David Thompson
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August 27, 2007

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georges

David

Interesting. In retrospect the postwar economic system of the Atlee government seems more like a continuation and institutionalization of the wartime command economy than a brave new socialist experiment. Socialism is supposed to be about democratizing work, so that workers can make decisions about their lives rather than the owners of capital. Instead of workers' control we got state control. State monopolies had a class of bosses answerable to Whitehall rather than shareholders, but the "us against them" workers against bosses setup remained. Workers' cooperatives (like, say John Lewis) in a market economy are closer to my idea of socialism than the old National Coal Board.

David

Georges,

“Instead of workers’ control we got state control.”

John Lewis aside, I think that’s pretty much how it goes. The entire series is worth watching and it’s striking just how different the landscape was, with Trotskyite militants forming a party within a party and, in effect, taking control of Liverpool. And much the same command economy assumptions were, unfortunately, shared across the political spectrum. It now seems another world, and a much grimmer one. And the sight of Dennis Skinner in full “class warrior” mode is somehow grotesque and hilarious.

georges

David

I knew someone who was in Militant. There was something a bit "Moonie"-like about him. He had this "cult member" smile. But the thing was, he was filled with positivity. He really thought a bright new era of human happiness was just around the corner. We just needed to organize society differently. And he wanted to help.

I'm sure had Militant policies been implemented in the UK they would have led to disaster. But I notice that the modern hard left - if "left" is still a meaningful term - no longer have any optimism. They're dystopians rather than utopians.

The only grouping who think of themselves as left wing and have an optimistic world view are the ex-LM "Spiked" set - Brendan O'Neill etc. And most leftists in the Guardian hate them bitterly.

This is a historic reversal. It used to be the right who were cultural pessimists, fearing their hallowed traditions would be swept away. Actually Capitalism is far better at destroying tradition than Socialism.

David

Georges,

“And he wanted to help.”

I could only guess at what motivates such people. My own impression is of something less laudable. Wanting to help is easy enough to say, of course, and just about every clown and monster in history has made that same claim, perhaps even meaning it, at least initially. Having a plausible way to help people is, all too often, another matter entirely.

Regarding cultural pessimism, the thing that struck me most while watching the series was how much better things are now, and for so many people. However painful the Thatcher phenomenon was, the most obvious alternative was rapid, terminal decline and mass emiseration.

georges

Well, Mrs Thatcher believed there was no such thing as society. And much of current politics is trying to undo the direct consequences of this bizarre view. Governments now talk of social cohesion and citizenship, try to tackle anti-social behaviour, and generally try to correct the atomized view of humans which Thatcherism endorsed.

David

Georges,

“And much of current politics is trying to undo the direct consequences of this bizarre view.”

Or maybe much of the current politics is actually an attempt to undo the consequences of an infantilised and welfare dependent underclass, while denying the role of leftwing ideology in perpetuating and legitimising that underclass and many of its miseries. That’s only part of the picture, I grant you, but one that’s often overlooked.

Dr.Dawg

I'm with georges on this, and by pure chance blogged about it here:

http://drdawgsblawg.blogspot.com/2007/08/upside-down-world.html

David

Well, “Thatcherism = crass selfishness = atomised society” is the received wisdom in certain quarters, but there’s something a little odd about chastising Thatcher’s quote - which is, in context, about personal and familial responsibility - as “irresponsible nonsense.” Over the years much has been made of that particular quote to “explain” criminality and anti-social behaviour. But, as I said, other factors ought to be considered.

I’m not suggesting a simple either/or interpretation here and I’m certainly not going to defend Thatcher’s subsequent descent into something approaching megalomania. The Thatcherite solution to preceding events inevitably entailed the collapse of long-dysfunctional industries and a period of large-scale unemployment, which in turn resulted in many people becoming resigned to an inert and marginal existence. What I’m suggesting is that marginal existence has in large part been reinforced, legitimised and perpetuated by various strands of leftist belief and policy, whereby the pressures of disapproval are themselves frowned upon and the state assumes a worryingly pseudo-parental role in many areas of life.

I’m referring, for instance, to the fostering of an infantilising entitlement culture – the belief that one is by default entitled to what others have, at someone else’s expense, and irrespective of one’s choices and what one does, or doesn’t do. If a person doesn’t have a given thing – say, a mobile phone or car music system – yet believes he’s entitled to such, he may well be more inclined to take one from someone else. Self-reliance and self-respect are intimately connected, and are in turn related to a sense of probity and how civil a person may be. A person who’s irresponsible towards their own situation, or that of their children, is, I would have thought, less likely to be responsible towards others. This is not some Thatcherite dogma; this is – or was – a fairly traditional ethos of both the working class and the bourgeoisie. My parents and my partner’s parents would very much take this view, and they’re from very modest backgrounds.

