Sunday, August 7, 2011

Don't panic Mr Mainwaring

Saturday evening we were sat chatting about deep and meaningful (frivolous) topics when Ian announced that Standard & Poor’s have downgraded American debt to AA+. It was a chill down the spine moment. In itself it is not unexpected or significant; it is simply a marker, a label on the downward trend. But, goodness, a downgrade for America!

After wobbling for a little while we inevitably came back to a discussion of what, if any, SF books model this situation for us. We have so many apocalyptical books and so few about living through the dull, anxious days of a slow motion resource led collapse. People tend to be excellent at dealing with big obvious emergencies. In the UK we still look back with nostalgia at the way we dealt with World War II. We are, however, rubbish at even noticing the long emergencies despite the fact that these will have a far more lasting and devastating effect on how we live our lives.

I foresee decades of bickering, occasionally escalating into full-scale fights, as we slowly descend into real poverty with no one in power making any effort to make any of the radical changes needed to ameliorate the distress. Already there is the fear that there will be another generation that will never be able to reach their potential, who will languish on scraps of work, permanently dependent on handouts of one sort or another.  This is not a recipe for a settled world. We’ve seen how this has played out in Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, we older people still in work, will almost certainly not receive the benefits that our parents did. There was a golden age embedded somewhere in the latter half of the 20th Century, though we didn’t notice it at the time. Free healthcare, free education, safe sex, liveable pensions, even, for a short time in the late 60s/early 70s, an optimism that love and peace could actually be achieved here on earth. How those things have decayed.

When I look to what our politicians are doing to lead us out of this difficult situation I see nothing other than a few banal clichés about the Big Society and a refusal to see that we are at a pivotal point where the old solutions of deregulation, growth and controlled inflation will only worsen the situation. Business as usual at any cost appears to be how this government (I include the loyal opposition and the media) fiddles.

One of my least favourite ‘fixes’ that the local council has put in place has been to automate the library. I know people cost money to employ but surely when enough council workers and private sector workers are unemployed the council tax revenues will disappear too. I feel quite strongly that sharing the paid work around so we all have some access to cash would be a better solution. Of course the government has set our system up so that the cost of employing two people part time is much more than the cost of employing one person. This is something that could change. The Netherlands did this some years ago. One of the worst things that could happen to us as a society is polarisation. As the wealth gap increases the safety of us all decreases. All of us being somewhat poorer is much better than a few being wealthy and the rest living off ever decreasing benefits. That way lies tent cities and social unrest. That way lies ‘Shockwave Rider’.

Julian suggested that Bruce Sterling’s ‘Distraction’ was one of the few books that gave us some idea of what might be coming. I suggested Gibbon’s ‘Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire’. This time there’s no outside, no other empires keeping the flame alight.

(The picture of apocalypse is just a storm brewing over Sheffield in July but so evocative I couldn't resist.)


  1. This now means that all the countries that S+P rate as AAA have universal healthcare.

  2. And so the USA is outed as a Third World country?