Early yesterday I had a conversation at the bus stop with a chap who recounted a radio phone-in he’d heard on the latest tax avoidance scandal (HSBC then, not Fink). The phone-in topic, he said, had been whether tax avoidance was ok. He said the majority of callers had said that they would always seek to pay the absolute least tax they could – and so yes, it was.
So far so ostensibly reasonable. But what the chap also said was that the majority had been coming from a ‘I’ve paid enough taxes in my life, what do I ever get in return anyway, to hell with them they only spend it on fat cat mandarins and scroungers anyway’ position. As he put it to me, those voices had dominated the phone in.
I am interested in the idea of “why should I pay for x when I don’t get x” (quietly implying, or sometimes explicitly stating, that I don’t but THEY do, but I digress).
Discounting the obvious biases in such phone-ins, this idea chimes with something that I believe is characteristic of our time, and I mean this as an observation rather than a dig: for good or ill it’s about “me”, and certainly me first.
I come at this belief from the assumption that this is a logical and inevitable position. At every turn, we act and are reasonably expected to act in our own self interest. Biological or survival imperatives. Capitalism, consumer culture, advertising, luxury. Education, learning, training. Democracy, voting. Work, careers, earnings. Leisure pursuits, hobbies, fun. And so on. Sure, there’s a bit of charity here and generalised altruistic tendencies there, but the gist is self interest.
Manifesting, in these narrow and limited terms, as: what do I get for the tax I am paying? What is the direct benefit to me? And do I have a direct choice? Am I in direct control?
What I suspect is that the basis of our relationship with social taxation and governance today may in large part be these questions, and the failure in my view of the Left to grasp the implications of this may be significant.
There’s an exercise that PR and communications theorists use to illustrate a powerful rule of thumb when it comes to influencing a person. It’s concentric rings expanding something like this:
People I know
People like me
For example, what does a murder mean to me as it occurs in each of those rings. If it happens to me, I’m dead. If it happens to someone in my family it will be a huge deal for me and I’ll want to know everything about what happened. If it happens in my street or hometown, I’ll be very curious to find out what happened, where, and if I have a personal connection to the events. If it happens in my country I’ll probably look at it in the news and I might think about it in broader terms. If it happens abroad I’ll probably not hear about it at all, and hardly give it a second thought as it doesn’t realistically affect me.
What this PR exercise helps to illustrate is that as you move away from ‘me’ you tend to remove by degrees the relevance, significance, and immediacy of an issue to a person. The importance of a thing to me is proportional to the closeness of its relationship to me.
Regarding taxation and governance, my own experiences tell me that our modern communications have been pulling at that particular “me” thread quite deliberately for some time now, and we have teased it out far enough that we expertly weave a communications fabric almost entirely out of that thread. This is my view because of my own narrow experiences, which include learning the above example, amongst many others, from academic syllabuses sat in rooms full of other communicators in institutions purpose built to weave such fabrics, and then spending years at the loom, as it were, in the communications and marketing sectors. And just living in this consumer culture! What I see as evident industrialisation of the ‘me’ principle underpins why I think putting ‘me’ at the centre is characteristic of our time. I would even say it is our paradigm in such matters.
This postulated paradigm, if true, would pose questions – including existential ones – not just for the flavour and effectiveness of social institutions like the NHS or social security, but for the political Left in general, of which those institutions are a product.
My surface reading of this apparent me paradigm appears to suggest that it is the Right that is a natural political fit for what seems like a self centred capitalist framework; and recently the balance of power certainly finds commercial and financial, not democratic, institutions holding the cards; while social institutions are dismantled by a coalition of the Conservative and (allegedly) Liberal parties (cf. local authority, legal aid, social security, NHS, etc. etc.), post-Thatcher. Perhaps significantly, recent very powerful (New) Labour governments did little to challenge, contributed to, and even conceived parts of that dismantling process.
However I suspect the challenge for Left thinkers within this paradigm is not that they oppose a superficially more naturally-fitting political Right, but that their philosophy struggles to find the appropriate context to be relevant to ‘me’ at the centre of those concentric rings.
The Left has not become increasingly irrelevant because it has no role within this me paradigm, which on the surface appears to be territory that is owned and occupied by the Right. Furthermore I suspect that to believe that it has is a trap that the Left must avoid.
The basic fundamental nature of people and how people live together in numbers has not suddenly changed. It does not truly change at all, or at least at so slow an evolutionary pace as to be unnoticeable. Rather, what people need and want relating to a given set of changing circumstances – economic, social, environmental – and how those needs and wants may be accomplished together is what changes and is what has changed.
No, if the Left has become increasingly irrelevant it is due to a simple failure to recontextualise its role, aims and relationship with people and what people want and need within this ‘me’ paradigm and in our current circumstances.
We built institutions like the NHS and social security together because there was a social need (postwar period etc), and the Left was then where it should have been: proposing social solutions together to deeply personal problems, like being able to afford to see a doctor or not starving because your employer paid you bugger all or you got sacked from your job or there just weren’t any jobs at the time.
In this reading the reason Labour, for instance, can appear so infuriatingly irrelevant today is because neither they nor anyone else has yet grasped how to articulate a Leftist approach to the ‘me’ paradigm in our rich capitalist society where – and let’s not kid ourselves here – personal accountability is presented as a constant, dogmatic, half-magical panacea for all personal problems. This is the Right’s core strength, and the Left’s core weakness, in the me paradigm.
With the recent return of absolute poverty to this country, and significant increases in relative poverty as the economy declines further, and as we move further away from the failures of the flawed ‘socialism’ of the twentieth century, all this will yet be tested.
So the Left does not (yet) speak to ‘me’. It may speak about Leftist social concepts that I personally may or may not support, without speaking to ‘me’ or even people like me. That I happen to like, hear, and make decisions with a degree of social analysis because I value the outer concentric rings is a localised fluke, and appealing to people like this won’t get anyone into office during the me paradigm.
In truth impersonal, outer-ring, non-me issues have little traction in the current paradigm, unless the thread connecting us all obviously exists and can be clearly demonstrated. An example that proves this rule (as in tests the rule!) may be environmentalism. The Green party has made PR gains because our environment is one of the few social policy areas in which the thread running from each of us through the concentric rings – the personal relevance despite several steps of removal – tends to be more perceived and more accepted than, say, the merits of socialised wealth redistribution. However this is probably due to whole generations of kids (I was one) having environmental messages hammered into them daily in a highly focused school curriculum – a resource commitment you can be damn sure won’t be granted to teaching kids why we need social housing.
Until the Left can grasp what it is *for* today in this me paradigm, what people want and need together, then it will continue to wither and weaken, more tax will be avoided with the support of the majority of radio phone in callers, and the gap between rich and poor will stretch until it breaks and snaps back, probably violently in eventual revolution as it has usually tended to do.