Hex Fremlin once had a song called Your Nation Is Not My Nation, which I’ve sneakily namechecked in this piece sent to my local Labour-left magazine, the Forest & Wye Valley Clarion. That’s a lame FOISTIAN connection and reason for publishing it for you all to have a look at, but sod it.
Anyway, here’s another FOIST song that has nothing to do with the article, really… from the old Soundcloud account (which I’ve forgotten the log-in to) dating back to 1992 and inspired by a visit to a field. The new account at soundcloud.com/foist is much better!
EITHER I have a heightened sense of déjà vu, or history really is repeating itself.
Many Clarion readers might draw many comparisons with the ConDems to Thatcher’s 1980s, when Ghost Town by The Specials topped the chart, inner cities were ablaze, the government declared war on the workers and destroyed their industries and rights, the poor were told to ‘get on their bikes’ to find non-existent jobs, there was a rapid privatisation programme…
But… wait… the clocks are whirring backwards at an incredible rate, and, yes, the time machine (thanks HG Wells) has taken me much further back, to the years before Nye Bevan, Keir Hardie, the Suffragettes, Chartists and Luddites. I’ve come to a shuddering halt 13 years before the French Revolution and shortly before Tom Paine’s Common Sense and Rights of Man.
1776: the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, the year Adam Smith lit the touchpaper for laissez-faire capitalism with The Wealth of Nations, when a fresh class of privileged merchants and stockbrokers joined forces with aristocrats to form a consolidated elite. Known as tons, bucks, men of quality, or simply The World, the dandified ruling class kept different hours to the oi polloi, gambling through the night, and blearily taking up their daily offices in parliament and the judiciary – when pertinent to their own interests. Membership of the group was tiny, they had their fingers in many lucrative pies, home and abroad, and their only contract with the other 99% was to press them for taxes so they could protect and build their own fiefdoms within an expanding British Empire.
Only a tiny percentage of the population could vote, private property was far more sacred than human lives, the poor were poor because they deserved to be poor, and their survival depended on charity.
When politicians spoke of the “country” they really meant their estates, rather than any national interest. Parliament was for proscribing law, raising taxes for and endorsing military and buccaneer adventures. Wiping out a native population, subjugating it and seizing the land was lauded in the highest court, while stealing a loaf of bread to fend off starvation was a hanging offence.
The Royalists in Parliament had, post-Restoration, been given the name Tories – from the Irish tórai, for robber – and it stuck. The two “sides”, the Tories and the Whigs (now the LibDems) both solely represented the interests of the ruling class.
The idea of widening the voting franchise was considered absurd by MPs and their cronies. The Leveller Thomas Rainsborough had asked Cromwell’s grandees in 1647 what he and fellow New Model Army veterans had been fighting for in the Civil War if not their individual rights, including a vote. He was slapped down: “No man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” And so it remained until after 1918.
Adam Smith’s laissez-faire is all about freedom… for some. The “invisible hand”, a self-regulating mechanism, would ensure all remained well and prosperous… for certain players. Laissez-faire relies on the poor and slaves as the necessary cogs (although steadily replaced by machines), the producers; the middling types, the petit bourgeoisie are the consumers and junior managers of industry, fuel for the oligarchy’s engine.
We still have a situation where many producers can’t afford to be consumers of the products they spend many of their waking hours making; the British Empire has been replaced by a corporate jostle for global dominance; our police and army exist mainly to protect private property and secure more of it (in Iraq’s case, for oil interests); the Big Society and the shrinking of the welfare state are signs of passing any social contract to the patronising whim of charity.
As for the class-variable treatment of thieves, we in the Forest of Dean have recently fended off a government-sponsored land-robbery attempt (hurrah for us!) while someone who steals a bottle of water is imprisoned for four years. We are governed by a kleptocracy – the word was coined for post-Communist Russia but Cameron and co’s asset-stripping of the NHS and our other public possessions, so blatantly being handed to MPs and their close friends and beneficiaries are signs of obvious “crony capitalism”, to be polite.
The laissez-faire dream of globalisation has resulted in the increasing exploitation of cheap labour abroad, and herding the discarded British cogs into a workfare conveyor. Rather than London being riddled with slums as it was in 1776, the poor are now being driven out altogether. The latest cunning plan for the London of Boris is that many Londoners priced out of renting their current homes will be shipped to cheaper estates as far away as Merthyr Tydfil, squatting is now officially illegal, and rough-sleepers are to be eradicated (following an attempt in Cardiff, it’s due to become City of Westminster policy).
Fast forward… the time machine pauses at 1962, the year the Beatles released Love Me Do as a prelude to the Swinging Sixties, when Chicago economist Milton Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, interpreted further down the line by Naomi Klein as The Shock Doctrine. Whether they’ve manifested as a dash for individual economic freedom against Commies and statists, robbery on a gargantuan scale, a racheting-up of the military-industrial complex, Friedman’s policies have engulfed almost the entire world.
