A Musk spaceship will be a Musk workplace
I suppose if you went to Mars on one of Musk’s starships – at least on one of the early missions – you’d probably be an employee of a government agency so the prevailing human resources model would be the faux-nurturing bureaucratic norm of the major Western corporation – mental-health check-ins, work-life balance, standing desks and so on. But I guess, ultimately, someone’s going to wind up on a 100% Musk-owned mission – to Mars or beyond (maybe it’ll be you. It won’t be me).
And what we know about Musk as an employer and as a manager suggests the experience would be a bit more hardcore. Certainly more Darwinian than working for NASA. He’s been very publicly stripping his most recent acquisition, Twitter, of every trace of the cosy superstructure of the advanced late-capitalist corporation. The massages, the vegan food, the unconscious bias training…
We read that he’s turned the place into a kind of bootcamp for eager bros – what sociologists call a patronage network. A court where a loyal hierarchy competes for preference, like the Soviet Union after Lenin or Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet before they all turned on her. He even brought trusted loyalists from one of his other courts to enforce the tough new culture. Fear and ambition coexist, absolute loyalty is rewarded. And this could be much bigger than Twitter. Some think Musk’s purge might mark the beginning of the end for the liberal-tech utopia of Silicon Valley and its immitators and that hardcore Twitter could become a model for the whole industry. Lay-offs are happening everywhere. The social experiment of cheap-money hyper-meritocratic platform capitalism may be over.
So, once you’re in space on a Musk mission, what’ll it be like? The evidence suggests it’ll be pretty hard yakka – a minimum of 21-months of long shifts, arbitrary policy changes, weird reversions, unexpected side-missions and over-night code rewrites. The crew will dread waking up to a new pronouncement from the boss, non-compliant colleagues will be monstered – on Twitter, natch. In space, loyalty will not be optional, of course: contracts will be unforgiving (a dismissal would likely involve a long spacewalk with no tether, a disciplinary might mean a longer stay on Mars than planned). It’ll definitely be more Klingon than Star Fleet.
If you want to understand the state of the art in space-age capitalism you must visit the HR department
Everyone knows that it’s in Human Resources that you’ll find the perfect expression of the polished lie of the benign 21st Century workplace. The grim neoliberal orthodoxy of human potential in service of capital lives here: it’s HQ for lean-in corporate orthodoxy. The smiling, dead-eyed culture of compliance-disguised-as-fulfilment that anyone who works for a big firm will recognise. A disciplinary function that thinks it’s a wellbeing project.
There’s a space-faring future HR department at the centre of Olga Ravn’s ‘The Employees’, a 2020 novel subtitled ‘a workplace novel of the 22nd century’. It’s literary science fiction, written during the pandemic (published in November 2020). The bleak, suffocating setting – a spaceship, very far from earth, in orbit around a colonised planet that’s been named ‘New Discovery’, carefully conjures up the weird dynamic of the lockdown as vividly as it does all those other spaceships of your memory.
The book’s thesis is neat: a spaceship – no matter how advanced its technology, no matter how far into the future or distant from earth it is, no matter how difficult and unsettling its mission – is still a place of work, right? And, when things go wrong, when a discovery on the planet’s surface causes a kind of crisis of self-awareness in the crew and the hierarchy of human and humanoid on board collapses, there’ll still need to be some kind of formal investigation, right? Management will need to get involved, send a team, kick off some kind of process?
So the book is a sequence of reports, memos from crew members, gathered by a team sent from earth. And they start kind of bland, empty of tension, cleverly suggesting the complicated economic and social context the crew occupies without describing it (this is not a Kim Stanley Robinson novel). The memos hint at the drama to come and – without spoilers – the tension does build and things do get bad.
The book’s full of ideas, it has an unexpected emotional charge that builds and there’s real beauty and strangeness in the places we visit, especially in the tantalising glimpse of the surface of New Discovery that we’re offered and in the ‘objects’ encountered there. It’s translated from Danish so I’m definitely not equipped to tell you if it’s been done well – but the language is authentically that of a workplace in crisis and the bloodless, rules-bound culture of human resources and people management described is chilling.
The story is told only by the workers, by the actors in the workplace drama. It’s a one-sided interrogation. We don’t hear the voices of the HR team sent to investigate, the managers who decide how to resolve things (there are no union reps present). The language of the staff interviewed betrays the strangled effort to comply with rules you only vaguely comprehend. And the outcome, the resolution to the problems on-board, is chilling, authentically bureaucratic, brutal – and there’s no right of appeal.
- I review the books I read on Goodreads – mainly so I don’t forget them.
There are millions of energy prepayment meters in Britain. They’re supposed to liberate customers from financial worry. They do the exact opposite.
