Sometimes the challenges facing those of us who would like the UK to remain a civilised country with a functioning democracy and a strong social contract seem daunting.
This article suggests that we may be able to learn a lot from Greek mythology. The way Hercules killed the Hydra – a 10-headed venomous serpent – has important lessons for us today:
- The post-war social contract was extremely good news for the vast bulk of the population;
- But it was not good news for wealthy market fundamentalists. The popularity of the post-war social contract meant that, in a democracy, it would be hard to get rid of it. And this set a fundamental challenge for the market fundamentalists;
- In a strategic masterstroke – or perhaps through fortuitous evolution – they created ‘the Hydra’, a powerful political force for achieving their aims without ever needing to declare them;
- Not without difficulty, Hercules figured out how to kill the Hydra – and we can too.
Good News for The 99%
During the Second World War, the National Government of Great Britain commissioned Sir William Beveridge to produce a report on the reconstruction of Britain after the war ended. His report aimed to create a better, fairer, more prosperous society, and to reward the nation for the shared sacrifices during the war.
Specifically, Beveridge aimed to free Britain from what he called Five Giants: Want [poverty], Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness [unemployment]. The report was published in November 1942, and was overwhelmingly popular with the public.
Despite a far more difficult economic situation than we face today, Clement Attlee and his government implemented Beveridge’s report through a series of Acts of Parliament (the National Insurance Act 1946, the National Assistance Act 1948, and the National Health Service Act 1946) which founded the modern British Welfare State. And in so doing, they created a new social contract. They were not deterred by myths of ‘unaffordability.’
For most people, this social contract was a dramatic improvement on what had gone before – as the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said in 1957, “you’ve never had it so good.” And he was right. The post-war settlement was extremely successful economically: it led to the Golden Age of Capitalism, the period from 1945-1980 during which the economy grew at unprecedented rates, and the benefits of growth were shared widely by the population as a whole.
Bad News for Market Fundamentalists
But not everyone was happy. Some of the wealthy, the market fundamentalists, saw this new social contract as a profound injustice. The problem was that the progressive taxation needed to fund the NHS and the Welfare State was gradually reducing the gap between rich and poor. From being over 70 times wealthier than the average at the turn of the last century, by 1980 they were only 20 times wealthier.
The most talented members of society, the market fundamentalists believed, were being forced, against their will, to subsidise the losers and the left-behind. As William Rees-Mogg put it in his book, The Sovereign Individual,
“The terms of progressive income taxation, which emerged in every democratic welfare state during the course of the 20th century, are dramatically unlike pricing provisions that would be preferred by customers [wealthy taxpayers].… Government in many respects appears to be run for the benefit of employees [the mass of the population – see quotes below].”
If this problem could be overcome, the social contract could be dissolved, and progressive taxation removed. The poor would then have to depend on charity from the wealthy – that charity would of course be at much lower levels than the ‘punitive’ taxation that the rich had been forced to endure; and the recipients would need to work much harder to persuade the donors that they deserved it. In Rees-Mogg’s words,
“Still another likely spur to sterner morality will be the end of entitlements and income redistribution. When the hope of aid for those falling behind is based primarily upon appeals to private individuals and charitable bodies, it will be more important than it has been in the 20th century that the recipients of charity appear to be morally deserving to those voluntarily dispensing the charity.”
Democracy as a hurdle to be overcome
The fundamental issue they faced in dismantling the new social contract was its overwhelming popularity. In a democracy, it is hard to remove something which most of the population wants. As Rees-Mogg put it,
“Mass democracy leads to control of government by its ‘employees.’
But wait. You may be saying that in most jurisdictions there are many more voters than there are persons on the government payroll. How could it be possible for employees to dominate under such conditions? The welfare state emerged to answer exactly this quandary. Since there were not otherwise enough employees to create a working majority, increasing numbers of voters were effectively put on the payroll to receive transfer payments of all kinds. In effect the recipients of transfer payments and subsidies became student employees of government who were able to dispense with the bother of reporting every day to work.”
Clearly, the market fundamentalists needed political power to achieve their objectives; equally clearly, if they made their objectives clear, they would gain no political support in a democracy. What could they do?
Creating the Hydra
The answer was to create ‘The Hydra.’ In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a many-headed serpent whose venom, and even whose breath, was deadly. This Hydra is a useful metaphor for the solution the market fundamentalists found to their quandary.
The body of the Hydra represents the philosophy of market fundamentalism. This was to remain hidden, masked behind a carefully woven tapestry of economic myths, supported by most of the media. Most powerful of all of these myths is the myth of unaffordability. According to this myth, government finances are in such a state that spending must be reduced. Austerity is, they claim, a regrettable but unavoidable necessity. It is not a policy choice, so there is no point questioning it.
And from austerity, spring many of the heads of the Hydra: mass impoverishment, underfunding of the NHS, under-resourcing of the police force, inability to address the climate emergency, underfunding of schools and local government, rising rates of homelessness, and rising rates of stress and mental illness. All of these are justified by the myth of unaffordability according to which it is not policy choices that led to these problems, it is the inevitable result of not being able to afford to do any better.
Each one of these heads is deadly, and attracts attention and resources from those who care about such things. Individually, each is large enough to occupy multiple think tanks, charities and campaign groups. In combination, they are enough to prevent people looking at the myths and seeing behind them the body of the Hydra.
And the most brilliant thing of all from the point of view of a market fundamentalist is that, the more the UK population struggle financially, the more plausible people find it when politicians say that the government to needs to rein-in its spending.
For the market fundamentalists, the more the policy of austerity fails, the more it succeeds.
How Hercules Slew the Hydra
So for our current civilisation to survive, we need to find a way to kill the Hydra. And perhaps Greek mythology can come to our aid here.
As you may remember, the hero Hercules was set a number of tasks – the Labours of Hercules. And the second of these labours was to kill the Hydra. Initially, Hercules thought the task was not difficult: he was quickly able to lop off several of the Hydra’s heads. But then to his horror, from each stump another two heads grew. Hercules realised that he was about to be overwhelmed and withdrew.
He called on his nephew Iolaus to help him. They returned together and, as Hercules cut off each head, his nephew cauterised the wounds to prevent the new heads from growing back. In this way, Hercules was finally able to kill the Hydra.
So, for progressive organisations trying to battle the heads, there may be three lessons to learn:
- We cannot do it alone – we need to work together as a team to defeat the Hydra;
- We cannot do it just by lopping off the heads – we also need to tackle the root causes to stop the heads from multiplying. This means calling out the market fundamentalist agenda which is guiding government policy at every turn;
- We must have courage – in particular, we must have the courage to challenge the myth of unaffordability: without that, every sound policy proposal can be dismissed as ‘wishful thinking.’ And even a change of government, if we do not challenge that myth, will not kill the Hydra.
If Hercules could learn to kill his Hydra, so can we. And instead of a future of mass impoverishment, we can create a world where everyone is far better-off than today. These five actions will help replace the Hydra with a government that can be trusted to look after the British people.
And if you are just an ordinary citizen, you can also help:
- You can help make sure your friends and family understand the root causes of the problems facing the UK. If you are interested in more detail – especially on the myth of unaffordability – the book 99% may be helpful;
- You can vote tactically to ensure the replacement of our market fundamentalist government;
- And if you think you would like to help, take a look at the 99% Organisation and join us.