04 January 2007

The politics of envying Peter Wilby

Anyone who thinks that the British left has shed its hatred of capitalism, as a result of the "Blair Revolution", should read former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby's latest article in the Grauniad, entitled "A return to the politics of envy could serve us well". Business as usual among the leftist intelligentsia, it seems. Perhaps they're hoping things will swing back to the old hatreds once Grim Gordon takes the helm.

Wilby suggests that we should not follow Peter Mandelson's advice to be "relaxed about the filthy rich". Envy has now, as Wilby points out, been given a respectable face by academics who claim to have 'proved' that the incidence of crime and other nasties is correlated with the level of inequality. As usual of course, we have to remember (a) that correlations don't prove much, and (b) that most of the academic establishment is leftist and loves to generate spurious justifications for intervention.

But what about legitimising envy of people who have cushy jobs in the media and other parts of the establishment, because their views fit with the leftist cultural hegemony? By people who, though at least as able, are excluded because their views are ideologically incorrect? Now that is a kind of envy I can relate to. And which would be far more original as a topic for debate. And, furthermore, is something that former magazine editors and other journalists could actually do something to remedy. But of course won't, because it's not in their interests.

Whingeing about City remuneration, on the other hand, supposedly on behalf of lower earners supposedly suffering deprivation as a result of the excesses of bonusmania, is just cheap talk. And disingenuous to boot.

Wilby's claim that "the super-rich decide our social priorities" comes straight out of the rightwing-ruling-elite-fantasy handbook. It’s more likely to be Mr Wilby, and fellow members of the il-liberal elite that dominates culture and politics, who decide our priorities.

I think it’s time for a return to the politics of envy by the culturally dispossessed of the culturally dominant. I.e. of the “politically correct”, by the “politically incorrect”. Blogging is all very well, but when are we dissidents going to start manning the conventional media channels?


I'd like to add an observation on the once-again fashionable pursuit of jawing endlessly about the rights and wrongs of astronomical City bonuses. Whatever the reasons for them ("efficient market, good", "efficient market, bad", "inefficient market, bad", ...), the fact is that tinkering with them is - as with most other tinkering with markets - likely to make things worse not better.

By all means let's grind our teeth, if so inclined, about the 'unfairness' of someone earning £1 million, or £5 million, for a year's work, when his or her ability and effort aren't necessarily that much higher than someone earning £20,000. And yes, let's bore all our non-economist friends to death by going on about "economic rent". But let's for goodness sake leave it at that.

There is far too much automatic jumping these days from "I and my friends don't like this" to "I and my friends must agitate for a new form of state intervention to stop this happening".

As the Financial Times pointed out a couple of days ago, the last wave of anti-remuneration intervention in the US resulted in a massive bias in favour of stock options, with all the distortions that created.