Monday, September 30, 2013

The struggle for democracy



Short of social structures collapsing completely, you don’t stop teaching children just because there’s a war. My father’s time at primary school, for instance, coincided almost to the day with the Italian involvement in the Second World War, and continued when he had to leave Milan during the bombings. He would have been taught notions not vastly dissimilar to these. I wonder how the lessons changed in 1943, when we switched sides.

In April of 1944, Cadbury Brothers Limited of Bourneville produced, and the University of London Press distributed, a book for use in British schools. This one.


The struggle for democracy is not a topic that my parents would have had the opportunity to learn about, but this small book is not just a document of the ideological conflict in Europe at the time. Set against the current discourse around inequality, it also provides a historical link to some key contemporary ideas and rhetorical strategies

The most striking and appealing aspect of the book is what the author – one W.E. Brown – calls 'its visual method'. I’d argue that the main instrument of persuasion of today’s anti-inequality campaigners is a similarly didactic graphical presentation of statistics. While he may not be the originator of this style, I associate this approach particularly with Robert Reich, notably in his video The truth about the economy (with a strong local echo in this presentation featuring David Cunliffe).


The Struggle for Democracy was written on the eve of what Reich calls The Great Prosperity, albeit in a different country – the author laments in fact how ‘every country in the world wants to buy from America’, portending to economic troubles down the line. That’s the other element of historical interest: the snapshot of social democracy as an idea at the moment of its greatest promise, yet tinged with scepticism concerning how far this idea could go in perfecting society and curing it of its ills.

But first there’s the myth of origin. In spite of the book’s title, it seems that it took very little struggle to achieve democracy in Britain. Only two specific incidents of repression are mentioned: the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and the transportation to Australia of the ‘Tolpuddle martyrs’, six Dorset farm Labourers guilty of joining the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers in 1834.


Elsewhere, police intervention is implicitly presented as the natural State response to sedition. We learn for instance that all but the ‘sober working-men leaders’ of the Chartist movement ‘followed an excitable Irishman named Feargus O’Connor, who encouraged them to strike and riot’ (leading to hundreds of arrests), and that ‘the most violent supporters of [the women’s Suffrage] movement, the Sufragettes… had many bitter encounters with the law.’ But it was jobs for women in the Great War that made their demand for the vote irresistible, and so too every piece of social reform – from the extensions of the franchise to the introduction of social services – is attributed to enlightened politicians or wealthy reformers: Robert Owen, Jeremy Bentham, Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Beveridge. The British working class was never an agent of its own destiny.

The struggle for democracy is therefore primarily a struggle of reason, and for reason, and the British model of social democracy itself is presented as a technology for improving society as much as a system of government inspired by a set of humanistic principles. ‘Practical idealists improve housing, but better planning of housing must follow,’ proclaims the author, pitting the urban squalor of Dickens’ Hard Times against a modern planned ‘garden city’.



It is the rational reorganization of municipal councils that allows the citizens’ representatives to manage and improve the nation's cities.


But nowhere is democratic progress more measurable than in the area of social services. In this table, included in the 1950 revised edition of the book, every bit of social spending is carefully laid out. Each symbol represents 10 million pounds sterling of expenditure in education, health, housing and so forth, and a transparent, proportionally large benefit to the collective.

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This is the high point. When this table was drawn, the New Zealand Labour Social Security Minister had not long since declared to an audience including WB Sutch that ‘everything was done’, meaning that all the social progress that it might be possible to wish for or imagine had been achieved. It was, if not the end of history, perhaps the end of politics – certainly of emancipatory politics.

The Struggle for Democracy devotes to this high point its boldest page. According to its design, the aim of the welfare state is defeat the five chief enemies of society as identified by William Beveridge – Idleness, Want, Disease, Ignorance and Squalor – via the application of (respectively) full employment, social insurance, health services, education acts and town planning.

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But then, in perplexing fashion, a page directly follows, not glossing but in fact questioning this design. The heading is ‘The problems of the welfare state’. Of these, some are economic and not entirely unreasonable – balance of payment issues and dependence on the Marshall plan; reduced competition among businesses; inflation resulting from excessive bargaining power of a fully employed workforce – whereas one, with which we are all too familiar, is moral: do we think carefully enough ‘before helping ourselves to the benefits provided by the State?’ Do others? Will a society that has reached true social security still be motivated to work hard?


Of social democracy, nowadays, there remains but a husk. Robert Reich will continue to measure the staggering growth in wealth inequality in the United States between 1980 and today as if 1980 were a time to be nostalgic for; a time of social justice. Whereas in New Zealand, the Labour Party will continue to preach full employment as a workable solution in a post-Keynesian world, and leave unanswered the question of what to do with the people who won’t be able to work all those ghost jobs. They’ll likely remain ‘a moral problem’, and continue to be punished so that everyone else may be motivated to work hard. As for those who might aspire to a more radical kind of justice, ‘socialism is not a word I would use’, and ‘the “revolution” is the accumulation of the progressive choices that left-wing people of goodwill make every minute of every day’. These are the carefully patrolled limits of our politics.

