Thursday, 6 January 2011

I Don't Love the 1980s: Second Bash

Back in October, last year, I finally got around to writing my views of the 1980s.  Given that it is a decade which is being referenced a lot at the moment, by politicians, the media/culture and the public, primarily because we are once again under a harsh Conservative regime (wrapped up to look like a coalition, but in fact no less sinister than if David Cameron had won a clear majority), unemployment and social division are rocketing once again.  I intended to write a critique of the decade which too often is remembered through the rose-tinted perspective of the 'Brat Pack' movies of the 1980s and the lie that it was a period of glamour and prosperity, whereas for most people it was one of the worst times of their lives.  My critique: ended up going down the Alan Davies route and in fact being very much about my personal experiences of the decade and far less a general historical survey of the times along the lines of what I did for the 1970s.  Thus, with the objective of reminding those people who lived through the 1980s actually how bad it was, cutting through the softening of memory and especially of nostalgia, and for those who were not alive or not conscious of the decade except as history, this posting is a more impersonal critique.

Bascially the 1980s were frightening.  When the population was not frightened about losing work and home, they were frightened about being wiped out in a nuclear war.  The period called the Second Cold War started in 1979 when the USSR invaded Afghanistan to support the left-wing government in power there against radical Islamists; they remained until 1989.  The Soviets were to prove the second of three superpowers (the British in 1837-42 and again 1878-1880; the Americans now) to get into serious military difficulties trying to control the country.  Their invasion coincided with a shift in the American political scene away from the detente phase of the mid-1970s to a much harder line under right-wing president Ronald Reagan (1980-8), not an intelligent man and one who had strange beliefs about how God would defend the righteous when a nuclear war came.  Consequently, certainly until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR in 1985, there was a real fear that we would see a nuclear war.  Reagan's bullish approach was seen in active support for the Contra rebels seeking to overthrow the elected left-wing government in Nicaragua and for the Afghan Mujahadeen fighting the Soviets.  Such support seemed to revive the 'proxy' wars facet of the Cold War of the early 1980s. 

The threat of nuclear war was brought home to the population of Britain and many other West European countries by the higher visibility of nuclear weapons in the country.  The advent of cruise missiles launched from lorries meant that ordinary people saw nuclear missiles coming through their village on manoeuvres in a way that they had not seen them in the past when they were generally concealed in underground silos and nuclear submarines.  Culture constantly reminded us of nuclear weapons and it spilt over into all aspects of popular culture with numerous books and even games about the Third World War; songs about nuclear war by mainstream bands (e.g. 'Two Tribes' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984) and 'Russians' by Sting (1985)), not only protest singers; television dramas (notably 'The Day After' (1983) and 'Threads' (1984)) and documentaries about the effects of nuclear war (the concept of nuclear winter began to be explored at this time) and even comedians referenced nuclear war, not only the burgeoning 'alternative' comedians in the UK (such as in 'The Young Ones' series (1982-4), but even mainstream comedy like the short-lived series 'Comrade Dad' (1986). 

For many people there seemed to be a choice between instant vapourisation in a nuclear blast or lingering death from radiation sickness or starvation during the nuclear winter.  It is unsurprising that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) revived so vigorously.  It had been formed in 1958 but had been pretty moribund, having only 4000 members in 1979.  The immediate threat of nuclear war meant membership rose to 100,000 by 1984 with many more sympathisers in the general population.  The advent of Mikhail Gorbachev was a real relief to much of the world.  Whilst most of us had never expected the USSR to start a nuclear war (in fact China was a greater danger but constantly overlooked in the West), this was confirmed by Gorbachev's steps in the late 1980s.  Fortunately Reagan saw which way things were going.  With the failure of his delusional plan for the 'Star Wars shield' against nuclear weapons he recognised, or his advisors did, that going along with Gorbachev could also spare the ailing US economy of the burden of the constant arms race.  It was made more palatable for the Americans by the declarations that they had 'won' the Cold War, though, as I have argued on this blog, that was probably a premature claim.

