A vision for Labour?

This piece was offered to and turned down by the Guardian, on the basis that it was too elegiac of the Labour Party.


A vision for Labour?

The Left is in disarray, Labour is rudderless, only the Tories are defined, certain, know where they are going. But then that is the virtue of a party, a class, which puts profit above people, extols greed as the driving force of progress, deems the survival of the fittest the natural order of things and force its necessary instrument. Socialism, alas, or even Labour, is not assured of such certainties. Somewhere – and sometimes only in the last resort – they put people first, ordinary people, their needs and aspirations. And it pays off – at those times when the people themselves know what they want and 1 know where they are going – at those times, that is, when society is stable, calm, and the sky-line is clear. But when society is buffeted by great waves of change – as it is today by the technological revolution – people become confused, uncertain, afraid of what lies on the horizon. They want certainties, then, and direction – or a vision of the future from which to chart a course of action now.

The Tories can offer no such vision; their future is never more than an updated version of the past. But they do offer certain certainties – and direction of a sort. Labour and the socialists offer neither: the one is mired in populism, the other affirms and re-affirms the faith. And in that void Tory certainty passes for vision. The world is in recession, Britain is in deep trouble; the only way out of the impasse is to close down profitless . industries , lay off unnecessary workers, cut social expenditure to the bone – to pull your belt in, cut your coat according to your cloth. And if some of us go to the wall, it can’t be helped. These are hard times – and just to survive is bravery enough. The idiom anchors official policy in ordinary experience, the imagery lifts it to the ordinary heights of courage and common-sense. And if on occasion some foreign adventure should gild such virtue, it is no more than virtue deserves.

Labour’s policies have no such grounding or authority. They are anchored, instead, in a past vision of full employment accompanied by_ social welfare produced by a mixed economy. It was a vision, in fact, s conjured up for Labour by Keynes and Beveridge to pull capitalist chestnuts out of, what then looked to be, a socialist fire. But, whatever its origins, it did serve to improve the lot of working people and give their children a place the capitalist sun. And Labour followed them, out of socialism into social democracy, creating itself in the image of the class it had created, and moving so far to the centre as to make no difference between Labour’s welfare “socialism” and the Tories’ capitalist welfarism. Keynes and Beveridge had succeeded beyond their dreams – and Labour was not to return to even a consideration of its origins in the working class (let alone socialism) till the recession and Thatcher took the Tories out of centre politics, deprived Labour of a large part of its fickle constituency and whistled up the SDP to go fetch the rest.

But by then the class had begun to decompose further. Unemployment was growing , and the industries that had once fuelled full employment -coal, steel, railways, textiles – were in terminal decline or had moved to capitalist satellites in the Third World for cheaper production.The manufacturing base of society was shifting and with it society itself. Micro-processors, computers and robots were beginning to do all the work now, and workers were being thrown on the scrap heap even before they had been put to work. And those who were in employment were being polarised into the skilled and the un- skilled – between those who made the intelligence that made the machines do the work and those who cleared up after them, so to speak.

The signs were all there – of a great leap in the productive forces challenging the established order of things. They were there too -more – immediately for the unions – in the way that old and tried methods of collective action such as the withdrawal of labour were failing to take on management and defeat it: management could do without too much labour. They were there in the continuing organisation of labour itself into a hundred disparate unions when industries were beginning to converge vertically and horizontally and in every which way. They were there in the outmoded presence of craft unions within the one industry – printing for instance – when the labour process no longer required such division of labour.

Labour and the unions, however, saw these as the familiar attributes of a recession – to be remedied by such familiar methods as public investment and full employment. The Tories, on the other hand, saw in the upheavals an opportunity to impose their own: social order – a society polarised between the haves and have-nots and held together by force – and made use of the recession to sell it to the people. Their landslide victory at the general election earlier this year attests to their success – and their success in turn propagates the belief that there is no alternative to the Tory state and society.

But there is another vision, another society, that the technological revolution holds out – only, Labour is too conservative to seize it – a society in which there is greater productivity with less labour, improved consumption for all and more time to be human in – a socialist society. It requires us though, in the first instance, to alter our thinking to the material changes that are taking place, not try to set back those changes with ideas about work and income and leisure derived from the era of the industrial revolution. When our problem is no longer the production of goods as such, we should be looking to their more equitable distribution; when large numbers of workers are no longer necessary for such production, we should be looking to the more equitable distribution of work. To put it in a more logical vein, if the same number of goods can be produced by half the work-force, it follows that the whole work-force need work only half the time (rather than leave half their number unemployed). Not because work itself is sacrosanct, but because the culture of self esteem and work erected on the notions of income and work will be a long time dying. We can set the process in motion, however, by providing everybody with a minimum wage irrespective of whether they work or not – so assuring effective demand on the one hand and replacing the work ethic with the leisure ethic, on the other. But such leisure should be active, creative leisure – not reified, or nuclearising of us, as it is now, but growing, organic, connecting us to people again: old people, children, the sick and the handicapped, the oppressed and the exploited. And education itself should be geared not just to jobs but to using leisure intelligently and creatively, to working things out for ourselves – for, the technology that does all the thinking for us in the machines we produce is also the technology that requires us to return to the basic principles that produce such thinking – it requires that we not only know that 2 and 2 make 4, but why. It enables us to return to fundamental to holistic thinking, to an authority over our own experience and so remove ourselves from our captive submission to the media, politicians, the video civilisation.

These are not what technology determines for us, but what we determine for technology. Or, to put it differently, what technology determines for us are class fragmentation, surveillance and force, what we determine for technology integrates the struggles of the work(less) place and the community; coalesces unions, pressure groups, movements and takes on power at the political, ideological and economic levels all at once. The first guarantees Tory certainties, the second catches history on the wing.