#226  Vulture Capitalism – Exposing the toxic system and how to outgrow it with Grace Blakeley

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This week’s guest is one of those who understands the nuts and bolts – the iniquities – of the current system – and has ideas of how we can shape something better from the hot mess of corruption and greed in which we’re mired. 

Grace Blakeley is a staff writer at Tribune Magazine and author of several books, including ‘Vulture Capitalism: Corporate Crimes, Backdoor Bailouts and the Death of Freedom’ in which she peels back the layers of our economic system, exposing the stark realities hidden beneath the veneer of ‘free markets’ and ‘democratic’ institutions.

Grace’s journey from the New Statesman to the frontlines of political commentary has equipped her with a unique vantage point to critique the fusion of state and corporate power, illuminating the dark corners of corporate greed and government complicity. With a narrative as gripping as a thriller, she exposes the corruption that led to tragedies like the Boeing 737 MAX crashes and the grim theatre of financial crises.

In our conversation, Grace challenges the notion that some are born to rule while others to be ruled, advocating for a new democratic settlement that truly empowers people. She shares inspiring examples from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Cooperation Jackson, highlighting communities that are redefining resilience and self-governance. Her call to action is clear: it’s time to question, to demand, and to actively participate in shaping a future that is just, equitable, and truly democratic.

As we navigate the most critical moment in human history, Grace’s insights are not a roadmap toward a world where the many, not the few, hold the power. For anyone feeling the weight of our current system’s failures, this episode is a clarion call to join hands, make your voice heard, and be part of the collective effort to weave a future we can all be proud of.

For those ready to dive into the mechanics of Grace’s analysis and to explore the potential of a society reimagined, visit her website for links to her other books and to upcoming events.

Grace’s Bio: Grace Blakeley is a staff writer at Tribune magazine, author, and a prominent voice in economic and political commentary. Her work has taken her from the New Statesman to BBC Question Time, and now to the forefront of the movement challenging the entrenched powers of capitalism. With a sharp wit and a clear vision, Grace is not only dissecting the present but also sowing the seeds for a future where democracy and economic justice are not just ideals but realities.

In Conversation

Manda: Hey people, welcome to Accidental Gods. To the podcast where we believe that another world is still possible and that if we all work together, there is time to create a future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. I’m Manda Scott, co-creator of the Accidental Gods program and host of this podcast. If you want to find any of the links in the show notes, they are always on the podcast page, which is and you find the program there to. If you want to connect more deeply to the web of life, that’s what it’s there for. You and I did not necessarily grow up knowing that we were going to be alive at the most critical moment in human history, but here’s where we are. And we do have the tools to weave a future that we would be proud of, we just need to pick them up and use them. And that’s what the podcast is for, to bring you the people who are doing just that. This week’s guest is one of those who really deeply understands the nuts and bolts, the iniquities of the current system, and has ideas of how we can shape something better from the hot mess of corruption and greed in which we are currently mired. Grace Blakeley is a staff writer at Tribune magazine and author of several books, including Vulture Capitalism, corporate crimes, backdoor bailouts and the Death of Freedom, which was published the day before we recorded this, so you can head out and buy it now.

Manda: It is a heartbreaking book in many ways, but we do need to know the horror of what happens behind the scenes, hidden by the day to day distractions that the legacy and social medias currently feed us. And Grace writes with such clarity and fluency, that really quite complex issues feel straightforward and obvious. She has a thriller writer’s capacity to build tension in her narratives, and the fact that they’re all true only adds to our growing sense of outrage as we read it. Or at least it did to me. Grace used to be an economics commentator for the New Statesman, and was research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research. But if you’re in the UK, you will know Grace from her many appearances on BBC Question Time back in the Corbyn years, as well as ITV’s Good Morning Britain, talktv’s Piers Morgan Uncensored and MTV news. She stepped deep into the belly of the beast and was outstanding in her ability to point out the flaws in conventional rhetoric. And now she’s here talking about vulture capitalism, her book, her ideas, and what we can do to build something new that will work for all of us. So people of the podcast, please do welcome Grace Blakely.

Manda: Grace, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast.

Grace: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Manda: You’re so welcome, and thank you for rushing home because I gather you are not where you are at the moment. So tell us where you are and how you are before we leap into the exciting stuff.

Grace: Thank you for asking. Yeah, I am in the middle of my book tour, so I actually live in Cornwall. So I’m up from Cornwall at the moment, staying with my mum between events. She’s in Basingstoke, near reading, but I’ve just come down from Manchester. Before that I was in Edinburgh and then on Sunday I’m in Oxford and you know, lots of events all dotted around over the next couple of weeks. So, yes, I’m on the road.

Manda: You’re on tour. Goodness, I didn’t know book tours still happened. So you can tell I don’t do book tours anymore.

Grace: Yeah, apparently I’m very lucky becauseI get to travel to all these places and meet all these people, and get to spend several weeks talking about the things that I’ve been researching for ages, which is really great.

Manda: Yeah. It’s grand. You get out of your house, get out of your head and talk to actual people. Is there somewhere where people can find out where you’re going to be in case they want to come and meet you?

Grace: Yeah. You can go onto my website, which is and there’s a tab there called Events and Media, and you’ll then see all the upcoming events that I’ve got scheduled.

Manda: Fantastic. I will put that in the show notes.

Grace: Thank you.

Manda: So at the end of the introduction of Vulture Capitalism, you say: ‘more than anything, I hope that by the time you finish this book, you will be convinced that you have the power to change the way the world works. Because there are a lot of very powerful people out there who want you to believe that you can’t’. And that strikes me as a manifesto all on its own. So what gives you the hope? Before we dive into the horror of what the very powerful people are doing who think that they want us helpless, what led you to believe that there is still hope?