The other global threat to life in the 1980s was AIDS. HIV had been identified in 1959 but the perception of it as an epidemic really began to appear in 1980-1; AIDs was officially defined as a disease in the USA in 1982. While we were aware of the rising number of people with HIV and AIDS, it reached around 8 million globally with HIV by 1990 (it is now 33 million), in the UK, the real jolt came with the 'Don't Die of Ignorance' campaign started in January 1987. With intentionally very grim imagery, it instilled in people the fear that the world was at risk from this epidemic. It certainly seemed like something out of science fiction series of the 1970s such as the chilling BBC series 'Survivors' (1975-7) and movies like 'The Andromeda Strain' (1971; from 1969 novel). To a great degree it was to shake up the complacent attitude that the disease was something that only gay men or intravenous injecting drug addicts would get. Of course, Africa has seen the outcome that the whole world anticipated in the mid- to late 1980s, with over 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa with HIV, 1.4 million deaths and over 14 million children left orphaned by AIDS. Around 1 billion people live in Africa, so we are talking about 5% of the population of that continent still suffering. Fortunately the development of medicines and a degree of alteration of behaviour, in particular the growth in the use of condoms, slowed down the growth of HIV/AIDS in other parts of the world, especially the wealthy countries. However, complacency is risky, as the rise in all STIs among over-50s has shown in the past two years in the UK. AIDS seemed, like nuclear war, to tell us that the warnings that authors had given us in the 1960s and 1970s could easily come true and the fear was palpable.

In terms of global politics, in the early 1980s most people assumed that the world would be divided into two or three superpower blocs for the foreseeable future.  Looking back now on the era there is naturally a sense that the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and of the USSR itself was inevitable.  However, the suppression of the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland in 1981 with the implementation of martial law made us far less optimistic in the 1980s.  Even when Gorbachev came to power there were often concerns in the late 1980s that he would be overthrown and a harder line regime re-introduced as happened after liberal Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was removed in 1964.  Like Khrushchev, Gorbachev did not always pursue liberal policies and the suppression of nationalist uprisings across the USSR in 1986 can be seen as a clear example of this.  Thus, millions of people in Europe continued to be under totalitarian Communist rule until the Soviet bloc began to break up properly in 1989 first with Hungary and notably with East Germany and Romania.  Even then the break-up of the USSR was not a foregone conclusion.  The former Communist states did get democracy and some have flourished.  Russia has found it harder and has suffered from gangsterism and a tendency towards authoritarianism.  Elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, national tensions effectively put on hold in 1944 have revived, most shockingly in the brutality of the Yugoslav War 1991-5 (I know Yugoslavia was not entirely in the Soviet bloc but it had been a Communist state) but also in states like Hungary and Romania.

The rapid collapse of the Soviet bloc and then the USSR 1986/9-91 led many to feel that the right-wing assumption that a free economy must lead to democracy was disproved by the experience in China.  Following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Chinese leaders like those in the USSR came to realise that a highly centralised economy was no longer working and so more steps towards a more capitalist system was needed to secure even basic prosperity.  In China millions of people were allowed to relocate, primarily to coastal cities.  In the 1980s about 80 million people, equivalent to the population of Japan (which was the booming economy of the time, people forget it was seen then very much as China is now) relocated.  China moved very slowly towards capitalism, a process which was anticipated to move as fast as it had in the USSR, though thirty years on it is still incomplete and the Chinese state still controls vast sections of the economy.  Too many commentators cannot shake off the delusion that China will inevitably (and comparatively soon) come to a more democratic system.  They do not look at Taiwan which had capitalism for fifty years before it became democratic or how authoritarian in flavour the regimes of South Korea and Singapore are.  If they needed any more evidence they have to only look as we did at the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.  The sending in of tanks looked incredibly like the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968-9, the crushing of attempts towards a more liberal political system in Communist states.  China has made no further steps towards political liberty, it remains a totalitarian state with an appalling human rights record as it did in the 1980s.

