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The star of the British media at the moment seems to be Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, speaking on behalf of the strikers. His put-downs of silly questions from journalists are worth enjoying.
It isn’t just the one union. Lots more people are talking of striking. Are we in for a summer of strikes? Should we be? What will come out of them? This post offers a long-term historical perspective, drawing on my interest in Christian ethics.
The media invite us to buy into the ‘divide and rule’ narrative. Reports concentrate on ordinary people who can’t get around, as though the rail workers were set against everybody else. In fact many of the people inconvenienced by the strike have also seen their pay and conditions deteriorate over the years and are also talking about strike action.
The Guardian columnist John Harris talks about ‘change moments’ and whether Britain is heading for major changes in government thinking, like in 1945 or 1979. Are we now heading for another?
Those dates are significant. Between them governments aimed, at least in theory, to make sure everybody had somewhere to live, access to health care and enough food for a healthy diet.
Since then the agenda has changed. Many ordinary people have had their incomes cut, irrespective of their needs. Reductions in holiday pay, sick pay and health and safety conditions have become common. Public services have kept being cut, especially since 2010. We have grown so used to these deteriorations that we have forgotten it doesn’t have to be like this. And all the while the rich have got richer.
So are we hoping for substantial change? Are we hoping to go back to 2019, before Johnson became Prime Minister? Or to 2010, before the Austerity regime? Or to 1979, before the growing inequality became government policy? Or maybe we hate the thought of going back to any past situation, and prefer to think in terms of something completely new?
Personally I don’t. Anything new created today is bound to reflect the values of today’s most powerful people, so it would be bad news. My preference is to go back at least 300 years, preferably longer.
Before then, what people ought to do with their money was much discussed in a tradition that stretched from the beginning of the Bible to the end of the seventeenth century. That tradition saw wealth as a gift from God, designed to provide for everyone. By the end of the seventeenth century it had been much watered down. Long forgotten were the broadsides of fourth century bishops telling rich congregations that their wealth had been stolen from the poor and should be returned. But there still remained a belief that the wealth had been given by God for everyone; so, for example, one should not walk past a beggar without giving.
The capitalist era
Tragically, the European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led intellectuals to argue that beliefs about God should be excluded from all questions of government. They sliced their culture in half, inventing a divide between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’. From then on governments were relieved of any moral authority competent to pass judgement on whatever they chose to do. This created a moral vacuum. It was a golden opportunity for the most powerful people to create a new economic theory. Hardly surprisingly, they created a theory telling them to do exactly what they wanted to do anyway.
The leading eighteenth century economists turned the pursuit of wealth for its own sake into a moral virtue. According to their theories, if rich people spent their time trying to make themselves richer still the whole nation would benefit.
For the last 300 years we have been governed by people who believed this. There have been exceptions, the biggest one being that period between 1945 and 1979. Otherwise government policies have been driven by the belief that rich people ought to make themselves richer without worrying about the effects on others. Rich people are even sometimes granted official honours for ‘contributions to the economy’.
Economic policies are therefore designed so that, whatever else happens, the rich get richer. Nobody says it as bluntly as this, of course. They talk about ‘managing the economy’. But making the rich richer is the one thing governments have consistently achieved since 1979. It has become the supreme moral imperative – what the nation ought to be aiming for.
Hence the absurdities we have learned to live with. Just to take one example, government ministers are discussing how to address the cost of living crisis. They all know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his wife have quite enough money in their personal accounts to solve it on their own. They could just give their money to the poor. It would be enough. But to point this out would break the taboo. It would draw attention to the nonsense that ‘managing the economy’ is. To point out the obvious is what the Government doesn’t want anybody to do.
If a new era is to start, what will it be like? Will we return to the state welfarism of the 1940s? Or is there something better?
I am no fortune-teller, and I don’t know what will happen. But the rise in the numbers willing to go on strike is an indication that we are at last heading towards the limits of the rich taking from the poor with impunity.
If we are now to witness another major change, it needs to do better than minor adaptations to the capitalism we have inherited. That older tradition, with its roots in the Bible, claimed that the world’s wealth has been given, in order to provide for everyone. So whenever somebody goes without, there is injustice. The injustice is caused by those who keep for themselves more than they need.
Instead of praising the rich for their money we could do once again what the early Christians did: tell them to give back what has been stolen from the poor.