We’re all working class now

Liz Truss recently complained about a lack of ‘graft’ displayed by British workers, and it seems that, if she becomes prime minister, she may select Jacob Rees-Mogg as the Secretary of State for Levelling Up. At a time when millions of industrious citizens are confronting unearned poverty, Truss is confident that they will be happy to be insulted and patronised by those whose main distinguishing feature, in addition to their power and privilege, is their unearned income.

Despite populist attempts to divide the population on the usual issues of class and race, and the new issue of gender identity, it’s becoming clear that the emerging divide in British society is between those who expect to earn their income and those who don’t.  Those who don’t include not only those with inherited wealth and power (some of whom benefit society by philanthropy) but also those who ‘earn’ stock income and bonuses far beyond their need, as directors and shareholders of major corporations. The biggest Insult to the working population is it they should be expected to pay for the profiteering of the energy companies.

The rising anger against these political and executive centres of power and wealth is in part because of their lack of social responsibility.   Over the last few weeks, we have all felt the Earth heating up. Yet politicians and corporations continue to behave as the only issues that matter are short term ends of the election and the bottom line.

People’s anger is palpable. Every day we hear threats of new industrial action.  Yet government regulation of the unions over the last 30 years makes it very difficult to organise a general strike.   However, this new division of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ transcends previous class and income barriers.   From bin-men to barristers, numerous groups are claiming that enough is enough.  Indeed, ‘Enough is Enough’ and ‘Don’t Pay UK’ are names of organisations that comprise thousands of protestors whose only common identity is outrage at the unfairness of civil life.  Six years after Brexit, government speaks of malnutrition and hypothermia as if they are the natural but unfortunate side-effects of the greed and profiteering they hold as central to their philosophy.   ‘I’ll cut taxes,’ promises Liz Truss, appealing to her Tory ‘base’.  But we’re all working class now. 

Paying the energy bill

There is growing debate in the UK about the impending hike in energy prices.  The Don’t Pay UK movement is encouraging people to pledge not to pay impossibly high demands.  They point out the inequity between the profits of energy companies such as BP and the disaster that millions of people this coming winter won’t be able to afford both eating and heating.  This is a realistic prediction.

Some commentators cite the similarity between the coming situation and the Poll Tax protests of 1990, but point out that the energy consumer and the utility company are bound by a private legal contract which did not apply to the Poll Tax protestors.   Posts on Next Door and other neighbourhood bulletin boards often express fear that protesting will result in criminal proceedings and additional costs.

The present government, in so far as it expresses a view, says that the charges derive from international market forces over which it has no control.    Government is reluctant to intervene and disrupt this ‘natural’ process.   They point out, for example, that energy company profits finance pension funds.  Nonetheless, the profiteering of the energy corporations is sometimes recognised even in political discourse.  Andrew Neil pointed out to Rishi Sunak in his recent television interview that BP were buying back their own shares to further enrich their directors and shareholders.

What should government do? Aristotle suggested that democracy can be virtuous only when it is tempered and balanced by oligarchy.   Aristotle’s preference for a mixed constitution arose from his concern for the ‘common good’.  He sought to protect the common good from both the predations of the demos – the ‘men without means’ – and the oligarchy. In both the UK and the US, this balance is under threat.

UK society is a mixed Aristotelian constitution of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy.  The government’s role, then, is to protect the common good: not to side with the oligarchy against the demos.  In a speech in 1912, Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to wrest the democratic prerogative from monopoly power: ‘If monopoly persists, monopoly will always sit at the helm of government.’  Wilson’s appeal here to the freedom of the individual man (American women didn’t gain full voting rights until 1920) draws on a traditional concept of positive freedom in a republican commonwealth. This is freedom as non-domination, described by Philip Pettit as the condition under which a person is more or less immune to interference on an arbitrary basis.   Such freedom evidently cannot be pursued by individuals: it has to be guaranteed by the state.

To be unable to afford to feed one’s family and/or to heat one’s home is an extreme arbitrary interference on individual rights and freedoms. The government needs to take responsibility and, as Wilson urged, wrest the democratic prerogative from the monopoly power of corporations.  If it won’t do this, the demos will refuse to pay, and civil disorder will follow.