The Old Radicals and Forgotten Progress

There is a great documentary on Netflix called “The Spirit of ’45”. It got a 75% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. The low scores mostly come from The Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Sun… so, make up your own mind about that. The documentary is a bit patchy. It glances over the years between about 1955 and when Thatcher came to power. It also doesn’t give a clear description of how the state was organised during those years. Some interpret this as selectivity with the aim of misdirection. Perhaps it is, but I think including these things would have strengthened the movie’s position. And it does have a position. The main ideological objection to the documentary seems to be that it makes workers out to be heroes while casting the establishment (including the police) as thugish villains. Nigel Andrews from FT.com points out that the documentary “doesn’t spare a frame for the concrete block dropped by NUM protesters from a motorway bridge”. That is a fair point in of itself. Omitting things from a documentary that are relevant is a flaw. However, I’m not sure how he thinks this fits into his overall criticism. Police are people. NUM protesters are people. The country was in a state that caused people to do extreme things, and some people are stupid. So what? Is he arguing that socialism is really the result of people wanting to throw bricks off bridges? Or the result of people not wanting to be beat up by police? I suspect not. I suppose he’s just making a childish “I know you are but what am I” argument.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to make this a meta-review.

At the beginning of the 20th Century the British Empire was nearing the end of it’s life. The Empire had brutalised most of the planet in order to secure the economic interests of ‘Britain’ and yet Britain had some of the worst slums in Europe. This had not gone unnoticed. A small set of the population were rich and thought of, explicitly, as tyrants. A huge number of people were living in a state of poverty and could only work when fickle market forces happened to allow it. The healthcare system was private or voluntary, and as such practically non-existent.

Then WWII happened.

Many talk about how the war affected the economy in purely abstract economical terms. The war created demand, which sustained the economy. Even if you accept that, of course, war is intrinsically a bubble. Any demand created by the war would disappear as soon as the war ends, which it has to eventually. Also, wars tend to end abruptly. One day you are producing munitions at maximum capacity; the next two thirds of your industry is useless and you have huge stocks of stuff you don’t need. As it happens it’s quite easy to retool industry from war to useful production, so it’s not all bad.

This overlooks the impact of the war on people, and how psychology affects the economy. The war taught people a very clear lesson: everyone can have a job. During the war there was little involuntary unemployment. People openly questioned “if we can have full employment killing Germans, why can’t we have full employment doing something useful?” And this isn’t an abstract statement about what people where thinking. This idea was out in the open, in the news, in public discussions, in labour movement speeches.

As soon as the war ended an election was called. The Labour movement won by a landslide. This was the first time in British history that a Labour movement got into power.

It’s interesting to note at this point the similarity to the US today. The US has no labour movement party. It has only Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It has an empire that spans the world founded on military power. It is extremely powerful and yet, by any metric, it’s homeland is a third world country. It’s only apparently developed because a small section of the population (that is a parasitic class) raises the averages. It’s also, arguably, nearing a breakdown in it’s power. It has long since lost control over China. South America, too, is becoming independent. The Arab Spring is bringing about, to some extent, sovereign rights over middle-eastern domestic resources. China is gaining momentum as the new US and India and Brazil are huge emerging markets.

Many of the ideas that were alive during the 30s in the UK, the recognition of vast disparity of wealth and power, the overt revulsion over individualism and market speculation, the idea of worker control and ordering a society system around improving people’s lives first and improving the markets second can be seen in protest movements in the US.

There is, however, a qualitative difference. Whereas the UK saw a Labour movement, the US’s protest comes primarily from the anti-globalisation movement. The Occupy movement isn’t as such a worker movement (although they are all clearly workers in the nominal sense), it’s also a customer movement. I think this difference can be explained by the fact that the UK in the 30s was industrialised whereas the US (and UK) economy right now is financialised. As a result workers rights are a problem but so are financial customers’ rights [1].