Friedman had the first chance to try out his laissez-faire upgrade in 1975 when the military dictator Augusto Pinochet called for his expertise. Never mind Chile’s countless “disappeared” supporters of democracy, Friedman’s “Chilean Miracle” was the toast of Washington and London. Thatcher had much to discuss with Pinochet over tea, and Reagan also followed Friedman’s recommendations: more law and order enforcement to protect property rights, and relaxed regulations for free-marketeers. And so it goes on…
After dumping Clause IV, Blair and Brown continued down the same Thatcherite path, thinly disguised as the “third way”. This meant further privatisation, authoritarianism, “shock and awe” mass murder in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bailing out beached-whale banks with public money, coupled with a decline in Party membership.
Most therapists would advise that ruminating on the past is a bad idea. Regressing to the squalid, inequitable 18th century is, too.
We really want a future, and not one proscribed and confined by determinist “realities” that advocate the same neoliberal approach but only applied more gently and caringly.
Any glance at the Greek Syriza movement, the Indignados of Spain, the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, the Bolivars and Zapatistas of South America – mass emerging movements despite their marginalisation and scant coverage from mainstream media, reveals a new wave of beyond-Mammon enlightenment from those outside the institutions of power; a growing consensus and call for “real democracy now”. We all know that the banking system, property, wealth and the magic-wand creation of money as debt have shaky foundations or exist only in a bubble ready to be punctured and so much wealth and power has been ill-gained.
One major difference between now and 1776 is that we have secured the vote. If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain: this argument often blames low turnouts simply on apathy, hence the Tories taking the reins in 2010 with a mandate from a whopping 20% of us.
The argument works just as well turned on its head: if you do vote, you are giving credence and sanctioning a vicious economic and political system which favours only the few, bleeding the many.
I reluctantly put a cross for Labour merely because I prefer bad to worse. I am continually drawn into arguments with friends who say they are both the same, that a Labour government would merely be a shuffling of the pack. I counter that perhaps there’ll be a smidgeon more compassion for the downtrodden. But is that enough?
The Labour Party is only as good as the people within the Movement, trying to affect change, as has been recently argued here in the Clarion. Jon Cruddas, Labour’s policy chief, severely laid into neoliberalism in his review of a book, Britannia Unchained, by Progressive, anti-compassionate Conservative MPs. Perhaps all is not lost.
But is Labour’s “market” confined to the 30-odd per cent niche that turn out for the elections, or is the Party also working for the disenfranchised, the let-down, democracy’s outsiders, the apathetic majority (depending on perspective)?
Will Labour continue to perpetuate this downward spiral of debt and austerity, insisting that increasingly ruthless cuts are “necessary” as borrowing inexorably soars in order to pay ever-inflating interest rates, while trillions of pounds owed by high-flyers, more than enough to wipe clean the deficit, are being written off?
Or… will Miliband’s Labour instead take us back to, say, 1845? Then the forecast was, revolution likely unless the proles are pacified, and quickly. Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England, and Benjamin Disraeli wove fiction and politics together for his novel Sybil, or the Two Nations. Engels wanted social justice and an end to exploitation, Disraeli to preserve a hierarchy maintained by aristocrats and their lackeys, putting the brakes on the rampant commercial sector, thus preserving class divisions. Disraeli’s paternalistic vision of an “organic society” was a natural hierarchy where everyone knew their place in the pyramid, and classes had obligations to each other.
In the Thatcher era, a Disraeli-ite might have been a Tory “wet”, or a Europhobe, sometimes verging on jingoistic nationalist, a flag-waving protectionist.
So what can one make of Miliband’s “one nation” mantra? He has yet to flesh out the rhetoric, despite repeating it like a robot with a trapped-circuit. Does Miliband’s “Blue Labour” simply equate with “nice” socially responsible Toryism rather than Cameron’s rampant, violent, heartless, cruel Toryism?
Or is “One Nation” just another way of saying “we’re all in this together”? Aside from it offending my internationalist sensibilities, I don’t know whether “one nation” means me and my fellow impoverished political outsiders, or is about as inclusive as Cameron’s “together”?
Besides, nations have become increasingly irrelevant as they’ve been dwarfed by multinationals. In the IMF and EU-driven misery that engulfs Greece, fascism is flourishing around the Greek flag. Do we really want to encourage national flag-waving in such a climate, when scapegoating the most vulnerable is all the rage?
How can I be British and proud when I discover Poppy Day is a networking event for arms dealers, when the Union flag is and remains a symbol of imperial oppression, when the most powerful upholders of church, state and law turn out to be child abusers?
Nobody cares… so we Vote Nobody, to echo a recent Bristol mock-election campaign. Many of my friends believe that if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal. I hope that Labour will prove them wrong.
If Labour hasn’t the courage or will to make a decisive break with neoliberalism (as has Syriza in Greece, and the post-bloodless-revolution government of Iceland), I too may feel obliged to vote with my feet, telling Miliband: “Your nation is not my nation.”