Gloomy Pageant

Jeremy Harding

  • BuyMammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now by David Marquand
    Allen Lane, 288 pp, £20.00, May, ISBN 978 1 84614 672 5

What happens when you set out to look the present in the eye but can’t quite bear the thought? Much of David Marquand’s powerful essay about ‘Britain, now’ is an elegy for a lost past, unsullied by ‘masterless capitalism’, a sad story of the light growing dim, good running to bad, the public realm hollowed out by vested interests, greed and unexamined selfishness: a ‘moral economy’ transformed by unfettered markets and the ideology that contrived to shove them down our (obliging) throats. All this is presented with the clarity of a historian who never lost his faith in Britain’s institutions – parliament, monarchy, church and family – but who senses we’re caught in a thrilling rush towards the abyss.

There’s nonetheless an eloquent song and dance before he takes us to the brink. The place he evokes in his subtitle ‘Britain, Now’ (what exactly is the force of that comma?) does eventually emerge, and his up-to-the-minute findings are fair enough, but they lack the assurance he brings to his story of the old country as he understood it, and the warning signs he detected early on. He’s a lover traduced, but is he right that Britain has become a self-harming, venal little nation since it spurned his affections? That’s how it looks, to be sure, and his evidence is depressingly thorough, yet he’s confident we brought this on ourselves and hopeful, for that reason, that we can come to our senses and reinvent the ‘solidaristic moral economy’ that we relinquished, or lost, in the 1980s.

It’s true that we have stuck a lot of what we had on eBay; we’ve learned to tell each other that the state is a costly prosthetic device we should cast aside to walk unassisted in the hazardous spaces of the market. But is this really a case of pure perversity or have we grasped that it’s time to stop dusting down the relics of a more egalitarian culture, sell them to the highest bidder, and move on? By 1979 we were ready for anything that would wipe away the memory of the previous ten years – willing, too, to throw the old values into the pot and take a world-historical punt. The Falklands War was an exemplary gamble and the gaming instinct played a bigger part than Marquand acknowledges in the story that followed on. Like Native Americans, we now have a thriving casino culture and perhaps our island reservation hasn’t done as badly as he thinks. According to the OECD we remain relatively tolerant of minorities (behind France but ahead of Germany), despite the hard turn against immigration; we may be sexist – according to the UN rapporteur on violence against women – but we’re not homophobic; and we’re no longer at the bottom of Unicef’s child well-being league table for rich countries, as we were in 2007. Britain’s unemployment rate is well below the average for the EU (and for the Eurozone countries).

Yet Marquand’s catalogue of ills is delivered with such conviction that it’s hard not to feel as angry and reproachful as he does, post 2007-8, when ‘the culture and institutions which procured the crash are still riding high’; hard not to share his impatience with ‘the attrition of the public realm’, the ‘marketisation’ of healthcare, universities and schools, and the conversion of ‘public goods into commodities’. ‘Britain,’ he writes, ‘is one of the least egalitarian societies in Europe with one of the highest levels of poverty’, a democracy ‘in form’, though increasingly ‘the policy-making process is dominated by an oligarchic elite of rent-seekers’: he means the rich and influential who extract wealth for their own use. ‘Legitimising and disguising their spoliation is a strange new holy trinity: a trinity of Choice, Freedom and the Individual, the three great mantras of the resurgent capitalism of our time.’

It’s the inequality that strikes Marquand most forcefully and distinguishes Britain not only from its European neighbours but from the place it once was. There is nothing unavoidable, he feels, about income disparity. If there were, then the proportion of the nation’s income after tax that went to the top 1 per cent of contributors would not have fallen – sharply, then slowly but steadily – from the start of World War Two until the end of the 1960s. In 1970 the Gini coefficient for British income equality stood at 25.9, considerably lower than for the US, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Norway (the lower it is, the lower the disparity in incomes). By the end of the decade it had fallen further, and it rose only a little during Thatcher’s first term. But in 1983 it began a steep ascent, hitting a peak around 1990 at 34, then falling slightly or levelling off in subsequent years (it depends who’s compiling the data), only to rise again under New Labour. It remains higher in the US, but in 2011, according to Marquand, only five members of the EU – Spain, Portugal, Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania – had worse inequality by income than Britain.