We learn that over three million households with prepayment meters were cut off at least once last year. Meanwhile, the number of people being switched to prepayment because they’ve run up arrears is surging. Parts of the media have bought into the energy industry’s story that prepayment meters are in some way benign, that they protect poor customers from getting into trouble. This morning, a BBC journalist on Today said:
The introduction of prepayment meters was meant to ensure that vulnerable people could not have their gas or electricty cut off. Paying in advance would mean, it was said, they couldn’t get themselves into financial difficulties.Today, BBC Radio 4, 12 January 2023
It’s a bizarre assertion. Prepayment meters don’t protect customers at all. They protect suppliers and discipline customers. Once it’s become clear to your electricity company that you’re struggling or you’ve missed a payment (or even that you might miss one), it becomes urgent to get you onto a prepayment meter sharpish. For a supplier, switching the customer to prepayment ‘de-risks’ the relationship, removing the possibility of default and the need to chase you for payment, appoint debt collectors etc. Moving a customer who’s in financial difficulty to a prepayment meter switches them from potential liability to cast-iron, zero-risk asset.
Free money for shareholders
Also, to state the obvious, a customer with a prepayment meter pays in advance. Without even knowing how many prepayment meters there are in the UK (this number doesn’t seem to be available) or what the average credit held on an account is (likewise), it’s easy to calculate that, with interest rates for cash held over night currently at well over 3%, the energy firms are making tens of millions annually, in bank interest alone, from these deposits. Free money! And from the poorest customers with the least choice!
Prepayment is nothing new, of course. Poor people have been required to pay up-front for gas and electricity since the distribution grids were built. Middle class customers with salaries and bank accounts have always paid monthly for goods and services – grocers and tailors and dairies posted a bill and waited politely for a cheque (those ‘no credit’ signs were just for the hoi poloi).
Working class customers – typically hourly paid or on piece rates – have had, for the whole modern period, to maintain a patchwork of pay-in-advance and pay-as-you go services. Before the NHS, medical treatment was paid for on the spot, insurance and funeral cover was paid weekly on the doorstep. Radios and TVs were rented. Gas and electricity was paid for in advance via coin meters. A whole predatory ecology arose to service the pay-in-advance and pay-on-the-spot economy of working class Britain – tick, tallymen, pawn shops, the whole infrastructure of informal, high-interest lending for the ‘unbanked’. For a hundred years the ‘man from the Pru’ was a feature of working class neighbouorhoods, collecting insurance premiums. This economy emerged to serve those excluded from the pay-on-account economy. And this system, as it does to the present day, extracted a higher rate of return from the least able to pay. Pay-day lenders, sub-prime credit cards, unsecured loans and ruinously expensive overdrafts – a secondary economy that prospers from precarity and desparation. Prepayment meters are part of this world.
Soaking the working class
More recently, working people have been permitted access to the pay-on-account ecology – via modern devices like Direct Debit and ‘continuous payment authorities‘, conveniences that are also sold as an improvement to service for customers but were actually designed to give suppliers some certainty about accepting payments from the great unwashed (see also ‘pay-as-you-go’ mobiles). Poorer customers are characterised as ‘higher-risk’ but the prepayment and pay-as-you go devices they’re required to use turn them into zero-risk sources of annuity income. Rates for prepayment are also typically higher and less flexible than for pay-on-account or Direct Debit bills. Suppliers say this has to be so because operating the prepayment infrastructure adds cost but as prepayment and smart meters converge this difference will disappear.
And the meters themselves lift the crude business of taking the money up-front to a new level. They’re exploitation machines, disciplinary surveillance robots installed directly in customers’ homes. Each meter embeds a contractual relationship and a set of terms and coditions and, once all meters are ‘smart’, switching a customer from the pay-on-account elite to the prepayment underclass is trivially easy (and could even be automatic – missed a payment? Welcome to the prepayment underclass!).
And once you’re in prepayment mode, the machine acquires the discretion to enforce the contract by cutting supply. Spent your money on food? Couldn’t get down the shop? You’re out of luck. The meter has decided. And if you built up arrears while paying monthly, your meter will be set up to take it all back from you, week by week, and while you’re repaying what you owe you won’t be able to switch to another supplier – the annual ritual of switching suppliers enjoyed by the savvy householder is not available to you. The liberty of the informed consumer in a free market is denied to you. You are stuck (and, incidentally, you are almost certainly on the supplier’s highest available rate with the fewest options).
Living on a prepayment cliff edge
The experience of living with a prepayment meter is necessarily stressful. Even if you’ve got a steady income and can afford the crazy prices, you still have to worry about keeping the meter topped up and about the cliff-edge of being cut off if you forget or run short. For people who are struggling (many millions of UK households right now, of course) the additional stress of controlling expenditure and topping up before the supply stops is punishing and time-consuming – and makes everything else harder. Worse yet, when a prepayment meter goes wrong or a key fails, the meter – you won’t be suprised to learn – will always fail in the ‘off’ state, so if your top-up doesn’t work there’s a reasonable chance you’ll be cut off and waiting over night in the cold for an engineer or a call-back. Failing in the ‘on’ state would obviously risk supplying a low-value customer with some free energy and must thus be avoided at all cost.
