One of the very many arguments in which I was embroiled while I was a student in the 1980’s involved one of my house-mates who steadfastly held that the government should pay students a handsome monthly salary in return for all the hard studying they did. Now this was at a time when, in fact, the government did pay most students an annual grant which covered the costs of their education and left them with a bit of spending money to boot.
But that was not enough for my protagonist. As far as he was concerned this was ‘mere crumbs'; a demeaning insult from a skinflint Tory government. No, students were so precious and valuable that they deserved an ‘executive’ style pay package so that they would not be subjected to the indignities of having to buy second-hand clothes from charity shops. When I explained (in some detail) why the government (Tory or otherwise) could not possibly afford such magnanimity, he responded by trying to convince me that arithmetic was but a political ‘mind-trick’ constructed to oppress the masses (and students, of course).
And, by jove, he was right. Well, after a fashion:
Hundreds of thousands of people across Europe, many of them elderly, have marched in protest at plans to reform welfare systems.
In Rome, pensioners arrived on buses, special trains and even boats from the island of Sardinia to demonstrate against the rising cost of living.
Various German cities saw people march against welfare cuts introduced to combat economic stagnation.
And in Paris they demanded more jobs and social justice.
Across Europe governments are trying to find ways to pay pensions to ageing populations, or to cut back on expensive social provision.
It is always tempting to sneer at people who think that the dried-up wells of government money can be refreshed by the act of marching up and down waving self-pitying slogans. Mind you, that has generally been the means of opening up the state spigots in the past so I suppose I cannot really blame them for giving it another try. That is the thing about street protests: they are the modern equivalent of rain dances.
There is also an extent to which I feel quite sorry for these people. They have been took, they have been had, they have been sold a pup. They have been ‘mind-tricked’ by a post-war political class that has mesmerised them into believing that a river of easy largesse could be conjured out of nothing and made to flow forever by sleight-of-hand. Yes, you can vote to abolish the iron laws of economics and two plus two can equal sixteen thousand four hundred and thirty five if only you are willing to let your ‘intellectuals’ handle the mathematics for you.
But now the dwindling numbers of producers have been taxed down to the bone and there are simply no more sweeties to hand out. That was not supposed to happen but it has happended and it heralds an end to the days of milk and honey.
These trains of irate Italian pensioners may appear slightly pathetic. Comical, even. But they are part of a generation (and maybe the front-line of two or even three generations) that is not so much ‘hitting the streets’ as hurtling towards a big brick wall into which they will eventually crash with sickening thud. When that day comes, a lot of dazed and angry people are going to be looking for something or someone to blame for their pain and, given Europe’s track record on these matters, I have little confidence that they will assign that blame correctly.