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.’