Economists are puzzled. The figures show that the numbers in work are rising, the numbers claiming benefits going down. And while, of course, the figures are false for various reasons, the trend is still there. But the economists' models aren't working. More people in work should mean that wages are rising; but they're not. If anything, they're falling. And more people in work should mean that the tax take is higher; but it's not. Explanations are cobbled together, some of them more plausible than others. But I think there's a straightforward story.
At the top of society (if that word has any meaning now) is what's often called "the one per cent" and what I will now call the elite. They comprise three main groups; the top of the financial industry (banks and the like); the top of big businesses; and the top of government. They are all inter-connected, know each other well and have a common purpose in making themselves richer and more powerful. In 2008 the elite crashed the financial system. Bankers were blamed, but politicians had failed to regulate banking effectively (the Conservatives, in opposition at the time, had wanted even less regulation). Now, some people claim there was a conspiracy among the elite to do this. I don't know if that's true, but the result was the same. Someone had to pay to put the system back together again, and it wasn't going to be the elite. They suffered not at all. Many of us were astonished that nobody could be held accountable; there was no criminal responsibility.
The crash was a marvellous opportunity for the elite. To pay for the failure of the bankers we were to undergo "austerity". It took a while for us to realise what that meant. Those at the top of the tree could have a tax cut. The elite were sitting pretty, as were those in the next layer down, those on £100k a year or more. These are the people whose pay continued to climb and whose accountants devised ever more complex schemes to get them out of paying back any of their income in tax. Salaries for top earners, along with bonuses, grew to absurd and obscene levels. "Austerity" only began to be felt further down, in what we might as well call the middle classes. Their pay stopped rising but their outgoings didn't. Many who worked in the public sector found themselves out of work altogether, or having to get by on much less than they were used to.
The elite seized the chance to flog off what was left of the public sector. Services should be making profits for them. That could only be done by employing fewer people on lower pay, but that was part of the process of channelling money upwards into the pockets of the elite. In what little remained of the public sector, pay was frozen. This gave private employers more reason to freeze pay as well. For people near the bottom of the heap - the old "working class" - the minimum wage became what it was never intended to be, the normative wage. And that didn't rise either, except by an insignificant amount. Employers found new ways to lower their wage bills. Permanent jobs became casual work via agencies, with workers never knowing what, if any, hours they would get. Then the "zero hours" notion spread, with even greater insecurity of income.
The cost of living, though, rose inexorably, and more and more working people couldn't survive without top-up benefits. The biggest cost was housing; but there was no thought of capping rents, or even restoring some sensible regulation. Instead, the total benefits a household could receive were capped. For those right at the bottom of the pile, those dependant on benefits, life was made harder and harder. They were the scapegoats, apparently the cause of all our problems. Taking money away from them had little effect on the economy, but worked politically. So inequality has reached unprecedented levels.
Economists believe that there is a natural limit to inequality, because at some point there will be a revolution - unless there is a particularly repressive government. But the chances of revolution are very low. Radical change was brought about in the past because people could organise themselves into an effective force. Yesterday was the 195th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. A crowd of up to 80,000 people had gathered in Manchester to demand change, but government forces killed 15 people and injured many more. It wasn't the end of revolt, but the beginning. Chartism very nearly succeeded, let down only by poor leadership. The trade union movement grew stronger until, through the 20th century, it brought about a shift in power and decent wages and conditions for working people. The movement was squashed in the 80s and is much weaker than it was. There is no organisation through which people can fight back, and right-wing governments are adept at pitting the not-very-rich against the poor.
What happens now? I have no idea. But economists had better devise some new models if they are to understand what awaits us.