Resist the shared sacrifice trap

In: Uncategorized

21 Aug 2011

A common theme runs through the discussion of America’s troubled economy and the debate about the causes of Britain’s riots. The populations of both countries are being urged to make sacrifices rather than be so “greedy”.

Austerity can only be resisted effectively if such arguments are defeated. Often they have popular appeal because the targets are widely resented by the public: greedy bankers, venal politicians and the like. But the real object of such calls is the mass of the population. Posing austerity as an attack on the errant rich is a slick way of selling it to the public.

The call for restraint comes from the top. For example, Barack Obama argued in a recent presidential address that solving America’s fiscal problems necessitated “shared sacrifice”.

Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, endorsed this call in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. It concluded by arguing that: “My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”

On this side of the Atlantic the British prime minister, David Cameron, argued in a statement on the riots that “moral decline and bad behaviour is not limited to a few of the poorest parts of our society”. He went on to argue that the banking crisis, the MPs’ expenses scandal and phone hacking also represented greed, irresponsibility and entitlement. For him: “The restoration of responsibility has to cut right across our society.”

The shared theme in all these statements is clear. Everyone must be prepared to restrain their desires and aspirations. The rich should accept the aristocratic notion of Noblesse Oblige (“nobility obliges”) in which they act nobly by accepting sacrifice. From there, it is argued, the rest of us should follow their example.

Given that such sentiments pervade the elite it is not surprising they have been taken up by what passes for right and left nowadays. Peter Oborne, the chief political commentator of the conservative Daily Telegraph, concluded a blog post on the riots by arguing:

“The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.”

His column echoes another Telegraph article written by Charles Moore, a former editor of the newspaper, back in July. In it the veteran right winger argued that: “It turns out – as the Left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few.”

Against this backdrop it should be clear that the supposed radical critics of “neo-liberal” capitalism are entirely reactionary. David Harvey’s attack on “feral capitalism”is essentially a plea for more restraint in the market economy. A similar plea is implicit in Naomi Klein’s writing although she goes further in suggesting there was some the riots were a response to an unrestrained capitalism.

Both Harvey and Klein sound radical but fit into the tradition of what could be called romantic anti-capitalism. The favour an idealised version of the market economy in which growth is restricted and restraint is widely accepted. Essentially there argument is that “we” (the mass of the population ) are already making sacrifices ourselves so “you” (the elite) should too. Such an outlook betrays their unwillingness, indeed their lack of the desire, to oppose austerity in principle.

It is notable in this respect that both authors are also “green” in the sense of arguing that it is necessary to respect natural limits. In other words, they are in effect demanding that the public be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of nature.

If the rich want to pay more taxes that is up to them. But as the authors of thecurrentmoment blog have recently pointed out  the mass of the population started making sacrifices as far back as the late 1960s. Since then the incomes of American workers have risen much more slowly than productivity. The situation in Europe is perhaps not as extreme, that needs to be examined, but wage rises have been curbed for a long time in many countries.

The call for shared sacrifice is a trap that should be resisted. It is essentially a ploy to make the mass of the public accept the need to rein in their aspirations.