From the March 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the world of nightmarish apparitions, there can be few to match the vision of the future festering away in the imagination of Peter Mandelson MP. He is the high-priest of New Labour's dream of a New Britain in which the sordid realities of capitalism evaporate into a mist of slick presentation. Acclaimed architect of the Blairite victory of imagery over experience, Mandelson has become a veritable personification of the descent of politics from ideas (however wrong they ever were) to ever-evaporating froth.
Coincidental with the messianic rise of Tony, Saviour of New Britain, and his communications conjuror, Mandelson, is a mere accident of the calendar. The century is coming to an end. This is a cyclical regularity of history which even some economists can see coming every hundred years. But this century's end is different, being the end not only of ten decades but ten whole centuries. The Millennium is coming.
It was Michael Heseltine, the Tory grandee whose vision of the future was an endless echo of the past, who was the Minister encharged with thinking up a stupid way to celebrate the coming of the new millennium. It was he, and assorted well-salaried timewasters, who came up with the idea of creating in Greenwich this vast temple to the passing of time: The Millennium Dome. That it would enable vast millions of pounds to pass into the bank accounts of building companies encharged with constructing the folly seemed like a fitting last act of a government long used to mastering the high art of the dodgy deal.
Beyond the sleazy pocket-lining involved in the creation of the Dodgy Dome, there is an even more tragic symbolism. Of what does this lousy system under which we live rob the vast majority of people? Time. It is our time itself—the living, breathing, labouring, surplus-value-producing time of the people who produce the wealth of the world—which is stolen from us so that capital can be accumulated. Time, which marks the transition between birth and death in nature, marks also the loss of freedom for the wage and salary slave. It is the time which we must surrender to those who exploit us for profit which makes us unfree. The cruel irony of telling workers to celebrate Time itself is like organising a brothel for eunuchs.
The best way we could conceivably celebrate the passing of time is to win it back as our own. We pass our time as a sacrifice to the privilege of a minority. That which is not stolen from us we call "free time" or Leisure, and this we treasure like slaves unleashed for some rare, precious moments. Most workers dare not think at length about the ways in which their time is not their own. To do so leads to feelings of depression and a need for drugged immunisation against this alienation from our freedom to live in our own way in our own time. Our time is not our own. The history not only of capitalism, but of all property society, is of time stolen from those who produce by those who possess. And when you retire, after decades of wasted time enriching a boss, they give you a watch to commemorate the endless hours that were never yours.
Mandelson goes to Disneyland
Peter Mandelson, who is Minister without Portfolio, had to be given something to do as he prowled the offices of Whitehall like a Stalinist high-apparachik, spying on his colleagues. Here is a man whose talent lies in making something out of nothing. Anyone who could sell New Labour should surely be credited with that. Here is a man for whom the empty, insubstantial froth of imagery is everything. Give him the Dome. If he can't convince people that they need it, who can? (Most of the other candidates were in open prisons or lunatic asylums.) So, the Minister without Portfolio has become the political magician entrusted with telling us to believe that the Dome is just what we always wanted.
Where does a man who specialises in froth turn for his inspiration? Karl Marx sat for years in the reading room of the British Museum, studying the detailed workings of capitalism. Charles Darwin sailed to exotic parts in search of evolutionary evidence. The Minister without Portfolio went to Disneyland, there to consort with the likes of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. If they couldn't tell him the meaning of the last thousand years, who could? (The candidate from the lunatic asylum had suggested consulting the TellyTubbies, but Mandelson soon spotted that this was clearly a deranged proposal.) So, Mandelson took himself to the theme park created by the Disney Empire.
There is something apposite about Mandelson retreating to the shrine of Disney. Walt Disney, like the Minister without Portfolio, was a ruthless, ungenerous hater of the working class. When the Disney studio workers unionised Uncle Walt fired them and got scabs to run the outfit. Like Mandelson, Disney's recipe for selling the profit system consisted of large doses of well-produced imagery produced to persuade people that, despite the impoverished realities of their lives, they were having Fun. Ah, fun—that word which has been used to enwrap innumerable miseries of a heartless world. When once wage slaves went on Sundays to churches in search of illusory solace in a life of sighs, now they go to Alton Towers or for a week in Florida, California and these days France, where, after long queues and much parting with hard-earned cash, they buy the right to worship at the altar of Fun.
Mandelson became a convert. Like a drug addict stumbling into a Hare Krishna temple, the Minister for Time could see at an instant that these were people—or puppets, stuffed dummies and actors dressed up as cartoon characters—who spoke his language. When the biography of Mandelson comes to be written, "The Disney Revelation" will surely be a chapter comparable with Marx's discovery of surplus value and Galileo's recognition that the Earth moves.
(The trouble with this article, reflects the writer in a moment of troubled introspection, is that it could seem to be a rather badly invented joke. Readers in America and Africa may well conclude that there is no such person as Peter Mandelson; that he is a satirical parody created for the sake of comic attack. Surely, even in its desperate lack of self-meaning and alienated historical consciousness, capitalism's defenders do not really go to a Disney theme park to discover what life is all about. If only it were a bad joke. The tragedy lies in the veracity.)
Mandelson returned from his encounter with Micky Mouse as a man with a mission. The Millennium Dome was going to be the most impressive and appealing pointless exercise of the past thousand years. Speaking with the air of one of those vacuous French philosophers who finally turns out to be insane, Mandelson has recently been issuing some extraordinarily foolish press statements, even by his own standards. The Dome, he tells us, will be "like a doughnut". Er. Yes, Minister. A doughnut? The history of the last thousand years will be metaphorically symbolised by a doughnut. Apparently, this point is meant to indicate that the Dome will have layers. (Why not an onion? Doughnuts only have two layers. But this is to assume that one is involved for one tiny pre-millennial moment in a meaningful discussion.) The dome/doughnut will comprise three layers, the Minister has announced, each examining a different question: Who Are We? Where Do We Live? What Do We Do? The vast thousands of pounds spent in conceiving such profoundly creative questions are best left unconsidered for the moment. So, this is how we shall spend the millennium: wandering around a vast doughnut in outer London considering who we are, where we live and what we do. Of course, if we stay at home (if we have one) we could spare ourselves the second conundrum. And if we knew what we were doing, surely we would not be standing around in an vast architectural folly at all.
Perhaps there are plans to build two Millennium Domes: one for each class. There could be a Capitalist Dome (with real jam in the doughnut and fresh cream on top) where the answers to Mandelson's questions could be answered pretty swiftly. Who Are We? A class of people who are entitled to live without working because we possess enough property to make others work for us. Where do we live? In the very best homes that money can pay to have built. What do we do? We enjoy ourselves at the expense of the time stolen from the vast majority who have spent the last century accepting a system where we do what we like while they do as they're told.
Then there will be the jam-tomorrow doughnut for the proles. Who are we? A class that exists to be exploited so that a minority may be enriched? Where do we live? On the whole, in places where we would not choose to live, can just about afford to rent or mortgage, and the Queen Mother wouldn't see fit to keep her horses.
What do we do?
Well, that's the question, isn't it? Do we really allow ourselves to be taken in by such unadulterated garbage as Mandelson's millennial festival? Do we allow ourselves to be taken in by his party and the system it seeks to continue? Do we really envisage another century of this madness of class division and production for profit rather than need? Do we accept this spectre which is haunting the coming millennium—the spectre of endless capitalism? Or do we peak through the crack in the dome and see the chance of a world developed in the image of humanity?