THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
James Heartfield on the Tories' doomed search for a
'No theory of government was ever given a fairer test or a more prolonged
experiment than democratic socialism received in Britain. Yet it was a miserable
failure in every respect.'(p7)
- Saturn's Children: How the State Devours Liberty, Prosperity
and Virtue, Alan Duncan and Dominic Hobson, Sinclair Stevenson,
- Things to Come: The Tories in the Twenty-First Century,
John Patten, Sinclair Stevenson, £17.99 hbk
- The Downing Street Years, Margaret Thatcher, Harper
Collins, £9.99 pbk
That damning judgement of Labour in office comes from the first volume of
Margaret Thatcher's autobiography, The Downing Street Years, out
now in paperback. Today, however, it stands more as an epitaph for the system
of government described as Thatcherism, the resurgent capitalist policies
No system of government was ever given a fairer test. Thatcher ruled for
11 years, graced with an opposition that was inept, cowardly and without
principle. Yet her government was a miserable failure in every respect but
one - the systematic defeat of the old labour movement and left. Despite
forcing through radical policies, despite attacking the high taxation and
welfare spending that were supposed to hold back the British economy, the
country slid down the world ratings through industrial shake-out, inflationary
bubble and sustained slump.
The miserable failure of Thatcher's government dominates the Conservative
Party today. In 1979 Thatcher's policies galvanised the party around the
programme of rolling back socialism. Today the Tories are partly victims
of their success in vanquishing the old enemies. The weakness of British
capitalism now stands fully exposed, without any excuses about trade union
power or high-spending socialists to let it off the hook. For five years
John Major's government has sat on death row, without a single new policy
of substance as it careers from crisis to crisis.
The malaise in the Tory family has provoked an interest in ideas unfamiliar
to the right, as politicians seek out the 'big idea' that will save them.
The maverick former education minister John Patten was never afraid of being
unpopular (which was just as well in the circumstances). He has written
his new book Things to Come, because 'to think anew while governing
is desperately difficult - but vital'. If the Tories do not think anew now,
'then we will not hold power'. In Saturn's Children, Dominic Hobson
and Rutland MP Alan Duncan set out a new programme along Thatcherite lines
of tax and social security cuts.
Duncan and Hobson make the biggest ideological summersaults as they try
to get over the problem of Conservatism's failure. They repeat Nigel Lawson's
proposition that 'capitalism has sought to rest its case on practical success....Socialism,
by contrast has been forced by practical failure on to the high ground of
morality' (p153). With the terms reversed, though, that would stand as a
description of their book; that practical failure has forced the free marketeers
on to the high ground of morality.
Duncan and Hobson decry the contemporary state of British society as a betrayal
of the ideal of the free market. Ill at ease in a country where government
spending represents 43.3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, they are driven
to denounce the Conservative government for giving in to creeping socialism.
Saturn's Children is a critique of the reality of capitalist society
in the late twentieth century, conducted according to the abstract ideals
of the free market. Lo and behold! Actually existing capitalism does not
live up to its promises of freedom. What follows is an often engaging denunciation
of the inherent hostility that modern capitalism - which Duncan and Hobson
insist on calling socialism - has towards individual rights.
In Saturn's Children the radical free-marketeers strike some provocative
poses. The Gulf War was just realpolitik, they say, and the dehumanisation
of adversaries makes it easier to slaughter them (but Thatcher's Falklands
War was just); the poll tax riots were a justified response to an oppressive
tax; drugs should be decriminalised; identity cards represent the worst
kind of state intrusion into our lives; big corporations are inimical to
freedom, dominating their employees and working hand in glove with big government;
there is no such thing as community, just state interference.
On the face of it these libertarian right wingers seem to pose a real challenge
to today's climate of state interference and the victim culture. It is a
measure of just how out of sorts the average free-marketeer is with the
state of Britain today that a right-wing Tory MP like Alan Duncan should
object to all of these features of capitalist society. However, his libertarianism
has real limits. It is only where the rights of private property are being
attacked that the right's libertarian instincts are galvanised. They are
quite prepared to support state interference in society and the regulation
of peoples' lives, so long as it is carried out in support of the values
and institutions which they support. And, as we shall see, they think democracy
is the biggest threat to individual liberty.
Duncan and Hobson are thorough to the point of tedium in describing the
'oppressive' nature of the tax system and public expenditure. Liberties
not relating to taxpayers, though, seem to pass Duncan and Hobson by. Despite
pouring scorn on the ethical humbug of Christian socialism, the authors
turn very moral when it comes to defending family values. The rise in divorce
is presented as a great social ill. But what is wrong with the fact that
people choose their partners? Suddenly the defenders of liberty start to
denounce it in women as so much 'permissiveness' - which, despite their attempts
to distinguish the two, is just the pejorative word for freedom.