Another concern was what was happening in Iran.  This took time to really penetrate into our consciousness, but also signalled a big change in the risk to the world.  In 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeni became the head of a revolutionary regime which had expelled the corrupt Shah of Iran.  The shah's callous and greedy behaviour, based on the country's immense oil wealth, had made him naturally hated in Iran.  The failure of Arab nationalism to effectively remove western influence in the Middle East and limit/destroy Israel, led to Islamist thinkers (remember the population of Iran is mainly not Arabic, they speak Farsi) to adopt different approaches.  In common with a trend across the world (in terms of Christianity, notably in the USA) there was a shift to fundamentalism; a re-emphasis on literal interpretation of holy writing.  In Iran, Islamic fundamentalism was the foundation of the regime which persists to today.  Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter had ordered an embarrassing failure of an attempt to rescue US hostages in Iran and I think this is why Reagan stayed away from the country.  US interest in the region dates back to the Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957 which outlined the USA's need to ensure stable friendly governments in the Persian Gulf region to secure oil supplies, a policy revived under the two Presidents Bush in the 1990s and 2000s.  Reagan's approach was to bolster secular Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein, especially during the inconclusive Iran-Iraq War 1980-8; ironically Hussein was later removed by the Americans on the basis that he was backing Islamist terrorism, but in fact it was simply about the oil he controlled and that his usefulness to the USA was at an end. Fundamentalist Islam is an attitude that proved to provide the intellectual seeding ground for Islamist terrorism in the 1990s and 2000s.

One country which attracted much attention in the 1980s was South Africa.  The apartheid system was still in place.  Apartheid had been in place since 1948 and though there had been massacres in the 1960s and 1970s, notably the Soweto Uprising of 1976, in 1985-9 the situation came to a head with local rioting spreading.  In 1985, a State of Emergency was declared and spread to the whole country.  Battles between the black population and government forces and within the black population filled this period and it appeared as if South Africa was on the verge of civil war.  As it was fatalities were commonplace.  It was only with the resignation of President P.W. Botha and his replacement by F.W. de Klerk in 1990 that began the steps towards the dismantlement of the apartheid system, including the release in 1990 of Nelson Mandela.  For the bulk of the 1980s it appeared as if the killings in South Africa would not cease and a full-scale racial war would develop as it almost did at the start of the 1990s.

Many Americans seem to think that terrorism was not invented until September 2001.  However, the UK in the 1980s was suffering terrorist attacks by Irish Republican groups.  In the period 1981-3 there were bombs across London including in prominent sites like Regent's Park and Harrods store; another in Kent in 1989.  In 1984 they blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton where the British government were staying killing and injuring members of the government and their families and almost assassinating the prime minister.  These were a continuation of bombings on the British mainland seen in the 1970s.  In Northern Ireland itself bombings and shootings continued almost without cease; notably the Enniskillen massacre in November 1989.  The British government responded with harsh policies such as 'shoot to kill' allowing special forces to assassinate terrorists both in the UK and outside its borders.  In the 1990s the incidents increased in regularity and severity.  This is why the British were pretty non-plussed about the 11th September 2001 attacks and their aftermath.  In the 1970s we had seen the Queen's cousin assassinated; an MP Airey Neave killed right in the Houses of Parliament car park and were to see another Northern Irish Secretary assassinated, mortar bombs fired at the home of the prime minister and countless soldiers and civilians killed.  The security checks you went through whenever visiting a public building reminded you of the risks you faced.

