Living in Ireland during the years after the financial crisis, the finance minister would explain in sombre tones that everyone must face hardship together, that the situation was one in which everyone shared. But they didn’t, and it wasn’t. The years of austerity were an opportunity for rich people to become even richer. Investors who had gambled on the bond market and had lost were bailed out by taxes from working people. Cash rich speculators snapped up houses at the bottom of the market. Vulture funds moved in to buy up indebted properties from mortgage companies for a fraction of their value and then demanded the full value of the property from the people struggling to pay the mortgages. The years of austerity were a time of an extraordinary transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.
Internationally, the Irish experience was replicated, public money was used to cover private debt. Collapsed banks were bailed out with taxes from ordinary people. The extremely wealthy used the opportunity to become more wealthy, and poorer people became poorer.
The widening gulf between rich and poor might have been the focus of attention in previous generations, there might have been protests demanding political and economic reforms, instead a convenient scandal has been found to channel energies in a way that will bring no change.
Extinction Rebellion, school climate strikes, a teenage girl sailing to the United States; a muddying of the waters so that people think that David Attenborough standing at a pop festival and telling a crowd of middle class youths that they had used fewer plastic bottles is something revolutionary. The current climate change movement expresses outrage and has so far done nothing to halt climate change, but has diverted attention from the social and economic realities of growing social inequalities and injustices.
Climate change has become the scandal that has sustained the elites. It has diverted attention from hard economic data to something nebulous, for no two environmentalists are agreed on the solution to the questions they pose. And who suffers most from the so-called “green” taxes? The people who also paid to bail out the banks, for indirect taxes always hurt the poor the most.
In Dario Fo’s 1970 play Accidental Death of an Anarchist, it is the Fool who describes the importance of a sense of scandal and outrage in ensuring that nothing changes. In a 1984 staging of the play, the Fool declared:
. . . scandals are the fertilizer of Western democracy. Let me say more. Scandal is the antidote to an even worse poison: namely, people’s gaining political consciousness. If people become too conscious we are screwed. For example, has the American government, a real democracy, ever imposed any censorship to keep people from finding out about the murder of all the leaders of the black movement, or the massacre of thousands of helpless Vietnamese? Not at all. They don’t even hide the fact that they’ve manufactured enough nerve gas and bombs to destroy the population of the world ten times over. They don’t censor these scandals. And rightly so. Because in this way people have the possibility of becoming indignant. Horrified. ‘What kind of government is this? Disgusting generals. Assassins.’ And they become indignant. And out of the indignation comes a burp. A liberating burp. It’s like Alka-Seltzer. But nothing changes.
Politics focused on single issues will continue to be a fertilizer.