This is the last in a series of posts about the Inner Thatcher that hides in the dark depths of our souls. After decades of propaganda for a dog-eat-dog world the fight against the ideology of the day is not just a fight against our rulers but a fight in our own heads, like one of those scenes in a film where an actor (Johnny Depp let’s say) has an internal struggle with himself, illustrated by a montage displaying his internal conflict while he stands there looking pretty.
The idea that we should all contribute to society in order to get the benefits society offers didn’t originate with Thatcher or her acolytes of course. It’s a much older idea than that, but the era of Thatcher and Blair created an intensification of the idea that we must all contribute to society by working and paying tax. On the surface it can seem common sense, but first allow me to wonder why it appeals so much to low-tax, small-government obsessives. Well, the richer you are, the more you can contribute, but the less you need society’s help in return. So it creates a wonderful logic in which those who deserve society’s assistance don’t need it, and those who need society’s assistance don’t deserve it. In case it is not already clear to you, the purpose of this feat of logic is to lower taxes on the rich.
However my first gut reaction to this manifestation of the Inner Thatcher is not to do with justice and wealth distribution. Instead I find myself thinking: you’re talking as though we’re on the edge of starvation as a society. As though we’re some hunter-gatherer society where everyone will suffer if one or two people do nothing. The reality is the opposite: we have available to us absurd excesses of wealth that we piss up the wall on Olympic stadiums and other vanity projects. So why this pressure to force everyone to work? What is all our technology for if it doesn’t allow some of us to put our feet up sometimes? I think the answer to that is another side-effect of the contribute-or-suffer argument: pushing everyone to be available to work increases the supply of labour and thus lowers wages. This idea is a real beauty for those at the top raking in the profits isn’t it? Time to get our war hammers out and root the bastard out of our heads.
But come on now, I hear the Inner Thatcher cry, the motives of our rulers may be rotten, but surely they are right: surely it is only just that everyone contribute to society to the extent they are able? Well…perhaps. But the politicians’ arguments only hold true if we allow that sneaky Inner Thatcher to pull a trick on us. The trick is to deliberately confuse money and value – I use the word value in a broad sense here, not in the way it is sometimes used in economics. Many things have value to us, as people and as a society. Some of them have a monetary value, like washing machines, some of them have apparently arbitrary monetary value, like art, and some of them we choose not to put a monetary value on at all: a mother’s love for example.
We can go further than this and say that the monetary reward for labour is not in proportion to the usefulness of the labour. The bike you ride, assembled in China, probably strikes you as more useful than, say, high street phone shops that never have the best deals (try the internet people!). So it is clear the high street phone salesman does something a lot less useful than the chinese worker who built your bike, but you know who gets paid more.
And then there’s people working in finance. From time to time they move resources to where they are needed but the majority of what they do is parasitic upon that. They are the highest paid people in society and tend to go to great lengths to avoid paying tax. When you think about it, there appears to be very little link at all between wages and what we really need or value. The link is more generally between wages and power, but that’s another subject really. It’s true that richer people pay more taxes of course, but if that’s a tax on parasitism then we can’t just go congratulating them on contributing so much.
So what does our Inner Thatcher mean when she talks about people contributing to society? Does she take into account the value of a single mother who devotes herself to her children? Does she take into account the pleasure we can give each other through art, through conversation, through simply being there for each other? No? Does she take into account the people creating beautiful front gardens in their free time, or campaigning to improve the lives of other people? Then it’s probably time to get dirty. A firework under the hooves of her charger perhaps. A poisoned dart aimed through the slit in the helmet. If she’s not fighting clean then why should we?
But the Inner Thatcher is not yet defeated: she has more arguments in favour of making us all work until we’re wrung out. Work brings self-respect apparently. And it’s true that achievement can help build self-respect, but only some jobs achieve things, and much achievement happens outside of work. Many jobs give no sense of achievement at all and – in my experience at least – these jobs undermine the very meaning of your life, let alone your self-respect. I also can’t help thinking that you will only gain self-respect in work in which you are respected by your employers and colleagues. So this argument only works if the jobs unemployed people are being pushed into are meaningful jobs in which they will be respected. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Kill your Inner Thatcher now.
But the Inner Thatcher has another defence and David Cameron is the man to sell it to us all: ‘Why should the assistance of society mean the assistance of the state?’ Says she, and he. It is a very good question. It also has a good answer. The state is the body that frames the legal entities (companies and corporations) that both produce things in our society and concentrate the profit from them among very few people. The state is therefore, until the end of those legal structures, the only body with the power to correct the wealth distortions they create. Very probably the spending mechanisms should not be centrally controlled, but within the current economic system, so beloved by Thatcher and perhaps by your Inner Thatcher too, we have no choice but for taxes to be centrally collected. You could almost say it’s a logical product of corporate power: only the creator of the corporations has the ability to ensure that a wider benefit can come from their activities.
There is one last weapon in the toolbox of your Inner Thatcher. What about those people who are genuinely just lazy spongers? What should we do about them? Well I don’t know, but I don’t think they’re a big problem to society. Really. I think they’re a big problem to their friends and relatives. To society? They’re pretty insignificant I think. They’re certainly not worth producing an entire linguistic and political apparatus in order to fight. It’s like swatting a fly with an RPG. That apparatus is there for other reasons, already mentioned.
That apparatus is also there because redistribution is a dirty word to the people in power now. Everyone gets what they deserve, according to them, and the state shouldn’t interfere in that. Everyone gets what they deserve? That’s the thinking of a child. Or a greedy, lying political operator. If you find one of the latter in your own head, be sure to challenge her to a joust, and remember not to fight fair.