Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: What the ‘yellow vests’ tell us about today’s Western liberal democracies

Mostly ‘ordinary’ people on ‘ordinary’ incomes who can’t make ends meet. Their problem is that they’re too ‘ordinary’ to matter to today’s socioeconomic elite who are preoccupied with trendy social causes like getting more women and fashionable ethnics into high-salaried positions.

The ‘yellow vest’ movement caught many by surprise. They were even more surprised when it became clear that this spontaneous uprising was no flash in the pan – despite lacking any central control and coordination, it went on and on.
Parallels were drawn with 1789. I saw one protestor in Paris dressed in the sort of garb that would have been common in the late 18th century. But it’s not “liberty, equality, fraternity” that the yellow vests are demanding – it’s being able to make ends meet on their incomes. And that applies as much to many workers on wages as it does to beneficiaries.

At the core of the ‘yellow vests’’ grievances lies a deep-rooted and self-perpetuating inequality that has crept back into Western society – a class system, albeit not one based on a hierarchy running from the aristocracy at the top to tenant farmers and labourers who came with the land at the bottom; rather, a socioeconomic one. Not that there isn’t a hereditary component – the class you’re born into is probably the one you’ll stay in.

But wait a moment, you may say, I thought the Western liberal democratic model was all about addressing inequality through the provision of equality of opportunity, so everyone gets a fair go. What went wrong?

Back to basics. Human beings are social creatures and like all social creatures they are hierarchical and exhibit uneven distributions of power and access to resources. People do not, on the whole, expect perfect equality. Most adults have a mature world view which recognises that people will never be fully equal because they are different. Give everyone the same resources and opportunities and some will get ahead while others will fall behind, and the children of the two groups will tend to conform to the same pattern as the parents. “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate”, as the old aphorism goes, is a reflection of the human condition. And it is as true for ‘socialist’ societies such as communist China or North Korea as it is for ‘capitalist’ societies.

Granted, most people have long rejected the old ‘station in life’ doctrine that sees one’s place in the hierarchy as immutably fixed from birth. Ironically, it was the ‘capitalist revolution’ on the heels of the industrial revolution that shook the foundations of the old social order as many families that had been at the top of a largely agrarian economy were reduced to ‘genteel poverty’ while entrepreneurial types from classes further down personified the ‘rags to riches’ dream. Later, with post-basic education becoming accessible to all, working class kids could make it into the professions and there emerged a new middle class stratum made up of well-educated people many of whom came up from humble origins. There emerged the idea that anyone could ‘make it’ as merit began to usurp heredity as the determinant of success in life.  

But there can be no such thing as a classless society. A class structure will inevitably arise (or re-arise), and social classes are inevitably self-reproducing to a large extent through the advantages or disadvantages incurred by the class that one is born into. Equality is a pipedream.
This is what a ‘classless society’ looks like…. only it’s not a society.

Other than dyed-in-the-wool idealists, people at large do accept these realities – until bottom lines are breached. One of those arises when many people are no longer able to meet the basic costs of living. We are not talking here only about the unemployed and underemployed but also about people who put in a full day’s work every working day and do not get paid enough to be able to make ends meet, especially not those with dependents – the scourge of ‘working poverty’. The affluent like to attribute this to lifestyle factors – “they spend all their money on ciggies and booze” – but this sweeping statement is demonstrably untrue for a great many. It can easily be shown that the minimum wage in many Western countries is simply inadequate to meet the basic costs of accommodation, food and clothing for someone supporting a family.

Averages such as per capita GDP tell us nothing about the distribution of wealth in a society. When assessing standards of living in a country, I tend to look at the level of prosperity of the working classes as my main indicator. If I see widespread poverty among working people, I take that to mean that all is not as it should be, whatever the crude economic indicators for that society as whole.

In the cities, accommodation is the killer. Rent slavery accounts for, depending on which country and which city we are dealing with, half or more of the minimum wage take-home pay in the private rental market, and that’s often for substandard digs. Common sense tells you that there ain’t enough left to live on.

The provision of ‘social housing’ is common in the European countries where home ownership remains largely restricted to the affluent, but it has come under pressure with growing numbers of the ‘working poor’ and misguided social and immigration policies. Someone who has been on the waiting list for years is hardly likely to be impressed by seeing members of some fashionable minority, or illegal immigrants, being given social housing as a priority.

