Posts Tagged ‘E.C. Midwinter’

Blair, Mussolini, Neo-Liberalism and ‘The End of the Ideology’

March 4, 2014

Mussolini

Fascist Dictator Mussolini adopting typically grandiose posture

After the scrapping of Clause 4, the section of the Labour party’s constitution committing it to nationalisation, Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ government was hailed by many as the expression of the new pragmatism in politics. With ministers drawn from outside as well within the Labour party itself, New Labour was celebrated for its empirical approach to politics. Instead of following the dictates of ideology, the party was instead formulating policies and appointing personnel according to what worked. Just as Francis Fukuyama described the new political era ushered in by the Fall of Communism as the ‘end of history’, so there was a tendency to describe Blair’s government almost as the ‘end of ideology’. This type of rhetoric resembled some of the attitudes adopted by Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship when it seized power in the 1920s.

19th and early 20th century Reformist Social Democrat politicians had believed that society and history proceeded by fixed laws, laws that were leading to the inevitable triumph of socialism. In their defence and advancements of socialism, the British Fabians, for example, who strenuously rejected Marx’s doctrine of the Class War, argued that Socialism was merely the continuation and expansion of existing government policies interfering with and regulating the economy. Sidney Webb, who with his wife, Beatrice, was one of the founders and leading Fabian intellectuals, wrote

The practical man, oblivious or contemptuous of any theory of the social organism or general principles of social organisation, has been forced, by the necessities of the time, into an ever-deepening collectivist channel. Socialism, of course, he still rejects and despises. The individualist town councillor will walk along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas, and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water, and seeing, by the municipal clock in the municipal market, that he is too early to meet his children coming from the municipal school, hard by the county lunatic asylum and municipal hospital, will use the national telegraph system to tell them not to walk through the municipal park, but come by the municipal tramway, to meet him in the municipal reading-room, by the municipal art gallery, museum, and library, where he intends to consult some of the national publications in order to prepare his next speech in the municipal town hall, in favour of the nationalisation of canals and the increase of Government control over the railway system. ‘Socialism, Sir,’ he will say, ‘Don’t waste the time of a practical man by your fantastic absurdities. Self-help, Sir, individual self-help, that’s what’s made our city what it is’.

Sydney Webb, Socialism in England, quoted in E.C. Midwinter, Victorian Social Reform (Longman: Harlow 1968) p. 94.

This idea of slow progress leading to the gradual victory of Socialism seemed to be shattered by the reality of the First World War. This seemed to show that all such ideologies of historical laws of gradual progress were wrong. To the activists and intellectuals that formed part of Mussolini’s Fascists, the War instead showed that history was made through will. As a result, Fascism vigorously promoted itself as the first movement that was no constrained by ideology or values. Some non-Fascist Italian intellectuals were initially favourable to them because of this. It seemed to look past the political stalemates that had occurred in the Italian parliament through the conflicts between the different political groups.

Adrian Lyttleton in his book The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929(London: George Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd 1987, describes the situation thus

The interventionist intellectuals conceived of the war as an assertion of will and energy in defiance of the supposed ‘laws’ of historical development. ‘The world war has destroyed the ideology of progress as a slow ordered succession of events and institutions … it has destroyed the bourgeois, reformist, evolutionist conception.’ In the postwar period, activism ceased to be merely an intellectual fashion and became a widespread state of mind. The confusion and dissatisfaction with all existing ideologies had become acute. While other parties appeared to deny the existence of a crisis of values, Fascism not only recognized by glorified it. Mussolini’s attitude of tough-minded pragmatism, his claim to have seen through and ‘transcended’ the old ideologies, appeal to may intellectuals. They celebrated Fascism as the end of ideology, as the first realistic political movement free from both moral and intellectual preconceptions, one in which practice would precede and form values instead of the other way round. Fascism taught the value of Negative Thinking. There were echoes here of Nietzsche’s ‘transvaluation of values’; the Fascist felt himself to be the superman freed from conventional moral restraints, and this helped him to act with confidence and ruthlessness. (p. 367).

