Sunday, October 26, 2008

The UK cultural revolution

There are many who accuse the UK of being culturally in a slumber. Music produced is tired, post-modern rehashing of 80s, 60s, 70s or otherwise imported hip hop so violent and mysogonistic – in some misconceived version of a power display – it would make a suffragette blush. In art we relish the same rehashing – lauding puerile conconctions that resemble scientific propositions rather than displays of creative and aesthetic virtue. Government itself is stale and reactionary, committed to policies that disharmonise rather than the desirable opposite. Committed to targets and powerpoint displays of how things are meant to be run (by the people, for the people – anyone?).

These are adequate pointers to depict the somnolent quality of what we may call La Malaise Anglaise. However the next few years will see changes that given correct treatment could result in the flourishing of the UK culturally, socially and therefore economically.

Where do these changes have their seed? With a certain Mrs Thatcher.

At the end of the 70s Britain was experiencing the collapse of a system that had become all but obsolescent. The era of social control – the idea society could be operated by levers to produce precise results and responses – was coming to an end. The Keynes-inspired revolution after WW2 had founded a great architecture for state intervention and welfare programs. These substantial programs had a great effect in raising well-being, redistributing income and maintaining economic growth. This architecture – being the first of its kind - was made to withstand only a narrow band of external events. Outside of this band was the Middle Eastern-created oil crisis that saw oil prices rocket and Britain’s more or less continual decline in international trade standing after World War 2.

The second of these was to have a more lasting effect and required as its solution ever more extreme solutions – a discussion that concluded with Thatcherism.

Thatcherism – a dogma that reflected as well as created its reigning era – was about freedom and creative forces unleashed. And unleashed they were but in such narrow channels that Britain’s development became overwhelmingly single track. Providing, that is, for material comfort to such precise and scientific degree that all else was excluded and eventually diminished.

Thatcher was a radical and fantastically intelligent. After decades of Keynesian ascendancy, Economics was swinging back to the Austrian school of Friedrich von Hayek and now expounded by Milton Friedman (see). In this the market was king and could be relied upon to create whatever counter measures and safety valves were necessary to ensure its (and therefore society’s) survival. It was a theory enhanced by the more consistent application of statistical technique which in the large part was a process of stripping vast chaff heaps of informational content in order to refine the wheat of noble ‘economic data’ . As acceptance of these techniques grew, it became overfed to its greedy older brother – reliance. Statistics were taken as true and the society they predicted became the one to be enacted. That is, one that married virtue with material success and equated freedom with institutions that doled out power to an ever narrowing corporate elite.
Its a truism that economic power begets economic power. As such, liberated market structures allow the most powerful players involved to shape the playing field according to their wishes. A major role of government is regulate the market so that it serves the widest possible good, judged with humanness and awareness of life’s riches outside of the human sphere.

Thatcher’s regime and the theories that inspired them were antihuman. Unable to explain anything that couldn’t be quantified and reproducible on a flipchart, Thatcherism expounded a stealthy form of fascism that robbed two thirds of society of their ability to be human by letting free market dogs run rampant amongst them.

To a large extent Britain was still hanging on to 19th century industrial principles, which were steadily losing their grip. These principles still tied commodities to the area they were produced. As such entrenched economic structures had given rise to social ones in the form of settled communities relying on particular forms of industrial production. The structures themselves were becoming obsolete as the resources themselves ran out or become more cheaply available elsewhere. What was necessary at this point was to recognise this obsolescence and produce a program of steady reform that eased social pain.

The actual response met the first of these conditions and utterly failed the second. In the belief that rampant egotism would create a harmonious society, the market was unleashed so as to, as mentioned before, favour those with economic power, which it should be clear by now, serves a narrow band of human interest.

Social protection in the form of cutting welfare, education and health budgets and the breaking of the unions, were swiftly eroded and within ten straight years the market had ascendancy. The Blairite refocusing of attention on the public services only served to empower this trend – making sure public services became the plaything of corporate interests. A sign of the surrender that had taken hold nationwide.

But human nature has never been successfully suppressed for long. Recognising the deficiencies of its environment, it seeks to balance and counteract them, and it is precisely at this point that UK society, in synchronicity with much of the world now rests: the evolution of new paradigms to counteract the deficiencies of the past three decades and the move to conditions more encouraging to the human spirit.

You’ll note this is a cosmological view of human history; that humanity’s fate is the development of its consciousness to some supreme self aware degree. It is this force – simply described as the need to know itself – that drives evolution of the human psyche. Limiting factors are the structures in which it finds itself a result purely of inherited beliefs – and these bring about a process of natural selection. This is not the blind advancement Richard Dawkins but one underpinned and aiming towards an ideal: Humanity, as indefinable and recognisable as that concept remains.

Part 2 will now briefly describe the deficiencies brought about by Thatcherism. It is argued that remedial to these were the creative forces that are about to take hold worldwide. We should therefore not view Thatcherite developments in such a harsh light; perhaps more accurately depict them as the Harsh Winter before the Great Spring.


Anglefish said...

Heavy- there's an interesting Marxist "economic substructure determining cultural superstructure" logic running through this. But I'm not sure that it holds together fully for me.

I think culture often thrives in all the most adverse conditions- c.f Black jazz music under U.S repression, Brazilian slaves dancing capoiera, Romanian gypsy music. So to say that Thatcher created a sterile period of UK life is not to me really true (Britpop and Britart, her cultural babies, were hugely internationally successful, and I might even say innovative, if not to everybody's taste).

In the economic political sphere, we can say that Thatcherism (by killing the state as a social entity) gave a strong push to the idea of social enterprise, laying foundations for the Blairite idea of a "stakeholder society" where we are all part shareholders in the national economy and it is up to us to harmonise our economic actions with our social and ethical values.

So I guess overall I think no Thatcher didn't kill British culture, because culture always reacts to adversity. In the area of social values its harder for me to say because I never lived before Thatcher. But here too I think people have found other channels. Perhaps the difference is that you are saying this is only happening now but I think it started way back if in a small way.

Simon said...

there's an interesting Marxist "economic substructure determining cultural superstructure" logic running through this

- one of the nicest things anyone's said to me. But wrong. I'm taken with the way different elements of society reflect others. Hence grouping culture and economics, not deterministically but because they capture a little of each other.

And there will always be good stuff being produced, whatever the climate.

BritArt, however, is not this. It's innovative in the way of an advertising slogan or students shitting on a doorstep, ringing the bell and running away.

Interesting what you say though about stakeholder society. I'll include it in the enxt section, if it ever comes to fruition.

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