The strange struggle without strife of this little book captures well our singular paradox: of living the day after the best of all possible worlds, wishing to recapture that which we never really had; or that, even if we thought had it, we always knew it wouldn’t last.





15 comments:

Chris Trotter said...

I'm curious to know, Giovanni, exactly what it is about the sentence you have lifted from my posting on The Daily Blog, that you find so limiting and restrictive?

If the overthrow of a repressive system is not the product of the choices progressive people of good will make, then what is it the product of? The choices ambitious people of ill-will make?

Who makes your revolution?

Giovanni Tiso said...

It won't be a revolution of the middle class to restore its lost purchasing power, I know this much.

What your sentence describes is an enlightened and not a little paternalistic reformism, of the kind that is chronicled (somewhat mythically) in the book. Nothing wrong with that per se – so long as it doesn't gloss over organised struggles – but it will never result in "the overthrow of a repressive system", which by its very definition can only be the outcome of a social conflict. Nobody can freely "choose" to overcome oppression. The ruling classes give no quarter.

I should say I don't have a particular gripe with Cunliffe saying that socialism is not a word he would use, either. I appreciate that he's not pretending to be something he's not.

Kay said...

“Of social democracy, nowadays, there remains but a husk. Robert Reich will continue to measure the staggering growth in wealth inequality in the United States between 1980 and today as if 1980 were a time to be nostalgic for; a time of social justice.”

1980 is a useful starting point because it was in the 1980s that the welfare state came under sustained attack from the rise of neoliberalism. More difficult to measure is the failure of social democracy to mount an effective defence, instead opting for compromise.

While studying at Victoria University in the late 1980s, I was surprised to hear a Social Policy lecturer announce to the class that the Welfare State was an outdated concept; the way forward was to build a Welfare Society – one in which voluntary groups and communities had a greater role in providing social services. I think this view may have emerged from work being done for the Royal Commission on Social Policy at that time. It appeared to be a nod to the neoliberal view of welfare, later expressed in its starkest form in David Green’s 1996 tract, “From Welfare State to Civil Society: Towards Welfare that Works in New Zealand”.

In 1989, historian Margaret Tennant published a book on the history of charitable aid in New Zealand: “Paupers and Providers: Charitable Aid in New Zealand”. It was a timely publication as it showed the outcome of a welfare system such as that then favoured by the NZ Business Roundtable, who later sponsored David Green. Tennant argues that there never has been a golden age of welfare provision in New Zealand and her book challenges the view of New Zealand as a “welfare laboratory”. If you like New Zealand history, it’s well worth a read.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"It appeared to be a nod to the neoliberal view of welfare, later expressed in its starkest form in David Green’s 1996 tract, “From Welfare State to Civil Society: Towards Welfare that Works in New Zealand”."

Nowadays I guess we call it the Big Society. One of the most interesting local documents of it is the first report of Don Brash's 2025 Taskforce, in that it’s quite transparently written from a sociopath’s point of view. Ditto Roger Douglas’ Unfinished Business.

I wasn’t aware of Tennant’s book, many thanks for the recommendation Kay.

Anonymous said...

Another sterling entry in the Chris Trotter's unrivalled ability to utterly miss the point Hall of Infamy.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh, don't be having a go at Chris anonymously now. Consistent handle or he wins.

Ben Wilson said...

>It won't be a revolution of the middle class to restore its lost purchasing power, I know this much.

How can you be sure? That seems like quite a likely revolution to me, albeit not a particularly big one, nor a violent one. I guess if you define revolution not to be this, then you win a Pyrrhic semantic victory, but I took Trotter to be saying that the struggle for a center left that is at least more left wing is still a struggle that can deliver real outcomes. You'd have to have never read anything he'd said to think that he's not *also* a fan of organized struggle in the form of unions and such. And Cunliffe was, after all, the choice of the unions, too.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Actually, Cunliffe was the choice of some of the *affiliated* unions (half of them didn't give specific instructions to their delegates). There are plenty more unions in New Zealand that are not affiliated to the Labour Party.

"How can you be sure? That seems like quite a likely revolution to me, albeit not a particularly big one, nor a violent one. I guess if you define revolution not to be this, then you win a Pyrrhic semantic victory, but I took Trotter to be saying that the struggle for a center left that is at least more left wing is still a struggle that can deliver real outcomes."