Grace: What led me to believe that there is still hope. I think I have hope just by disposition. And I think you have to as a socialist. It’s the decade anniversary of Tony Benn’s death yesterday, the day that I published the book. And Tony Benn was an amazing democratic socialist who constantly had messages of optimism and hope for the movement. So he said things like, ‘there’s no final victory, just as there is no final defeat, just the same battle to be fought over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up’, which I always like because I think it’s kind of inspiring and reminds you of what’s at stake. Another quote, I can’t remember the whole thing, but it comes from Gramsci, and he is basically saying it’s this pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. But the rest of that quote is him saying, we need to create activists who aren’t thrown into depression by every setback or brought to the heights of joy by every victory. He’s saying we need to have this pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, which is a very objective analysis of the conditions that we face, but a steadfast hope in our capacity to change things if we’re able to organise effectively. And I think that’s basically where the hope comes from. It is just this deep and fundamental conviction that the way the world is, is not fixed, that most of the institutions that govern our lives, that most of the things that we do every day are impacted by the beliefs that we have about the world and the way that we behave in response.

Grace: So if we decide to change the way we think and decide to change the way we act, then society changes. Which is why I write really. I’ve taken a little bit of time off, because I was quite involved with the Labour Party up until 2019, and there was a period after that where I did a lot of soul searching and was like, oh this whole thing failed. What am I even doing? What’s the point? And I really had to dig deep into myself and also read about the lessons that can be learned from socialists who’ve been on this same path. And the thing that I realised was that my job was to help people see that they did have power and to be able to understand the system and their role in resisting it if they sought to. And that by doing that, you create the conditions within which change can happen. I’m not Pollyanna ish about the future by any stretch of the imagination, for all of the reasons that we’re going to cover over the next hour. But I do have that fundamental belief that the only thing really that’s standing in our way is ourselves.

Manda: Right. Brilliant. Thank you. Yes. Because I was thinking, as you were saying, that optimism of the will in spite of pessimism of the intellect, the rocket between 2017 and 2019 between hope and despair, felt like a real roller coaster.

Grace: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Manda: But then we came out of it exactly as you said: what can we do? And we can give people the hope that looks forward. I think it was Schmachtenberger who said there are three kinds of hope; there’s the pre tragic hope which says la la la, there is no problem and dances off to the sunset with little skippy baskets of kittens and is completely pointless. And then there’s the kind of tragic hope, which is for me what a lot of the Jem Bendell work is doing, which is we’re all going to die, let’s die gracefully. And then there’s the post tragic Hope, which I think is what you’re offering, which is, yeah, things are really bad. And a lot of what’s really bad is really bad because actual people are actually deciding to make it really bad. And that because of that, we can change it. I love that you have the quote from Ursula Le Guin towards the end of the book: ‘Any human power can by human agency be overturned’, which we need to remember this. So let’s not skip to the end, although the end is the optimistic bit. Let’s go back to the beginning and How to Get Away with Murder, which is your chapter one. Because I didn’t really understand the full details of what happened with Boeing and the Max planes. And they’re back in the news now. I was reading about them last night in the I, because this is not the two planes falling out of the sky. Actually, two planes that drove themselves out of the sky at 700 miles an hour, is not the end of Boeing getting it very, very badly wrong because they made decisions based on money rather than people. So let’s use Boeing as an example of the very powerful people who want us to think that we have no agency, how and why they get to do what they do and what it is they do. Over to you.

Grace: Thank you. Yeah. And Boeing is in the news again. We’ve seen the death of this whistleblower who was involved in bringing to light a lot of the abuses that had happened at Boeing. But also a few months ago, there was the door that blew out of the Boeing plane mid-flight. There seemed to be kind of new issues that come to light every day and this just shows beyond doubt that what has gone on at Boeing has been a failure of corporate governance, a failure of corporate culture, a failure of leadership, that operates right the way through the firm. And I opened with this because it illustrates really effectively the fundamental point that I’m trying to make in the book, which is that there isn’t this clean separation between states and markets, between corporations and governments, that we are taught exists. And that actually, you cannot solve the problems that we have within capitalism just by saying we’ll give more power to politicians. And equally, you can’t solve the problems that we have in politics by saying we’ll give more power to corporations. Because the way that these two sets of institutions work is that they’re deeply imbricated with one another. And the argument in the book is that basically, public and private actors work together to plan what goes on within nominally free market systems.

Grace: And those of your listeners who were around during the Cold War will see that this is a significant critique of capitalism, because capitalism has always presented itself as this free market, decentralised democratic system, counterposed to the autocracy and centralised planning of the USSR. And actually, my argument is that most capitalist societies aren’t actually free market societies at all. They’re societies dominated by massive monopolies that work through and with state institutions to project their power. And Boeing is a great example of this. And the reason for that is that all of these failures took place not just in a toxic corporate environment characterised by greed and just a desperate attempt to maximise shareholder value. But also because the company was supported at almost every stage by the United States government, over the course of its transformation. Because Boeing used to have this reputation as being a manufacturer that had this pilot first philosophy. So they they wanted to put the pilots in control, they didn’t want to overwhelm them with lots of software that they didn’t know how to control. They also were known for really prising engineering expertise, so putting that at the centre of manufacturing. A lot of this changed in the 1970s when McDonnell Douglas, which was another US firm that was also very, very deeply imbricated with the US state. It manufactured a lot of inputs that were required for the US military. That nearly went under, and so the Department of Defence engineered a merger between Boeing and McDonnell Douglas.

Grace: And this was for many who’ve written about the firm, the origins of the toxification of Boeing, I suppose, because McDonnell Douglas had a very toxic culture that was all about maximising shareholder value, all about greed and empire building. And that kind of came into Boeing and the new CEO was basically completely focussed on cutting costs in order to maximise the firm’s returns and try and make it a darling of Wall Street, basically. And also obviously make himself a lot of money through capital gains and dividends. So Boeing manufactured a bunch of planes, cutting costs at every level, denigrating engineering expertise, putting in place lots of corporate managers to try and force the engineers and other people working in the firm to operate according to this new logic. And in doing so, it manufactured several planes, one of which, I think it was the 777 Dreamliner, was beset by by lots of flaws. So the engines set on fire, which was a problem. But none of this compared to what happened with the 737 max. So two 737 Max planes crashed out of the sky, as you mentioned, in two separate disasters, killing nearly 350 people.

