Something went wrong in the mid-1970s

I went to the TUC’s Conference on Poverty on Wednesday 17th October.  I am looking for other ways of pursuing work on The Deal besides the mappa mundi project.  I like this process of searching.  You put yourself in front of experiences and ideas in order to find connections.  Sometimes, of course, connections are not forthcoming.  This is a minor risk in a game that depends on balancing the expected with the unknown.

I was interested in this conference because Owen Jones, who wrote Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class, was down to speak.  This book tells a vital part of the story of the last 40 years: how the working class’s organisational defeat that centred around the pit closure programme and miners’ strike of the mid-80s has been accompanied by an ideological onslaught.  It is all the more interesting because this process is viewed from the perspective of someone who was born at the apex of this movement, in 1984.

This dimension of the extraordinary story of the success of neo-liberalism during this period was also brought to my attention while watching No, a film shown at the current BFI London Film Festival by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain about the 1988 plebiscite in Chile that recorded a popular majority against the continuance of the rule of the military Junta under Pinochet that brought itself to power on September 11 1973.  In the film we see Pinochet reiterating the aim of the military dictatorship as being ‘to make Chile a country of proprietors, not of proletarians’.

The 1973 coup in Chile announced a new world order and this process of renewal by war was the template for the aspiration expressed by Bush Senior in the first Gulf War of 1991 and of Bush Junior and Blair in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

At the TUC conference the opening address given by Danny Dorling who with Bethan Thomas has recently published Bankrupt Britain: An Atlas of Social Change.  This man is a fountain of lurid and colourful info graphics delivering a fugue of repeated variations on a theme: we have become one of the most unequal societies in the world and this process of inequality started in the late 1970s.  As he tantalisingly expressed it: ‘something went wrong in the mid-1970s’.  ‘Yeah’ someone scowled from the audience, ‘a centrist labour party!’  Possibly, but that in itself may be an effect rather than a cause.

Dorling also drew attention to the key importance in social change of the bottom 90 per cent of the top 10 per cent.  He pointed out that their adherence to and belief in the top 1 per cent was decisive for social cohesion.  At the moment this relationship, so thoroughly cemented by Thatcher, is deteriorating.  Of course the Coalition are desperately attempting  to apply repairs.

The mystery of the story of the last 40 years (I mean the success of neoliberalism and economism) has been how people have been persuaded to vote for their own immiseration.  This is a fantastic aspect of the process.  I went along to the conference with this firmly at the front of my mind.  It is a commonplace to say that nobody has more to gain from progressive social change based on equality and democracy than the poor but nobody is deprived more obviously of the means to effect that change.  It is difficult to see past the idea that that only way to empower the poor is to enrich them.  It is the accompanying illusions that have secured the rule of the rich elite.

I opted to go to a workshop session called Reciprocity: What rights? Whose responsibilities?  The talk in this workshop was informed by direct experience.  People working with Unemployed Workers Centres, self-help community organisations, job advisory organisations spoke with authority about the history of the welfare state from Beveridge’s work in the early 1940s where the concept of a national insurance scheme was formulated and operationalised and also of how the link between contribution and assistance had been systematically destroyed.  Crucial to the inception of the national insurance system was the accompanying commitment to full employment. These people were experienced in the day-to-day operation of the system for unemployment and it was out of this experience of how the system humiliated and disempowered the unemployed that certain demands and questions emerged.  One simple demand was for the claimant’s agreement, with its obligations on the claimant, to be met by a reciprocal agreement on the part of the state. This would oblige the state as a part of an agreement to ensure support and advice within a generally acceptable code of conduct.

What immediately interested me was the distance between what might appear to be a minor reform – something that may from certain points of view be called procedural – and the demand for full employment.  Of course underlying both is a radically different conception of the public state.

Any move towards full employment would necessarily involve the state becoming a major investor even if it did so, as it does at the moment, through the enrichment and financing of the private sector.  The decision-making processes in the relevant strategies would have to be transparent and open to public accountability.  Any redistributive programme poses the problem of how to make the processes involved collective and democratic.  This involves questions of justice that have been barely rehearsed.

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