Adding the stress of prepayment to the anxiety of poverty and precarity is, of course, a feature not a bug. Families with no slack, no buffer against destitution, have to find the bus fare to get to a distant news agent before it closes or someone to look after the kids while they scrabble for funds. And if you can find a fiver to top up you’ll need to do the same again tomorrow – and lie awake worrying about it tonight. Prepayment was designed this way. It’s deliberate, debilitating, immiserating. The routine humiliation of the poor is a centuries-old pattern. It’s become unchallenged common sense that life should be harder for the poor. Smart technologies and prepayment meters make it easier than ever to achieve this.
During the pandemic, innovators and opportunists improvised bold new ways to move money from the state into private hands – it was like the seizure of assets in a socialist state – only backwards.
In an emergency governments will turn to compulsion to get things done. In wartime manufacturing capacity will be requisitioned, farmers told what to grow, broadcasters switched to propaganda. We expect this – and we’re ready to accept a loosening of rules to speed things up, to save lives.
In the pandemic, governments everywhere activated laws – some of which had been passed years before for this purpose – obliging the private sector to support the state’s response to the outbreak. In the USA, the Defense Production Act was invoked, directing businesses to switch capacity to ventilators and PPE equipment – essentially a wartime response to the crisis, not unlike the epic programme that provided thousands of warplanes and tanks to the allies in WW2. This Truman-era law has been used by several Presidents since and it was Donald Trump who did so as the pandemic took hold in 2020, even as he was busy endorsing bleach and necking hydroxychloroquine (Biden has subsequently used the Act to push vaccine production and energy independence).
Being a socialist state obviously gave you no magic advantage in the plague years but in Cuba, despite the blockade, the country’s highly effective natural disaster response system quickly switched to managing the pandemic and, as a result, the country has done better than most – including, obviously, its near neighbour across the Straits of Florida – in limiting deaths and economic damage. The response of the country’s excellent medical system, and in particular its DIY vaccine programme, was so successful that American scientists want access to it. Sensible governments will all be rewriting their resilience plans along Fidelist lines.
In Britain it was different. To be clear, the British Covid crony-enrichment programme probably wasn’t unique. No crisis, war or catastrophe ever goes unexploited anywhere in the world. Profiteering is universal. But in Britain it seems to have been particularly entrepreneurial and deeply integrated with government. When the book is written it’ll be like something from Bulgakov or Vonnegut – a surreal and quite dark montage of titled spivs, lingerie millionaires, ministers on the make, dodgy pub landlords, nervous-looking civil servants…
This baroque clusterfuck of chancers and pin-striped conmen and their credulous Parliamentary enablers worked like a kind of decadent, mirror-Communism. Collectivism run in reverse. Like when revolutionary governments nationalise land and manufacturing without compensation or when Third World nations seize copper mines and oil wells. Only it was all the other way around.
An effective machine was quickly built, by a coalition that’s familiar to us now from twelve years of government. This is the coalition that brings together the more entrepreneurial Tory Parliamentarians – the thrusting, post-Cameron crowd, not the old gits with dinner on their ties – and the younger generation of business opportunists they socialise with – not the titled Plc crowd of the 20th Century but the risk-taking, leveraged, post-crash types. Millennial gangsters.
And they built an ad-hoc but highly efficient money funnel – in a matter of days. It was a slick, fast-track mechanism, Paypal for shysters. The Government called it the ‘exceptional procurement exercise’ (this long apologia for the scheme is quite a read – and includes a list of the firms involved and who proposed them). It came with full state authority and an explicit exemption from examination and it moved cash from the state into the bank accounts and off-shore trusts of business owners and their families, with no questions asked.
The stated logic of the operation was that the only way to move fast enough, to meet the unprecedented needs of the NHS while every other national health system was competing for goods in the same market, was to harness the energy and entrepreneurialism of the connected class, the old boys and old girls, the highly-tuned supply chain of dinner parties and text messages and Parliamentary drinks receptions (and all those incandescent emails, of course).
And the whole regime was very very 21st Century. Agile, ‘open source’, low-friction – a kind of hyper-modern reverse expropriation. Just-in-time enrichment for connected chancers. Contracts were awarded fast, before businesses existed to fulfil them in fact. In all, 430 contracts were awarded via the ‘high priority mailbox’. Margins were enormous. We’ve learnt that a simple forwarded email could trigger a transfer of hundreds of millions of pounds. Epic paydays for wise-guys from every corner of capitalism. Many of these firms, of course, also became eligible for Covid furlough payments and claimed again – a spectacular double payday for many.
And, let’s face it, this is before you even get to the much bigger transfer of wealth – via the vast Bank of England debt-purchase scheme and the government’s direct support for business – to asset owners. These multi-million pound PPE paydays are going to look really silly next to the really big payday.
- Richard Brooks’ long and detailed special report on the PPE procurement scandal for Private Eye is magnificent.
