|Reports and Papers on Raymond Williams Residential Seminars
The 23rd annual Raymond Williams w/end 6-8 May 2011 at the Wedgwood Memorial College, Barlaston
Another great success for our annual residential weekend. Feed-back from the 46 who attended the full weekend as students was most positive with a whole string of 'excellent' s including this: "...most stimulating and at times very hard - but that's good".
For the lecture notes by Tristan Hunt click
The 22nd annual w/end at the Wedgwood Memorial College, Barlaston, again filled the College.
These quotes are from the many positive comments:
'Fascinating varied styles of presentation from very formal, even dramatic, to informal/interactive conversational... Excellent'.
'Exceptionally good - this is an annual commitment for my calendar'
'RW w/ends - always excellent'
'First time --- but I'll be back'
'When I say excellent I really mean EXCELLENT'
'I would sleep on the floor ... for this w/end ... in a superb place of learning'
Keynote Lecture by Mike Rustin, Friday evening 7th May 2010 on
The General Election and the Present Crisis
I am grateful for the invitation to speak at this weekend event. I was fortunate to hear Raymond Williams speak on quite a few occasions, nearly always in political rather than in academic contexts. Having been greatly influenced in earlier years by writers like Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and Edward Thompson who had strong ties in their early years with the adult education movement, I am especially glad to taking part in an event sponsored by the WEA.
These are interesting times. Many of you will have stayed up for much of last night watching the results of the General Election come in. I varied my usual election night practice in two ways. I am usually deluded by misguided optimism about what the result of an election is going to be, and I therefore usually spend most of election nights being unhappily enlightened by reality. Yesterday, I expected the worst, but decided not to wait up for the results, instead choosing to have a good night’s sleep. I awoke to find that the worst had not happened, since a hung parliament, close run thing as it was, was the result I had wanted. I am also wide-awake to take part in this weekend event.
I am going to talk about three things. The first is the nature of the current economic and political crisis, which I am going to compare with the crisis of the 1970s. I will suggest that this crisis has a very different character from the earlier one. The second is to discuss the political implications of this crisis, for the period that lies ahead of us, but which indeed are already being felt, The third is to refer to the General Election itself and its possible outcomes for the formation and decisions of governments.
The Crises of the Seventies
In an article ‘Reflections on the Present’ published in Soundings 43, Winter 2010, I argued that these two crises have a completely different character. The crisis of the 1970s represented the collapse and expiry of the post-war welfare settlement, through pressure of its own emergent contradictions. I referred to the analysis of Stuart Hall et al.’s Policing the Crisis (1978) which charted the emerging disorder and tension in Britain and in other western societies from the late 1960s. This developed as class conflicts grew in their intensity, expressed both by the demands of trade unions in the production system, and by the pressure for increased welfare expenditures. Other pressures were added to these, in the emergence of generational conflict (the student revolts of 1968, and the emergence of a teenage culture subversive of adult authority), feminism, and ethnic claims and discontents, not least the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Many of these forces had come together in the mobilisation against the Vietnam War.
The effect of these pressures was to bring about exceptionally high levels of inflation and social unrest. (The inflation was partly the outcome of the rise in raw materials and petroleum prices following the ‘excessive’ demands brought about by the American commitments in Vietnam.). This was also a crisis of the ‘Fordist mode of production, in the United States and the UK in particular. That is to say, in conditions of full employment and welfare-minded governments, this system had led to real pressures on level of profit, and on the authority of capital to control the market system. Britain’s ‘governability’ was called in question, with the electorate’s negative answer to Heath’s question, after the first miners’ strike of 1973, ‘who governs Britain?’ Not you, Mr Heath, the electorate said.
