1. To draw into one bond of unity the intelligent and influential portion of the working classes in town and country.
2. To seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of their equal political and social rights.
3. To devise every possible means, and to use every exertion, to remove those cruel laws that prevent the free circulation of thought through the medium of cheap and honest press.
4. To promote, by all available means, the education of the rising generation, and the extirpation of those systems which tend to future slavery.
5. To collect every kind of information appertaining to the interests of the working classes in particular and society in general, especially statistics regarding the wages of labour, the habits and condition of the labourer, and all those causes that mainly contribute to the present state of things.
6. To meet and communicate with each other for the purpose of digesting the information required, and to mature such plans as they believe will conduce in practice to the well-being of the working classes.
7. To publish their views and sentiments in such form and manner as shall best serve to create a moral, reflecting, yet energetic public opinion; so as eventually to lead to a gradual improvement in the condition of the working classes, without violence or commotion.
8. To form a library of reference and useful information; to maintain a place where their brethren from the country can meet with kindred minds actuated by one great motive – that of benefiting politically, socially, and morally, the useful classes. Though the persons forming this Association will be at all times disposed to co-operate with all those who seek to promote the happiness of the multitude, yet being convinced from experience that the division of interests in the various classes, in the present state of things, is often too destructive of that union of sentiment which is essential to the prosecution of any great object, they have resolved to confine their members as far as practicable to the working classes. But as there are great differences of opinion as to where the line should be drawn which separates the working classes from the other portions of society, they leave the Members themselves to determine whether the candidate proposed is eligible to become a member. (from The Early Chartists, edited by Dorothy Thompson. Emphasis in original.)
The Charter, with its short-term goal of reform of Westminster, was the visible sign of a much wider understanding of social action; whose aim, a working class culture of reform, was to be achieved through a popular movement that stimulated the intellectual atmosphere, creating the conditions for informed action. They were evolutionists, who believed a well-defined and organised sectional interest could gradually transform the social and political landscape; cultural change a pre-requisite if the economy was to be socialised. They saw the dangers of cooption and diminution of vision, and understood the need for a separate identity to achieve their limited ends. They had no doubt that such an identifiable community existed; it was called the working classes; although they were aware of its weaknesses; its passivity and occasional unruliness.
A shared community, which they had to create, “[t]o draw into one bond of unity the intelligent and influential portion of the working classes”, would give them power; but unlike the cultural relativists of today, where communities are “organic” wholes, or the Marxists of yesteryear, where the working class was a single cohesive force, they were aware of its fragile and porous, its creative, nature. They knew that for its success a representative community of the working classes had to appeal to the wider society: by displaying their own strength and moral rightness; showing they were respectable and reasonable: demonstrating that they were not the wild beasts of the middle class imagination. They were also pluralists, confident in the good sense of individual branches, which must have included the belief that differences of opinion could be safely reconciled – natural in a community, where human contact comes before ideology.[i]
Growing up I heard a lot about the Chartists, and my formal education left a fine residue of impressions, the overriding one of a political movement seeking political rights easily assimilated into the mainstream of labour history, and the gradualism of the Labour Party; the latter, we believed, the instrument of inevitable progressive reform. We were all Whigs back then! History was on our side! Later, when I started to read for myself, I became aware of the links between the Welsh Chartists and Welsh republicanism;[ii] there was a national dimension to this politics that had been somehow overlooked in the classroom. Later still I began to understand that their reform of parliamentary politics was just a means to the wider end of social reconstruction. Something had got lost in that early education: a more expansive understanding of politics, as a way of life, and as a living culture; an ability to create one’s own environment, whether in one’s neighbourhood or workplace.[iii] Vestiges of this are left in the main political parties, but they are like the chapels that litter the Welsh countryside – sad signs of a once vigorous evangelicalism. Politics, as the Labour Party became absorbed into the establishment, had been refined down into ever-narrower terms, until today; when it is a job for the professionals: mostly a few politicians and their media and policy advisors at the top of each party; a more or less unitary elite.
David Marquand’s The Strange Career of British Democracy; Britain Since 1918 makes a devastating point about the political changes of the last 40 years: from feminism to gay rights to devolution to environmentalism, all the most radical political movements have come from outside the conventional parties.[iv] The politicians have had to follow their lead; usually years after they first burst upon society’s consciousness. This suggests something of the decline of the Labour Party: it has lost its radical and reforming credentials; now part of a system that has to be transformed.
There is another side to this impotence: the political class has meekly submitted to the new ideology of an expansive American capitalism, that had become extremely self-confident in the first decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall; a confidence that has since been only slightly shaken. This is a highly aggressive nationalism allied to an international corporate and financial imperialism; the real meaning of the term “globalization”.[v] A detached and weak class relying on a kind of managerial functionalism, our MPs have been unable to withstand its influence, which has flooded the parliamentary scene.[vi]
The Chartists chose the right target. They had located the source of power, and to demand political rights was to undermine the nation’s rulers, who sat in parliament, using it to enforce their control. By the 1990s demands to reform the political establishment had much less bite, for the politicians had become managers of a system, the owners of which lived outside the House of Commons; a significant change that has not been fully assimilated into the wider radical culture.[vii] For although it remains important that the existing forms of parliamentary democracy are reformed, its institutions creaking under the strain of advanced state capitalism, its impact is going to be limited, for it overvalues the importance of conventional politics; now used to insulate the wealthy and powerful from democratic scrutiny and control.[viii]
It is arguable that Charter 88, and the constitutional movements that followed it, went after the wrong target. Unlike the original progenitors, who at times were viewed as a threat to the establishment, the new chartists of the late 1980s seemed strangely anodyne. For the locus of power had shifted, and was largely untouched by it. Proportional representation, although allowing the smaller parties a greater share of the vote, would have little impact if their success were dependent on the corporate media, or the amount of money they could acquire for electioneering – both would determine their general culture; and thus their policies. Nick Clegg, with his desperate need for respectability (that is, adherence to fashionable opinion),[ix] a terrible caricature of all those reforming hopes; based on the belief that a coalition of left-liberal politicians could exercise parliamentary power to enact progressive legislation to once again tame capitalism.[x] The cynicism of the Liberal Democrats, and their effortless accommodations when in government, are both a symbol and climax of an age, where ideals have evaporated, to be replaced simply by the acquisition of wealth and status. We are back to the Whig oligarchy of the mid-eighteenth century, when a stable political elite simply jockeyed for personal influence – factions tending to develop along lines of patronage and charisma; although operating within a shared cultural ethos.[xi]
Political power has changed. Today it is essentially economic: money determines politics, in a society dominated as never before by capitalism’s culture. Any political struggle has to recognise these changes; the problems of today closer to the concerns of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism of the 1910s – democracy in the workplace and in the public square – than the struggle for voting reform in 1832, a period when the ruling class was problematically capitalist.[xii]
The balance of forces has also changed, substantially. The owners and landlords have become institutions; their rules and culture conditioning both its managers and workers; while their increasing size, and the technological sophistication of its management techniques, alienates many, and dis-empowers most, of their employees.[xiii] At the same time the opposing forces have grown weaker and more fragmented: there is no longer an industrial working class to bring the economy to a halt. Although this can be overplayed: unions were often reluctant to strike and their history is one of small and highly independent associations often slow to collaborate with each other; always they tended to jealously guard their own privileges.[xiv] Thus in the 1880s even the mining unions of the Scottish coalfield found it difficult to cooperate and combine together for collective action.[xv] Although the mine owners were extremely powerful, employing force and blackleg labour to break strikes, most of which failed. It took a long time to create a balance of power, and its equilibrium was always fragile; the reaction of the 1980s exposed all these weaknesses; as not only the different unions, but even different sections inside the NUM, fragmented; picked off by a government that believed in and carried out class war.
