Sunday, November 14, 2010
The argument traced the development of retail charity from the salvage shops in poorer districts in the 1800s, through the launch of Oxfam, to the professionalised and 'profit-maximising' organisations of today. They have become very marketing conscious, and the proliferation of high street branches - increasingly in wealthy areas, where most volunteers can be attracted to work, and most revenues raised - is an aspect of this development, as retail shops are an efficient way of raising funds. Charity itself becomes commodified, as it is in the consumption of retail goods that one expresses social solidarity.
Based on voluntary labour, the organisations work - so it is argued - not by extracting value from the volunteers, but by using the volunteers to realise the exchange value in the merchandise itself. The volunteers themselves are typically not in employment. Only 5% of volunteers are in full-time employment, with the bulk either retired or unemployed. They also tend to be on lower incomes, with most on under £15,000 per year. There are antagonistic relations between managers and workers, the former under enormous pressure to get the most out of the volunteers with few resources. The workers have more leverage than in the typical capitalist firm, in that they are compelled neither by economics or direct coercion to be there.
When asked why they volunteer, a typical answer involves "giving something back to society", though it is never clear what exactly is being given. Another common phrase is "conscience salving". There is no particular attachment to any one charity. Most volunteers choose the retail charity outlet nearest to them. There is little questioning of the framework in which the charitable act takes place, how effective it is, what might be better than charity... certainly, there is little questioning of the capitalist social relations that make it necessary that some should give up their free time. These are organisations that, one would gather, are ill-equipped to run public services. Voluntary labour is no replacement for waged labour, and commodified "conscience-salving" is no substitute for social solidarity.
Marina Kaneti (I didn't get what institution she was from, but I think this is her), then gave a talk completely in contrast to the above, arguing that social entrepreneurs are not necessarily co-opted by capitalism, and can act as an oppositional force, challenging the structure in some ways. Arguing from Mike Davis' Planet of Slums, Kaneti argued that there were large parts of the world that were 'radically excluded' from the capitalist economy, where the activities of big populations do not feed into capital accumulation or generate profit. Among these would be the slum-dwellers who numbered 921 millon in 2001, and will number 2 billion by 2030.
It is in these areas that social entrepreneurs can build, channelling people's creativity, changing social patterns, impacting the structures of the system - and this, she maintained, does not have to be coopted by capitalism. To back up this point, she cited the patron of social entrepreneurs (and old Reaganite arch-capitalist), William Draper, pointing out that social entrepreneurs solve social problems, not economic problems. They engage in non-market activities to improve lives. They allow for local empowerment, and capability-development that may be able to elude capitalist enclosure. A short video clip from one of those TED talks was shown to illustrate the point. The 'Blackberry' logo appeared on screen, then a rather lively host with a headset spoke from a vast stage, inviting a guest to join him from the floor. The man, William Kambwamba, was from Malawi, and he had become a 'social entrepreneur' by building a windmill from instructions in a book found in a nearby library run by USAID. The story is, he just had this idea of building a windmill to electrify his home, so went looking for the information, found it, and built it with the materials available to him. He was eventually able to power his local community with the assistance of overseas investors.
I didn't agree with the talk, and I was squirming at the video. I thought it was patronising, racist rubbish. It was like an Israeli foundation getting a Palestinian to talk about social activism without mentioning the occupation. There was no mention of the famine which drove his father's farming business into the ground, the Washington Consensus which contributed to the famine, or the privatised secondary and tertiary education system which meant that Kambwamba could not afford to continue school. The whole semiotics of the clip was appalling, with the presenter smarmily gushing, and the audience whooping and hollering, and no mention of the social context in which this 'entrepreneurialism' took place - just this atomised individual, devoid of political views or any relationship to Malawi's trade unions or socialist left, which would be challenging capitalism in different ways. (And, by the way, Kambwamba does have a view on imperialism, the IMF, neoliberalism, exploitation, and so on.) I really disliked it. I think it's fair to say most of the audience did as well, as someone complained to me afterward that people were rather unfairly aggressive toward Marina.