When a social safety net (with which no-one here would argue) becomes in effect an acceptable lifestyle choice, and grows accordingly, this is not a happy situation. One also has to consider a range of broadly left-leaning social and educational policies which have been in effect here for decades, with very mixed results, and which have had a major influence on social dysfunction, crime and what might be called atomisation. (Today the lovely Seumas Milne is bemoaning the prospect of longer jail sentences. Need I say more?) Attempts to “care for everybody” can, in practice, be less than one might hope. Again, the variables are numerous and complex - too much so to detail here - but some key factors are easily (or carefully) overlooked. This goes back to what I said about the fact that wishing to help (or to appear to help) is fairly easy, but doing something that actually *does* help in the long term is often much more difficult - and, perhaps, less flattering for the proponent.

georges

David

I would accept that a supposedly well-intentioned welfare system can have very bad unintended consequences. And I am in favour of addressing these anomalies. However...

Are you aware of the Gini Coefficient? I'm not trying to blind you with jargon here. The Gini Coefficient expresses the level of economic inequality in a society. Zero represents perfect equality (everyone has the same income) and One Hundred represents perfect inequality (one person has all the income, while everyone else has zero income). There's some evidence that a high Gini is a good predictor of a high crime rate. And this isn't really surprising.

Which country has the higher Gini - Denmark or Brazil? We all know it's Brazil. Current figures give Denmark the second lowest Gini at 24.7, while Brazil is more than twice as unequal at 58. Which country has the higher murder rate? Do you need to ask? Interestingly Denmark has massively higher welfare spending than Brazil.

After Denmark, the next lowest Gini score is Japan at 24.9 (the UK is at 36, making it one of the most unequal societies in Europe). Japan is one of the most socially cohesive nations in the world. No Japanese politician could ever have said "there is no such thing as society". Even though it has a moribund economy compared to the "dynamic" UK, and it definitely has serious problems, the specific problems we're concerned about here don't trouble Japan very much.

David

Georges,

Well, I’m no economist and I haven’t seen the actual data, so I can’t comment on the particulars. But your argument rather presupposes that enforced economic equality, to whatever degree, is some kind of moral given, or at least a price worth paying for (perhaps) lower criminality. I suspect others might disagree, and for very good reasons. My point here is that those who do disagree are not necessarily lacking in compassion or a desire for a better society; they may well disagree for reasons that are both practical and moral.

To return to those “anomalies”…

The problem with any ideology that views itself as unassailably well-intended is that its proponents will not be quite so inclined to look critically at the actual consequences of all that doing of good deeds. This can, of course, be said of trends across the political spectrum, but most obviously with regard to the left, where this assumption is most visible and is, for many, a defining feature. The readiness with which well-heeled bourgeois people will claim to be Socialist, apparently as a badge of trendiness or social acceptance, speaks volumes. But advocating self-reliance or “bourgeois” values as a social benefit or complaining about the fallout from egalitarianism is a much harder sell, and thus, I think, less prone to unchallenged imaginings of righteousness.

It’s rather like the way “dumbing down” is generally ascribed to market forces or capitalism in general, which are easy targets, rather than to collectivist social policies and egalitarian ideology, which often view intellectual elitism as a mortal sin.

TDK

Regarding the discussion on crime rates, I think the following example is illustrative of what I consider to be a factor in the increase:

http://pubphilosopher.blogs.com/pub_philosopher/2007/08/no-way-to-run-a.html

It concerns the sacking of two railway servants who challenged anti-social behaviour. It seems to me that when I was a child I was as likely to be told off by a neighbour than by my parents if I misbehaved. Thus civil behaviour was reinforced by people other than the state. That notion has now passed. It didn't pass because of individualism being promoted by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s but because a cultural change dating back much further. Moreover this is a social change that sees no sign of being challenged from the left. That's why I find accounts of increased criminality being caused by Thatcher to be highly implausible - the time frame is wrong - crime has been rising in the UK for much longer. Crime in 1900 was much lower than 2000. There has been periods when collectivism increased and when it retreated, yet crime rose.

georges

"Enforced economic equality" sounds scary. As far as I am aware all this means in, say, Denmark is:

1. People elect a government.
2. They pay the taxes their elected government levies.
3. If they don't like those taxes they are free to persuade their fellow citizens to vote for a different government next time.

