Friday, March 23, 2012

Billionaires and Battlers

Labor back bencher, Kelvin Thompson, has recently become embroiled in the latest round of Australia's supposed "class war" by daring to suggest that the $50 million taxpayer funding of Australia's F1 Grand Prix might better be better spent on hospitals than funding the lavish lifestyle of Bernie Eccelstone's daughter.

The response from Eccelstone was typical of the recent responses of billionaires to criticism - that democratically elected representatives should resign for daring to criticise those of the moneyed elite. Similar to Clive Palmer's dummy spit to Wayne Swan's article in The Monthly, Ecclestone became indignant and rather than address the criticism, engaged in ad hominem attacks as if somehow the mere fact that he was rich was a shield to any sort of criticism.

Palmer and Eccelstone have attacked their critics variously as "communists" and "destroying the wealth of this country and robbing our children of their opportunities". They have both forgotten that it is the stability of the democratic civil society that has enabled their wealth including, in Palmer's case, the ability to exploit publicly owned assets. Yet the billionaire's view is that they are entitled to their position, and their position is immune to criticism. Those that criticise them, regardless of the fact that they may be democratically elected, "should be fired".

These indignant reactions to criticism are typical of the 1% - they do not see themselves as participants in a society that goes deeper than mere tax-deductable expressions of philanthropy. They see themselves as entitled to a special place in the operation of that society, free from its responsibilities - an unfettered plutocracy, geared to exploit.

We have seen the results of when the 1% are unfettered, first in the 1980's when Reagan removed lending regulations on savings and loans banks that eventually resulted in a financial crisis, and secondly in the 2000's when Bush similarly removed restrictions on banks that resulted once again in financial crisis. In both instances, the 1% were happy to use the removal of regulation to exploit those that were most at risk in society to the detriment of all, particularly the wealth generating middle-class which is now being squeezed out of existence by a rampant 1%.

The disproportionate intrusion of the billionaires to undermine the civil society by the mere size of their wealth is an expression of a sense of arrogant entitlement from those who do not think that a £1 million Mexican crystal bathtub is a vulgar extravagance. A sense of entitlement that was built out of the policies of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980's.

Margaret Thatcher's declaration in the 1980's that "there is no such thing as society" became the rallying cry of neo-conservatives around the world. Neo-conservative governments began to remove the progressive regulation and taxation systems that had limited the excesses of the rich under the theory that the civil society was unnecessary and that the self-interest of individuals would be sufficient.

Ironically, these conservatives decried the entitlement culture and assumed that the emphasis on the individual would necessarily lead to a "trickle down" of wealth to those less fortunate.

Thatcher herself recognised the entitlement culture, stating: "People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation"

However, both Thatcher and Reagan saw those obligations (including the tax burden) as rightly falling upon the poor and middle classes and not similarly upon the rich. The view was that by the very fact that the rich were wealthy, they had fulfilled any obligation to society. This position unravelled the social contract and led to the excesses that caused the financial crises. Far from these crises causing a re-evaluation of this position, Thatcher, Reagan and later Bush continued with their policies further squeezing the middle classes. This has led to an entitlement culture growing amongst the rich - that regardless of the damage caused by their exploitation, government should be there to pick up the pieces at taxpayers expense.

In the past, this sort of sense of entitlement from the rich was met with derision from both the working and middle classes because it was seen for what it was - a desire to exploit society for reasons of self-interest. The institutions of the civil society placed proportionate obligations on everyone.

However, the structures of the civil society have been eroded by successive neo-conservative governments, which has created a society built on exploitation and an indignant sense of entitlement.

The removal of these institutions by conservative governments has led to  the "trickle down" of the exploitative sense of the entitlement to the middle class such that the billionaire's dilemma can be related to by those who are less well off. Accusations of "class warfare" resonate with the middle class, even though the warfare is actually being perpetuated upon them from above.

In Australia, this sense of entitlement has been generated through the explosion in middle class welfare under the Howard government. Just as the 1% believe that they are entitled to be unfettered by responsibilities to society, the middle class believe they are entitled to subsidy-fueled mortgages, private health rebates, subsidised private schools and the like, regardless of the exploitative effect on civil society. In fact, when governments have tried to make these "entitlements" progressive, it has been met with howls of "class warfare".

We have become too relaxed and comfortable, demanding our share of the trough rather than accepting our responsibility to engage with our obligations to society. We instead have fallen to the cheap popularism of slogan inspired "comfort".

This is why the accusation of class warfare has such resonance. In the same way that the billionaires see criticism of their extravagant unsustainable lifestyles as unfair, the middle classes see criticism of their entitlement to an unsustainable subsidy as equally unfair.

The exploitation of the unravelling of civil society is most pronounced by the 1%, who lobby for more changes that entrench their influence and power, but it can also be seen by the subsidy demanding "Howard battlers" who parrot the demands of the 1% even as their own standards of living are eroded.

This exploitative culture has thoroughly distorted the economy, such that everyone looks to Government to provide the conditions by which they can exploit society - rather than to provide conditions under which society thrives. The rampant individualism set in motion in the Thatcher and Regan eras has engendered the exploitation culture - a culture that led us to the global financial crisis and a culture that has created a crisis for the civil society.