Them and us: why we need a fair society

Much of the debate on what has caused the UK riots and destruction are focused on the particulars of today and the recent past. They miss the wider implications of the effect of changes to the public ethos over the past few decades and miss the possible similarities to the disruption of European countries in the years between the two big wars. The following material seeks to connect some of the dots.

From The Guardian in September last year:

Britain today is more polarised than 10 years ago: the economic bubble has created both a new super-rich and a disenfranchised underclass. We need to return to our core moral values and find a new way of making a living, argues Will Hutton in this extract from his new book. Let’s start, he says, with fairness…”

The year before, Wilkinson and Pickett produced their study of inequality between and within nations, The Spirit Level, which uses statistics to suggest inequality is in itself toxic and destructive of societal links, and followed up the issues on their website. Currently the site carries the following suggestions:

If the UK were more equal, we’d be better off as a population. For example, the evidence suggests that if we halved inequality here:

- Murder rates could halve
- Mental illness could reduce by two thirds
- Obesity could halve
- Imprisonment could reduce by 80%
- Teen births could reduce by 80%
- Levels of trust could increase by 85%.

Hutton’s recent book lays the causes on the neo-liberal revolution which from the 1980s promoted materialism as the deciding basis for assessing social well being. In the name of economic development, self-interest, greed and individualism were encouraged as the best characteristics for increasing productivity and wealth, and the market as the basis for its distribution, but not for all.

This means most of those under 40 in an Anglophone country have grown up in increasingly unequal societies that are seen to allocate rewards unfairly to those that already are advantaged. This retreat from fairness as an intrinsic factor in maintaining democracy is likely to create serious doubts about the goodwill and trustworthiness of those in power.

While the quantum of created wealth grows sufficiently to engage the majority of the population in optimistic assumptions that they too could taste success, the alienation of those who fail is likely to stay under the radar. If, as has happened over the past decade plus, the neoliberal financial policies are backed up with increasingly paternalistic and authoritarian social control policies, the difficulties experienced by those who do not benefit from free markets are likely to be hidden.

It becomes easy to define financial failures as always personal, rather than structural, which removes the need for taking responsibility for those who miss out. Blaming the victims lets us off the hook. This works as long as most people continue to believe the system will advantage them.

When there is a major failure of the financial system, there are increasingly widespread doubts about the mantra that markets allocate wealth and success to those who merit the rewards. Add to the confusion, the need for governments, often seriously reduced in their role as preserver of national well being, to step in and rescue incompetent banks and financial markets. Wider community members are increasingly likely to become anxious about their futures as both the government and financial institutions seem to have stuffed it.

The failures of shares and many investment products started to affect wider groups than the usual suspects, and fear of the future becomes palpable. Add debates about climate change and threats of terror and the result is a toxic miasma and seriously distressed social fabrics. The UK really copped this but it echoes in Australia.

Move on a couple of years and little has really improved except that many countries that bailed out their banks are now seriously financially strapped. They have borrowed against their national patrimony to save financial institutions that were deemed too big to fail and now have very large debts that threaten their financial capacity to function. So they tell the people, their voters, that governments have to start cutting expenditure and raise taxes to cover the money they expended bailing out financial institutions.

Most of these seem to be now doing better than the governments and the business leaders are making sure that the public sphere cannot raise taxes that would affect their profits.

Cuts start coming to the places near you. Jobs become scarcer, especially for the more marginal workers, and access to services become limited by financial limits. The welfare state, set up post war to ensure a safety net for those groups that may be vulnerable to extremist views, is in trouble. We forget it was the unemployed and disaffected in the 1930s that rioted in the streets and supported Hitler, Mussolini, local fascists and raised fears of a possible communist revolution.

And the peasants/people become revolting. Not all of them but in many countries, not just Britain, there are signs that various groups in the community have become detached from their sense of belonging and any loyalty to state, community or even their fellow citizens. Told for years that material goods symbolise success, they show their anger and desire for material trinkets by theft, vandalism and violence.

They extend hate against outgroups and become tribal in defence of their mates. Why should we expect them to have respect for the laws of societies that seem to them to be unfair and disordered? Where are the leaders in business and politics that model the role of good citizens so they can learn about responsibility for others and respect for authority?

Not from the financiers that ripped off the world, the various celebrities that tabloids tout to sell their wares, nor from the privatisation and commercialisation of nearly everything, including the sales of publicly owned goods and services. The government is no longer an arbiter or the symbol of what unites us in any way at all, but just the purveyor of law and order and apparent tool of the financiers that ripped people off.

Yes, that is a simplistic overstatement but from the bottom up, the views will tend to be more cartoon like and simplified than reasoned and layered.

The riots and irresponsibility of the mobs in the UK are not new. They echo the thirties disaffection and other situations where the people lose trust in the democratic processes. The mob is always ugly and irrational, and those taken into it will ride the short term thrills of emotional unreason. These are what Hannah Arendt as dark times which can lead to totalitarianism as those in power seek to retain control.

There are warnings from not only the UK but other nations that democracy will deteriorate further if western nations do not try rethink the emphasis on economic growth and markets, rather than more civil societies. We need to considering what makes the good society, where the nation creates resilient social links between people based on allocating resources fairly and inclusively.

The UK experiences should give us all a warning…