Grace: And what later emerged was that Boeing had known about this flaw with the plane that would potentially cause it to nosedive out of the sky, but instead of trying to deal with that, they just covered it up. So the issue was they were trying to build these super, super big planes because they basically generated more profits. But the planes were so big that they became unstable. And Boeing developed this software fix to this problem of instability called the the MCAs system, that tilted the plane’s nose down automatically whenever it pitched up. So the plane’s nose would kind of pitch up because of the problems with the design, and the software system would pitch it down again. And what happened in these two crashes was that the software system took over and basically caused the plane to plummet into the ground. And there had been no mention of this system that had been added in. I think it was only mentioned once in the pilot manual and wasn’t explained to the pilots. The pilots weren’t trained as to how this system had worked. They weren’t trained on how to use it. And when all this happened, Boeing tried to initially blame the pilots and said it had been their fault. Of course, we later found out that it wasn’t.

Grace: There was nothing that they could have done. And it transpired that many whistleblowers had come forward saying things like someone’s going to have to die before the executives realise this flaw. And yet they went ahead anyway, brought it to market. And they’ve now been charged with this cover up, basically. So on the face of it, it seems like a classic case of corporate greed, doesn’t it? Like extractivism and what you would expect from a kind of a capitalist economy. But it’s even worse than that, because the state was so deeply involved with this process from the beginning. So obviously it engineered that merger, but then we had this shift in regulation. So Boeing was actually being regulated by a unit that sat inside Boeing and whose staff were being paid by Boeing, and the FAA just didn’t want to get in the way of what was going on there for loads of reasons. It lost lots of the staff, they’d been cut in successive regulatory drives, driven in part by members of Congress, by representatives who had taken money from Boeing. Boeing was a massive lobbyist as well. And at the same time, it became the biggest recipient of corporate welfare in the US. So it had tons and tons of government money flowing into it in the form of tax breaks, subsidies. It was cutting jobs at the same time as it was getting subsidies or tax breaks that were supposed to be linked to its maintaining levels of employment.

Grace: It got a massive bailout during the pandemic, even after this stuff had come to light. So this was known about, all the flaws that had gone on at Boeing, all the problems there. And yet it still managed to receive this massive bailout during the pandemic from the American state. And as all of this stuff has continued to come to light, you would think that the market would turn around and be like, you know, this is defunct, this institution is defunct. It needs to be shut down. But because it’s this massive institution with deep, deep links to the American states, there’s no question really at the moment about it failing. Or if it does, then it will be kind of transformed into a new institution. But basically, I think this really illustrates this point that I’m trying to make, which is that capitalism isn’t a free market system. It’s a system that’s based on monopoly. Boeing operates in this highly oligopolistic market structure, and only has one major competitor, and this fusion of public and private power in service of the interests of those at the very top.

Manda: Brilliant. We could spend the entire hour just unpicking this, but let’s not because because it’s of limited interest. But the article I was reading last night, because there has been the new crash, because a door blew out. And one of the aircraft crash examiners, that’s not the right word, but you know what I mean, said the door should have been too big. It should be too big so that this could not happen. Why was the door not too big? And the the documentation for this door should have been with the crash examiners within minutes of the crash happening, and several months have passed and Boeing can’t find the documentation. It should be on file, and you just hit the button, you know, problem with the aircraft: send. And it’s not there. And I wonder, well I don’t really wonder because I read the rest of your book and the whole system is basically fundamentally corrupt, but how did they get away with not charging the whole of Boeing’s management with corporate manslaughter?

Grace: Well, there’s no such thing as corporate manslaughter in US law. There’s a fantastic book that people might want to read if they’re interested in this sort of thing, called Unchecked Corporate Power. And it’s all about this idea of state routinised crime. So basically how our legal system has been captured by vested interests, so that states are extremely hard on the crimes of the street, but very weak on the crimes of the suit, i.e. C-suite corporate executives. Basically, corporations are kind of allowed to get away with murder. Literally sometimes.

Manda: Actual murder.

Grace: It’s the same thing, actually, with the financial crisis. After the savings and loans crisis, loads of bankers went to jail, but it was really with the the neoliberal shift of the 1980s that the legal system became far more captured by vested interests. Such that there was this idea that the state shouldn’t be trying to kind of intervene in markets, that markets would sort themselves out, that they shouldn’t be subject to criminal liabilities because that would potentially chill investment and growth and all those sorts of excuses, basically, for what eventually became what we have now. Which is just a legal system that is captured, particularly in certain areas, by vested interests who can get away with almost anything. And even if that hadn’t been the case, the powerful and particularly powerful heads of very large corporations, do tend to be protected for a lot of reasons.

Grace: Firstly, they have armies of lawyers that they can draw on. They have people that manage their publicity, they have all sorts of channels that they can rely on to protect themselves. But also they have very close links with governments. I think a really good example of this is the chapter that I have on Greensill in the UK. It’s all about the businessman Lex Greensill, who built up this empire based on this thing called supply chain financing. His business for lots of reasons eventually nearly went bankrupt during the pandemic, and he went to lots of different sources to try to get some support. And one of those sources he tapped up was David Cameron, our former prime minister, who had become a lobbyist, basically for Greensill. And David Cameron started firing off text messages to Rishi Sunak, to lots of different members of parliament and important civil servants, saying the Bank of England needs to give Greensill a bailout loan, basically. And Greensill wasn’t eligible for a bailout loan within the terms of even the Bank of England’s very permissive lending, it wasn’t allowed to get money through that scheme. And eventually it ended up getting getting a loan through the British Business Bank, which has now basically said, oh, well, all that money’s probably gone. So that’s loads of taxpayer money just basically down the drain, because Lex Greensill was mates with David Cameron and able to get him to lobby the government for a loan for this failing company.

Manda: And Cameron made quite a lot of money out of this. Cameron made millions, according to your book, out of this. He’s extremely rich as a result.

Grace: Yes. He made loads and loads of money out of this. I think it just illustrates this point that the state can be very porous for some, but impenetrable for others. So if you have a lot of wealth and power, it’s very easy for you to lobby and insert yourself within state institutions. But if it was like a household or a small business that was under threat of going under and needed a loan, it wouldn’t be able to draw on those resources.

