Is the UK fair?

Some people may think that choosing to tax the assets of the wealthy is as random as choosing to tax water but surely there is some logic to it. One of the more interesting aspects of what has been said about the very wealthy and the institutions that they run is that they have had a disproportionate impact on the kinds of policies and currents of thinking operating in political life. Although it sounds rather like old school Marxist theories of knowledge the argument is essentially that there has been a capturing of agendas, decisions and frameworks for policymaking by financial institutions, the wealthy and the powerful intermediaries that work across these spaces. On the one hand this has meant politicians have felt the financial services sector is so important that all other decisions are secondary to the need to ensure their vitality. In short, this has lead to bailouts for banks and the collective paying-down of debt as a result. Not only has this been a slowly unfolding social disaster over the past six years or so but even more perversely we inhabit a media and political culture that has very successfully made discussion of taxation and progressive resourcing of the public realm an apparent mad house that no one should bear to entertain.

Not long ago I was invited to give a presentation at a meeting organised by the York People’s Assembly on whether Britain seems fair. I took this as a rather rhetorical opening for a debate about why Britain is broken, broke or both and this is a kind of summary of the things I tried to get across in that session.

The best social research on crime, education, jobs, housing and so on is that these remain problems, that access to opportunity is a key issue and that it is the familiar groups and places that are faring badly.

We need to decide whether the arrangements and social structures we see around us are justified, due to chance, to hard work or because we live in a rigged system that will continue to produce and reproduce low paid, sick, poorly educated, under-employed and groups deemed to be deviant and workshy by a media system looking for cheap stories or, worse, under the editorial control of uncritical or partisan news media empires (and the BBC increasingly appears to be acting in such ways too).

In Herbert Gans’ essay The Positive Functions of Poverty he pokes fun at the establishment by saying that we NEED poverty, it provides jobs for social workers and other state professionals, it gives us something to wring our hands over and ponder the morality of others and it provides energy for the politics of the left. As a community we certainly seem to enjoy moralising and pointing at the broken social wrecks of our economy and policy decisions – Benefits Street is one of several examples of the kind of voyeurism and social spitefulness that has become embedded in our culture today.

On politics – the mindset of contemporary social life is co-opted to the rhythms of indebtedness (including that generated by homeownership), resistance and protest are unthinkable, it is also often seen as futile and increasingly severely repressed, the shiny baubles of the information age distract us and reduce our energy or attention to social problems (ipads, videogames, pornography).

The position of many is to adopt what Fromm called the marketing personality, we sell ourselves and calculate our worth or failure in our successes or failures in work – keep your head down, play by the rules and hope your number isn’t called.

Implicit in the choices of many is what Iain Angell positively describes as a kind of new barbarianism – we make decisions based on personal gain, made to feel we are on our own by government (commodification of state assurances) driven by commercial imperatives. We see this culture all around us – a robbing of the social commons by political and corporate elites to take what they can before someone else does so. You better get educated, get a ticket to the right job in an increasingly precarious labour market, move to a gated community and insure yourself by investing in your health, taking those common goods that help you (good schools and public health systems) while arguing for low taxes and the dismantling of inefficient welfare systems. Just hope you don’t end up on the wrong side of the fence because then it really will be game over.

Piketty gives us the startling overview and Harvey the mechanisms underlying much of what is going on. Their apparent radicalism is to propose, in Piketty’s case, that no one can win in a system so rigged towards the favouring of those who already own so much. Countries like the US, France and UK are all similar in this. The interesting thing here is that Piketty is on the inside – he sees a core value in capitalism but he would like to be more just and, as Harvey once said in questions at a lecture, social deomocracy would be a start. In Harvey’s case the analysis focuses on the points of weakness (the contradictions) for those who argue that a system so unequal, so destructive to nature and prone to continuous and costly disaster is the only game in town. In Piketty’s case he has been picked up by the financial press and globally by those who see his incredible data and analysis, and a route map for dealing with the worst excesses, but he is no apologist, citing his own up-bringing in the communist era as a kind of education against alternatives. Harvey’s popularity lies in his dogged exposition of Marxist analysis of the system and his ‘translation’ of Marx via a chapter by chapter analysis of lectures freely placed online (to say nothing of his standing as a critical geography for more than forty years). Moreover David Harvey is gauging that theft, extortion, organised crime, financial usury and the rigged financial system is part of how the system now works and money is concentrated and reproduced in a neoliberal class. So the project of neoliberalism was an attempt to regain the returns and position of the elite that it had occupied in the early part of the century and as Piketty’s data now shows – they have got it back, and more!

For the criminologist John Lea, crime has become part of the engine as well as the exhaust of the system – well, we might also say that unfairness and inequality are also part of the engine and the exhaust of the machine – we need them to make the gains accrue to capital, even worse is that the middle classes or increasingly pervasive and can see that they have a common interest with the low and no-paid against rampant contracting-out, crony capitalism, privatisation and asset stripping. In all of this we need to remember that there is a political economy to wealth and housing – politicians continue to work towards sustaining the contradictions, offering more subsidies for the weakest buyers (instead of reducing inequalities, taxing property wealth, or programming towards a long term flattening of house prices). Do you want your house value to go up or to see other people housed? Interestingly perhaps the continued dipping of owner occupation among younger households may mean that this dynamic shifts in their favour and away from the expansion of private renting fiefdoms by those who have already done very well.

Increasing polarisation and anti sociological posturing, immigrants, benefits street style treatments, lack of recognition of money poverty and conditions – scape goating, distractions

Some suggestions

Stop focusing on the poor, turn the heat and light upwards!

Role of the universities – Orientation to policy is for the most-part a falsehood – policymakers and politicians look for justifications, rather than evidence, they may remain elite insitituions but as spaces for free thinking and for investigating our social and economic condition they remain unrivalled.

In the past the argument for reform and social investment of the kind seen in Piketty’s analysis in the post war period was that these were necessary to stifle dissent, were based on the need for principles of social investment and democracy and that ultimately we all paid the price for opting out of taxes in the kind of degraded public realm that all could see. Now the good (or bad) news is that we can retreat from the negative externalities of the system (disorder, bored youth, crime, poor public services) to private estates, gated communities and to private education and health services.

The social construction of policy-maker realities – The political elite is in many ways divorced from witnessing social difference and the effects of their own policy programmes. They are wealthy and schooled in leafy areas away from zones that had already seen massive social losses of all kinds. The danger of a socially insulated executive is the possibility not only of ideologically charged assaults on the poor, but a callous and indignant approach to inequality more generally. To go back to the beginning, the very wealthy are served by the quite wealthy and almost unconsciously collude in each other’s needs.

Raise taxes fairly on income, land and property to progressively pay down debts where and if needed. Piketty’s proposals for massive taxes on private wealth should be debated far and wide. Public housing, the NHS and other collectively funded forms of social insurance and provision that make us safer, healthier, better educated need protecting from an assault by the logic of the market that will deliver new forms of inequality just as it generates new dividends to the corporations waiting in the wings.