|A solemn crowd gathers outside the Stock Exchange after the crash. 1929. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
MY LIFE AND SHORT CENTURY
A socialist balance sheet for the 20th century
by BOYCE RICHARDSON
Published in The Canadian Forum, July/August 1996
The year after I was born the economy of the Western world collapsed. The drama began on Wall Street, but quickly reached into the tiny farming village in the far south of New Zealand where I had become the sixth child of a carpenter who built farm gates and cow byres.
My family was plunged into crisis. Three of my older brothers had to leave school and work for my Dad for nothing, so that he could ease his family through the Great Slump. My fourth brother was told on Friday that he was leaving school on Monday to go work for a building supply firm. He did as he was told and was stuck for ten years in a job he hated.
At the other end of the country, far to the north, my wife Shirley’s parents were struggling in the same way. Every penny was precious, clothes were handed down through the family, every bus or ferry ticket was a significant expenditure, every vegetable grown in the family garden an important resource. Her father was a labourer in a factory, a courageous man who defied the perils of an age of mass unemployment to help form a union and, later, to elect the first Labour government.
That socialist victory in 1935 lifted the spirits of working people. A year after the election, my wife’s grandmother, an elderly Maori born in 1855, gave Shirley a watch for her birthday. Thanked effusively for this wondrous gift, the old lady said, with calm but total conviction, “Don’t thank me, dear. Thank Michael Joseph Savage.” He was the Labour Prime Minister.
I have often marvelled at how fortune has favoured me. A child of the Depression, yet too young to be really affected by it; too young to go to war; and then, as the world emerged from war, an adult revelling in years of full employment, economic plenty and the beneficence of what we now call the welfare state. And yet the fact is, I was born smack in the middle of what historian Eric Hobsbawm in Age of Extremes: the Short 20th Century calls the, “Age of Catastrophe”, which he de- scribes as the most brutal era in the history of civilization.
How could a guy get so lucky? While my older brothers were in the army, while millions of decent people around the world were scrabbling desperately to keep body and soul together, and millions were later mercilessly herded into concentration camps and gas ovens, or condemned to starvation in massive famines, or reduced to huddling in the cellars of bombed-out, once-beautiful cities, I was a teenager playing cricket and football on idyllic summer evenings and getting a democratic education in a good high school.
Hobsbawm explains how, in 1914, human beings began a retreat from the material, intellectual and moral progress of the 19th century into a state of absolute barbarism unparalleled in history. I didn’t know it, but capitalism, the predatory economic system in which I grew up, was mired in a deep crisis from which it was rescued only by the mobilization needed to win the Second World War.
For some reason I grew up disliking the system, and always expecting to be on the wrong side of authority. Perhaps that sense came from a day when I was 14 and the headmaster of my high school told us all during a chemistry class, “There’ll be no millionaires in the future, you know.” It was a classic mistake in futurology, but it had a big effect on at least one pupil, and I wish there were more headmasters like him today.
Or perhaps my political values came from the time (I was still in my teens) when a dissident member of the Labour Party toured the country to persuade people that the banks should be nationalized. His speech was serious politics, expressed to a serious audience, and it drew 1,500 people on a Sunday night in our small city. That’s what politics should be like, I felt — dissenting voices, constantly arguing for improvements in society. We were far, then, from the era of the seven-second sound bite.
Perhaps my belief in socialism came from the knowledge that, in our small country, we had somehow managed to build a humanist tradition. New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to have an old-age pension (1898), and the first in the English-speaking world to create a national health scheme (1938), described by Savage as “applied Christianity” (and brought in, of course, as later in Britain and Saskatchewan, against the shrill opposition of all the conservative elements in society).
I never had any doubt that the welfare state was good. And now Hobsbawm, in his magisterial survey of our century, confirms that it was the welfare state that actually saved capitalism from its own worst instincts. Those who had fought that war to end all wars believed things would never again be the same, that the old order had to give way to a new and better world. “The Great Slump [of the 1930s],” writes Hobsbawm, “confirmed intellectuals, activists and ordinary citizens in the belief that something was fundamentally wrong with the world they lived in.”
