Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

DOES HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF?

In O. Adams on December 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Or, how did we get where we are today? Some thoughts by OWEN ADAMS

Many Clarion readers may draw comparisons between the ConDems and Thatcher’s 1980s, when “Ghost Town” by The Specials topped the chart, inner cities were ablaze, the Government declared war on the workers and destroyed their industries and rights, the poor were told to “get on their bikes” to find non-existent jobs, there was a rapid privatisation programme ….

But… wait… the clocks are whirring backwards at a phenomenal rate, and, yes, our time machine (thanks, HG Wells) has taken me much further back, to the years before Nye Bevan, Keir Hardie, the Suffragettes, Chartists and Luddites. I’ve come to a shuddering halt a decade before the French Revolution, Tom Paine’s Common Sense and the Rights of Man.

It’s 1776, the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, the year that Adam Smith lit the touch paper for laissez-faire capitalism with “The Wealth of Nations”, when a fresh class of privileged merchants and stockbrokers joined forces with aristocrats to form a consolidated elite. Known as tons, bucks, men of quality, or simply “The World”, the dandified ruling class kept different hours to the hoi polloy, gambling through the night and blearily taking up their daily offices in parliament and the judiciary – when pertinent to their own interests. Membership of the group was tiny. They had their fingers in many lucrative pies, home and abroad, and their only contract with the other 99 per cent was to press them for taxes so that they could build their own little fiefdoms within an expanding British Empire.

SANCTITY OF PRIVATE PROPERTY:

Only a tiny percentage of the population could vote, private property was far more sacred than human lives, the poor were poor because they deserved to be poor, and their survival depended on charity.

Wiping out a native population, subjugating it and seizing the land was lauded in the highest court, while stealing a loaf of bread to fend off starvation was a hanging offence.

The Royalists in Parliament had, post-restoration, been given the name “Tories” – from the Irish “torai”, for robber – and it stuck. The two “sides”, the Tories and the Whigs (now the Lib Dems) together represented solely the interests of the ruling class.

The idea of widening the voting franchise was preposterous to MPs and their cronies. The Leveller Thomas Rainsborough politely asked Cromwell’s grandees in 1647 what he and fellow New Model Army veterans had been fighting for in the Civil War if it was not their individual rights, including a vote. He was slapped down by General Ireton: “No man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” And so it remained until the 20th Century.

Adam Smith’s laissez-faire is about freedom… for some. An “invisible hand”, a self-regulating mechanism, would ensure that all would remain well and prosperous… for choice players. Laissez-faire relies on the poor, child labour, the low paid and slavery as the necessary cogs (although steadily replaced by machines), the producers, the middling types, the petit bourgeoisie, are the consumers and junior managers, fuel to ensure the running of the oligarchical engine.

In 2012, it’s a version of the same scenario: still many producers can’t afford to be consumers of the products they spend many of their waking hours making; the British Empire has been replaced by a corporate jostle for global dominance; our police and army exist mainly to protect private property and secure more of it (in Iraq’s case, for oil interests); the “Big Society” and the shrinking of the welfare state are signs of passing any social contract to the passing whim of charity.

ROBBERY – BY WHOM?

As for the class-variable treatment of thieves, whilst someone who steals a bottle of water from a supermarket can be imprisoned for four years, we in the Forest of Dean have recently fended off a government-driven land-robbery attempt.

 We live in a “kleptocracy” – the word was coined for post-Communist Russia, but Cameron and co’s asset-stripping of the NHS and our other public possessions , so blatantly being handed to MPs and their close friends and beneficiaries, are, to be polite, signs of obvious “crony capitalism”

The laissez-faire ideal of globalisation has resulted in the increasing exploitation of cheap labour abroad, and herding the discarded, more expensive, British cogs into a workfare conveyor that amounts to a new slave trade between the Government and multinational giants.

Now, rather than London being riddled with slums as it was in 1776, the poor are being driven out altogether. The latest cunning plan for the London of Boris is that many Londoners priced out of renting their current homes will be shipped to cheaper estates as far away as Merthyr Tydfil. Squatting is now officially illegal, and rough sleepers are to be eradicated (following an attempt in Cardiff, it’s due to become City of Westminster policy). So, in 1776, the poor were stepped over – or on – by the rich. In 2012 they are being pushed out of sight, out of mind. Who wants a filthy, destitute beggar despoiling the sacred heart of commerce?