If a country is so lacking in social cohesion that the outcome of an election is not felt to be binding on those who vote for the losing party it has a big problem - way bigger than the problem we are discussing.

georges

"When I was a child I was as likely to be told off by a neighbour than by my parents if I misbehaved"

This suggests that some social bond connected your parents and their neighbours. Your parents and their neighbours were "in it together". There was a society there, and now there isn't.

I am genuinely interested to know why you think this social bond has broken down in the UK, and why it seems not to have in, say, Japan.

David

“When I was a child I was as likely to be told off by a neighbour than by my parents if I misbehaved. Thus civil behaviour was reinforced by people other than the state. That notion has now passed.”

As I said, the state as pseudo-parent.

“There was a society there, and now there isn't.”

Family and broader civility are intimately related. Disdain for one, perhaps as a “bourgeois power structure”, may well result in disdain for the other. And disdain for the family is not, as far as I’m aware, a traditional rightwing trait, or indeed a Thatcherite one.

Here’s a personal anecdote that seems relevant.

A few years ago, I found the owner of a small newsagent’s I used to frequent being harassed and robbed by a youth of about 14 or so. The youth was obnoxious and threatening, shouting racist epithets at the owner, who was Indian, and smashing displays, throwing stock at him, etc. (I later discovered this had happened before to the owner’s wife who no longer felt safe working alone in the evenings.) Two female customers looked on, saying nothing.

Butch and strapping hero that I am, I grabbed the youth by the collar, hoisted him outside and threw him onto the pavement. A startled look was followed by a spasm of tearful abuse and he ran off. The owner thanked me for intervening and explained that, despite onlookers, no-one had offered to help his wife when she was similarly threatened. As I turned to leave, the two female customers looked at me in disgust and accused me of being racist, presumably on the basis that the threatening youth happened to be black. Being a gentlemen, I said nothing. But I did pause to register the paper one of the women held. It was, of course, the Guardian.

I mention this not to suggest that all Guardian readers would react in a similar way, but to illustrate the obvious moral confusion that can result from the inhibition of disapproval and instinctive moral reactions.

TDK

"I am genuinely interested to know why you think this social bond has broken down in the UK"

There are a whole host of reasons some advanced by the right as well as the left.
1. The comprehensive redevelopment of so called slum areas in the 1930s, 50s and 60s, which broke up existing communities and rehoused them in high rise or new estates. The vision to do this and the Brutalist architecture that was employed were products of the left, although the Conservatives competed heavily in metropolitan areas to do as much harm
2. Television supplanting older forms of entertainment.
3. I hesitate but reduction in social capital http://proteinwisdom.com/?p=9357 might interest you.
4. Increase in centralised government at the expense of local autonomy. I'd agree that this was a Conservative measure initially, but I see no prospect of Labour reversing it.
5. The reason I gave in my post.

No doubt I'll think of many others but I have to work.

georges

There's much that I'd agree with here. I dislike Goldfinger and the brutalists, although I can't help but notice. In the Barbican, and especially by the St Johns Wood entrance to Regents Park, you can see the super-luxury money-no-object version of exactly the same Brutalist architecture. Its luxury version doesn't seem to have caused the hyper-rich to develop the same social problems as its jerry-built versions caused the poor.

Presumably the most extreme form of the state taking over the job parenting was National Service, which the UK no longer has.

David

Heh. Actually, the abandonment of National Service might well have a lot to do with what we’ve discussed. Don’t worry, I’m not about to plea for its return. Though I do like the idea of shouting, “Nail some sense into ‘em!” Harrumph.

The Thin Man

Thatcher actually said:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

What she is alluding to is that there does not (and should not) exist some incorporial entity, with bottomless pockets capable of protecting everybody, always, from the foolishness of their own choices.

We should be ready to lend a helping hand to those to whom the fates are unkind, but that should not extend to maintaining healthy adults in a permanent non working state or supporting industries that are unprofitable.

Social breakdown has happened because politicians have persuaded people that they bear no responsibilty for themselves. And if something bad happens to you and "Society" bails you out, it naturally follows that when ones' own behaviour makes something bad happen to someone else - no problem, "Society" will help them too.

There are many who believe that poverty (or inequality) is the cause of bad behaviour. The very idea that the person behaving badly is undertaking some economic calculation (I'm poorer than this guy therefore I shall club him over the head and take his mobile phone. You know, for the inequality!) is simply ludicrous.

Behind all behaviour is individual moral choice. When a guy mugs you, it is not motivated by some arithmetic calculus. The mugger has simply determined that he does not feel bound by the standards of behaviour that make us civilised. "You musn't club someone over the head and steal their stuff" is a guideline, a moral standard, he chooses to ignore. He has arrived at a point of choice: mug or don't mug, steal or don't steal, rob or get a job, and the choice he makes is to NOT do the right thing.

