ONE of the few truly funny things to emerge from the banking crisis was the rediscovery of Karl Marx.
As the best of all capitalist worlds wobbled on its axis, baffled economists, dismayed hacks and terrified politicians began to whisper that perhaps, just perhaps, the old bearded bogeyman had been right after all. Who'd have thought?
What they meant, through gritted teeth, was that they had stopped mistaking a set of philosophical ideas for thuggish regimes and a wall in Berlin. What they intended was a limited concession to perhaps the least complicated Marxian assertion of them all, the one that says capitalism is "inherently unstable". Like a spinning top, it is bound to fall over, time and again. There is, as the 21st century might say, a design flaw.
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Predictably, this insight led to no conclusions. Few among the baffled, dismayed and terrified got around to realising that Marx's insight had never been a secret. The ghostly laughter had echoed when Thatcher was promising a property-owning democracy, when Gordon Brown was declaring "an end to boom and bust". Spectral chortling had accompanied the birth of credit-default swaps and the seven-times-salary mortgage. Capitalism has a crisis, large or small, at least once a generation: some secret.
Yet when they awoke mid-nightmare to this old truth, the "serious policy-makers" went no further. They dared not. So they neglected to ask if there had been more to Marx than a one-liner. They didn't want to know about the connections, about inequality, exploitation, the control of production and labour by the few and not the many. Even when rigor mortis began to enter the international financial system, they didn't want to hear about class.
This was a pity. The claim that capitalism is about as stable as a house of cards in a light breeze makes no sense unless you deal with class, what it signifies and describes. Why did we have an "unsustainable credit boom"? Because real wages had been held down and tick introduced as a substitute. How did employers and governments manage to suppress earnings? Because their class, and the class they represent, has ownership of capital and production, and because it controls labour.
That's the simple, not to say simplistic, version. It helps to explain why people could "afford" the seven-times-salary mortgage, but couldn't afford just to buy a house. The old Marxian wage slaves became interest-payment slaves. For those who owned the capital, loan sharking was vastly more profitable than salary bondage.
Too easy, in fact. When things began to fall apart it turned out that the "credit-addicted" employed class had been struggling along well enough with their mortgages and credit cards. Defaulting had not become a national hobby. The banks were less prudent.
So how do you persuade those who had already been paying up to pay up again? One way or another, the banking crisis has put a trillion-pound hole in Britain's accounts. The class who put themselves in charge of capital, labour and ordinary lives almost brought down their own system by refusing to be content with giant salaries and mere compound interest. So how to get the suckers – you may prefer citizens – to pick up the bill?
First, tell them it was their fault. You got a kitchen on credit or voted to have a hospital built? You brought down Lehman Brothers. Then tell them there is no alternative to a bracing round of austerity, unemployment, wage and spending cuts. We – you must not forget to say – are all in this together. Tell them it would be wrong and foolish to tax wealth, but vital to sort out welfare scroungers. Say this: "It's your money those work-shy con artists are taking. Let us get it back for you. In the national interest, of course."
Above all, deprecate any mention of class. Deprecate it mightily. Deprecate it until you are a fetching blue in the face. Tell them class describes nothing important. Tell them it's a mean-spirited distraction for an aspiration nation full of strivers. The squeezed middle hauling on its bootstraps is no different, you must say, from those who "happen" to possess unearned wealth.
What sort of person isn't a striver? Either a sponger or an envious type who doesn't want – you can forget logic at this point – privilege for all. That type wants only class war.
MARX had a lot to say about class conflict. While he neglected to recommend specific weapons and tactics – baseball bats, garden implements, mockery? – he did hold it to be inevitable.
He also said, somewhat famously, that the "history of all hitherto existing society" was the history of struggles between classes. For a Coalition Government stuffed with rentier toff millionaires, this is inconvenient. It must be why David Cameron never asks me to help with his speeches.
Addressing his troops in Birmingham, the Prime Minister went to great lengths to describe a country in which class is of no account and aspiration – but not just any sort of aspiration – is everything. His first aim was to shut up all those folk, some even on his own side, who believe that he's just a posh boy lacking a single clue about how life is lived by those he tries to govern.
Without actually lying (much), Cameron was trying to conceal his class origins by dismissing the very idea of class.
George Osborne, the Chancellor, had tried an equivalent manoeuvre with his scheme for workers to surrender employment rights in exchange for a few company shares. He failed to explain why such an exercise in participatory capitalism is never attempted in City boardrooms. He thought he was satirising utopian notions of workers' control. But the stunt was based on a far dafter idea: we can all be capitalists.
We can't, of course, and Osborne's friends wouldn't care for it if we could. There's a word for a system in which the fruits of industry by hand or by brain are truly held in common. It is not to the Chancellor's taste. Even Labour, supposedly waging class war, rid itself of that idea years ago, leaving nothing worth the name in its place. Osborne just wants us to believe that we and he could live in the same world, occupying the same economic space, with the same rights and powers. If we give up a few rights, that is.
The Tories get away with these fictions because they know all about class war. They think they know how to win it, too. They understand the uses of the poor and helpless as scapegoats, ideal for keeping the lower orders at each other's throats. They deploy fear as a weapon and foster docility with vain hopes for those who yet "aspire".
Cameron doesn't deplore class. He defends his own with every fibre of his devious being. His sort caused the great crash and it is his job, above any other task, to ensure that no-one rebels against the price now being exacted. He only rails against class, even when his target is a straw man like Ed Miliband, to prevent us from seeing him for what he is.
But he's the man who leads the party whose chief whip – spontaneously, sincerely, instinctively – believes that there are two kinds of people in the world, his own and the plebs. Personally, I'm leaning towards baseball bats.