Thursday, 18 August 2011

Inequality, aspiration, and consumerism

Much of the political reaction to the rioting in a number of cities was pretty predictable.  For some, it was the result of a ‘broken’ society - and therefore the fault of the previous government, for allowing it to get broken in the first place.  For others it was the result of cuts to public spending - and therefore the fault of the current government.  
(Although some of them seemed to be a bit confused about which cuts they were referring to.  Were they concerned about those cuts which might have affected the communities where the rioters lived, or more immediately about the ones that might simply mean fewer policemen were available to deal with the rioters?  It sometimes looked more like the latter than the former, with no obvious recognition of the huge difference between the two positions.)
Then, closer to home, there were those who saw it more as an ‘English’ problem.  The report from Professor Adamson yesterday should have been more than enough to debunk that one.  There is nothing about any of the suggested underlying causes which seems to me to be likely to change just because of what is currently little more than an internal boundary between two parts of the same state.  (There may well be something in the argument that Wales is more rural, and its major conurbations smaller, than the cities affected, but that is equally a difference between different parts of England; it isn’t a simple Wales/England distinction.)
The problem with a largely political response is that so many politicians work on an essentially very short time horizon, defined mostly by the electoral cycle.  It leads to a superficial point-scoring approach, well-illustrated by the latter part of this post from Peter Black.  An attempt to say that it shouldn’t be a blame game – after a paragraph putting the blame squarely on other parties – sounds more than a little hollow; but he isn’t the only politician, nor is his the only party, to have attempted such sophistry.
Underlying many of the different analyses is a mindset which sees ‘problems’, and assumes that what is needed must therefore be ‘solutions’.  Such a rational and logical way of looking at things is part of the current zeitgeist, but seems to me to be more than a little detached from an understanding of the nature of humanity, which never has been – and probably never will be – amenable to such purely rational analysis. 
Trying to find a way of enforcing or encouraging conformity to the prevailing norms might well appear to be an entirely rational response to mass breaches of those norms, but defining the problem in those terms makes a lot of presuppositions.  And, as an aside, conformity to prevailing norms isn’t the human attribute which has driven the development of civilisation.
Insofar as there is an underlying trend which can lead to such outbreaks, we need to be taking a much more long term view of the way in which society is changing than we are hearing at a political level, and Professor Adamson expresses that well when he talks about the way in which the distance between rich and poor has been increasing.
It has done so inexorably over many decades; and it is something which governments – of both parties – have not only tolerated, but actively encouraged.  It ought to be enough to lead to a greater demand for change in the economic structures of our society, but that viewpoint is not currently being well-articulated in a political structure which broadly accepts the boundaries of the current economic structures.
However, even given that lack of an opportunity for political expression, I doubt that growing inequality would be sufficient to lead to the sort of actions which we saw last week.  But we need to add into the mix two other factors which are comparatively recent. 
The first is that we are in an age of rapid mass communications, so that differences in social status and material wealth are much more obvious than they would have been fifty years ago.  And the second is the way in which those mass communications are used to relentlessly push the consumerist agenda, creating aspirations in the many for material possessions which can never be delivered to all.
I was reminded, when I read this thoughtful piece by Gary Raymond a few days ago, that there is an underlying philosophy – usually expressed rather less starkly than it was by Ayn Rand – which says that ‘anyone can succeed if they work at it’.  It underpins the idea of ‘social mobility’ signed up to by successive governments, and implies that if people are poor, it’s because they haven’t got up and gone.
In itself the idea that ‘anyone can succeed’ has a ring of truth to it; but the flip side is that ‘anyone’ can never be the same as ‘everyone’.  An economic system which encourages such an approach is predicated on an assumption, nay a requirement, that most will, by the same criteria, ‘fail’.
The big lie of politics is that inequality can be addressed solely by setting and achieving targets for lifting up people, families, and communities at the bottom of the economic pile, without any constraints on those at the top.  It can’t.
Greater economic equality is no guarantee, of course, that there will never be those who break with norms and seek to help themselves; but continuing increases in inequality are a pretty good guarantee that there always will be.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

“Lousy, but loyal” was a spontaneous sign painted on a bed sheet and hung from the tenement slums of the East End of London on the eve of Eddie 7 coronation bash as King Emperor. These people were ethnically diverse living in abject poverty (no free, tax payers hand outs then) but they still felt a sense of belonging and a confidence in core values of the State. The mantra of God, King and Country with all the flummery of the institutions gave them a strange kind of buy-in.
Now, the “revolting English” see England and Britain as interchangeable, Scotland and Wales are seen as Greater England and why not, as the national anthems are the same and the English flag is the centre piece of the Union flag, but since the end of WW2 the stuff that gave the English and their State confidence in themselves has been running out and over the last 30 years the State has been flying on empty. The breakdown in their society and the disturbances to date are a manifestation of an end of Empire syndrome and an underclass that are now alienated no matter what the reason, the magic and glue has gone.
In 1915 the German High Command knew they could not win the war and saw the crumbling monarchy of Austria Hungary as the cause of their predicament, they concluded “we are fettered to a corpse”- the people of Wales should begin to ask a similar question.