Civility rises when those who are civil prosper and those who uncivilised do not. Part and parcel of the left wing "but society or the rich or A N Other is to blame" world view is that incivil behaviour is tolerated (as a way of lessening THE JUDGEMENT) and emboldened.

AntiCitizenOne

The Thin Man,

Could it be Class war by proxy?

The Thin Man

AntiCitizenOne

"There is no class....."

Like most attempts to use mathematical abstractions in the study of people, venn diagrams and set theory are poor tools of choice for setting public policy.

Gini coefficient? The belief that human behaviour is decipherable and comprehensible using fourth form arithmetic tinker toys is as foolish as believing that a the position of the planets at the time of your birth governs the future path of your life. To suggest that we should design policies based on such a belief is an act of gross intellectual malfeasance.

The Thin Man

Which ever way you cut it, Britain in the late 70's was in the crapper.

Policies implemented by people calling themselves socialists had had the effect they have had everywhere they have been tried - economic meltdown (and georges efforts to distance socialism from what was implemented do not alter the fact that the people implementing the policies thought they were socialist and that their stated aim was socialism - see Labour Party Clause 4).

I find it bizarre that the lefts' utopian "planned economy" fantasies cause economic meltdown, the lefts' utopian "house the poor" fantasies create social chaos and cause the destruction of imperfect but cohesive communities and somehow still the left believes it fix things by central planning.

Go figure. Perhaps they have a learning disorder. I believe AA defines madness as "repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results"

The next lefty utopian fantasy to destroy something hard won and valuable will be the "prizes for all, no academic rigour, post-modern, it means whatever you want it to mean" education system. What, I wonder, will be the effect on our academic standing of vast herds of graduates with degrees in "Queer Theory in the Mayan Number System" or "Outdoor Adventure with Philosophy"?

David

“Civility rises when those who are civil prosper and those who uncivilised do not.”

I like that. It’s also interesting to note how, when seen in context, Thatcher’s ‘society’ quote actually chimes quite strongly with an aspect of traditional working class / bourgeois morality with regard to personal and familial responsibility. A similar moral aspect becomes apparent in discussions of immigration, where many working class people take the view that a person should generally pay into a benefit system before taking from it. This tends to conflict with the view, most common among middle-class leftists, that a newcomer from country X can arrive and make several claims without having contributed via taxation, etc. I’ve read more than one Guardian commentator dismiss the former view as “typical of racist little Englanders”, which rather misses the most credible point of contention.

Wherever you stand on the issue, and whatever exceptions one might imagine, my point is that quite a few middle-class leftwing commentators have casually dismissed as “racist” a moral argument based on reciprocity and a sense of community. And there’s something grimly funny about those who most loudly profess to care for “the proletariat” showing sneery disregard for the views and moral values of that same group of people.

TDK

"Its luxury version doesn't seem to have caused the hyper-rich to develop the same social problems as its jerry-built versions caused the poor."

You could make the same comparison concerning the way that some high-rises are being redeveloped and sold as flats to young professionals. They share the 1960s architecture but were regarded as slums till recently.

I do think the "jerry-built" argument is rather overplayed (although I do accept that some developments like Hunslet Grange in Leeds were falling apart before they were occupied). My first house was a back-to-back in Leeds. For the benefit of southerners and others, this is a terraced house with neighbours on three sides. The house and thousands like it were declared slums in the 1930s but such were the numbers that rehousing all occupants at once was impractical. We and lots of other "upwardly mobile" people were buying and improving such properties, while around us the local authority was still in the closing stages of demolishing similar properties. Another point of comparison is the prefabs that were built after the war. My relatives lived in such a flat was was expected to survived for no more than ten years. Such homes cannot be regarded as anything but built on the cheap, yet campaigners try to proserve them: http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/topstories/display.var.1357376.0.residents_calling_for_prefabs_to_be_saved.php.

Do you think the values of the occupants might play a role?

TDK

Try again

My relatives lived in such a flat, which was was expected to survived for no more than ten years. Such homes cannot be claimed as anything but built on the cheap, yet campaigners now try to preserve them. My Aunt used to tell me about council visitors becoming confused when the tenants not only didn't want to move out of their "slums" into a "lovely new development" but wanted to buy them too.
http://www.newsshopper.co.uk/news/topstories/display.var.1357376.0.residents_calling_for_prefabs_to_be_saved.php.

Do you think the values of the occupants might play a role?

Simen Thoresen

Thank you, David - I've found a supplier for the required bytes, and am getting them now. If this ends up being half as interesting as the Lefties, I'll owe you another beer.

Yours,
-S

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