By Gwydion M. Williams
[I have no exact record of when I wrote this review of Goldsmith’s book The Trap. Some time between the book’s publication in 1994 and the death of Sir James Goldsmith in 1997. But most of what I said then remains relevant: general truths about the rise of the New Right and the shallow thinking behind it. And how a self-made millionaire can also be a ranting fool.]
With so much of the world’s true wealth being sacrificed to the idols of Free Trade, I hesitate to criticise anyone who is making a stand against GATT and similar anti-social reforms. And James Goldsmith has certainly been a powerful voice raised in opposition. So I would like to find reasons to praise him.
On the other hand, I had got a good idea of Goldsmith’s broad outlook before I even looked at his ventures into politics with anti-GATT and The Trap. Over a number of years I had been making a general study of him and a few other tycoons, trying to find out what they had in common. The first thing I found was that the successful tycoon needs to be both clever and unreasonably lucky – the one in a thousand gambler who walks off with a big win. The fact that many try and only a few succeed does not mean that those few particularly deserved it.
Secondly, I found them falling into two distinct groups. Some, like James Watt or Bill Gates, grow rich by giving the public something useful. Others grew rich by merely working the structures of law, money and power to their own benefit. And this is definitely where one should place Goldsmith.
Thirdly, some of the tycoons feel that their great wealth gives them social responsibilities, whereas others deny this. Goldsmith, unlike even such gifted monstrous characters as Ford or Carnegie or Getty, has absolutely no concept of general social responsibility. Long before Thatcher, he was loudly denouncing the idea that industry and commerce should exist for any other purpose than making money for shareholders.
“Although corporations belong to their shareholders,’ he wrote not long afterwards in the Wall Street Journal, ‘corporate managements sometimes believe that the business that employs them has become an institution and that they are the trustees of that institution. Some believe that they have developed some sort of proprietorial rights. Shareholders then become no more than an inconvenience.”
Goldsmith’s ideal is for shareholders to be able treat the rest of the society as an inconvenience.
The ‘corporatism’ of the 1950s was more successful than anything before or since. It kept some sort of balance between the rival class interests, stopped societies from turning to drastic alternatives like Fascism or Communism. It accepted what Goldsmith strongly rejects – the ‘stakeholder’ principle, the notion that you take your profit only after taking care of all of your traditional obligations. Stakeholder or corporate societies are not utopian, but they work well enough, better than anything seen before or since. Britain was the first industrial society, and it emerged after it had destroyed many of the ‘stakeholder’ elements in its own society. This might mean that ‘stakeholder’ ideas are a burden – except that every subsequent industrialisation has had more stakeholder elements and has produced a more efficient and faster growing system than Britain’s.
The concept of a British ‘decline’ after 19th century greatness is an illusion. Looked at in isolation, Britain had continued to grow quite smoothly, and was in fact at its best in the period 1950 to 1975. It was just that the rest of the world was no longer standing still, and was in fact growing very much faster than Britain had ever managed.
Britain’s best period coincided with an even better period for the rest of Europe, leading to a wholly false notion that Britain had somehow lost the secret of its former greatness. Corporatism was seen as being to blame – whereas in fact Britain would have been far worse off if it had carried on with classic capitalism. Corporatism was in fact the best available option, but too few people knew it at the time. And the ‘shareholder’s revolt’ led by people like Goldsmith has produced a truly revolting alternative!
Goldsmith’s notion of a ‘trap’ springs from the same financier / accountant viewpoint that has been so bad for British industry. If life was about nothing but money, then cutting wages would indeed be always good for industry, and the society with the lowest wages would put everyone else out of business. But life is not about money. Money determines the distribution of wealth within a society, obviously. But its role in determining overall prosperity is another matter.
“Economists know surprisingly little about the causes of economic growth. Although fast-growing countries have many things in common, economists do not know which of these actually cause growth and which are simply byproducts of it.” (The Economist, September 30th 1995, p 132).
This interesting insight is of course buried in the highly technical Finance and Economics section. Facts that are well known when it comes to advising the rich on investment possibilities have no influence on the loud-mouthed main-editorial view that growth comes from letting the money men do just as they please.
In my view, money is meaningful only because it reflects the overall wealth of the society. It is a convenient means of distribution and control. But ‘making money’ is not at all the same thing as making wealth for the common benefit.
When England first grew as an industrial nation in the 18th century, wages for ordinary labourers kept pace with the rising prosperity. The sudden sharp decline that occurred with widespread mechanisation and de-skilling was certainly very nice for a burgeoning class of factory-owners. Not so good for the society as a whole. Quite horrible for all of the small property owners and craftspeople, who found themselves wiped out by social movements as arbitrary and beyond their control as earthquakes or volcanoes.
These events were not outside of the control of the ruling class. Few people were against change as such – they just objected when it was for someone else’s benefit and at their expense. The simple action of accepting existing skilled production or small-scale distribution as a form of property would have ensured gentler and less disruptive changes. Social controls were strictly enforced where the interests of rich well-connected people were involved – a fortune was paid to wealthy landowners for allowing railways to be run across their land, for instance. But when the ‘small men’ asked that their own skills and social position be treated as a form of property not subject to arbitrary confiscation, this viewpoint was mostly ignored.
Some people call the brutal extinction of traditional social forms part of the ‘price of progress’. I am far from sure it was. Since we today are a population of people who were produced by the breakdown of eighteenth century forms, we may perhaps decide that the changes were a Good Thing. But that is quite different from saying that they were necessary or that some other pattern of development might not also have worked.
Victorian industry seemed amazing because it was the only industrial society in the whole world. But by modern standards it was a decidedly sluggish and unsuccessful economy, growing about half as fast as Britain did in the ‘disastrous’ post-1945 years. Letting the poor sink to the lowest sustainable level of misery served the immediate interest of the rich. It saved them the direct expense that would have come with social responsibility. But this callous self-righteous greed also ensured that Britain would not in the long run retain its early advantage.
During the 19th century, America matched and then surpassed Great Britain – but not by being a poor low-wage economy. American wage-rates were in fact about double the British equivalent. American culture valued labour as well as private enterprise – hence institutions like ‘Labour Day’, celebrated since 1895 an American public holiday. Unlike May Day, Labour Day involved the whole of the society celebrating the importance of skilled work. This no longer really holds, unfortunately, with the Republicans having become an American Tory Party and money becoming the only social value. But in the days when the USA was going up in the world, high wages and respect for ordinary workers was part of the mix.
Germany was another case that shows just how wrong Goldsmith is. Germany under Bismark became an industrial giant while giving the working class an unprecedented package of welfare and social security. And Japan during its rise to greatness gave its ordinary employees rights and security that Western experts regarded as ruinous. The issues are complex, and there may be some short-term advantages in wage cutting. But the most common pattern found over the past couple of centuries is for the society with the highest wages to be ruining everyone else.
Britain’s best ever period for growth was the 1950s and 1960s, when wages were growing unprecedentedly fast. Britain back then was averaging 2.5% annual growth, better than anything that Thatcher or Major have managed, and more than twice as good as the ‘good old days’ of Victorian Britain. Victorian industry was slow and chaotic by modern standards: it looked impressive only in a world when any sort of industrial society was a startling novelty.
