Mutually Assured Economic Destruction: the strongest weapon in the arsenal of the masses

I just understood something profound (to me, very likely not to most others) about Brexit and other supposedly “irrational” decisions by less well off voters.

The standard middle-class liberal critique of these decisions almost inevitably includes wonderment why the voters would choose to shoot themselves on the foot, given that the economic policies and realities of voting for Brexit or for right-wing populists will cause more, not less, hardship for the poor. I’ve wondered about this as well in the past.

This critique shows that people have forgotten the most potent weapon in the negotiation arsenal of the poor: the threat that the masses will wreck and burn everything. Sure, they will lose; but someone else could lose much more.

A credible threat (in the sense of negotiation theory) of mutually assured destruction is one of the very few trump cards (pun intended) the poor masses can hold. True, they will suffer if they burn their rented homes; but in a situation where many people conclude that they couldn’t be much worse off, threatening to burn someone else’s property can be a completely rational if desperate negotiating ploy. In such a situation, the opponent might have more to lose, or less stomach for losses, and therefore agree to e.g. distribute wealth more equally than otherwise.

To be credible, the threat must be occasionally carried out. This is the one positive thing that could come from Brexit: a reminder for both the poor and the rich that burning everything is indeed an option, and that it could be a completely rational course of action in desperate circumstances. I’m not saying that the pro-Brexit voters were doing detailed cost-benefit analyses (I don’t think anyone ever really does), nor that Brexit was a project by the poor; but I’ve concluded that Brexit happened largely because people who had concluded they couldn’t lose much more decided to get at least the emotional satisfaction of showing the finger to the well-off liberals. This time, sadly, this anger was harvested for the purposes of bigotry and isolation – but it suggests that the progressives could perhaps also use the threat of mutually assured economic destruction more often to improve the lot of the common people.

This is also the reason why I strongly believe that the European welfare states were only possible because a very credible threat of communism lurked behind the Iron Curtain. This in no way absolves the totalitarian regimes for their crimes, but it seems to me extremely unlikely that the rich would’ve agreed to such distributive schemes absent a credible threat that the poor masses, if pushed to desperation, might really invite the Red Army in, and refuse to fight against it.

This also suggests why standard critiques of socialist economic policy proposals, that is, critiques of (supposed) “inefficiency”, tend to miss the point.

The entire reason for radical socialist proposals, like nationalisation of industries, can be to threaten the capitalists and well-off liberals: unless the poor get more, they will happily take over everything, and even if the end result is less wealth in total, it’s the rich who are going to lose more. Arguably, these strategies produced the best societies on the planet today, so deriding the 1960s and 70s Left for their “failure” is somewhat … misguided.

And I suspect that in the 1970s, people wouldn’t wonder, like they do today, if the poor threaten to show some teeth and wreck everything. That’s one thing we lost when the Marxist analysis of power relations went out of fashion after 1990.

Finally, all this suggests that for a healthy societal balance between the poor and the rich, the poor need a pro-poor policy that can threaten the interests of the rich in a credible enough manner. In the long run, this will be better for the rich capitalists as well: even though short-term gains can be had by trampling the poor, the music may stop quite suddenly and some capitalist could find themselves without a chair – or standing on a chair with a noose around his neck. It would be better for everyone if there exists a healthy balance of power, and a credible alternative for current economic liberalism.

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About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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One Response to Mutually Assured Economic Destruction: the strongest weapon in the arsenal of the masses

  1. However in the case of Brexit, given who supported it, it’s highly unlikely that the elites will really be hurt by it. Might even be described as a plot by UK elite to not be forced by EU to redistribute wealth. It’s quite similar with Trump.
    I’ve seen an interesting article that suggested, without going in much details unfortunately, that elites were doing not too bad in Venezuela actually, being protected in isolated enclaves from almost all that went wrong in the country.

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