Today that wealth is piling up into ever-increasing aggregation; is being scrutinized as never before, by those who enquire with increasing insistence, where is the justice of these monstrous inequalities of fortune?”
AH YES, THE crucial problems of our “late” capitalist society, the unjustified wealthiness of the wealthy, their arrogant tax-dodging companies, their blatant disregard for fairness and equality, their selfish disdain for all those nurses, teachers and diversity co-ordinators that their uncollected taxes could be paying for, etc, etc. It sounds just like the fatuous denunciations delivered by coffee-shop boycotters and well-heeled metropolitan politicos writing their righteous articles in the Guardian or acting tough in the tv studios while threatening legal action if their own corporate affairs are questioned.
The quote comes from a book called The Condition of England by Charles Masterman, MP for West Ham North. Not that you’ll be able to find him in the House of Commons or anywhere else, since he wrote those words in 1909 and died in 1927. So much has changed and yet so little. The socially-concerned classes of the Edwardian period were clearly as preoccupied with wealth and inequality as they are today; or rather, they were as obsessed with finding ways to part the wealthy from their cash to fatten the state as they are now.
It’s all down to competitive resentment. The meddlers may be well-off compared with the rest of us but there’s always someone else with more brass than them, and they don’t like it. The meddlers can’t admit, however, that they want to plunder the wealth of the rich out of envy, so they pretend it’s because they care about equality and the fate of the needy. In true progressive fashion, of course, their own individual wealth and corporate tax-dodging are not to be questioned. The most strident defenders of the unpropertied working classes are usually those who are most tight-lipped about their second homes.
NO PARTY, NO newspaper or broadcaster can go wrong if they draw from the seemingly bottomless, fetid waters of resentment in the well of British public life. Here be bile and envy that can never be sweetened with the truth. When it comes to tax, the media have successfully elided avoidance into evasion, thus converting something completely legal into something criminal in the public mind. Companies such as Starbucks, Google and Amazon are now criticised for acting within the law and doing what is eminently sensible, ie, limiting their liability to tax.
The zombies of such pressure groups as UK Uncut drink deep of this well. There’s no point trying to acquaint them with the truth. They’re beyond that; they’re believers and belief, not facts, not common sense, is paramount. The nebulous concept of “fairness” becomes a form of soft tyranny to suffocate intelligence. It’s the attitude of a simpleton: “They’ve got lots of money; we should have more of it”.
Masterman would have understood the mendacity of the current press and the sheep-like behaviour of some of the populace, though I think he’d be appalled at the violent idiocy of the protestors. What he obviously found difficult to cope with is the idea that some people, either by luck or hard work or both, end up with greater fortunes than the rest. That’s just the way of things and it’s not fair. Grown-up minds get used to it; the permanently adolescent minds of the meddling classes can’t: hence their obsession with destroying other peoples’ wealth and success.
As it turned out for Masterman and his contemporaries, the morality play of unequal wealth was soon to be driven off the stage by the First World War. Let’s hope we don’t have a similar fate in store.