Monday, 23 February 2009

Some thoughts on moral breakdown

Melanie Phillips, good evidence for Oscar Wilde's claim that 'A man who moralises is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralises is invariably plain.'

The only thread to the pieces I've put together in this post is that they challenge the usual blah drone blah from 'Conservative' commentators, such as Melanie Phillips, that the sole reason for the perceived moral decline of this country is due to 'The Left' and 'Political Correctness (Gone Mad)'. These nebulous concepts are rarely, if ever, defined. Whenever I hear people slagging off 'The Left', I have to ask, as someone who thinks himself somewhere on that side of the political spectrum: are you talking to me?

Perhaps I am in a very small minority, but I think if it is to be more than a label, being on 'the Left' means giving a damn about others. It definitely does not mean wanting to see society fall apart into a Hobbesian war of 'all against all'. Quite frankly, for someone not giving a damn about others is glorified Thatcherism and the forces of 'creative destruction' she fronted (being the 'Useful Idiot' of the City of London and transnational capital) devastated the moral capital of British society. As Paul Routledge argues below, the vandalism of Britain's industrial base during the Thatcher-Major years (which Blair and Brown did little, if anything, to reverse) has had terrible social repercussions, not least in the former coalfields:

It’s the pits for Norman Tebbit to say sorry now to the miners
Paul Routledge, Daily Mirror, 13/02/2009

The greedy, wicked bankers said “sorry” first, but now it’s the turn of Norman Tebbit to show remorse.

For what he did to the miners!

Thatcher’s right-hand man during the Great Strike For Jobs of 1984/85 is conscience stricken about the Tory devastation of mining communities.

It’s a bit late now, Milord Tebbit. Twenty five years too late next month, as it happens.

You should have thought about the cruel consequences at the time.

But in a new book about the strike he says: “Those mining communities had good working class values and a sense of family values. The men did real men’s heavy work going down the pit.”

Yes, and who deprived them of that work and destroyed those communities? You and your fellow Tory ministers did.

“There were also some very close-knit communities which were able to deal with the few troublesome kids,” he says.

“If they had any problems they would take the kid round the back and give them a good clip round the ear and that would be the end of that.”

Yes, and who turned the coalfields into a police state, where community law and order collapsed? You did.

“Many of these communities were completely devastated, with people out of work, turning to drugs and no real man’s work because all the jobs had gone,” he continues.

Absolutely right. The former pit villages are rife with drugs largely because you took away that work and hope from young people.

“There is no doubt that this led to a breakdown in these communities, with families breaking up and youths going out of control,” Tebbit admits.

Yes, because your government’s obsession with crushing the National Union of Mineworkers set father against son, brother against brother and family against family.

A way of life that had grown up over generations was smashed to smithereens.

“The scale of closures went too far,” he concludes. Quite so.

An industry that powered the nation was sacrificed on the altar of Thatcherite dogma. To assuage his remorse, Tebbit naturally blames this “enormous damage” on the strike.

The strike his government engineered because it hated Arthur Scargill and the NUM.

To the Tories, the fate of the miners and their communities was acceptable collateral damage in a class war.

Tebbit’s regrets are revealed in Marching To The Fault Line by Francis Beckett and David Hencke.

Unlike the bankers, he can’t bring himself to say “sorry”.

Not even after a quarter of a century, when he’s 77 years old. Pass the old crocodile a hanky, will you?

In spite of all of his admiration of Joseph Stalin, there is no doubt in my mind that Arthur Scargill was more of a practical patriot than Norman Tebbit ever was!

The IWCA are clear that the 'no such thing as society' attitudes implicit in Thatcherism's 'greed is good' worldview have fueled the rise of the lumpenproletariat.

Dealing with the renegades, 19th January 2009

Amidst all the concern about knife crime and gang culture, it is often tacitly assumed that the perpetrators are representative of alienated working class youth. Not so: what they are more generally representative of is a new -and growing- social formation that has willingly embraced a non-work ethic. It needs to be recognised that these lumpen elements represent a grouping that is quite separate from, and actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper.

Recently a columnist from The Independent lashed out in a fury at the white working class, describing them as lazy, self-pitying and “the always-wretched and complaining”. To emphasise her theme, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown cited Karen Matthews as representative of what she unapologetically considers a lower breed. With a little more thought she might have strengthened her argument by adding the names Sean Mercer and the parents of ‘Baby P’ to complete an unlovely ambassadorial trinity.

Less easily dismissed is an article in the Guardian, by Andrew O‘Hagan entitled ‘What went wrong with the working class?’ It will make uneasy reading for some. He states bluntly that ‘the English working class is dead’ while Yasmin Alibhai-Brown bitches that it isn’t. While some of O’Hagan’s observations are indeed valid, where both he, like Alibhai-Brown, gets it wrong is in confusing and conflating the traditional working class with the emergence of the new underclass. This is hardly uncommon, as the benefits in propaganda terms for supporters of the status quo are self-evident. And for similar reasons, the ‘nouveau lumpen’ -a social and political menace that is deeply corrosive first and foremost to the morale and well-being of working class communities themselves- is rarely if ever addressed in political terms either.

