Equality – a search for the Holy Grail?

Dec 09


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Helen Whitten

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Equality – a search for the Holy Grail?

Last night I watched Dr Zhivago again.  I hadn’t watched it for many years and, as a book, it changed my life.  My teenage years were spent deep in Boris Pasternak’s poetry and Russian novels.  I was inspired by Communism, by the promise of equality for all.  But what does that mean in terms of human nature?  And what does a teenager actually know about the world, when they haven’t had to earn a crust, be responsible, take care of a family, pay taxes?  One can be idealistic, for sure, but reality hasn’t yet properly sunk in.

And so the rhetoric of equality that we hear during the current election debate interests me, as it was the same words that were spoken in Zhivago, in the Revolution, by the people, by Lenin.  For Marx, apparently, equality did not negate difference – “for each according to his ability, to each according to his need’.  But he was a critic of capitalism, which is hard to defend in a world where the capitalist system has raised so many millions of people out of poverty around the world.  But, of course, not everyone. There are those ‘left behind’.  And there’s the rub.

There are those who suffer who have need of help and should receive it.  There are those who struggle but however much help you give them may well continue to struggle.  There are those who wish for security who will only ever have a fragment of their need met, as we all live in an uncertain and insecure world.  There are those who thrive on risk, change, new ideas and for them the idea of a secure job where every day is the same is anathema.

How to govern in such a world?  Of course, there never has been a perfect government in any part of the world.  Ever.  And I doubt there ever will be.  Human nature is deeply hierarchical.  Way before capitalism, men – for it was usually men – would seek power over others and others would be ruled by them, some happily in search of a quiet life, others champing at the bit in frustration that they had little autonomy.  Cast your eye across the globe and you will find the history books of every land populated by Kings, Emperors, Tsars, war lords, Sultans, Elders, Chiefs, Presidents, Prime Ministers and now Chief Executives or Managing Directors.  At the other end of the scale there exist the Untouchables or perhaps slaves.  More recently you will find a very large group who would call themselves ‘employees’, some of whom are happy with their lot and others who aren’t. The term the “working class” is surely outdated as the majority of people today are working.  And those who lived a very simple life within that label of “working class” in my childhood may now have second homes in Spain, Tobago, Greece, and more money than those in professional classes, or have become professionals themselves. That’s what I call progress.

Is it realistic to imagine that we can all be equal when the very nature of the human being is to be unique, to be aspirational, to seek fulfilment and purpose, to desire to protect our loved ones and families?  And perhaps for others, in that same uniqueness, just to want to live hassle-free and not be pushed?

In my own experience I remember one assistant in Positiveworks who was eager, helpful, efficient and worked hard.  I remember another, in the same role, who came in late, smoked six cigarettes a day – each one involving a good twenty minutes away from the desk – and made thoughtless mistakes.  Were they worth the same salary?  How do you calculate?  I certainly didn’t think so.

I have been raised within the context of trade and business.  My great-great grandparents taking a major risk in 1742 to buy cork forests in Portugal – well before it became a civilised tourist destination – and develop a trade in cork.  It was a third world country and I admire their pluck.  They didn’t make huge wealth but worked extremely hard, with many worries, and employed a considerable number of people as a result. 

Were they to have become billionaires would I have decided that they were ‘bad’ or ‘greedy’ people who didn’t deserve such wealth?  I don’t think so because I question at what stage the State decides that you have made enough and that it should take the rest for the people to whom  it chooses to give it.  £100,000?  £1million? £5million £50million?  What arbitrary sum would the State see as ‘too much’?  Especially if one was paying one’s taxes, potentially giving money to charity and philanthropic causes, creating wealth not only for oneself but also for others? Many wealthy people have started their businesses in a garage or on the kitchen table.  They had a good idea and worked hard, usually with passion, often putting their personal homes on the line, no sick pay, holiday pay or pension, to create their vision.  It isn’t a huge number of people who do this but they innovate and, in this day and age where employment law is strong, their employees are generally well treated in comparison to previous times, where toil was the name of the day. Let’s not tar everyone with the same brush.

But you get people who are disillusioned in any profession.  You can be a senior manager earning excellent money but fed up with the way the CEO is running the business or a client is treating you.  The gig economy gets a lot of flack but when you look at surveys, the majority of people working within it enjoy their flexibility.  Some don’t and some employment practices certainly need improving.  Sure.  But do we have to kill off a whole 4-5% of our economy for the sake of the few?  Isn’t it better to change the way it is run to ensure fair contracts but not dictate to entrepreneurs that they must employ x number of people full time because there are many businesses that simply can’t survive in that way.  I know that I worked myself to death in order to bring in sufficient fees to pay my assistants… and then there were times when I simply couldn’t bring in enough and had to let them go.  I felt awful about it but I was human and there was no way, at that time, that I could make enough money to cover salaries as well as pay my own bills.  This is a problem in France, where social taxes are so high it makes it well nigh impossible to start a small business.

Then how much trust do I have in the State to make good decisions with my taxed income?  In my lifetime I can’t say I am that impressed with the way any of the governments since 1950 have run the country.  I am not convinced that they would do any better job with my taxed money, were I a billionaire, as my observation of governments is that they tend to squander money on idiotic projects, paying huge sums to expensive management consultants in the process of frittering away our hard-earned taxes rather than spending it on necessary infrastructure, health or education.  But, as long as the process is fair in its rewards then an imperfect system is all one can hope for.

