Here and there – A glimmer of hope at long last


As with any label, ‘populist’ is dodgy.  But in two people – Trump and Johnson – we have two of them.  Each is frankly vicious, and liked by some people for that very reason.  No decent person would allow either of them into their house – much less leave him in charge of their children.

Who support them?  We are speaking of people who are happy to chant ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Send them back,’ or who believe that another rich heir will stand up for the ordinary bloke in the street, even though this spoiled fop got the full treatment from Eton and Oxford and, probably White’s, and has only ever come across blue collars by accident.

Johnson was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club, an all-male dining club for Oxford boys in drag, that indoctrinated him in how to trash common decency.  Speaking of those times, Johnson said:

This is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness.  But at the time you felt it was wonderful to be going round swanking it up. Or was it? Actually I remember the dinners being incredibly drunken.

That is a fair statement of the cast of mind, if such it may be called, that led to the events of 14 July 1789.  No sane person could have spent more than five minutes at one of those functions before throwing up.

In the last few years, we have witnessed an alarming moral and intellectual collapse in both England and America.  The scale of that collapse, coming from people who once claimed to be conservatives, suggests to me that our current model of government may not have long to live.

Our version of democracy must be premised on some degree of respect, tolerance and acquiescence – all of which are denied by political thugs who appeal to people who have lost all interest and faith.  Any democracy must sit above some level of reasonableness, but we are watching it all go down the drain – noisily and rapidly.  In the beautiful words of Yeats:

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

And it just keeps getting worse.  Trump and Johnson are like Ponzi schemes – they have to keep fuelling their own furnace.  And the bitterness and division then lead sensible people to extremes.  The Financial Times is now in something like a state of war with Johnson in the same way that The New York Times is with Trump.  But how else do you respond to a lying oaf who is content to incite murder of his opponents – who were barred by their sex from Eton or the Bullingdon Club?

This descent into the gutter of previously decent people resembles the descent that occurred in Europe a century or less ago.  My guess is that a lot of the disenchantment, especially of younger voters, comes from our failure to halt a galling inequality; to deal with those people whose greed and crookedness nearly brought us all undone in the Great Financial Crisis; the insecurity that comes with the technological revolution; and the farcical and selfish failure to deal with climate change.  I suspect that the chief of these is inequality.  And if you had to give one word for what the French and Russian Revolutions were about, that would be it.

In looking at Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital and Ideology, Simon Kuper in the Financial Times made some very acute observations about where we are.  I will set some out at length.

Helped a little by that book, inequality has soared up the left’s agenda, especially in the particularly unequal US and UK.  Now Elizabeth Warren has a shot at becoming the most redistributionist US president since Franklin D Roosevelt, while an electable post-Corbyn Labour leader could achieve similar in Britain….

 Whereas Marx saw history as class struggle, Piketty sees it as a battle of ideologies.  Every unequal society, he says, creates an ideology to justify inequality.  That allows the rich to fall asleep in their town houses while the homeless freeze outside….

Piketty recounts the justifications of inequality that recur throughout time:

‘Rich people deserve their wealth.’  ‘It will trickle down.’ ‘They give it back through philanthropy.’ ‘Property is liberty.’ ‘The poor are undeserving.’ ‘Once you start redistributing wealth, you won’t know where to stop and there’ll be chaos’ — a favourite argument after the French Revolution. ‘Communism failed.’ ‘The money will go to black people’ — an argument that, Piketty says, explains why inequality remains highest in countries with historic racial divides such as Brazil, South Africa and the US.

Another common justification, which he doesn’t mention, is ‘High taxes are punitive’ — as if the main issue were the supposed psychology behind redistribution rather than its actual effects.  All these justifications add up to what he calls the ‘sacralisation of property’….

There’s a growing understanding that so-called meritocracy has been captured by the rich, who get their kids into the top universities, buy political parties and hide their money from taxation.

Moreover, notes Piketty, the wealthy are overwhelmingly male and their lifestyles tend to be particularly environmentally damaging. Donald Trump — a climate-change-denying sexist heir who got elected president without releasing his tax returns — embodies the problem…..

Millennials are especially suspicious of success.  More American adults under 30 say they believe in ‘socialism’ than ‘capitalism’, report the pollsters Gallup.  This generation owns too little property to sacralise it.

Centre-right parties across the west have taken up populism because their low-tax, small-state story wasn’t selling any more.  Rightwing populism speaks to today’s anti-elitist, anti-meritocratic mood. However, it deliberately refocuses debate from property to what Piketty calls ‘the frontier’ (and others would call borders).

That leaves a gap in the political market for redistributionist ideas. We’re now at a juncture much like around 1900, when extreme inequality helped launch social democratic and communist parties.  Piketty lays out a new redistributionist agenda.  He calls for ‘educational justice’ — essentially, spending the same amount on each person’s education.  He favours giving workers a major say over how their companies are run, as in Germany and Sweden.  But his main proposal is for wealth taxes.  Far from abolishing property, he wants to spread it to the bottom half of the population, who even in rich countries have never owned much.

To do this, he says, requires redefining private property as ‘temporary’ and limited: you can enjoy it during your lifetime, in moderate quantities.  He proposes wealth taxes of 90 per cent on billionaires.  From the proceeds, a country such as France could give each citizen a trust fund worth about €120,000 at age 25.  Very high tax rates, he notes, didn’t impede fast growth in the 1950-80 period.

Warren (advised by economists who work with Piketty) is proposing annual taxes of 2 per cent on household fortunes over $50m, and 3 per cent on billionaires.  She projects that this would affect 75,000 households, and yield revenues of $2.75tn over 10 years.  Polls suggest most Americans like the idea.  Paradoxically, the plutocratic US may be ideal terrain for a wealth tax…..[Emphases added.]

This is the most sensible discussion of our current condition that I have seen.  It oozes good sense for me.  One test of a political proposition is the extent of its rejection by Rupert Murdoch.  This is not just anathema – it is schismatic heresy and capital treason.  And I may add that I have long suspected that the prime driver of Trump was the belief of most of his followers that far too much of America had gone to people of colour – including the White House.

Perhaps, after all, Elizabeth Warren may have the answer.  (‘Educational justice’ – now there’s a phrase that has a whiff of 1789 about it.)  And could we get Aeschylus to provide the script for Donald Trump going down to Pocahontas?

My impression is that unless democracies get their act together and do something ‘deep and meaningful’ about inequality, then, in the language of rugby league, things could ‘get very ugly.’

2 thoughts on “Here and there – A glimmer of hope at long last

  1. Geoff, I haven’t read the book by Piketty but friends in NZ have recommended a new documentary which illuminates his work. I will try and get more details.

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