Manda: Right. So let’s drill down into some of the theory. Because the practical stuff, honestly, when you read this guys listening, just make sure you’re feeling quite resilient at the start. Grace moves on to hope and what we can do at the end. But I thought I understood how corrupt our system was and I spent several nights thinking, okay, this is orders of magnitude worse than I thought and feeling quite crushed. You said at one point the free market is a smokescreen, behind which lies the brutal, despotic power of corporations. And that really came across in your book. I knew that we had the best democracy money could buy, I hadn’t realised the extent to which we also had the best legal system money could buy. I don’t know why people think that feudalism was replaced by capitalism, because we’re still in a feudal state. I’ve been reading Yanis Varoufakis’ Techno Feudalism and we go back to the Romans. You know, the Romans had a fiat currency that they watered down the silver with nickel and on which they charged interest very brutally, if you didn’t happen to have any coinage to pay them back. I don’t think things have got any better since then. And we seem now to be in a state where colonisation is no longer ‘this global nation is going to colonise this relatively uncolonized nation’, it’s the layer of the people with the power and the money are going to colonise the entire world. And the people they are colonising are anybody who’s got less than a billion, as far as I can tell, that seems to be the threshold now. So let’s look at the theory, because we are sold through the mainstream media, the legacy media for sure, all the time this idea that we live in a in a democracy and that the free market is the epitome of democratic transfers of value that that are good for everybody. And your book is really very good at picking that apart. So first of all, tell me what capitalism is said to be and then what you say it is. And then let’s just look at how it actually functions.

Grace: So most people, I think when they hear of the idea of capitalism, they’re drawn to this sense that it’s all about free markets, right? And I think this was really pushed by lots of economists, particularly during the 1980s. This was a really big part of the neoliberal movement. The argument was basically that anything that the state does is going to expand the potential for autocracy and the domination of the state over all areas of life, and also lead to corruption and inefficiencies. And that most of human activity and particularly production and anything to do with economics, should be left to the free market. And that it was up to the state to retreat in order to create space for the free market. And actually sometimes it was up to the state to encourage competition and make sure that free markets worked effectively. So there was a very clean distinction between states and politics on the one hand, and markets and economics on the other hand.

Manda: And can you unpick a little what a free market is in theory, because it’s marketing speak. It’s free? Free is always better than not being free and markets are good things because, hey, we all have markets. We go to the market and that’s where we buy… Well, we don’t anymore because people do supermarkets. But we used to just go to the market and somebody nice would sell you some cheese and some bread and some veg and you’d come home. And so free markets must be, first of all fluffy and cute, and second really good because they’re free. And your book’s quite good at unpicking that one. So could you unpick free markets for us, the theory and then the practice?

Grace: Yeah. It’s a great point and that is why I think this was really framed as a free market shift. So the whole idea behind free market economics is based on a bunch of theory that was developed quite a long time ago, which looks at the way that capitalist economies function and basically sees them as collections of small, independent producers producing goods and services for sale, and then lots of consumers, some of which will be other businesses, some of which will be individuals, all competing to purchase things at the lowest cost. And the idea is that these two sets of sellers and buyers interact within a market and through an iterative process of haggling and demand and supply kind of coming into equilibrium with one another. We eventually end up at the point where the market reveals the correct price for goods, and this is the price at which demand and supply are in equilibrium. And this model is based on a load of assumptions, like lots and lots of assumptions that would be impossible to go into here. But one of them is a point about small producers and and consumers. So the idea of markets promoting efficiency only really works when one firm doesn’t have market power. So the whole idea of price discovery hinges upon the fact that if a firm sells a good at a price that is too high, consumers will go to a competitor and buy it for a lower price.

Grace: And that will mean that over the long run, prices converge basically on the costs of production, so no firm can make massive profits. Now, of course, we live in an economy in which that is very obviously not true, because lots of firms do make massive profits. Now, economists recognise that and they say that there are certain areas where potentially some firms do have too much market power. And that’s for these reasons and not inherent to the nature of capitalism. It’s not a really key part of the way that capitalism works, because, again, their whole analysis of capitalism centres on this meeting point between buyers and sellers, rather than what happens in production.

Grace: Now, the analysis that I look at, which is a Marxist analysis, centres on production. It analyses capitalism not from the starting point of exchange, but from the starting point of production. And when you do that, you realise that the thing that is critical for the production of commodities within a capitalist economy is the class division of society. So there’s some people that own all the stuff that we need to produce things, and everyone else basically has to sell their labour power for a living. They have to work for a living. And that creates a lot of the dynamics that underpin the way that capitalism works. And it also creates an inherent tendency towards consolidation and centralisation. So as capitalism develops you get technological innovation, and firms become bigger. So a firm like Boeing relies on a huge amount of kind of amassed expertise and resources and technology that have been built up within the firm. And that means that a new competitor couldn’t really challenge it, because it would be all but impossible to get all the resources and knowledge and contacts that you would need to challenge Boeing. And that is inevitably what happens as capitalism develops, because you get these big agglomerations of resources and expertise in individual companies. So you have this tendency towards the centralisation of capitalism, basically. And Marx saw that, because he started with this analysis of production rather than exchange. But that’s not the only thing, it’s not just a solely economic thing, it’s also the fact that these businesses then gain the ability to control their markets, basically in one way or another. There’s an inherent incentive within a competitive environment to undermine competition. So these firms might start to buy up their competitors if they increase their profits to an extent that would allow that. They might start erecting barriers to entry, they’ll definitely start lobbying politicians and trying to get regulation implemented that advantages them over their competitors. They’ll outsource production and do regulatory arbitrage. They’ll try and undermine their their tax burden, all of these sorts of things that will allow them to actually consolidate their power.

Grace: So what you actually see, you know, this idea of the free market, is premised upon the idea that there are these decentralising forces that mean that no one institution is able to gain and hold power in the market for a very long time. But the way that capitalism actually works when you analyse it from the perspective of production, is that there is an inherent tendency towards the centralisation of power in ever fewer hands, and that that process is augmented by the way in which corporate entities are able to involve themselves in democratic politics to basically get what they want. And that, I argue, is an inherent part of capitalism. So lots of people say that’s crony capitalism when the state is captured by vested interests. And what I’m saying is that actually, no, go back to the very origins of capitalism. So something like the East India Company, which was an imperial vehicle that literally governed parts of India, that was a joint venture between the state and a bunch of merchants. And that relationship lies at the very heart of the development of capitalism, and it has done ever since, as I chart over the course of the book. So this isn’t crony capitalism, this is capitalism that has always been.