If it were low wages that made foreign competition dangerous, the main threat would be coming from Africa rather than East Asia. But wages are usually a minor factor, and only an incompetent management or managerial class will be wanting to lower them. Any idiot boss can grow rich by squeezing money out of their poor and vulnerable fellow-citizens. A good industrialist will do exactly the reverse.
Henry Ford swept the board with his Model-T small motor-cars while paying his workers twice the going rate for American industry, itself generous compared to Britain. And all of the successful Asian societies have been careful to look after their working mainstream, however unfair or unreasonable they may have been in other ways.
Japan has prospered because it had a more productive and successful system of human relationships in industry. There was much less of a them-and-us culture than in Britain. There was sensible central state direction. And there was a business culture that normally prevented characters like Goldsmith from messing up productive industries with complex money games that benefited only themselves.
Very few people see their own way of life as wrong. Al Capone didn’t – he did genuinely see himself as a splendid fellow providing a useful public service. How much the more complacent must Goldsmith feel about his own activities, which are after all quite legal, and highly applauded in some circles. One suspects that even Private Eye would have found nothing to complain about if exactly the same career of high-stake gambling had been pursued by one of their friends. So although Goldsmith is highly symptomatic of what’s wrong with Britain – as are Private Eye, in their own way – he must find some other sort of person to dump the blame on.
It is hard to go on condemning the unions after their visible loss of power. Hard to blame management for not being subservient enough to shareholder interests, since all of them have learned that lesson, and also discovered the benefits of share options. Quite impossible after the events of the last few years to keep declaiming that the Soviet Union is a new Rome destined to destroy the free-trading Western ‘Carthage’. Someone else must be found to be very guilty indeed of all of the failings that Goldsmith and similar financial games-players cannot possibly be responsible for. East Asia and the European Union makes logical and a popular targets.
Sir James Goldsmith is a turkey campaigning for an early Christmas. He has done very well for himself in the peaceful tolerant and prosperous Europe of the last few decades. But he’s a businessman, accustomed to focus very narrowly on his own immediate concerns, ignorant of other forms of human activity. He doesn’t understand that this favourable environment is both artificial and vulnerable. The product of much care and idealism. A deliberately crafted alternative to the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. All he can see is the expense. He mistakes the price of civilisation for a wasteful frivolity.
His recent literary offering, The Trap, looks more like an overgrown interview than a book. He may be a financial genius, but he is a bigoted fool about everything else. He amply demonstrates that you don’t have to be smart to get rich: just skilful and lucky in the complex games that make up the modern financial world.
The man has no intellectual depths, and not even very much to say. The Trap uses big print to weigh in at just over 200 pages. Much of this is a tedious rant on food hygiene and nuclear safety, subjects that have already been well covered by many other writers. Apart from this, one has some semblance of a political philosophy, a right-wing protest at current developments in Europe. But though his political thinking is weak and muddled, Goldsmith has to be taken seriously. He is a notable representative of a small but growing force on the French Right, perhaps a worse menace than the obvious malice of Le Pen. If things get bad, politics might go almost any way, including Goldsmith’s way. And he is now trying the same stunt over here, offering to field his own candidates in the next election. He may not do any better than the ‘natural law party’, who were at least nice in their eccentricity. But in the current political uncertainly, someone with Goldsmith’s money and brash self-confidence cannot be written off as marginal.
The European Union is not safe or stable. It must keep going forward, or else perhaps die. The Maastricht framework is necessary to keep the divergent national interests within reasonable bounds.
The rapid slide of Yugoslavia from peaceful prosperity into a war-zone shows just how fast things can fall apart. Central controlling power may seem like a burden and an intrusion – but just see what happens when it is not there! James Goldsmith should be all for Maastricht and welfarism. Instead he has a dogmatic right-wing hatred for both. He even engages in some nasty ranting against non-white immigrants.
The Goldsmith family were originally Goldschmidts from Frankfurt. His father Frank Goldsmith seemed to have integrated perfectly, getting elected as an English MP while still quite a young man. But he was caught by the hysterical anti-German feeling of World War One, and rapidly lost his position and trust. Much as happened in the same period to the Battenbergs, now Mountbattens, despite their royal connections. The less-well-connected Frank Goldsmith found it necessary to abandon England and start a new career as a hotel manager in France.
Having had to flee England in World War One because of their German origin, the Goldsmiths had to flee back there in World War Two because they were Jews. All of which should have given Sir James some sensitivity to the plight of the displaced and dispossessed. But it does not. Empathy is perhaps not his strong point. Nor does he show the least inkling of the dangerous nature of the forces he is trying to stir up.
‘Britishness’ is a concept developed in the 16th century by courtiers and thinkers of Welsh origin, who had risen within the English state as followers of the part-Welsh Tudor dynasty. Wales was legally and administratively swallowed up by England in the Middle Ages. But then one had the unexpected rise of the Tudor family to the English throne, after most other candidates had killed each other off in the Wars of the Roses.
The Welsh families who followed the Tudors did not question that England had successfully swallowed their nation. There was too much brute power in the matter to make it a sensible topic for debate. But they also wished to keep their own identity. So they revived the Roman concept of ‘Britannia’. The same concept was used again by James the Sixth of Scotland when he became James the First of England. He reckoned himself the ruler of ‘Great Britain’, though a formal union took a lot longer. There were many conflicts between ‘North Briton’ and ‘South Briton’. And even the radical libertarian anti-establishment politics of John Wilkes included a strong and disgraceful element of anti-Scotch bigotry.
Despite this, Britishness was a wide concept that could include a great many diverse peoples. But in times of stress, the definition of ‘Britishness’ could also be drastically contracted, as Frank Goldsmith found.
The fact that Britain is relatively tolerant at this present time does not mean that it will always remain so. A strong reassertion of purely English bigotry is a danger that any sensible person would want to guard against. Sir James Goldsmith is very definitely not a sensible person.
Hostility to one sort of ‘foreigner’ can easily get extended beyond what the original leader wants. The political career of John Wilkes was effectively ended by the Gordon Riots of 1780. In part, the rioters were supporting the rebellious American colonies. The whole struggle for American independence was referred to as the Civil War by many of Wilkes’s supporters, heirs to the Cromwellian tradition. At one level the Gordon Riots were a fine protest for simple democracy, and the rioters’ destruction of Newgate Prison foreshadowing the later fall of the Bastille. But the Gordon Riot was also disfigured by a vicious anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry. Many of Wilkes’s supporters were also heirs to the Cromwellian tradition in their view of Irish Catholics. Wilkes himself felt obliged to help suppress rioting crowds who included many who had voted for him across the years. And Edmund Burke, a target of the rioters even though he was officially Church of England, probably gained his mistrust of the ‘swinish multitude’ at this time.
The whole mess was a foreseeable result of Wilkes unwisely deciding to make use of anti-Scotch bigotry to get at his anti-democratic Scottish foes. It set back progressive politics and delayed Catholic emancipation for maybe a couple of generations. It as probably the reason why Catholic Ireland became fervent supporters of Papal Power instead of joining the radical ‘Celtic Fringe’. Yet could easily have been far worse. There were some little-documented struggles within Radicalism over the next couple of generations.
