All in order
His nonchalance unruffled by Prime Ministerial problems – the dollar crisis, the winter of 1946/7, the Cold War. the Korean war. the Bevanite rebels – the late Clement Attlee could be enraged if he saw the after-dinner port being passed around the table in the wrong direction. Attlee was converted to membership of the Labour Party by his observations of the poverty in the East End and he later became Labour mayor of Hackney, where the matter of circulating port bottles is of minor concern. His defection from his class origins – for so it was seen – was obviously limited, as he clung to some of the mustier and more risible rituals of the moneyed people in society.
He was not. of course, the first Labour premier to have such preoccupations. The Ramsay MacDonald government of 1923/4 was rocked at its start, not by any determination to bring down the capitalist system but by anxiety about the occasions on which its ministers might correctly wear court dress. True, there had been some hesitation in the drawing rooms of Mayfair and Belgravia when that government had come to power and there were fearful mutterings about the imposition of free love along with nationalisation. These were immediately put to rest when MacDonald first appeared in all his finery; apart from the implications this gesture had for the security of class society there was also the fact that he looked so much more fetching than the Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin.
That government was supported in the Commons by MPs who included a fair sprinkling of men who had come up the hard way – men who had learned their politics sweating at the coal face or in the docks or shipyards. If the Labour Party was to live up to its new eminence, if it was to show that capitalism and all its flummery was safe in their hands, something clearly had to be done to forestall the threat of these Members disgracing the Party at some soiree or garden party. They might, forgetting where they were, belch or scratch themselves or drink their tea out of the saucer. The matter was taken in hand by the formation of the Half Circle Club, an organisation with the object of teaching Labour MPs how to behave themselves when in the presence of their social betters. It also taught them to be at ease with the aristocracy and in that sacred cause some of its members were said to be more difficult and arrogant than the aristocrats they were seeking to ingratiate themselves with.
They soon learned – as must anyone elected to Parliament – that the place is a turmoil of ritual. There is all the bowing and nodding without which, apparently, the business of the House would simply collapse. There is the solemn ceremony which has Black Rod knocking three times on the door and the procession from the Commons to the Lords, instead of the other way round, to support the fiction that the power in British capitalism does not lie with the Commons. There is the Queens speech, which is not hers at all but written for her by the government. And of the highest importance is the matter of how the Members address each other. Whatever feelings they may have about another Member, they must describe them as Honourable, even though they know them as the biggest rogues alive. Of course if the rogue happens to be a Privy Councillor then the address must be Right Honourable and if at some time they have been in the forces they must be the Honourable and Gallant Member. At no time must anyone say what they actually think about anyone else, except in what is called Parliamentary language – which excludes terms like thief or liar or murderer. Nobody must tell lies to the House – or rather nobody must tell lies which are going to be exposed – because otherwise the entire process of parliamentary debate and its rituals would collapse as the Honourable, Right Honourable and Honourable and Gallant Members are suddenly seen for the shallow, impotent frauds that they are.
Outside Parliament, capitalism is a mass of ritual and observances. People who are given medals for killing other people they have never met and don’t know, or for being a loyal and eminent representative of the values of this profit-based society, must always be sure that their baubles are worn in the correct order. It would be in the worst possible taste to appear at some function with your Order of the Garter wrongly placed in relation to your Order of the Thistle. Similarly with the titles which the ruling class dish out to each other in congratulation at being members of that class. Dukes. Earls. Baronets and the rest have an order of precedence and it is a grave breach of all the decencies of life to ignore it. Their place in some procession, or where they sit at some banquet where the speakers tell the working class all about the need to work harder and be satisfied with their lot, must rigidly stick to their place in the order. If it were otherwise – if a mere baronet could elbow a duke out of the way in order to get a better view of what was going on – the whole point of giving people titles to prove their superiority would lose its point.
One effect of all this is to absorb a lot of energy from people who have vague notions about a more equal society or who are impatient with what they see as ceremonial obstacles to a more efficient, thrusting, go-getting capitalism. These arguments can be supported with some impressive evidence about the cost of keeping the royal family in the style to which they are accustomed and about how ridiculous ageing people look in knee-breeches and wigs. This might be more acceptable if capitalism in places such as America and Russia, where they do not rely on so many ceremonial trappings, worked any differently to the system in Britain. In all cases the ruling class came to power, with some minor historical differences, through acts of theft. Sometimes they murdered their opponents (the British ruling class has a particularly nasty history in this), sometimes they only ran them out. As far as the working class are concerned, how it happened makes little difference. All ruling classes are united on one thing – the need to repress the workers and keep them in their place as the producing, designing, exploited, non-owning, impoverished class. They can do this assisted by a titled, bemedalled tradition of funny robes and hats and outdated rituals. Or they can do it through a simpler, more direct deceit in, for example, the plain uniforms of Mao Tse-Tung’s China.
Although it is difficult to imagine capitalism without its rituals, the fact is that it does not need them. The power of the capitalist class does not rest in ceremonial but in their monopoly of the means of life. They assert that fact through a repressive state machine and the fact that at times the assertion is blanketed under the robes, wigs, ceremonies and verbiage does not alter the fact that it is there and is all-powerful. Ritual is not, then, a defence mechanism; the capitalist class need no defences against a working class which not only accepts the ritual but happily lines the streets in order to catch a glimpse of it in operation. If ritual has a function it is to re-assert the reality that this is a class system, that the ruling class have held their power for a long time and intend to hold it for a very long time to come.
If the working class are impressed with this it is because they have given over their political power to keep capitalism going. This in itself is at times ritualistic: people vote Labour because their parents do, or Tory because they have taken out a mortgage on the home which they used to rent from the local council. These attitudes are rooted in tradition, without reason and they plaster over the reality that workers who think and act in those ways are helping to maintain the social system which is directly responsible for an untold, unassessable, human suffering.
And none of this is necessary. The millions of people who die in wars, or through accidents or diseases which are caused by the drive to make profit, do not need to die. The millions more who do not actually die but suffer pressures which are all but intolerable do not need to suffer. The world is waiting. fully able to support and nourish such a society, for its people to start up a new, humane way of running it. The rituals of capitalism are not amusing for they hide a deadly reality; our class must look through them to see the facts of life for what they really are.