Selina Todd (2015) The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class.

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I liked this book, it’s about us, the working class often portrayed standing outside history books adding a bit of colour to the stories of kings and governors, quietly happy to die for their country, or the working class portrayed as a Lemuel Gulliver lying down in the long grass and falling asleep and being tied down by Lilliputians who make theatrical speeches he doesn’t understand but he does what the little men, the 1% of the population want him to do, anyway. That’s not the case. If the working class were Gulliver he’s prone to poke himself in the eye. Tie down one foot and chop off a leg and dance the hornpipe. As Selina Todd makes clear the working class are not a uniform body. What they have in common, what we have in common is our relationship to the means of production. The working man needs to work to survive. Elite groups do not. Class is about who is holding the stick, how big is it and how hard are they going to hit us?

If you look at relationships this way things become a lot clearer. Take Teresa May, for example, a sluggish economy, just over 1% growth, because of the managed industrial decline of industry in the last fifty years we have non-jobs and the highest personal-debt ratio in Europe, common people are struggling,   Britain is dependent on selling its goods and services to the largest trading block in the world and if the EEC doesn’t want them, well, what stick is she going to hit them with? We import more than we export. We are a debtor nation.  Withdrawal, the longest suicide note in history springs to mind.

In the Afterword, Selina Todd quotes John Maynard Keynes, on the 2008 crisis applies equally here. Capitalism relies on ‘the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.’

She could equally well have quoted Owen the narrator of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist from almost 100 years ago:

The question is, what is the cause of the lifelong poverty of those who are not drunkards and who DO work? Why, if all the drunkards and wont-works and unskilled or inefficient workers who could be by some miracle transformed into sober, industrious and skilled workers tomorrow, it would, under the present conditions, be so much worse for us, because there isn’t enough work NOW, and those people by increasing the competition for what work there is, would inevitably cause a reduction in wages and greater scarcity of employment. The theories that drunkenness, laziness or inefficiency are the causes of poverty are so many devices invented and fostered by those who are selflessly interested in maintaining the present state of affairs, for the purposes of discovering the real causes of our present condition.

Todd charts the high points of the People, the working class after the Second World War up to around 1970 and the advent of neoliberal policies designed ostensibly to revive the economy but took money from the poor and gave it to the rich. Trickle-down-economics and the ideology or Thatcherism, everyman for themselves finds expression in quixotic Think tanks like The Centre for Social Justice which is the kind of sham that had Boris Johnson standing beside a bus and promising to spend £150 million a week on the NHS when we left the European Union. The sham of The Taxpayers Alliance, which demands value for money, which sounds laudable, but they don’t mean their money, they mean poor people’s money. The working class won the Second World War, but lost the ideological war and are now paying for that failure, but which is marketed as a success. We know, of course, right-wing neoliberals with double-barrel names don’t read books like this, but they do write government policy.

Here are some common myths Todd deals with.

Myth 1: The economic crisis was caused the welfare state.

What history reminds us is that targeting welfare at the poorest is not the answer. Instead we need wealth to be redistributed more equally.

Myth 2: We can only solve the economic crisis by all working very hard.

‘Hard work has never solved poverty. If it did, then no one would have been poor during the three decades after 1945, when work was more plentiful than before or since.’

‘Rather than dividing people between those who are and aren’t members of “hardworking families” we should ask why anyone should have to work at all.’

What Todd is saying here isn’t that much different from those on the far right, charting the rise of the robots and the mass unemployment which will ensure in the next ten years and whose talk once more turns to citizens being allocated an allowance.

Myth 3: Working-class people’s opportunities are blocked by women and immigrants.

‘By focusing on migrants, we move our gaze from the real culprits: employees and politicians, who turn migrant workers into cheap and exploitable wage slaves.’

‘If migrants are wrongly blamed for the economic crisis, so too are women…Far from “choosing” to go out and earn [pin] money rather than have babies, many women go out to work to support children, unemployed husbands or partners, and parents who, in old age, face poverty. In 1996, 67% of mothers with dependent children went out to work, by 2013, 72% of them were doing so.’

Myth 4: Social mobility, promoted by selective and private education, can solve inequlity.

‘It’s ironic that a political consensus exists that post-war Britain was a meritocratic society, given how clearly erroneous that claim is.’

‘A society as technologically advanced as ours, as rich in natural resources and wealth, could and should be committed to providing all children with the best possible start in life, not just a handpicked few.’

‘Since 2010 spending of education has fallen at the fastest rate since the 1950s.’

Myth 5: People’s greed and selfishness prevent us from creating a different sort of society.

‘What we have to do now is to start working out the first steps towards revealing an alternative way to live better than neoliberalism…class testifies to inequality and inequality has not worked or any of us.’

