Fairness is in fashion! Suddenly Tory politicians are all talking about ‘fairness’ as if they had coined the word in the last couple of weeks. But if we cast our minds back to Nu Labour’s election campaign of 1997, the word ‘fairness’ was deployed ad nauseum by Blair and his cohorts. It was the stick that they poked the Major government with. Indeed the last Labour election campaign bore the slogan “A future fair for all”. A suitably vague slogan that had little, if any real meaning at all. Colourless and odourless, it failed to inspire. But what is fairness anyway and why are today’s politician so concerned about it? Is it employed like the words freedom, choice and democracy?
Freedom, as we know means different things to different people and like choice it is presented as the defining feature of our so-called democracy which is, itself, only a partial democracy. True democracies are participatory. The formulation of our present democracy is only a little over 160 years old and has never been participatory in any sense of the word. The electorate, whom many modern politicians will claim have ‘the real power’, are only permitted to participate in the ‘democracy’ when the government allows them to vote’. The act of voting is therefore regarded as the alpha and omega of the electorate’s democratic participation. Once the registered citizens have exercised their mandate they are then free to return to their lives and forget about the whole process until the next time.
Choice is a word that is much loved by the mainstream politician. They will use it to try and convince the public they are getting what they want rather than being forced to accept what is given to them which is, more often than not, the case. But as Dick Hebdige reminds us that “you can only what what is available”. Therefore, like our democracy, it too is an illusion. Supermarkets and other retailers are also fond of telling us they want to give the customer ‘more choice’. However if the range of choices in the supermarket in question is limited and the supermarket is challenged on the unavailability of certain goods that were once on sale, it will reply with “it’s a slow mover” or “no call for it around here”. The supermarket is a useful analogy: governments are no longer interested in real ideas which will lead to the advancement of humankind, rather, it is their role to manage and offer products for consumption; the range of which is limited because the products themselves are not real. Mainstream parties outsource their thinking to think-tanks which, while pretending to be ‘non-partisan’ enjoy close fraternal links with a political party. Think-tanks will produce intellectual products or ideas (sic) that are based on some form of research which they hope will be transformed into policy, which is a rebranding of the original product (the pretence of a think-tank’s non-partisanship evaporates at this point). But choice is an empty sign that requires an investment of meaning. “We want patients to have a choice of which hospital they go to”; “There needs to be greater parental choice, hence the need for free schools”. Through the invocation of such statements the empty sign is given meaning.
Choice is promoted tirelessly. During the Cold War, we were told that the citizens of the Soviet Union and its empire had no freedom and this was because they had no choice; they had to accept what was given to them. There was only one political party: the Communist Party (in reality there were more but they formed a bloc with the various communist parties and were small by comparison) which dominated all forms of socio-ideological production. On the other hand, the ‘free’ west had freedom because we had choice: we could buy what we wanted provided we had the income to do so. For those without the income, however, the choices were limited; these are the poor, where the word fairness does not seem to apply. The multiple choices at the ballot box often resulted in the election to office the same party or parties in government. The electoral systems that are in place in some Western countries offer neither real choice nor fairness to the citizen.
For the Objectivist or neo-liberal, fairness is anathema. The Objectivist rejects fairness on the basis that it is intrinsically altruistic (altruism is also rejected by the Objectivist for ‘moral’ reasons). If the choices are limited to an individual – who is perversely, a God to the Objectivist – then that is the market making a ‘decision’ as if it were a sentient being rather than a system of production, distribution, exchange and consumption. If the individual is poor, that is merely a representation of the condition of their karma. Karma is not fair. It isn’t supposed to be. Objectivists don’t believe in karma: they believe in money.
So why do mainstream politicians believe they can create ‘fairness’ when the word is so subjective? They do not have magic powers; they can no more create fairness than I can create money in seconds. The current way in which society is formed negates fairness; it is acquisition which is important. fairness merely obstructs people from making profits and these people will tell you that “life isn’t fair”. They should know: they have benefited from an institutional lack of fairness; the system that they support has no need for fairness. For them fairness only occurs when they are given the freedom to exploit others for profit. This is also their idea of freedom.
The vague notion of fairness has been largely substituted for the more tangible idea of equality. The mainstream politicians know this and the current government is loath to mention the word ‘equality’ because it rubs against the grain of their basic principles. Fairness sounds like it means something when it doesn’t and therefore it is well suited to government rhetoric.