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Contemptible to be rich?

With the meltdown of international financial system and the left bereft of a grand alternative, it’s all up for grabs. My own experiences as a software developer have led me to working practices which seem to share much with anarcho-syndicalism and guild socialism; hence my interest in what David Marquand identifies as democratic republicanism, and its last serious exponent, the historian R.H. Tawney.

Richard Tawney
Richard Tawney

I find myself unable to join the many admirers of Tawney’s cautious and heavily qualified prose style. Nonetheless, here’s a solid piece to chew on as we contemplate the implosion of what he aptly called the acquisitive society.

A formula sometimes hailed by Socialists as the watch-word of a new order is Equality of Opportunity; but the phrase may express either of two distinct – and sometimes, though not always, antithetic – ideals. The opportunities which it is desired to equalize may be opportunities to rise; to get on; to exchange one position for a succession of others; to climb, in the conventional metaphor, the educational or economic ladder. Or they may be opportunities to lead a good life, in all senses of the term, whether one ‘rises’ or not. The emphasis of the former interpretation of the phrase is on mobility. Its aim is the establishment of conditions which offer the maximum scope for individual self-advancement. The emphasis of the latter is on solidarity. The society sought by it is one in which, while individuals are free to follow the bent of their talent or tastes, the impulse to seek a new position is not sharpened by exasperation at unnecessary disabilities attaching to that already held, and in which the majority of men are happy to continue in familiar surroundings, because they enjoy in them, not only economic security, but the dignity, the social contacts, and, if they please, the intellectual interests and culture, which human nature demands. The sentiment of the father who hopes – too often, as things are, with reason – that his son will follow any trade but his own illustrates the first view. The attitude of the worker who refuses a foreman’s job because it would divide him from his mates illustrates the second.

Individuals deprived of the chance to use their powers as they please suffer from frustration. Further, society cannot afford more than a certain proportion of fools in high places, which in England is already – to speak with moderation – sufficiently large, and must draw, if its directive work is to be efficiently done, on a broad stream of talent from below. For both reasons arrangements facilitating vertical mobility are important. It is equally or more essential, however, that the mass of mankind, who, for obvious statistical reasons, cannot perform athletic feats in scaling social heights, should enjoy a high standard of civilization. Nothing could be more remote from Socialist ideals than the competitive scramble of a society which pays lip-service to equality, but too often means by it merely equal opportunities of becoming unequal. Our aim should be the opposite. It should be to effect a complete divorce between the differences of pecuniary income and differences in respect of health, security, amenity of environment, culture, social status and esteem. Might it not, indeed, be beneficial, not only to destroy the connexion between them existing today, but to reverse it, so as to make it contemptible to be rich and honourable to be poor?

— “British Socialism Today” in The Radical Tradition, R.H. Tawney, 1966

A romantic dream – or has this year’s revulsion against the bankers and their bonuses made it once again conceivable?

Up next Hit me! To the Edgar Wallace pub in Essex St yesterday afternoon for the now-monthly meeting of the London chapter of the British APL Association and a pint Republic of two
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