On the other hand, John Holloway, speaking from the floor, loved the presentation. He was very enthusiastic about it, seeing it as an excellent antidote to the idea of marxism as a 'theory of domination', which I suppose he saw reflected in the presentations by Nicola Livingstone and myself. He argued that marxism had to be a theory of antagonism, and the key antagonism in capitalism is between use value and exchange value, between abstract and concrete labour. The key antagonism of capitalism, then, centres on despair, frustration and alienation, and social entrepreneurs by unleashing our capabilities can help overcome this. I was neither surprised nor particularly moved by this, considering...
Anyway, here's my talk:
Thoroughly Modern Tories? From 'One Nation' to 'The Big Society'
In search of tradition
The Tories have a habit of justifying whatever they’re doing in terms of an ancestral tradition, of which they are the legatees. Some examples. When Sir Robert Peel, in effectively founding the modern Conservative Party, embraced industrial capitalism and the Great Reform Act of 1832, he signalled his acceptance of the new order with the ‘Tamworth Manifesto’. It is a rather dull document to read, written for a bye-election. But it acknowledged the reform as both “a final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question” and at the same time as nothing more than a “careful review” of existing institutions to root out “abuses”, the better to preserve “ancients rights” and “deference to prescriptive authority”.
When Benjamin Disraeli led the Tories toward the Second Reform Act of 1867, which enfranchised a section of the working class, he asserted that the 1832 Act had “abolished all the franchises of the working class” which were “as ancient as those of the Baronage of England”. Thus, adapting to mass democracy was not a reluctant last-ditch embrace of reform to mitigate its effects and claim its benefits, but the restoration of a tradition which the Tories had, mysteriously, forgotten about. Embracing the ideology of social reform, Disraeli asserted that raising up the condition of the people was one of the three pillars of the Tories’ historic mission. Stanley Baldwin, in turn, embracing certain fledgling forms of welfare and palliation, grounded his appeal in a ‘One Nation’ tradition going back all the way to Disraeli. Harold Macmillan, embracing social democracy, asserted that Toryism is nothing other than “paternal socialism”. He harked back to Disraeli. The New Right, whose rise coincided with some fresh thinking on Disraeli found that they were able to claim him as an ancestor too. And of course, David Cameron, positioning himself as a quasi-egalitarian, a social reformer concerned with poverty, considers himself an advocate of Tory radicalism in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli.
There is in fact no coherent tradition here, no unbroken lineage that resolves the many turbulent shifts of official Tory doctrine and practise into a solid body of accumulated wisdom. There are constant commitments – but these are not to tradition, and the familiar, as so many Tory apologists vouch. Whether opposing mass democracy or acquiescing to it, whether red-baiting social democrats or mimicking them, whether raising spending or cutting it, the enduring ideological commitment of the Conservative Party is to inequality, hierarchy and domination.
Or, to put it in less abstract terms, the capitalist mode of production, the system of Burke’s veneration, the system that made the Tory landowning class rich (for it was still largely an agrarian system when the Conservative Party first emerged in its modern form), and the system whose technological expansion made the Peel family rich, as they were original investors behind the spread of the ‘Spinning Jenny’. In the marxist idiom, the Conservative Party is a bourgeois party, a party that exists to wage political struggles on behalf of the capitalist class into which it is integrated. And if this is right, then the shifting orthodoxies of official Conservatism will not merely express the changing interests, composition and cohesion of the ruling class, but also its relations with the rest of society, its relative power with respect to the working class, and so on.
So, it is on that basis that I want to outline the patterns of the shift, from the post-war consensus to Thatcherism, and now the post-Thatcherite neoliberal consensus that has a near monopoly on our parliamentary system.
The Tories’ acceptance of the social democratic state, which Labour constructed out of the materials of the war state, was at first reluctant. Lord Hailsham’s famous warning to parliament at the height of war in 1943 urged that: “If you do not give the people social reform they are going to give you a social revolution.” This was a recognition that the war-making state had mobilised millions of workers in a collective effort, under the direction of a state that had showed that it could engage in planning. It was also a recognition of the radicalism that was sweeping the country during the war, something that Paul Foot describes in his posthumously published book, The Vote. But while social reform was on the agenda, it was no part of the Tories’ agenda in 1945 to deliver social democracy.
