Monday, 8 August 2011

Torn from Thatcher's Womb


AMID a weekend of riots in Tottenham, North London, I ponder that within my lifetime a substantial social transformation has taken place as English urban riots led by young people on the streets replace trade union industrial action in factories and workshops as a safety valve in British society. The triumph of Thatcherism in the 1980s, that succeeded in smashing the old order with Arthur Scargill, the NUM and the miners, and later the political effectiveness of the British trade unions throwing the TUC into retreat, did also inadvertently set into motion a more subversive community-based and potentially insurrectionary force in the form of the street riot. Yesterday, a barber in riot strewn Tottenham told Ravi Somaiya of the International Herald Tribune: 'This country has changed ... we've lost something' and he was referring to the recent scandals in which the media, the politicians and the police are implicated. Another man, a bus driver who didn't want to give his name, blamed it on endemic youth unemployment and said: 'This will happen again'.

In a talk I gave on the 20th, June on the Spanish Civil War at Haringey Labour Club to the Radical History Network of North East London (RaHN), I said: 'I couldn't help but notice that the big trade union strikes have more or less disappeared from the post-modern scene and that they have been replaced by the street riot from the time of Thatcher.' I explained this radical social change according to a comment in Ignazio Silone's book 'School for Dictators', published in 1939, where he has one of his characters pose this question:
'40 or 50 years ago if you read the history of the working class movement the masses could produce men bold enough to fight violently to assassinate monarchs, and groups if men bold enough to fight violently during strikes ... how do you explain that loss of dynamism, that spirit?'
The character representing Silone's own view answer in this way:
'Perhaps it is one of the consequences of the growth of big industry ... in moving from the artisan's workshop and small plant to the great factory the worker undergoes a considerable transformation. His mental horizon is broadened and his class consciousness increased, but at the same time, he looses taste for freedom and his readiness for individual action - the factory worker is mass man par excellence and the growth of big industry forced workers German workers especially towards "Zusammenmarschieren".'
"Zusammenmarschieren" means "marching together". For Silone this characteristic in the Germans, born of their different life style to say the Spaniards, explains how it was that the Spaniards put up stronger resistance to Fascism than did the Germans with their mass Socialist, Communist Parties and trade unions. Silone concludes: 'Inter-party struggles of the Germans are essentially struggles between different party machines, individual initiative has been reduced to zero.'

Even without Margaret Thatcher's supreme efforts in the 1980s these social changes disrupting the culture of working life and taking us back mentally to an earlier age would probably have come about anyway; because the decline of the big factories and manufacturing industry would have thrown Silone's concept into reverse: shifting work patterns from modern mass man in the factories with his trade unions, strikes and industrial action back (or forward) to riots, insurrections and individually initiated act of violence to what some would call a post-modern world.


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