It may seem outrageously melodramatic to compare the state of Britain today with Nazi Germany, but it strikes me that the similarities are increasing at an alarming rate.
As I understand it there are now more people dependent on handouts from food banks than at any time since the 1920s. Extreme poverty has mushroomed over the last few years. Ten years ago, if anyone had forecast this, nobody would have believed them. Of course nobody did forecast it. We were a civilised developed country. It was never going to happen. Yet it is happening, and most of us now accept it. Or ignore it.
How have public attitudes changed so radically so quickly? Government, the finance industry and the mass media have between them persuaded us to accept what only a short time ago was unacceptable. I see three elements in their achievement.
1) Commitment. Enough of the ruling classes – especially the Government and the main opposition – are committed to a theory which is making things worse. The theory is that progress in human well-being is to be achieved by economic growth. Maintaining this myth has meant that throughout the recession and the austerity, the ultra-rich have been getting richer. There is plenty of wealth, plenty of money. It just needs to be redistributed so that everybody has enough and nobody has too much. However, maintaining the faith in economic growth provides an excuse for indefinitely delaying any such redistribution.
Today’s news illustrates my point perfectly. Two items are neatly juxtaposed. One is that the International Monetary Fund has upgraded the UK economy: this year’s forecast is raised from 1.9% to 2.4%. This, we are supposed to believe, is good news. Actually it only means that more money will change hands. Whether it changes hands for productive or destructive purposes is something the statistics don’t tell us. The main hope is that more jobs will be created. Well, the Government could have created more jobs any time it wanted. It is their commitment to their economic theory that persuades them to leave the poor in their poverty.
The other piece of news is the Oxfam report saying that the 85 richest people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. It speaks for itself, but we should note the connection with the IMF news. Every time the economy grows, the stock market goes up. Without the stock market going up there would be no economic growth, given the way the system works these days. Every time the stock market goes up, those who invest in the stock market get richer. The poor don’t have the money to invest in the stock market. In other words, every time capitalist governments achieve the economic growth that we have all been taught to consider normal, the gap between rich and poor increases.
In other words, mainstream economic orthodoxy believes that in order to make things better we have to do what, in the real world, makes things worse. On this point 1930s Germany had more justification than Britain today: after all we are still the 7th richest country in the world.
2) Blame. In order to make their policies politically popular the Government encourage the disadvantaged to blame each other. Just as 1930s Germany encouraged the poverty-stricken to blame Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, the present British Government is encouraging them to blame immigrants and benefit recipients. According to the opinion polls this divide-and-rule policy is working as well now as it did in 1930s Germany. We may pride ourselves on not being like those wicked Nazis, but we are not that different: when we feel embittered, we too can pick on an unpopular minority, scapegoat them and applaud the infliction of great cruelties on them. It is happening right now.
3) Distraction. As our country gets more and more divided it becomes easier to ignore the sufferings of people in other classes and places. In theory we have more news available to us now than ever before; in practice most of the information simply distracts us from the important issues. Just as, in 1930s Germany, many of the better off classes responded to the horrible situation by turning their backs on politics to devote their lives to other things, so also today increasing numbers, especially of the young, are so disgusted with politicians that they do not vote – and thereby leave those hated politicians in control.
It is those three elements – a self-interested commitment to destructive theories, a divide-and-rule policy of creating powerless scapegoats, and an anti-politics culture that leaves power securely in the hands of the ruling classes – that seem to me to mirror what happened in 1930s Germany. It’s not that bad yet, but it’s going in that direction. In theory we still have a democracy and things could change. I just hope we do before things deteriorate any further.