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Dethroning Big Finance
Contribution to GTI Forum What’s Next for the Global Movement?

Guy Standing

Experience over thirty-seven years of activism has made me suspicious of “a movement of movements.” It is easily presumed that a “movement” is about a forward march. But many “movements” have been atavistic and reactionary. Looking back, with metaphorical scars, I am sad that the most vehement and barrier-building opposition to the progressive idea that everybody should have basic economic security has come from those purporting to be on the left, most notably those in social democratic and labor parties and trade unions.

A transformation involves a rupture in the predominant social relations of production and a rupture in the technological forces of production. Thinking about it in a Polanyian sense, such a transformation begins with a disembedded phase, when the economic system is out of control by society, and when old systems of regulation, social protection, and redistribution are dismantled.

In such a phase, “free market” rhetoric predominates, although what actually happens is that private property rights triumph and finance becomes all powerful. The neoliberal economics revolution of the 1980s ushered in the current era of rentier capitalism. While rentiers have morphed into a global plutocracy, they and their political representatives have pursued a strategy of GDP growth, at the existential cost of ecological decay, global warming, multiple inequalities, and “permacrisis.”

At the end of all that horror, where is the political left? It is offering a mild reform of rentier capitalism without touching the structural fault lines. In the USA, Bidenomics offers more subsidies to capital to “onshore” jobs, while operating a blatant neo-mercantilist policy designed to impede Chinese development, and enlarge a geopolitical bloc of “friendly” pro-capitalist countries confronting a rapidly growing BRICs bloc.

Characteristically, the UK Labour Party, which looks likely to win the next election, is aping its US Democratic sibling, offering what it calls “securonomics,” i.e., postponed environmental action, continued low taxes on wealth, more subsidies to industrial capital, and assurances to finance. Elsewhere, lukewarm social democracies tiptoe around “net zero” efforts while promoting a Green New Deal that has more about resource-depleting jobs than about any transformation. There is talk of a green technological revolution, but really this is about transferring environmental costs of GDP growth to the oceans in what is being called “blue growth.” The sea, which covers 71% of the earth’s surface area, is the new economic frontier of global finance. In the past thirty years, the sea has been subject to easily the biggest enclosure in human history, giving financial capital a bonanza that has gone under the analytical radar.1

In short, the old left are dead men walking. That is the context in which to consider the idea of a transformative movement of movements (MOM). For such a MOM, there must be both a consensus on a diagnosis of the causes and character of the crisis and a consensus on what would constitute a Good Society in the foreseeable future. As Karl Polanyi explained in The Great Transformation, the primary cause of economic crises was the domination of the economic system by financial capital, which induced a period of protectionism and neo-mercantilist struggle.

Today, we are at a comparable point, where global finance is manipulating the global economy and political processes, and where the declining rentier state, the USA, is pitted against the rising rentier state, China, with localized wars being proxies for rising geo-political tensions. The rest of us are collateral damage, and that includes all of nature. Finance fosters two existentially threatening trends: chronic debt and short-term profit maximization.

One cannot imagine any global transformation without dismantling the power of finance. But it is hard to see a currently envisaged MOM addressing the elephant in the room. How many NGOs go cap-in-hand to finance to form partnerships? But any realistic manifesto of a MOM would have to begin with a commitment to campaign to combat the power of finance.

GDP growth has become a fetish since the neoliberal economics revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, and the concept itself only originated in the 1930s, as a rough measure of mobilizable resources for war. Our politicians suffer from Growth Fetish Syndrome. Instead of seeing growth as more goods and wealth, politicians and commentators must be induced to see growth as a tumor—the bigger, the more life threatening.

So, a MOM manifesto must have a second core element: eco-growth, not GDP growth—or something like eco-growth, perhaps with “development” instead of “growth.”

Suppose the MOM manifesto could be grounded in opposition to finance and GDP growth, the next task would surely be to agree on class-based demands. Every progressive transformation is about the insecurities and aspirations of the emerging mass class. And it is about a struggle over the distribution of the key assets of the era. Today, the key assets are not the means of production but less tangible aspects of life—economic security, quality space, quality time, financial knowledge, and education.

Consider just a few of those assets. The plutocracy and elite have almost complete economic security. They are protected against the threat and impact of natural disasters and financial crises, except to some extent pandemics, although even there they have more security than the growing precariat. A progressive MOM would seek to reduce security inequality.

Similarly, the inequality of time is enormous, with most in the precariat having no control over how much they can call their own free time. And many people have none, making them opportunistic by necessity. If we want people to behave ecologically and vote accordingly, we need a Politics of Time in that MOM manifesto.2

The manifesto should also contain a strategy for redistribution of other key assets. In particular, it must address the existentially threatening maldistribution of real education. We are living in the first Age of Dis-education, in which a large number of people are being taught to be ignorant, ignorant of science, and ignorant of the great human sentiments of compassion, empathy, paideia (the search for truth), and a reverence for nature. Instead, the majority are being told through their schooling and through social media that they are latent “human capital,” measuring schooling by its contribution to earnings from jobs and accumulation of material goods. This is a self-destructive madness that permeates the increasingly financialized “education industry.”

We cannot hope to attain a great transition without a strategy for rescuing the education as a commons. We can have as many wonderful civil society organizations or movements as we would like. But if people are dis-educated as well as insecure and scrambling around for “free” time, there will be no MOM with sufficient drive and direction. It brings to mind Bertol Brecht’s aphorism, “First food, then morals.” We cannot expect people to be progressively radical unless they have basic security, have time to act, and are educated.

1. Guy Standing, The Blue Commons: Rescuing the Economy of the Sea (London, Pelican Books, 2022).
2. Guy Standing, The Politics of Time: Gaining Control in the Age of Uncertainty (London, Pelican Books, 2023).

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, co-founder of Basic Income Earth Network, and author of The Politics of Time.

Cite as Guy Standing, "Dethroning Big Finance," contribution to GTI Forum "What's Next for the Global Movement?," Great Transition Initiative (January 2024),

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