Lenin versus Hattersley
I have in the past been less than complimentary towards Labour veteran Roy Hattersley. Today, however, the old boy managed to surprise me just a little. So used to hearing the ‘social democratic’ Left justify below inflation wage increases on behalf of their New Labour counterparts, it was refreshing to read Hattersley writing frankly about wealth redistribution, a house building programme and so forth. Hattersley even went as far as to attack the notion of social mobility as an end in itself.
As it happens, I agree with all of those points. However Hattersley’s critique of social mobility has a few holes in it. He notes that he would celebrate should one in every thousand (rather than one in every two thousand) students in his former constituency go on to medical school, but he doesn’t tell us why we should care if that’s the case. Hattersley attacks the notion that the working class don’t ‘get on’ simply due to their own inherent make-up, but doesn’t address the question of why ‘getting on’ is important.
If ten or twenty or a thousand of every two thousand in Hattersley’s constituency became doctors, then we’d draw our pool of manual labour and the lower-paid workers from somewhere else. As Hattersley seems to note, before veering off, social mobility is a zero-sum game, based on a competitive ethic that ensures somewhere at all times there are underpaid people performing menial tasks when they are capable of more than that. Hattersley simply comments that everyone needs an equal start and an open road.
Fine, but to what end? If, as Hattersley says, social mobility means nothing without deeper economic change, what sort of economic change does he have in mind? He doesn’t say. He supports building houses to improve the life chances of the working class, and no doubt free education and a better NHS, the touchstones of British social democracy. Yet his analysis doesn’t account for the opposition these things face in practice and for what reason they face opposition.
It is a laudable ideal that everyone should be able to reach whatever they aspire to be – but that’s not fundamental economic change. It may be possible in the UK, but largely at the expense of having the ‘lesser’ jobs exported to other countries. Even with that, we’ve still not rid ourselves of chronically low paid jobs, from the retail industry to service sector workers, greasing the skids on which the City of London runs day after day, week after week. I’m sure none of those people grew up wanting to do that.
Not that they’re not proud of what they do; anyone who works hard at their job has the right to take pride in it.
Nevertheless, the lot of these people is not a good one – and though Hattersley wants universal education and such to help them work their way up the ladder, it isn’t fundamental change. The fundamental change is lacking because of Hattersley’s conception of the State as an impartial, democratically influenced instrument to adjudicate the interests of different sections of society, whatever those different sections of society may be.
Such a notion forgets that the State is fundamentally grounded in the socio-economic system we call capitalism. It is the defender of property rights, and on the basis of private property, which can be amassed by individuals and collections of individuals, only an exploitative economic system can exist. The framework within which the State operates is therefore grotesquely biased, not to mention that any number of the politicians go to public schools with the same individuals who amass such property.
Without the overthrow of private property (and consequently the State) there will be no ‘fundamental’ economic reform. We might protect the poorest from the worst excesses of their poverty, and we might create and sustain a middle class bridge of small producers and professionals between the propertied and the propertyless – but this doesn’t enfranchise people within the democratic state. Nor does freedom of speech; there is a gap between voicing dissent and bending the actions of the State.
The gap can be filled by activism – within a political party for example – but where that action is designed to democratize or redistribute wealth, once again it will provoke class-based opposition. The contradictions of capitalism sharpen and either the activist movement collapses or the capitalist system of production is conquered; there is no middle way, no ever-vigilant body which cannot itself fall prey to the rhetoric of its opponents during the wars of ideological position.
After all, this is what happened to the Labour Party; the contradictions of maintaining a pro-redistributive party in the midst of economic crisis were resolved by the swing of arms of the Party to the right and to the left. To try to recreate that centre-left ground upon which Attlee and his successors stood is simply to attempt the repetition of history, on much less favourable terms, since we have not the militant resources that Bevan, Tribune and the Communist Party of that period had.
Hattersley may say that to promote a view of class war is to demand that we hang the bourgeoisie from the trees – but this is hyperbole. Similarly to attempt to explain away class opposition between worker and owner as merely resentment of ‘positional goods’ is to indulge in a mockery of politics as old as Aristotle’s euporoi and aporoi, and Aristophanes’ demos: the politics of envy is not what motivates people. No, the division is much more fundamental than merely haves and have-nots.
It is a resentment that a minority fundamentally control the means to create wealth, and a minority control the uses to which that wealth is put. The State, by refusing to intervene to a huge extent here, biases itself further still; far from being a neutral arbiter, the artificial division of ‘social’ from ‘economic’ sphere is inherent to the point of the State, protection of property rights. In short, the bourgeoisie can keep their goods, we’re simply aiming to take over the means of their creation, to put them to better use.
This is a distinction which Hattersley clearly fails to understand.