There was bipartisan agreement, coming out of the war, that there should be some form of social safety net. Capitalism would be re-organised to integrate a labour movement with a specifically reformist, anti-communist orientation into the institutions of government – a process that really began in the 1840s in response to the challenge of Chartism. Importantly, there is nothing inherent in the welfare state that ‘free market’ Tories should oppose. Its basis is liberal, rather than socialist. The Beveridge report, composed in 1942, out of the work of an obscure reconstruction committee, builds on the Liberal reforms of 1906. Welfare was not conceived of as an obligation of a society to its members, but a commodity, traded between contracting parties. It was intended to provide a subsistence-level minimum income rather than to fundamentally redistribute the balance of wealth and power. But the idea of economic planning, of a corporatist state with a set of nationalised industries at its core enabling the government to orchestrate demand, and integrating the demands of the working class through the absorption of the trade union bureaucracy, was fiercely opposed at first.
Nor did their subsequent experiences automatically change their opinions. If the scale of the defeat in 1945, halving the Tories’ parliamentary representation, reducing their share of the vote from 53.7% to 39.8%, briefly empowered those in the Conservative Party who wanted to move in the direction of some moderate industrial planning, by the time the Cold War was being launched in 1947, the Tories, led by Winston Churchill, had lapsed into a red-baiting crusade for capitalist freedom. Churchill vituperated that social democracy was a half-way house to communism. His allies and advisors, such as Oliver Lyttelton, argued –in ways that foreshadowed the ‘New Right’ – that planning of the economy must involve planning the lives of individuals, not just in Britain, but in all those countries that Britain traded with (or possessed as colonies). According to such early neo-liberal thought, planning was absurd, tyrannical and unworkable. The 1951 election was fought on the basis of opposing government intervention, denationalisation, restoring capitalist freedom. “Set the people free”, ran the slogan. And had the distribution of seats been proportionate to the vote, the Tories would have lost the election, as Labour consolidated its support with 48.8% of the vote – proving itself to have a durable electoral basis.
In office, very little was done to reverse Labour’s reforms. Planning was maintained, unemployment remained minimal, below half a million for 8 of 13 years of Tory rule, public spending was kept up, a few abridgments notwithstanding. Working class wages kept up with productivity – in fact, when it comes to incomes policies, workers tended to do slightly better under Tory than Labour administrations. The reasons for the Tories’ acquiescence are varied. Such planning as had been institutionalised was not planning in any strong, radical Keynesian sense, but in the weak sense of evening out imbalances in the economy and manipulating proportions of activity in accordance with an overall strategy. Such industries as had been nationalised had been handsomely recompensed, were important to the UK’s industrial performance, and it was not obvious that they would survive in the private sector. Above all, the Tories did not want to risk being turfed out again in 1955. It’s important to recall how terrified they were of losing their hegemonic position. They were very well aware of the urgent need to consolidate a mass base – a problem the Tories had faced since 1867, and which manifested itself after 1945 with a poll-driven strategy to win over the lower middle class and the ‘skilled’ working class. So the modernisers around Harold Macmillan were able to win the argument for social democracy.
This did not, to repeat an earlier point, signal the accession of some ‘One Nation’ tradition to the leadership. The ‘One Nation’ faction in the Tory party has never been identical with its paternalist ‘left-wing’. Its early members included reactionaries such as Enoch Powell and, later, Keith Joseph. Its recent advocates have included Thatcherites like Ian Duncan Smith. Acquiescence in the social democratic state was a conscious adaptation to the strength and cohesion of the working class as a political force, the challenge of socialism, the relative weakness of the British ruling class, and the new needs of British capitalism in an era of global decline and bipolar international competition. Accepting the social democratic state enabled the Tories to continue to act as a hegemonic party of capital. Studies of working class support for the Tories carried out in the Sixties tended to interpret it as deferential, but an important component of that elusive phenomenon was the belief that the Tories ‘looked after’ the working classes.
