At what point did the denial of compassion become a morally righteous act? When homeless people are criminalised and single parents left destitute “for their own good”, it’s a question we need to start asking.
In a speech to the Tory party’s spring conference, David Cameron laid out the “moral” case for an ideology which prioritises the wishes of business over the needs of ordinary people. Eulogising “small business owners” as modern-day Samaritans, the Prime Minister extolled the virtues of enterprise with as much pious self-satistfaction as any po-faced priest ever preached chastity.
A generation after Thatcher, with Chicago-school economics laying waste to civil society across the globe, it is apparently no longer enough to believe that greed is good. We must be persuaded that greed is virtuous.
Max Weber’s protestant ethic has always provided a moral framework for capitalism, but since the meltdown of 2008, business devotees sound less like men of quiet faith and more like spittle-flecked fanatics ordering their followers not to flee the burning church. The maniacal Calvinist aunt in Blackadder insisted that cold is God’s way of telling us to burn more Catholics, but Cameron may as well have declared that recession is God’s way of telling us to cut more benefits.
The flipside of this fervour is the belief that anyone who does not contribute to the profit machine is somehow morally incontinent. Some on the left would like to believe that conservatives simply hate the poor. The more terrifying truth is that many of them actually believe imposing austerity measures is the moral duty of the righteous rich.
Throughout history, our worst torturers and tyrants have always been zealots, men who believe that their faith justifies any brutality.
The affluent Tory borough of Westminster, for example, has just made it illegal to distribute food to the homeless around Westminster cathedral, raising the absurdist spectre of police arresting soup kitchen workers, because their work apparently “enables” vagrancy.
This staggering doublethink imagines it a moral failing to have nowhere to live, even as benefit cuts threaten to turn millions on to the street. The problem is not a three-decade-long housing crisis: the homeless are merely insufficiently entrepreneurial, and must be punished.
In Cameron’s Britain, profit has become the new piety. The unprofitable, from disabled people to single parents, are pushed to the margins just as the unchaste once were.
It is this moral mythos that permits our barely-elected ministers to tear up the Attlee settlement and condemn millions to poverty while sleeping, in their publicly funded mansions, the undisturbed sleep of the just.
Bigotry has a moral framework in 2011, and we must comprehend it to dismantle it. We need to redefine our collective morality, insisting, for example, that it is unjust for financiers to award themselves £10m bonuses while deprived schoolchildren finance their debts. It is not enough simply to chant “Tory scum”. We must confront the pious rich into with the hollowness of their smug morality.