Saturday, 5 February 2011

How I learnt to stop worrying and love economic liberalism (in a very, very limited sense)

Posts will possibly be sparse for a while due to ongoing care concerns. However, I would say that living with someone born in 1920 should be pretty much compulsorary for anyone (like me) who was given to idealising the past.

Don't get me wrong. It resulted in some wonderful Ladybird books. Must have been sound being a bloke back in the day. No Calvin Klein models flexing their six-packs on every bus, no Sex and the City harridans giving the missus ideas. Just nice family life with your pipe and brown suit, a newspaper to read aloud to the wife as she does the housework and a pair of slippers to wear on warm nights or to quieten the sprogs if they interrupt the wireless. Pretty sweet, eh?

Well, no. I think if I were transported back to the fifties I'd scream like a schoolgirl and try to wangle my way into a 'Lunatic Asylum'.

Go to bed before 11PM? You go to bed TOO early. Wake up before 7PM? You wake up TOO early. Not good at staying awake when making smalltalk? You speak TOO little. Like chatting about philosophy/ ideas? You speak TOO much. Have a job involving reading and also like reading for pleasure? You read TOO much. Unless there's one and a half litres there, there's TOO little water in the kettle.

The only thing you can't have TOO much of is food. No, wait. You can have TOO many vegetables. But you can never have enough fried meat, only TOO little.

Maybe I am being harsh. I guess the thing is that my relative was the son of a town grocer. He's like one of those lower middle class clerks in 1970s costume dramas set in the Edwardian times. Utterly well-meaning and incessantly offensive always striving to instill mediocrity in others and trying to put them in their place if they seem to want to get above their station. If you accused him of being patronising he'd probably ask what that word meant and upon being told say 'Isn't that what white middle class men are supposed to do'? He seemed pretty horrified to see me learning a bit of Latin. The old Romans are good enough for coffee-table books, but their lingo isn't for the likes of us.

I got a bit of flack here a while back for not calling myself middle class when I've got a desk job. I certainly wouldn't be ashamed to call myself middle class if current employment is the sole criteria. In which case I may well be part of an underclass menace 2 society if Cleggeron's grand pan to boost GDP by slashing employment is anything to go by. But I guess my strongest feeling is that we have choice as never before which has largely destroyed the class system and this is not something to be sneezed at.

For example between them I can blether with two of my closest Brit friends about 80s action movies, 60s avant garde rock, Ancient Rome, 70s horror films, French New Wave cinema, Sammy Franco fitness, Columbo, HP Lovecraft, retro-Brit comedies, Bill Hicks, Noam Chomsky and numerous other niche interests. Their place (and mine) as relating to the means of production really isn't none too important.

I have another good friend (proudly Northern English and working class) who is a hexagenarian Orthodox Christian who shares my fondness for Dostoyevsky. I always like to pump her for gossip about Ennismore Gardens. So much for 'religion' v liberalism. I can't imagine my petit-bourgeois east coast forebears would like me keeping such company.

What really strikes me most is how mainstream Anglo-Saxon culture really was in a bit of a cul-de-sac in the mid 20th Century. Like a lot of teenagers I read 'A Clockwork Orange' as a teenager. Then had the slightly surreal experience of looking out other Anthony Burgess novels and discovering appalling, flatulent, middle-brow works with laughable delusions of profundity. Yet he regarded ACO as an embarrassment and thought his widely praised middle class middle brow snoreathons were where it was really at.

And he was one of the better writers. Who now could stay awake reading Iris Murdoch, John Braine or Kingsley Amis?

And the music. Please, let's not talk about white Anglo-Saxon music in the early 20th Century. What's that? The only guy who ever tried had his tongue cut out and thrown to a pool of piranhas? OK.

But then, there is the great irony that African-American culture (an oppressed people who had been largely neglected by their government) had a really huge impact on post-war Britain. Until I spent time with my elderly relative it never really occurred to me just how vastly alien this culture must have seemed to early-21st Century Brits, given that they'd probably guess someone was foreign if they didn't like warm beer or if they drunk coffee. I'm sure numerous German spies must have been rumbled after setting the toaster TOO high or TOO low.

One thing that struck me as weird, seeing a documentary about Enoch Powell, was how calm and quiet a lot of his fans were in contrast to the contorted English Defence Leaguers. I couldn't help feeling they weren't too bothered that Indians would import Sutti or Thuggees. It was more like they were worried they might have haddock rather than roast lamb for Sunday lunch. Or maybe drink tea that was TOO strong for Blighty.

I guess whilst they can't help but be paradoxically humbled by their mountainous reputations, Lennon and MacCartney must have decided that black musicians showed a way out of the world of corned beef and steak and kidney pie (though speaking of post war cuisine, there seems another paradox that the generation that hated vegetables seemed to love that most unlovable of vegetables: the brussel sprout).