It was by no means a foregone conclusion that religious and national bigotry would be definitely pushed out of the popular movement for democracy. In the USA it never really was. Populism blends easily into racism and right-wing Christian extremism, which is why US politics remain such a mess and keeps throwing up characters like Buchanan. Even over here, the radical-right viewpoint has never been totally excluded, though there have been no more set-backs like the Gordon Riots.
In the world of today, the European Union offers a way of ending the bitterness of centuries. A way to end the interminable conflict of nation-states and the persecution of inconvenient minorities. But a viable Europe would have to be a Europe based on all of its present inhabitants, without engaging in the dangerous game of trying to decide which portion of the present population really belongs.
According to Goldsmith, “The principle purpose of Europe’s defence must be to protect Europe’s vital interests… to defend its territory against military or uncontrolled invasion”. (The Trap, p 71.) Asked what he means by ‘uncontrolled invasion’, he says ‘I mean immigration on a scale which cannot be integrated.’ Which is quite different from illegal immigration, and a rather dangerous principle to float. Adolf Hitler when he began to drive out the Jews could have said with great sincerity that he was merely dealing with people who could not be integrated.
The encouragement of mass Commonwealth immigration to Britain in the 1950s was foolish, a crazy policy based on false expectations of a labour shortage. But it was an error made by the whole society. Characters like Enoch Powell suppose that we can somehow push out people who came here quite legally and in accordance with government policies. This is simply unjust, and also foolish, since it could not be done by any method that even someone like Powell could stomach. Powell has talked vaguely of ‘voluntary repatriation’, which is politically meaningless. British law does not prevent any of its existing inhabitants from going off somewhere else, but very few of Britain’s black minority wish to leave. Some of the untroublesome older people may chose to retire to the land of their birth. But the British-born youngsters have been very effectively incorporated into British society. Short of some Bosnia-style ‘ethnic cleansing’, they are no more likely to depart than any other portion of the society.
People who are legally and actually part of Britishness have to be accommodated somehow. Most of the non-white population is British-born and unlikely to fit in anywhere else. And many of the original arrivals already possessed substantial long-standing connections with Britain. Connections through the Imperial structures which gave London its current standing as a world financial standing. Whatever people say, there is black in the Union Jack.
The eighteenth century prosperity that allowed Britain to launch modern industrial society was built on imperial wealth. Bombay, Madrid and Calcutta were shaped by Britain’s gradual incorporation of the sub-continent into its Empire. The West Indies were even more a British creation. The original American Indian populations had been wiped out by the Spaniards: something totally new was created by Western Europe’s demand for tropical products, especially sugar. The English-speaking islands are societies that Britain invented from scratch, with much of the population intentionally placed there as slaves or indentured workers. To now pretend that they have nothing to do with us is ridiculous, unjust and unworkable.
There are many ways to define British or American identities. Some would exclude people of Irish origin or Jewish origin or anyone with a darker skin. Others would exclude just Jewish and Black – the concept of Anglo-Celtic is presently quite popular in the USA. And there are those – including some right-wing Jews – who hope to limit the exclusion to just Blacks. Goldsmith gives every sign of holding to this last opinion. He sees the United States as being threatened because soon “the average US resident, as defined by census statistics, will trace his or her descent to Africa, Asia, the Hispanic world, the Pacific islands, Arabia – almost anywhere but white Europe.” (Ibid, p 61.) Of course the typical defenders of ‘white Europe’ also have a way of being anti-Jewish. [Which is one of several reasons why they have achieved very little beyond hooliganism.]
Goldsmith may suppose that he can whip up fear, hatred and chauvinism without it ever getting beyond what he would see as its proper boundaries. Wilkes may have felt the same, in his heyday.
The USA decided from the very start to define itself by citizenship, not race or religion. A certain amount of cultural assimilation was required for the foreign-born: that was all. There was of course a strong unofficial bias towards both Christians and North Europeans. Few were so racist as to entirely exclude Hispanics from the category of ‘white Europe’, as Goldsmith does. The big and still unresolved problem was the descendants of the black slaves who were brought in because they were much more profitable than free white labour.
Afro-Americans have always been placed at the very bottom of every hierarchy. They were never truly allowed to be part of the society. The brief attempt at inclusion in the 1960s seems to have failed. People who could not stomach open racial segregation also balked at the costs and problems of true integration. Afro-Americans were left half in and half out of the society.
The Republican Party are now taking over the American South by irresponsibly tapping deep reservoirs of racism. Unlike the old-time Democrats, they do not offer a serious schema for a racist society. Unlike the present-day Democrats, and unlike the Nationalist Party in South Africa, they do not recognise that the racist game is up and that serious reforms are needed for long-term stability. The ‘conservative’ Republicans make use of racists and seem to care nothing for the long-term results.
Anglo-Celtic America needs to be told that that the present set-up is unjust and unworkable. But Goldsmith’s remarks on President Madison endorse the exclusion of America’s Black minority.
“James Madison … though he himself was a slave owner, he believed in emancipation. But he understood that the slaves had been stripped of their culture and that they would be excluded from, or would reject, the prevalent white culture… Prior to the arrival of African Americans, America’s immigrant population seemed likely to develop into a nation… They commingled with ease… Obviously, for all the reasons foreseen by Madison, the relations between African and European Americans was very much more difficult.” (Ibid, 57 – 59).
To say ‘would be excluded from, or would reject’ is remarkably mealy-mouthed. Black separatism has usually been a marginal force. It was only ever an attempt to make a virtue of necessity. Black Americans tried for a very long time to be what the rest of the society wanted them to be. The trouble was, the rest of the society mostly wanted them not to be black. Most white Americans just would not accept a full common identity with people of a darker skin-colour, no matter how similar their culture. Whole waves of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans had been absorbed with remarkably little fuss. But faith in the American ‘melting pot’ faded away very rapidly when the Civil Rights movement established that Afro-Americans would have be a part of it.
Black American culture is the most purely and specifically American of all the elements in US life. Links with Black Africa are mostly forgotten, playing a smaller role than Greek or Roman legacies play in English identity. Also Black Africa contained peoples as different from each other as Danes, Poles, French, Germans and English. The slaves took their culture from their owners, and developed it in response to what the society expected of them. They also succumbed to commercialisation faster than other peoples who had more confidence in their origins and more status within the society. But though Afro-Americans were always moving in tune with the society, anticipating some trends, originated almost all of the music that America then spread to the rest of the world, they were always kept at a distance.
The US Constitution was based on abstractions. It ignored the national and religious and racial distinctions that had been normal in all previous republics. Though implicitly accepting some sort of Creator, it says nothing definite about either God or Religion. All it does is to make it illegal for any particular religion to be established as the foundation of the state.
