Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Wed, 28 Jul 2021, 2:19 PM


Dehistoricizing identity

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Talking rubbish about the pensions triple lock is a booming industry. Rachel Cunliffe says the likelihood of a big rise in the state pension "is an act of generational apartheid: socialism for the old, austerity for the young." And Polly Toynbee says "one generation is destined for a mighty windfall from the government while the other gets nothing."

Such claims are flat wrong. The triple lock, if it persists, actually benefits the young more than the old simply because young people can look forward to decades of rises in the pension and hence to a comfortable old age whereas the old will fall off their perch after only a few increases. The power of compound growth is a wonderful thing. To put this another way, a mean state pension hurts workers today because it means they'll have to contribute more to expensive and risky private pensions to achieve a decent income in their dotage.

The issue of the state pension is not one of welfare policy, but of how to provide for our futures - whether to do so via private schemes or the state. And there's a strong case for the latter.

Which poses the question: why do people not see this and prefer to frame pensions policy as a clash of generations?

Part of the answer, I suspect, is that they dehistoricize identity, regarding it as something fixed in the moment. Which is of course not the case. We all have memories, hopes, expectations and changing circumstances. Edmund Burke famously described society as "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." Similarly, we are coalitions of our present selves, past selves and future selves. The triple lock benefits our future selves and hence is good for this coalition. Talk of pensions as a transfer from young to old ignores the fact that we exist in time.

And it is a common error. Here are some other examples of it.

- "The unemployed" and "benefit claimants." These are not, in most cases, identities but rather phases millions of us go through. ONS data show that between 2015 and 2019 an average of 301,000 people a quarter moved from work into unemployment - equivalent to over one per cent of those in work - and 439,000 moved from unemployment into work. Stigmatizing benefit claimants as scroungers rather people suffering temporary misfortune is just empirically wrong.

- "Motorists". Of course, this too is just something most of us are for only a short while. Traffic calming measures which might annoy us whilst we drive also help us when we walk or cycle. Constructing identities around this trivial fact is as sensible as dividing us between bath tub users and dry people.

- "Leavers" and "Remainers". Nobody knew what these were before 2015. Failing to ask how they emerged as such strong identities effaces important questions, such as: what went so wrong with the economy as to create a large mass of people discontent with the status quo? And how did this content come to be exploited by a handful of cranks?

- Black and minority ethnic people are disproportionately likely to vote Labour - Ipsos Mori estimates that they split 64%-20% to Labour versus the Tories in 2019 - despite many having wealth and socially conservative views. Why? A big reason is that they remember - if only by word of mouth - the vicious historic racism of the Tory party. Yes, the Tories are more diverse now, but it's not just the present that matters. So does the past. It's for this same reason that I'm a Marxist even though I am now bourgeois in that I own enough capital not to need to work. Like all of us, I am shaped by my past: there's a reason why they are called formative years.

- Why statues matter. As Simukai Chigudu says, "statues are always about the present and not the past":

In modern Britain, colonialism has transcended its historical epoch. It exists in the present as a kind of nostalgia for the country's hegemony on the world stage, while fuelling nationalism, buttressing white supremacy and generating anxieties about immigration and cultural change.

Our identities are formed by time. They are shaped by both distant and recent history as well as our changing personal circumstances. Memories matter. And by the same token, so do our expectations.

Which poses the question: how, then, can anybody ignore such an obvious fact? Mondeo

I suspect that what we have here is the bastard child of the retarded parent that is retail politics. Segmenting the political "marketplace" into particular "demographics" gives us ahistorical abstractions. In this way "young" and "old" cease to be real people and become mere reifications such as Mondeo man or Worcester woman (remember those?) or the "red wall voter". The art of bourgeois politics is to divide us along any line other than ownership of capital.

Now, you might object here that real youngsters do have a genuine grievance, in that they do not expect the state pension to continue to outstrip inflation and so anticipate an impoverished old age.

Such as expectation, however, has no economic foundation even if we consider the matter in the narrowest of fiscal terms. The OBR estimates that even if the triple lock stays in place the UK government will spend only 7% on pensions in 2064. Which is less than many European governments spend today. A generous state pension is as affordable as we want it to be. The threat to future state pensions doesn't come from the public finances but from people talking rot about them. The solution to this is for young people to organize and resist attempts to divide them against older people.

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