And then there was also the cinema. Quite something to think of how few years separated Night of the Living Dead from The Guns of Navarone. Yet this was another aspect of popular culture which really threw some pretty exhilarating ideas to the population.

Even on the one issue where my views would be regarded as 'right wing' (despite the fact they are more prevalent in working class Catholic rather than Middle Class East Anglian culture due to lack of interest in Britain's own recent history, obsession with the USA and secular anti-intellectualism) which is my view that unborn children have right to life, pro-abortion legislation was largely voted in by the post-war generation and something of a formality anyway given that backstreet abortion clinics were widely tolerated.

In saying these things I don't take back what I've said previously that I think modern popular culture has lost the way: that films like 'Saw' and 'music' or 'TV' involving Simon Cowell are a betrayal of any ideas or ideals that popular culture often claims for itself. Our younger rock stars seem more white and middle class than UKIP. As for the older ones, whilst I acknowledge that the fox-hunting ban is hypocritical given the existence of factory farming, I do find something vaguely dubious about the Countryside Alliance lineups given that they were howling with rage against the haves not so long ago.

For all that I am grateful that pop culture kicked down so many doors. And, though it is difficult to admit this, I am sort-of grateful for SOME aspects of consumerism: even though I suspect that modern day fans of 70s slasher picks could have congregated quite well without Norman Tebbit, thank you very much.

The question as always is 'what must be done'? I think it is tragic that so much of the good things about the post-war-settlement are declining. But will my generation be able to do anything about it? I feel optimistic in a sense. Not wildly so, but I do have some optimism.


  1. Great post. As much as I complain about modern pop culture and consumerism, I would really hate to have to give up some of my guilty pleasures. I am currently listening to Black Sabbath’s "Heaven and Hell" album. I imagine my old Italian grandfather would think I was either a devil worshiper or a philistine because I think Ronnie James Dio was a legitimately great singer.

    That being said, I think the problem with modern capitalism is that it is very good at things that matter less and bad at things that matter a lot.

    For example, we have a veritable cornucopia of pleasure at our fingertips. We have access to entertainment that even the kings of centuries past would envy, and all available with a relatively modest income.

    However, when we throw things like family life, proper family wages, job security, safe pensions, etc. into the mix, I can’t help but think that, warts and all, the post-war settlement was superior to neoliberalism.

    I suppose I would rather have a stodgier society but with more economic security than a more varied, exciting society, with less economic security. But that is probably my personality speaking. I would hope that we could, to some degree, have our cake and eat it too, although maybe that is impossible.

  2. 'That being said, I think the problem with modern capitalism is that it is very good at things that matter less and bad at things that matter a lot. '

    A very good point. Saying 'I hate capitalism' would confuse an important critique of capitalism (that it is built on coercion and exploitation with morally indefensible treatment of the third world) with the fact that in a strange unintentional way I think it has enriched our society.

    Ironically enough, this has largely been at the expense of conservatism: the popularity of African-American music in 60s/70s America and Britain must have come as a real shock to many middle class white people whose idea of 'black music' would be a white dude in greasepaint.

    Of course, the inverse argument is often made from different corners: that a certain petit bourgeoise boorishness is the magic ingredient of social democracy.

    I'd rather not believe this, and think that this is evident from the social democracy of France and Germany and the free market fanaticism of General Pinochet.

    However, it seems to me that both left and right in Britain have an aversion to focusing on foreign politics too much and are at risk of trying to sell a 'white cliffs of Dover' style nostalgia that simply won't wash in the modern day.

    This is a point that John Gray the philosopher was unjustly attacked for making. He pointed out that the key to Cameron's success was that instead of trying to create nostalgia for a bygone utopia, he acknowledged that many Brits like modern Britain.

    Given the savagery of British political journalism this may seem an odd point to make: there's certainly a lot that I would rant about concerning modern Britain. But the question of whether I'm happy living in a country where the 'intelligentsia' seem to build their knowledge of foreign policy on boy's adventure comics and the question of whether I'm happy living in a country where I can choose to spend time with people who are a lot like me who might not exist in other countries are very different.

    Of course there is a dark side to this. Now ghettoisation is no longer purely about foreign cultures wanting to insulate their lifestyle from that of the host nation but often about people refusing to meet those they might have fairly minor disagreements with.

  3. As a matter of interest, Gregor, have you heard the Moody Blues track "Lazy Day"? Very descriptive of a lot of British life at the time - and, aptly enough, recorded the very same month that Murdoch bought the News of the World.

