Socialism – real, no-private-ownership, state-controlled, egalitarian socialism – has been off the political agenda in most states, including Communist China, for decades. The mixture of gross inefficiency and varying degrees of repressive savagery that most such systems showed seems to have inoculated the world against socialism and confined support for it to the arts and sociology faculties of Western universities. But what was booted triumphantly out the front door of history may be knocking quietly on the back door of the present. The reason is inequality.
Pointing out inequality is a political attraction these days, and as good a dramatization of that as any is in the comparison between what Tony Blair, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, said about it in 2001, on the eve of his second election, and what Conservative leader David Cameron said about it in a speech in 2009, soon before the 2010 election that made him Prime Minister. Blair, questioned about rising inequality, responded that while he was concerned with poverty and its alleviation, he didn’t lose sleep about the rich being rich. “It’s not”, he said, invoking Britain’s most popular sports figure, “a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.”
Cameron, referring to the recently published The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – a detailed argument that inequality is bad for everyone, even the rich – said the book showed that “among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality-of-life indicator.” That left and right should so switch places marks the shift that has taken place in the past decade, from living in societies where the tide of growth lifted all boats to one where most fear they’ll soon be sinking (assuming they already aren’t).
The political discourse in the United States has long held that getting rich is glorious, on the assumption that everybody has an equal chance of doing it. But that hasn’t been the case for some time, a fact that would seem to make Mitt Romney vulnerable. He is very rich, though he has skillfully in distanced himself from the Romney who remarked at a (leaked) private meeting that 47 percent of his fellow Americans wouldn’t vote for him because they paid no taxes. He even managed a joke about it at the Alfred E. Smith memorial dinner last week, saying it was relaxing to wear the most formal dress, the kind of thing that “Ann and I wear around the house.” Obama, also jocular but rather sharper, said, “Earlier today I went shopping at some stores in Midtown. I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in Midtown.”
Beneath the wit, there’s an anxiety in the Romney camp that his wealth is a disadvantage. Likewise, there’s an evident calculation in the Obama camp that while the political culture in the United States still precludes an all-out attack on the rich, a constant reminder of presidential modesty does no harm. (“Modesty” is relative: The Obama family holds assets in in the $2.6 million to $8.3 million range, versus Romney’s $190 million to $250 million.)