Friday 3 January 2014

Political Scandal and Indifference

Let's look at what you would've won. No more privatisations. No market fundamentalism. An extension of trade union rights. A thriving mining industry using the most advanced technology in the world. A joined up approach to finance and industry. A strong labour movement. Communities proud of their history. All under three successive Labour governments, dating from 1987 to 2001. It was a time that saw the 1945 settlement strengthened and deepened. Social democracy renewed was the common sense of the age, so much so that they wrote it into the European Union's constitution. Britain, by no means a perfect society, was nevertheless more at peace, more at ease. It had earned itself a respite from ugly industrial strife and the attempts to dismantle British industry by Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives.

There is no doubt about it. Not only was the Miners' Strike of 1984-5 the seminal moment of the post-war period, it was also the pivot on which Britain's subsequent history hinged. The miners knew it. Those sections of the labour movement who rendered their unfailing support knew it. And the millions of ordinary working folk from all walks of life who attended a picket, went on a march, gave generously to hardship funds and donated food outside of supermarkets realised it as well. And so did Thatcher's government.

The cabinet papers released today under the 30-year rule was like having all your suppositions confirmed. So, Thatcher lied about her intentions after all. The government wanted to shut 75 pits with the loss of 64,000 jobs. Not the 20 they publicly stated. Chief Constables were "encouraged" by Thatcher to police the strike "robustly" at a time she was pretending the police merely kept the piece on the pickets. And for what the government termed an industrial dispute to which it was not party, why then was Thatcher fretting about coal stockpiles and mooted the possibility of calling in the army? Former miners and their supporters will get some grim satisfaction that now Official Britain's record of the strike is the same as their own. Well, not quite. The influence of the secret state, which was painstakingly investigated by Seumas Milne is yet to be officially acknowledged.

With our suspicions confirmed, there is something I find disturbing about the revelations. You might have noticed it with Edward Snowden's unmasking of the National Security Agency's Prism project too. Neither have really struck a chord with people at large. In both cases, the UK and US governments have got caught lying about state activity. The first to pursue class war against working people's livelihoods, communities and culture. The second to forestall any democratic upwellings from below, while using terrorism and Islamist extremism as its meat shield. In both cases the liberty and freedoms they officially hold dear are so much mouldy old rope. Yet really, who cares? A few grizzled trade unionists, Tory-haters and lefties for the former. Graun readers and the liberal Anglo-American commentariat for the latter. Well, it was a bit of a diplomatic headache for Obama's fluffy-phrased, drone-wielding administration. Unfortunately, to all intents and purposes they were bubble issues.

Why should this be the case? I can imagine frustrated folk asking why people don't "wake up", even when the facts are slapped across their TV screens. There are two reasons. The first is the question of social distance. For instance, I care about the miners' strike because of my politics. My actual experience of it was as a little kid hearing about it on the news and getting mentions on Spitting Image. But for most people around my age, it's history and one that doesn't matter. The legacy of the strike does echo down the decades, but it's intangible and abstract. Its defeat enabled capital to run riot and make our lives more insecure, but thinking about it this way is entirely rarefied. Most people are concerned with getting on, earning a crust and raising a family. If modern history doesn't matter, what the NSA is doing harvesting immense numbers of phone calls and web visits matters much less. Sure, it's wrong but hey ho, what can you do? Better just give a fatalistic shrug and get on getting on.

The second is the progressive diminution of civil society. Mainstream politics appears a million times removed from everyday concerns. It doesn't talk normal language and is overly concerned with dull, complex matters only strange people care about. And as for so-called unconventional politics, marching and protesting never solved anything. Iraq, anyone? The lack of civic education in school, the absence of trade unions from too many workplaces, the consumerist flattering of the individual when it comes to shop but utter disempowerment of people when set against the steep gradient of social change, and not least the cultural dominant of irreverence/cynicism means the ideal type much political philosophy rests is out of kilter with the real shape of things.

This indifference, for want of a better phrase, appears as a conspiracy of intertwined social trends. Because that is exactly what it is. Yet it is nothing new. I'm out of the habit of positively invoking Lenin these days, but he knew a thing or two about the process of changing people's ideas and getting them to act politically. Disempowerment and therefore indifference are a consequence of the aforementioned social distance. But when politics directly impinges on everyday life, there you have the recipe for politicisation. In Lenin's day it was a miserable war, worsening poverty and long-standing land grievances that condensed a revolutionary head of steam. In our own, it is the depressing recrudescence of sexism that is galvanising a new wave of feminism; and the crushing, spiteful stupidity of the Work Capability Assessment driving a new round of disability rights radicalism. It's the old nostrum of social being conditioning consciousness, and using opportunities and resources to hand to contest the received configuration of power relations.

As such, the Miners' and Snowden revelations were doomed to land on stony ground. It always comes down to conjunctures, to contradictions and forces knotting together. The critical mass was absent, the belief in change nowhere. It is frustrating, but nothing can be nothing forever. Movements of recent years, the locking out of hundreds of thousands of young people from a decent future, and the new threads of solidarity social media is weaving through society's fabric unseen contain the potentials for new struggles, new civic mindedness, and new successes. And just perhaps what is met with indifference today is cause for furious action tomorrow. It might even be worth a gamble.


Alex Dawson said...

How many of us were surprised that Thatcher would stop at nothing? Arthur was right, Kinnock and the TUC was wrong...everything that the left said at the time has come to pass.

As you say, being proved right 30 years down the line does very little to aid the current situation. That's why the powers that be in this country are even considering narrowing down the 30 year rule to 20 years, so confident and arrogant they are that they will not have to be held to account for their disgusting actions.

That said, I agree...the battle is not in the past, it is in the present. History can be a useful guide, but obsessive adherence to the doctrines of the battles of yesteryear (especially using it for the purpose of saying "told you so") can also be a real dead weight on progress in the here and now.

Phil said...

Indeed. While consciousness always lags behind developments, there is no excuse for clinging to the nostrums of yesteryear because they're "convenient" or circumvent the tough job of always trying to think afresh in light of experience.

Speedy said...

A good analysis but itcould also be applied to the British people's experience of trade union activism in the 1970s.

I remember the three day week and the electricit going off every night at 6, those candlenlit evenings,...

This direct experience of union activism also probably drove support for Thatcher among ordinary prople.

Ukip could also be said to be a popular movement driven by facts on the ground, as could the edl.

Imho affluence is the enemy of socialism. Poverty thows in stark contrast the inequalities. Paradoxically the wealthy middle clas te d to be in favour of it but principally because it provides them with the chance to be in power. Which is why i suppose lenin tended to shoot them. Maybe a revolution would be the last thing you needed Phil.... ;-)

jimboo said...

I still blame the SDP for many of the working class problems and defeats in the 80's. Thatcher never had the support of the majority. I also think the Liverpool Dockers strike was of more import for the TU's. The failure of the TU leadership to put up a concerted fight was bad. I live in a former mining community, few people want the pits open again.