The disintegration of communism was so momentous a process that it masked what was, in reality, a crisis of industrial society (and not simply of one heretical version of it). The vindication of the Western way of life, which the fall of communism was supposed to have proved, means it has taken almost a generation for the flawed ideological basis of industrialism itself to become exposed once more.
Those involved in anti-globalization demonstrations and anti-capitalist protests, such as the Occupy movement, are pointing out the implications of the increasingly threadbare ideology which is supposed to unite the world in homage to the Western way of life, to attain which people everywhere are said to be ‘voting with their feet’ by trying to cross the intensely defended borders of privilege. We might reflect that, if people vote with their feet, this is because they view with ever greater acuity the futility of voting by ballot – a fact brought home to Europe by the recent suspension of democracy in Greece and Italy in favour of the same banker and financial wizard ‘technocrats’ who brought Europe to financial crisis.
Rich Western societies are sometimes referred to as ‘post-industrial’. This is a falsehood. The abandonment of manufacturing did not mean the end of industrial society; indeed, the industrial model invaded areas of experience from which it had formerly been excluded, so that healthcare, education, leisure and entertainment became ‘industries’, occupying the forlorn sites where cotton or woollen goods were made, metal was beaten, ships and railway carriages constructed, coal mined, leather tanned and pottery shaped. Our prosperity is haunted by the ghosts of vanished manufacturing ventures and their afterlife in enterprises such as a water industry, a music industry, an agricultural industry, even a beef industry, a funeral industry, a retail industry, a sex industry. In this way, all that is most precious and vital to survival has been transformed into inert goods and mechanistic services, into which life can be breathed only by the profane kiss of money, which long ago ceased to be a simple medium of exchange and became a semi-mystical substance. This is why it is only in the realm of the economy that miracles are now expected.
The dismantling of the old industries in Britain, however, did provide a new understanding of what actually happened when, out of a decaying peasantry, a population of workers was created to service heavy industry; it also gave fresh insight into the removal of that archaic form of labour to distant parts of the globe. Having emerged from the trauma of early industrialism, we in the so-called ‘rich world’ can see it from another perspective.
It now appears an extraordinary undertaking, that humanity should ever have been diminished to the pitifully reduced concept of ‘labour’, even in the interests of a revolution, industrial or otherwise. Yet more bizarre was the formulation by the Left of an alternative future based upon the supremacy of this same narrow version of what it means to be human.
All that is most precious and vital to survival has been transformed into inert goods and mechanistic services, into which life can be breathed only by the profane kiss of money
The creation of a ‘labour market’ in the early industrial period must be one of the most perverse distortions of human purposes ever recorded: humanity, in all its diversity, richness and splendour, reshaped in the guise of commodity, an abstraction, a factor of production, no different from cabbages or chairs. And hunger was to be the goad that would compel people to offer hands, heart or brain at a price the market would accept.
We know what denial this was of the creativity of people, what cruel disregard for the mind and spirit, when they were expected to insert themselves into a crude division of labour, in which every town and city in Britain was dominated by a single industry. Reluctance to enter cotton mills in Lancashire, pits in the Lanarkshire coalfield or steel-works in Sheffield was swept aside, justified by the scriptural imperative that ‘in the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, till you return to the ground; for out of the ground you were taken: for dust you are and to dust shall you return.’
So powerful has the ideology of political economy been, that this diversion of human energies still echoes in the pitiful rhetoric of our time: the necessity for an education system that will prepare a new generation for an unknown labour-market of tomorrow, the urgency of getting consumers into the shops to ‘rescue’ falling sales, the anthropomorphizing of ‘the economy’, the ‘health’ of which takes priority over the health of the people; the desire by government to rebalance the economy, no matter what other loss of equilibrium may be incurred.
The reshaping of humanity to fit the economy was not the only derangement in the creation of the industrial paradigm. Equally brutal was the transformation of nature into ‘raw materials’ to feed industry. Our position in the altered context of our time also gives us knowledge of the damage caused by those other false commodities, the ‘products’ of the biosphere. This part of the ideological construct was also sanctioned by scriptural authority: ‘And God said, let us make man in our image, and after our likeness, and let him have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air, over the cattle, over all the earth.’ What greater licence could there be to justify the use of the earth and its treasures, not even for human aggrandizement, but for the elevation of a privileged portion of humanity?
Even if we remain indifferent to the abuse of human beings in other parts of the world as they make garments, toys and electronic goods, or mine gold or bauxite on our behalf; even if we would like to maintain the industrial Having emerged from a primitive – and now exported – version of industrial life, we can see clearly the ravages it wrought. We are workers of the world in the lowly status not so long ago occupied by ‘our own people’, the same cannot be said for what has become known, in a great gesture of secular piety, as ‘the environment’: that euphemism for the finite resources of an earth, into the demolition of which all of humankind has been pressed in order to fulfil the ideology-become-prophecy of political economy.
Having emerged from a primitive – and now exported – version of industrial life, we can see clearly the ravages it wrought. We are both victims and beneficiaries of the predatory prosperity into which we have been led, that falsely promised land which induces political and moral paralysis. This is the source of the nihilism that underlies our busy civilization, the savage wisdom forced upon the people of the whole world, to which alternatives have been officially annulled. Progress is represented by the graph into perpetuity of what presently exists, and must continue to exist into an indefinite future.
But the future is both definite and finite. Our present condition could not, perhaps, have been foreseen when moralists and observers lamented the debauch of humanity by the early factory system, and poets and writers deplored the disfiguring of the landscapes of early Victorian England. But the long-term effects of both are now inescapable, which is why so much of our ostensibly post-industrial life is dedicated to escape.
The creation of a ‘labour market’ in the early industrial period must be one of the most perverse distortions of human purposes ever recorded
We are living through the dissolution of the fiction that nature and humanity are commodities. The growth of cultures, civilizations, the patterns of kinship, affection, the necessary labour of survival as well as the work of ornamenting and celebrating our brief sojourn on earth, are indivisible. The reductive calculus of political economy is used up. This is the meaning of the Occupy movement: the fragile tents and flimsy shelters torn by the wind, in the shadow of the solid majestic Corinthian columns of St Paul’s, were a challenge; not only to bankers and financiers, but also to their alliance with an institutionalized religion which has sanctified their absurdist project.
It can’t ever be the same again: the landscapes, material and ideological, have been changed by the scars of industry, wounds beyond the restorative surgery of all the doctors of political economy. The death of political economy resembles that of the dictator of a totalitarian country: the body has been embalmed, and continues to occupy the seat of power, since no successor has yet been named.
Old certainties are dissolving, as the ice-age of the economistic ideology passes away. We are on the threshold of a de-industrialization of humanity, a work of reclamation long overdue, and the rolling back of an invasive market which has compelled us into its implacable service; a form of serfdom that will, with time, be seen – like child labour, imperialism and racism – as curses of a society which espoused some of the most damaging superstitions ever conceived by humanity. And which elaborated them, ad nauseam, in the realm of a reason tainted by the poisonous myth that equates human liberty with market freedom.