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Origins of Corbynphobia

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Why is there so much passionate, visceral hatred of Jeremy Corbyn? From an economic point of view, it seems a puzzle. His stated economic programme is modest. As James Meadway says, to large extent, “Corbynomics is Make Britain Normal Again” – to make us more like an ordinary European social democracy. No credible analysis would put the cost of this at anywhere near the cost of austerity or of a no-deal Brexit. And yet, it seems to me, hatred of Corbyn is disproportionate to this programme. Why? I’m not sure about Phil’s claim that the capitalist class senses an existential threat. For one thing, whilst the haute bourgeoisie are of course opposed to Corbyn, the most violent hostility to him comes from smaller rentiers and those on comfortable but not astronomic salaries. And for

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Why is there so much passionate, visceral hatred of Jeremy Corbyn? From an economic point of view, it seems a puzzle.

His stated economic programme is modest. As James Meadway says, to large extent, “Corbynomics is Make Britain Normal Again” – to make us more like an ordinary European social democracy. No credible analysis would put the cost of this at anywhere near the cost of austerity or of a no-deal Brexit. And yet, it seems to me, hatred of Corbyn is disproportionate to this programme. Why?

I’m not sure about Phil’s claim that the capitalist class senses an existential threat. For one thing, whilst the haute bourgeoisie are of course opposed to Corbyn, the most violent hostility to him comes from smaller rentiers and those on comfortable but not astronomic salaries. And for another, Corbynites hopes for a shift in incomes from profits to wages (pdf) and a definancialization of the housing market might (only might) be compatible (pdf) with a healthy (pdf) capitalism.

I suspect, then, that something else is going on. Selfright

In part, it is simple habituation. We’ve got accustomed to the cost of austerity and are resigning ourselves to no-deal. These are the devils we know. But Corbyn is the devil we don’t. Also, there’s an adverse halo effect: Corbyn’s associations with terrorists and Putinphiles cause some to fear that such bad judgement will infect his policies generally. Perhaps, relatedly, there is mythmaking. Some of Corbyn’s critics sound like the Self-Righteous Brothers: “if that Corbyn comes in here nationalizing the pie shops, giving all our money to lesbians and turning us into Venezuela, I’ll go: ‘Oi, Corbyn, no.’”

But I suspect there’s something else. It goes back at least as far as Thomas Hobbes, who saw society as “a war of every man against every man.” What concerns us is not just the absolute level of income but rather our income relative to others. Back in 1995 Sara Solnick and David Hemenway found (pdf) that more than half of people would prefer an income of $50,000 a year when everybody else gets $25,000 than one of $100,000 when others get $200,000. Andrew Clark and Andrew Oswald (pdf), Robert Frank (pdf) and Erzo Luttmer (pdf) among others have found a similar thing. The worker who asked his boss “if you can’t give me a pay rise can’t you give everybody else a pay cut?” wasn’t atypical.

In fact, Eric Falkenstein has argued that it is this concern for relative wealth that explains one of the biggest puzzles in financial economics – of why there often is not a trade-off between risk (pdf) and return. If we care not about losing money but rather about losing relative to others, all risk becomes idiosyncratic and hence unpriced.

From this perspective, economic insecurity is not something felt only by the poor. Someone on a high income, but who has experienced a relative decline – or who fears one – also feels it; this might help explain why support for populism isn’t confined to the worst-off.

Herein, I think, lies a foundation of hostility towards Corbyn. It is rooted in a fear of a loss of relative income. The issue here is not merely tax rises, but also of status more generally. After five years of a Corbyn government, would the relative socio-economic position of older, wealthier white men be as high as now?

New Labour tried to allay such status anxiety by pledging not to raise top tax rates. Corbyn is not doing so. Which means that, for some, he is threatening something much worse than a weaker economy.  

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