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Monday, November 02, 2009

How neo-liberalism destroys trust

Mixed-economy Britain of the 1950s:

.....this was for the most part an era of trust.
Ken Blackmore, who grew up in a Cheshire village, remembers not only the front door of his home being left unlocked, but bikes generally being left untouched or unchained at the bus stop or the railway station.
It was not until about 1957 that British motorcycles were even fitted with locks or keys. John Humbach parked his 500cc Triumph outside his London house. 'I never had a chain and padlock and never knew anyone who had. The bike was never stolen and I was never worried it might be.'
That these were more lawabiding times than now is not a nostalgic fantasy. The fundamental fact was that, following a sharp upward spike in the post-war years, crime declined markedly during the first half of the Fifties. The numbers started to move up from 1955, but were strikingly low.
Notifiable offences recorded by the police were a little over half a million in 1957. Forty years later, they were almost 4.5 million. Violent crimes against the person numbered under 11,000 in 1957, and 250,000 in 1997.
It was, in short, a different world - whose trusting best was evoked by a premium-collecting Prudential insurance agent in Lincolnshire during the Fifties.
There were homes he went to in his bright yellow Austin Seven where the occupants were out at work and the key was under a brick or on a nail in the shed. 'I would let myself in and find the books and the payment which had been left out for me.
'Many times I would find also a hastily scribbled note: "Please take an extra sixpence and post these letters" and "Tell the doctor Johnnie is not so well".

The neo-liberal Britain of 2009:
‘Don’t trust anybody’
The words of Andrea Hall, mother of 17-year old Ashleigh Hall, victim of a Facebook killer.

In their brilliant book Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture- Crime, exclusion and the new culture of narcissism, (a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how things have gone so badly wrong), Steve Hall, Simon Winlow and Craig Ancrum describe how neoliberalism has destroyed Britain’s social fabric.
Hall et al talk of the ‘crime explosion that characterised Britain and the USA from the late 1960s to the late 1990s as a reality inextricably linked to the increasing dominance of neo-liberal political economy'.

Whenever a society changes from one where money power is contained, to an ultra-competitive, capitalistic one, trust between human beings is destroyed.
In the Morning Star a couple of years back I wrote about an experience I had in Hungary in 1995.

I was in a bank in Budapest waiting to withdraw money to buy a flight ticket back to England for Easter. Unfortunately I was unable to withdraw any money as I had bought the wrong card- and as my flight needed to be paid for that afternoon, I was at my wit’s end. Behind me in the queue was a middle-aged lady. On hearing of my predicament she offered to lend me the amount (over £130). She wrote down her address and said I could pay the money back when I returned to Hungary after the holiday. I was taken aback by the trust the lady had placed in a total stranger.
We can measure the impact of the changes from socialism to capitalism in many ways. But the kindness of the lady, brought up in a society where solidarity and helping others mattered more than personal gain, brought the difference home to me more than any GDP statistics or real income figures.
Would such an incident occur in Hungary today? Sadly, I very much doubt it.

Would such a incident occur in London in 2009? Of course not.

Because we live in a society where profits come before people.


Chris H said...

Not being around in the 50s I can't comment on the Mail's rose-tinted glasses but the book recommendation looks good! On my wishlist.

Elmo Lindström said...


The Conservative Sweden of the 1930s:

My grandparents were the descendants of West African slaves brought to Sweden in the early 1800s. The poor black neighbourhood in Stockholm that they grew up in was very civilised and peaceful. People respected each other and we had a strong work ethic where joblessness was frowned up. People were friendly and trusted each other. My grandmother told me of an indecent where she was helped up by a group of children after suffering a stroke.

The Socialist Sweden of Today:

A few months ago an elderly lady was robbed by a group of young pickpockets in a similar poor black neighbourhood very close to where my grandparents had lived. She had fallen after tripping over a stone. Instead of helping her up this group of kids took the opportunity to search her coat for and money and valuables.

The neighbourhood where my grandparents lived has all but ceased to be civilised. With the advance of the welfare state during the 1960s and 1970s people had much less incentive to work and take care of their families. The result has been the destruction of families as well as a great deterioration of community life in Sweden, with black and immigrant communities being among the worst affected.