That was the theory. The vast numerical preponderance of Protestant Christians gave a very definite character to the society. The Constitution defined it as ‘Abstract-land’, but in practice it was ‘WASP-land’, a new nation created by and for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The presence of Jews was accepted, as it had been in the countries the settlers had come from. Yet Jews were not quite seen as full members of the community, despite theoretical legal equality. They were perhaps one rung down from WASPS, certainly well above Mexicans or Blacks, not targeted for genocide like the Red Indians, but also not quite equal.
Jews in the USA mostly shared the prejudices of their neighbours. Southern Jews quoted Hebrew scriptures that justified slavery. Northern Jews supported emancipation but not integration. Jews used blacks as convenient cheap labour just like everyone else. Groups like the Quakers had their own distinctive agenda, helping escaped slaves and treating the native Americans as fellow-humans. But the majority of Jews accepted the prejudices of their neighbours on all matters except their own status as Jews. Much the same was also true in Britain, and seems not be extinct even today. Since mainstream Toryism has been seriously opposed to anti-Semitism in a way that present-day Republicanism is not, Jews tend to be distributed right across the political spectrum. Sir Keith Joseph was Thatcher’s teacher and mentor. British Jews “are politically more right-wing than the general population but when allowances are made for social class, Jews of all religious affiliations are found to be well to the left of gentiles in the same profession.” (The Independent, 15th February 1996.) Also “Jews believe that racism has increased more over the last five years than anti-Semitism”. But that has been after a fairly minor economic crisis, in which many are stressed but few are desperate. The fact that British Jews are less inclined to share to smug greed of English middle-class professionals indicates that memory lingers still.
Modern Cosmopolitanism was invented by West Europeans whose ancestors would have been Christian for more than a thousand years, and pagans before that. (As were mine, though my own direct ancestors would still have been submerged in the peasantry back then.) By the 18th century, the educated classes had had quite enough of conventional Christianity. The horrors done in the name of the Bible during the Wars of Religion discredited the existing sources of spiritual authority. They looked to make a new and rational world in which they hoped such things could not happen again.
Educated people turned to pure reason, because ‘spirituality’ as actually practised in Western Europe had been so thoroughly disastrous.
The Enlightenment was a covert rejection of popular faith by most of the rulers and thinkers. Some were ‘Latitudinarian’, believing that Christianity had been originally an Enlightened creed that had somehow been distorted over the centuries. This view had as good a justification as the more popular Puritan or Roman Catholic interpretations. All three creeds could make use of some parts of the Bible while being obliged to distort or ignore much else. But the Enlightenment also included the more logical and subversive creed of Deism, which believed in a creator-God but denied any special status to Jesus or to the ‘Holy Scriptures’.
From either a Latitudinarian or a Deist viewpoint, Jews settling in Britain were not a problem. Even from a serious Protestant viewpoint it made sense, since Jews had been viciously persecuted by England’s old enemy Spain. A Jewish presence in England was officially authorised under Cromwell, following a very serious debate as to whether the Mediaeval prohibition against them should be lifted. The advice of the legal experts was that there was no actual law preventing Jews from settling in England. The original expulsion had been done by the authority of the Crown without any specific Act of Parliament. Cromwell as the inheritor of Royal power was quite entitled to take a different view of the matter. And since Charles the Second chose to take the same view, it ceased to be much of an issueJews in Britain had a place similar to some of the less conventional Nonconformist groups. The dominant Church of England viewpoint often lumped them all together. In Smollet’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, it is said of one of the characters that “though she is a violent church-woman… I believe in my conscience she would have no objection, at present, to treat on the score of matrimony with an Anabaptist, Quaker, or Jew, and even ratify the treaty with her own conversion.”
Real-life conversions did occur, and caused no particular stir. When Lord Gordon who had caused the Gordon riots with his Protestant zeal later converted to an obscure and unrespectable sect of Judaism, this was seen as just another oddity from a very odd man.
Jews fitted in nicely on the fringes of British life, only gradually gaining full citizenship as the privileges of the Church of England were slowly eroded. Both Jews and Nonconformists would pioneer new methods and create new trade connections, and might become very wealthy. Neither group had full political rights, which were originally confined to people who were at least nominally members of the Church of England. Conversion and assimilation were welcomed, but not required or imposed. Both individual Jews and individual Nonconformists might well switch to the Church of England as they grew wealthy and moved up the social ladder. But in both groups, there were also notable and determined hold-outs.
It was only quite late in the 19th century that all religious restrictions in British political life were swept away. This was done first for Nonconformists, whose basic loyalty to the state was felt to be secure after 1688. Rather more slowly for Catholics, who were being officially urged to treason by the Church Hierarchy. Last of all for Jews, even though they had always passively accepted whatever state structure they found themselves under, because the official basis of the state remained Christian.
Jews were in fact accommodated under a set of reforms that removed all religious requirements – reforms that were mostly of benefit to ex-Christians who disliked having to pretend to beliefs they had long abandoned. It would have been quite possible to draw up a list of ‘acceptable’ creeds or religions, requiring people in public life to adhere to one or other of them. Just as legislation to impose the strict Protestant interpretation of what was acceptable on Sunday did make provision for Jews keeping their Sabbath instead. But what actually happened was that everyone without exception was released from any particular religious obligation, with religion turned into a personal matter. Formally speaking the state remains Anglican, with the proviso that the monarch must be a member of the Church of England, the church of which he or she remains the titular head. By the same logic, the Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords. But for all practical purposes, the state is now secular. The Enlightenment or Cosmopolitical world view was happy to let Europe’s Jews exist as a distinct community, not excluded and not unreasonably pressured to give up their separate identity. So successful was this policy, and so successful were individual Jews at flourishing within this framework, that there has been a false and highly confusing identification of Judaism and the Cosmopolitical world view.
The totally indigenous nature of the Enlightenment gets overlooked. The only significant Jewish input was the philosophical ideas of Spinoza. And Baruch Spinoza had an historic importance only because a few Enlightenment thinkers chose to take notice of him after his own Jewish community had expelled him as a heretic.
The version of Judaism that developed after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem was a moderate and a modest religion. But in no sense was it Cosmopolitan. It remained politely outside the Cosmopolitical schemes of the later Roman Emperors, just as it had with the earlier Hellenistic empires. Whereas both Christians and Muslims wished ideally to include the entire human race within their own creed, Jews wished mostly to continue just as they were.
In the 19th century, Enlightenment ideas had become the norm – even the Holy Alliance was a reactionary expression of those same values. Jews adapted to the new environment, just as they had always previously taken account of the twists and turns of whatever society they were operating within. But Jewish and Christian mental worlds had been essentially separate throughout the centuries when the peoples were physically intermingled, keeping up most of the barriers that had been erected when Christianity separated itself from Judaism within the pagan Roman Empire.
When Jews and Christians co-existed in mediaeval Europe, there was little cross-over. A work of Jewish theology that pondered the nature of God got accidentally included among the acceptable books of mediaeval Catholicism. Protestants looked to Jewish versions of the Hebrew Bible to get rid of textual corruptions. But the essential separateness remained. It was the Enlightenment framework that gave scope for Jews become part of a common Cosmopolitical framework of European thought.