However, the corporatist instruments refined under Eden, Macmillan, and Douglas-Home were unable to protect British capitalism from a number of endemic problems. First of all, the relative decline of Britain could not be overcome by corporatist modernisation projects adopted by both Wilson and Heath. The public spending projects embraced in the Sixties and early Seventies actually tended to produce lame ducks. Capital was also finding it increasingly possible to sidestep social democratic constraints, partly because of increased international mobility – this problem was one of the reasons for the reformist Left’s attempt to produce a new settlement, the Alternative Economic Strategy which formed the basis of Labour’s 1974 general election strategy. Secondly, social democracy could not overcome the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and that tendency did begin to manifest itself in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reduced profit rates meant lower private sector investment, slower growth, higher unemployment, and the beginnings of a crisis of the system. Lastly, corporatist institutions such as incomes policies, and repeated attempts at curbing the right to strike by both Labour and Tory administrations, could not contain labour militancy and wage claims. The explosion of radicalism, and the shop stewards movement, led to the second major crisis of the Tories’ ability to act as a hegemonic party, which the Heath administration crippled and ultimately broken by mass strikes. Out of this humiliating defeat, a combative new Right, eschewing the integument of social democracy, arose.
The restoration of capitalist freedom
Mrs Thatcher’s leadership of the Conservative Party was seen by many big business advocates as a scandalous ideological deviation, a short sharp route to the dead end of being a middle class protest party, much as UKIP is today. There is an element of truth in this. There had been a growing revolt by the middle classes against high taxes since the Fifties. The ‘new Right’ that consolidated first around Powell and then Thatcher had its roots in the Freedom League and the Institute of Economic Affairs, and in the reactionary, petit-bourgeois rightist bedrock. Throughout the 1980s, moreover, the most solid Tories were the petit-bourgeoisie, 70% of whom consistently backed Thatcher – the only class to back Thatcher by a majority.
But the Hayekian doctrines guiding the Conservative leadership were not just the cri de coeur of the middle class. They contained a serious analysis of, and remedy for, the ‘British disease’. Powell had shown that it was possible for the Tories to build a mass base without accepting social democracy, by espousing an authoritarian politics of ‘the nation’ allied with economic liberalism –protecting national identity, restoring national competitiveness, asserting British national interests in Ireland and elsewhere, etc. But it would be no good doing so if the Tories could not by these self-same means effectively restore British capitalism and continue to act as a hegemonic party of capital. Since this ability was already in question, the Tory leadership was prepared to take a gamble on a radical new policy mix.
Thatcher knew that the corporatist state depended on healthy revenue streams, but that its ability to intervene and generate those revenue streams was by then seriously weakened. Higher public spending did not reduce unemployment. It just added to inflation. Price controls were ineffectual, and the ‘winter of discontent’ would later show that wage controls were just as ineffectual. Notably, it was during that period in 1978 that big business first rallied behind Thatcher in a major way. In their place, capitalist freedom would be restored. Collective bargaining was out, incomes policies and price controls were out, demand management and job-creation was out.
In the new neoliberal statecraft, the government would spend less, and such money as was spent would be channelled through market-based delivery mechanisms, and undemocratic bodies such as quangos. The boss of Sainsburys was brought in to write a report which led to the introduction of internal markets in the NHS, inflating administrative overheads dramatically. The major macroeconomic objective of government would be to control inflation, which meant controlling wages. That was to be achieved primarily through high unemployment, and a co-ordinated attack on the bargaining power of labour. Defeating the unions achieved this objective, of course, but it also had the intended effect of devastating the social forces best placed to resist Thatcher’s agenda and obstruct social democracy’s adaptation to the new order.