The election victory of Thatcher in 1979, and then of Reagan in 1980, brought a radical end to this welfare and ‘Fordist’ settlement. Working class institutions were attacked, in trade union reforms. The ‘right to buy’ legislation dismantled the system of local authority housing which constituted one of the strongest ties between elected Labour authorities and its working class electorate. The privatisation of public utilities enforced a ‘profit’ imperative over norms of public service, and weakened the powers of co-determination by trade unions of an important sector of the economy. Large-scale unemployment, following the monetarist assault on inflation in the early 1980s, undermined the bargaining position and morale of labour, and wrecked entire industrial communities. ‘Rate-capping and the increased centralisation of government weakened democratic local government, and the power of the labour movement at a local level. The ‘big bang’ – the deregulation of the financial sector in 1983 - set free the financial sector to operate on a global basis, and to establish itself as the dominant growth sector of the British economy. The free movement of capital enabled producers to escape the bargaining power of wage-earners in Britain, by relocating their activities to lower-wage economies elsewhere. The consequences of this have been felt economically, in the relative and absolute weakening of the manufacturing sector following an over-valued pound sterling; regionally, in the ascendancy of London and the south-east over the rest of Britain; and morally, in the culture of greed and growing inequality which has followed the rise of the financial sector. The fall of European Communism in 1989 was the moment of triumph of this counter-revolutionary transformation. It seemed that now neo-liberalism ruled the world. The several wars waged by the Americans with British support in the Middle East, and in the Balkans, reflected this self-confidence. The Americans dreamed of ‘full spectrum dominance’.
This ‘conjuncture, in Gramscian terms, or ‘tipping point’ in the language of modern complexity theory, was drawn out over several years, as Policing the Crisis described. The resolution of the crisis did not even come in 1979, in the election won by Mrs Thatcher after the ’winter of discontent’. It was the 1983 election that firmly established the new neo-liberal order, and it was probably only the contingent event of the Falklands War and Thatcher’s victory that won the Tories their decisive victory. The most important radical steps of the Thatcher government were only taken after its second election victory. Indeed its agenda took time to emerge as the power of the government to shape its environment grow. The fact that the crisis of the 1970s had gone on for more than a decade before a clear resolution of it emerged is relevant to understanding our present crisis.
When ‘New Labour’ was elected to government in 1997, not a great deal changed. The name ‘New Labour’ signified an accommodation to the new marketised era, and to the priority to be given to ‘Middle Britain’ – those sections of the population who felt they had most to gain from a more individualised system, over the ‘working class by hand and by brain’ which Labour had wished to represent. New Labour continued the public service reforms begun by the Conservatives under Kenneth Clarke and Kenneth Baker. The system of ‘new public management’ involved a combination of centralised control over the ‘targets’ which public agencies were required to achieve, audit and inspection regimes which would monitor compliance, and ‘internal markets’ whereby providing agencies could be obliged to compete with one another and behave more like businesses. Both trade unions and the influence of the professions - e.g. teachers – were weakened in this system. Whereas the state under Thatcher had been deployed to attack and weaken the collectivist alternatives to the market ethos, the state in the later years of the Tories, and under New Labour, took on a more positive and pro-active function, though still mainly in the service of the market system. Support for the Americans’ military interventions in the Middle East, and for the ‘war on terror’more generally, were consistent with Thatcherite attitudes, though in the different climate of the post-Cold War period. The authoritarianism of New Labour in regard to civil liberties was in part an outcome of its militaristic foreign policy, and ensuing fears of terrorism. But it is true also that Labour made efforts to advance the interests of the poor, and to enable a larger proportion of the population to benefit from the opportunities of prosperity. Stuart Hall (2003) described ‘New Labour’s ‘double shuffle’, where a government committed to enforcing the interests of capital sought to justify its activities as being to the benefit of the working class it sought to represent.
The Crisis of the Present
Whereas the crisis of the 1970s was the outcome of conflict between social classes, the explosion of a negotiated, consensual social settlement, the crisis of the 2000s is instead the implosion of a social order which appeared to have no active internal enemies. This crisis is the outcome of the contradictions of a regime in which capital has ruled with few ideological opponents internally, or, following the collapse of Communism, externally.. In this respect the crisis is reminiscent of the crisis of the 1920s and 1930s, having been triggered in the same way by a speculative boom and crash. Although the working class may continue to exist ‘objectively’ – as those dependent wholly on their labour – it has become much diminished as a ‘subjective’ entity - it has become a class, in Marx’s terms, ‘in’ but not ‘for’ itself.
This system has failed through the instabilities of unregulated markets, the result of what happens when the powers of property and capital are not sufficiently constrained by relations of interdependency and reciprocity with other social forces, or by governments which represent their interests. Speculation in rising money-values became dissociated from the real production of assets. (The housing market in Britain and the USA is the prime example of this). Because the banks and other financial institutions are deemed vital to the functioning of the economy as a whole, it has not been thought possible to require this sector to bear the losses incurred by the collapse of credit - instead these losses are being imposed on the rest of the economy, through declining output and investment, falling incomes and employment, and through promised public spending cuts to ‘reduce the deficit’.
