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crazily: anything one writes about Eastern Europe, for example, is likely to be half-an-hour and, therefore, hopelessly out of date.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.

Fordist productive relations very largely determined both the politics and the culture of their period. Its characteristic political expression was the mass political party, and the most characteristic of all the social-democratic or communist parties of Europe. They, in turn, grew out of the mass trade unions, which were created by Fordism in the first place. Working-class politics were masculine and collective, based on a social identity as much moulded by the factory as the standardised products it turned out. Fordist working-class parties sought access to and, if possible, control of the central state. In the West, the ‘hegemonic’ idea of Fordist economics was Keynesianism. Keynesian policies both allowed these economies to fulfil their productive potential and stabilised them by providing an arena where state, capital and labour could bargain and compromise. Fordism also had its typical cultural forms: ‘Modernism’ in art, particularly where it accentuated mass and geometry, Le Corbusierism in housing (usually of a degraded tower block variety), and the International Style in public and corporate architecture.

Fordism as a completed process or even as a tendency was, so the thesis goes, a kind of ideal type of industrial organisation. Even those who had not achieved it aspired to it, and many still do. In the last twenty years, however, in most of the advanced capitalist societies, Fordism has wholly or partly disintegrated. It has been replaced (wholly or partly) by a newer productive system called here Post-Fordist. Globalised and decentralised, Post-Fordist industry is almost everything Fordism was not. The unitary institutions upon which Fordism stood have been largely dispersed. The factory has been replaced by the office or shop. Work processes are those of ‘flexible specialisation’ while the work-force is now skilled. ‘Manufacturers’, to the extent that they exist at all, no longer consolidate production centrally nor establish their own outlets. They contract out or franchise – the exemplar here is Benetton – and computerisation has made possible this dispersal. Markets are highly individuated: firms isolate and then target sub-markets which flexible procedures allow them to exploit. Product differentiation follows market differentiation, and production is subordinated to market research, design and advertising.

The political and cultural consequences of this are much as we would expect. The scattering of production and the ‘reskilling’ of the work-force has gone far towards the destruction of the old manual working class and the essentially masculine political organisms which depended upon it – trade unions, the Labour Party, the Keynesian state and all. As Beatrix Campbell puts it here, ‘the politics of new times challenges tradition. It moves away from a stark politics formed by dominant protagonists ... It is about people in all their dimensions and identities – as sexes, races, workers, consumers, playmates, parents and pensioners.’ Post-Fordism has also transformed our social priorities: by permitting us to define ourselves via choice and consumption it greatly weakens the social foundations of the welfare state and of collective provision. It encourages hostility to bureaucracy and to the state. Culturally, it has produced movements with similar political implications; a Post-Modernism which, as Dick Hebdige describes it, has been ‘provoked by the severance ... of the link between modernity and progress’. It has thus spawned ideologies which demand smallness, privacy, individualism, choice, freedom, as against the bureaucratic gigantism of the Keynesian state: in a word, Thatcherism – though not Thatcherism alone.

This is a thesis, true to its origins, in the grand manner. It is not confined to Britain: on the contrary, it sees Britain simply as part of a Post-Fordist global economy into which, if anything, Britain and the United States have been slow to enter. The argument has all the familiar virtues of Marxism Today: a generous, ‘democratic’ approach and a willingness to say things which are probably deeply offensive to its traditional constituency. It has also Marxism Today’s familiar preoccupation with the instruments of Post-Modern capitalism – with design, advertising, lifestyle, soft and hardware. (See, particularly, the essays of Frank Mort and Geoff Mulgan.) New Times is within that tradition of European Marxism which has always been fascinated by the technological dynamic of capitalism, and admired it even while it feared it.