Power and control has become more amorphous and diffuse, and is often misunderstood; which helps create a general cynicism about authority, although little understanding of how it works in practice. It is easy to attack an overpaid chief executive but hard to grasp the workings of the institution of which he is part, the real cause of front line strain and general inequality. One consequence is that effects are often mistaken for causes, the state for the corporation; the individual for the organisation in which she works. While the system is accepted as inevitable[xvi] and political action is reduced to quite specific concerns; usually on softer issues that do not disturb fundamentals; and which have proven relatively easy for our large companies to co-opt; such as creating an image of environmental concern and cultural equality. Neither engenders an effective means for a social transformation that would control the corporate class.[xvii] Indeed, we see all the changes going in the other way – to the management of society by an increasingly small elite.[xviii]
Marquand’s book is extraordinarily interesting for it shows, I think, how far parliamentary politics has been reduced to a kind of caudillismo. A populist politics with a leader appealing directly to the masses over the heads of all the intermediate institutions, weakened by 40 years of state-market action. We are following the lead of Latin America, and probably for the same reasons: the massive concentration of wealth at the apex of society’s ever-rising pyramid. Such concentrated power produces a huge divide between the rulers and the rest of the country, so that the population is separated from political influence by an enormous ditch they can cross only with the help of an (increasingly short lived) messianic hope in a charismatic leader; a representative of the rich and powerful, who often attacks those institutions that exist between them and the central authority; the only representatives of the state the majority are likely to meet – the taxman, the local authority, the NHS for example. Parliamentary politics fosters these millenarian hopes and is instrumental in creating the great leader myth; with its relentless focus on a few selected politicians. Inevitably the believers are let it down.[xix]
This is the politics of an individualised consumer society, where choice is defined in market terms. From out of this culture arises the belief in the free individual; which may partly account for this phenomenon: Thatcher, Blair, and Obama most spectacularly of all, should have, or so the story goes, unlimited freedom; thereby giving them the power to change the political landscape in line with the electorate’s demands. Everything in the culture tells us this must be the case. Thus the exasperated disappointment when the leader fails; even Thatcher was not good enough for her most radical supporters – she was always more moderate than her image suggests. However, although a myth it is also a rational expectation, given the nature of our institutions: if only a small elite have political influence, supporting those of its members who appear to be on one’s side is the only available option; and it must be taken. The fact they are unlikely to do so, forces us into a certain credulity; creating an emotional strain that gives rise to an intense but superficial faith. The last two American presidential elections have been extraordinary in this regard – how could those Democrats have gotten so excited about John Kerry? The resultant failure, of course, intensifies the general cynicism – Obama’s conservatism shows that all politicians are knaves. The conclusion is false because the faith is a fantasy: the belief that one man can take on Big Pharma, Wall Street, the military-industrial complex and the oil and insurance industries, is simply a delusion. But this is not Obama’s mistake, but ours. It is as if Montgomery could have defeated Rommel’s North Afrika Korps by himself alone. It is the absurdity that generates the evangelicalism and insures its eventual demise.
This problem did not exist for the Chartists: collective action and identity was as natural as eating; they were part of a community and they were its intelligent and influential representatives. With the deskilling of the labour force, the shifts to automation and services, and the gradual extension of the middle classes, this working class intelligentsia has disappeared. A major problem for progressive opinion, which to be effective requires some popular support. Today, rather than talking from within such a culture, most intellectuals speak from outside it;[xx] and are distrusted for that very reason; although there have always been conflicts inside the working class communities; even within the Chartists themselves; as reflected in these rules of the Working Men’s Association.
For the political struggles of today to replicate the influence of the 19th century radicals, who helped socialise the economy, new myths have to be constructed, which places individual action within the context of a collaborative life. A new idea of collective action is needed; one that no longer relies on the communities surviving from before the Industrial Revolution, or the mass working class that arrived with large scale manufacturing and heavy industry. It is a conception that could be created relatively easily, for it would naturally grow out of some aspects of modern life; which in part is returning to the social arrangements of the Middle Ages; a new kind of feudalism, where corporations and their supporting institutions interlock like the barons and the monarchies of old. The Big Society goes even further in this direction: people are expected to give up their time to work on the lord’s land – today’s libraries and civic centres.[xxi]
Associational socialism’s failure did not appear a foregone conclusion to many contemporary observers. To some acute observers and participants it had won the battle of ideas. Bertrand Russell in Roads to Freedom (1918) took it for granted that capitalism was finished, and compared socialism, anarchism and syndicalism as possible replacements for it. His judgement was that English Guild Socialism was the best alternative on offer. How could an idea have appealed so promising to an intellect like Russell’s and yet fail so completely? (Paul Hirst, Associative Democracy)
The capitalism that Russell knew was finished. Already it had began to take on aspects of G.D.H. Cole’s Guild Socialism; a thick medieval texture of relationships, based not on democracy but market relations, which contrary to conventional pieties, relies far more on cooperation than competition. Capitalism was being transmogrified into a collectivist enterprise, underwritten by the state.[xxii] For decades the majority, because of the power of trade unions, local authorities and the professions, were able to benefit from this transformation; and especially after the Second World War with the hegemony of social democracy in the West. But with the financial revolution of the 1970s they have been thrown out of the city walls, to face brute nature, now called competition and market forces.[xxiii] For many this has led to increasing job insecurity, longer hours and rising inequality (a return to the levels of the pre-war period);[xxiv] partly offset by the decline in the price of consumer items,[xxv] the phenomenal rise of personal debt,[xxvi] and the expansion of the two-income household.[xxvii]
An ideology has been created that camouflages this reality, although it contains aspects of truth: the financial industry acts like a free market until it collapses; while the newer industries, associated first with computers, and later the internet, behave more like conventional capitalist companies, until the market stabilises, and competition is weeded out in favour of monopoly. The new ideology is in part a justification for these new industries; although by now “market libertarianism” is little more than the reflex of corporate heads protecting their corporations from government regulation and citizen control.[xxviii] The “enterprise culture” really a bureaucratic machine; with its senior management team a West End gentlemen’s club.
