Wednesday, 11 December 2013

It is shocking that we are not shocked when a politician praises greed and envy

“…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…” – Boris Johnson, giving the Margaret Thatcher memorial lecture on 27 November 2013.

There was a time when Boris Johnson’s comments above would have been recognised as an outrage against a shared morality and common decency. But no one seemed to pay much attention when he made them in a recent speech (although there was media interest in his crass remarks, in the same speech, about how many of our “species” [sic] have IQs below 85).

Johnson links the claimed beneficial effects of greed and envy to the operation of capitalism. It is quite astonishing that he does so only years after a worldwide economic disaster, which was caused primarily by the greed of very rich people in the finance industry in New York, London and elsewhere.

Johnson thinks envy is good because it causes people to spend money on material goods. Billions of pounds are spent annually in the UK in PR and advertising budgets in order to stimulate envy. Johnson does not seem to care that, partly as a result, private debt is now close to an all-time high nor that people motivated by envy are destined to be forever unfulfilled.  

Greed and envy have been condemned by societies worldwide for thousands of years. They are two of the Christian seven deadly sins. They are regarded as sins not only by Christianity but also by Islam, Socialism, Hinduism, Humanism, Judaism, Marxism, Buddhism and almost every other belief system which contains a moral code.

Throughout history there have, of course, always been people who have been motivated by greed and envy. However, such people have also always been aware of society’s grave disapproval and so they have invariably done whatever they could to hide the shameful truth. Hypocrisy, as has been said, is the homage that vice pays to virtue.

So how is it that in 2013 a politician’s praise for greed and envy does not shock?  It is because for thirty years we have been told that what Johnson was saying is right - even though it is very wrong. Johnson was simply articulating essential elements of Neo-Liberalism or Thatcherism.

Although, Thatcherites might not admit it, the morality of Thatcherism appears to owe a great deal to the ideas of Ayn Rand, an American who died in 1982. Rand's philosophy of hyper-individualism is highly influential today within the US in general and within the Republican Party in particular – Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate has been much influenced by her work.

Rand’s philosophy ran counter to previous moral codes. Her philosophy was summed up in the title of one of her books –“The Virtue of Selfishness”. Envy and greed were just fine by Ayn Rand. Thatcherism was all about individuals out to better themselves without being concerned for others. Thatcher notoriously declared that –“there is no such thing as society”.

Rand thought that the super-rich were heroes, who deserved to be honoured and respected purely on account of their wealth. Last month, Johnson lauded the “hedge fund kings” and proposed that the richest should receive automatic knighthoods.

For Rand the ultimate good was not society, let alone happiness, but was money. At her funeral, one of her very closest disciple, Alan Greenspan, who as head of the Federal Reserve was at the heart of the world’s financial system for 19 years, placed a six foot floral tribute in the shape of a dollar sign near her casket.

Rand and Thatcher’s ideas have had an insidious and deeply damaging effect on our culture. Once we would have known immediately that greed and envy are bad. Now we barely notice when an ignorant politician who has no idea of what is really important in life – like decency and humanity - praises two vices, which destroy the lives of other people and a person’s own soul too. 

Saturday, 7 December 2013

We should oppose evils like apartheid at the time, not when they are safely history

In Britain, the death of Nelson Mandela has been met with universal praise for his achievements and for his character, which imbued him with a moral authority unmatched by anyone else alive. 

Some of those now eulogising Mandela stand accused of hypocrisy because their attitude towards him and the apartheid regime was very different in the years before Mandela’s release in 1990. Listening to what is being said now, one might think that nobody in Britain ever supported apartheid but, of course, that is not true. Hopefully, some erstwhile apartheid supporters now sincerely regret their previous stance.

Apartheid is an example of something which is now recognised as an absolutely clear cut moral evil but which in the past a significant number of people – particularly powerful people - felt able to justify or at least not oppose. Other examples in Britain over the last two centuries include slavery, restricting the franchise to rich males, colonialism and various forms of discrimination.

Mandela said – “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  We need to be teaching our children to think, question and challenge. This would equip them to recognise such moral issues.

There are plenty of such issues facing us right now. One example, admittedly not as easy to grasp as apartheid, is the existence of abject, degrading poverty – in Britain and globally - in the midst of great wealth, which is easily more than sufficient to alleviate it. As Mandela also said – “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Mandela, who himself achieved what seemed impossible, also had something to say to those who might think the very idea of abolishing such poverty is utopian nonsense - “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Imagine that one day this injustice has been substantially addressed. Then, many people, who had supported or gone along with things as they were, would probably tell their children - “It was terrible – in Britain people were relying on food banks and many could not afford heating or were homeless. And in many countries in Africa and Asia it was far worse, people were actually starving. And all the time there was plenty of money around. I always knew it was wrong.” 

We should take inspiration from a man like Nelson Mandela and at least oppose injustice at the time when our support might actually make a difference, not when the issue has been safely consigned to the history books.