By Colin Foster
Gordon Brown dreads union demands for legal rights for workers to take industrial action beyond the most parcellised and regulated because, he says, that would clash with “modernisation”.
I read about that the same day that I went to see an exhibition, “Picasso and his collection”, about one of the great modernist painters and the artworks he kept in his house and his studio and took inspiration from.
For Brown, “modernising” means servility towards the “modern” wishes of the “modern” ruling classes. Since the 1980s, capitalist governments have redefined their role as “selling” their countries as sites for world-market capital to perch in.
Brown’s ex-CBI-chief minister Digby Jones summed it when he commented on the government’s quickly-watered-down plans to squeeze “non-domiciled” wealthy foreigners living in the UK ever so slightly for tax: it would mean that “the product isn’t as good as it was”. Another bosses’ spokesperson put it similarly, saying that maybe “the next shop” would be “offering a better price”.
So Brown is scared that workers’ rights will annoy world-market capital, and it will move to “the next shop”, or another “product”. So scared that he can’t even pause to reflect that the big multinational enterprises, whatever they say, actually reconcile themselves to other countries in Western Europe, all of which have less cramping labour laws than Britain; or that there is nothing especially “modern” about harking back to the era before 1906 in legal curbs on workers’ rights to take action.
Brown, in his flat subordination to the dominant demand of the moment, is typical of mainstream politicians. As Picasso typified genuine modernism in his day, Brown does too but in exactly the opposite way.
Picasso constantly invented new styles, constantly and consciously drew on what was “out of date”. Among the painters whose works he most sought to acquire were Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the most “conventional” of the impressionists, a man who had been trained by working as a lad painting images in a factory onto plates and cups, and Henri Rousseau, considered a “naive” or “primitivist” painter.
As Marshall Berman puts it in his book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, “To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own.
“It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead... We might even say that to be fully modern is to be anti-modern: from Marx’s and Dostoevsky’s time to our own, it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world’s potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities”.
Or, again, Robert Hughes on modernism as a combination of enthusiasm for the potentialities created by burgeoning capitalism and revulsion from its meanness and cruelty: “we must invent a new environment of buildings, cities, images and tools, whose end will be to create new societies of men and women. This engineering will get a name: modernism. It will be buoyed up by an immense and irrational hope...”
The working class is by its nature modernist in Berman’s sense — both modern and anti-modern. It knows how to sift the “irrational” dross from the rational in modernism, and how not to collapse into dismissing all hope for something bigger than Blair-Brownite “modernisation” as “irrational”. Or, at least, it has to be “modernist” in order to live and breath.
A government which was “Labour” in the sense of more than a traditional label, a genuine workers’ government, would have to be “modernist” in the sense of Berman or Picasso, and not at all “modernising” in Brown’s sense.
The first step in achieving it is for the unions to start to live and breath properly as working-class organisations: to define their own policies and programmes, rather than aspiring only to nudge Brown a few centimetres on this or that issue.