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A pretence of progress

United Kingdom

The welfare state – in Britain and all the Western world – was after 1945 an incarnation of the politics of repentance for an ideology that had reduced a continent to ruin. Racism, for centuries the animating principle of European empires, had been returned in the mid-20th century to the continent that had been pleased to call itself the cradle, not simply of one civilization, but of Civilization itself. After the time of bones and ashes, Europe needed to cleanse itself of the taint of racism, and present itself as the supreme model of humanitarian values.

Never Again: the welfare state was a pledge that the malignant fantasy that had laid waste much of Europe would be vanquished for ever; wild flowers would burst through the concrete sites of grief and desolation that scarred the continent. The living would no longer be left to make their own individual accommodation with the forces of wealth and power; they would be sheltered by universal welfare, available at the point of need, for which no justification would be required.

On the welfare state the whole structure of post-War society depended. Since economic breakdown had caused ruin in Germany, it was in the economic arena that redemption was sought; economic miracles duly appeared. Of all institutions for human salvation, it might have been thought the economic was the least promising. But there it was: ‘the economy’, euphemism for capitalism, became the arena where rehabilitation from European barbarism would occur.

First came the security of the people: defence against the economic cycle – unemployment, poverty wages and debt – and against the vicissitudes of life – sickness, ageing and loss. The 1948 National Assistance Act began: ‘The Poor Law shall cease to exist…’ – words that lifted from millions the shadow of the workhouse, humiliation, fear of destitution. It was indeed a liberation; and if sensitive ears detected a grumble of discontent that the working classes would have all their teeth pulled for the sake of free dentures, these were noises-off in the restrained jubilation of the age of true austerity.

Tolerance and greater diversity offered new experiences to a dour, monochrome, patriarchal Britain; social liberation was in the air

On this foundation the ‘affluent society’, in the words of J K Galbraith, was constructed. This brought within reach of a majority a modest prosperity and small items of undreamed-of luxury. That such a benign development might take on a life of its own and become florid consumerism did not disturb the comfort of people newly enfranchised by more than mere electoral freedoms. The marriage of welfare with prosperity appeared a permanent settlement between capital and labour. That settlements in human affairs are rarely permanent occurred to few in the euphoria of the time. Tolerance and greater diversity offered new experiences to a dour, monochrome, patriarchal Britain; social liberation was in the air.

Spreading inequality

Continuously rising income seemed, for a season, unstoppable. The 1960s marked the zenith of optimism. The great carnival of youth, the mobility, leisure and entertainment industries were accompanied by increased public expenditure on higher education, public administration, slum clearance and social work; partly to assist the laggards of progress to join a mainstream which foresaw a future of perpetual economic growth. A more socially liberal regime decriminalized homosexuality and attempted suicide, eased divorce laws, facilitated contraception and abolished capital punishment.

There were setbacks in this march of progress. In the 1970s, the rise in oil prices and assertiveness of organized labour, which culminated in the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-79, called into question a settlement which those who disputed it believed could be undone by a good dose of unemployment or another war. With the coming of Margaret Thatcher, they got both. Her devotion to dissolving the more equal partnership between workers and employers led not only to an attack upon the trade unions but also to the demolition of the very industrial base out of which their strength had grown. Defeat of the miners in 1984 gave any ‘settlement’ its quietus. The Labour Party seemed a dwindling force, as its ghost-army of workers, redundant or retired, melted away.

But Labour, resilient and tenacious, re-invented itself. New Labour renewed – in an altered context in which even the memory of the industrial revolution had been effaced – the compact between wealth and welfare. By this time that project was between unequal partners. New Labour invested in health and education, but was extremely permissive about private wealth, which soared and demonstrated a formidable capacity to breed. Welfare was now avowedly dependent upon a wealth-creationism that had more than a whiff of mysticism. But the society which resulted from this patched-up alliance led to greater diversity and deepening tolerance, supposed to be a defining quality of the British.

Racism, which had for centuries guided our imperial relationship with the world and ‘lesser peoples’, was outlawed. Further social reform lowered the age of consent and the rights of alternative sexualities were recognized. Women, whose lives had been spent in carceral domesticity for generations, now constituted half the workforce. People with disability, formerly dependent upon organizations like the Crutch and Kindness League, were no longer passive recipients of charity. All these groups were assisted by enhanced concern with ‘equalities’ – in the plural.

New Labour invested in health and education, but was extremely permissive about private wealth, which demonstrated a formidable capacity to breed

The problem was that ‘progressives’ overlooked the great psychic wound caused by eradication of the making of useful, necessary things in the industrial division of labour of Britain. To this was added an apparent indifference to inequality – in the singular – exacerbated by the freedom of the already rich to accumulate ever greater (and concealed) wealth.

Labour’s championing of the social cause of ethnic minorities, women, people with disability and the LGBT community ensured these groups were more equitably represented among the successful in society. But the majority remained victims of worsening economic inequality.