As we gaze at the ruins of the promethean phase of capitalism, whether in Lancashire, the Ruhr or Pennsylvania, and then look at the silicon valleys and science parks which have sprouted elsewhere, it would be hard to deny the truth, at least in part, of New Times. Yet the thesis seems to me deeply flawed both factually and analytically. At the ‘global’ level it is doubtful whether a historical distinction can be made between a Fordist and Post-Fordist economy. As the contributors admit, Fordist production processes may simply have shifted their locations, from the old heartland of capitalism to its peripheries. Furthermore, it is easy to exaggerate the differences between a Fordist and Post-Fordist work-force. The majority of those who work for Japanese industry in this country are not skilled and the way they are organised – even as it appears in this book – is often depressingly similar to US Steel in the bad old times. Japanese management is in almost every way superior to British but it is no less coercive; in some ways, arguably, it is more coercive precisely because it is more effective.

Nor is the transformation from Fordism to Post-Fordism as historically linear as New Times argues. The historical experience of capitalism is of the two existing side by side, sometimes independently, more often (as today) mutually dependent. This is certainly true of the British economy which was never as Fordist as the contributors suggest. On the contrary, what is characteristic of the British economy is the absence of hugeness and the disaggregated nature of its heavy industry. And when was it Fordist? There is some confusion in New Times between simple large-scale industry and what we might call technical Fordism, a system of production based on the Detroit model. Britain had heavy industry and a huge proletariat, but not much by way of Fordism. The Fordist notion of progress, Charlie Leadbeater writes here, ‘was a tremendously powerful idea. It underlay Ford’s decision to build the mighty Dagenham plant as the largest integrated car plant outside the United States.’ But the important fact of Dagenham was that it did not work in the way intended.

If we look at definition and chronology more closely, we see how strained the New Times thesis can be. If Fordism is simply industrial size, the British economy was not Fordist. If it is more narrowly defined, however, as assembly-line production based on scientific management, it could be argued that Britain only becomes Fordist in the inter-war years. But the Fordist concerns themselves seem remarkably Post-Fordian: consumption-oriented industries characterised by product differentiation and extensive market research. How, for example, can we describe the Hoover factory in the Western Avenue? Inside, scientifically-managed and assembly-lined; outside, an Art Deco extravaganza, flaunting its hostility to Fordist mass and geometry. And what of the houses that surround this Fordist monument? Not a Corbusierist brutalism, but a bizarre array of neovernacular styles: an expression of every kind of individual and private impulse.

Even if there were an indubitable Fordist epoch, however, it simply is not the case that the great working-class movements to whom New Times bids adieu were necessarily a product of it. All of them had their origins in pre-1914 Europe and Australasia and nowhere was Fordist industry (as understood here) important in their development. Indeed, the two most electorally successful social-democratic parties of that period, the Australian and Finnish, were partly rural in origin and drew heavily on lower-middle-class, small-farmer support. This is not to say that historically there was no relation between mass political parties and Fordism, but to say that it was a weak one. And if that is so, then the future of these parties is necessarily more problematic than is allowed for by New Times.

And that brings us to Thatcherism. It is at the centre of this book; together with its progenitress, it is easily the largest item in the index, and it is victorious Thatcherism which the book, in fact, wishes to explain. The explanation comes as no shock to the reader. Thatcherism did not create the ‘new times’, but it skilfully exploited them. Post-Fordism would have happened anyway but Thatcherism (as we have seen) is one of its offspring. It was by no means predetermined that Thatcherism would be the ‘hegemonic’ idea of the Post-Fordist state: there are many alternatives which start from the same place as it does, but have very different destinations. Yet Thatcherism shares their discourse, if in a mutilated way. New Times might argue that it represents the ‘false consciousness’ of the Post-Fordist society. That it is an ideological construct of that society, however, New Times does not doubt. This analysis is, I think, wrong, and wrong in surprising ways.