Regardless of the rhetoric surrounding Blair’s government as indicating the end of ideology, Blair was not, unlike the Fascists, a moral nihilist. He did not reject all systems of morality nor celebrate force and violence. Indeed, he was always keen to promote some kind of moral reason for his actions and policies, some of which, like the invasion of Iraq, were indeed highly questionable. Nor can the Blair regime be seen as inaugurating the ‘end of ideology’. Blair’s New Labour did not reject ideology – it just rejected traditional socialism in favour of Neo-Liberalism. They still retained some belief in social justice and state interference in the economy for the good of society, but this was to be kept at a minimum. Following Thatcher, who gave her official endorsement of Blair when she met him at 10 Downing Street after his election, private enterprise was regarded as the foremost solution to the problems of the economy and society. This attitude has continued to inform politics after Blair’s departure. It underlies Brown’s management of the economy, and now, in a far purer and more extreme form, that of the Coalition.

I don’t, however, believe that the Neo-Liberal consensus has meant the end of ideology. The vast majority of the population, for example, do not want the privatisation of the NHS. Nor did they wish for the privatisation of the Post Office when this was mooted by New labour. Furthermore, as Mike has pointed out, there is considerable support for the renationalization of the railways and the utilities. What has changed is not so much the opinions of the electorate, but that of the governing political elites. And this is leading to a crisis of faith in politics. Increasing numbers are not voting, because they see little difference between the parties. These particularly include the young, the poor, the unemployed and disabled, who believe that there is no point in voting, as none of the parties are interesting in doing anything for them. This has not led to a revolt, whether of the Left, like the Communists, or the Right, like the Fascists. But it is corroding democracy in this country. If we are not careful, it will lead to the emergence of a managerial, technocratic elite, who govern without a mandate and whose policies do not reflect the will of the electorate, even more so than the Coalition at present.

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The Void on the DWP’s Suggestion for the Return of the Workhouse

July 31, 2013

Over at Pride’s Purge, there’s a piece of satire about Serco and G4s getting the contract to run a Victorian Britain Experience, so foreigners can see what it was like here in the 19th century, complete with cholera, typhus and rickets, and the workhouse. The article’s entitled ‘Serco Wins Bid to Run UK as Victorian Theme Park’, and is at http://tompride.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/serco-wins-bid-to-run-uk-as-victorian-theme-park/. People have been making the same joke since Margaret Thatcher. There’s exactly the same joke about Maggie setting up the Victorian Britain Experience in the Private Eye/ Spitting Image spoof of her autobiography, Thatcha! The Real Maggie Memoirs.

Mr Pride has said that his article is satire, but only just. I have to say it may not be satire for very much longer. The Void has a well-researched and very disturbing article about a report commissioned for the DWP about the expansion of residential training centres offering workfare training for the disabled. The report recommends that it should also include the long term unemployed. The article’s at http://johnnyvoid.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/report-calls-for-expansion-of-residential-workfare-for-unemployed-and-disabled-people/

The article begins

An independent report, commissioned by the DWP, has called for greater use of Residential Training for disabled people and an extension of the scheme to include long term unemployed non-disabled people.

The report also accepts that this kind of training, which can involve periods of workfare away from home, should be opened up to the market. This process may begin with a open tender exercise next year.

Residential Training is a little known scheme available for disabled people who are long term unemployed and in the words of Jobcentre Disability Employment Advisors, are the ‘hardest to help’.

This is chilling. Mr Void states that at the moment there are only nine such centres and the accommodation they offer is actually quite comfortable. If the scheme expands and goes out to market tender, then conditions will deteriorate and the usual workfare parasites will demand their share of the scheme. He also links to the ‘less eligibility’ sensibility that informed the Victorian workhouse. Under less eligibility, conditions were made as hard as possible to dissuade people from entering except as a very last resort, and so becoming a drain on the state.

If this report is taken seriously, then it really would mean the reintroduction of something like the Victorian workhouse. Although the workhouses are mostly associated with the Victorian era, they were actually only closed with the arrival of the welfare state in 1948.

It thus appears that the government really is considering returning this country to the 19th and early 20th centuries by dismantling the NHS, and replacing it with ‘indoor relief’: in other words, the workhouse.

There’s a good chapter on the workhouse in E.C. Midwinter’s Victorian Social Reform, published by Longman. It’s a short book for ‘A’ level and undergraduate university students. It does have a collection of contemporary sources at the back, and these include the descriptions of the horrific level of starvation to which the residents of one workhouse were reduced. This should be essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in this policy, if only to correct the view that they were somehow picturesque institutions gained from seeing Oliver! once too many.