This inequality was not amenable to government intervention, the more so since globalism had not only set the people of one country in competition with one another, but had drawn the whole world into an increasingly specialized division of labour. The limited presence of a minority that rose, socially and economically, to join the ranks of people now pejoratively described as a ‘liberal elite’ had the effect, not of reducing inequality, but of spreading social injustice more fairly.

Rage of the ‘left-behind’

The more equitable distribution of unfairness is not a slogan to win elections or to emblazon on banners of progress. It is not a slogan at all. In fact, rigorous silence was maintained over this development. The modest success of some members of disadvantaged groups only concealed the obvious. But that obvious has now become clear to the newly awakened ‘working class’ of Britain, as of the US, a group hitherto assumed sufficiently drowsy with consumerism not to have noticed what was happening behind their backs. The ‘angry white men’, the ‘rage of the left-behind’ have joined with the discreet self-interest of the very rich in an attack upon a political ‘establishment’ and its love of ‘political correctness’ in furthering the careers of the previously deprived. For this was not simply a ‘rust-belt’ revolt, either in Brexit or the Trump ascendancy. The waning of the US working classes had been so complete that it had ceased to exist in the global media. It had miraculously become ‘middle-class’, a classification designed to make them realize how lucky they were. The principal beneficiaries of their enlistment in the politics of malignant nostalgia have been the very rich, who are happy to make common cause with their admirers, people whom they serve as fantasy role-models.

The ‘liberal elite’ have become hate-figures. But they, too, have served a less noble purpose than their defence of minorities would have us believe. Their stand against racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia and all the other demonology of a now waning orthodoxy has dominated political discourse for so long that these laudable, humane views are identified, not with advocates for the downtrodden, but with the ruling classes of the world; a role these liberal elitists (if that is what they are) were eager to accept. In other words, they formed a front line, behind which corrosive social inequities flourished.

So when people who have lost their function in the creative work of society observe conspicuous wealth in which they have no part, and rise up against those they see as agents of their dispossession, they turn upon the advocates of tolerance, social liberalism, humanity and kindness – ‘the people we are’, or were supposed to be – who shun bigotry, violence and hatred.

Behind the façade of liberal elitism stand, in shadowy concealment, the truly opulent, owners of fabulous fortunes, godlike beings whose allegiance is to no country, but to the jurisdiction or haven which protects their wealth from scrutiny. This accumulation of treasures is not visible as a malignant force to the dimming eye of the unprivileged, the socially downwardly mobile, former workers of the world. Quite the opposite: as labour was degraded, deference passed to those who manipulate fortunes, the possessing classes who parade their iconography of symbols of privilege in real estate, yachts, aircraft, jewels, gold and, above all, in money-power.

While the ‘liberal elite’ were performing their rites of progress, the true wielders of power were picking away at the social fabric, undoing the work of which progressives were so proud

While the ‘liberal elite’ or the ‘metropolitan bubble’ were performing their rites of progress, the true wielders of power were picking away at the social fabric, undoing the work of which progressives were so proud. The welfare state is being dismantled; the prosperity that depended on it eroded by years of declining real income; while ethnic minorities, women, lesbians and gays, and people with disability are openly disparaged by those whose supremacy permits them to ridicule any pretence of ‘progress’, which has proved more volatile than anyone had dreamed.

Instruments of disfranchisement

It seems, in this complex tragic-comedy, that everyone has had an opaque role, undisclosed to them. Passionate commitment to humanitarian ‘values’ has veiled the immodesty of those who were most advantaged by this late and subtle capitalist restoration. People have seen livelihoods abolished, communities ruined; have watched heroin, hopelessness and hate invade familiar small towns, suburbs and inner-cities, while welfare no longer provides security against destitution. But they see the instruments of their disfranchisement, not in global celebrities, CEOs of transnational corporations, or wizards of banking and finance, but in the now-despised liberals who officially presided over the era of globalism; for this spirited away, as if by sorcery, their culture and way of life, even as their skills were floated off to remote places of industrial exploitation, the names of which are only echoes of forgotten geography lessons.

The true owners of wealth and power have returned to claim their rightful property, evicting an impotently liberal tenant whose franchise is now at an end. These wreckers of the security of the people know that social peace and internal harmony have, for three generations, been guaranteed by the welfare state; they are also aware of what sombre consequences may follow the dismantling of this fragile, elegant edifice. For behind the tottering structures, designed by progressives to banish the spectre of racism from Europe, an old ideology is rising from its shallow grave, clad once more in the garb of springtime and renewal. Those who imagined themselves midwives of a better world see re-emerging the shape of an older, worse one, and regression to the nationalisms, xenophobia and intolerance of difference which the reforms of 1945 were to have laid to rest for ever. The earlier vow ‘Never Again’ resounds through the echo-chamber of time, heard anew, bitter and mocking, as ‘Semper Idem – always the same.’

Jeremy Seabrook’s latest book, The Song of the Shirt, (Hurst, London and Navayana, New Delhi) is out now. He is currently working on a book about orphans.

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