A match made in heaven – Common Weal and the Rich

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There is no hiding the fact: we live in a period when moral sense is totally expunged from the minds of the people in the big cities… The worker cannot see why he should lack everything when the rich man goes short of nothing. He revolts against the unjust distribution of wealth which, in his eyes, has ceased to be compensated for in any way. He blames our social system and sees some sort of justice in overthrowing it. He wants, in his turn, to enjoy all the good things of life. This becomes a consuming and intoxicating passion. It is no longer a question of victory over some verbal quibble, or over the form of government. What is at the root of these impious endeavours is the total reshaping of society. From political riots we have passed to social war.

To so grave a malady there would be but one remedy – a return to moral and religious beliefs.

La Liberte, 3 July 1848

Robin McAlpine, in his recent book “Common Weal: All of us first”, is keen to curb the passions of the people. He says that we are often told to blame the poor or immigrants for the wrongs in our society, and claims that instead we should not blame anyone. Blame is an unconstructive action, since really there is nobody standing in the way of a better society – not rich powerful men, not multinational corporations, not violent people. In fact, the main thing standing in the way of our better society is ourselves: “Until now the biggest barrier has been confidence – we have been trained to believe that no alternative is possible, that achieving a decent society is just too damn complicated, so best not to try.” So take the red pill.

We are kept in our state of inertia because some people have the ability to make us believe that change isn’t possible, but in fact these people are easy to overcome, all we need is democracy. For McAlpine, as for Pat Kane, change can be brought about by good citizens with grand ideals, who can construct their utopia with only the power of a democratic mandate. Indeed, democracy is the only counterbalance to vested interests and commercial power (no work-ins for us).

All we need to do to construct a new world order is take a good hard look at ourselves, and question our morality. Our society is built on a “Me-first” agenda – selfishness – while we should aspire to an “All-of-us-first” society, which, in a utilitarian way, would benefit everyone. Me-first is the politics of conflict, All-of-us-first is the politics of consensus. Me-First believes falsely that we have different interests, while All-of-us-first sees the light: more things bring us together than divide us, common needs tie us together in common interests, and the interests of companies and workers are often broadly shared.

So far, so Christian socialist.

Quite a large section of the book is given over to an excitable defence of universalism, which is, apparently, the “fundamental principle that binds Scotland together”. Wow.

“Whenever we create public policy based on putting people on different sides, it is always the side with less power that loses out – the poor or the disabled or women or ethnic minorities. If we create public services which are only for the poor and exclude everyone else, other people don’t have a vested interest in making sure they are great services. And great services is what people who face poverty really need. Targeting, means testing or any other system which makes the poor stand apart from everyone else will fail them.”

As the above section insists, it is we who are creating divisions in society, not ownership of the means of production, not patriarchal systems of oppression. We shouldn’t be targeting resources in order to empower the oppressed – poor people, women, disabled people – but instead we should just give the same resources to everyone – that way everyone is equal, and no middle class people get angry. This, for McAlpine, is the main reason for universalism. If you give £100 to the poor, he says, then people will demand that this stops. If you give £100 to everybody then nobody complains. The Roch Wind answer to this is to increase the power of the poor so that the protests of the rich mean nothing. McAlpine’s answer is to give the rich free things.

The problem is, although apparently the principle of universalism should apply to education, health, policing, justice, infrastructure, childcare, and social security income, McAlpine doesn’t seem to have thought much beyond free prescriptions, bus travel for the elderly, and university tuition fees.

‘Fairness comes not from denying universal services to some people to ‘punish’ them for being better off but from paying for universal services through progressive tax that asks the better off to foot a larger proportion of the bill.’

This is his solution to the criticism that universalism benefits the middle class. He will admit that there are still high levels of inequality in access to university education despite universalist payment of tuition fees. McAlpine says that since a system of more progressive taxation would make the middle classes pay much more for services than the poor pay, it would become fairer. But this is not the case: middle-class people who could potentially afford to pay tuition fees would continue to attend university for free, while poorer people will still be excluded because of inequality and deprivation on many levels, not necessarily simple monetary ones. The central flaw in his argument is the idea that since universal services are paid for with progressive taxation, they are fair.

McAlpine’s obsession with consensus and commonality leads him to describe the boundaries between different groups as simple monetary ones rather than complex power-related ones. This is wrong. For instance, women experience oppression through having power taken away from them on many levels. One of these is low wages, but there are many others – discrimination in education and in the workplace, violence in many forms, the expectation of childcare. Oppressed groups need their own resources, because the equation isn’t as simple as  progressive taxation + universal services = redistributive utopia.

McAlpine does talk about power, but when he does, he wilfully misinterprets its form. He discusses the influence of those who give evidence to committees and play a behind-the-scenes role in government, pointing out that they are often wealthy with no clear mandate or expertise. He says ‘Patronage is a medieval process in which powerful people divide up power between themselves. It is not democracy’. But of course, this is not patronage – it is managerialism. It is running government like a business where a few consultancy experts with no specific knowledge are considered to be able to improve things. McAlpine is right in saying that a change in civic expectations and process can change this, but he pits ‘democracy’ against ‘patronage’ (nationalists’ favourite way of describing Westminster as well) rather than recognising that the problems with a modern state arise not only from conservatism but from the increasing power of business.

McAlpine might say that it doesn’t matter what democracy is fighting, since democracy is a glorious thing, able to overcome any obstacle. He proposes forms of local governance, which are all the rage nowadays. His most radical democratic proposal is participatory budgeting. A community would get to decide whether they would like to build a swimming pool, or more social housing, for instance. How could this possibly go wrong? In McAlpine’s jolly world, the rich would recognise their longer-term interests, and agree with the poor to build more social housing, if it was needed, because in the long run they would end up living in a better society if more people had decent housing. This just seems bizarre. We await with great anticipation McAlpine’s paradigm shift when rich people will let the homeless move into their houses, stop sending their children to private schools and donate to the trade union movement. We’ll keep an eye on George Soros, maybe he’ll make us change our minds.

Amy Westwell

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