Britain in 2016 is a country of extremes — extreme cruelty and extreme greed. It is a society that Charles Dickens would have no problem recognising, nor Queen Victoria, nor the American novelist Jack London, whose classic work on the poverty and despair he found in East London at the beginning of the 20th century, The People of the Abyss, surely now demands an updated edition.
There is nothing virtuous about being obscenely rich. Indeed the ability of a few individuals to accrue more wealth, money and assets than a Crassus is a symptom of a sick society, with the individuals concerned in desperate need of psychological, emotional, and moral healing more than they are a knighthood, honours, or the responsibility that comes with employing thousands of human beings.
Mike Ashley and Philip Green are not to blame for the callous greed and lack of empathy they exude in their business deallings and utter disdain for the people whom they employ or have employed. They merely confirm the truth of Albert Camus’ observation that, “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” But the ability of such “wild beasts” to rampage around the economy treating thousands of British citizens and workers as economic units available to be exploited, humiliated, and crushed is the responsibility of successive governments and a political class and media that worships at the altar of a free market which is anything but free; its cost measured in the lives destroyed as it rolls over the weak and the vulnerable like an out of control juggernaut.
One of the great lies of the age is that with more wealth for the few comes more wealth for the many — in other words, that wealth trickles down. In truth it does no such thing. In truth businesses and businessmen and women create neither wealth nor jobs. Both are created by consumers — i.e. the extent to which people are buying goods and services is the extent to which the demand for said goods and services creates new or expands existing businesses, which in turn employ people, who in turn use the wages and salaries they earn to pay tax and buy more goods and services, thus creating a virtuous cycle of wealth and economic growth.
But in a low wage economy such as ours millions of people in work do not even earn enough to afford basic necessities and therefore the demand upon which said economy and economic growth depends is weakened rather than strenghtened. Meanwhile the obscene salaries, dividends, and wealth that those millions of low waged workers support at the top end — the kind enjoyed by Mike Ashley and Philip Green — registers no benefit to the wider economy, given that such individuals already enjoy more goods and services than they could ever use and waste their inordinate excess wealth on luxury items such as yachts and homes in the South of France, while securing the services of the best accountants that money can buy in order to avoid paying their full whack in tax.
So more than moral harm rampant individual greed renders society economic harm.
Even more stark when it comes to irrefutable evidence of the moral sickness that is killing British society in 2016 is a welfare system that has been turned from a symbol of compassion and social solidarity into a weapon of conscious cruelty, whose purpose is not to help the victims of economic circumstances outwith their control but instead punish and flagellate them for daring to be victims.
The story of a couple forced to resort to breaking-in to a Tesco storage facility containing out of date food destined for the bin, after they were left with £8 a week to live on due to benefit sanctions, should make every right thinking person seethe with anger. It is anger that should be unbounded given that far from a one-off this is a story repeated thousands of times over the years of Tory austerity — austerity which has and continues to be tantamount to a mass experiment in human despair.
But here’s the thing about systemic cruelty. It requires the consent and active participation of the rest of society in order for it to work. Whether it’s the worker in the Jobcentre or DWP who makes the decision to have a particular claimant’s benefits suspended or sanctioned, thus hurling them into the arms of foodbanks and destitution, or whether it is one of the charities, businesses or local councils which signed up to and utilised the previous government’s scheme to force benefit claimants to work for free as a condition of their benefit, there is more than enough blame and guilt to go round.
Taken together who could seriously argue that it is not Putin, Russia or even ISIS that constitutes the greatest threat facing the British people, but the culture of greed, cruelty, venality and mendacity that makes a mockery out of the oft-repeated boast that ours is a civilised society?
You can have greed or you can have justice. What you can’t have is both.