When the Labour party got into power they did some truly awe inspiring things (whether you agree that the changes were good or not you can’t disagree they were significant). Today, a political party will knock together a few million pounds, make a slight change to policy (and commission a marketing / branding campaign) and call it revolutionary. The Labour Party literally changed the fundamental mechanics of our whole society and implemented things that people today take as a granted component of life.

For the first time normal people could do progressive things like ‘see (with glasses)’ or ‘not die in childbirth’ or ‘make a fair wage’ or ‘not be get killed in mines’.

The Labour Party was explicitly Socialist. That’s uncontroversial. The Labour manifesto talked about pubic ownership of means of production. There are a few ways to interpret this in a practical sense. That is, there are many ways to implement socialism. What was implemented was a form of State Socialism. Since then State Socialism has been taken as what Socialism is, and any criticisms of Socialism you will find will be, in reality, criticisms of State Socialism [2].

State Socialism is an interesting system. It has to comprise of two interdependent systems.

1) A Top-down planning and administration

The chosen means of action in a State Socialist system is a top down administrative system…

2) A Bottom-up feedback

…but in order for the system to qualify as Socialism it must have a means by which workers can control their work. So there must be a parallel system by which decisions can be made by workers that filter up through the system to be then translated into administrative policies to be passed back down. 1 is the state part and 2 is the socialist part.

If the bottom-up component of this system is deficient then what you have is effectively totalitarianism (actually, a big corporation).

One of the causal dynamics in Politics that is often ignored is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The government is never really purely Labour or purely Conservative. The government as a real thing (rather than a theoretic construct) is much more complicated. At the time, and like always, there were many who were totally against socialism in whatever form it might take. The Conservatives, during the 1945 election, had Hayek’s Road to Serfdom republished. It is effectively a tirade against Socialism, and in a more broad sense one of the many religious texts on which fanatical neo-liberalism is based. Like minded individual’s insisted and predicted that Socialism had to fail. The problem is that those making the prediction also had the power to make their prediction a reality.

So it makes me wonder if to some extent UK State Socialism, rather than Libertarian Socialism, came about as a result of there being individuals in powerful positions who didn’t want Socialism. Firstly, if you want to implement Socialism in a previously State Capitalist country you have to make some huge changes, but if you opt for State Socialism there are many conventions and paradigms that you can keep. Chiefly the overall top-down administrative systems. So, in this sense, State Socialism could be seen as a kind of conformist type of Socialism, a reformation of State Capitalism. Secondly, those who are dead set against Socialism (that is worker control over capital) have a say in how the system is to be implemented and will try to retain the structures that have served them in the past, and further will try to steer the system towards an implementation that they have the power to disrupt (for example by interfering with the bottom-up component of the system while installing themselves in positions to benefit from the top-down part of the system, or by interfering with funding and investment.)

Many argued that the new nationalised systems were, in the end, not so dissimilar to the old tyrannical systems in that many of the tyrants (including Lords and Ministers) had been placed into the system in positions of power, and the theoretical bottom-up component, worker representation, was deficient. Over the coming decades British industry suffered from a lack of investment, which could have been created by the public sector but would have been considered to ‘Keynesian.’

A reoccurring pattern followed: private interests conspired to interfere with the public sector, knowingly sabotaging it, then asserted that all Socialism is flawed and claimed credit for predicting it, using that as justification for more austerity and less market regulation, which resulted, ironically, in an increase in state expenditure during the Thatcher years, imposition of free-market economics on some and huge protectionism measures for a minority. This set the basis for unfettered speculative schemes, transferring most economic effort into abstract markets that have no productive output, which eventually lead to the financial sector discovering it could make more money speculating on the mortgage market than actually financing productive enterprise or people’s lives. The result was a huge speculative bubble in the property market that everyone except neoliberal fundamentalists could see was a problem. When the bubble burst it almost destroyed the world economy and had huge repercussions on peoples lives.

[1] It’s interesting that, if you think about it, customers aren’t significantly different to employees. In fact customers are like perfect employees. They have all the benefits of employees, well, there’s only one: they cause money to go into the employers’ pockets, but have none of the drawbacks. The employer doesn’t have to do any of the stuff associated with maintaining employees.

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