King Midas of London
Like all folk stories, you can tell the story in different ways.
Aristotle reports that he died of hunger. Other versions say that he was saved by the gods, when he repented after turning his daughter, Zoe (or ‘life’) into gold. Here in one story that has lasted over centuries is the concept and conundrum of wealth.
For London, are we wealthy if what we touch turns to gold? Or is it that the true sources of wealth are to be found where gold is no substitute?
The writer and art critic John Ruskin, in the nineteenth century, declared that there is no wealth but life – and in doing so, he was declaring himself for King Midas’ daughter. Family, relationships, meaning – these to Ruskin are then true wealth.
But the story of King Midas doesn’t quite square with that – legends never do. He was, after all, already a King, with kingly possessions and a kingdom’s obedience. Gold is not without uses, but it is with its limits. In wealth, as in life, balance is everything.
These competing ideas of wealth are at the heart of what makes for a good London. Ask people what they appreciate about London, and money is outranked by the people, the culture, the opportunities and even the parks and green spaces. All the great studies of well-being over the last ten years say the same – that what most predicts how happy someone is comes down to their connection with people around them, rather than the money they earn.
Gold is emblematic of financial wealth, as we believe it will allow for a flow of benefits and entitlements tomorrow. The term ‘capital’ captures this sense of wealth and offers an accounting framework for how future benefits may be valued or discounted (or, if your wealth is in a form akin to a metal that rusts, depreciated).
But there are more forms of capital in our capital city than those that are measured in traditional economic terms. What price do we put on a clean environment? What price for community? What price for parenthood?
If wealth is wider than financial gains, then London boasts an extraordinary diversity of wealth creators, many of whom are on low pay, travel long distances or live in poor housing.
The community and voluntary sector, co-operatives and social enterprises – all contribute to wealth in the wider sense of sustainable welfare.
We can appreciate the financial wealth of London and of the city without welcoming the kind of economy that it risks creating, rooted not in entrepreneurship and innovation but in structures of financial inequality and exclusion.
We don't know how the story, or legend, of London will turn out. If we hope for balance, then we would do well to affirm and value what together we most love about this city of ours.
Ed is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, to find out more about his work and visions visit www.edmayo.coop