Greasy Pole: Marshmallows are not the only sweet

It is to be hoped that while some people may damn the Coalition as repressive and impoverishing there will be others who happily acknowledge its vital role in educating us about human behaviour and responses. In particular government ministers have been consistently eager, in justifying themselves to us, to examine how we score in the matter of Deferred Gratification, a concept once so absorbing to sociologists, child psychologists, criminologists and others similarly seeking to explain the need for us to endure so many blemishes on what could be our enduringly fulfilling lives.

For example here is our Deputy Prime Minister outlining a most recent concept of official policy: “…this Government is committed to the long term – to making decisions today that will promote a better future: a more prosperous economy, and a fairer society. Our determination to fix the deficit is matched by our determination to create a more socially mobile society…But in five years’ time we want to be able to look back and say that the children born in 2015 are less constrained by the circumstances of their birth…that true progress was made in making opportunity a right of the many, rather than a privilege of the few”. (It is worth noting that this kind of empty drivel is not spouted exclusively by Liberals and Tories; in his campaign for the Labour leadership David Miliband assured us that he would bring about “…the redistribution of power in Britain, an assault on inequality of life chances…”)

It would have been better – nearer the truth – if Clegg and Miliband had said that if we behave ourselves for the present, in the sense of controlling our urges to achieve a less perilous living standard we shall, in due course, come by our reward in the form of a society which through its social mobility is a model of fairness. This arouses memories of what has gone down in history as the Marshmallow Experiment. At Stanford University in the 1960s a group of four-year-old children were each given a marshmallow and promised that if they waited twenty minutes before eating it they would be allowed to have another. Some of them waited; the others quickly ate the marshmallow. Some years later, when they were 18, they were assessed as to their degree of social adjustment and dependability – the extent of their economic advantage against disadvantage. (It would have been more accurate to call this being profitably exploited in a job against being underemployed). The results showed the children who had stifled their impulse to scoff the marshmallow scoring significantly higher than the others. (Although more than one response doggedly pointed out that it needed only someone averse to marshmallows to score highly enough to invalidate the whole exercise). Perhaps Nick Clegg and his gang might reflect on this, while nursing their confidence about the uncritical acceptance of their pledges for “fairness” and “social mobility”.

To forestall any impetuous celebrations at Job Centres where the staff are flooded under the current influx of claimants or on council housing estates where dilapidations lie undisturbed after financial cutbacks at the local town hall, it must be made clear that, whatever Nick Clegg may imply, social mobility is not a universally available opportunity. David Cameron, for example, would not be eligible for this benefit because his status is already high enough to disqualify him. His late father was born into a family where affluence was ingrained enough for him to describe himself as “a nepotistic heir”. The advantages in this – for Cameron Senior and for his children including the Prime Minister – were in spite of his being born with a physical handicap which would have been crucially restrictive to the ambitions of a disadvantaged family for their children’s social improvement. Whatever Clegg’s glib mouthing about social mobility – the opportunity for a family or group to improve their material situation and prospects – it is only rarely that they can be immune to pressures which are out of their control by being built into the fabric of this property society.

And of these the most powerful and persistent is poverty; in this country no other factor has so devastating an effect on the life chances of people – on the likelihood of them being able to benefit from Clegg’s Social Mobility. For a long time this has figured prominently in the meaningless manifestos of the capitalist parties. This was the Labour Party, asking for a second term in 2001: “A single aim drives our policy programme: to liberate people’s potential, by spreading power, wealth and opportunity more widely, breaking down the barriers that hold people back.” And this was Michael Howard, then leader of the Conservative Party, in the 2005 election: “For me the heart of politics is all about people – their hopes and aspirations. People want the freedom, security and opportunity to get on in life.” Fine words for anyone who allows themselves to be so easily impressed. What has happened since then? Among the mass of evidence, a report published in January this year by the National Equality Panel (a brainchild of Harriet Harman) stated that by the years 2007-2008 income inequality had reached the most extreme level since the Second World War, with the top one percent of the population each owning household wealth of £2.6 million while the poorest had £8,800. Being poor inflicts enduring, accumulative damage to a child’s education, to where they live and to their life chances: “…people’s occupational and economic destinations in early adulthood depend to an important degree on their origins”.

In other words the promises about social mobility, about yet another policy to spirit away the inequality and its social damage inextricably linked to capitalist society are the empty pleadings of political leaders with nothing more original or effective to offer. So let us not be influenced by Nick Clegg and his attempts to persuade us to behave like the good kids with the marshmallows. The need for us to change society is as urgent as it ever was. And marshmallows are deceptive: just sweet and sticky with a very soft centre.


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