Hobsbawm's marvellous book (written at the ripe age of 77) takes me by the hand and, unlike any other book I have ever read, explains my life to me.
The “Age of Catastrophe” ended in 1945, the very year I left high school and became a worker. Throughout what is now called the developed world, people who’d suffered began to insist that the harshness of the economic system be alleviated. The Scandinavian countries began their remarkable years of social engineering, aimed at improving the collective welfare. The British electorate kicked out their great national hero, Winston Churchill, even before the war was finished; the Labour government that succeeded him, embracing the reformist thinking of Keynes and Beveridge, introduced fundamental measures designed to ameliorate the living conditions of the common people. Thus we entered the era of the welfare state, described by Hobsbawm as the “Golden Age of Capitalism”, successor to the "Age of Catastrophe”.
It is profoundly satisfying to note that these years of my adulthood brought “the most dramatic, rapid and profound revolution in human affairs of which history has record”. Amen to that: I have been not only a beneficiary of the welfare state, but a firm believer in it and a proponent of it. And that will never change. I have never voted for a Conservative (and I never will), because Conservatives do not want an egalitarian society. I have always known that more than any other political system, democratic socialism concerns itself with the quality of life of the ordinary working person.
My wife and I left New Zealand in 1950 to take a good look at the world —a trip from which we never returned.
In many ways the world, although still recovering from the great conflict, was a beautiful place, easy to move around in. For a few years we lived a sort of personal odyssey, a couple of relatively innocent youngsters gobbling up experience: we stood wide-eyed under the Gateway to India, cycled past unimaginable graveyards in destroyed European landscapes, talked earnestly with German ex-soldiers, hung goggle-eyed over French charcuterie and patisserie shops, and tramped through museums, marvelling at the great artworks of our century.
“It was like the whole world was waiting for us,” Shirley said recently. “We were able to do whatever we wanted, and go anywhere.” For one thing, we had British citizenship, and much of the post-Imperialist world was open to us for that very reason. By the time we completed our odyssey, we’d been immigrants into four countries.
We went to Australia first, where we found the right-wing Menzies government. Sick-making! The next year, fed on a diet of Gandhi and Nehru and the glories of the struggle against colonialism, we went to India, three years after partition. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were living on the sidewalks. For the first time we came into contact with how things had been, and still were over much of the world, during the "Age of Catastrophe”.
We saw people dying from starvation and children lying on sidewalks, their bones sticking through their skins, literally minutes from death. We worked in a rehabilitation colony for refugees north of Delhi. There we met splendid people, animated by the left-wing ideals in which we believed, working to overcome the horrors of the system they had inherited from the British; and others, more complacent, more conservative, who were quite content to take their salaries and carry on as if nothing needed to be done. For a time we lived among the poorest people in the world, Indian peasants, and they embarrassed us with their hospitality, overwhelmed us with their generosity of spirit.
Now we began really to understand the terrors of poverty and lack of opportunity; the urgency of equalizing wealth in every corner of the globe; the horrors of race discrimination, a major legacy of colonialism; the need for people to embrace each other, regardless of colour, creed or social condition.
Faced with the reality of a brutal world, I began to interpret modern history as an inexorable movement to introduce decency into the management of human affairs. In my reading of it, this movement began with the TolpuddIe Martyrs, the six agricultural labourers in Britain who first dared to take a union oath in 1834, and were transported to Australia for their bravery. Their action gave rise to the labour-union movement, for which, in the next 150 years, thousands of people laid their bodies on the line against harsh employers and brutal conditions. Equivalent movements were under way throughout the world — against colonialism, racism, apartheid, and economic and social injustice — and I began to understand that all these struggles were one. I came to believe that there has never been anything more decent and inspiring, at any time in history, than this slow development towards an egalitarian world, this struggle to improve the lot of common people everywhere.
