We live in a strange country, in strange times.
I suppose Christmas always magnifies these things, but to me it seems more noticeable this year. On one hand we have a government promoting an agenda of austerity, telling us we’re all in it together and we all must tighten our belts, and on the other all the shops are decked out for Christmas and exhorting us to buy stuff and the papers carry stories of billion-pound shopping bonanzas as everyone gets their act together and stocks up on presents and stuff for the festive season.
So, are we rich or are we poor? Which of these?
I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that we are neither, that we have become the victims of a cruel con trick intended to appease an insubstantial entity for reasons none of us can entirely comprehend. We have been told to be afraid – and we have been presented with things, and indeed people, of which to be afraid – and we have fallen for it.
I’m not often given to quoting Jeremy Clarkson, but a couple of years ago he did say something apropos what was then still a breaking financial crisis which I thought was unintentionally quite wise. He said that the world economy had become so large and complex that, like the internet, nobody entirely understood it. Nobody was in control any more. I found that rather striking. It’s as if the economy was like a supercomputer that had suddenly bootstrapped itself to self-awareness and simply taken over the world one morning when everyone was busy doing something else.
One of the most common phrases I remember from those early days of the crisis was ‘The Market.’ We had to appease The Market. We had to show that we were taking the bull by the horns or The Market would make life difficult for us. We had to make cuts, prove that we were brave and bold and unafraid to suffer. Or to make others suffer.
I’m not an economist, or even particularly political, really. Stuff makes me angry, that’s all. And The Market makes me angry. This enormous, interconnected, sentient presence of which we must all be so afraid that we tighten our belts.
It’s my understanding that the major authors of our present despair were the banks and financial institutions who played The Market with increasingly reckless abandon, using financial instruments of such complexity that they were barely comprehensible. When it turned out that their deals were built on sand, that their addiction to success – and it wasn’t even the money so much as a drive to succeed, to be top dog – had produced a huge foggy illusion of wealth, the banks hunkered down, gathered their remaining money to them. Loans to businesses dried up. Businesses were forced in their turn to tighten their belts. Economies had to be made. People were made redundant. All fall down.
Meanwhile, the banks turned to governments to help them. And governments in turn passed the cost down to their peoples.
Governments have to be careful how they do this. It’s generally easiest to take things from those least able to defend themselves. This is why muggers tend to target little old ladies rather than steroid-laden bodybuilders. And so it is with governments.
They look at the bottom of the pyramid, the most vulnerable and needy people in a society. They, after all, require most aid from the state. It’s easy to cast them as feckless, workshy, not really all that sick at all. We are giving these monsters too much money, money that would be better spent making The Market happy, because if The Market is happy it will make the rest of us happy too.
In many ways, this has been a lucky year for the government. The Golden Jubilee was a nice distraction; the Olympics and Paralympics went well. Without them we might very well have seen a repeat of the previous year’s riots. Even the absurd rhetoric with which politicians greeted the pregnancy of the Duchess of Cambridge seemed to be pronounced with a sigh of relief. Thank god, something else to take their minds off what’s going on.
I saw another phrase the other day which I also found striking, and we might do well to remember it and spread it more widely. It’s deficit panic.
Deficit panic is a stampede of fear. We have no money! We must cut things! We must tighten our belts! Look at these benefit scroungers! We must punish them to save ourselves! Deficit panic is a pretext for cuts which, to my layman’s eye, seem overwhelmingly ideological. It’s what allows politicians to present to working people the image of going to work and seeing their benefit-scrounger neighbours’ curtains still closed, and using that to justify cuts. It’s meant to make us afraid, to make us believe what we’re told, to make us panic. Because people who are panicking will believe anything.
When I was growing up, this was quite a class-conscious society. That famous John Cleese/Ronnie Barker/Ronnie Corbett sketch with the punchline ‘I know my place’ seemed to me to sum it up quite nicely. The Yuppie Boom of the 1980s, to my mind anyway, muddled that old order. We were no longer Upper, Middle and Working Class, an odd kind of certainty had disappeared.
It feels to me now as if we’re in the process of creating a new class. Not so much an underclass as a class of whipping dogs, a class who are so defenceless that the government can demean and demonise them with impunity. They’re lazy, they’re undeserving, they’re sucking up cash which could be used to placate The Market and make the lives of the rest of us more secure. We’d like our lives to be more secure – who wouldn’t? – so we become complicit. That bloke there in the wheelchair? Why isn’t he in work like me? Why is he jeopardising my future? We might not say it out loud – we might not even think it out loud – but it’s there in the back of our minds.
I think we have become victims of an appalling sleight of hand, a magic trick in which an invisible entity became more important than real people, a magic trick whose driving force is not misdirection but simple fear.
So here we are at Christmas. In spite of an aura of Austerity, despite the government telling us we have to tighten our belts, shops and stores desperately need us to shop like bastards, for their own good. But the government needs us to shop like bastards too. When the retail figures come out in January, they’ll be used to gauge the state of the economy, and that in turn will be offered to The Market as proof that the country’s doing okay and we’re actually a good bet for investment and stuff. Because that’s all that matters to our government. If the price of that is some bodies, well, they were scroungers and benefit cheats and dead weight on society anyway, right?
Our next general election is due in 2015, and in the run-up to it the government will be presenting a scorecard. Assuming nothing goes spectacularly awry between now and then, I expect the economy to be near the top of that card. Not the government’s questionable record on the NHS. Not their behaviour towards the most vulnerable people in society. Their stewardship of the economy. I’m expecting them to say that, while things haven’t got better, at least they haven’t got any worse – and they would have been much worse if we didn’t take the tough decisions we did. Look, The Market is smiling upon us because of the tough decisions we took.
The government has not taken tough decisions. A tough decision is whether to put the heating on because you’re freezing, or to buy some food because you’re starving. The government is playing a game with numbers on a sheet of paper; that’s not tough, and hearing the Prime Minister or the Chancellor or some other Minister speaking of it as if it were is, quite frankly, rather insulting. That they continue to tell us to be afraid in order to achieve their goals is, if anything, rather more than insulting. I hate being treated like this, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
There is, of course, nothing we can do, short of an insurrection. We won’t have a chance to vote out this government for another two years or so. We’re stuck with them now. In some ways we’re like Mitt Romney’s dog, strapped to the roof of his car with no idea where we’re going and no way to change our fate.
But there may be one thing we can do. It won’t make us wealthier or better looking or more successful, but maybe it will make us less susceptible to what the government wants us to become.
We can stop being afraid.