Monday, 1 September 2008

Revisiting the 'New Times'

The commentators grouped around the influential Communist Party journal, Marxism Today, produced a body of innovative work trying to make sense of the political consequences of the Tories' neoliberal offensives of the 1980s. They concluded we were living in 'New Times', which required a rethinking of leftist politics and abandoning 'outmoded' templates of the past. If we were living in New Times, then what were the 'old times'? And is there anything in their political prescriptions we can find useful 20 years on?

In the 1989 New Times collection of edited Marxism Today articles, Robin Murray argued the wealth of the post-war ‘Fordist’ (i.e. old times) era rested in part on a production paradigm that was pioneered by Henry Ford’s principles of mass production. Murray argues the four key principles of Fordism were the standardisation of products, their components, and the assembly tasks required; a standardising of tasks that enabled them to be performed by machines; remaining tasks broken down and subject to labour process study; and production was dominated by the pace of the assembly line. This could typically be found in large scale workplaces, often employing thousands of workers and constituted the basic characteristic of the division of labour under post-war, Keynesian capitalism.

In their 1987 book, The End of Organised Capitalism, John Urry and Scott Lash, and Urry's contribution to this collection, the ‘organised capitalism’ of Keynesian demand management/state intervention became increasingly disorganised. The globalisation of capital, communications technologies, risk, and social relationships eroded the political and economic nationalism Keynesianism implicitly rested on. Shifts away from large production units to smaller, more specialised production have occurred in conjunction with its ‘internationalisation’: the infrastructure of multinational corporations (whether their production is outsourced/sub-contracted to third parties or not) tend to be scattered across several or more countries. For example Murray demonstrated in his contribution that the clothing firm Benetton were paradigmatic of the new ‘post-Fordism’. Of its (then) 11,500 strong workforce, only 1,500 workers were employed by Benetton directly, the rest were composed of those who produced clothes through sub-contractors. The role of the firm itself was to provide designs, stock control, and direct production from the figures provided by the point-of-sale computer systems installed in its franchised outlets. This has accelerated to such an extent that sportswear firms such as Nike, Reebok, and Adidas primarily concentrate on branding, image, and marketing, while their productive architectures have been almost completely divested and sub-contracted.

Processes such as these foregrounded an ideological articulation that married employers and capital with modernisation, flexible dynamism, and a fetish for ‘the new’. Workers and the labour movement were associated with the old, the inefficient, and the immobile. The final ideological ingredient was a strengthened emphasis on consumption as a site for individuated personal fulfilment and identity construction. As two chief thinkers of the New Times put it
... the world has changed, not just incrementally but qualitatively, that Britain and other advanced capitalist societies are increasingly characterised by diversity, differentiation, and fragmentation, rather than homogeneity, standardisation and the economics and organisations of scale which characterised modern mass society (Hall and Jacques 1989, p.11).
While they are keen to stress that post-Fordist practices have impacted unevenly economically and culturally and that Fordist organisation and attitudes persist in places, it is the former that is now in the socio-economic driving seat.

A key concern for New Times theorists have been the extent to which these processes are bound up with Thatcherism. Is post-Fordism is a product of neo-liberal economics? Or was Thatcherism a (ruling class) response to pre-existing post-Fordist processes? New Times thinking tends to suggest the latter is the case, allowing Stuart Hall to argue in his 1988 book, The Hard Road to Renewal, that the left should not view post-Fordism with uniform hostility. For Hall the Conservatives' programme attached itself to post-Fordist processes and attempted to steer them (largely successfully) in a neoliberal direction, culminating in a ‘regressive modernisation’. Hence while it “speaks the language of choice, freedom and autonomy, Thatcherite society [was] increasingly characterised by inequality, division, and authoritarianism” (Hall and Jacques 1989, p.17). If post-Fordism was no more the conscious creationg of capital than post-war Fordism, it suggests political opportunities for the left are not foreclosed and new avenues for progressive struggles could opened.

One of the key issues regarding class for New Times theorists was how post-Fordism could turn a previously unified working class against one another. Returning to Murray’s Benetton example, under post-Fordist conditions it is reasonable to expect that employment is better paid and more secure for those workers employed by the firm directly, than those who work for sub-contractors, setting up a division between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ workers. Goran Therborn paints a bleaker picture. Following Marx’s view that unemployment is inherent to capitalism, he argues the ‘flexible-specialisation’ of post-Fordist economies depend upon a large reserve of unemployed workers necessary for keeping labour markets sufficiently fluid for capital's needs. This means a section of the working class is permanently marginalised, as opposed to the remaining ‘two-thirds’ of secure workers, managers, and capitalists who (despite competition and contradictions between themselves) retain a stake in post-Fordist capitalism.

New Times commentators may broadly agree about the dissolution of the post-war compromise, but there was less unity on the direction working class politics should take. Murray for example suggested that trade unions should respond by taking up quality of life issues into the workplace. Union militants should be tackling management’s definition and setting of ‘flexible time’, and fight to subordinate the demands of the workplace to life outside of work. Hall thought the hegemonic stress on individual identity and new media technologies could open new areas to political contestation, suggesting so-called identity politics be taken seriously. For example, Dick Hebdige argued for a sensitivity toward new identities constructed on the basis of shared commonalities that cross the old class boundaries – such as youth music subcultures. In contrast others argued the New Times demanded a political response that went beyond class. Urry argued post-Fordism produces a politics inflected by a heterogeneous experience of class, which is further mediated by the existence and influence of new social movements, an influence with disaggregating effects that made mobilisations for collective action around shared demands that much harder. Charles Leadbeater contribution argued for a values-oriented response to the right’s rhetoric of freedom and responsibility. Instead of addressing demands toward the state and local government, the left should be seeking ways for which individuals can take on these responsibilities. This strategy could have far reaching democratising effects by providing an empowering self-help model of individualism contra the bureaucratism of state-led welfare provision and the conservative reduction of individualism to consumerism. It would expand “the sphere of individual responsibility, but in tandem renewing a culture of social responsibility and collective provision” (p.138).