The inequalities brought about the market regime, especially when governments do nothing to redress them through taxation, have also been a source of instability. The sub-prime crisis in the housing market, in the USA and in Britain, is the result of insufficient incomes by poorer households to sustain the burden of mortgages. The banks lent money to these households regardless, hoping that rising asset values would diminish the burden of household debt. The implication of the crash is that unless effective demand (which means average income levels) are sustained across the whole society, the property market cannot be sustained. This is a crisis of under-consumption of the kind which Keynes wrote about in the 1930s.
Although advocates of the free market attack regulation and redistribution, the fact is that there are severe economic costs to inequality, as well as the social costs so well described by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. (2008). President Obama has now succeeded in addressing some of these problems in regard to health provision in the United States, where 15% of the population has lacked any form of health insurance. Although much of the health industry has resisted the reforms, the fact is that a more inclusive system offers benefits to them too, since it will bring a larger demand for health services.
Other dysfunctions of unregulated markets have also emerged, notably in the environmental crisis, brought about by carbon and other emissions and their effects in global warming. It is evident that the free market left to itself can do nothing to restrict this damage, if everyone is allowed to ‘externalise’ the costs of their activities, so that they do not themselves have to take account of them.
The current crisis of the Eurozone, in the near bankruptcy of Greece and perhaps of other peripheral states in the EU, is also a consequence of some of the same structural contradictions. A single European market and single European currency cannot function effectively without the presence of systems to ensure a measure of equality of economic capability across the zone. A currency whose high value is established by the economic competitiveness of Germany, cannot serve the interests of less competitive economies like those of Greece, Spain and Portugal, unless the latter are enabled to compete, or compensated by transfer payments for their inability to do so. Germany recognised this situation in regard to East Germany after reunification. It took on the burden of investment in East Germany’s ‘modernisation’ (in quite vindictive ways so far as the previous regime was concerned) and required the rest of Europe to share this. If Germany and other states do not recognise that a comparable commitment to a measure of equality is required to make the Eurozone function effectively, the Eurozone and perhaps the larger European Union will fail. Merely demanding more budgetary discipline for Eurozone members, in return for bailout loans, is not going to meet this purpose. Without such assistance, as George Irvin has recently pointed out in The Guardian, it will come to be in the interests of economies like that of Greece to default on their debts, and return to the periodic devaluation of their own restored national currencies to maintain their competitiveness. One again, more egalitarian policies, which seemed threatening to capital in the 1970s, have become necessary to its stability in the 2010s.
Another problem to which the globalised market system is giving rise is the challenge to the supremacy of the ‘first world’ economies of North America, Europe and Japan , by the newly industrialising economies of China, India, Brazil and others. The instability of this situation is reflected in the remarkable fact of China sustaining US consumption by lending the USA part of its large export surplus, so that the US has in effect been living on Chinese credit.
The crisis of this neo-liberal order has of course had its political consequences. It seems certain that the Republicans in the United States were defeated in 2008 only because of the collapse of the financial system. (After all, McCain and Palin gained 47% of the popular vote even in those dire conditions). Similarly the Brown government in Britain suffered a huge initial blow when the credit crunch came, and seemed likely to be decimated in the anticipated elections.
The ‘discrediting of the political classes’ which has followed the Parliamentary expenses crisis reflects a much deeper disillusion with the capacities of the governing system. Indeed the attacks on MPs’ delinquency regarding expenses is probably in part a (possibly deliberate) displacement of popular resentment against from the new rich of the financial sector, with their shameless appetite for huge salaries and bonuses, on to MPs and public servants. Somehow it has seemed legitimate only to criticise greed when it occurs in the public sector (also in regard to BBC and other public agency salaries), as if the private sector need have no accountability for how it allocates resources.
The outcome of the election, in a ‘hung parliament’ which a majority of the voters said they actually wanted, reflects the uncertainties of the conjuncture brought about by the implosion of the neo-liberal regime. In situations like this, when one stable order as broken down, but a new resolution of forces has not yet been achieved, prediction is difficult. Gramsci pointed out that the ruling class, in such crises, tried its hardest to hold on to its power, making the minimum necessary adjustments to do so. In the resistance of the banks to regulation, and in the obdurate opposition by the right in the USA to any reforms whatever, we can see this process in action.
How will the present crisis be resolved?