  4. More generally ... I certainly think it's hypocritical for people who feel a close affinity to popular culture and feel that the Britain of 50 years ago was living on dreams of a world that had already gone (as even Peter Hitchens has acknowledged in his more thoughtful moments), and dominated by petty insularity and fear of anyone slightly different, to then condemn every single aspect of capitalism *unreservedly*. These things are highly nuanced, and a society in which capitalism was held back could as easily - in fact, probably *more* easily - have been a society in which anyone from a working-class background who wanted to learn and aspire beyond their own background was frowned upon (which is the other, crucial side to Hitchens Minor's adulation of grammar schools and the natural socialist desire to look back fondly on the mining culture of betterment - I know from personal experience how narrow a perspective most people who went to secondary moderns, i.e. the majority at the time, had and often still have on the outside world), where "No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish" signs were commonplace, &c, &c, as a society which really was equal and forward-thinking. I remember a Russian who had lived through the Soviet era saying that "once I was rich but in prison, now I am poor but free", and to some extent that is the social condition of a lot of people *here* who benefited from the post-war settlement economically, in terms of being able to bring up a family on one person's wage in a way that is much harder now, but remained trapped in a very narrow, ordained social world which drove many non-conformists to drink and crushing isolation (and this love of societies which probably *are* quite happy for natural conformists, but not caring about anyone else, is the key to Neil Clark & David Lindsay's adulation of Iran).

    There's also no doubt that African-American culture was seen as an ally of socialism and progressive thought for many at the time, such as the film-maker Richard Fontaine who I met at the BFI yesterday - it may have been presented by capitalist means, but its more radical end offered a serious and challenging critique of the capitalist system which provided an inspiration that someone like Richard Hoggart, trapped in as hierarchical a universe as the crustiest Oxbridge Tory, never could. To acknowledge that doesn't amount to an endorsement of every single aspect of capitalism - it's possible to use capitalism for radical ends, such as to prove that a black-owned company really *could* take the mainstream, which is the context that justifies even the most supper-club Motown efforts. I also agree that Clark & Lindsay (if you mean them, you may not) are far too unwilling to engage with the present - I'd call their position "Daily Mail Socialism" (i.e. Ahmadinejad with the Islamic bits taken out, as Karl Naylor has perceptively seen), and really that's as bad as any other kind of Mailism, and in some ways worse as it makes progressive ideas *seem* conservative, just like Billy Bragg on TOTP. Perhaps socialism *is* incompatible with mass culture as we have it today, but as you say that doesn't mean that the mass of the past was socialist in a truly progressive sense ... much of what Clark & Lindsay think was socialist was really small-c conservative, riddled with paranoia over reds under the bed (just as Lindsay appears to think Taki is comparable with socialism in the present day).

  5. re. my first post, I would recommend the Moody Blues' 'Days of Future Passed' because it seems to be a celebration of the good bits of the Butskellite order, in a way that was always very rare in British pop and rock. re. current pop, have you heard Martin Solveig's "Hello"? That is selling better in Scotland than in the UK as a whole, which may suggest that there are political reasons why a more progressive European/Canadian form of pop, untainted by the neoliberal excesses of the US-led mainstream, may translate better in some places than others.

  6. @Robin
    Thank you for your comments. I'm writing from a library computer. Primarily I'm criticising my own rather naive views here. Neil and David are both interesting and engaging writers even if I disagree on numerous issues.

    I suppose primarily I feel saddened about how little of a bridge there is in the left between social-liberal fundamentalists and social conservatives who do feel that a cohesive society is important.

    I do think that efforts to reach out to social conservatives on the right would be (to quote my compatriot John Laurie) doomed!

    I don't see that anyone who could consider themselves in any way leftwing could support the Phillips/ Littlejohn freakshow. It's precisely BECAUSE I'm a Christian I was disgusted by Littlejohn's 'no great loss' comments (and re: Phillips I suppose it is superflous to point out that barely any European Christian would think Israel=Christianity).

    Perhaps ironically, given that I've written so much to defend him against charges of Hitlerstalinism, I think in some ways Vladimir Putin (like his predecesor Yeltsin) demonstrates some of the problems inherent with what you call Daily Mail Socialism; that demagogic nationalism can actually help enfranchise a plutocracy.

    And I agree about how it can be hypocritical to utterly condemn economic liberalism. Yes, we can see the ugly effects of capitalism everywhere, but having experience of a more insular society can be eye-opening.

  7. @Robin
    Incidentally, I've decided for rather vague reasons to avoid listening to pop music this year (after I found myself skipping tracks when trying to listen to Beethoven). oddly enough I felt most deprivation at the thought of not listening to David Bowie despite the fact I barely ever listen to him anyway and that I generally think his radical image shifts reflect more his search for something interesting to say rather than great diversity.

    Still, perhaps he is the quintessential pop star. Maybe even the way that his music is more something one remembers than something one listens to.