The rentier would be revived, and sound money would replace cheap money. The City’s speculative activities would drive capitalist investment by increasing the rewards of such investment, while integrating a section of the working class by allowing them to borrow against their property - which, owing to rationing in the provision of housing, would perpetually increase in value. Enough people would feel wealthy enough to form a viable political constituency in favour of the new settlement. Until about 1989, the politics of ‘the nation’ thus configured could command between 42 and 44% of the vote, a slight recovery from Ted Heath’s 1974 low of 35%, but still well below the post-war performance – in fact, votes of the Thatcher scale would have resulted in defeats in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the time of the poll tax riots, however, it was clear that Thatcherism could no longer command an electoral plurality. Not only that, but Thatcherite combativeness was exhausted as an option after the poll tax riots. The last major confrontation that the Tories risked with the labour movement, for example, was with the signal workers in 1993. The capitalist class threw hundreds of millions into supporting British rail in that dispute. The Institute of Directors and the CBI mucked in. But the strike was fairly solid, and the employers were defeated. This suggested that the militancy and cohesion had not been completely knocked out of the working class, and that the ruling class now had to turn to other means to get its way. Swinging behind New Labour was the main way it sought to do this. Some Tories lived in denial about this for years. They blamed John Major, and his pro-European allies for their difficulties. If he hadn’t joined the ERM, and been such a wet, the locomotive of the Thatcher revolution would still be charging through the polity today, they maintained. It took three successive election defeats, twice with hard right leaderships pandering to the petit-bourgeois base, saving the pound and stopping immigration, and all leaving the Tories with just over thirty percent of a shrinking vote, to disabuse them of this idea. The Tories had kept the petit-bourgeois base, but they had lost many of the skilled workers Cameron belongs to a faction of the Conservative Party that is loyal to Thatcher’s accomplishments, and has repeatedly paid verbal tribute to her legacy, but is realistic about the need to detoxify the Tory brand of those associations. And that’s how we get to the ‘Big Society’.
The Big Society
No one knows exactly what the ‘Big Society’ is. It is a childishly sunny locution, the sort of thing a children’s television presenter in dungarees and a stripy rainbow sweater might gush about. Before its emergence as an electoral talking point, though, Cameron was given to lachrymose jeremiads about the ‘broken society’. And if we look at the background to the ‘broken society’, it might disclose some of the contours of the ‘big society’. The first signs of the attempt to fashion a more ‘compassionate conservatism’ were evident under Ian Duncan Smith’s watch between 2001 and 2003. It was during this period, you’ll recall, that Theresa May warned Tories that they were seen as the “nasty party”.
The Tories believed that they had won the fight over the fundamentals of the free market economy, but now stood accused of being callous with it, of not having a compassionate social policy to complement their emphasis on capitalist efficiency. If anything, free market economics seemed most compatible with shameless elitism and social Darwinism. Keith Joseph’s bid for the Tory leadership against Ted Heath had floundered when he argued that “the balance of our population, our human stock, is threatened” by high birth rates among the underclass; and that greater birth control was needed to contain it. Post-Thatcherite social policy would have to obliterate all traces of such ideology in the public mind.
The trouble for the Conservatives was that despite their attacks on the welfare state while in office, despite under-funding the public sector, and despite various reforms intended to make the public sector more like the market, they had not succeeded in keeping overall spending down. One reason for this was that the high unemployment resulting from their economic policies drove up the cost of social security. The other plank of their policy designed to cope with just this problem was workfare. This involved changing the benefits structure to ‘reward work’ and introducing welfare-to-work schemes designed to change individuals’ capacity to find work in the labour market. Such policies made no lasting impact on employment, and thus did not reduce the social security bill. As far as the Tories were concerned, the tax bill that paid for public spending was still a drain on capitalist dynamism, and the further erosion of the welfare state was essential: it was just not politically popular.
Fortunately for the Tories, New Labour’s acceptance of the neoliberal policy mix extended to accepting workfare, privatization and fiscal austerity. This automatically drew the sting out of any attack on such policies from the centre-left, leaving only the question of how to define the Tory brand, creating the perception of ‘clear blue water’ between themselves and New Labour. Staking out a traditionalist stance on homosexuality, the family, drugs, and race was not an option – though in truth, Cameron did try in his early days as an MP to do just this, his latter day reinvention as a social liberal notwithstanding. It wasn’t popular, and it divided the Tories - beyond the old Tory ‘left-wing’, there were a section of Thatcherite ‘mods’ (as distinct from the ‘rockers’), who later became known as the Notting Hill set, who believed that market liberalism should lead logically to social liberalism on drugs, race, sexuality and so on. So, it transpired that the best strategy for the Tories was to become cloyingly touchy-feely in public, lock the old hard-nosed self-made Thatcherite bruisers in the coffin, and hug a hoody.
Under Ian Duncan Smith, the new dispensation declared that society did exist. The centrist Tory intellectual David Willets was put in charge of welfare policy, with a remit of discussing how amid general prosperity there was such terrible deprivation in parts of the country. But IDS could not carry his party over support for gay adoption, and was unceremoniously chucked in favour of the charismatic old hawk, Michael Howard, who stuck to an old hard right script. After the glorious Howard interregnum, Cameron took over the process of liberalisation. He was instructed to do so by Lord Ashcroft, whose money it was he was playing with. He talked up the party’s green credentials, and promised to stick to Labour’s spending commitments if elected. IDS’s think-tank, the ‘Centre for Social Justice’ set up in 2004, provided the soundtrack on social policy.
