Thatcherite Concepts of Classlessness

Half-arsed classlessness

Gwydion M. Williams shows how a system of privilege has been replaced by a system of random unfairness and continuous stress.

In a class society, each person was born to a place on the social pyramid. They might slide down a little, or move up a little. But broadly they stayed where they were born. And ‘family values’ were a serious matter, since people were wholly defined by them. The main path up was families rising by favourable marriages. Or drifting down through bad or romantic choices.The modern ‘worm bucket’ society is a doubtful improvement on the social pyramid. In a system full of inequality, a mad scramble for position creates quite as many evils as the old and discredited system of inherited privilege. The person born to privilege may quite genuinely be fond of the less fortunate. At the very least, they will feel some sort of responsibility, and wish to preserve the structure of society. The self-made person is far more likely to hate and fear those less fortunate than themselves.In the worm bucket society, everyone sees everyone else as a potential threat. And there are no social responsibilities, since it is supposedly open to everyone to achieve privileged minority status. Worst of all, they may not even realise that there is a structure to society. At least not a structure that they can strengthen or weaken by their own actions. Decay of cherished social structures is seen as someone else fault, and not a logical consequence of their neglect and bad example.

The worm bucket society claims to work by equality of opportunity. But as with ‘individualism’ and ‘liberty’, the attractive brand-name is a bad guide to the actual contents. ‘Individualism’ means being individual in just a few socially defined ways. The self-made in business and politics are much of a muchness, considerably duller than normal people.

‘Liberty’ means a sporting chance to succeed in the worm bucket, not liberty to live as you please. Living as you please or living an interesting and diverse life is not an option open to the ambitious. The smallest diversion means that the would-be ‘top person’ gets overtaken by dozens of other gifted and pushy characters.

‘Equality of opportunity’ does not mean that people actually get equal opportunities. They do not start from the same place. There are few effective rules about unfair advantage. Success or failure is very often determined by blind chance.’Equality of opportunity’ would mean everyone’s children going to the same school. Or else to a school determined strictly by their success in competitive examinations. One could forgive Blair and Harmon for looking after their own kids in an unfair system, if they were ready to admit openly that it was an unfair system. What is outrageous is a noisy self-righteous declaration of ‘equality of opportunity’ combined with behaviour that reveals a clear understanding that this principle is nonsense.Talk of ‘equality of opportunity’ is essentially a lie. It allows the successful to wriggle out of any obligation to the poor by talking as if it were a fair competition in which the best people won. But they show in all sorts of ways that they know damn well life doesnÕt really work like that. People do not start out equal, nor are they equally helped. ‘Equality of opportunity’ is directly contradicted by the widespread practice of giving ones own children an advantage. Also by networks of people raising each other to positions of privilege, regardless of who might be better qualified if ‘equality of opportunity’ were a serious principle.

A society with real ‘equality of opportunity’ would be even nastier and meaner and more stressful than the present half-arsed classlessness. The successes of the Reagan and Thatcher years include a disproportionate number of nasty limited little people. Characters with no worthwhile features beyond their ability to succeed in a particular time and in a particular way. Characters who cannot preserve their own way of life, and who blame others for the predictable results of their own actions. Characters who talk of ‘family values’ but demand ‘savings’ that undermine the secure well-paid male jobs that traditional family values were actually based on.

In the 1950s, one did have something like a Meritocracy. Very sexist and racist by today’s mainstream standards, but still quite Meritocratic in its way. The society set up rational criteria to judge people, and rewarded those who did best. Personally, I do not miss the system I grew up in. If some good things were lost in the overthrow, a great many more bad unfair things were destroyed. I have no regrets that 1950s values were killed off by conscious political struggle in the 1960s.1960s values are part of everyone’s basic assumptions these days. Legality of divorce and contraception. Adultery and sex before marriage regarded as totally normal. Homosexuality no longer seriously persecuted, and tending rather towards normalisation. Official equality for women. The definite rejection of racism and racial segregation – normal in the British Empire in its heyday, and still enjoying immense popular support in the American South in the early 1960s. All of that is gone and shows no signs of ever re-entering the political mainstream.

But though people like the results of those 1960s battles, the process that established them is currently out of favour. The New Right tacitly accepted the de-Christianising of the society, and some of the thinkers and publicists actively welcomed it. You can find a well written mix of New Right economics and a bitter hatred of conventional morality in the works of the late SF writer Robert E. Heinlein, for instance. He had the whole thing worked out even while society was dominated by completely different values, and he influenced many who later tried implementing his economic ideas in the world of real politics. But since the Christian Right were an important segment of the voters, nihilistic economics was justified as being a formula for returning to traditional morality. Some of these characters may have been quite sincere in what they said, who knows? But the political logic was to create an alliance between traditional moralists and greedy selfish hedonists.

So people treat victories gained in conscious political struggle as some sort of technical inevitability, an inevitable part of ‘the modern’. People anxious to ‘get ahead’ have to acquire a taste for whatever flavour of crap is currently fashionable. So the media make a habit of talking as if they wanted to go back to 1950s values, while also not doing so. the excuse is to say that changes that were very specifically fought for were in some manner inevitable, the price of the modern world.

Back in the 1950s, people were just as sure that a continuance of 1950s values was ‘the modern’. I see no reason at all why this expectation had to fail. Cycles of tolerance and restriction succeed each other with no particular logic. The Victorians successfully rolled back the sexual laxness of the Augustans and the Romantics. And in the 1890s, a seemingly inevitable decay in Victorian Puritanism was thrown back when the British public showed that it still had a vast enthusiasm for Puritan morals. The popularity and success of Oscar Wilde was no protection once the wider public correctly understood what he was really on about.