This is a guest post from the nice people at Radlett Wire, a local blog that, having spent ten years providing, let’s face it, mostly quite boring information about the small Hertfordshire town in its name, is now doing something a bit more political and keeping an eye on the public life and shifting fortunes of local MP (and Sunak sidekick) Oliver Dowden. This post caught our eye because it’s about the politics of clinging to office.
Media training for Ministers of the Crown must now include excusing the indiscretions of people you probably think are beneath contempt
In the past, when ministers broke the rules, made egregious errors or just royally embarrassed themselves, the routine was fairly simple. You resigned sharpish and – depending on the severity of your offence – were cast into outer darkness (the House of Lords), left politics all together or, in the fullness of time were rehabilitated and reinserted to the cabinet as if nothing had happened (sometimes more than once).
More recently, in the period, roughly speaking, between the beginning of the coalition government in 2010 and the chaos of Brexit, the routine changed. Something about the rise of populism, the bracing free-for-all of the new politics, means the norms have been rewritten. Now, when disgraced, a politician can be expected to cling to power – sometimes for months on end, sometimes indefinitely – with the petulance of a haughty toddler. The honourable resignation, the dignified retreat from public life – these are now thought to be signs of political weakness, hopelessly outdated remnants of a prissier political era. Only wimps resign.
For the muscular populists of the post-political era, the polite traditions of 20th Century politics are not just an inconvenience, they’re part of the problem. Decorum, sobriety, propriety – all are no longer sources of legitimacy but evidence of establishment paralysis. Trashing political norms is not incidental to the project – it’s fundamental. And it’s a self-reproducing behaviour. Once a majority of pols are responding to crises in this way it becomes essentially impossible to do so in the old way. When politics shifts and everyone around you is shameless, resigning when found out becomes essentially unpolitical, unstrategic. You’d look like a mug so you hang on until the storm passes (or you’re literally forced onto a plane home to be publicly fired).
So a necessary part of the new routine is the ritual interrogation of the miscreant’s colleagues. It’s an accepted part of the job. Whoever shows up in the studio to answer questions about that day’s big story will, as a matter of routine, be asked to justify the errant minister’s continued presence in the cabinet. There’s a fairly static repertoire of responses – “it would be wrong to pre-judge the official inquiry”, “the minister has apologised and is now 100% focused on delivery of the government’s ambitious programme”, “the minister has the full support of the Prime Minister.”
Given the size of a modern cabinet – (31 ministers attend Rishi Sunak’s cabinet) – there’s always at least one minister in disgrace. In recent times it’s regularly been two or three and, in the remarkable period that came to a close in August, it was often the Prime Minister himself. So the likelihood you’ll be grilled about a colleague’s indiscretions is high. You need to be across the story. In the official car on the way to the studio the minister is reading papers about their own brief, about wider policy and about the antisocial behaviour of a fellow minister. It’s all in a day’s work.
So when our MP Oliver Dowden showed up in Laura Kuenssberg’s studio on Sunday he had to have the Gavin Williamson story down pat. The timing of his appointment to his current role, the status of the inquiry launched when Wendy Morton made her complaint, whether or not the Prime Minister had seen the screenshots of Williamson’s latest outburst. All committed to memory – the man’s a pro. Williamson, who was knighted by Boris Johnson after an earlier sequence of screw-ups (remember the lockdown exam chaos, the row with Marcus Rashford and the Department of Defence leak?), at least nominally reports to Dowden, so that must make it all a bit more real. In the interview Dowden made use of a fairly flimsy ‘heat of the moment’ defence and made the slightly ungracious implication that nobody liked Wendy Morton anyway (“it was no secret that Gavin Williamson, and others indeed, didn’t enjoy a good relationship with the Chief Whip at the time…”).
Williamson’s texts to the Chief Whip, of course, are probably a blessed relief for the government, keeping the Home Secretary’s more consequential string of cock-ups off the front page for a day or two. The clock is ticking.
Italo Svevo and Adam Tooze (and Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng)
So, in his book about the real hero of modern literature, historian Franco Moretti put me on to Italo Svevo’s 1922 novel Zeno’s Conscience. So now I know it’s a brilliant and prophetic book. In thie book, with our hero, businessman Zeno Cosini, we walk the streets of Trieste, a port city at the edge of a collapsing empire and at the edge of the unfortunate 20th century, the most annoying and loveable (and most unreliable) unreliable narrator you’ll ever meet.
This narrator is a very up-to-date Austro-Hungarian. He’s an enthusiast for the latest Viennese fad psychoanalysis—we learn that he’s writing all this down for his analyst in Vienna (Doctor S, probably Sigmund Freud, who actually treated Svevo’s brother). He’s a hypochondriac who knows all the latest ailments and treatments, a chemist who knows the composition of all the new remedies, apparently in robust health but surrounded by sick people. An egomaniac – but only in the sense that you would be too, if you were writing everything down for your analyst.