Admittedly the biggest problem in identifying the trend is the physical proximity between the emerging underclass and the working class proper. Though they may share the same estates at the same time the former harbours instincts, values and aspirations at variance with and indeed hostile (like sort of low rent neo-liberals) to traditional working class custom and practice. This is what goes to make it so potentially destructive a fifth column. Karl Marx himself concluded that it represented ‘the most dangerous class of all’ for similar reasons. And given its current scale, a class is what it undoubtedly is.

What is society to them, or they to society?

Teen on teen murder may grab the headlines, but the prevalence of male teen pack on lone adult (often middle-aged) male murder is a barely less lethal, though much less heralded phenomenon. What also goes unmentioned in the midst of all the hand-wringing is that these crimes are effectively premeditated, in the sense that the perpetrators are ‘going equipped’, the tools of the job seemingly always at hand. But far more dangerous than any knife or gun is the psychological conditioning required for the sometimes entirely random murder as a rite of passage: well over 50 teen murders in London alone in two years and counting. That there is nothing similar in working class culture in the past half century to match this level of pathology cannot be ignored. The razor gangs, teddy boys, mods and rockers, punks and skinheads, and football hooligans did not come close. Which suggests that the type of individuals being steadily immersed into the gang culture are themselves the product of a new social formation. Instead of being the representative of alienated working class youth as portrayed especially in liberal and right wing circles, the leaders and opinion formers are more often than not the progeny of the ‘fallen idle’ - a renegade section of the working class that has learned to embrace the ‘no-work ethic’.

And even if initially a scarcity of choices is what propels these youngsters toward the life, the gang culture is alluring. More than anything what it promises the pack member (there is almost always a pack factor) is instant gratification. Money, status and sex (consensual or otherwise - mass rape goes unreported though is apparently not uncommon) all seem instantly more attainable, with the core philosophy all wrapped up rather opportunistically in the flag of ‘respect’. Put simply most are ‘in the life’ because they want to be. It might also be tempting to dismiss it all, as some do, as nothing but a lethal subculture (on the mistaken grounds that the scum only kill each other) but the belief system and philosophy they draw on -get rich quick, the weak go to the wall- has a considerably wider and more venomous resonance.

Why this is important politically is that once a lumpen mentality is allowed to take root over a generation or more, a pattern is set seemingly for other socio/ political relationships too. In place of civic pride, community spirit, or basic empathy and solidarity (none of which have any place in their world) there is instead an over-developed sense of individual entitlement combined with a perverse pride in subverting a core socialist tenet: ‘you only take out exactly what you’ve put in’. It follows that outside of what affects them directly as individuals or maybe immediate family there is a malign indifference. After all what is society to them, or they to society? All told, the corrupting consequences of the no-work ethic appear to be numerous and hardwired.

A knock-on consequence is that many ordinary working class communities become blighted by a not dissimilar contagion. Thoroughly demoralized, many no longer regard themselves as having any real stake in how their neighbours or the wider community is getting along. Previously a deep sense of community and comradeship made many an otherwise downtrodden area bearable. Working class families enjoyed the same sense of belonging be they in the Gorbals, the East End or Harlem. It made life worth living. This sense of shared working class values has been almost entirely extinguished in many areas of Britain today. In Moss Side there is no evidence of local outrage at child killers living in its midst. So three years on the killer of Jesse James walks free. And though a number of individual have been charged and convicted in relation to the murder of 11 year old Rhys Jones in Liverpool’s Croxteth, a similar code of ‘omerta’ dominated that investigation.

Much of this destruction can be directly attributed to the 30 year crusade by Reagan/Thatcher/Blair, who, inspired by right-wing think tanks, became convinced they could actually influence how people think. Atomising social relations and fundamentally changing what people had faith in, is, if anyone needs reminding, what neo-liberalism was really about. Having done so successfully, we now are reaping the whirlwind.

Consequently with the arrival of each new generation previously identifiable working class ideals are eroded or displaced, while ‘lumpen’ characteristics typified by a venal and brazen opportunism seem to become ever more pronounced. In some areas it already appears to be the natural condition.

Understanding more and condemning more

Understandably the emergence of the ‘underclass’ (with the working poor being wrongly included) has been greeted with glee by many right-wing academics. Usually because it affords them a soft target, an ideal opportunity, without ever appearing to over-reach, to justify the existing order and validate middle class prejudice. Among the more seriously motivated the scrutiny of this new social set is to discern if it might carry a possible threat to the existing political order. In actual fact they needn’t worry, for as an effective fifth column it is already proving a considerable buttress to the status quo though arguably still in its infancy.

But precisely because the IWCA is in business to ensure that a political threat to the system is not extinguished, aspects of housing, education and social security policy, apparently well meaning and benign, when mixed with the overarching neo-liberal narrative may have become toxic. If that proves to be the case they have to be pinpointed and rooted out. What strengthens our class - as a class - is always strategically good while any polices which emasculate, diminish or dilute it is strategically bad.

