Monday, 12 January 2009

The Bitter Legacy of Recession

To people of my grandparents' generation (my grandfathers were 17 and 29 in 1929) there was one 'Depression' the economic downturn which affected the World from about 1929-36/9 depending on where you lived; New Zealand and Australia had been facing difficulties as early as 1927. Anyway, it was a period of economic slowdown leading to mass unemployment, peaking somewhere over 6 million people out of work in Germany in 1933 and globally unemployment was around 22% of people of working age in 1932. In the UK my grandfathers generally escaped the severest of the problems because they worked in the modern parts of engineering and were based in the South-East of England, the most prosperous part of the UK. Elsewhere in the UK, notably the heavy industrial regions of South West, North-West and North-East England and Central Scotland there was far worse times leading to hunger and deprivation. In those days the welfare state was minimally developed so there was little protection for those who were unemployed or their families. As always the wealthy saw it as an opportunity to grab back rights over individuals and for example, to compel women to go back into domestic service at low wage rates as in the 1920s it had proven tough to get cheap servants as more employment opportunities had opened up for women in the wake of the First World War.

Looking back in the 1970s, the Depression was something that these men and women never expected to see a repeat of. Anyway, the welfare state that had been constructed since 1945 made it far less harsh on people than had been the case forty years before. Then of course came the Thatcher years when the Conservative government engineered an economic downturn for political gains, primarily to smash the position of the trade unions, lower wage rates and make a workforce that was more compliant than the one they felt their government had inherited after the industrial unrest of the 1970s. Of course in 1974 the UK's industrial base for the first time had a majority of service sector jobs over manufacturing jobs and the decline of manufacturing continued apace across the western World. However, in the UK it was accelerated by hostile government policies. Added to this was an ideological element. In line with the American New Right attitudes, unemployed people were made to feel guilty for not having a job, they were portayed as lazy, unwilling to be flexible in finding work and somehow even 'sleazy' for accepting welfare payments in order to stay housed and feed their families.

Despite the complaints that British workers were unwilling to move to find work (viz Norman Tebbit's cry to 'get on your bike' to find work - though given the sharp differences in house prices the Conservative insistence that you were nothing if you did not own your own house actually reduced labour flexibility) I constantly encountered men who had travelled from other parts of the UK to South-East England where the service sector was prospering and lived in cramped accommodation often with many men to a single bedroom, just the way that foreign immigrants had typically done in the past, so they could earn money to send home. Let alone those Britons who went abroad to find work. Many people refer to the drama series 'Boys from the Black Stuff' (1982) as encapsulating the era, but they should also look at the comedy 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' (1983) about British builders in West Germany to show another facet.

To people who had lived through the Depression or knew its history, we seemed to be back in those times once again. Unemployment officially was around 3.4 million in the UK at its peak, but on the way we measure it now it would have been something like 4 million. Certainly given the rise in female employment throughout the 20th century and the need since around 1966 to have two adult incomes to sustain a family of four, made exclusion of married women from the unemployment figures wrong.

Of course, often with hindsight people see the 1980s as an era of 'greed is good' and people able to make millions. Because some people did, this was used to show us that all of us could. However, the fact that much of such sums were derived through asset stripping other industries and forcing down wages shows the lie. Most of us had to be exploited by such conditions in order for those people to make their profits. Sound familiar?

I was growing up in the 1980s, I was 13 in 1980 and 23 in 1990. I managed to avoid most of the problems because I lived in South-East England and went to university and had prosperous parents who did not lose their jobs. Yet even I was aware of the impact that the Recession of the 1980s had on people. The key impact which still lingers today, was fear. Parents in particular were terrified of what would happen to their company. Life became grey, holidays were cancelled, people even complained when people on benefits had a television or wanted hot food. Families were broken up by the unemployment. Even at university, where we were the privileged (only 6% of 18 year olds went to university then compared to over 40% now) we all feared a long period of unemployment ahead of us at graduation. Despite graduating in 1990, I did not earn above £10,000 (€10,000; US$14,800) until 2001. When colleagues at work talk about how long the second recession of 1990-3 actually went on, lingering to 1996 and beyond, I wholeheartedly support them in their statements. In fact between 1981-96, the British economy as the bulk of the population experienced it was in a bad state and unemployment in reality was always far worse than statistics made out.