I have argued that this is a crisis of under-regulated capitalism, the consequence not of subordinate class assertiveness and the tensions arising from it, as in the 1970s, but of the unconstrained power of property and capital. In another idiom, this is a crisis of market failure , not of non-market failure.
The solutions to this crisis which are called for therefore require a strengthening of the power and effectiveness of governments in regulating the financial system, and ensuring that it operates for the benefit of the entire economy, not as a gambling industry which is mainly parasitic on it. It must be very tempting for all governments, faced with large deficits, and aware of the huge flows of liquid funds across the globe, to find ways of taxing those flows to replenish their own coffers, through a ‘Tobin tax’ or similar measure, and to reassert a measure of control.
It follows also that greater regard again has to be paid to levels of inequality, both within nations and between them. This is not only for reasons of political legitimacy – governments are discredited by the spectacle of mega-bonuses being paid to bankers while citizens are impoverished, made unemployed, and have their homes repossessed – but also to maintain economic growth and stability through supporting demand in housing and other markets.
Internationally, there is much to be rearranged in the economic relations between the newly industrialising and ‘first world’ economies, to ensure an adjustment of their relative economic powers which will not produce another crisis of confidence in currencies for example, and an ensuing collapse. It is clear that the economic arrangements of the European Union are also now unsustainable without substantial reform, and a stronger role for intergovernmental institutions and transfers.
Climate change is another issue whose seriousness is now widely recognised (compared with even ten years ago) and for which some international as well as national remedies are urgently required.
The solution to all of these dimensions of the crisis of the neo-liberal order require a more active role for governments, and for intergovernmental action. Gordon Brown was correct in asserting, both directly and by implication of all he has been saying in the General Election campaign, that this is not an era for less active government, as Cameron seemed to be arguing, but for more.
The political parties in Britain have in fact been completely disoriented by the crisis. Each has sought to respond on the hop to the new situation. The government introduced the 50% tax on higher incomes, the bank bonus tax, the bank bailout and take-overs, and a new priority for manufacturing investment - all departures from their previous approach. Because of the problems of governmental legitimacy brought about the financial crisis, both the Lib Dems and the Tories have sought to respond to public feelings about inequality. The Lib Dems have proposed the removal of tax obligations from those earning less than £10,000 per annum, though middle income earners would benefit more than the poor from this. The Tories’ proposal to reverse Labour’s National Insurance increase seemed to undercut Labour’s tax policy from the left. Both Lib Dems and Tories felt free to attack the bankers more forcefully than the government, though no doubt this was largely because they were not at the time having to work with the City and the bond markets as the government.
But the main point is the evident disarray, as all the parties scramble to adapt to the new situation. My argument is that in the next period, a new consensus is likely to emerge in which the enhanced role of governments in all of the above dimensions will be acknowledged, by whoever is in power. Plainly some parties will find this adjustment more comfortable than others.
It must also be acknowledged that reactionary adaptations to crises do also take place, especially where a dominant order feels itself seriously threatened. It is this reaction from those who feel under threat which explains the rise of the nationalist and xenophobic far right in Europe, and of the Tea Party movement in the United States. (Members of the latter are horrified by the emergence of Afro-American and Latino Americans to positions which challenge the hegemony of ‘white America, as well as by the reassertion of the active role of government.) Reactions to the situation of this kind will also be found in the British Conservative Party, as well as in UKIP and the BNP.
Constitutional arrangements in Britain now also reflect this confused state. As two-party hegemony has weakened (the proportion of votes won for the two main parties steadily falling), the system which sanctioned their roles as Government and Opposition has also lost credibility. The ritualised contest of Government and Opposition (e.g in Prime Ministers’ Questions) has seemed to exclude rather than reflect public opinion, and to diminish rational debate. The subordination of Parliament to an authoritarian executive has reduced the effective diversity of voices which can be heard within the governmental system. Devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, though a democratic advance, has created anomalies for the governance of England. A better-informed and privately more freedom-loving citizenry is faced by a government committed to ever-increasing control.
It seems to follow that some changes in the constitutional arrangements to allow more plural forms of representation, and more deliberative forms of debate and decision-making, would help in the resolution of the crisis, and in the establishment of a newly stabilised order. This, it seems, is what the electorate have been asking for in their expressed (and enacted) preference for a ‘hung’, or as Alex Salmond puts it, a balanced Parliament.
