1980s >> 1988 >> no-1001-january-1988

Editorial: In Place of Wishes

Each year at this time an arbitrary line is drawn across our lives. It has as much mysticism about it as any religion. On one side of the line lies the Old Year with its mistakes, its problems, its inadequacies. On the other the New Year beckons us, with its pristine sanity, enlightenment, happiness. It is a time to make resolutions that the next twelve months will be innocent of the disfigurements of the past twelve. Some people mark the occasion by getting drunk, to lubricate the process of acting towards others with warmth and respect. Others may rely on the collective hysteria of the occasion to intoxicate them. Happy New Year, they wish each other. It’s probably not all insincere, either.

 

But powerful as alcoholic poisoning and popular delusions can be there is an amnesiac scale about the event which is positively staggering. For does life really get better from year to year for the millions of people who wish to each other that it should? The millions who snatch the short holiday to pretend that they are something other than the social class which, although productive and useful, is exploited, repressed and deceived?

 

That question was what actually dominated the election last June. Thatcher and her crew energetically told us that things were not only getting better but would carry on like that, as if the Tories will never rest until they have drenched us all in prosperity. Enough workers were impressed by this campaign, shrewdly aimed as it was, to send the Iron Lady back to Number Ten.

 

It is likely that the Tories won a lot of votes through their schemes to enable workers to buy shares in the privatised industries. This whole idea, with its elaborately buoyant publicity, rested on the assumption that the Stock Market is a casino where share prices always go up, so that workers who borrowed a little money to buy a few shares could then sell them quickly and so make a small profit. This illusion — that the class structure of capitalism had been radically changed by Norman Tebbit was badly damaged by the stock market crash, which catapulted distraught yuppies into a position of media-dominance. In fact, a falling stock market also offers the possibility of making money — but in a way not usually open to penurious workers.

 

It is worth mentioning this if only because a popular response to any criticism of Thatcherite Britain is that the critics are motivated by a septic envy. There is, apparently, an opulent gravy train on the move for those who are economically nimble enough to climb aboard. The economically disabled have only themselves to blame. But is this society, which we labour under, really so carefree an arrangement? Are its critics really so devoid of material to support their arguments?

 

Well what, apart from the events on the Stock Exchange, happened last year? What effect did all those salutations, last January, have for us?

 

It was, in fact, a year of disasters in a very material sense. The crazy massacre of Hungerford cannot be explained away as an isolated mental breakdown. Michael Ryan was a man who could not answer, to his own satisfaction, the sexual, social and familial expectations of capitalism. So instead he loved his guns, his cars and his terrible fantasies. The capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise was not an accident for the ship was being sailed just as the company’s balance sheet thought appropriate. At the time of writing the immediate cause of the King’s Cross fire has not been made public, but emerging facts have shown up the reductions in vital staff and the tardiness in replacing dangerously outdated equipment, in the cause of reducing costs and so maximising profit.

 

Although as a disaster it is rather less dramatic, the problem of the homeless grew worse, with the numbers of families with nowhere to live increasing as their chances of finding anywhere within a reasonable time decreased. Young workers have been coerced into accepting government approved work or courses under pain of being cut off from state benefit. The government’s discovery that state benefits can be cut by changing their name and the conditions under which they can be claimed brings memories of the special indignities heaped on the unemployed during the 1930s. Finally, in face of the official statistics which tell us that it is not happening, the waiting lists of workers who need treatment in hospital grew longer so that some die while they are waiting and babies are prevented from having desperately needed operations through a lack of specialised nurses who have been driven out of the work through their paltry wages. Even the consultants, contemplating the beds kept empty by the priority of conforming to a budget, have been moved to make their unequivocal protests.

 

There was no happier prospect abroad. At the end of the year Bob Geldof was flying back to Ethiopia to ask why, after all that effort and expenditure, millions have to suffer an agonising, degrading death by starvation. Those sickening pictures of dying babies, too sick even to take their mother’s milk, are condemnation enough of capitalism in themselves. The Gulf War continued to consume its fearsome human diet, there is slaughter in Africa, Haiti, Afghanistan and the brutality of South Africa’s racist regime does not lessen. The cold cynicism of capitalist politics has been exposed by the Irangate affair, which cannot be hushed over by even Reagan’s consummate acting skills. He may yet be saved by the diversion of a treaty to abolish medium-range nuclear missiles which, even if it should ever be fully implemented, would still leave us living in a world with more than enough destructive power to kill us all several times over.

 

No, it was not a Happy New Year. Neither was 1986, 1985, 1984 . . . We shall need to do more than wish that things will get better. We have the power to change the world and the ability to run it in the interests of the human race. And the reasons for that are all too obvious.