During the 19th century, there were many and notable contributions to the continuing Enlightenment by Jews or by persons of Jewish origin. And a certain confusion grew up as to where these ideas had originally come from. Cosmopolitical ideas came to be identified as Jewish, which is simply untrue. This view was mostly associated with right-wing Catholicism, keen to identify the revolt against its own power as having alien roots, not a natural result of its own mismanagement and cynical power-politics.
The Enlightenment was entirely a revolt within the framework of Christian society. Jews took little part in it, not until after it had become the European norm. Voltaire and Diderot were both educated by Jesuits. Their British equivalents came from strongly Protestant tradition, the heirs of Cromwell, the people who had gone looking for truth in the Bible in protest against Rome’s excessive claims. Unfortunately, it turned out that while the actual text of the Bible discredited many Catholic traditions, it didn’t really justify Protestantism either. Devout Protestants and educated Catholics both found themselves faced with popular beliefs that they could not easily change but did not have much regard for. Both groups found themselves converging on a ‘Enlightened’ viewpoint, a decision that none of the established forms of Christianity could be considered either true or worthy of preservation.
I said earlier that Jews and the less conventional Nonconformists tended to be lumped together in the eyes of the Church of England mainstream. But in their own eyes, there was a very great difference. Jews continued to see themselves as ‘strangers in a strange land’. They might keep themselves separate from the rest of the society. Or they might try to integrate with it. But they had very little notion of trying to alter it.
Nonconformists were something quite different, strangers in their own land. Survivals of the alternative vision of Britishness that had overthrown Charles the First in the Civil War and yet somehow failed to consolidate itself under Cromwell. A hold-out against the Enlightenment view that the Bible was not the place to go looking for truth. They certainly never saw their defeat as final. Nor were they worried at whom they might upset or enrage, just so long as they were righteous in their own eyes.
Nonconformists in Britain and America pioneered a disruptive unprecedented and unpopular industrialism. They continued to struggle with the gentry for control of the levers of political and social power. They provided a disproportionate number of both the early capitalists and the early radical democrats.
Regarding Socialism, I think that Marx was the first person of Jewish origin to make a substantial contribution to a system of thought that had been growing within Europe for decades. And this was only because he was highly assimilated, the son of a convert to Protestantism, not at all comfortable with his Jewishness. He made his own enormous contributions to human thought within what was already a strong and growing political movement.
In as far as modern socialism can be given a specific origin, it begins with the Spenceans, a British movement that was a logical continuation of Nonconformist concern for social justice and equality.
Jews as a segregated self-separating self-obsessed minority would never ever have produced such a thing as the Enlightenment, no matter how much they later contributed to it. One can of course find ‘Enlightened’ ideas within the traditional framework, mixed up with all of the peculiar old customs and relics of bronze-age superstitions. This was indeed also true for most of the world’s other religions- some schools of Islamic thought verged on Atheism, and forms of philosophical skepticism and atheism also flourished within the vast framework of Hindu and Buddhist thought. Indeed, it was only in the rival traditions of West European Latin Christianity and its Protestant offshoot that Enlightened ideas got squeezed out and had to start fighting on their own account.
Mediaeval Catholicism allowed a broad spectrum of thought. Many of the later mediaeval popes were not really Christian, tending to Deism or Scepticism or even Atheism. The Reformation tried to be and in many cases actually was a deeply conservative movement, a removal of the alien incursions of centuries. But when Catholicism finally accepted the need to ‘clean up its act’, it did so in a a way that made it almost impossible for moderate Protestants to be reconciled to it. The Council of Trent insisted that lunatic ideas like Transubstantiation, near-deification of the Virgin Mary and huge powers for the Vatican Hierarchy were made it certain that the differences within one single branch of the Christian faith could only be resolved by war.
If the Council of Trent had been able to reconcile moderate Protestant to a reformed and moderate Catholicism, there would probably have been no Enlightenment. Likewise if they had managed the military conquest of Protestant Europe, as very nearly happened several times. But by the 18th century there was stalemate, a peace that seemed to have very little to do with God. The Enlightenment grew among dissident Christians and ex-Christians, people who very reasonably appalled by what official religion had done.
If official religion was no longer seen as a source of either wisdom or virtue, then there was little reason to impose putative restrictions on those who had refused to conform to it. Christian Europe had in any case always had confused mixed feeling about its Jews, the people who were the heroes of its own Old Testament. Every other non-Christian minority was suppressed and wiped out, with a thoroughness and a ferocity that made people almost forget that Europe had ever been anything but Christian. Only the Jewish minority was allowed a marginal but definite existence. And with the Enlightenment, there was no longer any good reason to keep them marginal.
This contribution of 19th century Jews to the Enlightenment was also part of the assimilation of a previously impervious minority within European society. Conventional Christianity demanded the surrender of Jewish identity as the price for full membership of the society. The Enlightenment let everyone find their own level, and keep as much or as little of their separate identity as they saw fit.
The US wrote its constitution on the basis of the Enlightenment or Cosmopolitical world view, and with an intention of limiting the power of government. This led to a political system seriously out of tune with the actual beliefs of the vast majority of the population. Covert ways were found to exclude non-whites, Afro-Americans in particular, despite their theoretical legal equality. Inevitably, most of actual social practice was full of hypocrisy and self-righteous evasiveness. The letter of the law is in flat contradiction with the general assumption that the USA is a Christian country.
Most Jews in America have understood and supported the Cosmopolitical view, either from idealism or from a sensible recognition of their own long-term interest. Likewise in Europe, the creation of effective Cosmopolitical structures will benefit everyone, but should be of particularly strong interest to those who do not fit in definitely with any one nation. No one is currently expecting Sir James to say ‘ich bien ein Frankfurter’. The singular German, Jewish, French and English roots of the Goldschmidts of Frankfurt were not a problem in the relatively humane Europe that existed before the First World War . They are not currently a problem in a Europe where old antagonism are transformed into democratic Cosmopolitical politics. But Goldsmith himself is working busily to weaken that structure, with a blissful unawareness of the horrors that may be unleashed if it were ever to break down.
Goldsmith quite frequently shows an encyclopaedic ignorance. He can not be bothered to correct simple misunderstandings that a quick look in any decent encyclopaedia would correct. Nor does he seem to have anyone working for him who could do so. He blames the US intervention in Somalia for the collapse of Somali society, which had already occurred before they got there (p 53). He also attributes Free Trade to David Ricardo (p 15), whereas any decent reference work would have told him that Ricardo’s main work was an integrated theory of value, wages, profits and rents. Concerning Free Trade, Ricardo had little to add, apart from pioneering opposition to the Corn Laws. The man himself says that ‘the injurious effects of the mercantile system have been fully exposed by Dr. Smith. (On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Chapter XXII.) Smith had actually just asserted this as a dogma set amidst a serious analysis of many other economic matters – but that’s a topic for another article.
The point to note is that Goldsmith will talk as if he knows it all, even when he is really quite ignorant. It is a quality that must have helped make him a grand business success – a brashly confident and aggressive person will end up either rich or bankrupt. Interesting enough, Goldsmith did go bankrupt once, quite early in his career. Eventually, to cheer himself up, he decided to go out to lunch:
“At a corner kiosk I bought the Paris-Presse, to see if my bankruptcy had made the newspapers,” he remembers. “But when I opened it the first thing I saw were big headlines saying ‘BANK STRIKE’. I couldn’t believe it.
