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Book Reviews: 'What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market–Based Society', & 'Manchester in the Great War'

What about Marx?

'What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market–Based Society', By Paul Verhaeghe. Scribe.

This book, written by a Belgian academic and translated from the Dutch, is fundamentally an attack on ‘neo-liberalism’. He sees it as psychologically extremely destructive and socialists would concur with his withering critique. The great problem is that without any political understanding (which Marx would have provided) he sees this ideology as something new rather than merely the latest propaganda that seeks to justify the continuation of capitalism. One is tempted to think that his scorn is generated (as he indicates) by the penetration of the ideology into his own realm of teaching and psychotherapy ; industrial workers might say, with some justification: ‘welcome to our world’.

With its attempt to measure everything and so turn quality into quantity capitalism famously knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Another flaw in Verhaeghe’s analysis is the contention that human identity is wholly dependent on the relationship with parents who represent moral and ethical values. Socialists would contend that man’s relationship with nature through his desire to constructively change it (his or her work) is fundamental to all human identity and its absence in capitalism is the real genesis of alienation. Verhaeghe has not understood that working to make profits for the parasite class is fundamental to capitalism and as such can never offer mankind the kind of meaningful fulfilling work that he advocates. And so he joins the countless other critics who want to reform the system without really understanding it. His dismisses socialism which conflates with the leftist regimes of the past.

Verhaeghe’s knowledge of Freud is extensive (as one would expect) but it does serve as a warning that a purely psychological approach to mankind’s travails can be very misguided. The work of Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse is infinitely superior to this short book because, although dealing with the same subject, the political knowledge expressed is on a par with their psychological understanding. With the exception of one passing reference to Theodore Adorno the author would seem oblivious to the work of the Frankfurt School. This is very odd since they were focused on the very same subject of the book.

Unfortunately the author of this book has no political weaponry with which to destroy  the system that he so clearly despises.



Goodbye, Piccadilly

Joseph O’Neill: 'Manchester in the Great War'. Pen and Sword £9.99.

This is a better book than first seemed, given the unpleasant remarks made in the Introduction. O’Neill claims that the generation of 1914 were motivated by ‘municipal pride and love of country’, values that people have since been taught to hate. The educational establishment have supposedly emphasised multiculturalism, and so white working-class children have been cut off from their roots. Fortunately such bigoted attitudes do not surface in the rest of the book.

There was a rush to join up among many workers when war was declared in August 1914. This was sometimes on political grounds (‘poor little Belgium’), but also for economic and other reasons (not much patriotism, then). Life expectancy in Manchester was below the national average, with men generally not making it into their fifties. For many, enlisting offered an escape from unemployment or tedious badly-paid work. In the case of one 16-year-old living in a one-room house on Oldham Road, the war was ‘a grand opportunity to join the army and see the world’ (one wonders if he saw much more than the inside of a trench).

There was much social pressure on those who did not volunteer, but by late 1915 the enthusiasm to join up was waning. The announcement that conscription was likely to be introduced led to many single men applying for jobs in munitions factories, on the grounds that such work would be likely to exempt them from the call-up. By the end of 1916 more than half the local population were involved in turning out war materials.

But there was also a great deal of industrial unrest, with strikes aimed at countering the effects of rent increases and massive price rises, especially for food and clothes. In 1915 thirty-two men from a factory in Reddish were fined for striking without going to the Board of Trade for arbitration first. The blackout imposed from March that year was enormously unpopular, since there was a view that it turned canals and rivers into death traps. There was a general fall in crime, with the exception, strangely enough, of bigamy. By early 1918, the food shortages were so bad that there were rumours that Britain might be forced to end the war in order to avoid starvation.

Even the capitalist press could not entirely whitewash the grim nature of the fighting. The first list of local men wounded appeared on 5 September 1914. During the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the headlines in the Manchester Evening News went in a week from ‘Kitchener’s Boys: New Armies Make Good’ to ‘Heavy Toll of the City Units’.

Anti-war protest was difficult, since meetings and demos were often either banned by the police or broken up by the so-called British Workers’ League. Plenty of people appealed against being conscripted, on various grounds. O’Neill writes that appellants were generally excused combat service if they were ‘resolute and reasonably articulate’, though he gives no evidence or statistics to support this (one major weakness of the book is that it has no notes, references or bibliography, making it impossible to know the source of any of the statements made).

O’Neill says that by the end of 1915 Manchester was ‘totally given over to war’, and that more than any other city it was ‘transformed by the war’. The 22,000 men from Manchester and Salford killed in fighting for the interests of their rulers certainly had their lives more than transformed.