Manda: This is just capitalism.

Grace: Exactly. There have always been these links between the public and private.

Manda: Okay. Thank you. So we have a narrative that says capitalism is good because it’s free and that the markets will always sort stuff out. And we have a reality where fewer and fewer, bigger and bigger corporations suck in everything else. So that in the end, I think there are seven giant corporations that produce 90% of our food or something like that? As you said, there’s Boeing and Airbus are the two that make big planes that may or may not fall out of the sky. And not only do they talk to each other, but you detail quite carefully in the book the extent to which members of government either used to work for Boeing or now work for Boeing. And the revolving door is just very, very well lubricated by a lot of money.

Manda: So we have a capitalist system that is inherently corrupt. The concept of free markets isn’t necessarily a bad one, it just has never happened. And I think you’re detailing of what happened during Covid and the extent to which those with the money were able to hoover up the money and not give it to the people who actually needed it, is quite distressing but also needs to be known. I would like just for the theory, for people listening, to be able to get their heads around the theory, I would like to unpick once more how money is created. Because I am a bit of a modern monetary theorist and you might not be, so let’s have a look at that. In my world, governments spend money into existence, banks lend money into existence, and the problem with that is partly the seigniority of the banks, but also the fact that the leaky bucket is extremely leaky, and very large amounts of the money that the government spends into existence goes, for instance, to Greensill, where it just vanishes. It’s not in the system anymore. It’s not doing what governments are there to do, which is lubricating the overall money supply. It’s just siphoned off into their private yachts, whatever they do with it. So let’s look at how money is created and if we can, through that, I would really like to unpick, because you touched on this in the book, the nature of inflation. We are all being told that if anybody asks for higher wages, they will be personally responsible for the entire inflationary product of the globe. And therefore they should just settle for not being able to pay any bills. So can we just do a little unpicking of actual monetary theory just for a tiny little bit? And then we’re going to start looking at what we could be doing instead. Over to you.

Grace: Yeah, sure. So the most important thing to understand about Seigniorage, which is the creation of money and money itself, is that money is a social construct that’s backed by political power, i.e. the power of the state. So, you think of money as like a piece of paper or a number in a spreadsheet, but what it really is is a relationship. It’s a relationship that’s underpinned by trust in some senses and by force in other senses. It is the belief in the fact that a piece of paper or a financial transfer will be backed up at some point by some entity that has some power, right? So if I pay you £5, you believe that that £5 is worth £5. What does that really mean? Well, firstly and most importantly, it means that it’s going to be accepted by other people in the economy. So everyone else in the economy has to also believe that this money is worth something, but also it’s money that can be used to pay your taxes. Because if you don’t pay your taxes, then the government comes for you and that’s an exercise of power, it’s an exercise of force.

Grace: So this is money that is accepted by the state. And of course, it’s accepted by the state because it’s created by the state. I look in the book at the creation of the Bank of England and the creation of paper money in the UK, which was a really fraught time politically, this creation of paper money. The way in which the Bank of England was set up was basically a bunch of merchants giving a loan to the king, and then parts of this loan kind of circulating as banknotes, and the Bank of England then being invested with this power by the king, basically, in exchange for this loan. And that goes all the way back to, I think it’s the 1600s when that that loan was made. And David Graeber has a great piece on this in his book Debt, he writes all about the history of money and about how the loan has never been repaid, because if it were to be repaid the entire monetary system of the UK would collapse. It’s quite an amusing thought.

Manda: Yes, let’s unpick that, because positive money years ago discovered that only 1 in 10 of UK parliamentarians, MPs, understood how money was made. And I’m not thinking that percentage is likely to have risen, given the calibre of the people we have now. Because they they don’t get that if you pay off all your government debt, the entire economy will fall over. The Tories seem to be obsessed with paying down the national debt, they don’t understand that the debt has existed since I think it’s 1698, and you cannot pay it off and still have an economy. Could you just unpick that for us?

Grace: I think they do understand it.

Manda: They choose to tell us otherwise?

Grace: Yeah, 100%. I think they do understand this. I believe that the logic behind austerity was a fundamentally opportunistic one, and it was using a language that people find compelling, which is the idea that you have to pay down your debts, which seems like a practical and moral obligation, and applying that to the state in order to strategically cut areas of state spending that they want to cut anyway. Like privatising the NHS has been a dream for those on the right of the Conservative Party for a very long time. So if you cut NHS spending, make it work less well, people move to the private sector, which is what we’re seeing at the moment. You achieve an aim.

Manda: But do you think the Labour Party also sees that? Leaving aside the Labour Party in its relationship with privatisation of the NHS, because my blood will actually boil to steam and then the podcast will be over. But they seem to also think, you know, that note that was left at the end of Brown administration of there’s no money left, it’s like, guys, you make the money! There can’t ever be no money left. Now they’re thinking they have to balance the books. This entire narrative of spending down the credit card. No, you make the money. If I were to make my own £5 notes you would arrest me because you are the person who has the right, you and the banks have the right to, so they can make money out of nothing and sell it to us at a profit. And you think that’s cool. But they don’t seem to get it. Or the people they’re talking to don’t get it. We all seem to still live in this idea that the government has a credit card and it’s maxed out.

Grace: Yeah, which is crazy. And obviously that is not how government spending works. The fundamental starting point for any of this analysis has to be, again, this idea that money is a social construct that relies upon the legitimacy of the state and on wider kind of trust in financial institutions as well. So the only thing that can really undermine the functions of money are a decline in trust in the state, basically, or in trust in financial institutions. So when you get, for example, debt crises that afflict poor countries, this is based on the fact that often there are structural kind of economic conditions that are undermining the ability of states to pay for things like imports or to meet their obligations. Particularly to international creditors. And this has to do with the flow of resources in the world economy rather than just kind of having run out of money. Basically, money is always a reflection of a kind of underlying material relationship as well as this sense of trust.

