Monday, 10 December 2012

Poverty, Pareto and trapdoors

On the evening of George Osborne's Autumn Statement, in which he announced an effective cut in welfare payments, Rachael Reeves, Labour Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, roundly and rightly condemned the proposal on television's Newsnight.  Yet when asked, repeatedly, whether Labour would therefore vote against the proposals, and reverse them if they regained power, she slipped into a predicable mantra of evasions:  that was a matter for  her boss, the Shadow Chancellor; she hadn't yet seen the details in the bill; no-one could predict the circumstances of the future; etc.  Asked a similar question of Radio 4's "Any Questions" Chuka Umunna, another member of the Labour  Shadow Cabinet, launched into an identical, presumably  "on message," evasive litany.

At the other end of the political spectrum Tory Treasury Minister David Gauke, interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme, found it impossible to condemn the Starbucks coffee chain for the astonishing fact that over ten years or so they have paid hardly any profits tax in the UK.

So the poor get hammered with no champion to stick up  for them, and the rich get  velvet glove treatment

Surely the time will come, if it is not already here, when the bottom 20% of our society,  the "underclass" (I dislike the term but can't think of another), will conclude that this "democracy" does not work for "us."

It's a long time since I studied  Pareto's Theory of Elites, but I remember being taught that society is in the shape of a large triangle with an elite at the top, who form  a smaller triangle which makes the rules.  If this little triangle is separated from the rest by an impenetrable barriers, the able and ambitious people in the lower part rise to the barrier but can't get though it , and they become rebellious  unstable as their ambitions are frustrated.  Historically the UK had  a "trapdoor" through which these able people could pass into the ruling group (Wolsey was the son of a butcher, Thomas Cromwell was a blacksmith's boy), so the British system survived. The French had no such trapdoor, so they had a revolution.

Perhaps the trapdoor into the elite still exists: after all Eric Pickles sits in the Cabinet among the Old Etonians.  And it would be wrong to claim that , like Tawney's famous "tadpoles of character and capacity" (see p142, Equality, Allen and Unwin, 1931), the more enterprising of the underclass cannot escape their  situation and rise to be the equivalent of frogs. Yet if the overwhelming majority feel trapped, despised and not only excluded from what is normal in our society, but actually forced to take the punishment  for its failings, then surely instability is on its way.

In the leaders' debates before our 2010 general election Nick Clegg warned  of riots if the inequality  and unfairness in our society persisted.  The low turnout in recent elections demonstrates that confidence in the democratic system is rapidly fading.   Political leaders in every party  need to take a long hard look at the society they are helping to create before the people at the bottom take some version of "justice" into their own hands.

1 comment:

  1. But surely Peter in the BIG society 'we are all in it together'?