Hundreds of Syrian refugees to be housed in UK city plagued by homelessness
A MAJOR city has pledged to house hundreds of Syrian refugees despite being gripped by homelessness and demands for social housing.
Headline, ‘The Express’. There are equivalent situations all over Europe. Fashionable causes trump looking after one’s own.
Then there is the tax burden imposed on all and sundry, including people on mediocre incomes – not only income tax but a raft of taxes on just about everything people need. The old quip about being taxed for the air we breathe is no longer so far off the mark in Western Europe. And where does all that tax money go? Law and order, education, health care, defence, pensions – these are all legitimate expenditures of public money, although the cost effectiveness of many public services needs to be questioned. But then on top of that we get taxpayer-funded white elephants – the straw that broke the camel’s back for many ‘yellow vests’ was a new tax on fuel to finance ‘alternative’ energy projects.

Immigrant societies such as NZ and Australia like to portray themselves as ‘classless’ but this is a delusion. Class stratification has, in fact. become more rigid over the past decades and the bottom tier has regressed. Remember the days in NZ when a guy on ‘ordinary’ wages could get a house through the State Advance Corp and support a family? Gosh, that seems an awfully long time ago now! Working poverty is as much a reality in Australia and NZ today as it is in France. There are plenty of latent ‘yellow vests’ in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington…… they just haven’t come out onto the streets [yet].

The ‘yellow vests’ are telling us that Western liberal democracies are failing many of their own people. As well as being perpetually broke, those people feel disenfranchised and marginalised. They do not hold out any hope for relief under the current system and – worse – do not see things getting any better for their children.

The ‘yellow vests’’ problem is that most of them are too ‘ordinary’ to attract the attention of the influential new middle class that soothes its social conscience by channelling its concern about social equity into trendy sex- and race-based causes. They are more concerned about bumping up the number of women and members of select racial minorities in high-salaried positions than about working-class people with kids to house, feed and clothe on a pittance. Their own ‘ordinary’ working class people – the new poor – just don’t make it onto their radar screen.

What we need to ensure in liberal democracies is that the mass of people at the bottom do not descend into a poverty cycle from which there is little or no prospect of breaking away. We need to make sure that ‘ordinary’ incomes are adequate – that an ‘ordinary’ family can house, feed and clothe itself, and have a few bob left over for luxuries.

The key to it lies not so much with wage levels as with addressing the costs of living. Governments need to bring down taxes by scrapping glamour projects, especially the PC-driven ones, and ensuring the cost-effective delivery of public services. The cost of accommodation needs to be addressed – in Europe this comes down to the provision of ‘social housing’ and making sure the right people go into them.

In NZ, home ownership needs to be made accessible to all again. A whopping Capital Gains Tax on residential properties sold within a given period would spike the guns of the speculators whose sharp practices have resulted in prices that have put home ownership out of the reach of people on ‘ordinary’ incomes and engendered the rent slavery-driven poverty cycle that has ensnared so many. Bring back the good old State Advance Corp. People mind being hard up because of exorbitant rents, but they don’t mind anywhere near as much if it is to pay off a mortgage on their own home.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at 


Mervyn said...

A capital gains tax only taxes the problem without curing it. The problem is we have not created enough wealth to pay for the environmental and health and safety protection costs that contribute to about half of the cost of a new house. It is not surprising that existing house values have sky rocketed attracting speculators and also tricking home owners to think they are richer than they are to spend beyond their actual earning power fuelling inflation that undermines the capacity of the less well off to live adequately. Even if the State Advances Corp was reintroduced how could they lend sufficient money to buy a house that the borrower could service the debt. What do we do?, channel productive investment that grows the economy's and tax the community to subsidise mortgages and mortgage servicing?What we need to do is cut the cost of Rolls/Royce environmental and safety programmes. It's no use owning a Rolls /Royce if you can't then afford the petrol to use it.

Anonymous said...

Well said Barend. While I find that poor people are not prepared to sacrifice any of the luxuries of life - television, clothes dryer etc. They are finding it hard. Nutritionally junk food is too cheap and real food to expensive. That is both literal and figurative. All sorts of junk furniture and appliances can be purchased at stores specialising in cheap Chinese imports. You can't blame people for wanting them.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

>"Channel productive investment that grows the economy's and tax the community to subsidise mortgages and mortgage servicing?"
That's not an entirely crazy idea, you know. People who live in their own homes are less likely to become unemployed and more likely to put in more overtime. Their family arrangements are more stable and their kids are more likely to finish school and get a higher education or undergo further education/training. If you look at all the costs to society associated with these issues, I think you'll find subisiding mortgages for lower-income people is an economically rational option.

Peter D said...

Several french politicians including Jacques Cheminade and a prominant french philosopher have concluded that the Yellow Vest movement are protesting the impact that globalisation and the creation of European central bank has had on their lives.
This movement is reacting to the deleterious effects of globalisation that has it's centre on the other side of the Atlantic. Trace the history of the EU and you will find that the USA had a big hand in it's creation.