‘economic growth does not improve quality of life, but economic redistribution can and will. Britain was healthier and happier place in the post-war years because there was some re-distribution.’

We need to trust ourselves to find a more democratic and transparent way of creating an equal society.

We can do this because we’ve done it before.

We need to question why work is at the centre of our lives. There is no reason why so many of us should have to spend most of our lives working in jobs that achieve little or nothing…no reason why we should not be able to undertake meaningful work, organized for the benefit of society and not the 1 percent who live off profit.

Class, as a relationship of unequal power, shapes British society.’

The important thing is to recognise the shared experiences and build on it, not quibble over semantics.

If the past teaches us anything it is this: if the people want a better future, we can, and must, create it, ourselves.’

 

 

 

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Richard Holloway (2004) Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning.

looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic.  This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.

The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.

Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.

Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:

All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.

Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and  saying,  no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.

Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’for thy glory.

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou has left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace,

A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,

To a’ this place.’

Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion:

Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:

Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’

To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?

Thomas Piketty Capital  quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are  quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.

Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right,  and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.

Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.

‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’

Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?

 

William McIlvanney (2016 [1975]) Docherty

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I think this was the first William McIlvanney novel I read. It won the Whitbread Award for Fiction. When McIlvanney was writing the book there were still such a thing as a coalminer. There’s probably a picture of one in the Daily Mail hate archives, the equivalent of a Lascaux cave drawing to remind them what these men that held the country to ransom, the aristocracy of the working-class, trade-union movement, looked like. Coal powered the industrial revolution, but the men who dug it out saw little of the rewards. Such was its value coal miners were exempt from conscription in the First and Second World Wars. In the latter war 1939-45,  men could be conscripted not only to the army, navy, or air force, but also to the coal face and coal mines near the industrial heartlands. Bevan’s boys kept the machinery of war and killing going   It must have been around the 1980s when I read the book. And according to the right-wing hate mail propaganda machine, Arthur Scargill, and the coal miners were again holding the country to ransom. The strike of 1984-85 was notable for the coal miners out on the streets collecting donations and food – we had food banks even then. Scargill, of course, suggested that Thatcher and her cronies, including Ian MacGregor, had stockpiled coal and oil and set out to break the unions and to do away with the coal-mining industry. History proved Scargill right. It doesn’t take Agatha Christie to tell us there were 84 000 coal miners then there was none. Policing operations were particularly inventive. The cover up at Hillsborough part of that sad tradition. Hi, you might be shouting, what happened to the book you’re meant to be reviewing?

Well, it’s quite a simple book, a love story of the working class. It’s quite a difficult job to make a superhero out of an ordinary working man, Tam Docherty, who died, how he lived, a working class hero, laying down his life for another. There is another argument that the real hero of the book is Jenny, his wife, who gave him three boy and a girl, but who, with little money and loaves and soup pots works miracles that Jesus would be jealous of. He only fed the 5000, Jenny has to do it every day for over 25 years. You’d need to look at Maheau’s wife in Emile Zola’s classic story Germinal to show how one wage is never enough and each child is sacrificed to the pits, for an adequate comparison of how little miners made and how far it had to stretch. Or Jenny’s daughter, Kathleen, who marries Jack, who beats her and spends his wages on booze. Realism begins with reality and not fake news.

Mick, Docherty’s oldest son, loses the sight in one eye and one arm in the trenches in the First World War and he accepts he’s one of the lucky ones. He made it back. But his search for  meaning has contemporary resonance and one of the books he reads to make sense of the post-war world is The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. What he says to his wee brother, Conn, after his fight with his other brother Angus, is relevant today as it was then. Angus has broken with his father and his family. He’s got a girl pregnant and refuses to marry her. He marries someone else, Annie, and fathers another child. But Angus represents everything his father detests. Individualism, an atomised life, and every man for themselves. Tory dogma. Angus’s brute strength, he deludes himself into believing, will safeguard the future of his family. The older brother’s bitter experience, when the sky might be up and it might be crashing down, has taught him better.

‘Whit’s happenin’?’

‘Whit’s happenin’? is that folks don’t ken whit’s happenin’. They just want wages an’ they canny accept that they’ll hiv tae tak mair. Tae get whit ye want, ye’ve goat to settle fur mair, that’s a’.’

His father understood that better than anyone, he lived it. A community is not a collection of individuals looking after number one.

‘He was only five-foot four. But when yer hert goes from yer heid tae yer toes, that’s a lot of hert.’

The William McIlvanney’s and Docherty’s of this world would have their work cut out making sense of Tory councillors elected in Ferguslie and a moron’s moron elected as President of the United States. It makes a pleasant change to read about a working-class hero without the tag, Benefits, being added. Coal miners, aye, I remember them well and I understand what they stood for, what they stand for.

‘Nae shite from naebody.’