I have found this real gem in the person of Theodore Dalrymple, a contributing editor of Journal City, a New-York-based conservative magazine focused mainly on urban policy, where he writes a sort of column ironically called “Oh, to be in England” – from the first line of the famous bucolic Robert Browning’s poem. Don’t be worried, “Theodore Dalrymple” is not the real name of this former psychiatrist turned right-wing polemicist, only a pseudonym, a pen name that he chose, according to him, because it “sounded suitably dyspeptic, that of a gouty old man looking out of the window of his London club, port in hand, lamenting the degenerating state of the world.” Actually this self-portrait is so right than it could almost make the reading of his works useless. Indeed this gentleman writes quite a lot, among other things some books whose titles speak for themselves: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass; Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses; or the last one: Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline. Although he piles up reactionary cliches with a rare constancy, he distinguishes himself from his colleagues by a feature that is virtually a trademark: his strong conviction that, among all Western countries, Britain has gone farthest on the way to decadence.
Such a weird statement needs some explanation, of course, at least a brief summary of the Dalrymplesque Weltschauung. Firstly, being the good doctor that he used to be, our eminent columnist can not help describing society through medical metaphors such as “cultural disease” and “social pathology,” and it appears, unfortunately, that the British lower classes are affected by numerous infections of this kind: criminality, domestic violence, drug addiction, aggressive youths, broken families, etc. However, unlike physical diseases, these infections are not caused by a nasty virus or malicious bacteria, but by a moral deficiency: the “lack of purpose”, the “lack of feeling of belonging to anything larger than one’s own little life.” People have been contaminated with moral relativism, they have lost trust and confidence in their own culture and their own beliefs, so they don’t know how to live and consequently adopt criminal, antisocial or self-destructive behaviour. Furthermore, the welfare state has an enervating, debilitating effect on mentalities: the sense of personal responsibility and the awareness of duties toward others have been replaced by an exaggerated consciousness of one’s own rights, with the end results of self-centeredness, dependency on institutions, resentment against authority due precisely to this dependency, and eventually hostility towards any kind of authority. In the end, although all the above characteristics are present in every developed country, nowhere are they more manifest and pronounced than in the United Kingdom.
Well, as we can see, our Theodore Dalrymple is a loyal servant of conservative thought – or rather a zealous priest of the free-market cult, who recites his catechism with faith and devotion and spreads the good word through God-fearing publications all over the world. His Anglophobia provides the finishing touch to his homilies and gives the big thrill to right-thinking readers, both frightened and fascinated that England, this once-respectable old lady, has fallen so low in the gutter. What particularly hurts Dalrymple in his native country is the lack of dignity and the absence of decency that characterise, according to him, the new urban underclass, namely the passive poor (i.e. long term welfare recipients) and the whole crowd of social misfits: street criminals, hustlers, prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics, drifters, drop-outs, the homeless, released mental patients, etc. The moral decay and the spiritual impoverishment of this population have no precedent in history and can not be found even in the worst slums of the Third World; Dalrymple is categorical: “The worst poverty is in England – and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul,” the welfare state of course being held responsible for this tragic situation.
Be careful! The close connection between welfare state and poverty is a central point of the neoliberal rhetoric. The argument is as follows: the welfare state improves living conditions for the poor, but at the same time develops in their minds a culture of dependency and entitlement which makes them unable to get out of poverty on their own. In short, the welfare state does not reduce poverty but indirectly nourishes it, by its harmful influence on mentalities. From this angle, poverty is not an economic but a moral problem, and it can be fought only by promoting a counter-culture of individual responsibility and merit, in which people can clearly see a cause-and-effect link between effort and reward. How then to encourage such a culture? Just by abolishing the old welfare system and rebuilding the state with the principles and methods of the free-market. QED. Of course, such a demonstration has the advantage of overlooking the main cause of poverty – the unequal distribution of wealth –, as if this political and economical issue was not relevant, and thus, by adopting a moral standpoint, of performing a quasi-miracle of transubstantiation: the problem of inequalities is reduced to a question of psychology.
If now we examine in turn the case of Dr Dalrymple from a medical angle, our diagnosis highlights two psychoanalytical pathologies: denial and frustration. It is interesting to observe that Dalrymple attributes all the evils affecting the British society to the pernicious influence of the welfare state, despite the fact that Britain is the country whose redistributing policies were the most reformed the last three decades, and not in a way very advantageous for the working class. According to the last data from the Department for Work and Pensions, Britain in 2009 is a more unequal country than at any time since modern records began in the early 1960s, and others studies show that Britain is the most unequal country in Europe. Consequently, if the cause-and-effect link between the welfare system and “poverty of soul” was real, Britain should be the country least affected by the moral decline in all Western nations, thanks to energetic action of its leaders to reform the public sector and fiscal policy. Apparently it is not the case, at least if we believe Dalrymple. It is why we interpret his jeremiads about Britain as the unconscious manifestation of both disappointment and unfathomable puzzlement. It sounds as though he was saying to us: “What! After thirty years of financial deregulation, of privatization, of efficient markets, of anti-trade union legislation, English people are not satisfied! What! They are not grateful to have been the fortunate guinea-pigs of neoliberalism’s two variants – Thatcherism and Third Way! What! Indigent people still complain while they don’t starve and live much better than inhabitants of Rio, Lagos or Delhi’s shantytowns, without realizing that they could receive absolutely nothing from the government if such was its wish!” In short, what Dalrymple blames English people for, and especially the lower classes, is that they do not intellectually – or “spiritually,” using one of his favorite words – subscribe to the new world built for them by unselfish ideologues. His Anglophobia is a disappointed love.
Anyway, he has left this faithless partner and he lives now in Southern France – which is quite amusing for such a denigrator of the welfare state, but it is just one more contradiction. I guess that he had chosen this country for the weather, the landscape and the food, and I easily imagine him looking out of the window of his country house, glass of wine in hand, still lamenting the degenerating state of the world. He has a lot on his plate, but in case of boredom I recommend him to read Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell, an autobiographical account of being destitute in France and England. Unfortunately, Orwell is English, and I am afraid that this book may make him even more Anglophobic. I can not help reporting here the text’s last sentences, which pulverize in a few words all Dalrymple and his fellows’ ideas on poverty:
“Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.”