1990s >> 1997 >> no-1120-december-1997

Fall and Rise

The state of the economy doesn’t only affect the financial aspects of our lines—it strongly influences the mood of society and its politics. As Britain moves away from recession, the social institutions of the past are crumbling. In the first of a two-part article we examine what’s fallen.

Even before the 1980s had ended, the attitudes associated with it were being vilified by the media, government and big business. We had entered the “Caring Nineties”. We became concerned for the environment again, companies outwardly switched their attention to “customer service”, and the government supposedly led a crusade for “traditional” morality.

The recession marked a turning point in the parallel histories of the economy and the political climate. After 1945 most advanced nations were in a stage of economic growth as they recovered from the effects of the war. Initially. Britain was in a stronger position than many of its neighbours; in 1948 it accounted for 42 percent of all west European exports. An optimistic economy, together with the continuing wartime trend of centralised planning, led to a consensus between the major parties which supported similar strategies, such as nationalisation and the creation of the welfare state.

When the economic upswing burnt itself out in the early 1970s there was a divergence of opinion on the best way of coping with the inevitable recession— whether to follow a right (less state) or left (more state) direction. To a much lesser extent this repeated the mood of the late 1920s when the slump created extremes in leadership strategy. Arguably, the peak in Britain of the divergence was the election of the Thatcherite government in 1979. But by the early 1990s, individualism and the free market had been blamed for the deepening recession at the same time as state capitalism collapsed in eastern Europe.

More people began to realise neither system was in the best interests of the majority. Defensive measures, such as “back to basics” and publicity of environmental damage, were in vogue among those wielding political and economic power. In hindsight, these could be interpreted as reactions against the changes in society’s outlook. As we move towards the next century we find the emergence of a “centre-right” consensus in mainstream politics, feeding on widespread disenchantment with the institutions of society.

The most obvious institutions in decline are the welfare state and nationalised services. It is common knowledge that the economy can no longer afford to subsidise structures such as the NHS and public transport networks to previous levels. But an institution can be anything which provides a social or moral framework, utilising science, organised religion and political ideology. In the 1990s the ability of all these institutions to maintain stability among those they affect (or affected) is clearly weakening. The recession has played a crucial role in these changes; the uncertainty it created has even impacted on faith in religion and science. In opposite ways, both aim to organise the world into some sort of order. When the uncontrollable economic forces of society are at their cruellest humanity comes to doubt its ability to organise the world at large, as well as itself.

Most importantly, the changing nature of employment in this decade has changed our outlook considerably. Nowadays, few people expect a “job for life” and more come to accept harsh employment (and unemployment) contracts, part-time jobs and temporary work.

In the nineteenth century the amount of labour involved in manufacturing and construction was rising compared to that in agriculture. All our major political ideologies were formed in this time, and therefore focused on the politics of production. The economic laws of society have remained unchanged, but the emphasis at the end of the twentieth century is completely different. There has been a tremendous increase in labour expended in services and white-collar professions (tertiary industries), while employment in industry is in [serious] decline. In 1993, 69.8 percent of the employed workforce in Britain were engaged in the tertiary sector. In the year 2000 this figure is expected to rise to 73.7 percent. These trends have been progressing for decades—manufacturing employment has fallen virtually every year since 1971. (Labour Market and Skill Trends, I994/95.)

These trends directly influence a country’s politics. The 1990s has seen the demise of the traditional left/right divide, predated by a sharp decline in trade unionism. In 1981 there were 414 unions, but by 1993 there were only 254. This drop is partly due to mergers, but their overall decline in power is shown by the falling number of working days lost to labour disputes: 280,000 in 1994—the lowest yearly total since records began in 1891. (Social Trends. 1996.)

The Thatcherite government certainly contributed to this decline, but the shifts away from relatively secure employment to “flexible” tertiary employment are uncontrollable, and therefore more profound in the long term. Trade unionism and labour disputes have traditionally been strongest in the production industries. In the tertiary sector the relationship between worker and capital is disguised and the interchangeable roles of customer and worker are exaggerated.The union of the 1990s is less likely to concentrate on dangerous issues like wages or working conditions and more likely to focus on individual harassment or unfair treatment allegations. Even when an old-style protest is large enough to be of wider interest it tends to be ignored. A good example is the striking Liverpool dockers, who have had to survive without assistance from the TUC, the TGWU, the media and, particularly, the Labour Party.

New Labour’s move away from trade unionism and its associated baggage was more than a realisation of the only way they could get elected. It was a concession to the changes in Britain’s distribution of employment. As such, they are more advanced than the majority of leftist parties who act as if production industries are like coiled springs held down by the government.

Wide-ranging political theories, particularly those of the left, are unpopular these days. The 1980s is remembered as a time when right-wing money-grabbing was dominant over left-wing state planning and welfare. While the recession supposedly made economic individualism unfashionable, political individualism is all the rage in 1990s Britain.

A MORI poll quoted in the Independent on Sunday (13 April) revealed only one in three young people believed voting in the general election would make a difference to society. This can be interpreted as a lack of faith in democracy itself, parliamentary democracy, the main parties, or more likely, a combination of each. Losing faith in leaders is a progressive step as long as that faith is then channelled into something more constructive. Many of those who aren’t apathetic have turned to direct action campaigns which attempt to work outside any wide democratic framework. The attitudes behind direct action were summed up by celebrity eco-warrior Swampy who when basking in the publicity surrounding his tunnel network said “do you think our vote’s going to give us much of a voice as we’ve got at the moment?” (Big Issue, 21-27 April.)

Many would argue that their lack of faith in existing political and social structures is a stance against the corruption and snobbery within them. But rather than change the institutions, people have tended to reject change and have become apathetic or anarchic.The result is a society which encourages individualism far more than in the “Greedy Eighties”. Does anyone still remember the “Caring Nineties”?

Mike Foster