The ‘broken Britain’ spiel, developed in successive reports by the CSJ, argued that the problems of poverty, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, crime, ill health, and economic inactivity, were the result of cultural habits that needed to be broken with. These cultural habits made the society more unequal by creating an environment that deprived the ‘underclass’ of opportunity. To overcome these habits, and thus distribute opportunity more equally, it would be necessary to undertake a number of reforms that would boost social virtue: improve school discipline and expand school places by allowing charities, parents and voluntary organisations to set up new schools (that’s ‘free schools’); workfare, with a new set of incentives and penalties to make the benefits system less attractive and thus erode ‘welfare dependency’; tougher policing of anti-social behaviour, with higher sentencing for knife-crimes and such, to attack an important environmental obstacle to opportunity; and give more support to families through the welfare system in order to boost social cohesion. All of this would be accompanied by official encouragement of charities, social enterprises and NGOs, whose flourishing would help restore a lost social solidarity. That’s the ‘Big Society’.
I think it’s plain from this list that very little distinctive in the way of policy is being offered here. Almost all of it is continuous with New Labour, who in turn were faithfully following Thatcher. The state would continue to be rationalised and downsized at roughly the same pace as under New Labour, and the reforms to welfare and the public sector would be roughly as New Labour intended. What is distinctive is the branding, and the problem it was supposed to remedy. Cameron sought to situate himself as a ‘progressive’, interested in equality, someone who could be trusted not to utterly savage the public sector, and someone who was open to trade unions as a potential partner rather than a punching bag. And in fact, his leadership saw bye-elections where the Tory candidate outflanked New Labour to the left on Post Office closures. This effort was very costly, and the results were ideologically incoherent and diffuse. But it did contribute soften the Tories’ image and, for the first time since ERM and the 1992 miners’ strike, the Tories found themselves with a sustained lead over Labour, their support hovering around 40%.
The Tories’ decision to ‘turn nasty’ again, using the issue of the deficit and New Labour’s compliance with City demands that fiscal rectitude be restored at the earliest convenience, cost them electorally. That they could still only get just over a third of the vote with a weak incumbency amid the deepest crisis since the Depression says a great deal. Only a fraction of the skilled working class and professionals returned to them. They did not get a mandate, even in the terms of this gerrymandered electoral system. Nevertheless, the decision of Nick Clegg’s Liberals to ally with the Tories, helped along by an ad hoc set of ‘rules’ contrived by senior civil servants, helped overcome this problem and has probably done more to detoxify the Tory brand than all the ‘Big Society’ stuff. But all this raises an important point, which I’ll finish on.
Cameron’s leadership is operating in a situation in which two key difficulties beset the party’s ability to act as, as I say, a hegemonic party of capital. First is the secular tendency for its electoral base to decline, which is actually obscured a bit by the declining turnout, which is concentrated mainly among former Labour voters. The actual share of Tories among the total electorate may be closer to a quarter than a third. To overcome this, Cameron has had to triangulate, pacifying the core vote while appearing to offer something to the centre and centre-left. The second problem is the growing gap between the interests of the hard right base, the lower middle class, and those of the capitalist class, particularly the dominant financial fraction. This demands a second triangulation, though where there is a conflict, capital tends to win. If it did not, big business would withdraw its support and its funding. Cameron’s position on Europe – allying with the parties of the far right, while implementing the policy of big business – is typical of this strategy.
These two difficulties are combining to produce a long-term crisis for the Tories, notwithstanding their present lead in the polls (which isn’t usually greater than 5%). Thus, the reinvention of the ‘Big Society’ as a mantra for spending cuts, welfare cuts, and faster privatization, is part and parcel of a gamble by the Tory leadership that a repetition and further entrenchment of the Thatcher revolution will revive British capitalism and restore their position in it, as the dominant party of business. It is, as the students have shown, a gamble that has the potential to backfire horribly on them.