Aspiration Nation? It's Just Another Justification for the Status-Quo

You see, when you distil aspiration down you get a rather unpleasant residue. Aspiration, in the current political context, is essentially giving people an equal opportunity to be unequal. It's Capitalism's catchphrase.

We've heard a lot from prospective Labour leaders in the last few days about needing to be the party of aspiration. There have been many naysayers of this approach, Owen Jones chief among them. And I have to say I'm in agreement. You see, when you distil aspiration down you get a rather unpleasant residue. Aspiration, in the current political context, is essentially giving people an equal opportunity to be unequal. It's Capitalism's catchphrase.

Let me explain. Capitalism is an ideology that hinges on people's marginal productivity, where the spoils of economic growth are endowed upon the exceptional and gifted. These deserving few are Capitalism's winners because they produce wealth for the rest of us. An uplifting narrative, I think you'll agree, but this ideology necessarily entails a more sinister underbelly. Marginal productivity cuts both ways, and those who do not produce are unproductive because they are feckless and work shy. These undeserving many are Capitalism's losers, subservient to the trickling-down of wealth.

Now here you're probably thinking; this is plainly absurd. How can this worldview possibly prosper when inequity in opportunity is rife, from the cradle to the grave, across the social gradient? The playing field is so tilted in favour of those with existing wealth that it would be ridiculous to claim people at the top owe their success entirely to skill, just as it would be absurd to suggest that people at the bottom owe their misfortune entirely to ineptitude. Yet this is received establishment wisdom, and it is used to aggressively justify current levels of inequality. When you actually sit down and think about it, this is genius. Those at the top of society get to claim they are exceptionally gifted, while opposing any redistributive measures that might level the playing field and allow Capitalism to function. Talk about having your cake and eating it.

Okay, so there is a flip-side to this argument. Capitalism's apologists insist that chasms between the rich and poor are defendable because everybody shares proportionately in the spoils of growth. In other words, as the economic pie increases, the rich get richer but the poor also benefit from the extra crumbs at the dinner table. Between 1979 and 2007 the richest 1% increased their income by 281% but, apparently, this is okay because the poorest 20% experienced a whopping 16% rise. Now, as if the great banking crisis never happened, the richest 1% has surpassed their pre-crash income levels, whereas the poorest remain worse off. That we are hoodwinked into believing this Anglo-Saxon brand of Capitalism is beneficial to anyone outside of the 1% is testament to the cultural shift orchestrated by those on the right.

Take the long-view. You will see big corporations, from the 70's onwards, flush their millions into the political battleground - subsidising free-market think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Taxpayers Alliance. These think tanks lever their influence on right-wing pundits, Toby Young, William Cash, and the rest, keeping them in fighting fitness between media appearances. An army of lobbyists, a maelstrom of magazines, and an array of journals. Not to mention the plethora of newspapers - the Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph, the Times. This cultural shift appeals to Capitalism's losers - how can it not? It confronts them daily. From the left they hear but a whisper, however from the right they get an explanation for it all; aspiration.

So when I hear the likes of Tristan Hunt and Liz Kendell tell me that the Labour party needs to reach out to the 'aspirational' I despair. Rather than confronting the cultural shift head on, they choose to acquiesce in a worldview that has served working people so badly. And in so doing they abandon the things that Labour once stood for; equality, social justice and economic stability. Abandoned, crucially, at a time when they are most urgently required. To win this fight, Labour must speak again, in their language, to Capitalism's losers - those 99% to whom our economy is brutal and arrogant. We need to be bold and fight for the hope of a better, fairer, society because, well, aspiration just won't cut it.

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