Marquand is strong on stats that suit his story, stronger still in his selective cast of political economists, led by Adam Smith and Keynes, and backed up by other big guns – Burke and Mill, above all – who appear here as adversaries of Mammon, signalling from a buried past that we can still weigh the need for benign public outcomes against the private wish to accumulate, own and subdue. We have to change the conversation – more on this later – in the hope of changing the ‘moral economy’, a term he borrows from The Making of the English Working Class. In E.P. Thompson the moral economy is in play once the seller’s price and the buyer’s ability to pay become irreconcilable – what follows is unrest. Among other things the moral economy regulates prices according to human need – when, for example, protesters requisition grain to sell on to members of a hard-pressed community at reasonable rates. In Thompson’s account of the bread riots at the end of the 18th century the moral economy is the exclusive property of the crowd, but Marquand argues that the millers and farmers, in their wish to maximise returns, proposed a rival moral economy; and that one version or another of moral economy is in the ascendant at any given time, whether it is ‘solidaristic’, laissez-faire or market fundamentalist. For Marquand market fundamentalism produces societies like Britain’s, ‘sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism’.

He likes Adam Smith for his historicism; Mill for his understanding of the common weal and his sense that property cannot be an absolute right; Marx for capturing the profane force of capitalism with the skill of an ace cameraman ‘contriving to photograph tanks manoeuvring in the murk of battle’. Other allies are drawn from the ranks of the 19th-century ‘clerisy’ who shaped ‘the mood of their age’: inter alia, Carlyle, Ruskin, Cardinal Manning and Matthew Arnold. They’re here because, as Dicey saw, they are identified with a collectivist turn in Victorian thinking. All four, along with Mill, were in Marquand’s phrase ‘custodians of the public conscience’. Keynes is a friend for obvious reasons, and one of the last economists who resisted the vice of ‘physics envy’: the pretension to science that leads them to dodge ‘the messy, the contestable and the contingent’ in their search for a ‘beautiful, timeless precision’. Amartya Sen is another, if only for his insistence that the best guarantee of democracy is a long, continuous process of ‘public reasoning’ that Marquand can’t find anywhere right now.

The opposition is thinner on the ground but formidable. Hayek is the big figure, with his iconoclastic attack on planned or mixed economies, and a functionary-heavy state: an attack, in Marquand’s words, on ‘the dream of a better, less selfish and more just society that suffused the public culture of wartime Britain’. Hayek’s utopia of an untrammelled market – its perfect workings obscure to people mollycoddled by statism – has a lot to answer for. The same applies to Milton Friedman, the Chicago School and all Hayek’s successors or pseudo-successors. No patience in Mammon’s Kingdom for notions of a ‘spontaneous order’ or naturalising theories of political economy.

We’re still a good distance from the present day when the argument starts to get odd. The jolt comes as Marquand charts the resurgence of individualism after several decades of ‘solidaristic’ thinking, and the subsequent apotheosis of the individual in the 1980s. For this to happen, two strands had to converge: on the one hand, Hayek’s ‘market individualism’; on the other, an earlier ‘moral individualism’ grounded in the cultivation of private worlds and heightened subjectivities, whose origins lie in what Marquand calls the ‘ethical narcissism’ of G.E. Moore. Moore’s narcissism transfers fluently from Cambridge to Bloomsbury, becoming a radical, anti-conformist appeal to individual choice along the way. Somehow Leonard Woolf’s socialism and Keynes-as-Bloomsberry are written out of this story, in which core values are undermined by a brilliant new scepticism: Lytton Strachey’s eagle-eyed Eminent Victorians (1918) is apparently a turning point.