Illegitimate births have become the norm in my grandparents old community as welfare benefits make it pay to not work or get married. Petty crime is rampant, and kids sell crack cocaine on street corners. Nobody wants to be alone after dark. On a national level Sweden has among the highest rate of crime and illegitimacy in Europe. Contrast this with the 1930s when crime was virtually non-existent.

Robin Carmody said...

Some good points here, though I would regard any such laments in the Mail as irrevocably tainted by humbug, because that paper never *really* condemns the modern system of global capitalism, however much it may moan about its cultural aftereffects or payouts to bankers.

Anonymous said...

Wake up, Elmo.

Sweden has had a series of democratic socialist governments since 1894.

The tranquil 1930s you speak of were right in the middle of an extended period of democratic socialism, which is being eroded by neo-liberal economics and culture as they seep into the nation's body.

You blame socialism but in reality it is the destruction of socialism by neo-liberalism that is causing the damage. In essence socialism was an egalitarian way of politically stabilising and managing the economy on which traditional culture depended. Now socialism and traditional culture have both been destroyed by neo-liberalism.

Liberal-capitalism, described by Martin Heidegger as 'unbearably radical', is the destroyer of all culture ... "all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned" ...

- questionnaire

olching said...

Agree with Robin. I like to steer clear of misty-eyed Mail descriptions of the 'Golden Age'.

That said, great book suggestion, indeed.

Neoliberalism also makes alleged left-wingers argue for free trade (as in the case of Cocaine). It's a bizarre world.

Gregor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

But Gregor, British and Western European socialism was not Godless communism, as James Keir Hardie was pains to point out. It was founded upon Christianity, in the English case Methodism.

No organic culture, religious or otherwise, can reproduce itself without underlying economic stability. Modernity killed God and courted an unstable economy to make way for the individual's hubris and accumulation of private wealth. To control this madness we need politics founded upon uncompromised morals; whether they are derived from humanist or religious sources is not too important. We must not make the Burkeian mistake of conflating all dimensions of life under the catch-all concept 'culture'.

- questionnaire

Robin Carmody said...


I have some sympathies. I'm currently agnostic at best, but I think if British people assume that US-style fundamentalism is the *only* form of Christianity they are engaging in a serious act of national cultural amnesia ... something all too characteristic of our society today, alas.

Exile said...

There is nothing rose-tinted about this posting - that's pretty much what life was like in post war years. I can remember being taken to visit family in Nelson, East Lancashire, in about 1965. A gang of kids trooped through the house that we were visiting, and my uncle explained that they were on their way to the shop and it was easier to walk through his house rather than trek all the way around the corner of the block!

Neil and I had the idea to write up memories of those times, but as with so many great ideas nothing ever came of it. Well, this posting did, but not much else.

Robin Carmody said...

I think the main thing Chris, olching and I were challenging was Neil's source - the Daily Mail, lest we forget.

I'm sure you agree with me, Exile, that if Britain *was* a more civilised and equable place in the post-war years it was mainly because of the Attlee settlement. But the Mail (along with the Telegraph, Express etc.) continually bemoaned the post-war settlement during the 1940s, 50s, 60s & 70s - right-wing newspapers of that era are full of rose-tinted articles, very similar in tone to those they now publish about the 50s - looking back with misty-eyed fondness to the earlier years of the century and blaming the welfare state for destroying mutual trust and support and creating a culture of dependency. Articles exactly akin to Elmo Lindstrom's post here - stating that there was a stronger work ethic before the welfare state, that people had got on better with each other in a more privatised economy, that state involvement with the intention of increasing equality had in fact created a culture of laziness and discouraged the working class from aspiring to greater things - were the stock-in-trade of the Mail and its ilk throughout the Butskellite era.

(the Mail also spoke of the very music it now gives away on CDs in the exact terms it now speaks of hip-hop and would have happily left Andrew Sachs to be sacrificed on the evil altar of racial purity - but that's a whole other issue.)

That is the point being made here. Not that things *weren't* better, necessarily, but that the Mail is hypocritical for saying it now. You may say that is shooting the messenger, but for Neil to be taken seriously by progressives - as he undoubtedly wants - he needs to cite progressive sources. There are many articles in the Guardian stating that there was greater mutual trust in the Butskellite era, and unlike those in the Mail they actually grasp and understand the cause of the decline.