And, in the text, Zeno’s right there, on the cusp of the modern, at the beginning of the long 20th century; all that revolution, industrialisation, despoilation, globalisation—and war after war—just over the horizon.
He’s a modern man, a complicated subject like you or me, a secular bourgeois. He’s superstitious but not religious, a terrible businessman who prospers by accident. In the book he becomes a kind of comic avatar of the emerging scientific capitalism of the late 19th Century. The whole petty theatre of modern business is here: the awkwardness of foreign trade, company law, buying and selling shares (in Rio Tinto, supplier of copper to the hypermodern boom industries of electricity and telegraphy – he’s at the bleeding edge), fiddling the books (and worrying about getting caught fiddling the books), surplus stationery purchased in error, shipping and warehousing, HR dilemmas…
There’s a huge stock market loss (and an unlikely recovery), a catastrophic purchase of 60 metric tons of Copper Sulphate from a company in England, a sequence of terrible deals made from Zeno and his brother-in-law’s comically badly-run office (apparently staffed by the cast of the Carry On films—Carmen is Joan Sims, Luciano Jim Dale and Guido Kenneth Williams—change my mind).
The story ends with an intriguing perspective on the catastrophe of the Great War, from the other end of Europe—from the complicated, multi-party territorial war over Svevo’s beloved Trieste. I won’t spoil the ending but it brings the story to a grand and moving conclusion.
Anyway, I’d just finished Zeno’s story—and I’m all buoyed by his optimism, his readiness to transcend the darkness of war and death, to enter a rational new world of telephone calls, intercontinental travel, electric light and nation states—when I read Adam Tooze’s latest Substack. It’s about the latest explosion of stupidity and venality in British politics and the ripples it’s caused in the world economy in the last ten days. I experienced an unaccountable tingle of connection between the two stories.
Tooze starts with a fairly close-up view of events in Westminster and the City but his essay quickly spirals out through British and world markets and winds up in a very big (and quite bleak) picture indeed:
Does it really make sense to perpetuate a system in which disastrous financial risks are built into the profit-driven provision of basic financial products like pensions and mortgages? Yes the central bank can act as the fire brigade, but why do we such a dangerous situation as normality. Why do the smoke detectors fail again and again? And why is the house not more fire proof? It is time to ask who benefits and who pays the cost for continuing with this dangerously inflammable system.‘The bond market massacre of September 2022’, Adam Tooze
I feel like every time Tooze sits down to document a new human catastrophe these days he can’t help observing that whatever the latest planet-scale fuck-up is, it’s actually also a symptom of something bigger and more final. His last two books documented the financial crisis (Crashed) and the pandemic (Shutdown). The next one will be about the global collapse triggered by Kwasi and Liz’s sixth-form science experiment in the UK economy. It’ll be called ‘Spavined’ or ‘Wrecked’ or ‘Knackered’ and it’ll have a big picture of the pair of them gurning in hard hats on the cover.
Svevo, who was a pal of James Joyce, documented Europe’s entry into modernity. Tooze is documenting the way out.
- Adam Tooze’s Substack is free (he asks for voluntary donations), he also explains topical economics stories on his Foreign Policy podcast. His two most recent books—Crashed and Shutdown—are proper blockbusters of history written while it’s happening.
- Michael Wood’s review of Zeno’s Conscience in the LRB is good. You’ll find a few different translations out there and the book was known as ‘Confessions of Zeno’ in earlier English versions. The Penguin Classics translation is by William Weaver.
- I review books on Goodreads so I don’t forget I’ve read them.
- I’ve got a bit of a Trieste obsession. I’ve been there once in my life but I fantasise about retiring to an apartment overlooking the harbour. Jan Morris’s book about the city is brilliant.
Tate Britain, London, 2019.
Less than half of gen-z in Britain thinks we should keep the monarchy.
What do republicans think about the monarchy? Seems obvious, right? Off with their heads! But no, there’s some complexity here and it connects closely with the weird (almost unique on planet earth) constitutional arrangements that persist here in the archipelago.
On the left there are basically two positions on the monarchy. Not on monarchy in general — only one there really — but on Britain’s actually existing monarchy, the Crown-Constitutional Parliamentary state that’s been locked in here since the 17th Century.
In position one, the monarchy is an unequivocally, catastrophically bad thing—a major impediment to meaningful popular sovereignty and an aspect of Britain’s backward machinery of state. Britain’s monarchy, in this view, is a vital contributor to the country’s long-term decline, solidified in the retreat from empire and the disastrous deindustrialisation of the post-war period.
In this perspective, identified with the British ‘New Left’ since the 1950s and developed in great detail in the pages of New Left Review by brilliant writers like Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, the settlement that secured the monarchy in 1688 locked in the dominance of sclerotic aristocracy, land-owning elite and the compliant institutions that sustain them. The result is a country that, paradoxically, became a nation-state first and industrialised first but failed fully to make the transition from ancien régime to modernity, whose progress from feudalism to capitalism is still incomplete. In the New Left worldview ceremony, deference and acceptance of hierarchy have naturalised and hardened aristocratic dominance and neutralised the popular radicalism that has expanded democracy elsewhere in the capitalist world.
