Land of opportunity: the developed world has allowed the poor to get poorer while the super-rich flourish
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Capitalism was supposed to signal the end of poverty. What went wrong?

David Aaronovitch reviews new books about wealth and inequality by Linda Tirado, John Kampfner and Danny Dorling. 

Hand to Mouth: the Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World 
Linda Tirado
Virago, 224pp, £14.99

The Rich – from Slaves to Super-Yachts: a 2,000-Year History 
John Kampfner
Little, Brown, 480pp, £25

Inequality and the 1% 
Danny Dorling
Verso, 192pp, £12.99 

During the long boom of the 1990s and 2000s, it became possible to imagine that nearly everyone who wanted to could do well out of capitalism. The rich would be rich – a few, alas, would be richer almost than we could imagine – but the poor could be (and should be) educated, doctored and employed out of poverty. There was much to do, true, but much had been done; the “system”, if such a name could be given to the historical agglomeration of habits and institutions that governs our economic lives, seemed to work. And that was why virtually everyone, from the cool Icelanders to the red Chinese, subscribed to it.

Some readers will be shaking their heads, proclaiming their opposition to capitalism or to “neoliberalism”. Perhaps they went on a march in the City against globalisation or attended one of the late Tony Benn’s twinkly, twilit evenings of socialism. But it would have taken an unusual inner certainty – a faith, almost – to have believed that this great, growing cornucopia of riches, from iPods to EasyJet, would be brought to a halt.

In this country, the near collapse of Northern Rock in the autumn of 2007 marked the end of the era of confidence. For the first time in years, the comfortable and the doing-OKs began to look at the world with something of the same continuing anxiety that had been limited to the poor. Indeed, they began to feel poor themselves. Yet they weren’t poor and they haven’t become poor. That much should be obvious to anyone reading Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth. Albeit a book by an American (and therefore set in a society that believes anyone can make it if they try hard enough – and its corollary that if you didn’t make it, you didn’t try hard enough), it is nevertheless a book about everywhere in the developed world, too.

The name Tirado is almost an aptronym, because the book doesn’t ever let up its tone of exhausted complaint and makes no attempt to charm its readers. This artlessness may be why Tirado’s original post on the Gawker website in the autumn of 2013 went “viral” in the first place. It was an answer to the complaint that the poor tended to be poor because of the choices they made – because they smoked, took drugs, had children they couldn’t afford and otherwise connived at their own poverty. This is something that Americans say and believe but that British people tend only to believe.

Her post was entitled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts”. Within a year, it brought Tirado a book deal and a precarious celebrity. It also brought her plenty of criticism from people who seemed – through attacking her credibility (she comes from a middle-class family) – almost desperate to deny the truth that she was describing.

It is easy to see why. Tirado depicts a life in which hard work – very hard work – often gets you nowhere because you aren’t paid enough to save for the day when you have no work, or fall ill, or the car breaks down. A life in which the smallest budgeting decision makes the difference between buying insurance or having enough to eat. In other words, a world in which the “long term” cannot afford to exist.

This is the world of people who flip burgers by day and wait tables by night, not to get through college but for life. For ever. And, as Tirado makes mercilessly clear, these tend to be the same jobs where we (and therefore the employer) expect a smile from the counter staff, a have-a-nice-day delivered convincingly by someone who has been on his or her feet for six hours – and our orders got right or else we’ll be cross.

The book is not enjoyable, it is not witty and its anger and sense of hopelessness make it hard to like the author. But Tirado doesn’t want you to like her, or even feel sorry for her. More of her book says “F*** you” to the reader than “Help me”. Nor is she particularly interested in her own demons, whose shadows the readers must discern for themselves. Far from everything that happens to Tirado is a necessary consequence of her poverty and you can’t help wondering how a different person would have managed the same problems.

Yet this, exactly, is her strength. She strips away our capacity to avoid the truth, to be sidetracked. Tirado tells us what we all secretly know every time we catch a glimpse of the night cleaner in the early-morning office finishing up and then heading off to a second job, or to take the kids to school, or to college. It’s a harder life than ours.

