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Sowin’ the seeds, the politics of greed

Yes, another entirely original title made up purely by myself …

One of the finest phrases Margaret Thatcher came up with1, she came up with in the context of the 1988 Budget, the lynchpin of which was a sudden, slashing cut in the top rate of income tax from 60% to 40%. An earlier budget had cut the top rate from 83% (ask yer grandad) to 60%, but the 1988 cut was the most breathtaking, because it came in the context of a budget which offered almost literally bugger all for everyone else. Obviously, this kind of chutzpah takes some selling, and the phrase all over the Tory media that summer (budgets used to be in the Spring in the UK, ask grandad again) was the resonant accusation that anyone who complained about massive tax cuts for the rich combined with swinging reductions in benefits and social spending, was guilty of …

“THE POLITICS OF ENVY”

An absolutely marvellous phrase, it probably did a hell of a lot to persuade a generation of red-braced, spectacle-wearing yuppies that right wing politics were cool. It absolutely neutralises any attempt to portray the greedy party as being greedy, because it turns the charge right round 180 degrees, with a smarmy insinuation that people get involved with left wing politics because they’re horribly and unattractively jealous of the rich, but they are too intellectually or personally inadequate to become rich themselves. Which is actually probably true of a lot of members of left wing political parties, which is why it was such a great piece of propaganda. Anyway, the left has had an inferiority complex about this phrase for the best part of fifteen years now, so I’m here to help us take it back.

Consider for the moment, the dockworkers of the ILWU, who were on strike until recently, and who earn around $100,000 a year for doing a job that basically involves attaching a hook to a container and giving the thumbs-up to a bloke in a crane.

Now of course, when you read a sentence like the one above in a media account, how you react to it depends on who you are. If you’re Nathan Newman, you start immediately pointing out that it’s a lock-out, not a strike, and giving us lots of extremely useful chapter and verse on the Taft-Hartley Act. If you’re the ILWU, you start pointing out at length, what a skilled, complicated and dangerous job being a longshoreman is. And if you’re Max Sawicky, you start interrogating those numbers a bit, and finding out that the sum of $100K is an utterly misleading, high-balled estimate, completely unrepresentative of the average dockworker’s take-home pay and provided by management to an uncritical media.

But if you’re me, you just think:

“Fucking good on them! When one thinks of all the arseholes pulling down a hundred thousand for doing next to nothing, why shouldn’t someone get the same for hauling crates and occasionally half-inching the contents? They must have a bloody good union, good luck to them!”

The same goes for the London Underground platform staff, who get paid more than trained nurses (because they’ve got a good union), the Royal Mail postmen, who are the highest paid manual workers in Europe (because they’ve got a good union) and the Air France pilots, who regularly bring half of Europe’s holiday traffic to a juddering halt (because they’ve got a good union). They may not be *worth* what they’re getting, but the plain facts of the matter is that they’re *getting* what they’re getting, so who are we/you/anyone to start moralising over the contents of another man’s pocketbook? Union members have higher salaries than those which would prevail if there were no union, and they often act like cartels through the closed shop, but if you are honestly of the opinion that this is the greatest injustice at work in our land, then there’s something wrong with you. This is the only consistent view to take; anything else is purely and simply the politics of envy.

I think my view is shared generally; among the normal people I occasionally talk to, I really don’t get any seething feeling of injustice at the fact that union men drew a lucky ticket. Even from women and black people, who often have a pretty damn good reason to object to some of the less reputable practices of some of the less reputable unions. This is true for the same reason that it was always a silly idea for the left to get all worked up about “CEO salaries” and about higher rates of income tax; the vast majority of people (that class of people which is sensible enough not to join political parties) is just not as venial, jealous and simply fucked-up with negative emotion, as that small segment of it which takes an active interest in party politics. The politics of envy, at base, involves projecting one’s own lowered sense of self-esteem onto a public which, by and large, doesn’t share it.

This is a useful analysis, because I think it can also be used to explain another phenomenon which mystifies people other than myself; the widespread popularity of subsidised university education, and the widespread unpopularity of measures aimed at making students go into debt. There is a line of argument under which it is argued that, because graduates earn so much more than non-graduates, to subsidise education out of general taxation is regressive; it’s a “reverse Robin Hood” tax which takes money from carpenters and plumbers and hands it to merchant bankers.

On the other hand, once one stops looking at this through the lens of the politics of envy, it makes more sense. Young person gone to university and earning a big salary? Good luck to ’em. Why should they be saddled with a big debt? It’s absolutely horrible being massively in debt, particularly if your repayment bill is very large in relation to your current disposable income (whatever its possible relationship to your lifetime earnings). Who would want to saddle a young person with that kind of burden, just at the time when they ought to be enjoying themselves? Not anybody I know, whatever their income. People fundamentally don’t care about paying a couple of extra quid on income tax in order to subsidise an idyllic three years’ idleness and alcoholism, so long as they have a reasonably fair expectation that it’s handed out equitably and so long as they get to grumble good-naturedly at its public expression. The state sponsorship of university eduation is a subsidy to happiness. And as such, it (along with a close cousin, generous unemployment benefits) could only be opposed by someone who was at bottom, appealing to the politics of envy.


1Or possibly Nigel Lawson.

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