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The new-found all-party interest in the politics of Community might seem a relief after years of celebrating the individualism of the free market. But, asks James Heartfield, what are they offering members of the community like us?

Community conformity

There is a new buzz-word in British politics: Community. All politicians use it, no matter what party they are in. According to Labour's kingmaker Gordon Brown, speaking at the Fabian Society's Whatever Next? conference in June, the importance of 'Community' is 'our mutual dependency'. Labour's transport spokesman Frank Dobson agrees: 'What we all need is a change in our culture which recognises that we all have responsibilities to one another.'

Labour's new leader-in-waiting, Tony Blair, told the Fabian conference that Community is the basis of a revitalised socialism: 'The ethical view of socialism is based on these values - individuals are social and interdependent beings. Individuals owe a duty to society. This version of socialism does not set apart the interests of the individual and society, it is social-ism.'

But speaking at the Sunday Telegraph's Crime, Law and Order conference a few days later, Tory home secretary Michael Howard insisted the Community idea belonged to his party: 'We've been promoting this for years. If Tony Blair is willing to sign up for that, good. Individuals have rights and they also have responsibilities.' For good measure, Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats claim to have always been the party of the Community, but never more so than right now.

It has been a long time since there has been any new thinking in mainstream politics. Any claim to have found the long-hunted Big Idea should be taken with a pinch of salt. David Marquand of the opposition think-tank Demos protests that 'it is no longer true to say that the left has run out of ideas'. But when pressed on the Community idea he admitted that 'it is vague but we are grappling with it, and it will eventually come right: somewhere between "the market" and "social solidarity"'. In fact, on examination the most obvious thing about the Community idea is just how woolly it is. How else could a slogan be adopted by every establishment party, without any real agreement about what it means?

One thing that the new-found affection for the Community does mean is that the days of singing the praises of the unalloyed free market are over. All the talk about community has one common proposition, that, as Gordon Brown has it, the 'selfish individualism of the eighties is superseded by the politics of Community'. With capitalism returning to slump after the brief and speculative boom of the eighties, the free market individualism promoted by Margaret Thatcher is widely seen as a failure.

In 1987 Margaret Thatcher said 'I don't believe in society', adding 'there is no such thing, only individual people, and there are families' (Woman's Own, 31 October 1987). She was saying that only scroungers talk about 'society' while achievers know that they are on their own. Today Thatcher's comments seem to be the epitome of a selfish elevation of greed over the community.

Of course it is easy to imagine the Labour Party criticising selfish individualism; but surely such criticism could never influence the Tory Party, could it? In fact, right-wing thinkers, too, are being forced to express doubts about the free market. In his recent paper, The Undoing of Conservatism, Oxford don and former Thatcherite John Gray writes that 'human beings, more than they need the freedom of consumer choice, need a cultural and economic environment that offers them an acceptable level of security and in which they feel at home.' For good measure Gray is supporting Tony Blair as the next prime minister.

Nobody would expect the parliamentary Tory Party to go so far, but on top of the gratuitous use of the 'C' word Tories like MP and former Thatcherite David Willetts are not averse to bemoaning the curse of selfishness. 'We are becoming worse people', he says, 'more self-centred, more aggressive, more hostile to excellence and achievement, less civil, less willing to give time to any cause greater than ourselves'.

All of this condemnation of selfishness sounds like a change of heart. However, the stress on community is really motivated by the authorities' instinctive fear of the consequences of economic slump and social division, rather than any desire to organise the economy for the benefit of ordinary people. The trouble with this kind of criticism of the free market is that it only operates on the moral level. Instead of seeing the problem as the failure of the market system as a whole, the problem is reposed as one of individual behaviour: selfishness.

But it is worth asking just who is it that has been so selfish in recent times? Certainly not workers like British Rail's signalmen. They were persuaded first to sacrifice jobs for increased productivity and second to hold back on any pay increase until Railtrack took over after privatisation. Now Railtrack says that their outstanding productivity deal was a matter for BR and the signalmen are left fighting for £150 per week.

Indeed trade unionists are the last people you could call selfish. The unions have spent the greater part of the past decade negotiating away hours, conditions of service and jobs, getting all too little in return.

Perhaps, as some Labour activists see it, it is the C2 voters of southern England who have been selfish, voting for the Tory Party out of narrow self-interest when they should have elected a more caring Labour government. But the truth is that not many southern voters in occupational group C2 would have been affected by the £21000 tax threshold proposed by Labour at the last election (see G Radice, Southern Discomfort).

Instead of being motivated by a greedy desire for more and more riches, those skilled working class Tory voters were trying to hang on to the essentials - a mortgage, income, and perhaps a car - that they thought would be even less secure under a Labour government.

The truth is that working people have not been nearly selfish enough. They paid the price for the failures of British capitalism in unemployment and speed-ups and harassment at work. On top of that, they shouldered the burden of their relatives and friends who were thrown out of work. And all the time that they have been making sacrifices to keep industry afloat, the wealthy and powerful members of the Community have reaped the benefits.

Some company directors award themselves wages of £1m or more a year. Former cabinet ministers like Lord Young and Cecil Parkinson get themselves lucrative jobs on the boards of the companies they had privatised while in government. Some 70000 people have been appointed to comfortable positions on quangos to run local government in place of elected representatives; many of the most privileged quangoites are defeated Tory candidates.