I find it ironic that there is a current radio advertisement encouraging young people to go to university and 'taste the opportunity' and 'be everything' that they 'could ever be'. Recession as were are experiencing now and will at least until 2015 if not longer clamps down on opportunity. Of course tens of thousands more young people go to university now than they did in 1985 and they have been lied to that for the thousands of pounds of debt they are incurring they will have a chance for a good job. This is utter rubbish. They have little chance of a job let alone a good one. Unemployment is set to return to 3 million and there is no sense it will stop there. This time we do not only have structural readjustment and a consumer downturn but we have vulture funds wrecking established companies for nothing but their own gains. Unemployment among people aged under 25 is at least 40%, i.e. 1.25 million people and unemployment in this age group is rising faster than among other age groups. Unlike their predecessors graduates in this group have massive debts that on a normal basis it would take years to clear, but this will be prolonged by a long period of unemployment.

Of course graduates are those with greatest privileges, they tend still, mainly to come from well off families and by definition to be best educated. So if they are being pushed into unemployment what about those young people with lower qualifications. Even in the mid-1990s you would see graduates hiding their degrees from their CVs so that they could get the low paid jobs that were going. Carl Gilleard, chief executive of Graduate Recruiters has advised graduates to do this, to take the mundane jobs. Of course this simply displaces the less qualified from those posts. For young people at whatever level of education, there is now no opportunity. You fight tooth and nail against everyone just to secure that job in a call centre as you know there is nothing else. When there you make no protest and simply work harder and harder, knowing that simple dislike from your line manager is sufficient to doom you to unemployment.

Everyone seems to forget the terror of the 1980s. Of course it was deliberate, the wealthy felt that workers were not sufficiently obsequious let alone grateful for their jobs and sufficiently subservient in the way they should be. Of course to any employer such things should be part of the natural order, whereas of course, I will contest such things as giving up human dignity. Once again with the years of New Labour, the employers feel we have become too cocky, slack and lazy and certainly not cheap enough employees. Back in July 2008 I talked about how employers felt they had insufficient unemployment to be the necessary 'whip' for their workers and of course now they have it back.

The legacy of the 1980s was enduring and I feel it has damaged British society. For a start people seek scapegoats and there are already warnings of rising tensions, often ethnically focused, on the UK's housing estates. People forget that the 1980s was renowned for rioting right across the UK and only some of it was directed at government policy, the rest of it was directed at people's neighbours. Now we have immigrants again who no doubt will form the focus of such attacks. In return the police gets heavy armament and restricts our civil society even further. The authoritarian state that Tony Blair so loved, ironically will come a step closer through the failure of New Labour's economic plans.

The other thing is that people stop taking risks. This means that they do not travel, they do not learn other languages, they do not set up businesses, they stay at home as a meek pool of labour. The wealthy do not want the masses to travel and to be educated because then they might start challenging their position. The whole thing about expanding university entry, lifelong learning, staying in education until 18, is now being undermined by the whip of unemployment. It smacks down people but it smashes their dreams far more. The reason why immigrants come to the UK, and increasingly from places like Eastern Europe and South Asia where they have been well educated and instilled with an enthusiasm to better themselves, is because so many people born in the UK have had all desire to take risks or get ahead, beaten out of them. It was beaten out of their parents in the 1980s and it is being beaten out of young people today.