With Hayek’s success in the 1940s, clouds start to gather on the horizon. The ethos of ‘social patriots’, including senior civil servants like Beveridge and trade unionists like Arthur Horner of the miners’ union, becomes harder to transmit. Their successors in the 1960s and 1970s are undone, at the very moment that capitalism seems to have been ‘tamed’, by a curious lack of self-confidence; the storm breaks with wage inflation, militant union opposition to wage controls, and the shrinking of the Western economies after 1973 and the oil price hike. From there to Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and the final demise of the Keynesian model, already under cultural assault from two assertive me-first creeds. Hayek may not have been a Gordon Gekko, but his theories lent weight to the belief that greed was the way forward – ‘whatever consumers wanted and entrepreneurs could supply, they were entitled to get.’ The defiant style of the 1960s, epitomised for Marquand by R.D. Laing and Herbert Marcuse, was also a ‘hyper-individualistic’, romanticised worship of choice by jejune students and lotus-eaters wearing paisley. ‘Slowly, incompletely, but unmistakably, today’s hedonistic and relativist culture elbowed aside the old culture of honour and duty.’ Marquand doesn’t care that many of those benighted hedonists went on to work in health, social services, education and local government, or that they behaved honourably – to use a word he likes – in the drama of Vietnam; or that many put together a politics in the 1970s campaigning against apartheid and, after the coup in Chile, against the Pinochet regime. To Marquand the period was all about posturing and self-regard.

The great years, therefore, are the Second World War and the Attlee administration, as ‘war socialism’ is followed by solid Labour government, in a golden age of honour, duty and solidarity. No one disputed the idea that wealth would have to be shared; everyone came up to scratch; the institutions were awash with men of probity putting their country and fellow citizens before all other considerations. From first to last it was a very good show. No trace here of the Rosamund Tea Rooms in The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton’s pitiless study of wartime Britain set in a provincial boarding house; no notion either that the 1945 election was anything but a unanimous call to extend the spirit of wartime solidarity, even though a fair number of the country’s ruling class, gathering at the Dorchester, Claridges and the Savoy as the results were announced, were horrified by the outcome (the episode is well told by David Kynaston in Austerity Britain).[*] Plenty about the Beveridge Report but no reminder from Marquand that The Road to Serfdom, about which he has a lot to say, was an end-of-war book, published in 1944. Marquand’s war, like Marquand’s 1960s, is a highly partial accounting.

*

The strengths of Mammon’s Kingdom lie elsewhere, in the searching questions Marquand asks when he stands to one side of his gloomy pageant and explores the processes that move it along. Is it really the case that a flourishing neoliberal market culture erodes the state in the long term? He doesn’t think so: its nature changes as oligarchs spend their way into politics, and reconfigure public office as a series of private occasions, rotating out of trade and finance into public life, and vice versa. But this may not weaken a state; it may even consolidate its authority as it directs its duties towards the rich and away from the disadvantaged. Marquand doesn’t quite spell this out for us – not many writers go there – but he’s masterful on the way the state, and government, effected the transition from a broken corporatism to a radical rearrangement in the 1980s. Only a strong state at the disposal of a convinced prime minister, he argues, could have steered the new market doctrine into place. He’s right. Thatcher got hold of the state in a moment of crisis, as De Gaulle did in France. In Britain, we were told it was being rolled back: really it was being redesigned in London, in the service of Downing Street and parts of Whitehall, and fed on a diet of steroids.

Marquand is good too on distinctions we tend to blur in our effort to grasp what has happened; he is keen, for instance, to explain that ‘marketisation’ and ‘privatisation’ are not the same. Nor are the effects they have on public goods, which also need to be distinguished. He believes that privatisation, under Thatcher and Major, like New Labour’s PFI (a recipe for huge debt and, he adds, a way to bankrupt hospital trusts), changed ‘the face of the British economy’, but left ‘the body’ more or less in shape. Whatever their effects on the public sector, he doubts they had much impact on ‘the public realm’, one of his big topics. In Marquand’s eyes, the public realm is vastly larger and more valuable than a bunch of nationalised industries. It is – but here he gets less incisive as he falls back on his requiem manner … ah yes, ‘the realm of service, equity, professional and public duty’, protected in an ideal arrangement from the demands of the market on the one hand and the instinctive tug of private life (love, friendship, family) on the other. It expresses itself – a bit clearer here – in a commonwealth of rights and duties. Rights: clean water, fair trials, healthcare, libraries and a minimum wage, among other things. Duties: well, the duty to take an active role in public debate (Sen’s ‘public reasoning’) and behave as self-conscious members of a community rather than the solitary agents Thatcher identified when she declared that society was a mirage.