In a recent talk about the links between capitalism and slavery Robin Blackburn argued there was no conception of human rights in the 19th century – rights were for white men only. He linked this new conception, its apogee in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the anti-slavery movement and its demands, particularly in America at the time of the Civil War, for equal rights for all races; from out of which grew the later demands to extend them to women and minorities. Discussing these ideological shifts Blackburn could give no easy answer to account for them; for in large part they relied on a change in the moral perception of the culture; itself altered by political and social action; such as the abolitionist movement. It seems something similar has happened today, that there has been another shift; this time away from the rights of the human being to that of our duties to the market economy; achieved through decades of concerted action, by the corporations and their PR agencies. Our rights now only effectively extend as far as our power to compete in the workplace, and our readiness to submit to market routine; [xxix] the amount of money we earn determining our status and political influence. Although like most ideological positions it is not clearly articulated; for to do so would be to expose its absurdity.[xxx]
It seems the times are amenable, as the society is squeezed remorselessly to pay for the financial crisis, and the elite doctrines are becoming somewhat tired and fanatical, to create a new movement attacking the immorality of a culture that so narrows and delimits the individual; to resurrect the old, 19th century, attacks on wage slavery, and which could resonate widely; as work becomes increasing dull and onerous for the majority; the office becoming a sort of factory; email and the networked computer a new kind of production line.[xxxi] The New Left began this attack in the 1960s, but it was too close to Marxism and too doctrinaire; and too puritanical; it was also a little before its time: the trend then suggested that the modern economy would get easier, with increasing automation and less working hours – a social revolution was therefore not required.[xxxii] The end of the Labourist dream of collective state action and its infatuation with the power of production, and the hegemony of work (the unions historically have been in love with the workplace as much as the employers; it is the source of both their authority), provides the opportunity for these strands of socialist and left wing thought, which have always existed, nearly always on the margins, to become influential, but in a language that is relevant to the experiences of the majority of the population. The goal an engaged and responsible life, where work is either an expression of one’s personality, and thus all-encompassing, or a simply a means for material support; in which case it is of limited duration to allow time for an individual’s own interests; which can include political action and community support. Bertrand Russell expressed it well:
When I suggest that working hours should be reduced to four, I am not meaning to imply that all the remaining time should necessarily be spent in pure frivolity. I mean that four hours’ work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit. It is an essential part of any such social system that education should be carried further than it usually is at present, and should aim, in part, at providing tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently. I am not thinking mainly of the sort of things that would be considered ‘highbrow’. Peasant dances have died out except in remote rural areas, but the impulses which caused them to be cultivated must still exist in human nature. The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part. (In Praise of Idleness)
The Labour Party (and by extension most of the left) has generally turned away from the drawing rooms of the leisure class to look at British society through the factory window and from the pithead gates.[xxxiii] The sources, they accepted, of the country’s power, and a sign of its economic health; so that their relative decline over the last 50 years has become not only a symbol of national weakness and decay, but the source of Labour’s own steady fall – the industries that sustained it were going out of business. And in turn this is reflected in the decline of the wider left, who have appeared to lose much of their constituency; to increasingly become an extreme sect; on the far margins of mainstream society.
One result is that until recently many of Labour’s economic strategies, or at least its rhetoric, has been to revive the industrial sector; particularly prominent in the 1960s, when a technocratic vision of a managed economy became the party’s new ideology.[xxxiv] This view, Marquand believes, is hopelessly out of date; blind to the new kinds of work that exists today; the rise of the services, the inevitable consequence of an advanced society. I think he accepts the conventional wisdom a little too easily: the rise of a tertiary economy in itself shouldn’t mean the obliteration of industry (Germany is an excellent counter example); and is surely linked to other factors that could have been controlled politically; the particular nature of Britain’s transformation to a post-industrial society wasn’t inevitable.[xxxv] However, his insight is an important one. The Chartists talked of the workingman. The syndicalists spoke about industrial democracy. These ideas may no longer apply. There is little heavy industry, and an organised working class has ceased to exist.
Another consequence of the left’s infatuation with work is that it has implicitly given its support to industrial capitalism – in effect the nature of the system should remain the same, only the relationship between the two classes should change. This is one of the reasons for the ultimate failure of the communists and socialists in Western Europe: for they became dependent on the growth of the post war economies, which hollowed out both their ideologies and their culture.[xxxvi] The New Left, with its commitment to cultural as well as economic revolution, was a radical response to this ideological stagnation; and led to nearly two decades of civil war within the left, as the establishment parties tried to maintain their control. By the time that war was over, socialism was no longer part of mainstream political life.
The language of socialism, along with its ideas, has to change. Just like the great religions, radical thought has to return to its origins, to reinvigorate itself, and come up with fresh perspectives, based on the realities of how people live today; one of which is the pointlessness of so much of the work that people do.[xxxvii]
One response could be the revival of syndicalism, but locating it inside today’s offices. A more radical solution is a new kind of Guild Socialism, where sectors of industry are replaced by communities, variously described: voluntary associations, health and education boards, community and religious groups; local authorities, employer’s federations, and trade unions. The constitutional settlement of Northern Ireland, as described in Marquand’s analysis, could provide an inspiration: its “consociational” democracy, with its “guiding principle… [of] one community, one veto; not one person, one vote” suggests how close these possibilities of change could be – Stormont is not that far from Westminster.