Neil Clark said...

hi robin- re 'progressive sources'-
there have been to my knowledge only two British newspapers who, during the period to mark the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, have published articles differing from the neocon propaganda line that communism was an unmitigated evil and a tyranny on a par with Nazism: the Morning Star and the Mail on Sunday.

'for Neil to be taken seriously by progressives'. Which 'progressives' do you have in mind? Johann Hari, who supported the Iraq war?

Those narcissistic 'progressives' who think identity politics, attacking religion and legalising drugs is more important than public ownership and opposing neoliberalism and the neocon war agenda?

I couldn't give a monkeys what those 'progressives' think of me.

The article I quoted in any case was not a Daily Mail leader, but from a serialisation of a book.

Gregor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robin Carmody said...

Neil, don't get me wrong - I am not a trendy-leftie! I really distrust the whole pro-war, consumerist agenda dressed up as "socialism", and - yes - the Guardian has become dispiritingly neoliberal at times (the forelock-tugging way it reports the renaming of St James' Park in today's sports section is soul-destroying) and gives far too much space to American pop culture which has plenty of other outlets. I do find Timothy Garton Ash a loathsome Pentagon propagandist, endorsing as he does the reduction of politics to the level of soap opera.

I was merely saying that some things are more relative than you think - the Mail in the Butskellite era *was* full of articles lamenting a bygone age of greater mutual trust than then, and it *did* blame those changes on the welfare state. Even today, if it blames any particular prime minister and the changes of that PM's era for the breakup of social cohesion, it is much more likely to be Wilson than Thatcher (I agree with you, btw, that 60s rock culture had a strong element of aggressive individualism - after all, one of the offshore radio stations broadcast from the MV Laissez-Faire - which did much to plant the cultural seeds for Thatcherism, but that does not change the fact that Thatcherite ideas did more to break up mutual trust than anything supported by the Wilson government - which was *against* offshore radio, after all - ever did: the anti-mutual stuff in the 60s was not supported by Wilson, however much he may have jumped aboard the pop bandwagon without understanding it). And you *do* use the term "progressives" quite often in a positive sense ... like I say, I wasn't really disputing the point, but suggesting that it's hypocritical for that particular source to make it - maybe a bit petty. Do not mistake me for a metropolitan narcissist! Nothing could give me more pleasure than walking in the New Forest (which I've just done).

I suppose I could best say that I sometimes agree with bits of the Mail, but find it hypocritical in context (there could never be any Guardian journalist, however neoliberal and narcisstic, I could despise as much as I do Quentin Letts, and there *are* articles in the Society section which unashamedly state that mutual trust has declined and which recognise the true culprits ... I loathe many aspects of the modern Guardian, especially its pop-culture fundamentalism and misguided belief that the very music Cameron rode to prominence on the back of is somehow inherently "progressive", but I still regard it as the "least worst" of the papers you can see everywhere every day).

a propos Gregor's comment, I find Peter Hitchens a thoughtful, intelligent writer (in his longer blog postings at least, not so much his condensed, playing-to-the-gallery columns which appear in the actual paper) who I disagree with on many things (Europe, his social authoritarianism etc.) but who I can respect because of his commitment to civilised debate, his loathing of the BNP and his belief that pure market dogma is simply not enough to build a society on (as over the railways, an issue on which he could indeed teach many Guardian hacks a few things).

Neil Clark said...

hi robin-
no worries, and certainly no offence- i know you're not a metropolitan narcissist!
re PH-I once spoke at the Cambridge Union with him. At the dinner beforehand all the young neoliberal Tories were horrified to hear his views on renationalising the railways.
He quite rightly understands the importance of the issue- something many self-styled leftists don't.
yes, I do often use the term 'progressives' in a positive sense- my definition of the term is someone who thinks that people should come before capital and that camaraderie and solidarity should never be sacrificed for economic goals.I don't think anyone can be considered 'progressive' if they support privatisation and the rule of finance capital, regardlessless of their views on social issues.
all best, Neil

Robin Carmody said...

Agreed. The word "progressive" is *definitely* misused by the popcult fundamentalists who are coming over closer to decisively taking over the Guardian. It's by far the greatest misuse of the word in British history, and I'm hardly an ELP fan.

Anonymous said...

