I suppose the most remarkable thing about the Emergency Budget is how calmly most people are taking it. If one lays out its main propositions in language less flowery than the Chancellor used, it is certainly inflammatory. The average citizen will be hit up for more tax, get less public services, pay more for their childrens’ university fees and unemployment will rise; however corporation tax will be reduced and the banks, which were the cause of much of our present troubles, will pay a small proportion of their income in new taxes. There will be a relatively small rise in capital gains tax and certainly no “Robin Hood” levy. A few have raised their voices against this fundamental injustice; however Labour is constrained by the fact that up until very recently, they too had a cozy relationship with big business. Brown’s praise of the supposed innovative genius of the City must still linger hauntingly in his memory and that of his Party, which perhaps explains his tasteful absence from the Commons as of late. Or at least, one would hope so.
Caroline Lucas, of course, has spoken against the unfairness of the budget. So have the trade unions. But by and large there is a collective shrugging of shoulders, a weariness in the vox populi which merely replies, “Let’s get on with it.”
But why? Surely there should be much more rage that arises from this unbalanced equation? I suspect part of our present passivity has to do with a perception that the entire political establishment is simultaneously corrupt and immovable. They overspent, they took money they shouldn’t have to give themselves a cosseted lifestyle, and now the cheque has come due. Caroline Lucas’ forthrightness raises a smile, but she can’t do it all by herself. This is reality. Let’s just get on with it.
But this “reality”, as has been spelled out by Dr. Lucas, is due to choices. Choices imply “more than one option”. There are other means by which the deficit can be reduced: corporation tax in Britain is already among the lowest in the developed world. Why lower it further? Why not raise it slightly? Every individual home or car owner is well acquainted with the concept of insurance: we pay premiums in exchange for security. Surely the banks should be paying something similar in exchange for the limitless cover they receive? Salaries, particularly in the financial industry, have exploded beyond all rational measure, creating a two-tiered society: namely the super-rich and the rest of us. Surely we should claw this back for the benefit of all? Few say this, more just accept things as they are. Let’s just get on with it.
Perhaps we’re so stitched up because we’re dreaming. Slavoj Zizek, in his documentary entitled “A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema”, described the dilemma facing Keanu Reeves’ character Neo in “The Matrix”. Neo is offered a choice: one pill which will enable him to go back to the fantasy land which he has inhabited hitherto, and another which will awaken him to grim reality. Zizek then interjected that he wanted a third pill, because he wished to see the illusion contained within reality.
We all participate in building and sustaining such mirages. A couple of days ago, I talked to a couple of work colleagues about one of the most fundamental of them all. I fished a five pound note out of my wallet and pointed to the phrase, “promise to pay the bearer the sum of five pounds”. I asked, “Five pounds of what?” Certainly not gold. Definitely not barley, wheat, even bicycle clips. It’s a fantasy to which we adhere and by which our economy functions. We are trading around illusions of value but they have the force of reality. As this example demonstrates, we are compelled by imagination to blend in elements of fiction into our existence; the problem is that we can become prisoners of the same. At the moment, we are locked in a nightmare world in which inconstant markets can decide that British debt is not worth buying and send our credit rating crashing to the ground. This budget is being done in obeisance to its requirements; in other words, we cannot imagine an alternative to obeying the perceived dictates of an economic system. In our present visualisation of the economy, rather than it being the servant of man, man has become its servant, constantly feeding it with monetary and fiscal measures and paying attention to its needs to the point where we care more about its welfare than those it consumes.
“Lack of imagination” sounds like something that can be easily cured. But the pervasive “let’s just get on with it” mood shows how deep the malaise runs. A reading of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggests that it took root (along with civilisation) at the moment when someone enclosed a bit of land and said “This is mine”, and no one stopped this individual. Rousseau stated that this man should have been called an imposter; yet no one did. A dearth of vision now overrides fundamental notions of justice, the human talent for seeing things as disproportionate, the natural urge to correct and straighten. It has in essence, reduced the populace to mere sheep, and few of those are baying.
Is there hope? Certainly. The lack of universality of present assumptions is a good start. When the pain starts to really bite, then there may be a space in which both more widespread questions and alternatives emerge. Indeed, there is a case to be made which suggests that the Coalition Government knows not what it does: as a result of their policies, they are going to increase unemployment to 8.1% this year. Their assumptions of future growth and employment are based upon the economy having had enough blood sacrifice to satisfy its appetite, a hunger whose satiation is challenging to quantify. The figures could be wrong, and in response, a much poorer populace may start to ask “Why?”, a query which I suggest is the starting point to any great change. In other words, the Government’s lack of imagination in the face of crisis may be the undoing not only of them, but all the supposed facts upon which their policies rest. Yes, for the moment, the sheep are largely quiet and dreaming, but it may just take a few lashings of austerity and the presentation of a new vision to transform them into lions.