From Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to Label Wearing Ostriches?
by Mark Chivers
Sat 8th Jun 2013
A little over a century ago, Frank Owen, the lead character in Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, expressed his frustration at the dismissive response of his fellow workers to his arguments for a better society and their continual acceptance of the status quo. Their willingness to work, creating wealth for their bosses, for wages insufficient to lift them out of appalling poverty was, in his view, a perverse form of philanthropy. Reading today the descriptions of absolute poverty, the lack of any welfare provision and the complete absence of any form of protection in the workplace confirm (at least in the developed world) just how far we have come, how much we have achieved and how relatively prosperous the majority of us are today.
Examine the text a little closer however and, while hard won reforms have transformed our lives, the fundamental structure of society, as so ably articulated by Tressell’s Owen (particularly clearly in examples such as the ‘Great Money Trick’) has not changed. Today we talk openly about the 1%, those who’s power and wealth set our political agenda. Today we see, through publicly available assessments such as the Sunday Times Rich List, how even during a time of economic stagnation, the rich continue to get significantly richer and the divide between rich and poor is growing. Today we witness, through media owned by the same 1%, discussions on all aspects of our political and economic life, framed in the notion that there is no alternative to austerity. Today, perhaps most worryingly we see the return of conditions once thought consigned to history and a political agenda that is actively moving us backwards.
While even the most committed neo-liberal may not set out to return us to the poverty conditions described by Tressell, it is difficult to see the logical outcome of their policies taking us anywhere else. What we are witnessing today is a winding back of social reforms to such an extent that soon the only question left to be answered will be just how far we are going to regress.
Of course it is not portrayed that way; this is the price we have to pay for living beyond our means, this is price we have to pay to ensure the markets do not lose faith in us, this is the price we have to pay to encourage the wealth creators to get us out of this mess. But there, in that short pearl of received wisdom, is the modern equivalent of the zeitgeist that so frustrated Owen; that those with wealth and the means of production and exchange know best.
At the fringes, among the hardest hit, within a stirred (rather than reignited) left and from some in academia, there is growing resistance. Students took to the streets over tuition fees in greater numbers than at any time since the 1960’s.
Trade Unions mobilised hundreds of thousands, twice, to ‘march for an alternative’. Movements such as UK Uncut and Occupy have brought a new perspective to national and even global protest. The People’s Assembly may offer some hope. The potential of social media has been witnessed in galvanising support or sharing otherwise hidden news.
Yet against the background of the most aggressive destruction of public services ever witnessed, against the real threat of loss (through privatisation) of the NHS, against the destruction of pension provision in both the public and private sector, against wage freezes, against mass unemployment (particularly among the young), and against the growing potential for ecological disaster we have, by comparison, seen very little in the way of real revolt.
If the lack of widespread mass action in opposition to this philosophy signifies acceptance of it, how have we, in an age where we are better educated and have access to more information than ever, succumbed to it? In John Kampfner’s Freedom For Sale he analyses how we are willing to give up our freedoms for security or prosperity. Drawing examples from countries as diverse as China and Italy, Russia and the UK, he identifies a common acceptance of the limits we are prepared to accept as long as we continue to enjoy relative prosperity. What we are witnessing, he argues is how “years of globalised wealth creation transformed governments’ and peoples’ understanding of freedoms. The pre-eminent freedom had become financial – to earn , to keep one’s money and to consume. All other freedoms were subjugated to that end, with political leaders even extolling shopping as a patriotic duty. This, combined with the internet and other technological advances, created a cultural homogeneity not seen before. The super rich, the quite rich and the aspiring rich …. inhabit(ed) a world of the same designers, the same brands, the same social networking sites and communication tools, the same sports cars and the same holiday destinations. A cultural conformism was born, a herd mentality that provided an easy environment for those in power to operate in.”
If we accept this argument as the rationale as to why we are prepared to turn a blind eye to our diminishing liberty it may also explain how we have accepted our economic adjustments. Kampfner’s ‘super rich, quite rich and aspiring rich’ closely reflects the notion that ‘we are all middle class now’. A notion which reinforces the Coalition's attempt to have us identify ourselves as either ‘Strivers or Skivers’. A notion that helps explain the marginalisation and discrimination documented in Owen Jones’ Chavs. A notion we see in the growing view that those on disability benefit are underserving and those on other benefits are either not working or not working hard enough. Most importantly for those in power it divides us into two camps. Two camps defined not by whether or not we have any control over society but in terms that explain our relative position as consumers; those who, in Kampfner’s terms ‘inhabit the same world of brands and designers’ and those who are largely excluded.