Recession sees the redistribution of opportunity back to the wealthy and privileged who have always had the greatest opportunities and yet seem loath to even share them. This week I came across the trend of the 'New Olympians' as outlined by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson in 'The Gods That Failed' (2008). They argue that the current situation is not some error or mishap of the global economy, but is in fact engineered by the powerful who feel that it is right that they should be serviced by the bulk of the population and that any movement away from that is wrong. This suggests that the post-1945 consensus or even the post-1848 perspective, that privilege should be challenged and that those in privilege should accept responsibility for their actions has been overthrown. In its place we have returned to some kind of medieval attitude, shorn of any Victorian philanthropic or even simply Christian elements, back to the anointment by God of certain individuals who it is wrong to even attempt to constrain in the slightest. King Charles I would feel very much at home as a vulture fund head, but people, he was a 17th century monarch, not someone of the 21st century. Are the gains of the past four centuries not worth struggling for.

Recession creates the passive UK society that so many with money and influence have been creating and seeking to maintain for so long. People now talk of 1945-73 as an aberration, instead we should have the hierarchical society in which everyone knows their place. Interestingly privilege is already receiving a boost. Even among universities employers are now only going to Oxford, Cambridge and the three colleges of London University: University College (UCL), Imperial and London School of Economics (which has the worst organised library I have ever seen). Attempts to widen access into the legal profession (only 10% of barristers have gone to a comprehensive school), the civil service, the military, are being attacked openly as 'class war'. People are no longer afraid to protect privilege even though it means that the top people in most of our state arms are from select private schools (and private schools in their entirety only educate 7% of children). Everyone especially in the middle classes, somehow thinks they are exempt, that they and their children will have opportunity. This is a massive delusion. Those who have opportunity are probably less than 7%, probably less than 1% of the population of any country. Yes, you might be able to get your child a job when others are out of work, but in fact they have no more chance of improving themselves and in fact no greater security than an orphan from a poor housing estate. There is the elite and there are the bulk of us, in-fighting in order to get the scraps the ultra-rich toss down. Of course they might not even select to distribute any scraps in your country they might all go to Poland or India or somewhere else. Do not delude yourself it is ever different.

The recession, as in the 1980s is being used in the UK to close down social mobility once again. No-one seems to have learnt the lesson that in the long-run this will damage the UK, because the bulk of successful new businesses in the UK are created not by those in the Establishment (they have no incentive to labour or innovate) but by 'outsiders' whether socially, ethnically or in terms of nationality. The UK is increasingly like China at the end of the 19th century more eager to cling to its out-dated structure than to move with the times to actually help the state to survive. The UK needs a social mobile, educated, confident population not a restricted and fearful one.

The current recession has come about through greed and game playing by the very rich. However, they are far from averse to it and its consequences as they recognise that twenty years on it allows them to jolt the bulk of society back into servile manners. States have found, that in contrast to the mid-20th century (and even then it was tough if you look at how governments were powerless to restrain oil companies) states have found that they cannot even get utility companies to behave in a decent, humane let alone altruistic manner. The ultra-rich are beyond government control and now they are effecting the kinds of society they want, totally unchallenging to them and enabling them to squeeze yet more profit.

I have seen cartoons recently in which Karl Marx is adopting an 'I told you so' manner. What Marx missed entirely is that even hiccoughs in capitalism let alone any steps towards seeming 'collapse' so terrifies the bulk of people, so divides them, so gives the justification to repression that no-one with revolutionary sentiments can come forward. Even in the 1980s I never anticipated that these circumstances of restricted mobility and economic hardship would persist so long, yet, now I know that whenever I die I will feel that I have lived through bad times and any periods when that was not the case were brief aberrations in the sustained period, through economic means, of fear and restriction of the bulk of the population of the UK.

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

I have found this entire posting copied on to the Frost's Meditations website in the section about social mobility. See:

The site seems to be run by a Scottish philosopher or someone interested in philosophy living in Scotland called Martin Frost who gathers online articles about current affairs. He says he is 'Incisive, Eclectic, Original, Informative' and copyrights everything on his pages, including my posting I guess. He does attribute this posting but does not give the blog URL.