You could say that these were the people who have been selfish, but it would be more accurate to say that they worked the system to defend their collective interests. These Hooray Henries would not last a minute under the law of the jungle, but when it comes to jobs for the boys, they know how to look after their own little community of the boardroom.

The moralistic criticism of the market ends up blaming the very people that are on the receiving end of the slump, because everyone is held to be equally to blame. When we are all to blame for being selfish, the question Que bono?--who really benefits?--never gets asked. Instead everybody is expected to tighten their belts and share the burden of the slump, everybody except those company directors who can afford to sit out a little adverse publicity about the size of their bonuses from time to time.

Behind the concern with Community stands a fear of dissent and division. The more that politicians talk up the notion of Community, the clearer it becomes that they have nothing real with which to hold people together and are trying to cover up the social divisions that threaten their position.

It is not difficult to see why Tory politicians are preoccupied with division and the need to pull everything together: their usually rock-solid support in the British middle classes has collapsed under the impact of the slump. According to June's Mori poll only 12 per cent of professional, managerial, administrative and clerical employees (group ABC1) trust Tory politicians. A succession of poor election results only confirms that there is no such thing as a safe Conservative seat any more.

But for Labour, too, there is a problem of division in the ranks that means it cannot be sure of succeeding where the Tories fail. The Labour Party is an overwhelmingly middle class party, according to Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley's 1992 survey of Labour Party membership, while its voters are predominantly working class (Labour's Grass Roots). As Neil Kinnock, John Smith and now Blair have remoulded Labour's public image in pursuit of middle class votes, the potential for tensions between the party and its base has arisen.

In various elections Labour has seen signs of that divide opening up in its heartlands. In the Rotherham by-election in May, Labour candidate Denis MacShane saw the party's turnout and majority plummet. MacShane sent a bitter memo to party HQ, noting how out of touch Labour has become with working class people, especially young ones: 'during the whole campaign we never had more than four or five people working for us under the age of 45.' (Tribune, 17 June) In Scotland and London's East End, Labour has found its core support tempted away by the Scottish National Party and even the crank British National Party as traditional Labour voters protest at the middle class drift of the party.

But the need to talk up common interests and downplay divisions is not just about getting elected. It is about keeping a grip on a society that is increasingly fragmented and out of control. The rhetoric of Community is about fostering conformity and criminalising dissent, drawing a divide between responsible 'us' and irresponsible 'them'. As such it is the favoured language of the forces of law and order.

Sir Paul Condon of the Metropolitan Police has been criticised by some rank-and-file officers for going soft, but at a recent conference he outlined the need for the police to win public support: 'The police service must through its style, priorities and performance encourage confidence and support in the wider Community.'

But when the authorities start talking about protecting the Community we are entitled to ask, exactly what Community are they talking about? The answer turns out to be a lot more exclusive than inclusive. Politicians and police officers alike effortlessly imagine a Community that is made up of people like them, who share their prejudices of what is and what is not legitimate. According to Paddy Ashdown it is 'schools, welfare organisations, business, voluntary bodies - the whole community': a 'whole community' made up of middle class do-gooders like Paddy Ashdown in fact.

According to Paul Condon, the Community is made up of 'individuals, the business community, local government and central government' whose principal duty is a 'comprehensive strategy to fight crime'. In other words, a kind of national Neighbourhood Watch scheme. At the same conference the chief constable of the Strathclyde Police outlined what kinds of activities were legitimate in 'the Community'--'a safe place in which to live, work, play, invest and locate enterprise'.

If, on the other hand, you do not fit into the acceptable categories of communal behav-iour - being enterprising or investing - you will incur the wrath of the authorities. The proposed Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill gives an insight into just how narrow is the envisaged community of respectable citizens.

Deploying the pious language of defending the Community, the bill seeks to ban a range of activities that would rule anybody under 30 an outsider: hunt-saboteurs, hikers, bikers, ravers, people going to raves, squatters, protesters, travellers, dope-smokers and ticket touts among many others are all subject to special provisions. That should leave a community made up of Victor Meldrew, Richard Branson and Mavis Riley.

Presumably railway workers can be members of the community along with their passengers; until, that is, they go on strike for 24 hours in pursuit of a paltry pay rise, at which point they become mindless vandals who are, in the words of Community spokesman John Major, 'putting thousands of commuters at risk'.

When Martin Mitchell and other anti-Criminal Justice Bill campaigners took part in a recent Channel 4 studio discussion about the bill, the television company was phoned the next day by Inspector Stephen O'Farrell of the Thames Valley Criminal Intelligence Unit asking for details of all the participants in the programme. When it was pointed out that they had not committed a crime by appearing on television, O'Farrell replied that they were 'only trying to fit some names to some faces'. Faces, presumably, that do not conform to Inspector O'Farrell's idea of the respectable Community.

The rhetoric of Community proposed by leading politicians and police officers is far from a new idea that will get British politics out of the doldrums. Rather it is the reflexive conservatism of an establishment that senses its own loss of authority. The proposition 'Let's all pull together' does not add up to a new policy. What it does show is that free market individualism has lost its appeal and, for all the talk of Community, the only thing that the powers that be have on offer to pull society together is a big dose of law and order.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 70, August 1994

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