Political legitimacy depends on a ‘universal bribery fund’

“Industrial society is the only society ever to live by and rely on sustained and perpetual growth, on an expected and continuous improvement,” wrote British social anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Gellner in his seminal 1983 book Nations and Nationalism.

He continued: “Not surprisingly, it was the first society to invent the concept and ideal of progress, of continuous improvement. Its favoured mode of social control is universal Danegeld, buying off social aggression with material enhancement; its greatest weakness is its inability to survive any temporary reduction of the social bribery fund, and to weather the loss of legitimacy which befalls it if the cornucopia becomes temporarily jammed and the flow falters.”

This was a brilliant bit of crystal-ball gazing by Gellner who, alas, is no longer around to reflect further on the nature of industrial and post-industrial society (he died in 1995). Nevertheless we now have a pretty good idea of what happens in many nation states when the tap that controls the amount of consumer goods, services and experiences in circulation is restricted for large sections of the population. (God only knows what would happen if the tap were turned off completely.)

In the UK Nigel Farage’s UKIP, has given all of the mainstream political parties a bloody nose, in France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National is the biggest party in the land, while in India Narendra Modi’s BJP trounced the Gandhis’ Congress Party – interestingly in the last example not because there was an economic recession, but because growth had fallen and the expectations of sections of the population (especially an aspiring middle-class) were not being met.

In the UK, the Conservative-dominated Coalition Government actively sacrificed growth in order to fulfil a long-term political ambition of creating a smaller state. It looks like with the colossal funding cuts in the public sector and welfare they are going to succeed. However, by curtailing spending many people, especially outside London and the rest of the affluent South-east really do feel hard done by.

It’s not surprising then that those who are really struggling to make ends meet and have fallen into debt, those who have experienced a significant decline in their living standards, or those who just wanted to give the political establishment a good kicking for all sorts of reasons voted for cheeky chappie Nigel Farage, who with a pint in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and a good story to tell found himself centre stage with the sort and size of audience that he always wanted.

Take a bow Nigel and enjoy the applause, but remember that it was George Osborne who was the director and David Cameron the producer of the play The Universal Bribery Fund Has Diminished Because of the Incompetence of the British Ruling Class in which you now have a starring role.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

 


* Published in print edition on 30 May 2014

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