In an interesting discussion about the role of a minority faith in a multi-religious society Rowan Williams tried to resolve a modern intellectual problem: how to reconcile universal rights, as symbolised by the Enlightenment, with community ethos, often associated with its antithesis – the Romantic belief in organic communities. His solution was to define communities as individuals. This was very sophisticated, but ultimately unconvincing. Nevertheless, it is highly suggestive. People, in order to exercise power, have to participate in groups and relatively compact communities, and today these are often more cohesive outside the workplace than in it. The Church, as Marquand himself notes, was the one traditional institution that was able to withstand the authoritarianism of Margaret Thatcher; one reason, I suspect, why religion is so hated by today’s liberals; it is a source of alternative values and practice. It may also suggest the origins of a new politics: one based on community representation rather than individual voters. G.D.H. Cole’s original Guild Socialism envisaged different parliaments, one for industry and one for the population, to create a balance of interests between producers and consumers. These conceptions could easily be adapted today. The House of Lords could be made into a “community” chamber, its elected representatives given powers to block controversial legislation that does not have the sanction of the majority of the country’s citizens. The process federated down throughout the regions (Hirst’s book, quoted above, is a rich source of thinking on this subject).
However, the left also needs to think about leisure. Russell stood outside the conventional parties; but his insight is profound – no longer on the edge of starvation, and secure in our homes, many of us only need work for a few hours each day. The reason we don’t do so, is because we are coerced and manipulated into working full time to acquire luxuries we now believe are necessities. We have become slaves to consumption patterns created by institutions that exist only for themselves; and have no purpose beyond them.
What is needed is a new beginning, the start of a new kind of political action; a new awareness of the political realm; and an appreciation of leisure time, and its creative use. A recent review suggests these new possibilities; it suggests turning daily life into a kind of craft:
We want to imagine… community as a process of coming into the world, a process in which people work out both the value of face-to-face relations and the limits on those relations… man as… a maker of life through concrete practices. (Richard Sennett quoted in Jenny Turner’s Superficially Pally)[xxxviii]
We have to think beyond the work place; which we must adapt to our needs.
We must move beyond the bounds of class and embrace culture; in all its manifestations.
We have to get people to love life to a point where work becomes intolerable….
[i] It is not so natural when ideas are used to hold people together. Later the left were to become dominated by them; and yet ideas are that most fissiparous of pursuits (as demonstrated in the 17th century, when it was the puritan sects who were obsessed with them. The consequences are well discussed by John Locke; see his Political Writings, edited by David Wootton). It is the main reason for the fragmentation of the left.
For an interesting discussion in the early Seventies see Jean Blondel’s Votes, Parties and Leaders; where he argues that the obsession with concepts is the most distinctive feature of the Labour Party’s membership. He was writing at a time when the New Left were making inroads into the constituencies; and the class background of the activists were changing, with increasing numbers of white collar unionists and intellectuals. One interpretation of what happened to the Labour Party in the 1970s and 80s was that there was a lower middle class revolt against both the workers and the patricians; who had historically dominated the movement; and which had given it its distinctive blend of conservatism and liberalism.
J.C.D Clark, in classic work, refers to the “ideological 19th century”, and contrasts it with its predecessor, the long eighteenth, where relations were still based on individual association, rather than a submission to abstract concepts (to do with the relatively small size of the elite, I would suspect). It was the early part of the following century, he argues, around the time of the first great reform act, that the modern period began, a time when many new abstract terms were invented; and which were used to rubbish the old regime. (English Society, 1660-1832)
It is suggestive of the trajectory of the left, and why it was ultimately to fail – it gradually moved further away from the working classes it was supposedly representing, until it became a preserve of the middle class intellectuals; whose ideas replaced people’s lived experiences. This is well brought out by Henry Pelling, in his Origins of the Labour Party, where he shows that even during its origins in the 1880s most working people were opposed to socialism; preferring other forms of radicalism. One of his most interesting sections is on Fabianism, where he describes how it suddenly expanded in the North of England in 1890, following a sudden decline in Yorkshire’s textile trade, because of the McKinley tariff. It wasn’t the inherent attractiveness of the ideas that made them suddenly so popular, but rather that they seemed to explain a recent event, while offering a solution in tune with that experience – state action to positively interfere with trade.
Ideas, by themselves, will have little resonance, unless they can somehow mesh with people’s actual experiences; used to either understand, or more often, to justify them. Socialists, so often obsessed by ideas, usually never notice how that obsession alienates the constituency they think they represent – the concepts and theories appear utterly alien to people’s own, often un-intellectual, lives; which are related mostly to the local and the particular, and their own past.
The success of the Labour Party, of which Keir Hardie deserves much credit, was to create a coalition out of the radicalism of the working class activists, the liberalism of the trade unions, and the socialism of the middle class intellectuals, which somehow lasted until the 1970s, when it began to fall apart.
[iv] He could also have added both the New Left and the New Right, and latter consciously modelled on the former. See yet another brilliant Adam Curtis piece for how this happened in America: Who Would God Vote For?
Starting from outside the main parties these movements gradually infiltrated them. The New Left was eventually defeated in the 1980s. The New Right were much more successful, capturing the Conservative Party in the mid Seventies. Their economic influence has been enormous, but their cultural agenda less so; going, as it does, against the grain of the social conditions of the modern economy.
The main impetus for the rise of the New Right was cultural and social; a moral counter-attack against the Sixties, but which needed a modern economic theory to give it legitimacy. Monetarism, provided the answer, seeming to link relative economic decline with social and cultural liberalism – easy morals leads directly to easy money, it seems. Although monetarism was later dropped as unworkable, the economy was gradually deregulated, to rebalance the economy in favour of the large firm and the City of London. (See Andrew Gamble’s The Free Economy and the Strong State for the intellectual background. He makes the important point that the New Right was made up of two powerful elements that were potentially contradictory – old style conservatism and 19th century liberalism. The subsequent history was the predominance of the latter over the former, which increasingly was reduced to mere rhetoric – thus John Major’s doomed Back to Basics campaign).
[v] Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire show how, after the fall of Communism, the United States targeted alternative forms of capitalism, particularly in the Far East; his area of expertise. It is interesting how many of even the serious commentators do not realise just how much of “globalization” has been linked to a particular form of American capitalism. To a large extent it is an imperial ideology, rather than an internationalist one. One of the failures of Marquand’s brilliant book is to underrate the American nature of this revolution.
[vii] Thus the enormous amount of time some sections of the left spend on criticising the Guardian. Yet it is a paper that has become part of an elite consensus, its former radical elements simply decoration now. If this was fully recognised the solution would be obvious: ignore the mainstream press, and create your own. Democracy Now! seems the ideal template: it creates its own perspectives; often ignoring the main mainstream news stories completely.