Thatcherism, for all the cloak of globalism in which New Times has garbed it, is largely an English affair. It has, of course, something in common with the neo-liberal philosophies fashionable in some of the other Anglo-Saxon countries, but not much. It cannot be explained, as New Times tries to explain it, by recourse to the apparently universal character of Post-Fordist society. It is hardly conceivable, for example, that someone like Mrs Thatcher could be prime minister of Italy, a country which is more Post-Fordist than Britain. The contributors, furthermore, consistently underrate the accidental and temporary nature of Thatcherism’s triumphs. At the end of 1981, we should recall, it was reasonable to think that Thatcherism faced extinction. It was rescued by two things – the receipts from North Sea oil and the internal disruption of the Labour Party – neither of which owed much to Post-Fordism. And while New Times could fairly reply that the disruption of the Labour Party was related to the decay of the Fordist economy, the speed of that decline actually followed decisions taken by individuals who were free to do something else. It is hard to imagine, indeed, any other ten-year cycle in modern British history which would have permitted Thatcherism as we understand it.

New Times argues that Thatcherism, if in a peculiar way, accurately represents the way we live now. The evidence for this is very dubious. What will impress historians of the Post-Fordist epoch is the extent to which Thatcherism attempted to impose itself on social reality. It has done this in two ways. First, it has tried, by ideological and rhetorical persuasion, to reformulate the way we look at reality. It has done this by inventing a rhetoric which purports to be morally and politically neutral, but which is ideological in Marx’s sense, since it seeks to divorce consciousness from reality. It has had some unexpected successes, not least among the contributors to New Times, who almost invariably accept Thatcherism at its own estimation. This is all the odder, since if anyone is trained to see through historical smokescreens it should be Marxists.

Second, Thatcherism has ventured the creation of an ‘alternative’ reality by means now all too recognisable: by privatisation, council-house sales, tax reductions and, not least, the destruction of much of the country’s manufacturing industry. As Michael Rustin points out here, far from being a simple manifestation of global Post-Fordism, this is a deliberate mobilisation of the state to build new classes and new allegiances. To argue, as New Times on occasion does, that the decentralisation of the state is, as a fact, one of the main characteristics of Post-Fordism is to ignore all that has happened in the last ten years. The residual legatee of Thatcherism, alas, will be the central state. What makes Thatcherism unusual among British governments is the extent to which it has subordinated everything to political entrenchment: not for nothing is ‘irreversibility’ the word most commonly on the Thatcherite tongue.

Yet reality has a habit of taking its revenge. You cannot, let us say, impose a ‘Christian’ education on one of the most de-Christianised countries in the world; you cannot perform an economic miracle and yet eliminate one-fifth of your manufacturing capacity in two years. If you do these kinds of things you will come unstuck. Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques in their introduction, written late last year, note this and admit that New Times ‘too easily conflated’ Thatcherism and the Post-Ford world. But even when these essays were being written all this was predictable: what is curious about New Times is that those whom we might expect to predict it largely failed to do so. Even at the time, evidence that ‘reality’ had several possibilities was always available. Nowhere in this book, for example, is there any mention of the annual surveys of British Social Attitudes, which have repeatedly demonstrated how far people remain within the mental confines of the Keynesian state – and the reason for that is that it still seems to them appropriate to the conditions of their lives.

Thatcherism, or something like it, no doubt has its Post-Fordist features: but it is, for the most part, a reactionary doctrine specific to England at a particular moment in its history. It derives from the panic of the late Seventies and from a corrosive sense of national failure felt most intensely by the old élites, but not only by them. Panic and nostalgia have impelled many to want to believe in Mrs Thatcher’s revolution, and for a time, circumstances permitted them to conclude that their belief was justified. It was a type of socially-determined self-deception. Yet again, Marxists should have no problem with this: the most powerful analysis of what happens in a social system when élites turn to memory and ideas, dead in themselves, and manipulate them to enforce a regressive reconstruction, is Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, the second paragraph of which is quoted here, but not the source or the point of the quotation. In the same way, while so many of us refuse to dispel the notion of decline and to see it for what it is – liberation from burdens which should never have been acquired – we will be unable to resist the allure of memory and of those quack-doctors who claim to be able to cure our ‘disease’.