Those text-on-picture memes that clog up the internet and mean nobody has to think of anything themselves any more are generally very annoying, but a few manage to be quite good. One currently doing the rounds quotes dead Canadian economist J.K. Galbraith: “the modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy – the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”.
After last Saturday’s End Austerity Now demo in London, the Right did an excellent job of proving Galbraith’s observation still applies. Taking to their computers in droves, irate right-wingers condemned any and everyone who took part in the event – but saved particular disdain for Charlotte Church and other celebrity leftists who turned up.
In doing so, they demonstrated their usual logical flexibility when it comes to attacking egalitarians. If you’re poor and you complain about a politics scandalously tilted in favour of the richest, you’re jealous – engaging in divisive class warfare, being anti-enterprise, threatening Britain’s future prosperity. If you’re rich, and you do the same, you’re a hypocritical champagne socialist – the implication being that you can only complain about capitalism if you’re poor. Except you can’t, because then you’re engaging in divisive class warfare, being anti-enterprise, and threatening Britain’s future prosperity.
Corporate-policed mainstream culture is all about finding excuses for exploitation, inequality and wrenching injustice, and letting the people at the top feel justified in being irrationally rich. The reason the Right so angrily goes after rich people who criticise neoliberalism is because they’re more of a threat to that collective delusion. If even people who’ve benefitted from the status quo are complaining about it, how bad must it be?
Once of the more unexpected side-effects of austerity has been ex-child soprano Charlotte Church’s emergence as a sassy and articulate left-wing campaigner. Having made her fortune singing as a pre-teen and been left with the rest of her life to do whatever she wants in, she’s made the commendable decision to become an anti-austerity activist.
Earlier this year, she suggested she’d happily pay 60% or 70% tax if it would help protect vital public services. That particularly annoyed the sociopath Right, for whom there’s nothing more baffling than a rich person who a) doesn’t want to dodge as much tax as possible, and b) actually wants to pay more. Having angered and spent time jousting the twin-headed boss monster of neo-Thatcherite social media, the Hopkins-Mensch, she can at least be confident she’s doing something right.
All that said, switching to weird left-wing secular vicar mode for a minute, there was a smidgen of substance to the criticism Church received. After she made the comments about tax, she was inundated by waves of horrible Tories suggesting that, if she felt so strongly about it, she should just give away the extra money she’d be willing to be taxed but isn’t. And her excuse, like that given by other rich egalitarians in similar situations, was quite flimsy.
The sadly dead left-wing moral philosopher Gerry Cohen discussed exactly this issue in his superbly named book, If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?. If you have political ideals that society isn’t going to act on any time soon, what do you do? Do you just get on with living your life in a manner you ideally wouldn’t, or do you find some other way of honouring your beliefs?
It’s a question Cohen addresses with no small amount of embarrassment. He writes as a very comfortably-off Oxford-based academic who had spent his life saying capitalism should be overthrown and wealth should be redistributed – and as someone who nonetheless didn’t give away the sizeable chunk of his income he didn’t really need.
Having poked and prodded at the problem from all different angles, he eventually reaches a sort of tentative conclusion – that if you’re a rich egalitarian, there’s not really an excuse for not giving most of your wealth away.
Of course it would be better if society handled redistribution. Of course it would be better if greater equality was socially guaranteed rather than dependent on charity. But people are suffering everywhere. Telling them to just hang on for socialism while you live to excess isn’t really morally acceptable.
This isn’t just something for rich people to ponder, either. We all need to live less materialistic, less wasteful lives for the planet’s sake. For the pittance it’s worth, here at Bem Towers we’ve decided that we’re going to calculate how much we can survive on, challenge ourselves to efficiently squeeze all our non-essentials out of a strictly limited self-indulgence allowance, and then, by the end of the year, (if there’s anything left over) be giving the rest of our income away.
Millions of people in this country are struggling to get by as it is. Especially if you’ve got children or other dependents, that kind of commitment just isn’t feasible. But if you’re an egalitarian for whom it is feasible, we reckon you should do it too.
But well done
But that’s probably a post for another day. In the meantime, Charlotte Church is doing a fantastic job of banging on about the evils of austerity. So well done to her, and Russell Brand, and other people like that, for giving enough of a shit to get involved when they could easily just sit at home counting their money.