Our money ran out in India, and we had to leave. We arrived in Britain just in time to see the Labour Party go down to defeat, the restoration of Churchill as Prime Minister. And now I began to realize that the very decency of socialism, its very democratic ethos, was its major handicap. The wealth-owners had no scruples, and did not hesitate to lie about left-wing governments, twisting the lie into people’s minds by using the immense levers for influencing opinion that lay within their control.
In Britain (as earlier in New Zealand), it had been a self-educated working-class politician, Aneurin Bevan — one of the great political orators of our century — who had forced through the National Health Act, the cornerstone of the British welfare state. This was a major achievement in a society as class-ridden as Britain, and even the governments of Churchill, and later of Macmillan (both of whom we lived under), never set out systematically to destroy what Labour had built. For me, that was a key point. The values of the welfare state were becoming entrenched in every civilized society. They were permanent. Or so I naively thought.
When we came to Canada in 1954, we found the CCF/NDP injecting their mildly leftist ideas into the mainstream political discourse. I came to believe that the existence of this party was perhaps the main thing that differentiated Canada from the free-enterprising United States. I supported (but never joined) the CCF/NDP, and voted for them until Bob Rae’s apostate government effectively disenfranchised people like me, and I couldn’t make my cross for them, even while holding my nose.
But time moves on; influences change. The welfare state had been built by a gerontocracy that dated back to the First World War, and bore the scars and memories of everything that had happened since. But by the 1960s, the children of those people as they grew into adulthood had been sundered from that historical memory. They grew up in a prosperous, free-spending world, a fully-employed generation for whom political awareness was gradually replaced by private feelings and desires, such as those expressed in the famous posters of the 1968 student revolt in France: “I shall call anything that worries me political”; “I take my desires for reality, for I believe in the reality of my desires”; “When I think of revolution, I want to make love”. Perhaps to the dismay of their parents, they seemed ready to embrace what Hobsbawm calls “the unlimited autonomy of individual desire."
Such people were not equipped to oppose in any effective way the immense power of those who controlled wealth. Hobsbawm writes: “The old moral vocabulary of rights and duties, mutual obligations, sin and virtue, sacrifice, conscience, rewards and penalties, could no longer be translated into the new language of desired gratification. Once such practices and institutions were no longer accepted as part of a way of ordering society that linked people to each other and ensured social cooperation and reproduction, most of their capacity to structure human social life vanished. They were reduced simply to expressions of individuals’ preferences....”
The creation of a generation with such beliefs was an unexpected side-effect of a social liberalization whose advantages, Hobsbawm says, “seemed enormous to all except ingrained reactionaries."
Much about the new mass-society isolated people, rather than drawing them together. Perhaps we are all guilty. Many of us have become accustomed to (and, in my case, have insisted upon) the privacy and detachment of an individual’s life jn the modern city. Even some of our welfare measures, demanded by socialists for so long, have changed social relationships in ways that increased anomie among people. In fact, we have had little choice: the temper of the times, not our individual choices, dictates such things.
I have never really understood why the welfare state has fallen out of favour with the public. (Or has it? Maybe that’s just propaganda, relentless and unceasing, and successful.) Hobsbawm gives many interesting explanations, some economic, some psychological.
By 1980, the wealth-owners felt confident enough in their power to launch an attack, as Churchill and Macmillan had never dared to do, on the very bases of the welfare state. Ronald Reagan, their political spokesman, seemed like an idiot, but he knew how to put over simple ideas on television. One of those ideas — the most dangerous, as it turns out — was that the government he headed was the enemy of the people who had elected it. This hatred of government, propagated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, has become embedded in the public consciousness as more or less the norm. This has made it relatively simple for the right to carry out its real agenda: the diversion of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich, something that has been achieved with lightning speed in the last decade.
As a consequence, the wealth-owners have obtained a stranglehold over money, trade and the economy. This state of things has shown up at every level of society. For example, at the local level, hundreds of people had to be willing to risk imprisonment to stop the corporate rape of Clayoquot Sound, and even then they didn’t really win. In Ontario in recent months, we have had to watch helplessly as a neo-conservative government has ruthlessly closed halfway houses, women's shelters and enterprises manned by the mentally handicapped.
