Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Flight from the centre

(January 1997)

From Socialist Review, No.204, January 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Mainstream economic historians quite commonly divide postwar capitalist history into two halves – a ‘golden age’ which ended in 1973 and a ‘leaden age’ which we are still in.

The first consisted of a period of more than a quarter of a century in which production and living standards not only recovered from the devastation of world war, but which went on to rise more rapidly and more continuously than ever before in history. It was a period which saw unemployment reduced in the advanced countries to an apparently marginal phenomenon affecting 1 or 2 percent of the workforce and poverty of any sort down to less than 10 percent of people.

During this period too, there was a spread of new consumer goods to the majority of the population that spelt a real improvement in their quality of life. The washing machine eased the toil of housework enormously. The fridge provided, for the first time, a way of keeping food fresh for several days. The television gave people access to both entertainment and educational material in a way inconceivable before.

The second period, by contrast, has been characterised by three great recessions interspersed by short lived booms that have rarely succeeded in raising growth rates to more than half those of the ‘golden age’. And even in these booms unemployment remains about four times the figure for the early 1960s, poverty continues to spread until it affects about a third of children, and repeatedly welfare services are cut back.

Official figures give the impression that living standards for workers have continued to rise, at least in the main west European countries. But the figures are averages, which lump together ‘fat cat’ managers with routine white collar and manual workers. And even if workers are purchasing greater quantities of goods and services than in the past, this does not mean their real living standards are rising.

So, for example, workers today typically have to travel further to work than 30 years ago. This means they have to spend more on transport, which is then recorded in the official statistics as an increase in their consumption, even though, by any rational standard, spending more time in travelling to work in overcrowded buses or trains or stuck in traffic jams is hardly an improvement in your life. Similarly buying relatively expensive ‘fast food’ or ‘convenience’ meals because you no longer have time left over from work to cook at home is hardly an advance in living standards.

Various non-official estimates of living standards, based on rough and ready indices of the ‘quality of life’, suggest that real growth stopped in the mid-1970s. Yet people have had to pay for this stagnation of living standards through working hours and conditions.

In Britain and Europe real working hours stopped declining in the 1980s and are tending to lengthen now, while there has been a general intensification of work.

So a quarter of a century of rising living standards has been followed by two decades in which people have had to run faster in order to stand still – with a growing minority failing even to do this.

‘Politics’, Lenin once said, ‘is concentrated economics.’ What have been the political consequences of these changes in the system’s impact on people?

The 1950s and 1960s were a period of growing political stability for the system. Even where full employment gave workers considerable economic trade union strength, the system’s ability to provide reforms meant relatively few workers saw the need for a radical challenge to the system.

The end of the ‘golden age’ in the early and mid-1970s led to a growing radicalisation of layers of workers in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Britain, and to a sense of panic in certain ruling class circles. In Britain, for instance, prominent industrialists could hint early in 1974 about the need for military action to restore ‘order’, and a former ambassador to the US, Peter Jay, could write two years later that the end of unemployment most likely spelt the end of parliamentary democracy.

But by the beginning of 1977 the ruling classes had succeeded in restabilising their rule. They did so by turning to the reformist workers’ parties and trade unions, which in return for acceptance by those with real power were prepared to browbeat workers into abandoning struggles to defend living standards and jobs. The unions and the Communist Party helped management to victimise militants at the Fiat plant in Turin, the Spanish CP and Workers Commissions union helped the Spanish state to curtail the wave of industrial militancy of Franco’s last years and in Britain unions led by the reformist left with Communist Party support helped isolate and defeat key strikes in Leyland (now Rover), in the South Wales steel industry and at Heathrow.

The result was a weakening of union organisation right across Europe and widespread demoralisation among the activists who had been in the forefront of the struggles of the first part of the decade. This in turn allowed the ruling class to return to the offensive so that by the end of the 1980s there was a generation of worker activists across the continent whose only memories were of defeat.

Overall, there was renewed confidence within ruling classes, political stability, and a continual shift to the right in the language of politics.

The slump of the early 1990s – which still persists on much of continental Europe and in Japan – broke that confidence. It led to bitter disputes within and between national ruling classes – in particular, the divide over Europe within the British ruling class. It also shattered the optimism of wide sections of people who thought of themselves as middle class, as they faced job insecurity, pressure to work longer hours, indebtedness, in a word, proletarianisation.

The result is that, if the years from 1977 to 1990 were marked generally by political stability, the last seven years have been characterised by enormous political volatility, with sudden upsurges of class struggle – most recently with the French lorry blockades – interspersed with sudden electoral swings to the right, then to the left, then back again.

Last updated on 21 December 2009