“For the first time in twenty years the staff of every French bank had decided to go on strike. Not a single one had opened that morning, and – more important still – not a single bill had been presented for payment. Jimmy Goldsmith was not bankrupt; at least not for the moment.” (Tycoon: the life of James Goldsmith, by Geoffrey Wansell. Grafton Books 1987, p 16.)
This gave him time to put together a deal and save himself, so that he became a famous billionaire rather than a forgotten failure.
People like to think that there is some ‘X-plus’ factor that helps make the successful people successful. They are the ‘winners’, and always destined to win. The others are ‘losers’, whose failure is a quite deserved punishment for their own inadequacy. And since it is only possible to tell the ‘winners’ from the ‘losers’ by the fact that one sort win and the other sort lose, this view of the world is wonderfully immune from factual disproof.
Supposing that one were to persuade a large group of men to play ‘Russian roulette’ as many as six times each, each time using a fresh gun. All of them would have been foolish, but some of them would end up as survivors. Looking at it in individual terms, each man might count his survival as miraculous. But statistics predict that there would be survivors, a surprisingly large number of survivors, fully one third of the original group. If you find this number puzzling, remember that each round is likely to eliminate one-sixth of the survivors, and not one-sixth of the original number, as would happen if they all went on using the same guns. And you can also verify it by rolling a dice, counting one as death.
One could go further. Supposing one got a few thousand gamblers to agree to play Russian Roulette a full twenty-five times. Each would have a very low chance of individual survival – about one in a hundred, I think. But if a few thousand gamblers try it, then simple statistics would tell you that a few dozen would succeed. For each of them individually, it might seem miraculous. But for the group this is just what one would expect. If a large number of people take foolish chances, some of them are bound to get away with it. Their achievements will look rather special and miraculous only to those who forget about all of the corresponding failures.
Goldsmith’s career has included many errors, errors which finished off many similar men but which happened to rebound to his benefit. Surprisingly, it turns out that this scion of old well-connected German-Jewish banking circles had a completely false idea of what he was taking on in his battle with Private Eye:
“The magazine epitomised the worst features of English society, he believed, and he had the financial power to defeat it. What had begun as a battle to protect himself, and one of his solicitors, Eric Levine, from libel, had quickly escalated into a crusade, taking a great deal of his time and energy.’ It was also a crusade which he could not hope to win. ‘The magazine was a club of British journalists, and I did not realise the importance of what I was handling! I did not realise that Private Eye was part of the whole British press.’ It was a telling naivete.’ Ibid, p 235) However ”’The case against the Eye made me richer than I ever dreamed of’, he explains now, ‘because by going private at the bottom of the market, and buying my shares when they were cheap, meant that instead of having a huge empire, in which I had only a percentage, I ended up owning the whole thing.
”By forcing Jimmy Goldsmith so mercilessly into the public eye, the magazine had also contrived to make sure that instead of simply being a financier who had built an empire but ended up owning only a tiny portion of it himself, he had become its principal owner. ‘If the case hadn’t happened I’d have built a huge empire, been a notable, but I wouldn’t have been a capitalist. I was forced to be a capitalist. The decision to go into Slater Walker, which led to the Eye, turned me from being the head of a company into being rich. It’s odd.'” (Ibid, p 257).
Viewing matters in this light, I see no reason to be overawed by the success of Jimmy Goldsmith. He’s not all that different from the people who become multi-millionaires through the football pools or National Lottery. In a growing and speculative economy, a few of the ambitious and risk-taking young men are bound to end up fabulously wealthy. Though some of the ‘losers’ will be incompetents who were never likely to get anywhere, most success or failure rests on sheer luck.
Goldsmith shows an astonishing ignorance and prejudice on the complex matter of Eastern Europe’s numerous overlapping and variously entangled nationalities. Thus:
“The Czechs and the Slovaks are two nations which in 1918 were forced into a single state, Czechoslovakia. As soon as they became free after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they discarded their artificial union and peacefully divorced.” (The Trap, p 50).
The real history is that these two very similar people chose to live in a single state as soon as they were free from German and Hungarian domination. There were always tensions and rivalries, as there are between English and Scotch. But the similarities were usually more important. Hitler separated them, incorporating the Czech part into Germany, but they got back together again after his downfall. During the whole long period of Soviet domination they worked together – Alexander Dubchek was a Slovak, after all, and his autobiography Hope Dies Last gives an excellent guide to the complexities. After 1989, there was still little desire for separation. But then the Slovaks followed the trend in the rest of Eastern Europe in electing reformed Communists after they had seen the Thatcher-worshipping free-marketeers in action. The Czechs took a different line. Incompatible politics and economics broke up a union that both sides would have preferred to keep.
Despite being a man of Anglo-French background and German-Jewish origins, Goldsmith has a dogmatically simple approach to nations. It is as if he saw each nation as having been created by God, complete with is own garden walls. The unpleasant and potentially explosive problem of overlapping nationalities is just ignored. Most people understand that Nelson Mandela is performing a delicate balancing-act between a great diversity of factional and intermixed racial and tribal groups. But for Goldsmith, “they back the Xhosa nation to dominate all others. We are witnessing an attempt to form another Yugoslavia.” (Ibid, p 52.)
Was Yugoslavia such a bad thing? Given the intermixing and overlap of the Southern Slavs, the choice was Yugoslavia or ‘ethnic cleansing’. In the post-1989 euphoria, Western Europe blundered and backed the dismemberment of a state that had more or less kept the peace. And it was all done messily. The rights of Muslim Albanians within Serbia have simply been ignored. The rights of majority-Serb populations in the various other administrative units of former Yugoslavia were neither definitely affirmed nor definitely rejected. A Bosnian Muslim factional leadership with no real understanding of politics was allowed to set itself up as a sovereign government with theoretically unlimited rights over Bosnian Serbs, who had been the majority before the World War Two massacres when Muslims and Croats were Nazi auxiliaries. The matter is now being settled by war rather than law, with the USA currently ready to give the Bosnian Serbs a large chunk of what they originally took up arms for.
In South Africa, if Mandela can not hold things together, I doubt if anyone else can. And I doubt if any other simple or stable pattern could be found. For Southern Africa does not consist of distinct nations with clear and accepted national territories. The various peoples overlap and are intermingled; sovereign nations could only be established by massive ‘ethnic cleansing’. And it is uncertain if Zulus could even co-exist with their fellow-Zulus, outside of the larger framework of a multi-ethnic state. The mighty Shaka was murdered by his relatives, after all.
In Western Europe, Britishness and Irishness are still at odds in Ulster. The French and Germans formed the European Community, because the likely alternative was yet another war over an ambiguous border that had been moving back and forth ever since the days of Charlemagne. To the East, Germany could make an exhalant claim to chunks of what is now Poland. Poland has its own claims on its smaller neighbours further east. Hungary is concerned about local majorities of ethnic Hungarians in territories that have been part of Hungary within living memory.