The other left anti-monarchist perspective, embodied these days by lefties belonging to populist or ‘realist’ strands of the tradition, is much less bothered. These anti-monarchists oppose the unelected power of the monarchy (obvs) but would probably be quite happy to leave the Windsors where they are and get on with the class war. In fact, for left-populists, the fervent opposition to the crown and its institutions embodied by that earlier generation of left-wingers is actually damaging to the cause. For them, the critics and theorists who developed the declinist narrative of the New Left—whose animating idea was that Britain is stuck in a deferential mire and can aspire only to a steady loss of status, relevance and prosperity—are a bit FBPE, a bit ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ and not least because opposing the monarchy puts them at odds these days with a clear majority of the British working class.
It’s not just the left who oppose the monarchy, of course. There’s an indignant centrist/liberal republican movement too – in fact they’ve been at it for longer and they’re more organised than the left. In the Crown’s 19th century slump it was largely Whig/Liberal radicals like Charles Dilkes who opposed the monarchy and, in the present day, the Liberal party itself still has a robust republican strand. The young Liz Truss was not alone in her vituperative opposition to the royals.
The rehabilitation of the monarchy that’s taken place since the end of the 19th Century, described by Tom Nairn in his brilliant and thoroughly New Left book The Enchanted Glass, has, to put it bluntly, worked. The Crown-Parliamentary state won. In the middle ages, monarchs cowered in their palaces, derided publicly. When they ventured into the streets kings and queens were often booed, some were so often away crusading (or hunting, or carousing) they might not be known to their subjects at all.
Working people who, until the early 19th Century, were suspicious of or even hostile towards royalty are, especially in the most recent decades of the Queen’s reign, mostly in favour (the numbers might be a bit different among fans of The Crown and the young, of course). Principled opposition to monarchy will just put the left in conflict with the working class and leave lefties in a very familiar position—thrashing about trying to explain why ordinary people don’t agree with them. It all begins to look a bit Remoaner/People’s Vote/Russian money.
So now, a left wing party or movement that put much energy into opposing the monarchy, that set out policies aiming at an elected head of state or even a slightly less anti-democratic settlement—one that, for instance, removed the monarch’s powers of consent to new laws—could only damage its prospects with working people. Leave the monarchs alone, lefties, they’re not worth it.
Over on Goodreads, I reviewed Nairn’s beautifully-written and highly-entertaining page-turner The Enchanted Glass which dates from the period before the annus horribilus but has two excellent forewords by the author bringing the story well into the 21st Century.
I’d go so far as to say that this is a beautiful book. Funny, angry, imaginative – an unforgiving demolition of the fantasies and self-deceptions of Britain’s backward, complacent, destructive tolerance of the invented rituals of modern royalty – the damage done to our democracy, the permanent strangulation of popular sovereignty, the narrowing of our national potential, the bleak prospect of unstoppable decline made inevitable by our unthinking acceptance of the Crown-constitutional status quo.
Published in 1988, there is absolutely nothing dated or irrelevant about this book – in fact one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the constant, startling correspondences we find between Britain towards the end of the Thatcher revolution and Britain after the Brexit revolt.
The scope of the book is not limited in any way to a critique 0f monarchy or monarchism. My understanding of Britain’s constitutional weirdness (Nairn’s wonderful name for Crown-constitutional Britain is ‘Ukania’) and the powerful parasitic grip of Britain’s social and economic elites has been so enhanced by his excoriating, wide-ranging critique of City, Crown, complacent Parliament, self-interested administrative class, complicit media elite (and so on). I feel I have a new super-power.
Nairn is a brilliant writer, his language sparkles and surprises – you’ll find yourself stopping to look up words you’ve never heard that always turn out to be perfect for the job. It’s an absolute joy – and it took me a long time to read, mainly because I couldn’t help myself from highlighting brilliant passage after brilliant passage on the Kindle (it’s a cause of immense Bezos-directed resentment that I can’t share my highlights with you because I read the book in a non-Amazon format! Sort it out Jeff!).
Nairn, who as of this review, is still with us, developed his powerful argument for the backwardness of Britain’s constitutional arrangements and for the inevitable decline of the state and the polity across his many decades as writer (and editor) at New Left Review. If you have a subscription you can read the entire archive of his writing (and of his pal Perry Anderson – also still with us – another brilliant writer with whom he worked closely) online.Review of The Enchanted Glass, from Goodreads
I’ve been bingeing on texts about monarchy lately, for obvious reasons. I also recently reviewed David Cannadine’s influential paper ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual : The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’ c. 1820–1977’ which is in a terrific book of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. The essay, published in 1977, explains how the rituals and customs invented or updated in the 19th Century rescued Britain’s Crown from irrelevence or even obliteration in a revolution like those that wiped out the monarchies of Europe one after the other (Hobsbawm’s essay in the same book, a wider-ranging survey of the twilight of monarchy across Europe, is also worth a read).
