We have heard a lot recently about the attitude of conservative politicians on both sides of the Atlantic towards people they evidently regard as their social inferiors. First we had Mitt Romney, in off the record comments to wealthy campaign donors, dismissing 47% of Americans as idlers wallowing in victimhood and a belief in their entitlement to state benefits ("My job is not to worry about those people"). Then we had Andrew Mitchell's "plebs" tirade directed at a group of police officers guarding Downing Street.
Unsurprisingly, people were incensed to discover how much these powerful men look down on them in private. But did we really discover anything from these unguarded comments that we didn't already know? If we look closely at arguments routinely made by right-wing politicians in public, we find many of the same attitudes hiding in plain view.
When Nick Clegg recently floated the idea of new wealth taxes, the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin attacked it on the grounds that it risked "strangling the goose that laid the golden egg". The same argument has been used to justify cutting the top rate of tax in the Budget and oppose measures to restrain runaway executive pay. 'Wealth creators' should be entitled to hold on to as much of their wealth as possible, even if they end up paying lower rates of tax than their cleaners. Any effort to make them accept their fare share of the burden would damage us all by driving the wealthy away and depriving society of their entrepreneurial talents.
This strain of modern conservatism has effectively inverted the labour theory of value. In common with Marxism, it sees society as a pyramid structure. But instead of workers exploited by greedy bosses, it sees a small, dynamic, wealth creating elite exploited by a large, dependent mass of dullards and parasites underneath. The idea that anyone outside the business elite might deserve to be thought of as a wealth creator simply doesn't occur. Employees, even those working in the private sector, should be factors of production; disposable assets to be hired and fired at will, preferably with little or no legal protection.
As for public sector workers; well, it goes without saying that they represent an unproductive drag on the entrepreneurial capacities of the nation. The police officers who catch thieves and protect property, the teachers and lecturers who educate the workforce of the future, the doctors and nurses who keep the population fit and healthy. None of these people could possibly be helping to create wealth, unless, of course, they were doing it to turn a profit for themselves.
We have become so accustomed to hearing conservative politicians speak in these terms that it's easy to forget what a radical departure this brand of new right politics represents. Older traditions of conservatism regarded society as organic and indivisible. They believed in social hierarchy, of course, but one based on interdependence, mutual obligation and respect between the classes. They cherished non-market values and upheld an ethic of public service.
Over the last 30 or 40 years, those traditions have been bulldozed to make way for a doctrine of economic brutalism based on a vulgarised, survival of the fittest version of Darwinism. The most extreme exponent of this view was, of course, Ayn Rand whose most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, reads like a plutocrat's revenge fantasy. She describes an America disintegrating under the strain of collectivist policies that restrain enterprise by raising taxes and imposing government regulation. The men and women of talent eventually respond by going on strike and establishing their own free market utopia separate from the rest of society. The morality tale ends with complete social breakdown as the hero-entrepreneurs return to save the day.
The impact of Rand's ideas on the right extends far beyond those who have read her. They furnished the emerging neo-liberal and libertarian movements with moral righteousness and a new form of class consciousness. As Hayek's mentor, Ludwig von Mises, wrote to Rand after reading Atlas Shrugged: "You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvement in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you."
The problem is that no politician hoping to win a democratic election could ever admit to holding such opinions. So the new right long ago became skilled at disguising its purpose with a populist appeal to the expanding middle class based on lower taxes and scapegoating the poor. This underlying tension could be seen at the Conservative conference yesterday where all the rhetoric was aimed at the 'strivers', but the real hero of the day was Adrian Beecroft, the venture capitalist who wants us all to strive harder on pain of dismissal.
This represents an opportunity for Labour. Voters remain concerned about welfare bills and the growth of benefit dependency, probably more now than ever before. But they have lost the deference towards wealth that made the new right a politically viable movement. In the aftermath of the crash, the idea that our financial elite represents a superior caste of humanity is palpably absurd. People now realise that merit and reward have become hopelessly misaligned with those at the top paying themselves out of all proportion to their true economic contribution.
There is a myth that class politics died when it was disowned by the mainstream left. In reality, it was taken up and prosecuted more effectively in a covert form by a new breed of right wing class warrior. But the world they created has unravelled under the pressure of economic failure. The way is open for Labour to tackle their legacy of social division in the name of one nation values of merit and fairness.
This post originally appeared on Shifting Grounds.
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