Goldsmith understands none of this. He complains that “The European Unions was built in secret” (p 64), by which he means that some power has passed from the Council of Ministers to the Commission. But how else could Europe work? In the Council of Ministers, each individual fights for the particular interests of their own nation. In the European Union, Commissioners appointed by the various governments try to find a common European interest in one particular area of responsibility.
The Trap contrasts ministers, “elected national heads of state or their representatives”, with the “technocrats of the Commission”. Now I have no great personal regard for Commissioners like Leon Britten or Neil Kinnock. But the former was a senior minister at a time when the Tories had substantial popular support. The latter only just missed becoming British Prime Minister, and would certainly have won if people had had an inkling of how Major would really turn out. Even Delors, arch-Eurocrat, would have had a sporting chance of becoming the popularly-elected President of France had he chosen to risk it.
“As for the European Parliament, it is a pseudo-democratic institution. It is totally dominated by two major parties, the Socialists and the Christian Democrats, both of which share with the European Commission the vision of supranational, centralized European state dominating a homogenised union. Its only real function is to provide cover for the Commission.” (p 73).
Goldsmith seems of have picked up some Trotskyite jargon form somewhere. I’ve no idea how, but lapsed Trotskyists can end up almost anywhere. ‘Pseudo-democratic’ is Trot-speak for any expression of popular will that is contrary to their own hopes and expectations.
Socialists and Christian Democrats do between them represent a large majority of the population of Europe, a population that knows very well that the drift is towards union. Anti-Europe parties exist and have so far been rejected by the majority. Even in Britain, a clear chance to pull out via a referendum was quite decisively rejected.
The German Christian Democrats are a long way from being my favourite people. But it is they who have repeatedly crushed and disrupt German neo-Fascist parties, limiting such people to the status of an obnoxious fringe.
In Italy, the fall of the worst and most sleazy branch of Christian Democracy initially let in something quite a bit worse, a coalition of bigots, tricksters and Fascists. Under the slogan of ending corruption, the Italians got a government that reestablished friendly relations with the Mafia. The old corrupt crown have been replaced by a new corrupt crowd, a crowd that shows a strong hostility to all that was wise and positive in the ‘Italian Economic Miracle’. This may be containable – the original Italian Fascists were less obnoxious than their counterparts in other nations. But many factors in the present situation reminds one of the 1920s and 1930s.
The new factor that gives hope for avoiding the disasters on 1926-1944 is the presence of a truly effective supranational body in the European Union. It would have to be broken up before any really heavy nationalism or fascism could get going. Yet this is just what Goldsmith is after.
Goldsmith, of course, has his own vision of Europe, superior to the actually existing reality. Just as the Far Left in the 1970s had their own superior vision, that led them to disrupt the real if limited gains that were then possible. Apart from us in the Bevin Society, the entire left called for ‘all or nothing’. And ended up with nothing.
Some of what Goldsmith says about Far Eastern competition makes sense. But then, a lot of people have said something of the sort. The gradual equalisation of Europe and East Asia is no bad thing in itself. Handled well, it could be a great blessing for everyone. Handled badly it could also be a great curse, of course, even a ‘trap’. But all of this is well known. Free market dogmatists want to break down all barriers, which would lead to a massive drop in living standard for European and North American workers, followed probably by some massive right-wing counter-reaction. For this reason it is all being done slowly and carefully, with some regard for the perils and destructiveness of free trade. Arguably, nothing like enough care is being shown, but the problems are at least understood. And as the richer parts of East Asia overtake the poorer parts of Western Europe, the potential for harm becomes gradually less.
Goldsmith’s distinctiveness comes in wanted to cut out Far Eastern competition at the same time as impoverishing ordinary working people in Western Europe. He says “the universal welfare state cannot be sustained. Its economic costs and its social consequences are unbearable” (p 87). That is to say, the methods that led to an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity since World War Two must be thrown out and replaced with bad old measures that have always previously led to misery, starvation and warfare.
“For decades we have defined our system without any thought as to why the need for welfare develops or how we should provide support without destroying the moral fibre of those who receive it and without destabilising society as a whole” (p 99).
This ‘loss of moral fibre’ is not spelt out very specifically. Presumably it does not include living in adulterous relationships, nor keeping two separate families, since that is how Goldsmith himself lives. In point of fact, he says nothing very specific about what’s good or bad in modern social trends. He never defines just what it is that other people have failed to define properly. He’s as much of a muddlehead as his old enemies in Private Eye, who talk like old-fashioned moralists while including all sorts of modern permissiveness in their small adds. (Back in the sixties, I seem to remember that Private Eye was full of things that just did not appear in magazines that ordinary people would encounter or would want to be seen reading.)
Goldsmith calls for a return to some supposed ‘good old days’. One need only look at Engels’s The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 to discover how the much purer capitalism and minimal welfare of 19th century Britain produced a vastly more drastic break-down of family life. Measures like abolishing child labour and providing more education reversed this trend for a time. So too did the influence of the rest of society on a working class that gained some rights through trade unionism. For a time, one had the strong familiar family patterns of the ‘respectable’ working class. But then you had 1920s American innovations like divorce and the break-up of the extended family – disturbances of a genuinely old tradition, changes in life’s fundamentals whose impact was very accurately foreseen by the reactionaries of that era.
Everyone nowadays pretends that divorce and nuclear families are part of the traditional natural Christian order of things. This is much less rational than what the real traditionalists were saying a couple of generations back. The final breakdown of conventional morality that occurred in the 1960s was a public recognition of conventional Christianity’s loss of credibility among the mass of the population. The Enlightenment and civilised paganism had finally spread right through the society.
Strictly speaking, family life in British society has already collapsed. The self-regulating kin groups have almost all gone. All that remain are personal and sexual bonds, ‘nuclear families’ that are neither traditional nor very stable. People stay in pair-bonded relationships for as long as it suits them – for their whole lives, in many cases. But the balance between freedoms and obligations has changed. Obligations are for other people: In one’s own case it is always the freedom to live one’s own life that is paramount.
Since this arrangement is not obviously worse than the actual practice of the world which proceeded it, no reversion to older forms looks likely. I myself am sure that we gained far more than we lost. But society can not work effectively until we drop the pretence and start imposing only those limitations that we ourselves would be willing to accept.
Conventional families were the product of peasant agriculture. They have always withered under the pressures of both commerce and urban life. The family without a little family-worked patch of land or secure family-run small business turns out to be a very unnatural and unstable thing. It persists mostly out of habit and out of regard for customs from earlier times. And what Goldsmith says on family life is incoherent, the reflex protest of a discontented right-winger, a man who has no intention of curbing any of his own pleasures.
On business matters, Goldsmith very much follows the Anglo-American line that profits must override all other considerations. The minor detail that the more protected and more socially concerned management in Germany, Japan and the rest of East Asia have comfortably outperformed ‘proper’ capitalism does not enter his mental universe. Not unless it is this that makes him dread their influence. Certainly, he is a prime example of the right-wing business nihilism that broke up much that once seemed solid and reliable.