[viii] By now we have approached the political culture of post war Japan, where a democracy was designed whereby the politicians protected the bureaucrats from the general population, allowing them to create a developmental state – both the individual and the corporation subordinated to the national (and often long term) needs of the Japanese economy. (See Chalmers Johnson’s classic MITI and the Japanese Miracle)
Marquand’s brilliant The Unprincipled Society, a book that argued for a participatory developmental state, tended to ignore its essence, so clearly captured by Johnson – until way in the 1970s Japan remained a war economy, allowing a flexible bureaucracy to restructure the society, and which existed in the space created for it by the politicians. In Johnson’s account there is a conflict between democracy, that is, the potential of citizens to affect (to usually slow down) change, and the freedom of the bureaucrats to change things as they saw fit; which led to massive changes in the urban landscape and the planned obsolescence of certain industries; so as, for example, to move the country away from cheap textiles to expensive electronics. Marquand hoped to fuse both these social actors into a new synthesis, by making the British state more responsive and the British public more engaged. However, such a vision was far too radical for the political establishment; which even by then, that is the late 1980s, had become tied not only to capitalism, but one particular variety: neo-liberalism.
[ix] This is the mistake Kenneth O. Morgan makes in his Keir Hardie, Radical and Socialist; where he criticises Hardie’s intransigence and extremism, his inability in his first term as MP to build parliamentary alliances. To me Hardie’s focus on extra parliamentary activity, and an uncompromising expression of labour values, was far more important, well-judged and prophetic: it helped create a culture that eventually made the Labour Party possible.
[x] You can see the anger and frustration in the articles Anthony Barnett wrote for Open Democracy after the failure of the referendum. He recognised, twenty years too late, that reform has to come from outside the political class. For more discussion see the first two parts of Creating the Future: Victory Begins With Defeat and When Conservatives Become Socialists.
[xi] For J.C.D. Clark it was a shared belief in order and religion, which underpinned a pre-modern confessional state; although, of course, the contents of those beliefs were very different and often aggressively disputed. Thus the ideological battle between Whigs and Tories over the fact and meaning of 1688 – could William III’s ascension to the throne be legitimated and if so how. Clark persuasively argues that the contract view of government, that a sovereign exists by a compact of citizens, was a marginal political position, as the ruling classes did want not to give the people the opportunity to use it to attack themselves. A consensus emerged, whereby the Tories argued for divine right; and the Whigs for providential right – that God sometimes intervenes, and sets the course of politics right by instituting a change of monarch. It is a striking resemblance to Newton’s ideas about the universe – that it required the periodic intervention of God to keep it in order. (See Norman Hampson’s The Enlightenment for a discussion of how Newton brought mysticism back into the intellectual mainstream – gravity was seen as a magic force; and human reason was downgraded, no longer could it understand the inmost workings of reality, it was believed). It is a striking example of Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs’ and Margaret C. Jacob’s contention that
“Newtonians… used arguments drawn from science to oppose political radicals and republicans in the pro-Revolution Whig party… [they] were supporters of the Protestant succession, staunch Anglicans, reconciled to king-in-parliament as the form of governance… by the 1720s they would gradually become identified with the Whig party and its ruling oligarchy. (Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism)
The result was a strong pre-modern state, that continued until at least the 1960s, when it began to breakdown:
“Though democracy came to Britain in the end, its coming owed little to the republican ideal. It was procured by ‘medieval technique of expanding the king-in-parliament to include new categories of counsellors and representatives’. What was exceptional about Britain was belated medievalism, not precocious modernity.” (David Marquand’s The New Reckoning, which includes a quote from J.G.A. Pocock.)
[xii] Clark argues that 1832 was the major modern shift in British society; electoral reform validating the new social arrangements that had slowly emerged with the early stages of modern commercialism and industrialisation. Nevertheless, Britain still remained a recognisably “old” society, dominated by landed wealth, and the customs associated with it. For the industrial revolution, it is now recognised, didn’t “take off” in the late 1700s, as previously believed, but was a much more fragmented and slower process, only enveloping in the society in the middle of the following century, around the 1840 and 50s. (See E.A. Wrigley, Poverty, Progress and Population)
Wrigley, in what is a modern classic, argues that there were two kinds of capitalism, initially a commercial capitalism that later was fused with a resource capitalism, reliant on energy based minerals, and which the created possibilities of exponential growth – that is, the Industrial Revolution. This may in part account for the relatively calm transition of Britain into modernity: industrialization took place in a society that was already transformed; an elite already made “open” by the possibilities of commercial expansion in the previous centuries; and at a time when the merchants and financiers were not large or powerful enough to terminally threaten the existing social structure.
Ernest Gellner in a number of books argued that early capitalism was saved by the smallest of its size – if had been more successful quicker, the rulers would have sought to appropriate its profits, and thus destroyed it. That is, Britain’s success depended on the strength of its old society. In a later book he contrasts this with the Maghreb, arguing it was precisely this dynamic that prevented the region from developing – the tribes in the interior would periodically invade the coastal towns to acquire their wealth; creating a cycle of growth and decay that could not be broken; until colonialism arrived to break the power of the inland tribes. (Muslim Society)
[xiii] A point strongly made in Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism; where he argues that the de-layering of organisations, and the use of email, reduces the amount of mediation between the CEO and the frontline worker; so that orders can be delivered more directly to the office floor. This reduces the ability of both middle managers and workers to interpret these orders, which tended to be changed and “softened” when passed down through the managerial hierarchy. There was also a time delay, so that it took a while for a CEO to realise that their orders had been adapted; thus giving people space to accommodate new ideas to their own working practices.
[xiv] While even today individual unions that cover key industries can still exercise considerable power, for example on the strategic vulnerability of the London Underground.
[xv] See the discussion in Morgan’s Keir Hardie, Radical and Socialist.
[xvii] The struggle for equal rights has traditionally been seen as a progressive cause. What has been less understood is that such campaigns are also in the interest of modern capitalism – it wants people to be equal, so that like standardised parts, like nuts and bolts, they can be used on any machine. Racism and sexism is actually dysfunctional for an industrial society, for it reduces the pool of skilled labour.
The progressive reforms of the later 20th century were not so much an attack on capitalism as the culture that preceded it: a pre-modern one, where the moral codes were strongly tied to religion and the aristocratic ethos. From the beginning of the 1960s this culture was in serious retreat.
[xviii] So that once again they own the political system. Most clearly seen in the United States, where astronomic election costs restrict influence to the richest in the country.
