A half-lie dominates modern culture that is worse than a straight lie because it contains enough truth to persuade readers who otherwise wouldn’t be fooled. The people from somewhere have risen up against the people from nowhere, it runs. The globalised elites, once as comfortable in Manhattan as Davos, have been humbled by the left-behind working-class.
The half of the lie that’s true is that Brexit, Trump and the rise of the European radical right are shocks to the system. Yet they are shocks that leave the holders of wealth and power remarkably unruffled.
The elite did not appear to be trembling at this year’s Davos conclave. The Dutch historian Rutger Bregman became the boy who pointed to the nakedness of 1,500 globetrotting emperors and said their willingness to divert a part of their wealth to charitable foundations was “bullshit”, if he could be blunt about it. “I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance and of the rich just not paying their fair share.” It was, he said, as he surveyed an audience that pretended to will the end of a fairer society but forbade the means, as if he were at a firefighters conference “and no one’s allowed to speak about water”.
The desire of the super-rich to give money to charity rather than see it spent by a legitimate state is a form of anarchism. Robert Nozick, whose Anarchy, State and Utopia of 1974 anticipated 21st-century libertarianism, insisted that the state had no right to force the wealthy to help others. Taxation took away their freedom to choose to be virtuous. And forced virtue is no virtue at all.
But countries such as Britain, where crime, homelessness and educational failure are rising and the miserable are queuing at food banks, cannot wait for the rich to discover virtue, assuming they ever do. They must compel them to be good. Or, as Bregman might put it, tell them to cut the bullshit and pay their taxes. But who will compel them? After the supposed revolt of the left-behinds, and the rise of the white working class, surely the Davos magnificos would be shivering in their Italian suits and not because of the snow.
Not a bit of it. Michael Dell, the computer tycoon, burst out laughing when asked if, as the 39th richest man in the world, he should pay more tax. He already ran a charitable foundation, he said, and the suggestion from the US left of marginal tax rates for the highest earners of 70% was ridiculous. “Name a country where that’s worked. Ever.”
Er, the United States, an economist sitting next to him replied, where the highest tax rate averaged about 70% from the 1930s to the 1970s, “and those were actually pretty good years for growth”. Rates are nowhere near that now. The supposed populist Trump gave a $1.5tn tax cut mainly to the richest corporations and individuals and the top rate now stands at 37%.
Brexit Britain is different, I accept. Businesses overwhelmingly fear the anarchy of a no-deal Brexit and wonder why Britain is inflicting the needless pain of any variant of Brexit. But then so do most trade unions, if not the hopelessly compromised Unite, and most Labour members, if not the hopelessly compromised Corbyn clique.
That said, and unlike their American counterparts, the British “elite” seems to have real fears about populism. Yet the elite is divided and there are clear political advantages in Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the staff of the Telegraph, Lord (Digby) Jones, the Institute for Economic Affairs, Nigel Farage and David Davis pretending that they are not a part of it. As the Marxist economist Chris Dillow told me, it is better from their point of view that popular anger be directed against powerless liberals and nervous migrants than against them and their kind.
All the better when they can speak in prolier-than-now tones about being the true voice of the working class. It’s nonsense. I won’t point you to the home counties that voted for Brexit or the majority of the young working-class who supported Remain, for that would merely perpetuate the nonsense. Class is largely irrelevant in modern politics. As Rob Ford, the sage of Manchester University, keeps trying to tell politicians and the media, class does not decide elections today: age, values and educational achievement matter more. If you are old and rich but left school at 16, you are likely to have voted for Trump and Brexit. If you were a hard-up graduate, in all likelihood you would not.
But a society can’t escape the prison of class, however hard it tries. The anarchical policy of keeping taxes too low and pretending that the hit-and-miss efforts of charity can plug the gaps will fall hardest on the poor, who are most likely to be missed. Any kind of Brexit will hit the north, Wales and Midlands, which is why Leave-supporting Labour MPs are betraying the very constituents they say they are serving.
If we have no deal, then the Johnsons and Rees-Moggs, the Lawsons and Farages will manage. They may not like the food and medical shortages, but they will be able to buy their way out of trouble. In his 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton denounced the “idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it?… They have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t… Aristocrats were always anarchists.”
Trump found, when he threatened America’s healthcare and shut down its government, his popularity collapsed. We can at least hope that the Brexit right will find their supporters turning on them if they bring anarchy to the UK.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist
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