THE SHOCK DOCTRINE:

Fast forward, to 1962, when the Beatles released “Love Me Do” as a prelude to the swinging ’60s and the permissive society – and Chicago economist Milton Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, interpreted further down the line by Naomi Klein as The Shock Doctrine. Friedman’s creed has now engulfed almost the entire world. It’s a strain of neoliberalism or classical liberalism, which calls for more law and order enforcement for property, and less laws or restrictions for free-marketeers, encouraging global exploitation of people for profit, removing any safety net in order to ensure cheap labour.

Friedman got the chance to try out his laissez faire upgrade in 1975 when the quasi-fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet called for his expertise. Never mind Chile’s countless “disappeared” supporters of democracy. Friedman’s “Chilean Miracle” became the toast of Washington and London. Thatcher had much to discuss with Pinochet over tea, and Reagan also followed Friedman’s recommendations. Eventually Russia and China and much of the rest of the world bought into Friedman’s neoclassical liberalism, casting aside that jarring social liberalism that suggests that politicians have a responsibility to people, and not just profits and markets.

After dumping Labour’s Clause IV, Blair and Brown continued down the same Thatcherite path, thinly disguised as the “third way”. This meant more privatisation, authoritarianism, “shock and awe in Iraq and Afghanistan and bailing out haemorrhaged banks with public money, all coinciding with a decline in Party membership.

 Any glance at the Greek Syriza movement, the Indignados of Spain, the Occupy movement, the Bolivars and Zapatistas of South America, the Arab Spring – mass movements despite their marginalisation and scant coverage from mainstream media, reveals a growing consensus for “real democracy now”. We all know that the banking system, property, wealth and the magic-wand creation of money as debt are resting on shaky foundations, or are a bubble ready to be punctured, and that so much wealth and power has been ill-gained.

One major difference between now and 1776 is that we have secured the vote. If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain. This argument often blames low turnouts simply on apathy, hence the Tories taking the reins in 2010 with a mandate from a whopping 20 per cent of us.

The argument works just as well turned on its head. If you do vote, you are giving credence and sanctioning a vicious economic and political system which favours only the few, bleeding the many.

I reluctantly put a cross for Labour because I prefer bad to worse. I am continually drawn into arguments with friends who say they are both the same, that a Labour government would merely be a shuffling of the pack. I counter that perhaps there’ll be a smidgeon more compassion for the downtrodden. But is that enough?

Is Labour’s current “market” confined to the 30-odd per cent niche that turn out for the elections, or is the party also working for the disenfranchised, the let-down, democracy’s outsiders, the apathetic majority (depending on perspective)?

Will Labour continue to perpetuate this downward spiral of debt and austerity, insisting that increasingly ruthless cuts are “necessary” as borrowing inexorably soars in order to pay ever inflating interest rates, whilst trillions of pounds owed by high-flyers, more than enough to wipe clean the deficit, are being written off?

In Miliband’s Britain are we now to repeat (as farce) 1845 history rather than 1776? Then the forecast was that revolution was likely unless the proles were pacified, and quickly. Friedrich Engels published the Condition of the Working Class in England, and the radical-turned-Tory MP Benjamin Disraeli wove fiction and politics together for his novel Sybil, or the Two Nations. Engels wanted social justice and the end to exploitation, Disraeli to preserve a class structure maintained by aristocrats and their lackeys – forming One Nation – putting the brakes on the rampant commercial sector. Disraeli’s vision was a natural hierarchy where everyone knew their place and classes had obligations to each other. If Miliband’s “One Nation” is a conscious echo of Disraeli’s, it sets Labour far adrift from Socialism.

Miliband’s “One Nation” is a conscious echo of Disraeli’s. it sets Labour far adrift from Socialism.

If Labour hasn’t the courage or will to make a decisive break with neoliberalism (as has Syriza in Greece and the post-bloodless-revolution government of Iceland), I too may feel obliged to vote with my feet, telling Miliband and his market researchers, your nation is not my nation.

OWEN ADAMS

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