After 1951 the Conservatives largely maintained the welfare settlement of the post-War Labour government, though steadily enhancing the role of markets within it. Similarly, New Labour maintained a large measure of continuity with the Thatcher governments, while slowly inflecting government in a different direction. The reason for this is that governments are as much shaped by their economic and social environment, as shape them. It may be important to recognise from this point of view that Cameron represents an intended adjustment of the Conservatives to post-Thatcher times, and is not merely to be seen as the new media-friendly face of the old Thatcherite regime.
The outcome of the General Election
At the time of writing (May 10) the shape of the government to be formed after the election is not yet known.
However, it seems that the Liberal Democrats have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve the reform of the electoral system on which their persisting influence on British politics depends. Having lost seats even in this election, despite Nick Clegg’s extraordinary success in the TV debates, who can imagine that after this disappoint voters will support them in larger numbers in the next election, if the first past-the-post system remains? It does seem that voters have been canny in ensuring that their votes are made effective.
So it seems to the advantage of the Lib Dems to find some accord with Labour and other minority parties, above all to ensure that a vote on electoral reform is put to the people before the next General Election. How can they do this without losing in popularity through supporting a Labour government with a minority of seats vis-a-vis the Conservatives, what they might gain from electoral reform? Indeed there is a risk that if a coalition with Labour is too unpopular, they might lose the referendum on electoral reform.
The solution to this problem seems to lie in making a very specific and fixed-term arrangement with Labour and the minority parties. Its purposes would be two - constitutional reform, especially but not only electoral reform (the changes in Parliamentary procedures negotiated at the end of the last Parliament by Tony Wright should be made without delay), and getting through the immediate economic crisis, until resumed growth is achieved. It seems to me that Gordon Brown would everyone a service by acknowledging that the implication of the election result is that he cannot continue as a legitimate Prime Minister for much more than a year or so. It might well be wise to promise not only the election of a new Labour leader, but also a dissolution of Parliament, by May 2011 or 2012.
Such an outcome might offer some implicit concession to David Cameron too, in that it would enable him to say that he has contributed to removing the Prime Minister, albeit not immediately as he had hoped. It would give him the opportunity fight another election again quite soon, and thereby make it more difficult for more right wing forces in the Tory party to unseat him.
If one holds the view that what is now called for is an adjustment of all parties to a new economic order, which needs to be more consensual, egalitarian and democratic than its Thatcherite and New Labour predecessor, then avoiding the regression of the Conservatives back to their old positions may be important. The capture of the Republican Party by the right in the United States does not benefit the progressive cause, even if it may provide the Democrats with some tactical opportunities.
It follows from commitment to an election within two years or so, under new rules, that a Lib Dem – Conservative coalition could be the outcome of it. Such a risk can in any case not be avoided, when Labour lacks a majority in Parliament by a considerable margin. But this might also be less than a disaster, since under more democratic electoral arrangements it would be more likely that a consensual adjustment to the imperatives of the new order would continue to be made.
I believe therefore that there are reasons being cautiously optimistic, since the unregulated market has demonstrated itself to be so unsustainable in its operation. To use Raymond Williams’s term in Towards 2000, we see find ‘resources for hope’, in an analysis of why a move towards more democratic and egalitarian arrangements might now be recognised to be to the benefit of the great majority of people.
Brittan, S. (2010) ‘A credo for a revived capitalism’,. Financial Times May 6. Can be retrieved at www.samuelbrittan.co.uk
Hall,. S.(2003) ‘New Labour’s Double Shuffle’. Soundings 24. Autumn. http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/articles/nov03.html
Hall. S., Critcher C., Jefferson T., Clarke, J. and Roberts B. (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. Macmillan.
Irvin, G. , (2010) Greece still has a choice. Guardian Comments is Free, 2nd May 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/02/greece-default-debt-choice
Irvin, G. et al, (2010) ‘In Place of Tax Cuts: Tax reform to build a fairer society.’ Published by Compass. http://www.compassonline.org.uk/publications/
Rustin, M.J. (2009) ‘Reflections on the Present’. Soundings 43, Winter.
Wilkinson,R., and Pickett, K. (2008) The Spirit Level.
Note on Author
Michael Rustin is Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, and a Visiting Professor at the Tavistock Clinic. His books include For a Pluralist Socialism (1985) The Good Society and the Inner World (1991) Reason and Unreason (2001) and, with Margaret Rustin, Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children’s Fiction, (1987/2003) and Mirror to Nature: Drama, Psychoanalysis and Society (2002). He is a founding editor of Soundings: a journal of politics and culture.