Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Socio-Economics of Del Boy: Myth & Reality in the Court of the Cleggeron

The last three years since the banking crisis began in earnest have seen a transformation of popular views about wealth and its deeply inequal distribution in Britain and globally. For the first time in two decades, many more people have challenged the huge payments made to senior executives across a wide range of industries, including the private sector.

This has been against a background where, while bosses and owners have frequently called for pay restraint from their frequently non-unionised workforces, they have carried on paying out huge increases to themselves - even in recessionary 2010/11,  Chief Executive pay in the FTSE100 top companies rose by 43%, with other senior executives doing even better on 49%. At the same time, average pay for everyone else fell by over £2,600 p.a.  And this is part of a long established pattern - in 2010, before much of this last year's huge hike, the ratio of top to lowest paid in the top 100 FTSE companies was an utterly obscene 232:1. 

It is no surprise that, as recession bites and ordinary people find their living standards squeezed and services cut, we see both rising political protest and the crime wave of the summer riots. As Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrated so powerfully, highly unequal societies are more personally unhappy, physically and psychologically unhealthy, socially disrupted and prone to higher levels of crime than societies - even poorer ones like Cuba - where the disparity in wealth is much lower.

And so today Nick Clegg, hapless Deputy PM, has announced with great flourish his anger at the wealthiest being rewarded so highly and that he has decided that it is time to do something about it! Unfortunately, he has been typically vague as the different components of our dysfunctional Coalition Government try to respond to the wave of public discontent. Neither Government party is in any way instinctively egalitarian and both are unashamedly pro-capitalist. So we needn't hold our breaths in the hope of any concrete action.

From what we can see, the proposals are likely to amount to little more than requiring the publication of the ratio of the top paid person in a company with the pay, not of the lowest, but of either the average or, conceivably even worse, the median paid worker. This of course massively reduces the ratio, ignoring the lack of value placed on the lowest paid and often hardest working (and most stressed) workers in our society. Otherwise limited to requiring more information for shareholders (when most shares are held by other large businesses anyway) and some pious hope of capitalism caking itself in enough greasepaint to present a half-acceptable face to the public, this proposal is just a load of window-dressing from a Government too scared to challenge its own paymasters (that's if it actually wanted to!).

But why on Earth, at a time when the capitalist system is on the ropes with the Last Chance Saloon clearly in sight, are we not tackling the rapaciousness of the rich, the very people who in so many ways are ruining our world? Why, in a reality of inevitably limited resources, are we not setting maximum pay as well as minimum pay? We cannot tackle the poverty of the poorest without also tackling the wealth of the richest. Full stop.

Capitalism is vicious and deceitful, but it is also very clever - it sells the myth that it rewards effort when in fact it mainly assists those who already have wealth to engorge themselves ever more: it holds out the naive lie that anyone can share in the fest if only they work harder just that bit longer, etc. It is the socio-economics of Del Boy; this time next year, we'll all be millionaires. And the real tragedy, like the brilliant pathos of the comedy of Only Fools, is that so many still buy into the myth.

And that must be Mr Clegg's hope - that his tilting at windmills might yet fantastically transmogrify into a belief that he has miraculously slain the dragon of excess without even lifting his lance. That is the trouble with myth - it is at its most appealing when it tells its biggest lies to the most desperate of people in the most desperate of times. It bends and outlives reality, becoming exposed as fake often only when its premise has destroyed all around it and it finally stands naked and exposed as the lie it is. So the Government may cloak its inaction on inequality with fiery rhetoric about damnable greed, but in doing so it will allow the carnival of destructive excess to carry on yet longer, causing more and more irreparable damage to our social fabric and the well being of our country and planet.


  1. Wouldn’t it be helpful when someone does the right thing (there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents) to give them a little credit? "Clegg said the government agreed with many of the recommendations from the High Pay Commission, the body set up by the leftwing pressure group Compass which published a report last month. "They did really extremely good work," Clegg said."

  2. When he does something right, I will be the first to congratulate him. So far, he hasn't actually done anything.

  3. Give him a chance! I would argue giving the High Pay Commission praise is doing something positive – yes I want to see some legislation, but it’s a good start.