The way we live now

Ross McKibbin

  • New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s edited by Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques
    Lawrence and Wishart/Marxism Today, 463 pp, £9.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 85315 703 0

It is hard to believe that we do not live in ‘new times’. For a generation raised after 1945 on what purported to be Keynesian certainties, and in an international system dominated all too obviously by the two major victors, the transformations of the last twenty years are difficult to assimilate. The speed of these transformations has now accelerated crazily: anything one writes about Eastern Europe, for example, is likely to be half-an-hour and, therefore, hopelessly out of date. We contemplate the present with the same astonishment that people observed 1848 or 1917-19. For those who work within a Marxist tradition such changes do not appear simply as accidental whirlings of the historical kaleidoscope, but as the result of one historical system giving way to another. These transformations, furthermore, are expressed in ideological and rhetorical terms: the contending parties manifest their material interests as ideas. One ideology struggles to supersede another. The transformational dynamic, nonetheless, is physical, grounded in the productive and thus social relationships of our daily lives.

It would be surprising, therefore, if a collection of essays largely reprinted from Marxism Today did not see the world in these terms. Freed (as it now is) from any particular doctrinal conformity, it has become one of the most interesting and vigorous left-wing journals. Its Marxism is eclectic; its politics, if they can be denominated at all, are radical-democratic. It seeks to provide a theoretical home for ‘the Left’ and a programme acceptable to all representatives of what once would have been called ‘progressive forces’. But the inevitable political and theoretical etiolation of British Marxism has not rendered it unrecognisable: this book argues a thesis and it is clearly Marxist in origin.

New Times has 28 essays, together with an introduction by the editors, three extracts from the ‘Manifesto for New Times’ – a general political statement or programme – and a fable for the 1990s by David Edgar. The book is long, and since several contributors are responsible for more than one essay, there is a good deal of repetition. Tighter editorial control would have done no harm, though that might have been construed as inhibiting the openness of the enterprise: some of the contributors are no sort of Marxist (David Marquand, for example) and two, Michael Rustin and Paul Hirst, are politely but firmly critical of the New Times thesis. It says something about their editorial style that no attempt is made by the editors to answer or even comment on Rustin and Hirst, though their criticisms are very damaging.

What is the thesis? Put at its most simple it is that capitalism has moved from one productive mode, ‘Fordism’, to another, ‘Post-Fordism’. ‘Fordism’ was a word coined by Gramsci to describe a particular phase in the recent history of capitalism. It takes its name from Henry Ford, the man who is alleged to have perfected its techniques and who in a wider sense epitomises it. Fordist production occurred within large units, and was dependent on assembly lines serviced by a large unskilled or semi-skilled work-force. The work-force itself was highly disciplined and scientifically managed – ‘Taylorism’ (named after F.W. Taylor, the high priest of scientific management) and ‘Fordism’ went hand in hand. Products and parts were standardised and interchangeable; the emphasis was on mass-production and a mass market. At its most debased it became simply industrial hugeness. Size and quantity were what mattered: thus the East European states were and are the most Fordist of all.

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