Sharing pain, not wealth

In: Uncategorized

25 Mar 2012

This is the text of my opinion article that appeared in the Australian on 12 March and On Line Opinion on 16 March.

When the rich and powerful start talking as if they represent the poor and vulnerable it is certain that someone will end up getting hurt. It is a safe bet that it will not be the wealthy elite.

The article by Wayne Swan, the deputy prime minister and Treasurer, in the current issue of the Monthly followed firmly in this new egalitarian tradition. Like President Barack Obama and many other international leaders he claims to talk on behalf of the poor mass of society against shadowy vested interests. He also follows the American president in expressing sympathy for Occupy activists – although Swan appears to have timed the publication of his essay to coincide with the demise of the phenomenon. This timing may be prescient, as Swan begins softening up the Australian public in preparation for spending cuts he may make in the May budget.

Both supporters and opponents of this new egalitarianism tend to make the same mistakes in assessing its significance. Conservatives, when they can summon up the courage, often dismiss it as a return to the bad old days of “class warfare”. Supporters often refer to it as if it represents a mass radical movement. A closer inspection will show that it is not mass, radical or a movement.

A related error is to talk about the Occupy activists as if was their grassroots pressure that prompted the debate about inequality. A closer inspection shows that all the new egalitarian themes were being discussed well before the first Occupy Wall Street protest in September 2011. It also reveals that probably only a few thousand activists worldwide ever slept overnight in an Occupy camp. The reason they got such a sympathetic hearing from the likes of Swan and Obama was that Occupy provided a good focus for debates that many in the elite were keen to promote.

To grapple with the meaning of the new egalitarianism it is worth looking more closely at the pronouncements of its most high profile exponent. Back in June 2011, months before activists occupied New York’s Zuccotti Park, President Obama gave a weekly presidential address in which he promoted the idea of “shared sacrifice”. He argued that all Americans, including the super-rich, needed to be willing to accept spending cuts and higher taxes for the sake of America’s fiscal future.

A month later the demand for shared sacrifice was endorsed by Warren Buffett, who this week was named as the world’s second richest man on the Forbes rich list, in an opinion piece in the New York Times.  He said the fact that he paid the same rate of tax as his secretary showed that the rich should be willing to pay higher taxes.

In fact Buffett and Obama have engaged in a bizarre double act for months. They have frequently name checked each other in their demands for popular sacrifice and insistence that the rich should payer higher taxes.

Careful consideration should reveal that the thrust of this argument is far from radical. Essentially the public is being told that it should be willing to make sacrifices; in effect to accept austerity. In return the rich should be willing to make sacrifices too.

This is also the content of the obsessive attacks on “greedy bankers”. Although it appears to be a criticism of errant financiers the moral message is aimed at least as much at the general public. The underlying theme of this morality tale is that everyone should rein in their ambitions; to reject “excess”. “Turning bankers into bad guys in a simplistic morality play helps to make the message of a more popular “responsible” – that is restrained – capitalism popular with the public.

The new egalitarianism has little in common with the egalitarianism of the past. Not all egalitarianisms are equal. What could be called “red egalitarianism” argued for the raising of popular prosperity so that everyone could benefit from the best that society had to offer. Today’s green egalitarianism, the kind favoured by Swan, essentially demands that everyone should be prepared to make do with less.

Green egalitarianism is really about the redistribution of pain rather than of resources. Its theme is that everyone should be willing to accept what is deemed their fair share of hardship.

The new outlook is particularly favoured by politicians who have little confidence in their ability to encourage economic growth and lack faith in its desirability in any case. Promoting sacrifice seems to them a better option than building a more prosperous society.

Ironically those who claim to speak on behalf of the 99% are at the vanguard of selling austerity to the public. Their attacks on excess and greedy bankers give a populist edge to the demand that ordinary people should be happy to make do with less. Obama, Swan and the other new egalitarians only offer equality of sacrifice and pain.