Thriftiness will not tame deviant capitalism's damaging excesses

Belt-tightening may be on everyone's lips, but calls for parsimony won't stop a system that threatens to unravel society, writes Mary Evans

May 21, 2009

David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Opposition, has spoken of "thrifty Government"; Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has predicted a future for British universities in which "spending is much more limited"; and in the London Review of Books, author Jenny Turner has reviewed a clutch of titles about how to save money. There would appear to be growing consensus that belt-tightening is the order of the day in a country struggling to cope with recession.

The first alarming aspect of this evolving Geist is the way that the call for parsimony evokes potent folk memories of the glory days of Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food during the Second World War, of making do and mending and a collective motive for frugality.

Saving bits of string in the 1940s was about defeating Adolf Hitler, and while it was absurd, another aspect of civilian life during that tumultuous decade, rationing, was not.

But this time there will assuredly be no rationing: instead, those very market forces that created today's "crisis" will still run the show, and the latent enthusiasm of the well off for not spending money will be mobilised into noisy self-justification of how "we" have all got to get by with less, ignoring those for whom "less" is a way of life.

For many people, the thought of a society in which we all buy and consume less is very attractive: the dream is that all the horrible junk that the West devours will be no more, and in future we will shop with care for what we really need.

But besides the convincing environmental argument, in all this there is also a strong sense of that highly directive philanthropy and management of the poor that George Orwell detected: well-meaning advice to live on lentils and oranges endlessly sabotaged by trips to the chip shop.

In many ways, this tradition is alive and well, and as ineffectual in relation to the obese poor of today as it was to the undernourished of Orwell's time. But today, perhaps the greatest danger is that the values of the market have made it even more difficult than it was in the 1930s to rethink the issue of the distribution of wealth and the associated question of the enforcement of thrift.

In 2009, we therefore have before us a situation in which the word "thrift" has considerable potential appeal, and Cameron could marry it and waste to produce a policy of huge electoral potency.

Yet apparently there is little political enthusiasm for challenging a culture in which sections of the population really do believe that a nanny state exists and that raising taxes for people on very high incomes actually represents the "culture of envy".

These various ideas, articulated by people as diverse as television presenter Jeremy Clarkson and sections of the libertarian Left, feed the same collective delusion that encouraged very poor people in the United States to vote for George W. Bush because they assumed that, for example, gun control or the state provision of healthcare were the first steps towards the gulag.

The political decisions that could be endorsed by the mobilisation of thrift are many and various, and the slogans about "teaching the values of thrift in the family" are no doubt already being written.

But inevitably, it will be the poorest and most vulnerable, already thrifty as a direct consequence of poverty, who will be most affected, be it in terms of access to higher education or the quality and availability of other state services.

The public enemy in this crusade of thrift is not, however, Hitler, but a rather curious and somewhat evasive figure to whom it is difficult to give a human identity: a rampant, deviant capitalism that fails to deliver a stable economy.

This always potentially transgressive figure has obviously become markedly more badly behaved in the 21st century. The hope is that this disruptive being can be tamed by a combination of discipline (a bit of regulation), reward (lots more money) and the public acceptance of thrift.

But as a man in the street recently said on US television: "They have given them (the banks) all my money and now they are asking me to save." Time, perhaps, for the wayward adolescent to encounter less indulgent parents.

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