I take revolution - as Chris does - to mean the overthrow of the political system. Everything else is a reform. It's possible that, under Cunliffe, Labour will make certain reforms that go at least some way toward undoing Rogernomics. I don't think it's very likely, but I'm more than happy to wait and see. However, I don't think there's any evidence that what he has in mind and the party appears to have the stomach for could remotely be construed as radical, let alone revolutionary in nature.

Ben Wilson said...

I guess we'll just see. Clearly Chris didn't mean that Cunliffe is building up a secret militia with which to overthrow the government, or writing death lists for opposing politicians. But he could still be substantially to the left of where Labour has been residing for 5 years or so, and that could be worth a great deal. I understood Chris to be suggesting this is the "revolution" he thought might work, which is why he put the quotes around it - it was not meant to be taken literally.

But I take your point that these are the "carefully patrolled limits". Discourse limited to what is likely.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I think it’s a discourse that also limits what is likely. If you present David Cunliffe as a left-wing firebrand (Bradbury I believed said he was “just to the right of Marx”, which is beyond idiotic), then it defines anything beyond a CGT, no increase in benefits, a rewrite of the Reserve Bank agreement, a very modest increase in the top tax rate and pushing back the retirement age as barely thinkable, extreme left-wing notions.

This was also the function of The Struggle for Democracy: to set the limits of the social democratic project, so that (future) workers wouldn't get ideas. Although at least there was that question, "What is the next stage?" Nowadays the door is completely shut.

Ben Wilson said...

>Nowadays the door is completely shut.

That's overstating the case. Every progression is still progression. Even if they only did the things on your list, that would be progress. It might also be popular, encouraging more like it. You have to really buy into there being some innate reason why they can't move to the left to deny the chance of it. What is that reason?

But yes, there's been some crazy talk. Bomber's always been one for hyperbole. For my part, I'm glad it's Cunliffe over the others, but he's still got to convince me over the next year to change my vote back to Labour. It probably doesn't matter from a coalition point of view whether he succeeds with people like me.

As for whether it will make a huge revolutionary difference, I'd be surprised. There are left wing governments being elected all around the world and their economies are still tanking because the forces at work are well beyond the tinkering that is possible in the entire Marxist vs Capitalist discourse, as I see it. That kind of socialism is still addicted to the primacy of the worker, but the need for work is in steady decline. The improvements made in the last huge capitalist crisis are something that social democracy can claim as victories, but this crisis is different, *because the last one happened already*. I don't know for sure what the next "revolution" will be, but until we work it out, tinkering with the system in a better rather than a worse way is still welcome.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"That's overstating the case. Every progression is still progression. Even if they only did the things on your list, that would be progress."

Really? I'd point you to how little the candidates have said on beneficiaries. Robertson and Cunliffe are hoping that full employment will make them go away – as if that policy could be still be pursued without a complete overhaul of the economy, which neither of them is openly advocating; or as if all beneficiaries were unemployed, for that matter – and that they might stop short of going after so-called benefit fraud with the same enthusiasm as the Nats. That’s it. Given that growing poverty is one of the most urgent issues facing the nation, I would propose that not making any intervention in this area – including not promising to reverse Richardson’s benefits cuts *in front of the most sympathetic audience that they will ever get* – is not “progression” and is not even “lack of progress”. It’s actually “regression”. Ditto raising the retirement age.

(Shane Jones did actually say things about beneficiaries, in his rant on Radio One against “the Filipinos, etc.”. Here he basically proposed that everyone who’s unemployed should be forcibly relocated to Christchurch and made to work as a builder. This is the kind of talk that is tolerated within our social democratic party.)

Ben Wilson said...

I misread your meaning on "pushing back the retirement age". You meant making it older - yes that's regression IMHO.

If they do not cut anything for beneficiaries, and that does mean NOT raising the retirement age, and make other taxation changes that strengthen the governments income stream, then there is at least the possibility of benefit improvements, something that absolutely will not happen without more money. But you could also consider money injected directly into lowering unemployment as a form of benefit. It's not exactly the same, and it depends how they do it, what their plans are, but I still see progress in that, yes.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"But you could also consider money injected directly into lowering unemployment as a form of benefit."

You could consider it a way of reducing general levels of poverty, yes. Won't make a blind bit of difference to what unemployed people on the dole there are (except insofar as they might have more friends/relatives in work who can help them out. So long as they don't do it in money because that needs to be declared.) But mostly what staggers me is that we're still stuck with the "moral problem" that was being taught to British children in 1943. There's your progress.

Megan Clayton said...

What is the next stage?
I will tell you about a moral problem,
the inclination of a shoulder,
the half-turning of a head.

He hears what the other one
is saying. He doesn't need
any of these convoluted channels
to get things done.

Shall we be casual,
shall we set aside the books?
Shall we snivel and sneer
and taunt like imagined schoolchildren?

There are lumpen never-battlers
whose efforts it is free to hate.
There is a man on a roof
whose story you infer.

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