How ruling class sees the last fifty years

Submitted by AWL on 20 January, 2015 - 6:03 Author: A teacher

The Tories are threatening the NHS. But they register that people are bothered about the issue, and they must step carefully. And some people in the ruling class have “internalised” the pressure on them from the labour movement enough that they themselves cherish the NHS.

How do the ruling class explain themselves, and what do they think they must look out for? I was given some insight on this recently when a business “grandee”, chair of many companies and member of many official committees and working groups, visited our school for an “inspirational address” to years 12 and 13.

He framed his talk round comparisons between today and when he was the students’ age, in the mid-60s. His overview of the social changes wrought by himself and his friends, the ruling class of recent decades, was that they’ve made things worse! Evidently he saw that as unremarkable, not even something to be explained away by reference to unavoidable constraints.

The only improvements he cited since the mid-60s were “technology” (evidently meaning small computers, the internet, and mobile phones) and greater ease of travel. He offered no picture at all of how today’s teenagers might collectively make a better world, but only advised them, as individuals, to work hard and to take chances to travel.

Generally, he said, teenagers face a more difficult world than the mid-60s.

He said that in the mid-60s people could be confident of a “job for life” and a good pension. In fact, that’s just not true. Greater working-class insecurity today than in the 60s comes not because jobs were then “for life”, but because then you could get another job easily. Unemployment was 1.5% in 1965, but has been over 5%, and often much higher, since 1976. I suppose what he had in mind is that managers, “professionals”, and such had a “job for life” in the 1960s, and don’t now. That registers as a “problem” in the ruling class.

He didn’t mention the spiralling of economic inequality since the 1970s, or the trashing of trade union rights in the 1980s.

Oddly, he depicted capitalist development as worse than it has really been. It’s a way of deleting from view the fact that, despite all our setbacks, labour movements and democratic struggles have retained some capacity to win improvements and limit deteriorations.

A grandee speaking in a non-selective school in the mid-60s would see only a few older students (in the 60s most students left at 15), and probably only white-British and Afro-Caribbean students (with, if my impressions from then are reliable, the white and the Afro-Caribbean students choosing to sit separately). In 1964 a Tory MP won his constituency with the slogan “if you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour”.

In 1965 Risinghill school, in London, was shut down by the education authority because the head teacher and staff refused to hit the students. Something has changed for the better there.

The 60s were the era of the “rediscovery” of poverty. Poor people had always known they were poor, but late-50s official discourse had been that “you never had it so good” (Tory election campaign, 1959) and we were in “the affluent society” (J K Galbraith’s book, 1958). Then books like The Other America (Michael Harrington, 1962), The poor and the poorest (Townsend and Abel-Smith, 1965), and St Ann’s (Coates and Silburn, 1967) — and a slightly renascent left — restored poverty as a “problem” which the ruling class had to say at least something about.

In 1962 only 33% of households in the UK had a fridge; in 1970-1 only 30% had central heating, only 35% a phone, and 64% a washing machine. There were no laws to stop pay or job discrimination against women, and male homosexuality was flatly illegal. We’ve made some gains.

Popular struggles have overthrown Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, military dictatorships in Latin America, and apartheid in South Africa.

The grandee might have cited the gains since the 60s as credits for capitalism. My guess about why he didn’t is that, not quite consciously, he shied away from highlighting the threat to many of those gains from the new rise of the far right.

That rise figured in his discourse only very selectively and slantways. He said that the great insecurity of the 60s was the threat of nuclear war, and the equivalent today is “what we have just seen in Paris”. So today’s equivalent of nuclear disarmament is... suppression of civil liberties motivated as “anti-terrorist”?

In spring 1962 the OAS set off about 120 bombs per day, and killed dozens a day, in a last-ditch terror campaign against Algerian independence. There was terrorism in the 60s, too. True, that could be and was terminated by Algerian independence, and there is no similar straightforward answer to terrorism by Daesh, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram.

But there is no proportion between Islamist violence, even in Nigeria or Raqqa, and the threat of nuclear annihilation — or the threat of ecological catastrophe. The grandee’s implied message? Life is insecure, but at least you have smartphones and cheap flights, and the worst threat can be warded off by more powers for the police.

The ruling class has no vision for the future, and a blurred vision of the present. Older socialists need to explain to young people both what has been won and urgently needs defending; how the next generations can build a much better world; and how, immediately, we can make more issues into those on which the ruling class knows it has to be defensive and cautious.

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