Another good read in this context is a David Edgerton’s 20th Century history The rise and fall of the British nation, which aims to dismantle the whole declinist New Left narrative. Perry Anderson, owner but not quite sole proprietor of the declinist story, predictably enough dismantled Edgerton’s dismantling in the pages of New Left Review (you might need a subscription to read that one).
Listen to this episode of Bungacast, the podcast from the people who brought you ‘The end of the end of history‘ for a good illustration of the modern, populist left perspective on monarchy—dismissive, derisory but definitely not bothered.
Actually, there aren’t any. Sorry.
The story is that Labour is the only major socialist party in the world that emerged directly from organised labour—every other important party—from the DSA to the SPD to the PS and the JSP—was the product of an actual revolution or of a popular socialist movement. Labour founders Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson had both been union leaders and many early Labour parliamentarians were well-known workplace leaders or campaigners for workers’ rights.
(note labour and Labour are used throughout, for obvious reasons).
So there’s a logic to the statement that Labour is ‘the party of organised labour’ or ‘the Parliamentary wing of the trade union movement’. And to the reminders that it’s the unions who still largely fund the party. And to the shock and upset amongst supporters when Labour’s parliamentary leadership fails to support union action or even opposes it.
His Majesty’s loyal opposition
It turns out, though, that the will of those early Labour leaders – and of their comrades at the top of the union movement for that matter – was not to win a victory for workers, to challenge or overthrow the parties of power at the time, to replace or diminish the landowner and business elites, or even to offer a pro-worker counterweight in the Commons. The will of those leaders—as of the current generation—was always to gain access, to join the club, to get their bums on the green benches and to form a polite left-hand hump to the Crown-Parliamentary camel, supplanting the previous occupants of the less-favoured benches and becoming ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’.
This sounds cynical. I don’t mean for a moment to discount the contribution of those pioneer socialists to the pushing back of the multi-century stasis of Tory (and Whig) domination, the epochal introduction into an ancient elite legislature of working people. And, of course, individual Labour members have provided the backbone to countless labour disputes over the years—but it is vital to be clear-eyed about this. Labour in Parliament, from its very beginnings, was not a workers’ party. In the present day it’s a progressive party, a party of the Parliamentary centre-left, but it is not a workers’ party.
So there’s nothing new or surprising in the Labour party distancing itself from the interests of working people—do you remember the grim spectacle of Neil Kinnock making a flying visit to a miners’ strike picket, right at the end of the strike and at 5 a.m. so as to miss the reporters? (See if you can find a photo. There are none). During the long strike Kinnock the miner’s son repeatedly called for a national ballot and didn’t once ask workers to respect NUM picket lines. In retrospect, the strike was perhaps the greatest challenge that a modernising Labour leader could possibly face—and we know that Kinnock was conflicted and unhappy about the position he had to take. It became the most iconic—and relevant—statement of Labour’s labour ambivalence of the post-Thatcher era.
Going back further, almost to the origins of the party, during the First World War, Labour and the unions agreed an ‘industrial truce‘ in the national interest (Labour ministers joined the coalition government). After the war, Labour continued to oppose all instances of labour militancy and, in the build-up to the 1926 general strike, as the climate worsened and employers tried to force through wage cuts, the Labour leadership mediated ineffectively. When the strike came, though, they opposed it.
Leave it to the Rotary Club
When the Jarrow crusaders marched to London ten years later they had to depend on a strange alliance of Quakers, rogue trade unionists and the Rotary Club for food and support along the way—the Labour party didn’t turn up (local MP Ellen Wilkinson was a charismatic exception). 20th Century history is studded with examples like this. Even earlier, when Churchill moored a battleship in the Mersey to bring a little jeopardy to the 1911 Liverpool dockers’ strike, the Labour party, already a force in Parliament, was nowhere to be seen.
In the rough years between the wars there was an explosion of labour activism and confidence—in the face of the great depression, active government repression, blacklisting and a hostile judiciary. Wal Hannington’s National Unemployed Workers Movement moved mountains—organising big marches and actions all over the country. Its leadership was convicted under ancient mutiny laws and imprisoned—right at the sharp end of the workers’ struggle—but for Labour it was a bit too Communist. The party stood back. Likewise, the local councils who defied ancient, repressive laws to hold down the rates and to protect the poor did so without Labour support. In 1921 dozens of Poplar councillors—mostly Labour of course, including future leader George Lansbury—were imprisoned for their defiance. The Parliamentary Party leadership opposed their action (in the nineties, you won’t be surprised to learn, Neil Kinnock scolded Labour councillors prosecuted and surcharged for not paying the poll tax).