The libertarian rhetoric which Saturn's Children uses to lure its
readers gets ejected once the 'crime' button is pressed. For all their general
scepticism towards manufactured social problems, Duncan and Hobson fall
for the myth of exponential rises in crime, hook, line and sinker. A brief
look at the way that crime statistics are recorded and reported ought to
have warned Duncan and Hobson that they were being bamboozled into yet more
state spending, but then this is the sort of creeping state they like. Get
closer to the public, they counsel the police (as they never would the tax
office), and gather more information. Police spies are safe from these would-be
defenders of liberty after all.
In Things to Come John Patten tries to square the circle of criticising
the Thatcher legacy and praising it. Like Duncan, Patten generally thinks
that the Tories need to go further. If they went wrong it was by deviating
from the true path. Somehow, he says to explain the slump, the Conservatives
just forgot all about their sound money policies and encouraged inflationary
growth and bad debt, as if it had all been Nigel Lawson's mistake.
More independence from state subsidy is Patten's answer. But here he meets
a problem. Rolling back the state depends 'not just on good government ideas
but whether or not our people wish to take the chance of taking back more
responsibility from the state' (p118). The difficulty is 'in finding people
who want to take responsibility as much as they wish to take ownership'
(p121). Patten despairs 'we offer them capitalism but they do not want it'.
The truth is that most people do want independence, but their experience
of the market is that it is no independence at all.
As Patten notes, it is the failure of the market that means more people
are reliant on state benefits:
'The only alternative to an ever-growing dependency culture in those places
[housing estates] is economic growth and renewal there. If there is no renewal
then there will be more and more benefits paid out.' (p156)
The conclusion that eludes John Patten is that real dependency culture is
not so much a failing on the part of individuals, but of capitalist society
Neither Duncan nor Patten can come up with a big idea to save the Tories,
because theirs is much more than an intellectual problem. Everywhere the
distinctive programme that marked out the Tories in the past is eroded by
the reality and experience of the slump. The idea that society should be
free from the state is undermined by market failure, which has necessitated
high state spending and intervention to prop up the capitalist economy.
Take taxation. In the past, Tory anti-tax policies proved an effective weapon
against Labour. In the 1992 election Major snatched victory from the jaws
of defeat by painting Labour as a tax-and-spend party. The taxation issue
proved emblematic of Labour's untrustworthiness on the economy, and enough
southern working class voters were sufficiently worried to help swing the
balance for Major. Today Tories like John Patten and Alan Duncan are keen
to take the high ground again on the tax question.
Unfortunately their party's record counts against them. Real rises in taxation,
from VAT on fuel to the abolition of Mortgage Income Tax Relief make a mockery
of the Tory record. Chancellor Kenneth Clarke's protestations that the Tories
are, by instinct a tax-cutting party impress nobody when the Labour front
bench is listing his government's successive tax rises.
The way that Patten tells it, the problem is that - as if by an oversight - the
government forgot to cut the taxes that ordinary people pay, so keen were
they to cut taxes for business: 'Tories in the twenty-first century need
to perform the same trick for families that they have done so well for business
since 1979.' (p164) But elevating the concerns of capitalists over ordinary
people was not an accident on the Conservatives' part. The class divide
is not something incidental or accidental, but the nature of the system
the Tories are committed to defending.
Things to Come ends up with the rather modest ambition of 'getting
back to the rate of taxation the Labour Party...bequeathed us in 1970, then
41 per cent' (p174). Trying to explain why taxation rates have continued
to rise under a Tory government committed to cutting public expenditure
is not easy. According to the former minister, the government just has not
quite succeeded in persuading the British public of the need to slash public
Underneath the discussion about tax is a serious misconception on the part
of both the main parties. Tory protestations about the drift of public expenditure
rest on a confusion over which is the decisive factor in the relation between
the economy and public expenditure. The reason that expenditure is rising
as a percentage of output is a lack of dynamism in the economy, not an excess
of generosity on the part of the government. Without a sufficient base for
taxation, public expenditure will necessarily seem to be excessive.
On the other hand, the perception that ordinary people are overtaxed, played
up by New Labour, is also a confusion. In reality they are underpaid, and,
lacking the avenue of pushing for higher wages, the money lost in taxation
seems ever more onerous. Consider what would happen if Alan Duncan's pretended
goal of lower taxes for families were achieved. Would that money stay in
their hands? No. All that would happen is that real wages would fall, either
eaten away by inflation or bargained down in the face of a disadvantageous
labour market. More tax breaks would only be a signal to employers that
they could cut wages. For people on a wage, take-home pay is your real pay,
and the deductions are just an extra wind up.