At the national level, voters were flummoxed by Mulroney, and the propaganda with which the wealth-owners supported him, into approving his plan to sell the country to American big business. At the global level, international financial speculators, using uncontrollable high-tech communications, have been able to force our governments to abdicate their responsibility to legislate in the interests of their citizens (e.g. the Chretien government’s pathetic cave-in on NAFTA, and the 1995 Martin budget).
And back in New Zealand, the record of social legislation I grew up to be so proud of has been thrown into the dustbin by a Labour government that never mentioned its plans to the voters who elected it; and the country has been transformed (a huge success story for conservatives!) into one of the four most inegalitarian nations in the developed world.
There is great irony involved: throughout the “Golden Age” it appeared that the welfare state had saved capitalism from its own worst instincts. But the real reason that capitalism had succeeded, Hobsbawm writes, was because “it was not just capitalist”. Profit maximization and accumulation of wealth may have been necessary conditions for its success, but they were not in themselves sufficient. Slowly, from the 1970s, the global economy became less stable as economic growth faltered, government revenues ceased to increase and, in these more straitened economic circumstances, the welfare state began to weigh heavily even on its strongest proponents, such as the Swedes.
Then the cultural revolution in values that capitalism created, expressing that “unlimited autonomy of individual desire”, began to erode the very bases of capitalism itself. Hobsbawm is eloquent on the irony: looking down on the ruins of the communist regimes that had opposed it, “capitalism triumphed at the very moment when it ceased to be as plausible as it had once seemed. The market claimed to triumph as its nakedness and inadequacy could no longer be concealed.”
Finally, it has become clear that capitalism has run out of control. What Hobsbawm calls “the iron logic of mechanization” has clicked in. It has long been assumed that alternative employment would be created for those thrown out of work by machines, just as the peasantry, in an earlier time, had been absorbed by the Industrial Revolution. But now it is obvious that this is not happening. Under the pressure of the “prevailing free-market ideology”, government has ceased to be the employer of last resort, and workers are once again at the mercy of private firms “which, by definition, consider no interest but their own pecuniary one”. So we have the creation of huge, impoverished Third World urban populations and, in the developed world, the emergence of a significant underclass, now growing rapidly everywhere.
As we entered the 1990s, as familiar ways of life crumbled, people began to lose their bearings. It was now that “a culture of hate” (largely propagated by the American entertainment machine with its individualist values) began to show up in the lyrics of popular music and the growing cruelty of films and television programs.
Take, for exampIe, the changing ethos of the American fllm, one of the world’s dominant forms of popular culture. In the early westerns, violence — the sock on the jaw as the solution to all personal problems, the gunfighter shooting it out with the bad guys on behalf of an innocent community —was seen in the context almost of a fairy tale. By the 1960s, however, what Hobsbawm calls “the technology-based triumph of sound and image” had virtually put to rout all of the assumptions about classical or elite culture with which earlier generations had grown up. The images that now accompany us from birth to death are those of advertising, consumption and mass entertainment, the sounds those of commercial pop music. The depiction of violence in a good guys-bad guys context has gradually evolved into a glorification of violence as an end in itself.
All of this, of course, has spun over into political conflict. A few years ago, even violent political protesters recognized certain limits to their behaviour. Now we live in a world where the United States can send bombers to Libya in violation of all previously recognized norms of international behaviour, with the object of "taking out” the Libyan leader; where a terrorist targeted by the Israeli security forces picks up a phone and has his head blown off; where that act gives rise to a series of awful events in which obsessed religious fanatics are willing to meet their maker so long as they can “take out" dozens of their hated enemies. A culture of hatred indeed, spreading inexorably throughout the world.
Thus we arrive at Hobsbawm’s troubling and superb final chapter, his summary of human life as we head “towards the millennium”’ confronting “problems for which nobody has, or even claims to have, solutions”.