In the 18th century, Clark argues, politics was in the interest of the propertied classes; who used it to restabilize the society, following the popular religious risings of the previous hundred years; which were both feared and hated. Since the early 1970s we have seen a similar process of emasculation and demonization of popular dissent; the Sixties viewed as extreme and irrational; the source of all modern society’s ills (originally a conservative position, it now dominates all three main parties; although New Labour’s infatuation with “Cool Britannia” complicates the picture – Blair wanted to capture the surface gloss of the Sixties while at the same time attacking what he believed where the social ills caused by the liberal social policies of the decade). The parallels are striking, although of course the details are enormously different; to cite the most obvious: ideology had replaced religious sectarianism while (market) populism is promoted not derided by respectable opinion. This is reflected in the change to the main intellectual interests over the period. In the 1960s there was a plethora of work on the English “revolution” in the 17th century, led by the eminent Christopher Hill. Starting in the 1970s, concerned switched to the 18th century; first Adam Smith, and later the Enlightenment, becoming the source of much modern mythology. It suggests something of the links between both ideas and social forces, and how different periods are used ideologically, to justify current trends. In the 1960s the idea of an English revolution suggesting its reincarnation in 20th century Britain, at a time when the old order was breaking down; while the mindsets of the Sixties intellectuals were clearly resonating with the sects of the 17th century (see footnote i above,)
The apotheosis of this trend, to destroy democracy in the interests of business, is happening in present day Greece. In a revealing article in the LRB, David Markasis argues that the “troika” of the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF, wants to reduce democracy in the country, for it believes that is at the root of its economy’s crisis. Here the needs of a society are to be sacrificed to the current requirements of the financial institutions; and the population is expected to have no say in the matter at all. Indeed, according to the article, Greek politicians themselves have treated the state like a City trading firm over the last two decades; using the promise of future tax revenues and the income from public services to buy financial loans. This is the ultimate transformation, which has absorbed the zeitgeist completely: politicians turned into bankers and stockbrokers, and the government into a public company.
[xix] This is one of the central arguments in Thomas Frank’s What Happened to America?: that the religious supporters of the Republican Party are always disappointed by its performance in office.
Both parties pump prime the evangelicalism of their supporters (Christianity v liberalism), to create at election time an overheated, almost hysterical, contest; which is largely ignored when in office. However, forty years of preaching cultural war appears to have affected the Republican Party; with each new generation of congressmen and presidential candidates ever more extreme; to a point where they are beginning to look like a fanatical cult; and whose views do influence policy – thus the congressmen who deny global warming on religious grounds. The trajectory of the three generations of the Bush family illustrate what is happening: the grandfather a liberal Republican who advocated birth control, Bush Senior a typical Ivy League establishment figure, and his son a dedicated Christian, or so it appears; and who attacks the very culture his father and grandfather took for granted.
The rhetoric has historically been restrained by the needs of the business world that backs them; an essentially liberal and cosmopolitan elite. However, at what point is a political party able to put itself outside the influence of the corporate world, by submitting itself to the will of its supporters? That is, is it possible that the Republican Party could become a mass party, where the corporate leaders lose control of it? The history of populism in the United States suggests this is possible (in American politics new parties, the natural outlet for populist sentiment, have not been successful – after a relatively short but powerful beginning they tend to quickly fade away. Rather, under social pressures, there are major realignments within the two dominant parties; the last major one the transfer of the Southern Democrats to the Republicans in the late Sixties.) But such a prospect is perhaps unlikely: the business culture is just too powerful in the US, and, as Curtis shows, religious feeling in America is strongly divided over the role of religion in politics (Who Would God Vote For?).
Although there is another model: the traditional Latin American society where the political establishment and the Catholic Church are umbilically linked. The Church buttressing the wealthy elite, who pay lip service to its teachings, but who ignore it in their daily lives; using it only to control the population. What is intriguing about this possibility, is that not only does it fit with contemporary Republican strategy, but that it is in accordance with the historical trajectory of the United States – increasingly it is becoming to resemble its Southern neighbours. A question naturally follows: would the Protestant churches experience their own liberation theology….
[xx] For more discussion see the earlier pieces in this series. For an example of the contempt for the working poor see the response to When Conservatives Become Socialists; and my reply.
[xxi] The Big Society rhetoric is interesting because it suggests the end of an era, rather than the beginning of a new one. It seems more than a coincidence that it should emerge around the time of the financial crisis; the climax of a generation, and its ideological bankruptcy. For the present era started in the late 1950s; although then the major critics were from the left; their progressive ideas part of a general trend to undermine and remove the old establishment; the imperial Whiggery that had dominated Britain since the 1720s. The Big Society reprises that movement, in particular the ideas of the New Left, though now it is used to justify the existing system, rather than attack it. In contrast its left forerunners, heavily influenced by Gramsci, believed in overturning traditional British society to create a more plural and less economical determinist world; a world they perceived to be run by big business in partnership with the state. However, they undervalued the non-economic virtues of the establishment; which we can see clearly in retrospect.
For an attack on the establishment from within the business community see Adam Curtis’ interesting piece on Sir James Goldsmith. A man, Curtis argues, who by the 1980s had come to dislike the consequences of what he had earlier done.
[xxii] This is brought out clearly in J.K. Galbraith’s article on Nixon:
“… when the Penn Central found it could not pay its bills, its executives quickly revealed their deeper ideological commitment. The capitalist rules and procedures were summarily rejected. Urged on by what Newsweek called a ‘frantic consortium of seventy-seven banks’, the railroad executives turned to the state. The government was invited to take a $200 million participation in the capital structure of the railroad as a first step. Legislation was introduced to allow the government to stake out a $750 million capital position in American railroads in general. Once this was passed, the government was to be asked in to Penn Central for a lot more. This dramatic rush to socialism won the initial approval of the Republican administration…” (Economics, Peace & Laughter. It was later blocked by a congressman; although the author expected the administration to win in the end – Penn Central would otherwise go bankrupt.)
[xxiii] But not the corporations themselves. They have created a very comfortable world for themselves, where they can take huge risks, reward themselves with enormous bonuses, and be protected by the state; when they fail. Galbraith’s article is very sardonic on the gap between the reality of modern capitalists – effectively comfy bureaucrats – and their self-image as daring buccaneers. Such a scenario was comical in the 1980s when “Captains of Industry” and the “entrepreneurial culture” were clichés. It turned into farce with the privatisation of the railways, when shareholders and senior executives collected their dividends while the rail infrastructure deteriorated; and the public paid the cost. Its apex, for me at least, was the Potters Bar accident, and the response of Railtrack’s chief executive. When interviewed on TV (I believe it was Newsnight) he wouldn’t accept any personal responsibility for the crash. Indeed, he thought it ludicrous that people should want to charge him with corporate manslaughter – because he didn’t see any connection between his own actions and those on the railway track. That is, conceptually he didn’t believe chief executives had any responsibility for the front line actions of their staff. People who disagreed, that is family of the victims, he regarded as flat-earthers.