Another particular characteristic of the UK in the 1980s was rioting.  In 1981 there were riots in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol.  During the Miners' Strike of 1984-5 there were regular battles between police and strikers that seemed to resemble something from the Middle Ages with police behind shields and riding down strikers from horseback.  In 1985 many of the areas which had experienced riots in 1981 saw them again, some again in 1987.  The introduction of the poll tax was to lead to the Poll Tax Riot of 1990 in central London.  The poll tax or Community Charge as it formally named (though even government documentation noted its more popular name) was introduced to Scotland in 1989 and the rest of the UK the following year.  It funded local authority spending.  Unlike previous local authority taxation or the current Council Tax, it was not based on the value of the property which you lived in.  All people living in a district had to pay the same amount no matter whether they own property and no matter what their income was (though the unemployed could get a discount).  Clearly it hit the poorest working people hardest.  It was incredibly inefficient as it was based on individuals, and on average a district would see 2-4000 people move address between each year's assessment and the bills being sent out.  In the town where my parents lived it meant doubling the number of staff working for the council simply to handle the tax so sapping the funds it brought in.  I lived in East Anglia at the time and received bills for eight different people who shared a surname with me; one friend of mine whose surname is the very common Smith never received a bill because they were all sent to someone else.  Another friend who was out of the country for three months (you were not liable for the tax if not in the UK), and had told the council returned home to find he was being summoned to court for not paying the tax, so costing the council additional money in the legal processes.  You can see why the tax was unfair and in fact useless.  The idea was that it would make payers put pressure on the local authorities to find the cheapest way to provide services so curtailing the activities of high-spending local authorities on behalf of the government which despised Labour-run councils.  However, no-one gave any thought to that just the inequity of the whole scheme and how it penalised them.  No wonder the riot was so virulent.  Again it was a factor which brought fear into your everyday life.  I worried I would be taken to court and be imprisoned (elderly people who refused to pay on principle were imprisoned, so I feared, that, as a young man, I would be one of the first to be locked up) because I had not paid the other seven bills sent to me but certainly lacked the money to do so.  The poll tax led to a great distrust of local authorities to the extent that even in the mid-1990s when I was living in East London it was reckoned there were 60,000 people living in the borough who were not registered for council tax.  Though the poll tax was short lived it has done immense damage to local authority funding. 

There was an assumption, which fortunately in the past five years seems to be finally being challenged, that private business will always run things far better than any public provision.  As we have seen with filthy hospitals, expensive fuel and water and appalling public transport, in fact, private business is good (most of the time) at making huge profits but in terms of service delivery is very poor.  In addition, British service providers are not even good at running businesses, which is why so few of the privatised services of the 1980s remain in the hands of British companies.

Another major trouble of the 1980s not only in the UK, but across capitalist countries, was unemployment.  UK unemployment was a little below 2 million, around 5% of the working population when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979.  This contrasted to 1.2 million, around 3.5% in 1974.  The increase had been provoked by the oil price rise, the decline of heavy industry in the UK and difficulties around the strength of the pound and balance of payments which had led to the introduction of semi-monetarist policies in 1972 and again in 1976 on the urging of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  The cutback in public services, the wrecking of the coal industry, the restriction on money flow and a strong pound limiting export markets meant that manufacturing, which had been overtaken by service industries in contributing to the economy in 1974, went into severe decline.  In 1983 unemployment exceeded 4 million, around 12% of the working population, but far higher in particularly depressed regions like Northern Ireland where it exceeded 20%.  Even in the 'boom' of 1989 it was still at 2.5 million before rising again to 3.5 million in 1992, 10% of a larger working population.  The UK was not alone, the USA had unemployment of 7.5% in 1980 and 10.8% by 1982.  These days the rate of 10.2% unemployed in the USA means 16 million people without work.  West Germany, like the USA and UK pursuing a monetarist policy saw its unemployment rise from below 4% in 1979 to over 9% in 1983 and remain that high for the rest of the 1980s.  Unemployment not only blighted individuals and their families, it blighted towns.  As now you could walk or drive through areas with all the shops and often many houses boarded up.  It was easy for areas to get into a spiral as with high unemployment people did not have money to spend in shops so these would also close putting more people out of work.  The fear of losing your job hit far wider than the 1 in 5 or 1 in 10 people who might be unemployed in your street.  In addition, as now, many of those in work were in part-time and low-paid jobs.  In particular local public sector work saw a decline in wages as councils were compelled to privatise them to the cheapest bidder.  Thus, even those in work were often worse off than they had been during higher inflation of the 1970s.  Those who did not get the training or the education or the promotion or who spent much of the 1980s unemployed are still being affected by these years now.

