A Capitalist Society?
by Gwydion M. Williams
Britain is not and never has been a capitalist society. It is a society in which capitalist decision-making plays a large and growing roll. But still only a partial role, and a role which was much smaller back in the 1970s.
In the 1970s, there was a widespread willingness to reduce the role of capital still further, to move to a much more social control. Including an Incomes Policy that would have decided wages and salaries by social justice rather than bargaining power in the labour market. There were even moves back then to introduce widespread Workers Control, giving employees some democratic control of their office or factory. The Tories in those days were resigned to such a retreat, just as they had accepted the socialist advances made by the Labour government of 1945-1951.
Lady Thatcher in her memoirs denounces Edward Heath for having been willing to accept a quasi-socialist system with the Tripartite Talks. Heath was seeking a sensibly conservative solution, after the Miners Strike of 1974 ended with a victory for working class power. Had it succeeded, under Heath or under the subsequent Labour government, Britain would have conserved rather more of the valuable parts of its actual social heritage. Had Keynesianism been reformed and revitalised, Britain would be at least as well off economically, and decidedly a nicer place to live.
Left propaganda laid society open to Thatcherism, by not distinguishing between a capitalist society and a society in which capitalist decision-making plays a large role. In terms of standard Left theory, the alternative to 100% socialism was 100% capitalism, and today’s Blareites are busy damaging Britain’s social structure in pursuit of this ideal
The drift under Thatcher was to turn Britain into a second-rate copy of the USA. It is much easier to copy American vices than American virtues; we are heading towards US level of drug-taking, urban decay, violent crime and social emptiness. We have wholly failed to acquire their efficient management of manufacturing industries, with good British ideas still mostly going to France or Germany or the USA to be turned into marketable products.
The current round of ‘anti-capitalist’ and ‘guerrilla gardening’ demonstrators are almost exactly the same people who sabotaged the chance of a socialist advance in the 1970s. And who have learned all of their mistakes and are determined to repeat them exactly, without ever compromising or learning anything from the setbacks of the 1980s and 1990s.
Pumping up the capitalist element in the 1980s and 1990s has been good for the richest ten per cent, not so good for the economy as a whole. Even considered just in terms of growth in GNP, Britain’s best period ever was the quasi-socialist era 1950 to 1975.
Tories like Michael Portillo hark back to our Victorian ‘greatness’. Even ignoring the poverty and cultural impoverishment, the Victorians had a much slower rate of economic growth than anything Britain has had in the second half of the 20th century. The Victorians were in fact wasters of a grand Georgian heritage, it being the Georgian era that saw the Industrial Revolution and saw Britain become the dominant world power after defeating the French in India and North America.
Capitalism in the sense that Adam Smith described it was just one element in Britain’s Industrial Revolution. There were money men (and even a few money-women) who invested in other people’s speculative ventures, having no other motive than to get back more money than they put in. This was the strict and technical sense of ‘capitalist’, one element in a complex system of private enterprise. Moreover, the state sector was large and growing all through the Georgian and Victorian periods.
People can not live as detached specimens of ‘The Individual’, in the manner that Liberal, Libertarian and Anarchist theory supposes that they do. The raw material of human nature can be formed into many different version of ‘The Individual’, and a good society is one in which each individual person has some role in deciding how they are formed.
Turtles hatch out knowing all they need to be successful adult turtles. ‘The Turtle’ can exist quite satisfactorily with or without other turtles. Liberal, Libertarian and Anarchist theory supposes to be possible for a standard human unit, the entity commonly known as ‘The Individual’.
Politics is commonly conducted in terms of ‘The Rights’ of ‘The Individual’. Who is this ‘Individual’ person anyway? (Apart from an idealised version of the particular distinct person making the argument, which is why all such arguments lead to futile antagonisms between different people with differing idealised versions.)
George Bernard Shaw had the quintessence of the idea when he had his evolved superhumans hatch out of eggs and spontaneously acquire the correct Liberal-Left sentiments in Back To Methuselah. He also had the essence of New-Right ideas in the concept of a religion of ‘Money and Gunpowder’ in Major Barbara. Updated as Money and Gun-Power, it is exactly the modern creed, even though it generally gives itself a gloss of Christianity, or occasionally Judaism or New Age Spirituality.
Humans do not hatch from hard-shelled eggs. They are not born with a fixed human nature, even though each particular baby may already have a distinct personality and disposition that will interact with the social shaping that any society must give.
People living in a complex society are likely to defend it against simple disruption. Previous ‘stop the city’ efforts have been seen as something between a hassle and a joke by the networks of pushy anarchic individualists who actually constitute the ‘city’ as a social entity.
Left-anarchists see just that the state restricts them, and not that it is the main protection against the rich. In another sort of society, the rich would hire goon squads and the protestors would be swept off the streets. Though in the last round of demos, the police acted more like hired thugs than one would have expected, even allowing for things being rougher and nastier than they once were.
Anarchist of Emma Goldman type are inconsistent, denouncing authority but also arguing that selected acts of coercion and terror may produce a net liberating effect. Was that so different from the state power she was were protesting against?
Lessons need to be learned from the rise and fall of the USSR. Bolshevism always showed its origin as a semi-anarchist deviation from strict Marxism. If you have the view of all state power as bad, but find you have to exercise it, then obviously you don’t hamper yourself with rules. This includes the Fantasy-Authoritarianism of Trotskyism as well as the functional left-wing authoritarianism of Stalin. (For comparison, in the Russian Civil War, Trotsky was more authoritarian and more willing to bend principles than Stalin was when facing the same problems.
The present round of demonstrations separate from the official Trade Union celebration of May Day seem rather futile, and dangerous if they should ever get beyond futility. A continuation of the world-view that wouldn’t take ‘yes’ for an answer in the 1970s.
Do your gardening in your own back yard, please, and do not invade other people’s home turf with the idea that you have some God-given right to do so.
The Thatcherite ideology is wearing thin, society is open to going off in some other direction, but not necessarily in any better direction. In the twenty-hundreds are not to be wasted as the nineteen-seventies were, then it’s time to get much more serious about how we can reform the society as it now is, and with the opinions that the bulk of people actually hold.
Written back in the year 2000