In the end the majority of political conclusions lead many New Times figures abandoning class politics altogether, some ending up in the enemy camp. Most disappeared into academia. Charles Leadbeater ended up as an advisor to Tony Blair. The old CPGB wound itself up and went through several phases of liquidation, finally merging with Charter 88 to become the liberal pressure group Unlock Democracy. Hardly surprising considering most of their political responses to post-Fordism moved away from any sort of collective politics to individual solutions. But this doesn't necessarily mean their diagnosis was incorrect. In a climate where we're courted on the high street and hammered in the workplace, if anything the characteristics of post-Fordist capitalism have deepened. As Lindsey German put it in her 1996 SWP pamphlet, A Question of Class, "far from the working class being dead or dying, the actual situation of the mass of working people is that they are forced to sell their labour power for a wage that covers their subsistence but little else" (p.49). Only by relating our politics to the working class can we begin to see beyond the capitalist old times.


Brother S said...

An interesting post,Phil. Alex Callinicos argued in 'Against Postmodernism' that the extent of Fordism was greatly exaggerated.He subsequently questioned the concept of 'Post-Fordism'. An interesting book. The stuff on art and architecture went over my head, but the last chapter was a corker. On the rise of the service industries, he pointed out that more people were employed in the service industry at the start of the last century than today; as domestics. He also challenged the concept of the 'post-industrial society'as industry has been simply relocated to the Third World. I am inclined to agree with him. Book my place in the Gulag!

Phil BC said...

Against Postmodernism is a great book. Which reminds me, Brother T has left me something by him for you ...

Anyway, I found myself nodding in agreement with Callinicos on that chapter too. In an earlier SWP book, which I think was called the Changing Working Class or something, he and his co-writers that the restructuring of British capitalism meant the working class was undergoing recomposition, with the numbers in manufacturing declining and millions thrown on to the dole. The jobs that came to replace them were low waged, low skilled and non-unionised.

Fordist/post-Fordist theorists are certainly guilty of overegging the pudding. Manufacturing never employed an absolute majority of our class, and the working class was never 'unified' in the sense these thinkers portray. And yes, from a global point of view, the working class has not disappeared in the last 30 years. In fact, it has grown to become the most numerous class on the planet.

That said, how socialists come to grips with the changed composition of our class in this country is our chief task. So no, you won't be off to the gulag until we've got a few decades of good work out of you ;)

Derek Wall said...

important post go on stick it on SU as well!

Never went for this stuff myself a sad trajectory....incidentally Morning Star is going open source soon with some free content on the web, while some of their stuff I disagree with...they have got the pluralism which was one good thing from what Marxism today was trying to do...for example they give space to diverse left voices (including me and Lindsey German!)
they also have the class struggle politics.

Phil BC said...

The Morning Star is certainly a better paper than it used to be. I hope it continues to move in a more pluralist direction too and, crucially, is able to pick up more readers outside the left/trade union ghetto.

I've ummed and arred so I'll follow your recommendation re: SU. If I become a brickbat magnet I know who to blame!

Anonymous said...

Without wishing to open old and tired debates, I thought it might be interesting to record that your summary doesn't seem inherently opposed to the retrospective summary provided by Martin Jacques on the Ameil and Melbourn Trust site;

"Finally, there was the debate on ‘New Times’, which was inaugurated with the special issue of that name in October 1988. It was, in a multitude of respects, a tour de force. It sought to understand the profound changes in society, culture and the economy, to which neo-liberalism was a response and to which it sought to lay claim. Post-fordism, globalisation, the state, the changing nature of the culture, post-modernism – this being the era of ‘post-’ this, that and everything – and much else besides were put under the analytical searchlight. It was Marxism Today’s boldest project of all and attracted enormous publicity.

In an important sense, though, unlike the Forward March of Labour Halted and Thatcherism, it was to remain uncompleted, the beginning of something rather than the end: moreover, the MT proposition was to be contested in a most fundamental way, as the rise of Blair and New Labour was subsequently to illustrate. It has not infrequently been suggested that Marxism Today begat Blair. This contains an element of truth in that, like Blair but more than a decade before him, Marxism Today recognised the obsolescence of much of the left’s proposition.
But in another sense, it is completely wrong: while, Marxism Today’s project was the creation of a new kind of left – and left proposition – for an utterly transformed world, Blair’s project was the opposite, namely acquiescence in the Thatcherite agenda and a denial of the very notion of the left.

Of course, Marxism Today had its weaknesses. With hindsight, I would mention two things. Firstly, its failure to lay sufficient stress on core values of the left like equity and the notion of the public: perhaps if we had done such, then some of the worst excesses of New Labour might have been more effectively resisted. But closest to my heart is the weakness of Marxism Today on the world outside the west: it was overwhelmingly western-centric. And, not unrelated, was its failure to address race and ethnicity, without which it is not possible to understand the world in which we live."