Brave New World?
A straw poll conducted among a highly representative young audience suggests that Capitalism is finished. But maybe not private business. All wanted to run their own businesses and indeed half were already doing so. Let’s be clear; the poll was of four persons and all are closely related to me, and it is good to see such enterprise passing down through the genes. But that poll, limited though it is, does seem to represent a common trend amongst young British people; a lot are against Capitalism but many want to run their own businesses, and a surprising number already are underway.
Traditionally, of course, the young and ambitious had many routes they could pursue to riches, fame, and power. Or even just a decent lifestyle. The most conventional and, it has to be said, generally successful, was a first-class independent school, a good University – one of two, north or west of London, if possible, but others were and are available – and then into one of the following: a top firm of accountants; a top City or West End (of London, not Glasgow) firm of lawyers; a City of London bank either of some history and reputation, or American. Work seventy-five hours or more per week, be very good at both senior colleague and client relationships, have no leisure time to speak of, and ten years later emerge at some senior level, rich and ready to take on the world. There were many lesser variants of that: grammar school, red brick (i.e. provincial) university, retail management scheme for one; or join the armed forces for ten years and then direct into middle-management almost anywhere for another; or, leave any school at 16, work on a building site, study business at home in the evenings, and end up as Managing Director. They’ve all been done, and many captains of finance and industry have emerged at the end of one of those routes.
No doubt there are plenty of eager, ambitious young men and women still following those routes today and some will succeed. But there are many going down a different route; leave any school, preferably but not necessarily with good exam grades, travel the world (university not necessary; too stifling of talent and liable to load their alumni with debt), come back and work for a charity or general good cause. Learn some creative or artistic skill and pursue it vigorously. Sell the output at the numerous craft fairs and posh car-boot sales that are now the staple of any weekend motoring jaunt. And get the product on Etsy, Etsy being the crafty, creative, craftsman-made, slightly amateur alternative to Amazon and to Ebay. So no capitalism, just the electronic equivalent to a wooden shack or a trestle table at a fair. Not really, of course. Etsy is also a huge Californian-headquartered corporate whose stock is traded on American stock markets. But it does not feel that way to its sellers or indeed to those who buy off Etsy-domiciled sites.
The key thing is not to get tangled up with Capitalism, which is, of course, the exchange medium of the devil, but to be a free trader whose morals and integrity are beyond reproach. Which is not to be sneered at; and if you think sneering was intended, then we apologise. Like any social group, integrity and honesty and a well-considered moral approach are both right and proper, but also key to any long-term survival. The traders on Etsy do seem to be generally good people who are prepared to work hard and make useful or, at least, cute things in return for what may one day be a comfortable living. Nineteenth century businesspersons would have recognised the desirability of strong moral underpinnings for a successful enterprise; it was indeed in many ways key to how it all worked, both for consumers and to a surprising extent, for the workers. Think of the Abraham Darby (iron), William Armstrong (hydraulics and armaments), John Cadbury (chocolate), Joseph Rowntree (also chocolate), John James Sainsbury (retailing). Each of these men’s families became very rich, but their workers thought it a pleasure to work for them, and their customers learnt to trust them and their products.
It works the other way too. Our enterprising young people do not approve of those bankers who messed up in 2008 and had to be bailed out, those water companies currently discharging sewage into rivers at the slightest excuse, oil and gas companies milking the energy shortage, car makers cheating on emissions tests to sell more cars. They would like the government to take a rawhide whip to all that lot.
So, our keen, young, evening-crafting entrepreneurs are socialists, right? No, most would not identify with that either. They are green, and sometimes Green, wanting to save the planet or at least to respect the environment. If they do not admire Marx or Corbyn, they have placed Attenborough (David, not Richard) on a plinth and dance round him, metaphorically, on Sunday. They think the government should do things by generally stopping things, such as motorcars burning carbon and multinational companies making profits. That seems not to include social media companies or indeed on-line quasi-monopolies, though Amazon seems to be losing its fan base. Etsy, whose shareholders are also in it for the dividends, seems to be acceptable.
Like many upwardly-mobile types, the young are not against tax, on the rich anyway, but the rich are always defined as people who earn or own more than whatever the observer does, or are not as cool. Elon Musk, who owns a major stake in Tesla and wants to go into space on a commercial basis and is very rich, is cool and admired. Jeff Bezos, who owns a major stake in Amazon and wants to go into space on a commercial basis and is very, very rich, is much less admired. And Richard Branson, who owns a major stake in Virgin and wants to go into space on a commercial basis and is rich, was admired but now not so much. What is the difference between them? They have all arranged themselves to minimise the tax they and their businesses pay. They all control businesses with a particular bent toward the young and hip. They are all a little eccentric. But our young aspirants, it seems, are not against wealth as such. Maybe they are in favour of hipness or newness; or simply against older rich people.
What we are suggesting is that maybe things are not as bad as bar-room mutterers seem to fear; or indeed, much different to what they have always been. The coming generation may speak with their hearts but they do tend to vote with their wallets (including, indeed especially, in those Red Tory seats that Mr Johnson and Mr Gove worry about so much). Maybe they are woke, whatever that means, but that is because they are concerned to make the world a better, kinder, more generous, fairer place. They are not really against Capitalism, only against bad capitalists, indeed, in many ways they are the free enterprise generation. They do not want repressive left-wing government but see the generous hearts that can lie under socialist skins. They do not want to restrict movement or romance or fun, but to try to save the world from further harm. They are not perfect or fully informed; sometimes they are naïve, but they do mean well.
Some of us may get the grump at some of the language used or the labels applied, but scrape away the surface and underneath are a rising generation whose ethos reflects the liberal humanity of the last three hundred years. That can’t be much to worry about, can it?