Sunday, 20 May 2007

Long live the Con

When so many commentators in Britain and America are queuing up to congratulate France for electing a President who’s prepared to drive through ‘reforms’, take the ‘tough decisions’, and bring about ‘greater flexibility’, you have to start worrying for the French people. What have they done?

They have for decades struck a nice balance between work and life – producing sought after designs and goods all round the world, and enjoying a decent quality of life sustained by economic security. What exactly went wrong? In short, they began to be undercut by corporations which made more money by squeezing their employees dry. Corporations which are celebrated by Anglo-American pundits for ‘thriving’ in the global marketplace by being utterly committed to cutting back on employment protection, demanding longer hours, polarising between the bosses who could do more and more as they please, and the dispensable workers. The message to France and other socially minded countries in Western Europe has been simple: embrace this style of governance or perish.

But why would the citizens of any democracy, in France or anywhere else, give up the power they have through their state and let new leaders dismantle the precious apparatus for securing liberty and equality for all? Well, you have to use the old divide-and-rule trick, but give it a contemporary twist.

Here’s the new con – a compassionate one as some like to put it, for it hinges on showing how caring you are – challenge people to choose between trusting themselves or some faceless public institution. Put this to them bluntly: Wouldn’t you rather trust yourself than somebody else? To keep your destiny in your own hands, you must distrust, nay, reject anyone trying to regulate things on your behalf. Keep these meddlers away, and what happens in life would be down to your own efforts. You can’t get fairer than that.

Once the gullible bites, you can feed them the rest. Why pay ever more taxes to the state when you know better how to spend your own money? Why let anyone dictate to you how many hours you can work, or indeed what conditions are acceptable for you to work under, when all that would do is to hamper you from earning what you deserve? Why allow busy bodies to interfere with what can be sold to you, or how it should be sold to you when it would just add to the costs of what you want to buy? Why do we have to pool our resources to invest in schools and hospitals for everyone, when we should be able to choose the health and education services we want from successful private companies?

Con artists at the service of plutocratic barons have refined their message with a reference to globalization here, and a nod to post-modernity there. But their intent is the same as it ever was – ensure those who have amassed wealth and power over others can take the fullest advantage of them without any intervention from collective forces acting in the public good. They want people to see taxes, civic institutions, public standards, state inspection regimes, regulations and controls as all inherently bad. They invite to us to cut them right back, so that we can be more free, more flexible, more ready – to be picked off one by one. They are counting on each and everyone of us to be foolish enough to be tricked into enslavement in the name of individual freedom. Vive le con.

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