The recent BBC ‘Great British Class Survey’ designed to “provide incredibly valuable data to help leading experts understand if class is still relevant today and, if so, what Britain's class system really looks like” pronounced that there are now 7 classes. These are largely centred around variations of the middle class and affluent while concluding that the ‘Traditional Working Class’ now represents less than 10% of the population and has an average age of 66!. Those taking the BBC survey discovered their class status was now largely determined by a set of questions more akin to consumer research than a piece of social science. Unsurprisingly this continues the narrative we have already explored; if we think like consumers we are more inclined to accept the view of those who need and therefore encourage us to consume.
Perhaps there is nowhere better exemplified than in property ownership.
Not that long after Frank Owen despaired at his colleagues, ideas were already developing in the US that encouraging property ownership would create a class of people less likely to take industrial action and more likely to comply with their employers wishes, no matter how unreasonable.Thatcher’s ‘property owning democracy’ was brought to Britain in the 1980’s and best characterised by the sell-off of council housing. Many of those who benefited from this fire sale were more than happy to be interviewed around the time of her death extoling her virtues and praising her for fundamentally changing their lives. That they were now property owners now defined them as something different, something better. That over a third of these sales have now fallen into the hands of private landlords and our available social housing stock has all but disappeared was lost in the ‘I’m all right Jack’ rhetoric.
With the relatively little resistance we are witnessing we could conclude that after 30 years the project is complete. The notion of property ownership and consumerism places most of us on a continuum of a single class that goes, in traditional terms, from the upper working to the executive; all strivers, all middle class, where only the poor sit outside this definition. Where corporations rule and parliamentary democracy is the highest form of government and where the free market is the most advanced method of arranging our economy. Humankind has reached its pinnacle; the end of history.
There is of course a problem with this. It doesn’t reflect reality. Just as Frank Owen’s employers seek every opportunity to squeeze any additional profits out of their operation by whatever means they can get away with, just as they seek to constantly achieve more from the workers for less, so today the new money trick creates unimaginable wealth for the few while undermining the new found prosperity of the many. What seemed like the foundations of our new, affluent, middle class existence are crumbling; pay increases - frozen, a guaranteed pension – removed, property ownership – now only a distant dream for most, equity – increasingly needed to fund children or old age, shares – too risky in small numbers as a safety net, a cradle to grave health service – increasingly privatised and paid for, working conditions – safer maybe but now largely characterised by increased hours and increased stress, and an ecological disaster, driven by our encouraged behaviour to consume, looming on the horizon.
Are we still philanthropists? It seems so. But, as in Owen’s time we have to look beyond what we are told. I am tempted to call on Niemoller ("First they came for the benefits claimants..." ) because, for a significant majority it is likely the real problems are yet to come. But the signs of change are there. It just seems we choose to ignore them. Owen often pointed out how he couldn’t blame those who sought to gain affluence from the system – it was the system’s fault not theirs. Maybe our relative affluence has ensured we are all prostituted to the system. But the signs of change are there. This time, not only will our economy fail us (while the rich get absurdly richer) but it will also take us down a dead end street of climate catastrophe. While scientists warned us about exceeding 350 ppm of CO2 we are now witnessing levels around 400 ppm. This very real threat of unimaginable damage for future generations to manage receives little more than lip service from our leaders.
It appears we have chosen to adopt the approach of Pliny’s Ostrich.
With our diet of consumer goods, labels, reality television, celebrity culture, foreign holidays, private cars and other trappings; it is so much easier not to worry about these things. Even if we accept the science as Anne Karpf outlined in The Guardian (1), it is just so much easier to ignore it. However, as James Hansen, the former NASA Scientist and leading academic on climate change said in London earlier this month: “Our parents did not know. We can only pretend we did not know”.
In accepting there is no other way, not only do we ignore some basic truths about the way society is organised and how inequality is growing but also how it is actively leading us towards a real disaster.
We have to wake up to this nonsense of the mono middle class and recognise our relationship to the means of power and control. We have to debunk the myths of the modern middle class that are causing so many of us to ignore the facts of our perilous prosperity. We have to rip up this Ostrich Pact we appear to have unwittingly signed up to.
In many places across the globe, changes aren’t being driven by the urban proletariat or poor but by those who have refused to accept their relative prosperity compared to the hardest hit in their society places them in the same class as their rulers.
We too have to wake up to this fact. If we don’t, if we accept this is the end of history, we could actually face the end of history.
<!--[if !supportLists]--> 1. <!--[endif]--> Climate Change; You can’t ignore it Friday November 30th 2012