Persecution begins at home. Or else it is total hypocrisy. In the case of underage sex, there is a widespread willingness to persecute. Even a fervour for persecution. Most of the public – myself included – feel that sex involving the underage is not in the same category as unconventional sex acts between consenting adults. And because one now has a much more mobile and fragmented society, it becomes a more sensitive issue. All sexual rules are to some degree arbitrary, but so is society in general. None of it is truly natural; it is all a human creation passed down and modified from generation to generation. Since there is an unwillingness to persecute for anything other than rape, gross violence or underage sex, it must be assumed that the changes of the 1960s are now solidly a part of our culture.

The Meritocracy of the 1950s made an arbitrary decision to preserve some values and ignore others. Within its own framework, it was fair and just and kindly. But when standards changed, it was laid open to attack by right-wingers. People who would talk as if they were going to resume serious persecution on behalf of lost traditions. But who also reassured the more tolerant mainstream that this was not going to happen. In a time of moral confusion, the coherence of the old Meritocracy was lost.

What we have now is a Grabocracy. There is no real belief in its values, but people carry on with it anyway. Just as the now-fallen USSR staggered on for a couple of decades after the collapse of its internal ideology, and seemed still very strong up until 1989 when it suddenly disintegrated. What we have now in the West may be just as weak, despite its apparent power. The successful have an attitude of ‘it’s nice for me, so let the plebs shut up’. This is not either ethical or clever. People may go along with it but they do not especially respect it.

Endless competition makes for a nastier and greedier and more stressful society. Most people are persuaded to yearn for what most of them definitely cannot have. Normal life is rubbish and only the possession of vast amounts of cash justifies human existence. Those who do get it do not especially seem to deserve it, nor to be very happy with it. Free competition among a mass of ambitious characters for just a few spots as ‘top people’ means that everyone is pushed to the maximum endurable stress. They drive themselves to the point where they very nearly feel it is not worth it. ‘Even fat cats feel the stress of work in the Nineties’, as an article in The Independent recently put it.

If everyone drives themselves to the limit, most will exhaust themselves for nothing. And even those who win the big prizes will be unable to properly enjoy them. It is well known that we are not as happy as would be expected from our much better material conditions. This is easily explained by the stupid insistence on pushing everyone into more and more competition, to the point where it is not so much hope as fear that drives everyone one.

It is not even that this stress makes for any great material success. East Asia flourishes with less unequal societies, and with a much stronger belief in looking after everyone who behaves themselves. Thatcher and Reagan have not significantly altered the gradual decline of WASP values in a fast-changing world. A successful society is a complex blend of competition and cooperation and peaceful coexistence. The New Right turned the existing order upside down in pursuit of their own formula for success. But it has not succeeded. A simple continuation of 1970s trend would have been better for ordinary people and not much worse for the global position of those societies.

The big thing that has happened in Britain and especially in America is the emergence of an Overclass. This may not have been anyone’s conscious intention, Thatcher in particular managed to denationalise Britain without ever being aware of what she was doing. But it is the Overclass that has benefited and emerged as dominant. One finds a group of rich powerful people who have risen above the structure of society, just as Underclass have dropped out of it. They are not really like the old Ruling Class, which did at least have some plan for the ‘Lower Orders’. The Overclass are as callous and detached as the worst and most criminal elements of the Underclass. Asocial people such as ex-hippies and disillusioned former Trotskyists move very easily into the Overclass.The Overclass is the logical outcome of the crazy notion that normal life something you have a chance to get out of, rather than a decent thing in itself. Contempt for ordinary life is one characteristic of the Overclass. It is combined with a deep belief that anyone who suggests that members of the Overclass are less than perfect and miraculous must be moved by envy and malice. This depressing world view is rounded off with talk of ‘individualism’ from people who are not individual. They have probably never had a single individual thought in the whole of their rushed stressed clever little lives.If you are not scared of liberty, you have not the least idea of what it means. In the USA, people were always 100 per cent in favour of Liberty. Only Liberty did not mean quite what you thought it meant. Forms of liberty the Americans disliked or feared were redefined, ceased to be ‘liberty’ and become ‘irrational’ or ‘weird’ behaviour. Liberty does not include any ‘right to be wrong’. And since all moral codes have become fluid, the commitment to liberty means less and less in practice

Tony Blair and New Labour have to be regarded as minor consequences of a vast continuing social movement. The break-up of the nation-state, which has been replaced by a world order lacking in any definite social roots. There are obvious limits on what any one state can do very much. A state that tried to behave in a 1950s manner would be ruined financially by nihilistic money-markets, long before anyone could determine if these measures would have boosted the total social wealth. There are limits to what anyone could do, until the world grows more mature and responsible. But in as far as they can chose, Blair and Co. have chosen wrong. They give every sign of believing in a nihilistic individualism that was tried and exhausted under Thatcher. A determined and powerful fool can break apart an existing system. But it takes luck or genus to put it back together in some more coherent form. The Bolsheviks turned a ruined country into a new social system that amazed and terrified the world for its first three decades of existence. Likewise the Eurocrats in the post-1945 world, and the mix of Confucianism and Commerce in the Far East. But from the perspective of the next century, Thatcher and Reagan are likely to be seen as merely incidents and symptoms in the world-wide loss of position by the English-speaking peoples. And unless Blair goes against his present pattern, he will be a mere tail-ender in a failed rear-guard action.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, some time before 2000

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