Even the Mail article admits that Fifties life could be suffocatingly conformist as well as dogged by cruelty to children and animals - does this mean that you are now more right wing than the Daily Mail?

Neil Clark said...

anonymous: aka 'philip cross'
no one is saying 50s Britain was a paradise -and there weren't negative aspects- but what's without doubt is that there was more trust in society than there is today.
And a greater sense of camaraderie. If preferring societies where there is greater trust between people, where people come before capital and where there is a greater sense of solidarity makes me 'right-wing', then I think you've got a strange sense of what 'left' and 'right' mean. Do you think today's ultra capitalistic, ultra materialistic
neoliberal Britain has a good record when it comes to cruelty to children or animals? On the latter issue, you clearly didn't see the lead story in last week's IOS.

Robin Carmody said...

I think it's possible to see the ups and downs of any era.

Undoubtedly there was a lot of abuse that was hushed up in the 50s, a lot of needless class prejudice among those who hadn't accepted the Attlee settlement (whether social-climbing parents who didn't want their children mixing with "the wrong sort" or that part of the working class, trapped in booze and bookies' runners, who actively didn't want their children to pass the 11-plus) which stunted countless lives, undoubtedly there were major national misjudgements, such as the foolish refusal to seriously get involved with our fellow Europeans because we thought we were still a much greater power than we were.

Undoubtedly there is also brutality, dog fighting (which is definitely a product of the growth of the underclass - the old working class usually had the sort of mongrels you rarely see now), widespread public ignorance (just as there was then, though of a different kind and for different reasons) and so on today.

I think that while there are undoubtedly many people living in squalor today, it would be foolish to forget how difficult it was in the 50s for those who stepped outside the norms. I would completely agree though that the post-war settlement was working towards greater equality and greater public enlightenment, and we could do with some of that sense of social responsibility from our elite today. I think the best period might have been later in the post-war settlement, though the real best period never actually was, and could only have happened had that settlement been married to a wider range of experiences and influences (though *could* it have been? I still don't know the answer). But I do know that economic equality peaked in 1977 and (I think) living standards *averaged across the population* peaked in 1978, which does suggest that Butskellism was a long-term project that should have been allowed to continue, and by that time the bathwater of homosexual acts being illegal etc. had been largely thrown out, but the baby of public spirit hadn't gone with it.

Anonymous said...

Agree completely with Robin Carmody's final post.

All historical eras are, in Nietzsche's sense, on a trajectory of 'becoming'. There's far too much synchronic analysis in history and politics, where one period is seen as enclosed slice of time, which ends to let another begin. Braudel was right when he said that discontinuities and continuities exist together on a historical trajectory that's like a river, wuth rapids, eddies and flood plains. We need to forget Foucault and his silly idea of 'epistemic breaks' as quickly as possible.

The post-war settlement had its bad aspects, which needed to be addressed and discontinued, but the point is that the overall trajectory was well-aimed and the democratic input via the state to economy and society had enough of a grip on things to steer them in a genuinely progressive direction.

The whole point of the rude neo-liberal intrusion was to loosen that grip and hand back control to the brutal waves of the market and its oligarchic surfers.

And loosen it they did. Social democracy was pushed off the political ledge and it shattered as it hit the ground. What worries me is that I doubt that we - yes, 'we', the people - can live with the degree of social and moral fragmentation that we all experience today. Even liberals sense this, and reveal their deep fear as they constantly appeal to our ability to tolerate and even celebrate life's 'natural messiness'.

If it gets too messy - don't forget that last year the banks were within a week or two of switching off the cash machines - a new king will arrive with his horses and his men, at which point those who can either remember the past or understand it from accounts will realise that the likes of Harold Wilson and Janos Kadar weren't so bad after all.

- questionnaire

Anonymous said...


"...but my wider point is that I think Britain parted from Christian principles during a time of great optimism, community cohesion, national exuberance etc."

,,. and, more to the point, I think, American-style mass media and mass marketing, expanding individual desire into the perverse realm of jouissance.

- questionnaire

Robin Carmody said...

Wholly agreed with questionnaire.

The more insecure most people's lives become, the more likely it becomes that a quasi-fascistic regime will jump in and fill the void, promising to give people back the security they've lost. That's what I fear the most, as well.