Grace: So money is about putting resources to work, and governments can use money to put resources to work, but the resources have to be there. So this is the thing that we have to understand; is that money can’t just magic resources out of thin air. If an economy has become objectively poorer, for whatever reason, let’s say, because there’s been an increase in the cost of producing something really important like oil, then you can’t just say we’re going to print more and more money because that erodes the trust in money as a currency and kind of undermines its functions. 

Manda: Can we unpick that a little bit? The price of oil has gone up, not because the cost of production has gone up but because the oil cartels have decided to hike the price using Ukraine and other things as an excuse. And in previous occasions when trust has failed, so let’s take the global financial crash, trust collapsed in the moneyed classes. You know, the Ponzi scheme is still a Ponzi scheme, it’s just they all suddenly realised that they were swapping empty matchboxes that happened not to have gold coins in them and constantly raising the price. And somebody went, oh, look, guys, it’s empty. And they went, oh God, no. So it is. And the entire Ponzi scheme fell apart for a bit. The government did indeed print money out of nothing and push it back into the system, and seemed for a while not to dismantle trust in the system at all. So at the moment, oil prices are rising because the oil companies like making record profits and nobody’s telling them they can’t. And governments currently seem to be continuing to an extent to pour money into the system. At what point do we decide that trust has vanished?

Grace: Yeah. So the thing with the financial crisis was money was created out of thin air, yes, to purchase assets from the private sector, which had because of a general panic about the value of those assets, basically become valueless. They weren’t inherently valueless because they were tied to repayments on mortgages that were being made over a longer period of time, but because there had been a run on these particular instruments they became valueless and a liquidity crisis became a solvency crisis. So by buying up those assets and acting as the buyer of last resort or the lender of last resort, depending on how you want to look at it, the government kind of restored the basic functioning of the financial system. And that is indeed what money is supposed to do, really. It’s supposed to kind of grease the wheels of these processes that were already taking place. And people will often come back and say, when we talk about the government bailing out the banks, that actually the banks ended up repaying a lot of the loans, and the government made a lot of its money back because of the kind of sales of a lot of these securities etc. But I mean this is kind of the point, because in a capitalist economy where so much is dependent upon your ability to access this resource, money, over a short time period. So it’s about, a lot of the time, liquidity rather than just solvency. The institutions that gain preferential access to lending, by the ultimate issuer of money, have this massive privilege that other institutions don’t have.

Grace: I could say it’s going to benefit me and the economy massively over the long run if I’m able to get a cheap loan to go to university, that I don’t have to repay until I’m much, much older, right? And yet that is massively limited for a lot of people. It’s an expensive loan, and it’s often a really big loan, and it’s often outside of the reach of, of many people. So students don’t get that. If you go over to the US, you could say if I had access to a loan to allow me to get cancer treatment, for example, that would keep me alive, then I would be able to also pay back that loan in the future. But you don’t get that trust. You don’t get that ability to call on the the use of money as this real greaser or resource enabler, unless you’re a powerful financial or political institution. And I think that has become very clear. Like we’re taught to think of banks as disinterested intermediaries between savers and borrowers, when they don’t play that role. Not only do they have these really close relationships with with governments, they’re also able to kind of create money on their own behalf because of the way that private finance works. They have that right that’s given to them by the government to create money, and they govern the payment system and all of that sort of stuff.

Grace: And that is an immense privilege. It’s an immense power. It allows them to make huge decisions about which institutions succeed and which don’t, because whether or not you access a loan, particularly as a small Start-Up, for example. You could be an amazing Start-Up with an incredible technology that you really want to develop that’s going to change the world, but the returns from that are going to be seen over a long period of time. And that financial institution decides we don’t trust you, so we’re not going to lend you money, so that innovation doesn’t get developed. Maybe that innovation wasn’t going to be profitable. Maybe it was like providing generic drugs to people that aren’t going to make massive profits, but would have been great for society. And yet the banks are able to say, as I look in the book, or a financial institution can say, I’m going to pump loads of money into an institution like WeWork, which SoftBank lent loads of money, despite the fact that it was this basically house of cards that was run with terrible corporate governance practices and ended up ultimately collapsing. So the institutions that are able to draw on the resources of the finance sector, firstly tend to be other financial institutions, but secondly also tend to be really powerful corporations. And all of that is backed by the power of the state.

Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. I would really like to continue unpicking money, but I want to move on to the good stuff. Just very, very briefly before we do that, just for everybody’s interest, could you unpick for us how inflation actually works? In the most edited highlight you can do, just to knock on the head this idea that wage price increases is what causes inflation.

Grace: Yeah. So there’s different types of inflation. One is demand pull inflation and the other is cost push inflation. So demand pull inflation basically you can think of supply and demand as kind of crossing over in a graph. And where those two points meet is the price of a particular good, right? So when the supply of that good decreases, the price increases. And everything else is staying the same. Or on the other hand, when the demand for that good increases its price increases, everything else staying the same. So you can think of that on a kind of economy wide level, right. When demand goes up a lot, say there’s been a massive increase in demand for some revolutionary new technology or product; then its price increases and maybe if it’s really significant, then that increases prices throughout the economy as a whole. Or if there’s been a shock to supply. So this is often what underlies inflationary shocks. Because shocks to demand tend to be driven by other factors that are more linked with the rest of the way the economy works. So if there’s lots more demand, it’s often linked with higher incomes, which is often linked with greater supply and therefore more production. So these two things tend to move more in sync. But when there’s a shock to supply, like for example a war or a climate event, that can be a one off event that can immediately impact prices without creating a commensurate increase in demand. So this is what happened about two years ago when the recovery from the pandemic pushed up demand for oil, at the same time as the war in Ukraine began and that curbed access to natural gas.

