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The Moral Economy

Opposition to neo-liberalism can be summarised under the heading ‘the moral economy’. In a moral economy, human beings accept moral responsibility for what happens in the economy. We stop pretending that if everyone pursues their own selfish interest an ‘invisible hand’ is going to magically bring about our collective good.

Accepting moral responsibility does not entail taking control of every aspect of the economy. We can accept that, in some areas, properly regulated markets work reasonably well. However, the provision of universal public services should not be left to the market but should be performed by the public sector. Natural resources such as oil and metals belong to us all, and should not be left to small cabals to exploit and profiteer. We need to consume only as much oil as we need to create new renewable energy systems – the rest should be left in the ground if we want to have a future.

In a moral economy we should not be afraid to make qualitative as well as quantitative judgments: just because gambling and pornography are lucrative doesn’t mean they are useful parts of the economy. There needs to be clear understanding of the relationship between business good and public good: there are areas where they overlap and areas where they are mutually exclusive. Where business goes against the public interest it should be discouraged through regulation and taxation, and in some cases banned.

Manipulative technologies such as genetic modification are too dangerous to be left in the private sector. The trivial profit motive should not be involved in decisions which affect thousands of future generations. Harvesting and enclosing genes through patents is something that the public can have no truck with – how can it ever be in our interest? Amartya Sen’s research shows that small-scale farming by peasants is the most productive use of land and resources. We can feed the world with land reform, micro-finance and education. Genetic modification is an unnecessary, greedy innovation.

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The View From Iceland – by Elin Agla Briem

Once
After a hard day’s forage
Two bears sat together in silence
On a beautiful vista
Watching the sun go down
And feeling deeply grateful
For life.

Though after a while
A thought-provoking conversation began
Which turned to the topic of
Fame.

Then one bear said,
“Did you hear about Rustam?
He has become famous
And travels from city to city
In a golden cage;

He performs to hundreds of people
Who laugh and applaud
His carnival
Stunts.”

The other bear thought for
A few seconds

Then started weeping.

(‘Two Bears’ by Hafiz, trans. Daniel Ladinsky)

To whom will we bow tomorrow? I lived in England from 2003 till 2007. During that time Iceland changed a lot. In a society that used to be almost without any class distinction, all of a sudden there was a group of extremely rich people. Private jets, Elton John and 50cent at birthday parties and so forth.

It seemed half of the population wanted to work in banks (that was the great gold cage everyone wanted to get into). I found it amazing that very few seemed to ever consider whether it was a good thing to go after as much money as you could possibly get your hands on. The people who followed that maxim were hailed as heroes, courageous vikings. I think oligarchs is the modern term.

Of course not everyone thought in this way.

What has happened now is a combination of many things. A government that hasn’t been doing its job of looking after the citizens, a lack of regulation of financial businesses, naiveity and greed. Greed is probably the biggest factor.

Many people have been warning that this might happen for some time now, both in Iceland and England.  It looks as if they were hushed up (at least some reports were) so the party could go on for as long as possible. Who’s responsible for this hush up? The ones that gained from it. The 20 people or so that now are hiding outside of the country. Hanging on to their golden cages. As well as the politicians who wanted to enjoy the good times as well.

“We acted as if there was no tomorrow, so now there isn’t going to be one”

as my friend Kurt Vonnegut said when talking about the state of the planet.

The group of 20 or so people (oligarchs)  who owned the lot, seem to have left the building, taking with them as much as they can save of their billions, or trillions. Sorry I’m getting quite confused with these big numbers.

This is a very sad situation. The consequences are not yet fully known. It looks very serious. It will ruin the foundations of our society and enslave future generations to a huge debt.

You have to remember there are only about 300,000 people here to pay this bill. And this bill is huge. The bank owners had set up branches all over Europe and the Icelandic government (i.e. Icelandic tax payers) is responsible for paying the deposits back to the people of these countries. That includes England.

A lot of people in Iceland have lost all their savings, including my sister, thousands of regular folks have. Old people and young who were convinced by the bankers to put their money in bonds and funds that were perfectly safe!

We have the problem with our currency as well. You can’t buy any currency now unless you’ve got a flight ticket. Icelanders abroad can’t cash any money through foreign banks. All imports have, or are about to, come to a halt. Icelandic businesses around the world have lost all credibility and have to pay cash in all transactions.

The krona has fallen to I don’t know where — no one knows now I think.

The government is desperately trying to get a huge loan from Russia. Iceland will then probably support their efforts of gaining control of the North pole and its resources.  Well, I guess we will ‘support’ them on every matter and every whim. Maybe Canada would take us under its wing. Then we will of course ‘support’ them in all their actions and policies.

There is also the problem with Mr. Gordon Brown. He has used anti-terrorist legislation to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks. He declares the Icelandic state as bankrupt and so forth. Some people claim that with his remarks and actions he has ruined Kaupthing, the only bank which was still standing in Iceland. Kaupthing was the biggest Icelandic company and the loss because of this is tremendous.

The politicians all try to save their faces and keep themselves and their party number one. It’s so important to stay in power, to hold on to fame and the golden cage. The Icelandic PM and the British PM point their fingers and say to their people “Look at those islanders and see how they are treating you. But don’t worry, I’ll play tough and look after you. Just remember to vote for me in the next election.”

Our reputation has been ruined. That hurts all Icelanders deeply.  Honor, reputation and independence is very important to this nation.  I’m not sure if it affects the oligarchs though, they might have slightly different priorities.

I feel very sad and sick to my stomach about the way people behave. I feel for the people who are without any security now, and I feel for the people who are managing to hold on to their golden cages.

You could say that in a sense the Icelandic society has been shot right between the eyes.

It is in no way extreme to say that our independence is at stake in this situation. We might not be able to afford such a luxury any more. That breaks my heart.

I’m quite fortunate in a sense not to have any property and never to have had any. I’m also very fortunate to live among farmers and people up north who have always lived on modest means and know how to survive in this country.

This is a very basic description of the situation. The nation is in a state of shock. No one knows what will happen next.  Will we have our health care, our education system and so forth?

Will we have to bow to the East or West in the future?