Jobless armies remind us growth is not a birthright

Strains in the West require a reworking of the ideological underpinnings of democracy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 4:05am

The rich are always with us, and we'll have more of them soon. A report last week from Boston Consulting Group shows that the global millionaire population is some 13.8 million. That is twice the size of Switzerland, which is, incidentally, where many of them have parked much of their wealth. More will accrue, and more individuals will pass the million-dollar mark. Global private wealth will, says Boston Consulting, grow by almost 5 per cent per year over the next five years, reaching US$171.2 trillion.

This is what we, who like precision in such matters, call "a lot". The millionaire population in Britain, the fourth-largest in the world, stands at more than half a million households. This is so many that when I reminded a wealthy friend of mine, who was complaining about a personal setback, that she was a millionaire, she snapped: "Isn't everybody?" Tactless as the response seemed, the rich hobnob with the rich.

Within rising global wealth, BCG sees a sign that Western economies are edging upward at last. Indeed, the United States seems to be set for appreciably faster growth. But Europe is stuck in recession. If there is economic growth, it's anaemic and is happening outside the euro zone.

Some six million young people are unable to find work in the European Union. This is fewer than the more alarmist figures of a quarter or more of youth unemployment, but it is a vast army nonetheless, one governments hope will not do what armies do, which is stop marching and start fighting.

These doleful figures have plagued Europe for several years. But most of us assume, or are assured, that things will get better, since they have in postwar years, until now.

Stephen King, the group chief economist of HSBC, wrote the recently published When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence, in which he says: "Our societies are not geared for a world of very low growth. Persistent postwar economic success has left us with little knowledge or understanding of worlds in which rising prosperity is no longer guaranteed."

Before they helped to create a world of rising prosperity, Europeans developed two powerful streams of political thought that ultimately allowed for the peaceful governance of their societies when they came into their own after the second world war. One, which could date its beginning to 150 years ago in May 1863, with the founding of the German Workers Association, was social democracy. It was an ideology that in its early years swung between revolution and reform, but which, especially in its British incarnation, the Labour Party, chose the latter route of seeking to tame capitalism and improve the conditions of the poor with the weight of the popular vote.

The other route, Christian democracy, is a little over 120 years old, seeing its foundation in the encyclical Rerum Novarum, literally, "Of New Things" and in its common meaning, "Of Revolution". Pope Leo XIII, who wrote the encyclical, was alarmed both by the greed of the capitalists and by the rising discontent of the industrial proletariat. He sought to describe the mutual dependence and differing responsibilities of the worker and proprietor, the first was to work "faithfully", the second to pay "fairly". A worker who could not obtain a fair wage was, says the document, "a victim of force and injustice".

Over time the substantial claims of these two great and antagonistic ideologies came to resemble each other. Social democrats like those in the Catholic Church rarely admire capitalism, but they no longer wish to destroy it. Social democracy theorist Anthony Giddens wrote in Beyond Left and Right that "the only common characteristic of socialist doctrines is their ethical content ideas brought together by a condemnation of the evils and injustices of capitalism".

The ethical energy of social and Christian democracies that have been dominant in Europe for the past six decades is diluted today. King is likely right in his view that the more we face ageing societies, ascendant new nations and increasingly costly resources, the less likely it is that we will recover the fine, careless assumption that growth is our birthright.

We will need to find, within fear or in a change of heart (fear seems more likely), a way of identifying which economic arrangements will keep democracy on the road. The way is not easy to glimpse, but it's a central task for the coming generations of politicians.



Tom Holland is on holiday