Marketisation – the introduction of ‘market mechanisms and market norms into activities hitherto run on non-market lines’ – is, he thinks, more insidious than privatisation: it’s ‘a coherent programme aimed at radical social transformation’.Once marketisation is underway, most human activity – manufacture, agriculture, energy; statecraft, education, health and law; publishing, curating, leisure and affective life itself – is redefined, its self-descriptions colonised and its intrinsic values overwhelmed. There is now only one way to speak, and one set of standards – choice, freedom, the individual – which have little to do with ‘duty’ or any of Marquand’s sunken treasure. In due course the public realm gives way entirely to a ‘market realm’ and eventually to a ‘market society’. Whatever your quarrel with his idealised public realm, the best parts of Mammon’s Kingdom read like the history of a draconian five-year-plan, rolled over with minor adjustments for another five and then another, with no end in sight: that’s six or seven five-year plans in Britain since the early 1980s (under Stalin there were four). The plan requires our compliance, and daily rejoicing that we’re no longer captives languishing in the wastes of a managed economy. Either we get the plan or we don’t. Marquand would like us not to get it and launch a counter-revolution.

Where should we begin? Or rather, where should we have begun, if we’d lit on the opportunity to do things differently? Perhaps, like Marquand, we could have run behind Blair with our tails up during the first New Labour administration, with its early promise. Perhaps, like Marquand in 2002, we could have given our blessing to Blair’s ‘impeccable’ handling of the 9/11 fall-out and urged him on in his ‘rhetoric of liberal nationalism’, only to see the light a year or so on, as Blair’s liberal nationalism was hitched to Bush’s and tested, in a criminal experiment, on the inhabitants of Iraq. (Marquand zooms down the road he didn’t take first time around as though he’d never had to hit the brakes and execute a three-point turn.) Should we, perhaps, have been more circumspect about private property and noticed, as he seems to have done, that our sense of ourselves as public persons was withering as home ownership became an obsession and governments did what they could to drive it forward? At the end of Blair’s first term 69 per cent of Britons were homeowners, while other developed societies, including Germany, remained happy – and performed well – without majority home-ownership. Should we, as a consequence, have refrained from buying property?

It’s 2014, and, according to Marquand, we need something comma now. Again according to Marquand, what’s required is a new conversation. The public realm is not yet totally destroyed by populist politics and rent-seeking; it’s not too late to relaunch Carlyle’s Condition of England question – a debate about resources, how they’re distributed, how we think of ourselves and the widening gulf between rich and poor – for the 21st century. Who should be involved? The main political parties, the church, religious leaders in general, NGOs and protest movements. ‘The conversation should not be an end in itself. The ultimate objective is change, not talk. But there can be no worthwhile change without a new public philosophy; and the last, best hope for discovering such a philosophy lies in talking together and learning from each other.’ It is, despite the lofty tone, a non-conclusion of the first order, more like a bit of dreary filler for Thought for the Day than a message for our times.

If Marquand’s set-piece conversation were a possibility we’d have had it already. By now, however, we’ve got the drift, we know who we are and we’re too embarrassed to rake over the coals, let alone consider an ‘ultimate objective’ – and Marquand should allow us a shred of dignity. He is wrong to say we brought the whole sorry business of market fundamentalism on ourselves, though it’s true we colluded. We borrowed, we spent, and merely by prospering – nothing more, nothing less – we imagined we were performing a public service, with much self-regard, for extravagant rewards, as the value of our bricks and mortar increased at inconceivable rates. We’re now so far down the road of private gain that the conversation he wants would involve a Soviet-style re-education programme. At the moment we have an urgent argument on our hands about official secrecy (post-WikiLeaks) and citizens’ privacy (post-Edward Snowden), but Marquand barely mentions these. For the rest, we’re locked into a national version of the interior monologue, burbling to ourselves about immigrants, ‘Europe’, paedophilia, food and celebrity. We vote in larger numbers for The X-Factor than we do for people seeking public office. This is the stuff of conversation as we know and enjoy it. Perhaps we should be ashamed, but we’re not, and that’s okay in an age where it pays to think well of oneself. Would Britain be a nicer, more civic place if we changed the subject? Marquand won’t accept that the time for this question has come and gone.

[*] Austerity Britain was reviewed by Ross McKibbin in the LRB of 24 April 2008.