For the first time in two centuries, he writes, we lack any international system of structure. New states are popping up almost every year. And identity politics, the right of ethnic groups to self-determination, which he describes as a “combination of intellectual nullity with strong, even desperate emotions” (he includes Quebec nationalism in this stricture), has become politically powerful in a time of disintegrating states, creeds and institutions. The conflict between Soviet-sponsored command socialism and free enterprise, which has dominated the world for so many decades, “may turn out to be as irrelevant to the third millennium” as 16th-century religious conflicts were for later centuries. But more worrying is the disorientation that has hit those who would advocate a mixed economy, combining private and public, market and planning, state and business — the type of economy that has created the most impressive results in the history of economics.
In addition, demography and ecology have become the two central issues, requiring that a balance be struck among humanity, the resources it consumes, and the effect of its activities on the environment. “No one knows, and few dare to speculate how this is to be done,” Hobsbawm writes. “One thing, however, is undeniable. [The solution] will be incompatible with a world economy based on the unlimited pursuit of profit by economic enterprises dedicated, by definition, to this object and competing with each other in a global free market.”
Hobsbawm finds three aspects of the global economy “alarming”. These are:
• the “squeezing of human labour out of the production of goods and services”, and the failure to provide other work for those displaced;
• the inexorable movement, in a global labour market, towards creation of widespread impoverishment (even in the developed countries); and
• the loss, as a result of the triumph of free-market ideology, of the instruments that nation-states need to manage the social effects of economic upheavals.
“The world economy is an increasingly powerful and uncontrolled engine. Can it be controlled, and if so, by whom?” he asks.
Again, a cruel irony: economic orthodoxy has begun to eliminate social security at the very time that mass unemployment appears to be settling in as a permanent feature of the modern economy. The nation-state is in decline, battered by a world economy it cannot control, and by its own apparent inability to serve its citizens and maintain public law and order.
Yet Hobsbawm warns that “the state, or some other form of public authority representing the public interest”, has become more indispensable than ever, if the social and environmental inequities of the market economy are to be countered. The state is still needed to allocate and redistribute income if we are to have an equitable society.
“It is absurd to argue,” he writes, “that the citizens of the European Community, whose per-capita share of the joint national income increased by 80 per cent from 1970 to 1990, cannot afford the level of income and welfare in 1990 that had been taken for granted in 1970.” With this simple but devastating proposition, he explodes the ridiculous economic policies that are transforming Canadian life for the worse in 1996.
He leaves us with a question that I believe should be put to every senior-level high school class, so that young people can get a realistic handle on the world they are now confronting.
What will happen, he asks — “the scenario is not utterly fantastic” — if present trends continue and we develop a society in which 25 per cent of the people are working, 75 per cent are not, and the economy is producing twice as much per capita as it is now?
“Who, except public authority, would and could ensure a minimum of income and welfare for all? Who could counter the tendencies to inequality so strikingly visible in the Crisis Decades? To judge by the experience of the 1970s and 1980s, not the free market.”
Of course, the free-market ideologues— people such as Michael Walker, Andrew Coyne, David Frum, Clare Hoy, Brian Mulroney, Mike Harris, Ralph Klein, Preston Manning et al, mean-spirited people whose views are hammered into us by the mass media (“which is now a more important component of the political process than parties and electoral systems”, writes Hobsbawm) — hate the very idea of equality. They care nothing about the answer to such a question.
Our future is not safe in their hands. They have taken us back in a giant leap to the world of uncertainty from which we thought the welfare state had rescued us. It looks as if all the battles of our fathers will have to be fought over again.
Whether generations dominated by “the unlimited autonomy of individual desire” are equipped for this fight is a major question that will be answered in the next decade or so. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the welfare state saved capltalism from revolution by those millions who were oppressed by its harsh rules. But if the welfare state is no more (as the neo-conservatives hope and pray), what will save capitalism next time around? Hobsbawm is clear about one thing: free-market economics cannot, by their very nature, solve the huge economic and social problems of the near future. Is it conceivable that within 20 years or so, those millions who are now being so heartlessly dropped off the social and economic scale will get their act together and rise in rebellion against their oppressors?
The book referred to in this article is Age of Extremes: the Short 20th Century, by Eric Hobsbawrn, published by Abacus, London, 1995, 627 pages, $19.95 paperback.