With nationalisation I question why I would assume that a civil service department could run this any better than the current ‘experts’ of the private sector?  We hear of helicopters ordered by the Defence Department that can’t fly in cloud, ships that are unseaworthy, etc.  Recently I heard that the Home Office are setting up visa systems for fruit pickers… but forgot that daffodils need cutting.  My memories of the 1970s are of British Rail trains being unreliable, of strikes, the 3 day-week, trying to cook and eat supper by candlelight and of inefficiency that led the poorest to suffer the most. People have become so used to comfort, power, mobiles, wifi, electricity that I suspect these conditions would seem unbearable to people today.

In hitting out at big tech, big pharma or successful companies, what about the small shareholders who legitimately bought shares and will inevitably lose out through nationalisation?  And the pension funds?  I question why anyone would start up a business here when there is a likelihood of the State taking 10% of my company even if I have run it efficiently and am treating my staff well?  Surely this is private property?  It reminds me of the scene in Dr Zhivago when Zhivago returns to his house to find it full of strangers, expropriated by the State, who have dictated that a family of 5 should be able to survive in 50 sq metres, so any house above this size would be open to house as many families as the square footage would allow.  According to the bureaucrats of the revolution private property and the right to a personal life were declared dead in the search for a Bolshevik utopia.  And we know what happened there – a hierarchy within the Communist leaders who expropriated houses, dachas, chauffeurs and luxuries for themselves whilst starving their people.  Followed by Putin and the oligarchs.  Plus ca change.

There’s a line in the movie asking “which lot of hooligans will govern this country”.  It made me think of the UK.  Now.  When Zhivago questions the Bolshevik authority he is told “your attitude has been noticed” and of course Pasternak’s lover was tortured in a gulag for her association with him.  A revolution is not a pretty sight.  Capitalism is not the cause of inequality.  Inequality sadly has been sewn into the history of humanity at every level.  It doesn’t make it right but the reality is that people are different and whilst there should be equality of pay for those doing the same job, there will be inequality elsewhere and a doctor who has studied medicine for seven years and worked hard deserves a decent salary and more, certainly, than someone without those skills or dedication.  Devising a fair system for all is not a simple matter.

I believe in a mixed economy of private companies and entrepreneurs providing opportunities for income generation for others, alongside a welfare state that does what it can for those who need help.  I don’t see those who need support as “weak and oppressed” as I hear on the radio, as this is surely disrespectful.  And, in terms of history, we are living in one of the least oppressed eras. Holding positive expectations and aspirations of others is key to unlocking an individual’s potential. So treating them as a helpless victim does not perform this service.  Austerity has certainly been harmful but, if we are honest, we don’t know what any other party would have done with the budget (or lack of it) that occurred after the crash of 2008.  With a stronger economy hopefully whichever party gets in can now address this on many levels.

In politically correct terms I might be labelled “an enemy of the people” for daring to say that inequality is likely to be here to stay.  I seem to be against the current Utopian zeitgeist.  I certainly wish for fair treatment of all. And I want a pragmatic government who understands that human nature is to be creative, to aspire, to innovate.  I want a government that will support such innovation as it can benefit the whole of humankind.  But personally, I don’t believe that a totally equal society is possible, nor that it would necessarily be any happier than our current situation.  It would surely discourage people to shine.  And people will always find something to moan about one way or another.

We have a huge amount going for us in this country and, as a recent BBC survey has uncovered, far less to be divided about than we might imagine.  People are still flocking to come here and our economy is holding up pretty well considering the three years of Brexit chaos that precedes this blog. 

I don’t know which party will get in on election night but I hope they will remember that the UK is populated with thousands of small or medium-sized companies such as my family’s cork business, often run by dedicated and hard-working entrepreneurs and their staff. There are greedy people in all spheres of life but I would suggest that the majority are decent folk, here as elsewhere.  So I hope they are not treated as if they were tax-dodging bourgeoisie in need of punishment.  I hope they are acknowledged and respected for what they bring to their country in the way of employment, goods and services.  We shall see…





4 Responses

  1. I find what you have written thoughtful and thought provoking. Much is as you say. However, equality and having equal opportunity are very different ideals to strive for. And to put a higher limit on what is acceptable as profit or individual gain, when this often means ´at the expense of’ and in so many societies as a result of corruption or financial instruments set up to fool less savvy individuals, is not a move against encouragement or appreciation of innovation.

    1. Certainly we have to fight corruption and malpractice. Also the global tax system needs to come in line with the latest digital developments as national borders are less relevant and tax systems worldwide are having to catch up to ensure fair play. As far as equality of opportunity is concerned, again we have come a long long way but in a world of diverse human beings with different skills, genetic inheritance, education, capabilities, attitudes, conscious and unconscious bias, expectations, religious cultures, the reality is that we can do our best to provide equal opportunity but unless everyone is levelled down to a baseline the reality is that some people will always rise above others through who they are. Perhaps there’s a soul journey in that mix too?

  2. Hi Helen – good stuff again, thankyou.
    I have also seen at first hand the struggle owners of private businesses have had. When times were hard nobody came to their assistance – survival of the fittest weeded out those with lesser endurance capacity. When times were good we (they) acted as tax-collectors for the nation.
    Your question about the level at which the state can confiscate/tax capital made by entrepreneurs is key. I don’t think I have heard anybody debate this during the election campaign – only statements of what ‘will’ happen.

  3. Hello Sima – I would take issue with your statement “And to put a higher limit on what is acceptable as profit or individual gain, ….. is not a move against encouragement or appreciation of innovation”. It absolutely is so. Who in your view is to make that decision about acceptability? Innovation is not the only source of profit either, but by saying this you would seem to want to allow innovation, but not other sources of profit.
    Helen – “According to the bureaucrats of the revolution private property and the right to a personal life were declared dead in the search for a Bolshevik utopia”. That is where it ends.
    John B

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