James Meek is a writer for whom I have huge respect. His extraordinary novel The People’s Act Of Love, set in Siberia, post-Russian revolution, was nominated for the Booker Prize and won The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize in 2005. More recently, his journalistic writing has also picked up awards. Just last year, 2015, he won the Orwell Prize for political writing of outstanding quality for his book, Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else. He also is a contributing editor of The London Review of Books, and it is his most recent contribution to this, entitled Robin Hood in a Time of Austerity, that forms the basis of the rest of this piece. (It is a transcript of this lecture given at the British Museum recently.)
We are all familiar with the legend of Robin Hood. Taking from the rich to give to the poor – redistributing wealth – has long been seen as a programme of the left. James Meek, however, suggests most convincingly that the legend has been twisted and usurped by the right, with the considerable assistance of their friends in the media. He explains it something like this:
- The traditional poor (unemployed, disabled, refugees etc.) are accused of sponging off the state to live in big houses, wallowing in undeserved luxury, while not needing to work.
- The rich, meanwhile, are redesigned as the ones who are ‘hard-working’ but forced to support the undeserving poor-who-are-considered-rich.
- The Sheriff of Nottingham in this narrative is played by the assertive leftie whose modus operandi is to plunder the honest, hard-working peasants hard-earned wealth to give to the dishonest, lazy, social parasites, given more than they deserve.
- Thus, the ‘Sheriffs’/baddies are played by Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Hugo Chavez, Russell Brand and their like, while the ‘Robin Hood’/good guys are played by George Osborne, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Jeremy Clarkson and their like.
- This is all pedalled as the reality by rags like the Daily Mail, with their stories of immigrants getting £1000 social security cheques, malingerers with 11 sprogs living in 10 bedroom mansions at taxpayer’s expense, and slagging off any attempt to pick your pocket with tax-gathering devices from speed cameras to inheritance tax.
As I have pointed out before on this blog, the key signifier is the phrase ‘hard-working people’. This is a clever catch-all to draw in everyone from struggling shop worker to multibillionaire business people. They are all encouraged to take on the mantle of the put-upon peasant struggling to fend off the sheriff’s cruel tax raids. Thus we have society divided between the ‘hard-working’ and the ‘work-shy’. We are encouraged to speculate as to why some are not working hard and ‘doing their bit’ in these ‘difficult times’. They are probably plain lazy, feigning disability, benefit tourists from far-off shit holes, commie strike-inclined trade unionists, or any combination of these and more. They expect food on their tables, roofs over their heads (spare bedrooms even FFS), Sky TV and money for fags , full and free access to public services – and all the while contributing sweet FA and taking everyone else to be mugs. That’s all rather rich, isn’t it! Thus the poorest and most vulnerable in our society have been transformed into the despised ‘rich’ (those with more than they deserve).
Meanwhile, in the wake of the banker-induced financial crisis, I and many Greens and other lefties got involved in a campaign to introduce the prosaically named ‘Robin Hood Tax’ on financial transactions. This was designed to discourage the reckless speed with which bankers and fund managers were shifting vast, destabilising amounts of money around the globe. The campaign has resulted in 11 European countries embracing the idea, but this will not include the UK unless Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. It is an idea that Thomas Piketty would like to see taken further to become some sort of global tax on capital, with the principal objective being reducing the extreme inequalities inherent in the capitalist system. Well, I guess we all can dream.
A socialist version of Robin Hood was very much alive and well for much of the twentieth century. It wasn’t just about robbing the rich; it was about taking back from the rich the excessive wealth accumulated by owners of capital and returning it to the creators of wealth – the shop-floor workers. A socialist Robin Hood is not just interested in confiscating the ‘box of silver coins’ and redistributing it; he would demand control of the system to shift the burden of taxation onto the rich, and spend the revenue for the common good. It can be argued that Elizabethan Poor Laws were a starting point, followed by these landmarks:
- 1842 – Robert Peel’s first peacetime income tax
- 1908 – the first means tested old-age pension
- 1920s to 1980s – the era of high progressive marginal rates of income tax, peaking at 95% tax rates paid by the super-rich (referred to in the Beatle’s song ‘Taxman’ by line 2: “There’s one for you , 19 for me‘)
It was, in fact, the USA that set this last trend, on the back of the belief that it was the actions of the rich that caused their Great Depression. They were seeking to avoid becoming a class-bound society of aristocrats and peasants. They wanted to learn from the mistakes of old Europe in their brave New World. It worked for them for a long time. It was a golden era of nationwide (relative) prosperity and reducing inequalities. However, the elephant in the room was always the growing levels of debt. The traditional medicine for reigning in national debt has always been by some combination of tax increases and public spending cuts. Keynesian wisdom has always maintained that cuts are more harmful that tax rises – but that message has been increasingly lost since the Thatcher/Reagan era.
Thus we have two mainstream, but opposing, political narratives about what has happened in Britain in the last 15 years or so.
- The Conservative ‘austerity’ narrative: Labour went on a reckless public spending spree in the years running up to the crash of 2008. As a consequence, like a household with too big a mortgage (and there were plenty of these about who related to the analogy), the answer is to cut spending deeply and sell off possessions. In this context, the tax take was flittered away and wasted. Tax is therefore a necessary evil at best that we should seek to reduce. Public austerity is therefore the only option.
- The Labour ‘anti-austerity’ narrative: Gordon Brown didn’t borrow or spend excessively at all. The crash was down to the irresponsible borrowing and lending practices of major British banks. A country is not like a household. With its own currency, it can’t become bankrupt through excessive spending. The debts are easily managed. Austerity is an ideological choice by a Conservative Party intent on shrinking the state at whatever costs to those it protects. In periods of low interest rates, debt should be increased to stimulate the economy. Taxes on the rich (who are, almost by definition, hoarding their capital) should go up for the same reason.