That Tirado should have been lionised probably says a good thing about us, because generally, I imagine, it is easier to sell books about the lives of the spectacularly wealthy than those about the quotidian existence of the poor. The first category is, after all, about infinite possibility (or as infinite as a human being can manage) – not, like the second, which is about severe limitation. In that sense, it is about fantasy being realised, which is why Mills & Boon heroes are rarely car-wash operatives.

I have to say that, for myself, this lack of limitation makes the super-rich boringly unreal. The furniture and frocks and motor cars in Downton Abbey very quickly become a substitute for plot or insight into character. The man or woman becomes a mannequin, over which are draped distracting furs and jewellery.

John Kampfner, a former editor of the New Statesman, must have encountered this precise problem when writing his new book, The Rich. The riches are interesting but the people may not be. He compounds this problem for himself by looking at the lives only of the male creators of fabulous wealth, when he could have made more drama by examining the biographies of the wives, mothers, aunts and daughters of the super-rich.

Despite this self-imposed limitation, Kampfner’s book is a fascinating series of well-observed vignettes, beginning with Marcus Licinius Crassus, a contemporary of Caesar, and ending up with more generic chapters on the sheikhs, geeks, oligarchs and bankers of our own times. There are some surprises here (I had never heard of Alain le Roux, the Breton who came over with William the Conqueror and took over much of England) and reminders of some of the ever-thusnesses of human history.

We talk easily of how huge wealth must be accompanied by equally huge power. Kampfner’s book reminds us that this is often not the way it feels to the super-rich. Paradoxically the scale of their riches makes them feel unsafe. Rather than thinking themselves invulnerable from state action because they can control politicians with their money, they more often worry about what could go wrong. This is well illustrated by Kampfner in the case of the new Chinese billionaires, who are only too anxious to render under to the communist Caesars that which is the Caesars’.

What they are worried about is envy. I don’t mean by this that all opposition to their excessive wealth is irrational but that – especially in times such as these – what they have and what they are can seem to be almost psychically unbearable.

The political use of that envy is the purpose of Danny Dorling’s chart-littered polemic on the “1 per cent”. Everything that is wrong with our society, Dorling argues, is the fault of the top 1 per cent of earners taking a bigger and bigger share of our wealth. Tackle them, he writes, and you hardly need to do anything else – or, as he puts it, “Simply concentrating on the share taken by the 1 per cent is enough. It may even be one of the best measures of inequality to consider in terms of how simple a target it may be for effective social policy.”

There are three flaws in Dorling’s hurriedly written book (he had another published in February). The first is that the 1 per cent doesn’t really exist, which is why again and again in the book he seems to use the term “super-rich” about people who earn above £150,000 per year. The consequence is that he attributes characteristics of behaviour, psychology and action to a group, most of whose putative members don’t share those characteristics.

The second problem is that he becomes absurdly determinist. It should be obvious to anyone but the most sequestered that Sir David Attenborough is against what he sees as overpopulation not because (as Dorling strongly implies) he is one of the anti-poor 1 per cent but because he is a lifelong and over-passionate naturalist.

The third problem is more serious. Dorling wants to form a coalition against the super-rich that he knows (and argues) is more likely to be led successfully by the well-heeled middle classes than by the downtrodden – by the other Dorlings than by the Tirados. The poor may wave a pike or knit in the shadow of the guillotine but the committee of public safety will be made up of doctors and deputy head teachers.

There is, it seems to me, a more likely consequence – which is that the relatively well-off (certainly those whom Tirado and her cleaner and fast-food comrades would consider well-off, which is almost everyone reading this article) will absorb this argument and say, “Tax them, not me.” Any substantial change in the condition of the poor in any developed nation will only happen with the agreement and the contribution of the middle classes. They will have to agree to pay, one way or another. Theirs is another book altogether. 

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.