Should we be targeting the super-rich in general? Yes: Some thoughts on direct action against austerity.

“In this era of crisis reportage, if you don’t have a crisis to call your own, you’re not in the news. And if you’re not in the news, you don’t exist. It’s as though the virtual world constructed in the media has become more real than the real world….Every self-respecting people’s movement, every “issue,”  needs to have its own hot-air balloon in the sky advertising its brand and purpose…One way to cut loose is to understand that for most people in the world, peace is war – a daily battle against hunger, thirst, and the violation of their dignity. Wars are often the end result of a flawed peace, a putative peace. And it is the flaws, the systemic flaws in what is normally considered to be “peace,” that we ought to be writing about. We have to—at least some of us have to—become peace correspondents instead of war correspondents. We have to lose our terror of the mundane. We have to use our skills and imagination and our art, to re-create the rhythms of the endless crisis of normality, and in doing so, expose the policies and processes that make ordinary things –food, water, shelter, and dignity—such a distant dream for ordinary people.”[1]

The above statement from Arundhati Roy, made in 2004, is still extremely relevant today. As the word ‘crisis’ is repeated ad nauseam to describe the recent economic debacle, we are put into a position where we frame this recent ‘crisis’ as unmoored in history, as exceptional, and, as Naomi Klein would be sure to point out, set ourselves up for economic ‘shock therapy’ which will in the long run leave us worse off. It is in this context that I want to talk about UK Uncut and similar direct action against austerity. Before doing so, however, I want to make it clear that I’m not setting up a contradiction to which Marxism will conveniently appear as an answer. In an era of unprecedented upheaval, romanticism about the hard left can be an antioxidant to thought.

I also don’t want to start this with a glib assessment of what UK Uncut has achieved, and this is partly because I find it hard to say. I know about them, and so do my left leaning friends. They represent a reasoned and intelligent position, with moral credibility; but this is true about a large number of other activist groups who, admittedly less media savvy and populist, remain publicly invisible and have in some cases have disbanded altogether. The other reason for remaining cautious about optimism is because I think in celebrating our achievements too wholeheartedly we can sometimes end up setting the bar a little bit too low.

As David Harvey is keen to point out, the recent financial crisis is hardly something unheard of within neoliberal capitalism, and in The Enigma of Capital[2] he offers a myriad of similar crashes from the last twenty years. While there is much work still to be done in unearthing the nuts and bolts of what happened and placing appropriate blame but what is more important, as Roy suggests, is that we focus on normality instead.

As Will Hutton has noted: “Britain boasts a burgeoning super-rich sector: there are 47 000 people in this country with an average pre-tax income of £780 000 a year. Another 420 000 have pre-tax incomes of between £100 000 and £350 000….But below them are 10 million adults who earn less than £15 000 a year….Two million children live in low-income working families.”[3]

Moreover, this staggering inequality is hardly a timeless truth: “During the 1980s and 1990s wealth distribution remained static. Britain, like the US remained a country with vast wealth inequalities. By the end of the 1980s – after a decade of Thatcherite market radicalism – the top 10 per cent of adults owned 45 per cent of the wealth, and 30 per cent of adults still had less than £5000 in assets.”[4]

There are numerous sources you can go for similar figures. The importance of this inequality is not marginal or statistical, but is reflected in a variety of ways ranging from physical and mental health, poorer life chances and higher crime, as tirelessly detailed in books like The Spirit Level[5], among others.

Unsurprisingly, these differences are reflected in politics. John Scott, in his systematic survey of ‘Who Rules Britain’, notes that the state elites are typically taken from similar backgrounds (Eton, Oxbridge, etc) and thus occupy a somewhat similar worldview. As Parliament was originally formed to express the collective will of the nobility, this is no surprise. Today, however, the state is increasingly penetrated by the formal voice of capital, and counts large financial organizations as a growing part of their number:

“For example, 77 per cent of Boris Johnson’s mayoral campaign in 2008 was funded by hedge funds, private equity firms and their managers…Likewise, according to the Lib Dems in the run-up to the 2010 general election, City funding for the Conservative Party has quadrupled since David Cameron assumed leadership of the party….Bankers also work hard at their penetration of British government, with numerous people moving through the ‘revolving door’ between the financial sector and officialdom. According to one OECD study, only Switzerland has more traffic between the two areas; the UK even outscores the United States.”[6]

According to some commentators, the combination of class and with City interests has certainly never been quite as clear as in the current government.[7] Regardless of whether this is so, the fact remains that high incomes tend to distort the recipient’s perception of reality, and consequently their understanding of ordinary existence gets lost.[8]

There are more elements to the crisis of normality. The 3 per cent rate of profit necessary for capital to ‘grow’ demands a never-ending accumulation of wealth and expansion of business, as Harvey argues. This is what is responsible for the absurd growth of the non-productive ‘shadow’ banking economy, and the seeming addiction of contemporary capitalism to asset bubbles.[9] In addition, it is this desire for continued growth and profits that is fuelling the dismantling of the NHS, which is being pushed through by private interests.[10]

The destruction of the environment is also part of the crisis. As Herme Kempf writes in his short, effective polemic, the creation of an oligarchic class living in opulence drives unsustainable development, as the 6 billion without super-yachts, without second homes, without holidays abroad, aspire to live in similar ways. “Why then are the present characteristics of the global ruling class the essential factor in the environmental crisis?” he asks: “Because this class opposes the radical changes that we would have to conduct to prevent the aggravation of the situation….Indirectly, by the status of its consumption: its model drags general consumption up by impelling others to imitate it. Directly, by control of economic and political power that allows it to maintain this inequality.”[11]

In my view there is no answer to the crisis of normality that does not involve the dispossession of excessive wealth from those who now use it both to erode existing standards of living in pursuit of profit while at the same time structuring society around irresponsible and ultimately fatal environmental practices. I want to emphasize again that I am not coming at this from a dogmatically Marxist point of view. The critique of the rich, who are much a product of economic forces as they are of individually transmitted, historically constituted, privilege, is in my view where economic, social, cultural and environmental criticisms can productively intertwine.

