It’s not the poor the middle class should fear

The villains of today are not the radical union bosses of old, but Sir Fred Goodwin and his kind

The Observer, Sunday 18 January 2009

I assume that, as a reader of the Observer, you are likely to be middle class and want to put the blunt question to you: who is your enemy? Who has menaced your home and career, brought fear to your slumbers, threatened to turn your work-life balance into all life and no work, placed ever more outrageous claims on your taxes, trashed your pensions and savings and destroyed your ambitions and the ambitions of your children.

It is not the working class, is it?

Unlike the crisis of the Seventies, which shifted middle-class opinion rightwards, today’s crash cannot be blamed on striking trade unionists. The worst you can say about the mass of ordinary people or, indeed, the mass of middle-class people, is that they allowed the bankers to persuade them that they could safely borrow to excess. Speculators running riot brought this emergency. The lazy regulators at the Financial Services Authority who did not and, if their lifting of the ban on short selling is any guide, still do not see the need to control financial capitalism, were their accomplices.

The characteristic villain of our day is not a modern equivalent of Arthur Scargill, but Sir Fred Goodwin, who made £20 million from the Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest, then left the taxpayer with an unlimited liability for the cost of cleaning up the mess.

That we are living through chaos unleashed by the wealthiest on all beneath them strikes me as one of those points that are so obvious I wonder about the need to type it out. But it is not obvious to the Conservative politicians and newspapers who presume to speak for middle England. They argue that equality, not inequality, is the real danger. Specifically, they accuse Harriet Harman of “declaring war on the middle class” by imposing a statutory requirement on public bodies to close the gap between rich and poor.

They delude themselves if they suppose that protecting the wealth differential of the rich is an abiding bourgeois concern. Middle-class resentment at how City money drove up the price of homes and luxuries they could once afford was the fiercest class passion of the bubble. Now it has burst, let us accept for the sake of argument that Conservative writers may have a point. The question remains: who in the middle class could see their interests harmed by Labour’s proposals?

Encouraging education authorities to concentrate resources on schools in deprived areas and health authorities to spend money on hospitals in poor districts may take resources away from affluent suburbs, although the divisions between the two are often fuzzy and the social effect may well be small.

Harman quotes the example of street markets in her south London constituency. The council may be obliged by her law to charge lower prices to stallholders in the council estates – because any kind of commerce is good for its inhabitants – and higher rates for traders in the upper-middle-class suburb of Dulwich. Her initiative may lead to the fees of Dulwich market traders rising and the price of organic vegetables and free-range sausages going up with them. Again, I suspect the middle class could live with that.

The most damaging consequences may not fall on potential Conservative voters, but on the liberal-left’s middle-class supporters in the public sector. For Harman’s decision to talk about class has not only shocked the right, but also her own side, which has ignored it for years. It may seem odd for the Labour party to be silent about social divisions – its founders created it to talk about little else – but its evasion was a natural consequence of the tortuous history of the late 20th century left.

For good reasons, feminism and anti-racism helped to stop the left concentrating on inequalities of income. Tony Blair reflected the concerns of his generation when he licensed his ministers to argue about the failure of women to break the glass ceiling or the under-representation of ethnic minorities in the professions, but refused to criticise the gap between rich and poor.

There were honourable motives behind the change in priorities – the targets of racism, homophobia and misogyny come from all classes – but the result was often extraordinarily hypocritical as liberals and the public sector institutions they dominated ignored the main cause of disadvantage in society: the lack of money.

The Environment Agency encapsulated the double standard last year when it told Abigail Howarth, a school leaver from Bedfordshire, that there was no point in applying for a traineeship. If she had been Asian, Indian, Afro-Caribbean or even white Irish, Welsh, Scottish or European, it might have offered her a place. As she was white and English, it could discriminate against her at will. Whether she was a state-school girl from a humble family and her rival was a public-school boy who knew only luxury was an irrelevance. Race and nationality were all.

There is a limit to how long a party of the centre-left can carry on with identity politics before its absurdities become too much. When resources are scarce, they have to be well directed. According to the old way of thinking, Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Britain, deserved special treatment because he was Asian and Nicola Horlick, the hedge fund queen, needed protection because she was a woman. I can imagine circumstances when they could suffer from either racism or sexism, but they are remote and Britain has more pressing concerns.