Duncan and Hobson argue that the threat to the liberty of taxpayers is democracy
itself: 'Democracy turned parliament into an assembly representative mainly
of those who imagined themselves to be the expropriators.... The result
was to transform the Mother of Parliaments into a pork barrel.'(p47) The
limitation of Duncan and Hobson's support for liberty is set by the exclusion
of the working class from prosperity. Owning no capital, working people
have little concern for Alan Duncan's fulminations about the tax system.
Indeed the authors of Saturn's Children come dangerously close to
expressing the real basis of the market society they want to defend against
the state: 'Taxation divides the people of a country into two great and
antagonistic classes.' (p77) But their perverse interpretation of this state
of affairs is that the capital-owning classes are exploited, through taxation,
by the working classes.
The importance of taxation in policy debate today reflects the extent to
which mainstream politics has become a narrowly focused battle for the loyalty
of middle class 'Middle England'. For the middle classes, tax rises underscore
the fragility of their own position. For professionals and small businessmen,
Tory tax rises are the final betrayal by the party they thought was theirs.
The one sensible pitch that Patten does make for middle class support is
on the environment. While reserved on questions of animals rights, he has
a rural MP's instinct for keeping the townies out of England's green and
pleasant land. Preoccupied with the idea that this island is full to bursting,
Patten is keen to ward off the spread of concrete: 'Rarely can any material
have been so symbolic both of social as well as aesthetic degradation. Concrete
slab housing seems so closely correlated with crime, unemployment and underclassism.'
Rarely has any prejudice been so ill-disguised as John Patten's identification
of growth with the working class, particularly as he is sharp enough to
note in an earlier aside that the threat of the underclass is 'more imaginary
than real' (p156). Nonetheless the threat of the underclass spilling out
into an already overcrowded England is a good concern for a politician for
whom 'the countryside...has always been the place to go in order to collect
Tory voters by the trailer load' (p241).
It is pointed that when it comes to urban development, Patten's support
for the free market strangely givesway to a love of the plan, and the passages
on 'the Community' in Things to Come feature the word planning as
regularly as an old report on the Soviet grain harvest. Planning here means
planning to keep the oiks out, and to keep a little patch of greenery for
the middle class. 'Any twenty-first century planning legislation must have
community as its touchstone' or there is little point in taking 'power and
responsibility from a shrunken state' (p215).
In the end Patten's Things to Come lacks the combativeness and confidence
to map out a Thatcher-style vision. For a former education minister there
are some duff spellings ('incomprehending') and nonsensical sentences ('We
should abolish the numbers of ministries, not add to them', p245). Could
By contrast, Saturn's Children grabs you by the lapels, and, when
its fire is turned on the humbug of Tony Blair's 'community' or the intrusiveness
of the social services, its criticisms are effective. But deep down it is
hard not to think that Alan Duncan and Dominic Hobson are just a bit bonkers,
though not for the reasons for which they have been criticised, like wanting
to legalise drugs. After all, if the surveys are to be believed most young
people would agree with them on that score.
No, the thing that is hard to believe is that they do not understand that
this is what capitalism is like today, not because of an accident or bad
policy, but in its very nature. All the things they hate, from the intrusiveness
of the state to the oppressive nature of big business, are the true character
of late twentieth century capitalism, not a perversion of it. After all,
if there really were radical policies that could transform the competitiveness
of British capitalism and make the government more attractive, even the
slow-witted Major would have grabbed at them. The limitations imposed on
the Tories today by capitalist slump are clear in the rather banal practical
proposals which follow Duncan and Hobson's radical rhetoric about rolling
back the state. The best they can come up with is to knock a couple of billion
off the foreign aid budget - a far cry from the dramatic proposals to privatise
the big public utilities which marked the high point of Thatcher's 'popular
Far from being the opposite of the market, the state is its mirror image,
formed, as Duncan and Hobson readily acknowledge, to defend property, and
growing in influence in proportion to the growth of the system of private
property relations. The real fight for liberty, it follows, is the fight
against capitalism, but perhaps that is too hard for a Tory MP to understand.
With Rebel Hearts, a collection of 'journeys within the IRA's soul',
Kevin Toolis says he wants to cut through 'the propaganda fog of the past
25 years and achieve a clearer understanding of the principal protagonists,
the Provisional IRA'. It is a laudable aim, especially since Toolis is one
of the journalists who did so much to mystify the conflict in Northern Ireland
as 'an ancient blood feud that stretches back across the centuries' (Guardian,
7 December 1991). Then Toolis wrote of 'Tyrone's green fields' where
'men mutter darkly of vendetta, unconsciously plunging between the centuries
in midsentence' - all of which added to British propaganda about barmy Irishmen.
