Thursday, January 7, 2016

Urban wasteland (1984)

Book Review from the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Paul Harrison, Inside the Inner City: Life under the Cutting Edge (Penguin, 1983)

This analysis of life in the inner city, seen by the author as “a microcosm of deprivation, of economic decline and of social disintegration in Britain today” (p.21) supplies ample evidence to support his claim that absolute poverty exists in Britain. He complains of a society which has not “learned how to distribute its rewards with equity" (p.76) and speaks of the need for a socialist society where economic change could he planned and full employment maintained. In this he embraces a myth that the Labour Party has got anything to do with socialism, that socialism is a form of equitable capitalism.

Ironically, Harrison claims to be in the business of shattering myths and yet this one about the Labour Party undermines much of his responses to the poverty that he quite precisely describes. He is aware that we exist in a society in which the interests of the capitalist class arc paramount and in which private profit is the underlying rationale, but he still believes that a benevolent capitalism can be achieved through “radical reforms in income distribution and income support" (p.203). It is again ironic that he does not grasp the futility of a reformist programme, given that he spends much of his time cataloguing the failures of previous reforms to combat the poverty endemic to British society.

He argues that the problems that beset the poorest members of society have been intensified by the policies of the present Conservative government and much of the report is a polemic against Thatcherism and “monetarism". Instead of attacking the root causes of poverty, as he constantly claims to do, Harrison accepts the parameters of capitalism and proposes a scries of reforms to mitigate the intense poverty of the poorest members of the community. He claims that we exist in a class divided society but that class is seen in terms of manual versus non manual workers and between owner-occupiers and tenants and dismisses the claim of those whose position is "more laughably, to assert that 'we're all working class now’"(p.426). This is another myth that Harrison embraces for his view of class is as divisive of working class interests as if it were seen in terms of race or sex. It may be true to argue that there are members of society incapable of commanding the same level of resources as others but the class divide lies between those who own and control and those who constitute the total of the working class. It is with the deprivation of that whole class relative to the productive capacities of society to which Harrison should address himself. The inability of the working class to consume the wealth they create will exist as long as capitalism exists for the working class have been legally deprived of that wealth by the ownership and control of the capitalist class. To concentrate solely on the absolute poverty of one section of the working class might tend to suggest that the rest of that class can be complacent about what they have managed to acquire of the wealth created within society.

Harrison proposes a massive renewal and rehabilitation of public and private housing, an improvement of amenities, transport and the environment. and the training and education of the unskilled and the underskilled. He argues for “the importance of compassion and a far greater measure of equality" (p.430) and proposes a "fair" distribution of work and financial rewards, including workers’ control, profit sharing and joint decision making. With this he hopes to achieve “not only a more humane and civilised society, but also a more stable, more efficient and more competitive economy." (p.433) In this his hopes are as futile as any other reform of capitalism.

This is a useful report in that it pinpoints the existence of absolute poverty and disproves the notion that we live in a welfare society. It is also successful in highlighting the lack of democracy within society and drawing attention to the failure of the mixed economy to satisfy the interests of society's members. Where it fails is in being content to propose a reformist programme to deal with the problems rather than seeing the inner city as highlighting the deprivation of the whole working class. Harrison had earlier spoken of a need to combat "the widespread lack of class-consciousness" and to create an "awareness of the root causes of exploitation and inequality" (p.304) but he seems to despair of achieving this end and laments the lead offered by the political left. Rather he should look towards the working class themselves organising to fulfil their common interests and to reject the promises of would-be leaders and their programmes of reforms of a society which cannot possibly work in the interests of the working class. Harrison has succeeded in exposing the poverty and alienation of a section of the working class but it is only part of the poverty and alienation suffered by all members of that class. In this the inner city is a “microcosm of deprivation", a deprivation endemic to the class system.
Philip Bentley

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