Danny Dorling argues that “widespread inequality is an extremely recent thing for most of the world”. Richard Wilkinson, author of the Spirit Level, even went so far as to call this the “age of inequality” in a recent lecture. But we’re not talking just about wealth here. There are profound problems within our society, and they’re almost spiritual in nature. Part of this relates to what most probably first jumped into mind when you read the previous sentence: declining involvement in social groups such as churches, village activities and political parties, and a replacement with increased involvement in social activities intentionally devoid of any ethical affiliations, like sport for example. Some people liken this to the Roman Empire, whereby those who rush to football stadiums are compared with those who relished in watching others butchered in the gladiatorial arenas. But in actual fact there is a much bigger picture behind the scenes.
The evolution of Capitalism created a class war in the United Kingdom, in which aspiration and ambition are valued above all other goals. Tocqueville used to say that there was one thing that humanity strives for alongside happiness, and that that one thing was a combination of glory and honour. Glory and honour are socially constructed aims that were constantly pushed and promoted by those who could be compared to the media of today. Yet now it is achievement and aspiration which have come to dominate. And what it means is that politicians no longer talk about helping all classes. Instead they talk about helping people leave the working class, as if everyone in it is beneath the rest of society.
The new film about Margaret Thatcher is indicative of this recent social change like nothing else could be. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee was recently asked to review the film. She said that she was expected to see the film as something wonderful for feminism, presenting a strong woman able to stand up to the world and beat whoever came in her way. Indeed Ms Toynbee said that the film was like this. But she also said that it was completely biased and un-historical. The film shows Thatcher in a heroic light, and yet as Toynbee said it shows nothing about the fact that child poverty jumped from 1 in 7 to 1 in 3. And neither did it show anything like this graph to indicate what could be criticised:
Now I’m Middle Class myself, and I don’t think that everything Thatcher did was bad. The last thing I want to do with this piece is attack anyone. But let’s look at the facts. The institutions of Working Class Britain, such as Trade Unions and council housing, were dismantled under her government. The industries of the Working Class, from manufacturing to mining, were torn apart. The communities were run down, and in many cases have still not received sufficient resources for regeneration. Even the values were attacked; values like solidarity and collective responsibility have been replaced by rugged individualism and expectations of individualistic aspirations rather than collectivist ones.
Today we have many, not only on the right but across the political spectrum, saying that as a result of changes since Thatcher the “aspirational working class” has gone on to become part of the expanded middle class, and what we have left in the working class are “chavs”. And as Owen James so excellently argued in “Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class” the working class is now being stigmatised, demonised and scapegoated as a result of middle class prejudices that have arisen from these changes. And the stigmatisation doesn’t end there either. It’s no coincidence that almost at the same time as Owen James’ book was published another was published under the title “Scapegoat: Why Are We Failing Disabled People?”
Indeed even those within the mainstream parties recognise that there are problems, just not the depth that they go to. For example Ed Miliband talked some time ago about “predatory capitalism”, and this week Cameron talked of a new “moral capitalism”. Unfortunately what connects these two ideas is a lack of depth, and a lack of action. These two parties and people are both guilty of jumping on the benefit fraud bandwagon to score political points. If we want real change in this country then we must vote for big reforms, such as those talked about by the Democratic Reform Party, like a new party system where parties can more easily rise and fall, a series of compassionate reforms designed to tackle social ills such as homelessness and modern slavery, and a series of democratic reforms designed to empower the people and decentralise power.