You’re on your own, ladies
Even when in government the party failed to support strikers. The Grunwick workers were defeated and humiliated while the party withheld support, although in scenes familiar to us now, individual MPs, including cabinet ministers, showed up at the picket line (the record shows that Shirley Williams et al waited until the strike was 40 weeks old and essentially already crushed to offer their calculated solidarity, though). The underpaid women at Ford’s Dagenham plant were left high and dry by a serving Labour government, winning only partial parity, with the half-hearted support of then Secretary of State Barbara Castle.
Castle’s own contribution to labour relations was to lay the foundations for 1974 legislation that withdrew important rights. It was this law that first introduced the requirement for strike ballots – and when the Tories introduced their own anti-union legislation in 1992 it essentially just consolidated Labour’s (the title of the act artfully just adds the word ‘consolidation’ to the name of Labour’s 1974 law). When Blair came to power, of course, he moderated but did not remove the Thatcher ‘reforms’ and actually introduced new limits on legitimate action to meet the requirements of his new backers in business and the media.
One of the biggest strikes of the entire period, taking place right at the heart of the state—in its very guts you might say—the now mostly-forgotten 1971 postal workers’ strike, lasted for seven weeks, had overwhelming support from Post Office workers who had been almost uniquely badly-treated in the post-war period. The strike became a template for Tory government opposition to industrial action—Royal Mail’s monopoly on delivering letters was suspended in an effort to circumvent the strike’s enormous impact. The strike ended without agreement—a dispiriting defeat. The workers were awarded a backdated 9% pay increase and some changes to working patterns after an inquiry but this didn’t even match what they’d been offered before the strike. No one was happy. Individual Labour MPs, including Tony Benn, who’d been Postmaster General under Harold Wilson in the sixties but by this point was on the back benches, supported the strike. Wilson himself, from the opposition front bench, walked a familiar line, saying that the union’s demands were not unreasonable but advocating independent arbitration by a court of inquiry. He opposed the strike.
The one big win
The extraordinary sequence of slow-downs and strikes that brought about the three-day week and the infamous powercuts in the early seventies is still the only industrial action that has ever brought down a UK government. Heath’s battle with miners and power workers was surely the high-water mark for labour activism in Britain—bringing together workers, party members and movement in a way not seen before or since. It was a highly-effective action, using modern communications to coordinate the strikes and winning significant public support for the cause. The workers won and so did Labour. The Parliamentary Labour Party, while in opposition under Harold Wilson, actually supported the pay claims of the miners (often in House of Commons debates) and, once in office, agreed two 35% pay rises for the miners in the space of two years. In the 1974 election Labour ran on a manifesto that promised to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families” but did the party support the strikes that brought about their victory? What do you think?
The series of strikes we now know as the Winter of Discontent was triggered by a Labour government’s imposition of wage control—a 5% cap on pay increases. The subsequent industrial action took the form of a battle between state and workers. Fascinating, of course, that the present round of disputes is, at least in principle, more diffuse, pitting workers against dozens of individual employers—many in categories that did not even exist in the last era of union militancy—but that, even in the absence of a government-imposed wage cap, the state is still profoundly present.
The next generation
In the era of apps and zero-hour contracts, the strikes, walkouts and protests by gig workers, outsourced workforces and workers resisting ‘fire and rehire’ policies might seem to offer a useful opportunity for Labour to reconnect with labour, by making an association with a new generation of workers and with an updated labour activism for the social media era—with vivid new causes that have revived support for workers in Britain, especially amongst the young. No chance.
I’m not a historian (no shit, Steve) but it’s been an instructive exercise this, searching for Labour support for striking workers over the years of its existence. For me a fascinating and quite urgent reminder that Labour’s role across the modern period has been much more about achieving and sustaining a position in the Westminster constitutional fabric—holding on to what still feels like a wobbly foothold in the institutions at all cost—than about actually transferring power to working people, or even improving their conditions of work or their pay. The choice was pretty simple: take a polite role in the ancient theatre of the Parliamentary system or work for emancipation, popular sovereignty and worker control. You know the rest.
(Can you think of a time that Labour officially supported an industrial action, in or out of office, in the party’s entire history? Leave a comment).
And my scan of the party’s history suggests that it would really be wrong to expect more from the current leadership while in opposition or in government. For Starmer to even acknowledge what looks to many like an important shift in the terms of the national argument in favour of working people and organised labour would be not only to risk a monstering from the Tory press but would also defy literally the entire institutional history of his party. He leads an establishment party that must, almost as a condition of its existence, retain an even and unsupportive distance from its own organised labour wing.
So it seems obvious that Starmer, Reeves et al will not have any difficulty finding good, sensible, tactically-savvy reasons for withholding support from organised labour once they’re in power too. The difficult truth for the leadership of a progressive party in Britain is that there is literally no circumstance in which it is tactically correct to support a strike.
Let’s face it, if the Tolpuddle Martyrs were to come back to life and join the party tomorrow morning, Starmer would have issued a statement, suspended their memberships, conducted a disciplinary and kicked them out by lunchtime.