- Rebel Hearts, Kevin Toolis, Picador,
Toolis recounts some striking stories of the courage and sacrifice of IRA
volunteers. There is Dermot Finucane who drove the getaway lorry in the
IRA's 1983 Great Escape from Long Kesh, and Patricia Black, blown up by
her own bomb at just 18 years of age. But all their tenacity is explained
away with the assertion that 'republicanism is in the blood', as if joining
the IRA was a kind of genetic disorder instead of a reaction to British
After the ceasefire Toolis has not renounced his psychological explanation
of republicanism. All that is new is that the account is more patronising
than vitriolic. Toolis admits that his aim is not really to explain, because
'Ireland has too much history', but to empathise. So his journey through
the 'rebel heart of Ireland' is a search for his own 'rebel heart'. Still,
you can always rely on a journalist to bring things down to their most base
level. Toolis' account of a visit to the family of Tony Doris, shot dead
in an SAS ambush at Coalisland, spends little time on sympathies and a full
five pages on the IRA man's sister, and Toolis' fumbled attempt to get into
her rebel pants.
By the end of the book you are left wondering what all the sacrifice was
for. Robbed of any wider sense of their project of national liberation,
the deaths of Patricia Black and Tony Doris just look like a tragic waste.
Their ideals are vulgarised by Toolis - as indeed they have been by the leaders
of the republican movement, who now say that their fight has only been for
'parity of esteem' between republicans and their enemies in Ireland. At
the end of his journey Kevin Toolis discovers that he too has a 'republican
soul' - which it seems is something cheaply bought these days.
British-born Peter Brimelow, now living in America writes an emotionally
charged and politically incorrect polemic against immigration and in defence
of the nation, which he sees as a 'sort of extended family'. Even strident
anti-immigrant campaigners like governor Pete Wilson in California usually
frame their arguments in acceptably pragmatic economic terms - a sort of
'nothing personal but we need to protect our jobs'. By contrast Brimelow
insists that immigrants are a threat to the integrity of America, and proposes
a rerun of the infamous mass deportation of Mexican immigrants in 1954,
degradingly called Operation Wetback.
- Alien Nation: Common Sense about America's
Immigration Disaster, Peter Brimelow, Random House, $23.50 hbk
Brimelow shows a zealous enthusiasm for cultural difference, which he thinks
is unavoidable. Citing the 'mystic chords of memory' evoked in Abraham Lincoln's
first inaugural address, Brimelow's account of American identity is curiously
like that of the proponents of black and Hispanic identity - all culture
and no content: 'Thus the culture of a country, like its ecology, turns
out to be a living thing, sensitive and even fragile. Neither can easily
be intruded upon without consequences.' This is a version of American nationalism
that is compellingly defensive. Brimelow even bleats that keeping immigrants
out will improve economic conditions for America's blacks.
The book takes its name from the late night TV series Alien Nation where
a bizarre yet familiar looking extra-terrestrial race arrive on Earth causing
all sorts of problems from crime and poverty to a racist backlash. The series
abruptly ended, mid-adventure with the hero about to be killed. The closing
credits promised that the story would be continued next week, only to be
corrected by a voiceover from the station saying that no more episodes were
made. Permanently threatened with extinction is how Brimelow sees America.
Alien Nation shows how the politics of cultural difference can be
used to revitalise America at the expense of the third world poor.
Once upon a time labour historians wrote the story of the making of the
working class as if it was one long process of development leading up to
the modern trade union movement. Each stage, from Chartism to the New Model
Unions, was a lesson to be learned on the way. Confidence in the unbroken
development of the labour movement was shattered as its contemporary organisations
lost their way.
- Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action,
Mark Traugott (ed), Duke University Press, £27.50 hbk, £12.95
Charles Tilly, who inspired this collection as well as contributing an essay,
did much to dislodge the idea that collective organisation was one long
ascent. His scepticism towards the imposed schemas of the development of
the working class had a point. Working class organisation is indeed discontinuous,
as it is made, unmade and made anew by the continuous reorganisation of
However, the real weakness of Tilly's approach, as shown in the essays of
his students reproduced here, is that it robs all collective organisation
of meaning, beyond the merely tactical and technical questions of organisation.
So profound is Tilly's mistrust of grand schemas that he not only rejects
those attempts to make sense of events afterwards, but even rejects those
accounts of the participants themselves as equally untrustworthy. What he
is left with, he proudly tells us, is an index of thousands of instances
of civil disorder, each as dumb as the last.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 82, September 1995