Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Malcolm experiences déja-vu, all over again:

James Harding, the Business Editor of the [London]
Times today writes a commentary lamenting that the Great British public have added Corporate Big Business to their wrinkled-nose, 'Errr ... nasty' list. He blames this on:
  1. 'the same breakdown in institutional authority that has affected Government and the Church'
  2. 'the decline of trade unions';
  3. 'Globalisation has added to the sense of distance'; and -- brace yourselves, people --
  4. 'a loss of confidence in private sector pension plans'.
The first of these factors, Malcolm feels, is another term for the end of deference. Jack Straw, the Leader of the House of Commons, read a finely-argued paper to the LSE and Fabian Society last June, making just this point:
British society in my early childhood in the fifties was, still, pretty rigid, hierarchical, class-ridden and deferential. The great thing about being a teenager in the sixties was that one could witness the age of deference crumbling underfoot. That process has continued. Deference means taking things, and individuals, “on trust”. But it is not a great shift from not taking things on trust, to not trusting what one is told.
One could suggest, unkindly, that is an unwritten part of the mission-statement of Murdoch's media empire. This particular misfortune (or not) is well-and-truly out of the box, and no gift-wrapping will get in back in again. It is time for the social compact to be redrawn with greater involvement of, and real power to the disenchanted. That, folks, is one of the bases of a thing called 'Socialism'.

Harding's second factor, the 'the decline of trade unions', is a breath-taking piece of chutzpah for a
Times columnist. If there is one moment when trade-unionism was 'declined' it was 24 January 1986, and its nemesis was -- Rupert Murdoch. Of course, Murdoch could only have done it with the active involvement of Margaret Thatcher, who cleared the way for him with the 1984 Trades Union Act. What really happened at that juncture was the Government, in the UK and the USA, divided society, and went to war with a large section of its own population. One academic study describes how:
in both the British and American cases, primarily the working class and other disenfranchised groups were frequently stigmatized as that “other nation” which stood in the way of economic revitalization. These “special interest” groups, portrayed as both the causes and the prime beneficiaries of excessive government spending and intervention, would have to sacrifice if economic markets were to be freed from the shackles of the Keynesian welfare state.
Harding's point, remember, is to bewail how:
The decline of trade unions has, ironically, weakened the worker’s bond with business.
In two successive quotations we have a curious symmetry of vocabulary: 'shackles' and 'bond'. A freeze-frame there for a moment, if you please. 'Bond' seems a nice, comfortable sort of word: 'the bond of marriage', 'a bond of interest'. Malcolm's faithful Oxford English Dictionary gives as the primary meaning:
Anything with which one's body or limbs are bound in restraint of personal liberty, a shackle, chain, fetter, manacle ...
The OED needs the better part of four full columns to explore the word and its connotations. It is only in the seventh sense do we get to 'a uniting or cementing force'. Malcolm feels we need to approach Harding's 'bond with business' cautiously, mob-handed, fore-armed, and fore-warned.

As for Harding's third factor, the 'sense of distance' caused by globalisation, Malcolm recalls this used to be called (in Marxian terms) alienation. At this distance from his academic youth, Malcolm feels inhibited in debating whether it is Entfremdung or Entäusserung. However, as an ageing, post-modernist Joe Citizen, Malcolm thinks he knows precisely what is the root of any 'sense of distance': try to telephone (an o845-number, so you pay by the minute) the branch of the HBSC (antea Midland Bank), of which you have been a customer since the 1960s, and which still holds your account. Priceless, indeed.

Harding's final point, then: 'a loss of confidence in private sector pension plans'. Let's go back to his article: who will get guaranteed, inflation-proofed pensions, and who is at the mercy of the markets (i.e. remember the endowment assurance scam):
Enormous executive pay packages have bred contempt at the widening inequality between bosses and their employees. And there has been a loss of confidence in private sector pension plans, ... while staff are being ushered into the defined-contribution chamber, the board remains cosseted in the defined-benefit suite: 81.5 per cent of directors had DB pensions, 18.5 per cent had DC pensions.
So, says Malcolm, charge your glasses and let's all join in the chorus:
I am the man, the very fat man,
That waters the workers' beer,
And what do I care if it makes them ill,
If it takes them terribly queer:
I've a car, a yacht, and an aeroplane,
And I waters the workers' beer.
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1 comment:

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