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Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Middle Classes in Crisis

One English national paper screamed from its front page “Cameron war on scroungers”. The government declared its intent to legislate to make it easier to ‘get rid of workers who failed to make the grade’.

I will declare my interest from the beginning. I am in my mid 50’s and with huge relief I recently volunteered to be made redundant, after 23 years of tireless dedication to a toxic employer. Most of that time I worked at the centre of the management structure although in terms of ambition I never rose above the ideal of doing what was right and therefore had no time for the networking that is essential for progression in the corporate world.  In BT PLC one was always on the look out for the next job. It was part of ‘strategic thinking.’  So I understand the hidden meaning behind the quotes.  It has never been about laziness.  In its misguided attempt to retain voters it is returning us to the politics of ‘us and them.’

I apologise in advance if anything I am going to say sounds bitter. It isn’t. It is no more than the cynicism born of experience. Something our political leaders know only from the vantage point of power and its abuse.

My reservations serve no political bias. When the Labour Party Prime minister, Gordon Brown accused an elderly (and lifelong) Labour supporter of making a racist statement he had not lived next to a newly refurbished house that was progressively trashed by a refugee family who had used it as a drug den and almost certainly as a whore house. When this family finally left in the middle of the night the local authority were greeted by a building they had no choice but to entirely rebuild from the inside in order to make it once again inhabitable.  The home had been trashed and, infested with rats.  Local authority responsibility began and ended with funding the lifestyle of that family. The neighbours were warned not to leave their babies unsupervised because babies have no protection against being attacked by rats. Children kept away from school were ignored and any cries for help from we, the victims of local authority benevolence was disputed as racially inspired intolerance to the multicultural flower that had blossomed amongst us.

The ethic of protecting the vulnerable should not be at variance with the contract of protection for all of us implicit in the health of any democratic society. But where its universal application clashes with every day practice it is because we have chosen to treat society’s ills by dispensing cash unconditionally.  Unlike in the USA there is no legislation to protect the neighbours of rentees. Associations set up to house the homeless have no incentive other than profitability based on management fees received.  Benefits packages often exceed the after tax wages of the middle classes that fund them.

It should not surprise anyone that the Conservative Party undertakes to protect big business from its own folly in times of austerity by facilitating high unemployment which in its turn minimises pressure on wages. It is not simply a factor of increasing materials costs contributing to inflationary pressures; inflation accelerates when business raises its prices in order to protect its profit margins.  In the UK the ‘Centre’ is theoretically represented by the Liberal Democrats and they aspire to represent the ‘true’ middle classes. The Left attacks the rich and the right attacks the poor – neither engages in serious discussion of the reasons for the increasing disparity between the two. Perhaps this is because both vie for the same voters as the Liberal Democrats. And perhaps it is best to describe the Liberal Democrats as the Party of fashionable prejudice, its ideas and ideals shaped by intellectual currents rather than by ethical principles; this protean political force attempting to transect differences by sanctimonious and tendentious political posturing that leaves them hovering indiscriminately between the two sides.

In the UK today if we exclude sociological factors we can define up to 80% of people as belonging to a ‘middle’ class which no longer is so easily defined or whose loyalties can no longer be attributed to a specific characteristic.

The traditional left wing electorate was the industrial non-management classes. But the boundaries separating the classes have become blurred by the overlapping of salary ranges. A member of the lower classes is as likely to vote Conservative as they are to vote Labour.

If the theory of democracy is correct then happiness should pull more nations into the democratic fold and away from totalitarian regimes. Those countries that are not sufficiently free will experience unrest on a scale that will either create the momentum for positive change or in the pessimistic point of view create the kind of unrest that will destroy these same middle classes. Witness the former Soviet Union and the Arab Spring.  Both have created a window of opportunity for fascism to take power (as has now occurred in Egypt).

The impetus to seek unfettered growth has been given the status of a new religion but a concomitant quality of this ‘ideal’ is the rampant individualism without which the former would not be possible.  It has created the conspicuous wealth which in its turn fosters the destructive avarice and fear that could tip the world over into a maelstrom of revolution and counter revolution. The rise of the anonymous corporatist  and monetary hegemon devoid of altruism or even the parochial will to national improvement is the stuff of nightmares feeding a perceived anti-capitalist rebellion that is itself fuelled by fascism.

Until the middle of the 20th Century a definition of class would rightly have seen the middle classes as being located between the rich and the poor. This defined itself by what we could afford in terms of cultural and educational attainment. But today, income distribution has widened to include people at both ends of society.  We exclude academic definitions and economically throw as wide a net as is practical because sociologically by labelling we create inequality.

Aspirations define us but are less tangible.   Aspirations, fed by global travel, the national loss of identity, cultural confusion and an ever present communications bombardment of ideas and visual temptations inevitably leads not to satisfaction levels that are higher than they are today, but to expectations that are difficult if not impossible for all but the wealthiest to sustain.

The availability of arable land used for growing basic food stuffs is contracting as food prices continue to rise.  The cost of providing a safety net has become prohibitive and an all pervasive feeling of insecurity already infects the no longer comfortable middle classes.  Perhaps it is insecurity and fear itself that makes economics the best determinant for class consciousness today and based on this fear, defines the new lower classes.

I provide BT as a microcosm for what afflicts society.  My first experience of ‘BT Values’ occurred in an ‘away’ training course. We were all warned that as ambassadors for BT we must behave with decorum. The senior manager leading the event had brought his secretary with him and it soon became clear that she provided other services besides typing.  On the final evening during our farewell supper the directors’ wife rang up and asked to speak to the secretary. ‘Discretion’ descended into farce as our distraught secretary drank too much and then argued with her lover in front of the other (non BT) diners. A different standard applied to this senior manager of the company.  During the next couple of decades more than two senior officers were embroiled in scandals that BT successfully hid from the public.

But BT is less generous with its workers. In its hierarchy of greed it provides its employees with a basic wage; its middle and senior management receive compensation packages that increase at an exponential rate even when as a consequence of their personal morality they are incapable of managing even the most basic inter-relational adversity with competence or compassion. The HR function elides comfortably into limiting the damage to brand that dysfunctional indifference and over exuberant mismanagement arbitrarily creates. In the largest of BT’s money earning departments turnover has reduced by 5% every quarter over at least, the last 5 years. The only way that management can increase its profit margins and therefore its payouts to its shareholders, is by reducing staff numbers, (at the same time that it increases the work load of those remaining employed). As a consequence, fear and dishonesty is encouraged rather than being kept at bay.

BT periodically sends out stress surveys. It is not because it cares that it does this but because it must demonstrate its proof of ‘preventative’ initiatives employed in order to keep lawsuits against the company to a minimum.

I am not saying that UK PLC differs in some way from elsewhere on the Globe.  BT PLC like UK PLC (and sadly the entire political spectrum is undifferentiated in this area) is incapable of defining itself in moral terms that consistently and coherently articulate a secure and a just future for all, so it takes sides; it looks after its own while it betrays any trust it is able to successfully betray without consequences to it or its followers.

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