This brings me back to UK Uncut. What I want to suggest is not necessarily a change of tactics, but a shift of focus. There are two problems with confronting the branches of banks and luxury stores. The first is that you rarely confront any of the figures who are actually responsible for the problems that UK Uncut rightly critique. At best, you might get an annoyed line manager who, while obviously complicit with the company, is also just as powerless and desperate for an income as you are. The second problem is that focusing on one particular excess, you lose focus on the problem of excessive wealth in general.

I would therefore propose the application of nonviolent direct action to the organs of class reproduction, better understood as means by which the extremely wealthy constitute and maintain themselves.

In Britain, one way of doing this would be occupying and disrupting the social club network which is a necessary part of co-ordination between the upper echelons. As John Scott writes:

“Lunchtime and evening meetings over a drink or a meal at the club have been frequent and important sources of information for those involved in business and politics…Despite their reduced role, the clubs remain important as centres of informal interaction, sources of business and political information, and places for pursuing job and career opportunities.”[12]

In case you’re wondering where these mythical places are and which ones are important, Scott is unambiguous:

“Most important of the clubs in the post-war period have been the Reform and Travellers, which are especially popular among senior civil servants, the smaller dining clubs such as Boodle’s, Brook’s Pratt’s, The Beefsteak, Buck’s, and White’s, the university and service clubs, political clubs such as the Carlton, and the National Liberal and, at the hub of London clubland, the Athenaeum, which draws on all areas of politics, the civil service, and the City.”[13]

As this book was written in 1991, I don’t know how true it is today. However, as Left Foot Forward recently posted, around a quarter of Tory MPs are still active members of these networks including the Prime Minister.[14] If places such as these became targets for direct action, it could have considerable implications. As well as being an opportunity to disrupt the workings of these networks, albeit to a limited degree, there is also something to be said for disrupting the leisure time of the upper class, as a class, and thus force a class-based response.

Can anyone imagine the tremors that would go through the upper classes if the Carlton club (boasting a £900 entry fee and a £1, 140 per year subscription fee) was were occupied by protesters demanding their money back? Here I think there is an important point about direct action: instead of using the non-violence as a tactic to avoid police brutality or repercussions, for which it is not terribly effective, it might be more effective as an expression of moral force and used to point out awkward and unspoken social hierarchies. By interfering with what is supposed to be ‘off the table’, while remaining non-violent, interesting possibilities emerge. The fact that it is so implicit that ‘we should not do such a thing’ is reason to at least consider it.

I feel that, if such tactics are deployed, there are three possible outcomes, some of which may be concurrent. Firstly, repression. This however might be an excellent defeat if only because the British ruling class is so recalcitrant about showing its face and a collective response would be so likely. Secondly, the interactions in public of the very wealthy might become more difficult, or at least a little bit more embarrassing, as they will be publicly exposed. Thirdly, the sense that the ‘have nots’ is turning into resentment against the rich will unnerve the government, who are directly accountable to the constituency of the super-rich in a way that they never will be to the general population.

There are two initial arguments against. The first is that people are very well trained in their deference to the rich. This might be so, and the fervour over the royal wedding is certainly evidence. At the same time, I feel that it’s impossible to get to a better society without first going through this barrier, and the sooner the better. The second argument is that the media might respond aggressively. To this, I will finish where I began, with a quote from Arundhati Roy:

“It’s a mistake to think that the corporate media supports the neo-liberal project. It is the neo-liberal project. It is the nexus, the confluence, the convergence, the union, the chosen medium of those who have power and money.”[15]

Since media support will last approximately as long as we remain unthreatening and ineffective, I feel like the only way to use it productively is to make the facts speak as loudly as possible. By drawing attention to the privileged who make decisions and network behind closed doors, it will be doing our job for us.

Outrage and revulsion at the excesses are one thing, but a movement against the accumulation and transmission of exorbitant, destructive, unequal wealth goes to the heart of the crisis of normality. It is the antidote to the asinine insistence on ‘social mobility’, ‘meritocracy’ and above all the notion that economic growth will eventually leave us all with enough and, moreover, avoid trashing the planet in the meantime.

[1] Roy, Arundhati Peace is War collected in An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2004) South End Press pp. 1-21

[2] Harvey, David The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (2010) Profile Books

[3] Hutton, Will Them and Us: Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fairer Society (2010) Little, Brown & Co. pp. 11-12

[4] Haseler, Stephen The Super-Rich: The Unjust World of Global Capitalism (2000) Palgrave Macmillan

[5] Wilkinson, Richard, Pickett, Kate The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009) Allen Lane

[6] Hutton, Will,  pp. 179-180

[8] Toynbee, Polly and Walker, David Unjust Rewards: Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today (2008) Granta

[9] See Harvey, above.

[11] Kempf, Herve How the Rich are Destroying the Earth (2008) Chelsea Green Publishing, pp. 70

[12] Scott, John Who Rules Britain? (1991) Polity pp. 110

[13] ibid.

[15] Roy, Arundhati, . pp. 4

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