The first task therefore is to explain where this new social formation has come from and how it functions, while at the same time backing long reaching solutions that promise to check or reverse its growth, a stance that might be best explained by re-working an oft-quoted comment from John Major on criminality in 1993: ‘we need to understand a little more and condemn a little more‘. In a post-industrial world having the ability to confidently define the core working class constituency is a must. Because it is only out of such a process that the political authority to exclude as well as include can emerge.

In the shorter term a sharpening of tactics in order to immunise the core of the working class from its influence in the here and now are no less important. On the upside, the credit crunch and with it the evisceration of neo-liberal values and principles will force those among the working class who were encouraged to believe that simply taking out a mortgage automatically led to social elevation to think again. And politically regroup. It is of course likely that a crushing recession will increase the numbers living in poverty, but the collective conclusions arrived at will also drive a welcome wedge between the working poor and the detritus of what will in time come to be regarded as little more than a failed social experiment.

Although I see myself as a social liberal, I recognise that other people have other social mores and moral values. However, it seems to me that whether you believe (i) we should all live in a nudist free love commune or (ii) in a society where the Taliban would be seen as dangerously libertine on personal morality, or (iii) somewhere inbetween, I cannot see how social disintegration can be avoided under the current socio-economic system of turbo-capitalism. For example, it is ridiculous, as Peter Wilby argues below, to call for the defence of marriage when the logic of the current economic regime undermines it:

Fewer weddings? Blame the Tories
Peter Wilby, New Statesman,22 May 2008

Why has marriage declined? The usual explanation - on the right, at any rate - is that feminism and "the permissive society" were pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s by trendy lefties ideologically hostile to existing institutions. Using the media, education and government, these wicked folk brainwashed the masses into believing that marriage belonged in the dustbin of history.

Following the dictates of their betters, workers have succumbed to a feckless, hedonistic and short-termist lifestyle. Their children, condemned to emotional and economic poverty, are the victims.

This presumably explains why, on marriage and the family, the Tories are the social engineering party, which wishes to strengthen traditional marriage with tax breaks. Labour is the laissez-faire party, taking a neutral attitude. Talking to researchers from Civitas, which has just produced a report called Second Thoughts on the Family, Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, argues that the growth of marital separation and divorce, far from being a social negative, is just an example of how people have more choice. She can afford to take that relaxed view, the Tories might say, because she and her like have successfully completed their engineering.

But it is the right, not the left, that has weakened marriage. True, middle-class feminists originally promoted the idea that marriage was a patriarchal institution which trapped women in unequal and often abusive relationships. However, as the Civitas report puts it, "marriage has been extricated from gender inequality". Women don't have to stay single in order to pursue careers. Indeed, potential female partners are now valued as highly for their earning power as their ancestors were for their home-making skills. Members of professional aristocracies, in the media, law and politics, for example, intermarry rather as the sons and daughters of the landed aristocracy did, and with motives not dissimilar. As Jane Austen teaches us, marriage is an economic union, not a romantic one.

Among parents in the higher social classes, therefore, marriage is alive and well. Further down the ladder, it has declined steeply. Of married women who had children in 2000, 43 per cent had a degree-level qualification, against 24 per cent of cohabiting women and just 10 per cent of single women. According to a survey of young people carried out for the Civitas report, nearly a third in social class E say they will never get married, against 10 per cent of ABs.

To understand why, we could do worse than look at Marx and Engels.

"The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society . . ." they wrote in the Communist Manifesto. "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their trains of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away." Marriage and the family were eventually among those "relations of society". In the UK, working-class marriage declined not in the 1960s and 1970s, but in the heyday of neoliberalism, under a government that supposedly favoured the traditional family.

Young people believe, according to the survey, that the main reason for marriage is "commitment". But Thatcherism drove the concept of commitment out of working-class lives: the commitment of employers to their workers, of workers to their unions, of skilled men and women to their trades, of citizens to local communities. A whole generation has been taught, in the words of the sociologist Richard Sennett, that "there are no long-term career narratives". Nor are there any long-term narratives for communities, as the fate of village pubs, post offices and small shops vividly illustrates. Is it so surprising that people struggle to establish narrative in their personal lives, too, and that, lacking models of commitment, they are reluctant to commit to spouses and children?

It is refreshing that much of this is recognised by Anastasia de Waal, author of the Civitas report. Although she works for a centre-right think tank, which usually specialises in "back to basics" stuff, she rejects the Tory attitude to marriage as firmly as Labour's.

"Successful family policy," she argues, "needs to circumvent both new Labour's avoidance of the significance of parenting structure . . . and the Conservatives' overattachment to structure for structure's sake."

Instead of worrying about the danger of couples separating, says de Waal, we should ensure the parenting structure remains intact.

But neoliberal capitalism, alongside globalisation and technological change, has, I fear, removed all kinds of structure from the lives of large sections of the population, and particularly the economic structure that once underpinned marriage and parenthood. Perhaps it was unavoidable and perhaps, as some would say, it is no bad thing.

However, it cannot be blamed on the left.

I'll leave it there- form your own conclusions!

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