Chief among them is the potential for a collapse in the social structure. Conservatives who warn of a war against the middle class fail to understand that millions of middle-class people may not be willing to join the battle because they fear a future of downward mobility. Measures to help the working class do not sound so terrible when you have a terrible premonition that you may soon be joining it.

One thought on “It’s not the poor the middle class should fear

  1. The Affluent Are Preposterously Stupid—
    I Have the Evidence!

    The revolution has been fired up! When I showed to Northamerican friends my article, Incontrovertible Proof That Citizens of the DisUnited States of Northamerica Are So Sorrowfully, So Sanctimoniously Stupid (, I was somewhat disillusioned: they all agreed with me! Northamericans, and their other gang members, have all along known, “subconsciously,” for decades, that they have been doing something wrong, bloody iniquitous, and that one day their stokes of luck would fag out. Their fingers are no longer crossed. Are we approaching some sort of day of reckoning? I doubt it, but there is certainly going to be a considerable measure of “restructuring” to tend with as we are obliged to conform to an entirely new set of criterion. At least à la manière socialiste! The sooner we begin to stop encoding our misfortunes in purely financially viable terminology with spectacular pleas to some Lord Above, the better it will be for all of us. The once powerful DUS, forever the “abroad protectionist,” runs the risk of becoming the “at home isolationist.” Does this mean war?

    This “divine revelation” might be attributed to many causes not the least of which is the intense, rather hostile, competitive pressures that are being set against the DUS from the outside world and which are confounding the DUS’s religious belief in itself that it is the globe’s economic and political King of the Mountain. The DUS’s penchant for arrogance has not improved its chances. Northamericans are in for a vulgar testing of their mettle. They, international interlopers and so much akin to such-and-suches such as the DisUnited Kingdom and France, have hardly any global friends. The world’s industrial nations have been living off the sweat and blood of the weak, the disadvantaged—and for far too long to now expect that handouts will win fifs (funny inside feelings) on their behalf. This is not an exclusively ethical issue. It is straightforwardly a matter of being intelligent or imprudent. The DUS and its chums have consistently chosen to be ludicrously obtuse. It is deplorable that during the 2008 DUS presidential campaign, all candidates made diminutive mention of the DUS’s position in the world, and they scarcely made note of other nations, besides their own, presenting the perception that the DUS is unique and omnipotent when most know it is not.

    It is important, at this crucial juncture in humankind’s story, to try to identify clearly and distinctly the reasons why we have arrived at this stage of disgusting foolhardiness, and then with some cloudless way of thinking seek to rectify the mess we have created. My fingers are crossed. There are innumerable motives to which we may allude, but in this article I prefer to attack one that is on everyone’s mind, everyday: the wealthy, the elite, the corporatists.
    Because the affluent are in the minority, they kindle in us a curiosity and, often, a deviant craving to imitate them for what we think we should have what they possess. The well-heeled have an unjust and extravagant hold on financial power, and they solidify their bases vis-à-vis potent media and communications outlets. Poor people, who Oscar Wilde said were more attached to money than the prosperous because that is all—if very little—they have to hold on to, will even go into debt on occasion to mime the well-off!
    Therefore, in this essay using deductive reasoning, going from the general to the particular, the line of reasoning will proceed from the very moneyed and then work down, and further, demonstrate that those rolling in it have even distorted those underprivileged below them. I have in mind to make the comfortable look incredibly dim-witted—even wicked, even unwell. It will be easy for you to figure out what I think. And I will bet there are billions in this world now cheering me on!