Grace: And also there are all of these big blockages in the international logistics system that made it harder for people to access goods and services. Actually also there were a lot of climate events that were happening at that point that were disrupting the supply of really important goods. So there was this kind of perfect storm of mainly supply shocks that pushed up the prices of lots of important commodities, but particularly oil. And oil is used in everything. It’s used to produce so many things; plastics, the most obvious one, but it’s also used in transportation of most things. Natural gas, which also saw that increase, it’s used to produce fertilisers which go into food costs. So all of these things are very, very linked into the way that the whole global economy works. And that was what gave us the initial inflationary shock. Obviously it wasn’t workers demanding wage increases that would be a demand pull factor, and that isn’t what happened. It was a supply shock. Now, what a lot of economists then said was, okay, fine, the initial shock came from what was happening in the global economy, and it was a supply shock. But workers are now embedding inflation by demanding wage increases in line with that shock. And they were kind of trying to blame workers for the weight of this problem, which was that prices were going up, because people were kind of expecting them to continue to go up. And actually what eventually turned out to be the case is, firstly, the only workers that were (A) pushing up inflation because they were demanding wages that were much higher and (B) pushing up inflation because they were out spending loads of money, was the Uber rich.

Manda: Uh, bankers.

Grace: So these are people who are salaried workers, but actually earning tons and tons of money and are kind of more like bosses or managers, really. And their pay deals and spending have contributed to driving up inflation, not the pay deals and spending of working people, because there’s been a decade of wage stagnation. And there has been a terrible squeeze on people’s earnings over the cost of living crisis. But also critically, and this is something that Isabella Weber, who was a fantastic economist, pointed out a very long time ago, and she was utterly vilified by members of her profession who terrorised her and said that she was irresponsible and being a leftist and a propagandist. She said that a big part of the problem was corporations increasing prices, taking advantage of the general environment of inflation to increase prices more than they needed to. And they were able to do this because they had market power. So they already had some market power. They wanted to put up prices to increase their profits. And this general environment of inflation gave them the opportunity to do so. And this paper that she wrote about sellers inflation, which some people have called greedflation, it really explained a lot of what was going on, particularly with the oil companies and utilities companies and those companies that really don’t have much competition. And that ended up feeding into higher prices.

Manda: Yeah, not much competition and they are essential. Yeah. You need the stuff. Alrighty. We could carry on going into that but let’s cheer people up a bit. So let’s frame a slightly wider question. We’ve been a lot in the weeds and the roots of how the current system works, and it seems to me the current system is wholly broken. And actually it just needs to go. And we need to replace it with a new one. And you seem to me to have the intellectual capacity, Grace, to work out how that might happen.

Grace: Well…

Manda: We need a new democratic settlement, and we need a new way of transferring value and services and such goods as are essential around the planet, while basically getting rid of all the rest. While also facing AI. I have a question on my notes about the difference between work and jobs and Graeber’s concept of that, and what will happen with AI, which I would be really interested in your opinion on. But before we get to that, I just said that so I don’t forget. Using examples from the book if you want, because some of them are really good; if I were to stand at the next election with a whole bunch of independents and were to win, which happens to be the thesis of the novel; they didn’t quite win, but supposing we did and we were okay Grace, come and tell us: how are we going to fix everything? You have basic freedom within the constraints of how things can be made to work. Other than that, you have no constraints. What would you do?

Grace: Well, my first piece of advice to you would be to say that unless you’re able to build a political project that is a mass project with a mass base that can fall in behind your proposals…

Manda: Let’s assume we’ve done that, because otherwise we get into how do we do that.

Grace: That’s the critical thing. Yeah. Because I think there’s often the sense that you can have this shortcut to political power. And I certainly think that that was a problem with the Corbyn movement, was that there was this kind of building up of political power within workplaces and among activists. But it didn’t take place fast enough and it was from a very low base, so that basically attacks on that movement were much more likely to succeed, because the balance of power in society just didn’t reflect the types of policies that were being put forward.

Manda: Also we didn’t have the legacy media on board, I would say. Because I went to political rallies where normally you’d have three people and a dog, and they’d have been brought in by the agents, and there were thousands of people there who had never been politically active in their lives. And they were there because they believed in what was going. I think there was a really spectacular base, but what we hadn’t got is access to the narrative in the legacy media. Remember Gary Young of The Guardian saying afterwards that basically any journalist who suggested that Corbyn was other than a joke was going to lose their job. So we don’t only need a political movement, we need a political movement that has been acknowledged by a media that is wholly owned by the corporate megalith.

Grace: Well, we need a movement that cannot but be ignored. And ultimately that’s going to end up being probably vilified by much of the legacy media. And it’s also why it’s important for us to build up and develop our own media. I think the best example of when this type of thing would have happened, best kind of historical parallels, are the attitude that the media had towards workers during the 70s. There were a lot of people that were on strike to defend their basic rights against a coalition of the state and big corporations, that were trying to take them down and ultimately did so successfully. That was an example of failure. But also the period after the Second World War where you had a bunch of Labour politicians, on the left of the party, supported by unionists across the country who were at that point probably stronger than they’d ever been before.

Manda: Or since.

Grace: Pushing through reforms like the introduction of the NHS. And that was something that was done in the face of massive resistance from doctors, from the media, from other parts of the Labour Party, from the Conservative Party, from within the British state. Just like an insane amount of resistance to the creation of that policy, which was spearheaded by Aneurin Bevan, who was this far left politician who created immense amounts of trouble for his Labour Party. And that happened because Bevan could draw on this base of working class power that was able to push back against this onslaught. So for me, the question about how we use political power has to be a question that revolves around creating positive reinforcement between government and people power. And that’s why I focus in the book about how we democratise a lot of our political and economic institutions. Because ultimately, if we fail to build power from the ground up, then there will be a reassertion of the power of the people at the top. That’s what happened in the 80s, really, really forcefully. And it’s been what’s been responsible for a lot of what’s happened ever since then. So for me it’s about how we put power back in the hands of people; so I’d have a bunch of policies about how we can democratise the state, democratise corporations, democratise finance and democratise international organisations. Those would be the policies that I would really focus on, and it would be about how you would use those kinds of policies to fix the problems that we have. So rather than thinking I can solve the climate crisis by just changing what government does, it would be allowing communities to get involved with thinking about resilience to climate breakdown.