Here is a system where the people who run our largest institutions can be completely irresponsible, indeed it is in their interest to be so if it can increase profits; and they know that the law, the state, and the business culture generally, will protect them if the institutions fail (although not if they personally act illegally – a crucial distinction). In the case of the Potters Bar accident it is the tax payers who had meet the cost of the corporate fines; or as Perdita Kark, the daughter of one of the victims, so aptly phrased it:
“It's offensive that I pay a fine for something that killed my father.”
The early capitalists, without the protection of limited liability, would have lost everything if their businesses failed – a great deterrent to risk taking, although the early manufacturers were prepared to take such risks; and gained respect because of it (Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People). The history of capitalism since that time has been a progressive insulation of companies, later corporations, from risk and insecurity. It is one of the reasons for the rise of monopoly; now given public justification – too big to fail.
[xxiv] Even after that the celebrated Attlee government:
“…1% of the population still ha[d] nearly 50% of the nation’s capital wealth; at which there [were] 400 persons owning more than a million pounds’ worth of property; at which there [were] still about 2,100 persons with gross incomes of more than 20,000 pounds a year (60% of these incomes being less than a half earned, and nearly 40% of them wholly unearned); and at which, even after the present heavy rates of direct taxation, the largest net incomes [were] still more than thirty times the smallest adult wage.” (Roy Jenkins quoted in Radhika Desai’s Intellectuals and Socialism; ‘Social Democrats’ and the Labour Party)
[xxv] A point strongly made in Elliott and Atkinson’s Fantasy Island. The exploitation that underlies this process is explored in Adam Curtis’ We’re All in the Same Boat – Aren’t We?: the Western “poor” can live in relative luxury because they exploit the much poorer people of the Third World. (E.P. Thompson made a related point years ago in the LRB – the British Empire allowed British workers to feel superior to the colonised). What is particularly revealing in Curtis’ piece is how the social relations of exploitation are transferred onto the poor themselves – thus the protection rackets are run by the ship’s workers; while the CEO can play at being a waiter or bar attendant.
[xxvi] See another interesting Curtis post, Let Them Eat Plastic. The argument is that the rise of debt was an easy way to fulfil the expectations of a public, now used to the riches of the consumer society. There seems some truth to this idea, as the personal credit boom followed the economic failure of the 1960s, and the consensus that growth could create a satisfied society, without the pain of a redistribution between the social classes (this was the hope of the progressives around Anthony Crosland, who in large determined the intellectual atmosphere of the Labour Party at that time).
“…equality was not now primarily a question of further redistribution, but rather one of seeing to it that the proceeds of further economic growth were distributed in a way that enhanced rather than diminished the standards of equality achieved in Britain.” (Radhika Desai. Intellectuals and Socialism…)
As the author notes, this view was dependent on the success of the economy. When it began to falter in the late Sixties, the social democratic ideology began, inevitably, to collapse. The impotent fatalism of Crosland in the mid Seventies, and which Desai describes in her book, seems the ideal image for the end of the revisionist’s dream.
However, Curtis’ argument can be taken too far. Already in the 1950s, J.K. Galbraith had noted the role of personal credit in creating demand within the US economy. For him it was a central part of modern capitalism and went in tandem with the rise of the advertising industry:
“An increase in consumer debt is all but implicit in the process by which wants are now synthesized. Advertising and emulation, the two dependent sources of desire, work across the society. They operate on those who can afford and those who cannot… The process of persuading people to incur debt, and the arrangements for them to do so, are as much a part of modern production as the making of the goods and the nurturing of the wants. The Puritan ethos was not abandoned. It was merely overwhelmed by the massive power of modern merchandising.” (The Affluent Society)
The expansion of the media world in the 1960s was a massive boost to this process, with both its products – the music industry, colour TVs, glossy magazines, etc – and its very form, television programming is itself advertising, a huge stimulation of consumer desire. A society where that “Puritan ethos” had already weakened could not withstand this even greater surge in demand, which drew on the new technologies that were beginning to enter the economy – such as cheap colour printing, micro-electronics, and computers. To meet it a significant rise in debt was almost inevitable.
Seen in this light the financialisation of the economy that began in the 1970s grew out of the vast expansion in the consumer market; and the need to create sufficient demand to enable the population to buy an ever-increasing number of products. As the economy grew larger, so the demand for credit increased (not only by consumers, but also by the corporations), there reached a point where the financial sector became large enough to become a dominating influence; the position today.
[xxvii] There is also the long term unemployed, a figure that has been artificially reduced by the large increase in the numbers of the young staying on in full-time education. Youth and young adult unemployment was regarded as a major problem in the 1980s, but the expansion of higher education has largely solved it. (see Elliott and Atkinson in Fantasy Island)
[xxviii] For the importance of the new industries in shaping the intellectual and cultural climate, of producing a new hegemony, see Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism.
In such a culture, it is almost a definition of hegemony, you would expect the critics to accept the assumptions of what they criticize; such as Dubcek looking to reform Czechoslovakia within the model of Marxist-Leninism. So it is today; with “radicals” calling themselves libertarians, criticizing the corporate-state, but sharing its language and premises (often literally - many of these people actually work inside corporations, a good example of unconscious conditioning).
A brilliant study of how an establishment and its critics share the same assumptions is J.C.D. Clark’s analysis of the concept of divine right, and how both the Whigs and the Tories subscribed to it after the 1688 revolution; although they interpreted it quite differently. (English Society… See footnote xi above. )
[xxix] The concerted attempts in the 1980s to create the idea of a British underclass was an explicit recognition of this position: if you don’t work you are not a proper citizen, was the underlying assumption; more or less publicly stated.
However, such an attack includes its own anomalies: are the rich who don’t work also members of this class? Interestingly, one could argue that Robert Murdoch believed so, thus his papers’ consistent attacks on both the British establishment and the monarchy (which he believed was obstructing both himself and the new kind of American capitalism he wanted introduced into the country; together with Australian republicanism). Of course, it was never put in these terms; most people assuming it applied only to those claiming state benefits.
[xxx] A good recent example is David Willetts’ letter to the LRB, which both embodies the ideology, while denying it at the same time. Willets, I have always thought, is the classic clever schoolboy who never grows up: thus his dexterous manipulation of surface detail, but his lack of any real depth. He can play with ideas, but doesn’t really understand them…
[xxxi] Working for a large company a few years ago, the demoralising nature of the email economy became very apparent – never could you get control of it; always there were more emails to answer. A friend of mine described how managers could micro-manage her performance through the computer network – breaks, for example, could be timed to the second; while they could monitor her “hits” in real time.