“Just as he had condemned the suffocation of England and the bureaucracy of France in the past, now he was attacking the stuffy “corporatism” of the United States. That was the new windmill he chose to tilt at on the road to Wall Street.
“‘Although corporations belong to their shareholders,’ he wrote not long afterwards in the Wall Street Journal, ‘corporate managements sometimes believe that the business that employs them has become an institution and that they are the trustees of that institution. Some believe that they have developed some sort of proprietorial rights. Shareholders then become no more than an inconvenience.’ That was not Jimmy Goldsmith’s view, particularly if and when he intended to become one of an American corporation’s major shareholders. He had every intention of making himself extremely inconvenient to any corporate management that failed to take him seriously when he launched a takeover bid. ‘The principal difference between a friendly merger and a hostile takeover is that management agrees to a merger. A hostile takeover is carried out without their approval. A hostile takeover is only hostile to established management’…
“In the America of the mid-1980s, with the mania for massive takeover takeovers running at the highest level for almost two decades, Jimmy Goldsmith suddenly found himself perfectly placed to do what he had always done best- topple the established order.
“America seemed to prize a piratical predatory individualist stalking established companies. Even the New York Times had concluded its March 1985 editorial by arguing that “Corporate raiders don”t perform their useful function altruistically. But their self-interest usually leads to a collective good.” He had been preparing himself for precisely this opportunity all his life. “In a free economy the inefficient are eliminated and the efficient – as long as they remain so – grow for the benefit of all,” he wrote in The Financier magazine. There were no rules that Jimmy Goldsmith liked better than the rules of the jungle and the free market” (Tycoon, p 314 – 315.)He can take this view while being well aware of the basically irrational nature of market movements. “‘I don’t often invest in the market,’ Jimmy Goldsmith explains, ‘but I sometimes do, and when I do I will never invest if I don’t first telephone half a dozen supposed experts and find them unanimous. Because when 90 per cent of people are thinking the same thing, you can be certain that if you do exactly the opposite you’ll make a fortune; and there’s a very good structural reason for that.
“‘If everybody thinks that the market is going up then one thing is certain – they’ve already invested all their funds because they think they’re going to increase them. So there’s no more money left to go into the market. Therefore the market can only go down. If everybody thinks that the market is going to go down then they will have already sold, so they’re full of cash, and at the slightest turn they’re going to plunge in again and buy. The market can only go up. Structurally if you can find unanimity and do the opposite you can be certain to be successful”. (Ibid, p 303).
Sir James Goldsmith has a wonderfully good understanding of how to increase his own wealth by methods that are entirely legal, even if many people find them objectionable. He plays the existing system, and plays it in a rather more ruthless fashion than people were used to. He has been clever, and also quite lucky, surviving at least one disaster that should have finished him off. Just as similar setbacks must have finished off many other clever ambitious but only averagely lucky ‘entrepreneurs’. Goldsmith’s success as a stocks-and-shares gambler does not make him remotely competent to pass judgment on wider matters.
Business is a peculiar game, much stranger and more complex than chess or poker or any of the other intellectual oddities that humanity has invented over the centuries. But the exact relationship between business strategies and the growth of human prosperity is a complex one. Classical capitalism in 19th century Britain and the USA amazed the world, but only because there was no serious competition. Neither of them ever managed as much as 2% annual growth over any long period. They looked impressive only in a world that expected one century to be much like the last: they were decidedly sluggish by modern standards.
The British economy has shown a remarkable consistency since the 18th century. Its initial dramatic success came from being the only society that played the capitalist and industrial game. When other nations had to think it all out from scratch, they came up with superior variants on the original. Each wave has improved over the last – America better than Britain, Western Europe better than America, East Asia currently the best of all. All going for more state control, better treatment for labour and active partnership between the state and private enterprise.
Tory ‘reforms’ in the 1980s were a social abomination. They boosted the rich and created a huge mass of displaced unwanted poor. The justification for this was that it would be good for the economy, and therefore good for everyone in the long run. But at the end of the day, the Tory record for economic growth is the worst for any post-war government. Meanwhile our more socially concerned European neighbours continue to outperform us. France did this in the 1950s, using exactly the dirigiste methods that are anathema both to Thatcher and to Goldsmith. A man would not be considered to be wise on general social matters if he were a very fine chess-player or an outstanding concert pianist or a mathematical genius. Unlike any of these, businessmen like Goldsmith – and also some of the rising strata of business women – consider that what they have learned in their peculiar, stressful and artificial world of competitive capitalism is suitable for universal application. It ain’t necessarily so. Eliminating business-people entirely seems to be bad in the long run, as the USSR found. But it is also a good idea to keep them in proper bounds and not allowing them to rampage all over the society. Not only is the unrestrained spread of business values a social disaster, it is also likely to be bad economically.
Business in a society probably plays the same role as oil in an old-fashioned clockwork watch. Some oil is necessary for the mechanism to run at all. Extra oil may improve it. But oil alone will never tell the time.
Goldsmith, Ricardo, Adam Smith etc. rely on a simple identification of extra revenues gained by a successful capitalist with extra wealth gained by the whole society. Now why should this be so? Europe was ready for some sort of economic take-off in the 18th century. Governments had done all that they could to promote it; the ruling class actively desired it. There had been a steady expansion of commerce in Europe from the 11th century onwards, boosted by the state-led opening up of the Americas from the 15th century onwards. There was in England the state sponsorship of science through the Royal Society, and the use of Patents to encourage openness about new inventions. There was an active well-educated and anti-traditional stratum of Nonconformists, ‘strangers in their own land’, ready and eager to revolutionise the world. Full-blown capitalism – the world view that sees life as a burden on money – only developed later.
18th century Britain was highly commercial, in the sense that money had invaded many spheres of life. But almost everyone saw money as a means to an end – that end usually being a life as a member of the aristocracy. Strict capitalism – the notion of money as an end in itself – spread and flourished only after industry had got started. One might just as reasonably see modern capitalism as a result of industrialism, a system of grand gambling that only a rich strong society can get away with.
The British ruling class in the early 19th century gradually came to accept Adam Smith’s dogmatic notion that success had been achieved only through the profit motive. It was taken as an undeniable fact that industrialisation had happened despite the various government attempts to boost prosperity. Such ‘wasteful’ activities were therefore discouraged, or at best left unchanged. Conceited Victorians were sure that it was God and Free Trade that had made Britain mighty. They sat back confidently for God and Free Trade to make them mightier yet.
It was the beginning of the end. Britain was overtaken by rival nations like Germany, where the state played a large role. In the rest of Europe, business always accepted wider social responsibilities. And both law and custom prevented the sort of predatory take-over and restructuring that has been the basis of Goldsmith’s success.
Victorian Britain was sure that it had God on its side. God perhaps took a different view of the matter.
Even though Goldsmith’s opposition to GATT and unrestricted free trade make might make him seem a bit leftist, it is an irrational opinion held by a right-wing bigot. An enthusiast for allowing the rich within Europe to grab to grab the public wealth and ignore customary social obligations. From any sort of serious left-wing viewpoint, the man is far more of an enemy than any Liberal or Christian Democrat. He should be treated as such.