by borrowing more than they can afford, only to face the prospect of losing their home when they can’t cope with the banks’ demands.

The free newspapers are still full of ads for new developments, often miles outside the city, where you can buy for exorbitant sums a quarter or fifth of a new flat in developments which are clearly to become the slums of the future.

Meanwhile millions more have become part of a new breed of “buy to let” landlords who see property as their new pension fund or savings vehicle. Housing is a social need and should be provided socially. Empty flats should be taken over and used to house the homeless and those in overcrowded housing. The new city centre flats should be converted for use by families at low rents.

We could write off mortgage debt at least to a certain level which means that housing would be largely nationalised, to the benefit of future generations and to the great relief of most people struggling to pay their mortgages.

Schools, hospitals, arts centres and sports facilities should be publicly funded, not reliant on the vagaries of the market or on taxpayers’ money being invested in Icelandic banks which go bust.

The crisis is a chance for ideas like these to come to the fore, and for the working people, who have been forced to take on debt as an alternative to low wages and the privatisation of much housing and social provision, to demand a share of the wealth that they produce. For the first time in more than two decades these ideas have a mass audience. We have to put forward demands which make sure that capitalists, not workers, pay for the crisis.

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