I was recently taken to task by a more conservative friend of mine who claimed that
…socialists are far more jealous at what they consider to be the excessive wealth of those above them in the financial pecking order than they are concerned at those further down.
Well, I take issue with that.
I’m not that blissfully naive to ignore the shades of grey here: Abraham Lincoln was a Republican President who fought a civil war to end slavery, after all, but the general points stand. In the aftermath of this summer’s riots in London and other English cities, David Cameron and his Government were quick to condemn the criminal actions of the disaffected, alienated youths. Thousands were arrested, charged and tried. Many were imprisoned for seemingly trivial participation (stealing a bottle of mineral water) alongside those who definitely deserved such punishment. But by and large the response has seemed to me to be short-term and shallow, as I feared at the time.
Michael Goldfarb’s recent documentary for the BBC World Service explored the changing nature of the British Establishment, how it has maintained control through history, and how it has changed in more recent decades. It prompted me to remember my A-Level History studies, in which I spent some time considering the phenomenon that in the 130 years to the end of World War One, France, Prussia, Italy and Russia all suffered major revolutions, while Britain was relatively stable.
Part of the explanation for this was that the ruling British élite were far more adaptable than some of these other régimes. They acknowledged some sense of responsibility for the population and for general order. They recognised the needs for reform (however unpalatable it might have felt to them) in order to maintain a peaceful status quo. Robert Lowe opposed reforms passed in the 1860s, but was quick to warn his colleagues of the imperatives that came with such an extension of the suffrage, as he introduced the seminal education reforms of 1867…
we must educate our new masters.
Factory Reforms, education acts, voting extensions were all passed at fairly regular intervals during the 19th century in the UK, often representing the smallest possible change the élite felt they could get away with. The Chartist protest movement of the 1840s largely failed in its aims during its protests, but within a couple of generations virtually everything they campaigned for was enshrined in British law, and they were perhaps the first movement to ignite an interest in politics among the working class.
In the past century the British establishment has changed beyond all recognition. World War One put an end to the dominance of the landed gentry (even Downton Abbey recognised this!). The Commercial classes had been rising through the 19th century, and by the 1920s there was both an established Labour and Liberal Party seeking to represent the common man and woman in a way that scarcely seemed possible even 20 years earlier. Through the 20th century industry rose and fell away and was replaced by the financial markets at the heart of the political economy.
Whereas the 19th Century Aristocracy retained some sense of noblesse oblige and sought to maintain order, passing reforms to benefit others while retaining their own control, there is none of that duty within the invisible hand of barely-regulated financial markets. The self-interest that led a landowner to distribute parts of his wealth to feed the workers who sow and harvest his crops seems largely absent from the new élite. Their driving motive is profit, and is far more selfish. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has remarked that
…the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.
Many conservatives (including my friend) make arguments like this (I’m quoting him here):
I am not affronted by inequalities per se: a society in which everyone has equal wealth is neither possible nor desirable – how would you produce the incentives and rewards for those who create wealth for others as well as themselves if it were so? The absolute (not relative) standard of living of those at the bottom is what really matters…
In 1789, a (probably soon-to-be headless) French Princess apparently said of the revolutionaries “Let them eat cake” (it was probably brioche). That went well, didn’t it?
I reckon so-called Trickle-Down economics is fatally flawed and promotes brutal inequalities in society. Those rioters in Tottenham and Ealing this last summer had expensive mobile phones and Blackberries, they weren’t looting for food or subsistence goods, but designer trainers and flat-screen TVs. Their absolute standard of living is higher than any generation before them. And still they rioted.
Conservatives talk about incentives and rewards for creating wealth. They assert the requirement that people with resources, education and wealth enough already to be able to create opportunities require further subsidy to do so. So much for trickle-down economics and the invisible hand. On the other (painfully visible) hand, the poorest, most vulnerable, most alienated, least educated, least mobile people in society are challenged to commute for 90 minutes to get a job that barely covers the travel costs, and threatened and bullied with reductions in support.
Conservatives also talk in doom-laden tones about the terrors that would befall us if marginal taxes are increased as businessmen flee the country, taking their brains and bank accounts elsewhere. But as a recent report by ActionAid outlines, 98% of the FTSE100 companies already operate thousands of companies based in tax havens to ‘optimise’ their tax burden and profitability. The collective intellects and judgement of the banking sector largely caused the economic meltdown into which we are rapidly descending. Should I mourn their departure from the UK? Really?
Bleeding-heart liberals are by no means perfect. But at least we are blessed and cursed with being able to see, understand and distinguish different arguments, and judge their merits with an open mind.
Richard Murphy would probably blanche at me mentioning his name in the same paragraph as ‘bleeding heart liberal’. But his commentary on the current state of the world has (IMHO) been exemplary. He recognises the ideological failings of the neo-con world-view and argues powerfully for more courageous politicians to acknowledge these failings and strike out on a new course, with new strategies.
I’m really not jealous of the wealth of those above me in “the financial pecking order”, but I do resent the way they actively and aggressively perpetuate inequalities in society to the detriment of the vast majority of people, with an astonishing selfishness and self-regard. I take offence at how they manipulate democratic institutions for their own gain, and even more I resent how those institutions allow themselves to be manipulated.
I’m relatively well-off, but I am still part of the 99%. My conservative friend is too, and he also wishes for things to be better, but he is resigned to what he sees as ‘the only solution’ to the problems of excessive government spending and borrowing. I’m proud to think there must be different options, different ideas that could improve things for everyone. I don’t have those answers, but at least I’m trying, and at least I’m hoping.