On the 27th of November, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, gave the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture to an appreciative audience of the former prime minister’s devotees, organized by the right-wing think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. It is no secret that Johnson has his eye on the leadership of the Tory party. It is now very unlikely that he will succeed in securing it before the next election in 2015, so his calculation seems to be that in the event – fairly likely – that the Tories fail to gain a majority and are forced from office, he will be favorite to replace Cameron and bid for victory in a subsequent election some time before 2020. It is just possible, though highly unlikely, that he may still entertain hopes of replacing Cameron before the 2015 election. This could only happen if, next year, there is an accelerated erosion of support for the Tories to the point where a Labour victory seems all but certain. This could produce panic in the ranks and lead to a successful challenge to Cameron’s leadership. Whatever his calculation may be, his lecture was an unashamed evocation of “Thatcherism”, reprising the neo-liberal certitudes propounded in the mid-1970s by Thatcher’s mentor, Sir Keith joseph. Although hedged around with ambiguities and qualifications, Johnson’s talk contained a few nuggets from the original mélange of Friedmanite and neo-eugenicist dogma.
Two passages from his lecture convey the essence of his message: “ I stress, I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.” Referring to competition in a globalized economy, he said “No-one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality it inevitably accentuates, and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.” This comes down to the claim that “greed is good”. Envy and greed are supposed to be spurs to economic activity and it follows that they must be good. In an inevitably harshly competitive economic system, economic inequality simply confers on individuals the rewards appropriate to their “raw ability” already genetically determined by the “normal” distribution of IQ through the population.
Nearly forty years ago Keith Joseph was saying the same things. The problem with Britain, he argued in 1975, four years before Thatcher became prime minister, was that there was too much equality. The country needed to become more unequal. There was too much regulation. The “mixed economy” which had been promoted by governments, Labour and Tory, of the post-war “consensus”, needed to be dismantled. The industries in public ownership should be privatized, the spirit of free enterprise should be allowed to take wings. Trade unions needed to be brought to heel. The failure of people from “lower” social classes to improve their situation resulted from their innate lack of ability.
Now, more than three decades after the onset of an uninterrupted neo-liberal onslaught on the post-war economic settlement in Britain – a demolition job still in progress - we can see the results so far: A collapse of the financial sector in 2008 so devastating, with consequences for the living standards of million so dire that talk of economic recovery seems to most people like a sick joke.; a bailed-out banking industry once again so bloated and arrogant that it has returned to the criminal activities that crashed the economy in the first place; levels of economic and social inequality so grotesque that they have been referred to as Dickensian; a generation of young people condemned to long-term unemployment and fading hopes; a housing crisis so severe that only those first-time buyers with salaries of over £50,000 have hope of securing mortgages, even for the most modest of properties; escalating household energy bills due to price-hiking by monopolistic energy companies, which will result in many families having to choose between heating and eating and increasing numbers of older people dying of hypothermia this winter.
Johnson is mayor of the largest city in Europe. All the consequences of the Great Recession, mentioned above, are felt acutely in London. It has levels of inequality more extreme than any other city in Britain and Britain is one of the most unequal countries of the developed world. It is extraordinary that he should imagine that the views he expounds should get a favorable hearing at a time like this. His views about IQ hark back to Cyril Burt and Hans Eysenck, right-wing psychologists of the 1960s and 70s. Such theories had already been decisively debunked in the early 1950s by Professor Brian Simon in his seminal work Intelligence Testing and the Comprehensive School (1953). It must be assumed that Johnson has never heard of Nobel economics laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, both of whom have written very recently (End This Depression Now. P. Krugman; The Price of Inequality. J. Stiglitz), arguing that growing social and economic inequality, far from being inevitable and beneficial, is unnecessary, harmful and pose a dangerous threat to the economic future of countries (such as Britain and the United States) that do nothing to change it. The failure of countries like Britain and leading members of the EU to deal effectively with the consequences of the economic crash of 2008 has been quite spectacular. It beggars belief that five years on the only remedy attempted has been intensified austerity. The results are evident everywhere. The pain inflicted is most extreme in Greece and Spain, but the story is not so different in Italy, in Portugal and in Ireland. Had anyone predicted in 2006 that Britain and the EU would be going through what they are today, they would have been laughed out of court by those who are now responsible for inflicting misery on so many in the name of “economic recovery”.
The verbal legerdemain practiced by Johnson and his ilk is to play with the concepts “equality” and “inequality” in such a way as to blur or obliterate the distinction between what is reasonable and what is outrageous. An assumption is made, implicitly or explicitly, that “the Left” is committed to complete social and economic equality. It is reasonably asserted that as this is an impossibility, inequality is inevitable. If inevitable inequality is a feature of the existing economic system and as the system is the only one we have and “there is no alternative”, we had just better get used to it. From this the jump is made to claiming that any degree of inequality as acceptable. Any attempt to seriously reduce inequality, is bad. Therefore, inequality is good. Possessive individualism is a strong determining characteristic of capitalist society and the striving for self-improvement is good. Capital accumulation is intrinsic to capitalism and it is a driving force for individuals who want to succeed. In its most extreme form this can be called “greed”. Greed, like envy, according to Johnson, is “a valuable spur to economic activity”. As such, it must be good.
Neither Krugman nor Stiglitz believe that any society can achieve complete social and economic equality. (Just for the record, neither did Karl Marx. At least he argued [Critique of the Gotha Program. 1876] that in the first stages of a socialist society operating under social ownership of the means of production, where the principle “from each according to his ability; to each according to his work” prevailed, some workers would, despite receiving pay commensurate to the work performed, be better off than others due to differences (inequalities) in individual capabilities, strengths, domestic circumstances etc. Only in what he regarded as the higher stage of communist society might such inequalities be eliminated.) Economists like Krugman and Stiglitz are not Marxists, but Keynesians. They manifest no interest in the possibility of a post-capitalist society. Yet they are firmly of the opinion that the present crisis of global capitalism is inherently linked to inequalities in wealth and ownership. They want to replace what they regard as bad, dysfunctional capitalism with “good”, well-functioning capitalism and they believe it is achievable. They argue that in order to bring about this transition a radical change of course is necessary which can only be achieved by challenging the corporate financial and political ruling elites directly. They welcome the occupy movements and seem confident that pressure from beneath, from organized labor, and from liberal professional pressure groups made up of people like themselves may succeed in bringing the changes required to save predatory capitalism from self-destructing and triggering a catastrophic global collapse. They challenge head on the selfish individualism that argues that greed and growing inequality are good. It is a self-serving attempt to justify avarice and bolster the position of the super-rich who inhabit a cocooned world of their own creation, insulated from the lives of ordinary people. These Keynesian reformists are firmly on the side of the 99 percent. Whether it will be possible to achieve the better world they desire without effecting thorough systemic change, is another question. But, by comparison with them, the fatuous mayor of London is a reactionary buffoon spouting hot air.