Friday, 13 November 2015

The inequality debate or, why the modern Left is failing

It’s official, the inequality debate is way off the rails. If this country is serious about solving this issue, we’re going to need some better ideas. Ironically, the very people who should be supplying the better ideas are the ones with their arms around the system. Yes, that’s a bad thing.

Case in point. A story by Jess McAllen ran in the NZ Herald this week about a new book by Max Rashbrooke entitled Wealth and New Zealand. The tome lays out new income data about New Zealand citizens and concludes that inequality is getting worse.

No real surprise there. The question is why this narrative is being displayed in the media, in 20XX. If the message sounds like something you’ve heard before and agree with, listen up. You need to stop letting the system tell you who you are. This inequality narrative will fail because it must fail.

I’ll be honest, I saw a picture of Max Key in the teaser for Ms McAllen’s article and immediately knew exactly what its thesis would be. And it didn’t disappoint. Max Key is a privileged white male in a society becoming more unequal every year. And the punchline is that he pays for his haircut, DJ gear and travel with his father’s money. This sounds like it should be a good thing, except that the article appears in the NZ Herald, which means the story will try to describe how even the existence of Max Key is a bad thing.

It’s simple and satisfying to hate Max Key, and nothing would make most of us happier than clipping him square in the back of the head with a TV remote. But I also know I’m being told to hate him and his rich friends, so of course I had to take a step back and look for why it is so important I hate him. So I did. I should have just reached for the appliance.

“Eyebrows have been raised about the antics of the wealthy young ­after their rapid rise into the public eye. … their social media accounts are littered with pictures of helicopters, diamond rings, BMWs and spirulina smoothies. “The best known of them, The Ya Ya Club, came to media ­attention at the end of last year when the Prime Minister's son Max Key and his DJ group, Troskey, debuted at one of their events at an Auckland bar. But they have found themselves targeted for seeming to boast about their privileged position.”

Let’s break this down. On one side are those claiming modern society is about to rip itself apart because too few people have too much of the money. The assumption is that this is a bad thing although it’s never fully explained why. On the other side a group yells back that the status quo is fine, thank you very much.

At least, that’s how the debate is delivered. It’s treated as a binary choice between doubling down or finding a way to redistribute wealth more equally. The problem is, there aren’t two sides. It’s painfully clear that – painted in this way – there really is only one side: a nice, sharp boost to the status quo. Although social justice warriors fighting against inequality see themselves as saviours, no one actually wants to change anything. If they did, they’d have asked why there aren’t more than two sides to the argument. There are always more than two sides.

“Twenty years ago, the idea that power, success and wealth could be distributed according to ability and diligence, rather than accident of birth, defined New Zealand.

“We've always had rich and powerful families but also held fervently that the humble Kiwi could rise to become part of that elite.”

It’s probably not fair to bring the journalist into this, as my point is the overarching and broken ideology of change she represents. But Jess McAllen – as a freelance journalist writing about New Zealand’s pop culture and social issues – has started to win awards for her writing. so she’s not an idiot. Which means she should know the differences between power, success and wealth and why they’re not synonyms and why they shouldn’t appear in the same sentence. 

Believing that those concepts ever appear in the same room is a fantasy, the room is always a movie studio or the mind of someone who uses “Rothschild” as a curse word. This suggests Ms McAllen wants those words to designate the same concept, which means something far more sinister is going on. Whose generation does she blame for creating the idea of ever-rising Kiwi income levels? Was it her parents’? In 1990? I don’t think so. Who does she think is running the advertising agencies now? Who is running for politics? She’s not criticising her parents’ generation, she’s describing hers.

She doesn’t see this, not because she refuses to, but because she can’t. The process of thinking about systems necessary to notice the long con at the bottom of the inequality argument is purposefully unavailable to her (and mine) generation. The very newspaper in which this article appears now offers condensed versions of its news stories. Why? Because its target demographic of 18-35-year-olds goes into cardiac arrest if their screen displays a text-to-white-space ratio greater than 40%. This is the same demographic that gave up on Occupy Wall Street sit-ins after a trimester because the protests didn’t have Wifi access. And that’s is the audience for this call to change? Good luck.

Ms McAllen’s article could only be written by someone from a generation raised on the assumption that power, success and wealth are a package. That the attainment of one must lead to the automatic attainment of the others. It is a generation so inculcated in this assumption that it will never know why their arguments lack the force to change anything.

None of them stop to think why it’s so easy for their articles to be published. Or why every time their arguments are elucidated, someone from the “other side” engages with them in a civil and public rebuttal. None will pause to ask how they ended up on this particular battlefield and what exactly they’ll gain if they win.

