Nick Cohen

If you are so rich, how come you are so left wing?

If you are so rich, how come you are so left wing?
Text settings

A few days ago the Telegraph revealed that the leader of Momentum was – inevitably – the privately educated son of a property tycoon, whose father had the wealth to fund a home in Primrose Hill, a wife, children, and allegedly a couple of mistresses on the side.

I shared the news on social media, because I have met and disliked too many of his kind. The complaints began at once. I should not judge a man by his background. He did not choose his parents. What matters are James Schneider’s beliefs. It is where you are going which counts, not where you come from. And so on.

And on.

The easy response was to say that, as Schneider’s beliefs must lead to a purge of the Labour party on behalf of the fag end of British Leninism, they provide a sufficiently target-rich environment. Why waste time and ammunition by dragging his family into it? I doubt my complainants would have been happy with that. They are the same people who cry 'smear!' every time a journalist points out that their leaders go along with every species of apology for Baathism, Islamism and Putinism.

My angry readers might have added, but strangely none did, that Labour’s attempt to damn David Cameron and George Osborne as ‘toffs’ was an abject failure. Labour and Ukip supporters cheered, but they were never going to vote Tory. The people Labour needed to convince reasoned that your class is like your skin colour – an accident of birth. You no more choose it than you choose your genes.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. But if a doctor wants to understand why you are ill, he or she will find knowledge of inherited diseases useful. And if you want to understand others – or know yourself – knowledge of where they came from and how they live now is as essential.

I cannot find the quote, but Owen Jones of the Guardian once said words to the effect of: if you are working class and on the left, the Daily Mail mocks you as a chippy exponent of the politics of envy. If you are middle class and on the left, the Mail damns you as a hypocrite. He forgot to add that just because the Mail sneers at you does not mean you can avoid hard questions.

The old dilemma wealth and left-wing politics raised was encapsulated in the title of a series of lectures by the philosopher G. A. Cohen If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're so Rich? When he was young in the 1970s, Cohen believed with Marx and Engels that moralising was ridiculous. Capitalism was bound to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Socialists did not have to worry about personal morality. They just had to help hurry the inevitable revolution, which would solve all moral questions of its own accord

What with one thing and another, Cohen could no longer believe in the inevitability of communism by the 21st century. If you were an egalitarian, and had money, the only moral course was to give large chunks of it away. He tried every excuse he could think of for holding on to wealth, but found them all specious. It was not enough to argue for a more just society. Consistency demanded that you acted on your principles.

The American steel baron and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie put it more succinctly when he said: ‘He who dies rich dies shamed’. The only English person I know who has lived by this maxim is Julie Burchill, whose pose as a ferocious columnist does not fool me for an instant. She is the kindest and sweetest of women — much, much kinder and sweeter and, for that matter, more generous than I could ever be. Burchill has given away a small fortune. Tellingly, the middle-class left damn her as a Zionist and a transphobic Zionist at that, while taking great care not to follow her selfless example.

The takeover of the Labour party by the far left raises a new dilemma for the rich left. And by rich I don’t just mean the far left’s celebs – Billy Bragg, Charlotte Church, Brian Eno. I mean any academic, public sector manager, charity boss, journalist, teacher or doctor who earns more or considerably more than the £42,385 higher rate threshold. If you are making, say, £60,000 a year you may not think of yourself as rich. But you are on more than twice the average wage of £26,500, and are rich by the standards of most people in Britain. If you make £100,000 you are in the top 10 per cent of British earners and in the richest 0.1 per cent of the world’s population. Only right-wing journalists would call this the 'middle class'.

If you have the honesty to acknowledge your good fortune, which may well be dependent on who your parents were and what advantages they gave you, you should accept another hard truth. A Conservative government suits you very well. You may profoundly disagree with it, but you have a financial interest in keeping it in power. By supporting Corbyn and his fellow travellers, you are helping the Conservatives, who won’t raise taxes on wealthy people such as, well, you, and will when it can cut them.

And maybe you are doing something worse. Maybe you are not as concerned with building a just society, as you claim. Perhaps, like so many wealthy revolutionaries, you want to use the victims of injustice as an army of silent extras in an agitprop psychodrama, directed by and starring yourself. You don’t care, if the revolution never comes. You do not worry that Corbyn and Momentum are ensuring that the Conservatives stay in power until 2025 or 2030. You want to vent your fury, fight your sectarian wars, hate the Tory scum and destroy the Blairite traitors, without once noticing the grateful smiles on the faces of Cameron and Osborne.

Until they have a concrete programme for removing the Conservatives from power – and there is no sign of one coming – poor little rich boys like James Schneider are no better than the right wing of the British rich.

I suppose the best you can say about them is at least right wingers are honest. They are naked and unashamed in the pursuit of its self-interest. You never hear of Michael D Gooley, Richard Caring, Christopher Rokos or any of the other big Tory donors, using their access to Cameron to demand that the Conservative Party be more compassionate. I may have missed them, but I have never seen an article in the Telegraph, Mail or Times arguing that those with money should pay higher taxes either. Our plutocratic elite is characterised by its meanness, which is made intolerable by the accompanying self-pity and self-righteousness with which the right-wing press justifies selfishness.

The Financial Times, to quote a glaring instance, recently ran an unctuous article praising the City for its generosity. It claimed that dealers and bankers have not ‘dared flaunt their wealth since the financial crisis’ – which is news to those of us who bump into them. It quoted the Lord Mayor of London saying it was ‘astonishing’ how bad the City was at telling the story of its philanthropic record.

Then, buried at the end, was a giveaway final line with the authentically ‘astonishing’ revelation.

'Britons still have a way to go before catching up with philanthropists in the US. Giving USA said Americans donated about $358.5bn to charity in 2014, while individual donations in the UK were about £10.6bn in 2014, according to the Charities Aid Foundation.

In other words, not many on the rich right follow the moral example of Andrew Carnegie and Julie Burchill or of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

Meanwhile too many on the rich left think they are being virtuous when they refuse to allow another imperfect centre-left movement, whose one virtue is that it may win an election, to grow. Their refusal to compromise their principles ensures that they never have to compromise their profits.