James Meek points out the fundamental problems with both of these narratives.
The Conservative austerity narrative is based on lies. Gordon Brown had reduced the national debt that Labour inherited from the Tories in 1997. The crash was not caused by excessive spending, but by excessive saving. Vast sums of money (the lubricant of the economy) were syphoned away by countries like China and Saudi Arabia as they hoarded foreign currency reserves. Large corporations followed suit – hoarding cash instead of re-investing it. Wealthy individual capitalists were allowed to legally suck wealth out of firms and into their personal hoards. While the majority of us hit hard times, the mega-rich became conspicuously richer.
Countries like the US and UK found themselves hit by a double whammy. They had become reliant on imports from resource giants (like Russia and Saudi Arabia) and the manufacturing powerhouses (like China and Germany), and as if this was not bad enough, they had also allowed what was left of our manufacturing and energy production to fall into the hands of foreign owners, thus exporting much of the value-added that we could still muster.
Market economics meant that with such a glut of hoarded money looking for a somewhere to sit and attract interest, interest rates plummeted. So how were the bankers to attract the hoards of cash? Where was the easy money to be made? Well, look in the mirror. It was you and me, through the means of easy credit and, especially, sub-prime mortgage lending. It worked for a while. The banks grew and grew, and just like Mr Creosote, a waffer thin mint eventually caused them to go pop.
So the crash was not the result of crazy public spending, but it induced spending during the crisis to repair the mess and avert the threat of an economic depression unseen since the 1930s in the USA. Brown just about managed to achieve this. By comparison, Osborne’s austerity agenda stagnated the recovery and leaves us in no doubt that the real agenda is shrinking the state for ideological reasons.
Somehow this thin veil of lies, promoting the austerity agenda, have proved popular enough to see the liars elected to run the country. Labour singularly failed to defend Brown’s record and promote his achievements. Instead, they somehow conspired to let Brown’s major failings become the story – his failure to regulate the banks properly and thereby avert the crash in the first place. It really was all his fault! Northern Rock, in 2007, was one of the first dominoes to fall. Some of the things that were going on there beggar belief, but the regulators never saw a problem. Perhaps this is because there were pages on the Tearsury website explaining how to do it all!
Labour simply cannot pretend it didn’t know what was going on. The New Labour project took a gamble on trusting the bankers and financiers in order to counter a sense that Old Labour could not be trusted with the economy. It back-fired spectacularly as it turned out that the bankers and financiers were even less competent! The problem Brown faced was that if he had reined in the banks, it would have inevitably made it harder for ordinary voters to get mortgages and credit that they had come to expect and rely on. The Daily Mail headlines would have been full of Brown strangling the economy and killing off jobs. I guess that is the price you pay for making a pact with the devil!
So now we have Labour grass-roots supporters seeking a return to the policies of their halcyon days through the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. This is echoed across the pond with Bernie Sander’s advance at the expense of Blairite Hillary Clinton. Piketty’s timely book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has provided the intellectual support for this movement. Its main conclusion demolishes the position of the modern populist right. Piketty finds that throughout most of history capitalism can only ever increase inequalities, no matter how hard those hard-working families without capital assets work. Returns on capital will always outstrip the rate of economic growth as a whole. The only time when this was not the case was those years of big investment in public services and high tax rates on the rich in the mid-20th century.
There are some telling subtleties in Piketty’s analysis. For example, he concedes that taxing the mega-rich will not generate enough in itself to plug the holes in a country’s budgets. The biggest benefit of high tax rates on huge incomes is in the reducing of the concentration of wealth in too few hands. In other words, taxation is far from a necessary evil – it is a necessarily good thing. He qualifies this by conceding that citizens in wealthy countries need to retain ample income to generate the demand for all sorts of goods and services provided by the private sector. To this extent, Piketty can be seen as a centrist rather that a leftist. It is about getting a workable balance. As Meek points out, with a bit of money, a middle class family might legitimately choose send their child to a private school; but they cannot individually provide a universal education system and markets won’t provide it. Likewise, you can buy any car of your choice, but by yourself you cannot build and maintain a road network to use it on, and the market won’t provide that either. Be it education, health, roads, social security, energy or water, we all rely on common networks to meet our universal needs. Privatising them runs the risk, the near certainty in fact, that they will not remain universally accessible. We are seeing this already, are we not?
What this amounts to is the abdication of responsibility for meeting people’s basic needs by our government. Our public services, instead of being universal networks, are being run by global companies and overseas investors, disproportionately funded by the imposition of taxes, fees, and duties by the poorest sections of society, further impoverished by the levels of debt they have been lured into by legalised loan sharks.
I have long held the sadly cynical view that as long as the majority of the population feel that they are doing alright, an elected government can get away with squeezing the poor and pampering the rich. But this has to be seen as a horribly high risk attitude when our government is systematically decimating the public services and infrastructure we all rely on, while simultaneously handing over control of what is left to multi-national corporations, ultimately accountable to no-one but their shareholders.
This leaves us, on the left especially, with an enormous challenge, as James Meek puts it at the very end of his article:
“To make and keep universal networks requires the authority of the state, an authority that has been absent; and it’s hard to see where that authority might come from if the people don’t find a way to assert their kingship.”
We have to find a way. Personally, I believe that we have to focus on the things that unite the assorted factions of the left, along the lines of SYRIZA, and take that to the people – before it is all too late!