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.