Friday, May 20, 2011


Why we Don't Have Revolutions

A good discussion question with students I find is, 'why, given such huge inequalities, there is no call for revolution in most capitalist countries'? This encourages students to consider both the unequal structure of society and the huge risks revolution brings along with its highly speculative benefits. We usually conclude that, while the poor often have a very rough deal, many of them have at least the rudiments of living- a place to live and enough money to put food on the table. Engaging in a revolution might obtain for them a more equal society but history suggests it might just as easily make things a lot worse. Fearful of losing what little they have the poor usually opt to cling on to what they have and accept, albeit resentfully, the deal they currently have.

Makes sense? fits the facts? Yes, just about I've always thought. But Peter Wilby offers a nuanced alternative analysis. He wonders why 'we aren't more angry' at how the rich have benefited during the recession?

* The IFS have recently shown that last year the incomes of the richest 1% grew at the fastest rate for a decade.
* the Sunday Times Rich List shows the richest 1000 are £60.2bn better off this year compared with last.
* FTSE chief executives are paid £4.2m on average annually.
*Barclays most senior executive will receive £14m this year, over a thousand times more than their lowest paid employee.
*while most people's income has stagnated or barely increased over the last decade, the top 0.1% have enjoyed a bonanza of a 67% increase over 11 years. And now inflation will negate and exceed those modest increases meted out to the majority of us.

Wilby alights on the last point to argue why the middle classes are not as angry as perhaps they should be at this state of affairs.

"the very rich[in US and the UK] are soaring ahead, leaving behind not only manual workers – now a diminishing minority – but also the middle-class masses, including doctors, teachers, academics, solicitors, architects, Whitehall civil servants and, indeed, many CEOs who don't run FTSE 100 companies, to say nothing of the marketing, purchasing, personnel, sales and production executives below them. That is why, over the past decade, some of the most anguished cries about high incomes and inequality have appeared in the Telegraph and Mail."

Wilby notes that most polls show we strongly disapprove of excessive top salaries, yet this overwhelming sentiment never translates into 'a political programme that can command mass support.' His explanation, based on US research is that people are more frightened of loss than they are encouraged by the prospect of gain. They are angered by fat cats but worried redistribution might benefit those unworthy people 'below' below them in the social hierarchy:

Americans accepted tax cuts for the rich with equanimity. Better to let the rich keep their money, they calculated, than to have it benefit economic and social inferiors.

Wilby quotes the social theorist David Runciman>

"most people's lives are governed more by the resentment of narrow inequalities, the cultivation of modest ambitions and the preservation of small differentials"

So, it would seem that if we can worry less about slipping down the social hierarchy. we'll be more likely to feel enthusiasm for clipping the wings of the super-rich who are so flagrantly soaring above everyone.

It's childish and immature I grant and I should know better but I shall not feel that the country is through this mess until we can see the bodies of the banking elite slowly swinging from the lamposts in the City of London. I'm open to argument as to whether they should be taken at random or simply the greediest gobblers of bonuses, share options and pay.
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