[xxxii] It also failed to understand the nature of a workingman’s life. It was very much a middle class projection of certain ideas onto a culture that would find them alien. This is brilliantly brought out in a clip from Adam Curtis’ Dream On, where we see the mutual incomprehension between the students and the workers they say are exploited. What the privileged students didn’t realise is that exploitation first requires the exploited to recognise it. If you don’t feel a victim of class war, can you seriously be treated as one…?
Before laying some theory atop a workingman’s life, which they inevitably abstracted, they should first have investigated the nature of this experience. However, this lack of interest in the texture of working class life is simply another exercise in middle class superiority and control – we know better than you about your own lives is the underlying subtext. It suggests how far radical politics had come since those first chartists; now a middle class struggle to reorganise its own life; increasingly modelled on that of the worker and petty official. (It would be an interesting research project to trace the influence of popularises like William H. Whyte and Vance Packard on the student rebellions of the Sixties; their resistance in part a reaction to modern office life, filtered both through the middle class lives of their parents and these critical but popular authors.)
[xxxiii] There is an interesting discussion about basic income in the early issues of the New Left Project, where the Left’s historic resistance to leisure, and its valorisation of work, is strongly brought out: Stuart White, an advocate of the basic income, even feels the need to justify it on the grounds that is only partially exploitative of other workers!
“Capitalists are people who live off the labour of their fellow citizens through the wage-labour capital relationship. Now if there’s something intrinsically wrong with living off the labour of your fellow citizens when you’re capable of contributing to production yourself – if there’s some objectionable failure of reciprocity there, of failing to give back in return for what you’re getting from the labours of others – then basic income as an unconditional income grant looks as if it’s also vulnerable to this objection. It looks like it allows people to share in the fruits of fellow citizens’ labours without working in return.
“You become in a strange sort of way a type of capitalist.”
Of course, this view comes from a particular tradition, a Marxist one that sees the owners exploiting workers, and appropriating their surplus value. The problem, as Richard Sennett describes at the beginning of his The Culture of the New Capitalism, is that this idea is based on an oversimplified conception of modern work, which ignores how workers in the old “Fordist” industries were able to control their workplace; and were emotionally attached to it. Exploitation, in the abstract sense that is employed in the article, is an academic’s conceptualisation that creates victims out of actors, and reduces each firm to a miniature class war; a picture that is only partially true; and leaves out people’s social ownership of the workplace.
Also, notice how the discussion is framed. Everybody will receive a basic income, and yet, because it is unearned, they must all be capitalists. It is a very revealing assumption and highlights the absurdity of the position; on two levels; for it has to conclude that both the aristocratic leisure class and the unemployed are exploiters; and are more so than the CEO who insists on the minimum wage for its lowest paid staff – he, at least, is a worker. In effect, all government support for the disadvantaged turns them into bourgeois industrialists; while Bertrand Russell is a close relative of Henry Ford… It is the inevitable result of laying too much stress on work and the class war. Work! How the left intellectuals love it, not like the workers; who would give it up tomorrow, if they won the lottery.
It is a classic case of too much concentration on a single word (why is paid work exploited, but not the cultural pursuits of an aristocrat, sometimes indistinguishable from the work of a salaried lecturer, and which are done without pay?), which is expanded to cover too many things, to a point where it becomes meaningless; just a vacuous generalization.
The point of Russell’s argument for a minimum working week, and for some advocates of the basic income, is to provide people with a choice: a freedom on a subsistence living (ideal for those with a vocation), or the ability to earn a lot more, by working. To believe that a choice of poverty is form of exploitation shows the confusion of a tradition that been too closely allied with a capitalism it so aggressively attacks.
[xxxiv] Revived by Tony Blair – modernisation is what both he and Harold Wilson believed in. The content, of course, was markedly different: the media industries replacing manufacturing as the locus of inspiration and hope.
[xxxv] As E.A. Wrigley notes even in the 19th century tertiary services increased with manufacturing:
“Attention is conventionally focused on manufacturing expansion, in this, the heyday of British economic dominance, but a balanced account of the economic history of the country should not ignore the fact that although employment in tertiary industry in 1841 was far less that half that in secondary industry, the growth in numbers in the former was almost half as great again as that in the latter in the decade which followed.” (Poverty, Progress, and Population)
His point is that services have always been downplayed when looking at the British economy. Not surprising, as it was the industrial transformation of the country that was both so new and startling; and gave Britain its overwhelming 19th century predominance.
Of course, the value of services changes when the manufacturing sector is contracting. It can still be a symbol of a prosperous economy, but also it can take on another value – as a replacement for productive work. The question then becomes can a service sector economy, (effectively) on its own, provide the wealth to sustain a country the size of Britain. New Labour certainly thought so:
“We are all in the thin air business. Our children will not have to toil in dark factories, descend into pits or suffocate in mills, to hew raw materials and turn them into manufactured products. They will make their livings through their creativity, ingenuity and imagination.” (Charles Leadbetter quoted in Fantasy Island, by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson; who describes him as a guru for Blair and Co.)
Although as the authors’ note, this was based on a particular idea of the service economy: the high end - of the new industries, of media, software and the internet. Not the servant class or call centre hinterland; the latter now suffering with the same fate as the manufacturing industries: transfer overseas.
[xxxvii] A point Galbraith made in the 1950s, when the growth of the economy became dependent on the manufacture of meretricious consumer goods. Today, the focus is somewhat different – many, the majority?, are employed in offices doing work that often seems to have no point at all; except for providing consumer demand in the wider economy. Thus the phenomenal rise in administrators in the public sector. Of course, this is an effect of marketisation, which is inherently bureaucratic – costs have to be micro-managed. However, their employment doesn’t necessarily lead to improvements in front line service delivery; the reason, one would have thought, for their existence. (See Fantasy Island for comment)
[xxxviii] In a mostly positive review Turner criticises Sennett’s focus on this aspect of community; suggesting it is ambiguous and has no substantive policy implications. Maybe. But as with Keir Hardie, the radical utopianism has to be promulgated first, to create the culture in which the practical can later become possible. The individualism that so permeates the present atmosphere has to be undermined; at first intellectually; and in new ways (the New Right would not have been so successful if they didn’t dress up Adam Smith in contemporary clothes) and this is what Sennett is doing; and he is not the only one. Henry Pelling makes a similar point about the early Socialists:
“Socialism was now more than the fad of a few London intellectuals: thousands of ordinary humble folk were turning towards it as offering hope of redress for their pressing grievances. The intellectuals had performed their main task well: they had provided a unique range of propagandists literature…” (Origins of the Labour Party)