Grace: It would be how could we think about worker owned, publicly owned, citizen governed energy companies? How could we reimagine the way that our energy network works so that it can become more like based in communities? And that way, if the oil companies then go, oh, well we’re going to use all our heft to try and take you down, there’s that resilience that comes from the ground up. So that’s why I think these questions around democracy and building people power are so important. And the other thing I look at in the book is the examples, real world examples of people actually building that power in their communities and in their workplaces and on the streets. So there’s the Welsh village of Blaenau Ffestiniog, which has the most community enterprises per capita, and they’re all working together to start a community energy cooperative, to have responsible tourism, to promote sustainability, to protect people during the cost of living crisis. There’s a participatory budgeting movement where councils have worked with local people to give them democratic control over the budget. There’s Cooperation Jackson, which is a kind of community led organisation that’s focussed on building up cooperatives to provide work to local people, as well as organising them politically to get people elected to government and to have a real democratic participation in governance. So there’s loads of examples of where this is already happening. And I guess to go back to the question you first asked me, that’s where I see the hope, that’s where I see the potential for real change, actually.

Manda: Brilliant. Okay. You ticked all the boxes I wanted there. Because some of the examples towards the end of the book, I hadn’t realised that Cooperation Jackson had managed to get their candidate for mayor elected on 90% of the vote. That’s the kind of levels that Putin gets, but Putin’s made it up and this is for real. So going around the country talking to people, you’re talking at quite a high level, I’m guessing. It seems to me, because right at the start you also said the whistleblower of Boeing has recently been found dead. Allegedly, he shot himself, but the investigators are questioning whether that actually happened. And we know that those in power are not constrained by normal human instincts, and they will do whatever it takes to hold on to power. And I watch with interest whatever is going to happen in Jackson if they continue to become more powerful. And I have a fundamental belief that if we’re going to shift paradigms and shift into a more flourishing paradigm, it has to be peaceful. How is this being received; your book and the concepts within it? First of all, the lifting the lid on the corruption of the existing system and taking down a lot of the myths around free markets and democracy. And then, look guys, here are places where good things are happening that are actually working. How is that going down in the legacy media, which seems wholeheartedly to to still be pushing the old narratives? Or amongst the people who might get near the levers of power? Are any of them switching on to this and saying that it’s a good thing? It’s really what I’m asking.

Grace: Some of them are. So people are interested definitely. They’re certainly interested in the analysis. But if there’s a negative response, which there often is, it tends to come from this perspective of people can’t be trusted with power. So most people in positions of power have this very low view of the average person. They think there’s a reason I’m in control, and it’s because people can’t be trusted to look after themselves. They need benevolent leaders to take the reins.

Manda: Like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Grace: Exactly.

Manda: And the people who can obviously be trusted with power.

Grace: Yeah. So that’s the negative response basically.

Manda: And you presumably, I’m sure, because you’ve got them in the book, are able to bring the examples of citizens assemblies and peoples assemblies and Cooperation Jackson, Cooperation Hull; places where actual people, when given the capacity to do it… The Lucas Workers Plan was astonishing. You give people a chance and they come up with the most amazing, creative and wonderful things. Do you end up hitting the cognitive dissonance of people who, I don’t know, did a PPE at Oxford, and this is the way the world is, and they cannot see beyond it.

Grace: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the major problem. I think it’s why a lot of people won’t change their minds on this, because there is this real hard core, steadfast belief that some people are rulers and some people are ruled. That some people are born to govern and some people are born to follow. And they will harness lots of alleged evidence for their perspective. I take on a lot of that evidence in the book, and there’s a fantastic book called Humankind by Rutger Bregman, that looks at this idea that people are fundamentally competitive, uncivilised beings that need to be controlled and governed in order to become civilised. But I think that’s the ideology that underpins capitalism, is the idea that some people need to be governed and some people need to do the governing. And I just think that’s wrong. I think if you give people a chance to cooperate, to educate themselves, it’s not going to be easy or pretty; there’s going to be conflict, it’s going to be messy. There’s going to be inefficiencies, absolutely. But fundamentally if as human beings we don’t have power over the conditions in which we live, then we’re not fully free. 

Manda: Thank you. Okay. We’re near the end and that feels like a good place to end. I have so many other questions I would like to ask, but maybe we can take a second bite when the paperback comes out. So then, thank you, yes. And people being free, actually free, connectedly free, free to make the connections that they want with each other, feels like a really important step forward. Thank you. Is there anything else that you wanted to say to people listening other than please go and buy the book, which they definitely will want to do after this, I’m sure.

Grace: I hope so. Thank you so much for having me, Manda. The thing I’ve kind of been signing off a lot of my events with at the moment, when people say oh, what next? My perspective at the moment is that we need to be making trouble. We need to be making trouble in our workplaces, in our communities, on the streets. When the Labour government gets in, which it will inevitably get in and they don’t have the policies that are required to deal with a lot of these issues, people need to be making trouble. And I want people to feel confident enough by this book and also angry enough by this book, to really start to think about how we might do that.

Manda: Brilliant. Yeah. And guys, when you read the book, confident and very, very angry are going to be where you get to. Brilliant. Right. Let’s go out and make trouble. Grace, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.

Grace: Thanks, Manda.

Manda: And that’s it for this week. Enormous thanks to Grace for taking the time out of what sounds like a really punishing book tour. And in the first place, for writing a book that is such a call to action. As she says, we need to get together. We need to talk to each other. We need to make trouble in a way that shows that there is a better world. We’re not just making trouble for the sake of making trouble. We’re making trouble because this way isn’t working for anybody. Not even the people right at the top who are making tons of money. Nobody thinks the current system is working, and it is still possible to get together in the ways she describes people doing in the book. So buy it and read it. There are links in the show notes. If you get a chance to go and see Grace at any of her events, please do. And then let’s see how we can make constructive trouble to steer our world to a future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. So there we go.

Manda: That’s it for this week. We’ll be back next week with another conversation. And in the meantime, enormous thanks to Caro C for the music at the head and foot. To Alan Lowles of Airtight Studios for the production. To Anne Thomas for the transcripts. To Faith Tilleray for all of the conversations that keep us moving forward, and for wrestling with the tech even while on a beach in Shetland. And as ever, enormous thanks to you for listening. If you know of anybody else who wants to understand why free markets are not free, why capitalism is not a good way of organising things, why democracy as we currently see it is not actually democratic, then please do send them this link and buy them a copy of Grace’s book. That’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.

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