Despite that the bulk of the population, even those who were not affected directly by unemployment, reined in their expenditure for fear of losing their jobs, the very nasty aspect of the 1980s was the emphasis on greed.  I always refer back to a line from a song by the band 'the The' (1986; I think from the track 'The Mercy Beat'): 'everyone can be a millionaire so everyone's got to try'.  The sense, as now, that if you were not out being an entrepreneur and making a huge profit you were somehow a 'scrounger' and unpatriotic, despite the fact that through the 1980s recessions thousands of companies large and small were going out of business.  It was as if you did not put yourself up as a sacrifice to capitalism you had no right to respect.  Of course, the bulk of us will never make good entrepreneurs.  However, public service was now looked down upon and claiming benefits had you portrayed as a pariah and pushed around by an ever intrusive state. Trade unions which stood up for decent pay and conditions were portrayed as 'the enemy within' and were increasingly restricted by legislation and police activity.  Margaret Thatcher's emphasis that society did not exist exempted those doing reasonably well from caring at all about their neighbours or even members of their own families and instead the cry 'get a job' was shouted at them as if they were deliberately avoiding work.  This myth that anyone on benefits was claiming simply for an easy life, despite how low those benefits are, became fixed in British society and remains there today, when, in fact, the bulk of unemployed people are desperate to work which is why even the low paid and increasingly dangerous jobs were filled.  These attitudes, this smashing of concern for others infected the USA as well.  I am sure it appeared across Europe though perhaps not as virulently, though the steps against immigrants does suggest it took root.  This view that we can all be successful in private business and if we are not it is our fault, revives one strand of Victorian thinking without the balancing element of philanthropy which stemmed from seeing all great and lowly as part of the same society.  Attempts to re-establish that latter aspect by Cameron, are not succeeding and so we simply have the harsh Thatcherite line of 'I'm all right Jack, the rest go to Hell' is back as virulently as it was in the 1980s.

Though the 1980s can be seen as a period of important steps forward, in the dismantlement of apartheid and of Communist dictatorships, for the bulk of the decade the future seemed incredibly bleak and the present unsettled and violent.  Scars have been left on public attitudes which have damaged many societies, notably in the UK and USA up to the present day and make life far more unpleasant that it needs to be.  Hyper-individualism and being beholden to profit-making at any cost are harmful for the vast majority of people who are never going to come close to being millionaires.  Yet, since the 1980s these attitudes have been portayed as laudable and the 'common sense' basis for how things should run.  I am glad that the fear of nuclear was has subsided but the racism and the unemployment with all the bigotry it brings are with us now.  Remember when you sit down to watch 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' (1986) or 'The Breakfast Club' (1985) let alone 'St. Elmo's Fire' (1985), that that was a fantasy of the 1980s, all big hair, pastel colours and big mobile phones; it came nowhere near the bitter reality that most people experienced.  Certainly there seems to be none of the fear that was so prevalent in the 1980s and is again, that you could be dropped by society and there would be no escape from that.  Watch instead 'Boys from the Blackstuff' (1982) or 'Edge of Darkness' (1985) or even 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' (1983-4) for a more realistic indication of the times.  If I had written this three years ago as I had intended, I would have said, I just hope we never go back to the days like that.  Unfortunately, now we seem to be back in the midst of them once more.

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