Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Glad Possession

As I explored the streets of Brussels - or one area of it anyway - yesterday afternoon, I listened to a podcast of Start the Week. It ended with Russell Brand claiming that:

"The important question is which political organisation cares that there are five families in Britain that have as much wealth collectively as the twelve million poorest people in Britain? Who is it that speaks for those people? What democratic recourse do those people have? What can they do - and, if the system cannot help them, then we need a revolution."

Having lived in several countries in Europe where the result of Brand's odd illogical kind of, for want of a better term, 'reasoning' was decades of repression, plus terrible environmental and cultural vandalism (and no systems have been so good at destroying the environment as socialist ones, no matter how many Erin Brockovitch type movies try to argue that capitalism is the great enemy of clean and green), I found this little clarion call pretty disturbing.

Clearly, Brand - like so many before him - proceeds from the belief that equality is both achievable and desirable in human society. I think equality is impossible - and, given this, whether it is desirable is not really something worth having an opinion on. The poor are always with us, as Jesus observed. By implication, the rich are too. The real question to ask about the existence of the rich is: is it necessarily a bad thing?

What actually is wrong with five families in Britain having as much wealth collectively as the country's twelve million poorest - provided they are not actually taking that money directly out of the pockets of the poorest?Is the very fact of being rich a sin? Leaving aside the fact that most of the world's great artistic treasures were only made because the wealthy commissioned them - for example, would we have Haydn's music if the Esterhazys hadn't been on hand to pay for him? - is there anything intrinsically wrong with owning stuff? Must we assume that the five rich families Brand is getting so worked up about never generate any kind of business or employment, pay no taxes, provide no opportunities, generate zero economic activity, give absolutely nothing away? If in fact they do all these things but still remain wealthy, must we tear them down anyway, just because we aren't as rich as they are? Is that sensible? Is that just? Or is that just jealousy?

And what about the twelve million poorest inhabitants of the nation - are they actually poor or simply poorer than others, (and bear in mind that inevitably someone always will be at the bottom of the heap)? Is their poverty - if it is poverty as such, rather than mere relative poverty - a direct result of the five wealthiest families' wealth accretion or are the two things separate? Are the twelve million poorest inhabitants of the nation lacking for food, education, health care, housing or are they merely fed up because they are not extremely rich too? Would the destruction of the wealth of the five richest families do anything to ameliorate the situation of the poorest families? Or would it simply be a case of pandering to jealousy?

When Brand talks about democratic recourse, I ask myself what he means, (particularly as he is talking about a nation that is already a democracy). Does he mean that no-one should be wealthy, that everything should be spread out evenly between all members of a population? Possibly he does, and if so, for the first time ever, I find myself wishing the Soviet Union still existed - purely because a single visit of only a few days almost invariably enlightened those people too naive, (or dim?), to understand that attempts to create equality in human societies end up creating hell on earth.


  1. Yes, 48 hours in 'socialist' Prague was enough for me - a miserable, wretched place that reeked of depression and decay. But I'm concerned about the widening gap between the very richest and the lumpen proletariat. Also, I'm not sure if some of today's rich are a patch on their predecessors - the Carnegies, Gettys and Vanderbilts. In our pseudo-egalitarian society, there seems to be a lamentable lack of noblesse oblige (accompanied by an equally deplorable absence of cap doffing to local magistrates and other worthies). I despair.

    I'm halfway through STW - I listen to the download in my car - and thought that Susan Neiman got away with a rather lazy point about unfairness. Surely there's a difference between unfairness - the random misfortunes that life throws at us - and institutionalised injustice. Perhaps it will be addressed when I turn on the ignition tomorrow morning

    As for Russell Brand, he lost me the moment he suggested that scrapping the Royal Family would result in a more democratic society. The list of European countries with monarchs versus those without would clearly suggest otherwise.

  2. Yes, wealth without responsibility is the problem. Odd that, when you mention widening gaps between rich and poor, I think immediately for some reason of Russian kleptocrats buying flashy rubbish in Knightsbridge - odd, in the sense that they are the end product of the Soviet system, impossibly wealthy but without any sense of obligation to anyone less well off than themselves. I think the rush to destroy the wealthy (at least those who haven't stolen their money - I'd like to get rid of the Russians with ill-gotten gains) will never work out well for the rest of society, although it seems to be the usual solution put forward to society's ills. My idea would be to ensure the wealthy recognise that they can help others - Bill and Melinda Gates seem to be good models in this respect for the modern world (until someone comes along with an article tearing them down as only being philanthropists out of self-interest, which will possibly happen - or already has)