People writing books on inequality, people yelling about the 1%, people fighting corruption, people angry at the prime minister are allowed to exist because they serve as tools of the system. Think on this and contemplate your own freedom. Any advanced Western democracy is too highly evolved and complex to let a bunch of angry 25-year-olds have any effect on it whatsoever – or any group without real power for that matter. How could they? Few people understand at any real depth how “their” anger is manufactured by the system for the system. This is why protesters who do not throw rocks should not be taken seriously. I’m not telling them to throw rocks, I’m just explaining why their protest will fail.

Maybe this is too abstract, so here’s a concrete and current example of this nonsense. Take the growing political battle around the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Once again, there aren’t two sides to this debate, there never were, but the media delivers this narrative. It’s not a conspiracy – most journalists have neither the knowledge nor the time for nuances. The default is to transform every cultural debate into binary. It saves on paper, and subscriptions sell faster when readers can choose a side to reinforce their worldview. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a reader’s view is binary too.

Most people characterise the TPP debate as between those wanting greater trade freedom and those suspicious of how free that trade actually is. Take a step back and ask what would change if either of those two sides are victorious. On the one hand there would be freer trade. On the other there would be less-free trade. Guess what ingredient is remaining? Think of the question you’re not allowed to ask.

Either way, the continued existence of trade as a concept is not on the table because that’s how people make money. Those fighting against the TPP often provide an identical argument about inequality to Ms McAllen’s. Not once do anti-TPP campaigners (and pro-TPP) ask why the argument framework is structured like this. The form of the question is never dissected, it is only assumed.

“[Mr Rashbrooke] suggests reducing income ­imbalances, narrowing the initial distribution of wealth, using taxes and endowments to further close the gap, taking the heat out of ­housing and building a more democratic ­society. Specifically, he suggests increasing benefits, introducing a living wage, a capital gains tax (exempting the family home), estate taxes and better rights for renters.”

Stop it, look around! How can you possibly not find it suspicious that these solutions already exist in society, and the author just happened to choose them as a solution? Is Mr Rashbrooke really not curious about where he got these ideas? Did he not think something was fishy when he expended no effort in choosing these solutions? Those are integral parts of the system he’s trying to change, they weren’t harmlessly floating through the ether. Perhaps he can’t, but I can spot a long con at 1000 paces.

Both Mr Rashbrooke and the TPP debaters are fighting on a battlefield not of their choosing. Of course, they haven’t a clue this is happening because they believe they’re “leading the debate.” Pointing out that too many people have too little wealth does not have the force to change reality. Here’s a question that does: when someone says money exists, why do we believe them? That question is why the inequality debate is broken. The practical use of money isn’t the issue. It’s the semiotics and reification of how much money people have and what it symbolises to others about social status.

What boggles my mind is that the very people who should be able to see this dynamic, and counter it intelligently, are those most easily duped into fighting within the system’s framework. The inequality debate is run almost exclusively by self-proclaimed socialists and progressives. But just because you call yourself a socialist, doesn’t make it true. Since it’s clearly no longer the case that modern socialist passions are emerge from proper socialist thinking, these “debates” may end up setting the political left back 200 years – that’s right, 200 years. What the inequality debate doesn’t recognise is that the existence of welfare is also the entrenchment of the aristocracy. Read it again if you didn’t get it the first time, it’s important. Marx (Karl, not Groucho) talked about this – Marx, for crying out loud!

I’m sure he gets this a lot, but Bill Gates is part of the problem. Ms McAllen’s thinking represents an entire generation that admires Mr Gates for his selfless philanthropy. It should be obvious to anyone who considers their ideology as part of the counter-narrative that he’s the aristocratic epitome Marx warned against. Yet Mr Gates has become a role model to people on the left, not because Mr Gates is a businessman, but because he “freely” chooses to make life better for poor people using his money. I know, I know, I have no real power – but maybe someday a rich person will give me some. Marx would be rolling in his grave to hear this.

The modern left has been tricked into cancelling its quest for real power and change, by replacing it with a quest for money instead. They subsumed the system so deeply it has become a default assumption in every argument. Do you see? This is the long con. Rather than power, most on the left will settle for $300k salaries and ‘CEO’ embossed on a business card (only “sustainable” companies, of course). The people with real power know those are just symbols, the trappings of power, which is why they were happy to give them away. If the framework was set up to show how money is the measure of power, then the “debate” will never be won - which is the entire point. Why else does Ms McAllen think she can get away with discussing this in public?

If socialists and progressives want a real debate, the framework must not be about wealth inequality. Mr Rashbrooke had a chance to show how money doesn’t need to be considered a symbol of power, success or wealth, or reflect to others the individual’s “social status”. If the opposition to modern capitalism is serious about this debate it should say: “let them have money, life is more than bits of paper,” just like their systems-thinking forebears once did. But they always fall into the trap of accepting the form of the question.

Who do you think wins win an inequality argument structured in this way? You can’t fight to attain power and wealth if you think they’re the same thing. Let this be the litmus test for future culture wars: do retail sales go up or down? Exactly. The system has won. You cannot defeat the system if you play by its rules. You need rocks.  

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