    There are four considerations one should be aware of in the exploration of the topic at hand:
    · The rich might be divided into two sweeping categories: those who have inherited their lucre; and, those who have generated (stolen!) it on their own. (These two categories will not be delved into to any great extent in this essay.)
    · In this treatise we will deal with “the very rich” and not “the rich.” The Big Rich. Not The Little Rich. I have known personally, even intimately, some fabulously rich individuals—some of them recognized all over the world for their material goods. In Venezuela, I was in the thick of the economic and political corruption, but in Italy I am away from Rome and out of the center of Italy’s self-defeating political “naughtinesses.” Only once did I befriend, in Florence, an Italian political person later to be transferred to Rome to serve as a director of the Italian secret service! Nevertheless, in Tuscany, the headquarters of the world’s first bank, I have encountered many silly Little Rich characters ever on the hunt to be better off and still better off.
    · I am not Big Rich or Little Rich. I pride myself in that and consider it an attestation to my intelligence that I am not. I have about €7000 in an Italian bank (I hope!), and I do not possess health insurance or a pension. Nonetheless, I am terribly curious to know that if I were Big Rich, even Little Rich, would I be as stupid as the moneyed “stupids” I have been on familiar terms with…. (Maybe I should sell THE RICH ARE STUPID! T-shirts and become a multi-millionaire!)
    · I am a legal citizen of the DisUnited States of America even though I renounced my citizenship and prefer not to return ever again to my birthplace. Wherever I have resided outside the DUS (principally in Venezuela and Italy), I have been considered an ”American.” And that means I have been frequently taken, automatically, for being abounding. A burden I have had to support for decades. The fact that I was a first lieutenant in the DUS Army and am a Vietnam “War” veteran, it is assumed by most people that I possess some kind of stipend for life designated for my DUS military service. I do not.

    I would like now, to get started, to refer to John Ruskin and his lecture, The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art, and Policy, delivered at Tunbridge Wells, England, 16 February 1858. JR is known for his defence of individual artistic freedom, and his disgust for the mass-production of art as it was cloned vulgarly all through the Victorian era. He was a stern, extremely moralistic individual, and a brief sampling of his thoughts will now give you an inkling into his meditative processes:

    “You must either make a tool of the creature,
    or a man of him. You cannot make both…

    A happy nation may be defined as one in which
    the husband’s hand is on the plough, and the
    housewife’s on the needle…

    We look with so much indifference upon dishonesty
    and cruelty in the pursuit of wealth…

    The definite result of all our modern haste to be
    rich is assuredly, and constantly, the murder of
    a certain number of persons by our hands every year.”

    JR lived in another period marked by a distinctive character or reckoned from a fixed point or event. His “first principles” are not those which we adhere to in our own epoch. They belong to a particular set of circumstances just as, for example, Iosif Stalin’s coined first principle about his time declared that “one man’s death is a tragedy, but the death of a million people is history”—a maxim which fit the ethical destitution of his era. Another case in point is Jean-Paul Sartre’s thought-up first principle: “Hell is other people.” J-PS also suffered that horrible stage in the world’s expansion.

    There is no way JR could have envisaged, for 2009, that the planet’s population would be coming within reach of 7,000,000,000 people. Just too many ploughs and needles. Today it is astonishing for us to connect JR’s parochial vision of his life with our own. And if we recognize his convictions for what they really are, we are further staggered by the fact that in 1860 there were no more than an estimated 1,300,000,000 individuals living on his orb. JR’s generation was not as complex as ours. Ruskin would be stymied if he could witness how we have survived—for almost 150 years after—with so many people inhabiting the Earth and in such close electronic and physical acquaintance.

    Apart from JR’s fanatical religious pretentiousness, we find in him certain confidences which abide even today in our own inner selves. JR is a meat and potatoes fellow. He does not mix his Scotch with water, seltzer, milk or even iced cubes. He shaves with cold water. He takes the bus. If he smokes, he snaps off the filters of his cigarettes. Puts half a teaspoon of sugar in his tea or coffee. Walks a lot. Never puts whipped cream on his strawberries. Turns off the water when he cleans his teeth. Returns his metal coat-hangers to the dry cleaner’s. Breaks down his packing materials before he places them in rubbish bins. In short, JR is a minimalist. He is seeking to preserve what he possesses. He is not possessed to consume. He does not wish to waste. His feet are on the ground. Ours are not. For these qualities we may admire JR’s enthusiasms.

