Thursday, October 4, 2012

A solemn crowd gathers outside the Stock Excha...
A solemn crowd gathers outside the Stock Exchange after the crash. 1929. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My Log  323  Oct 4 2012: A Last Word on Eric Hobsbawm, the wonderful British social historian, whose death at the age of 95 I referred to in a recent blog. In August 1996 I wrote the following article for Canadian Forum magazine, based on my reading of Hobsbawm's book about what he called Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century. The article testifies to my high regard for his intellectual and social wisdom.


A socialist balance sheet for the 20th century


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.

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