    The first broadside I long to pile into The Big Rich, more than anyone else, is their propensity to accumulate useless items, lots of them, and waste the natural resources we might think, in a civilized society, pertain to all of mankind and not just a finicky cream of the crop. Whether it be land, water, petroleum, electricity, food, precious jewels, et alia, the well-to-do ones are quick to hoard their supplies of these reserves forever in excess of what more often than not a normal individual would require and/or acquire, and they do so outrageously without worry for the requirements of others whether they be deprived or not. They dig extra wells on their land fearful of drought. They illegally hide away currency in foreign banks “just in case.” They give their wives and lovers expensive diamonds and gold “just in case.” They buy three or four cars “just in case.” Everything in glut. Just in case. Sustine et abstine are negative concepts for these pathetic characters. I do not know of any other group that lacks so much conviction in the method that has offered them so much turnover! They advance no loyalty to the money-spinning arrangement that tenders them their cornucopia of material benefits! Confidence is more precious than gold say the Chinese. And even donkeys know they cannot chew on bullion. But not The Big Rich and their confreres, The Little Rich, who often go very far out of their ways to ape The Big Rich. Monkeys see, monkeys do! The Big Rich, The Little Rich and those who emulate them are “running against the walls of their cages,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein would say!
    I would think, my dear reader, that “…the murder of a certain number of persons by our hands every year” is still ringing in your head! And it is accurate to agree with that reflection. I could write a book on the injustices that I have caught sight of and which have caused the death—both physical and emotional—of untold unfortunate individuals slaving for the dog-eat-dog economic hierarchy set so overenthusiastically in place in the DUS, Vietnam, Venezuela and Italy—locations I have frequented. I ask myself: What is the purpose of this master-slave routine, this “delicately-distributed suffering” ( JR ) that nowadays is sugar-coated with perks, bonuses, and tie-less Fridays…all cheap gimmicks to keep workers hanging on until the next slowdown, the next massacre of layoffs? Were all of these “scallywags,” these made-redundant-ones under some supernatural illusion when they threw their lives at their corporation’s buoyant promise of an eternity of sustaining profit?
    It would not take Charles Dickens very long today to cut through the bogus mesmerising that innocent victims have had to endure especially during, at least, the last fifty years. Only a simpleton—Winston Churchill was not an imbecile, he just might have been drunk or his brain fogged up with Cuban cigar smoke—would have the pluck to unabashedly pronounce that the lesser of two evils we are welded with, Judeo-Christian Democratic Capitalism, is the best at our disposal!
    Look at The Big Rich and The Little Rich quoting outrageous minds such as Milton Friedman and the “old” Jeffrey Sachs! They parrot these money-making lords of a funny money plumbing industry, and under their armpits, they carry the notebooks and case histories of University of Chicago and Harvard Business School’s sacred, doctrinaire tenets which have caused more havoc the past century than any other time in the history of this “better than nothing” fraud, this Tyranny of a Minority which benefits the few at the expense of the majority. Are people ever going to wake up and trade in their illusions for some hard facts? Are people ever going to become gutsy? Are people ever going to stand up for their privileges? Why are we feigning to be content with a technique that causes so many so much injustice? Indeed, we are a strange lot!
    Oh, I must be crazy! Out of my mind. Rich? How could I have used that word? There are no rich in this world! I swear to it now that I have lost my insanity. I have never known one person who ever called himself or herself rich. They will tell you that what they are worth is only paper! Yes, cash, stocks, bonds, savings accounts and treasury notes! All sheets of nothing! I knew one multi-millionaire who told me he had to borrow $100 from his wife one morning to buy his lunch! Get it? They are just like you and me! They have no money. Just paper. And who is going to buy the titles (paper!) to the lands they own if an economic downturn forces them to become like the rest of us—unfortunate?
    I should have qualified more before my definition of The Big Rich. Please excuse me? The Big Rich have armed bodyguards and bullet-proofed and armoured limousines to chauffeur them around. Can you think of anything more repugnant than that? They do not even have the courage to walk alone on a crowded street. Their yachts are manoeuvred and serviced by people they wish they can trust and who are usually lousy cooks. Their airplanes are piloted by who knows who, and when they embark to fly off to some business meeting or rendezvous, they hope the navigator is not drunk or high on cocaine. Their bodyguards usually have not even finished high school, and being thick as mud, they wonder if they will be quick enough to be at the ready to protect their precious assignments. And maids and butlers? You should hear them talk about those humble souls! Behind their backs, they gossip about them as if they were some inferior race. And, woe to him or her who forgot to shine His or Her Majesty’s shoes properly, or missed dusting the bedroom lamp table, or, worse, was late delivering their breakfasts in bed! Life imprisonment!
    There is one thing good I can say about the affluent. They change their clothes abnormally, and because they have money to buy expensive perfumes and colognes, they usually smell nice!

    Authored by Anthony St. John
    Casella Postale 38 50041 CALENZANO FI Italia
    5 January 2009

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