Impotent and desperate in the face of the bleak, chaotic mess of Britain in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher grasped at the social values of the last century—the “values” of naked capitalism. It is a sick morality of a rotten system, dressed up as a glorious past and served on a plate to the impoverished: yesterday's ideological garbage recycled for modern consumption.
Let us sift the ideological muck-heap in the Thatcher mind and see what kind of values our rulers would like us to live by:
We were taught to work jolly hard. We were taught to prove yourself (sic). We were taught self-reliance. We were taught to live within our income. You were taught that cleanliness is next to godliness. You were taught self-respect. You were taught always to give a hand to your neighbour. You were taught tremendous pride in your country. All of these things are Victorian values. They are also perennial values. (Interview with Peter Allen. LBC, 15 April. 1983)Thatcher's tutor evidently has much to answer for. In what ways do these values help to perpetuate the capitalist system?
“Work jolly hard"
Plenty of jolly hard work for the propertyless nine-tenths of the population means plenty of jolly big profits for the jolly old parasites who monopolise the means of producing and distributing wealth. The work ethic is inculcated into the majority of people because labour power is the only commodity of any value that they have to exchange. But the rich and powerful minority who control the means of life are not in their positions because they worked hard. The richest one per cent of the British population, who own between them more of the accumulated wealth than the poorest 80 per cent, live in luxury because the propertyless majority "work jolly hard to keep them".
How are children born into poverty, brought up in slums, educated in comprehensive schools and often destined to years on the dole queue, supposed to “prove” themselves? Capitalism is unable to provide the majority with any genuine incentive to rise above the mediocrity of daily existence. Those young workers who are persuaded by the advertised illusions of the system and try “to go for the top" are usually forced in the end to submit to the norms of traditional poverty. Capitalism is packed with junkies, alcoholics, broken gamblers, prisoners and cynics who tried to “prove themselves” and failed. For many unemployed kids, “proving yourself' means beating up blacks in empty streets — or doing it the legal way, and pulling triggers in the service of someone else’s interests.
“Live within your income”
For millions of people it is simply not possible to live within the pittance they receive. Ten thousand pensioners died of hypothermia last December alone: could The First Lady of the Treasury teach those careless spenders how to keep alive within their incomes? Let Thatcher and the capitalists try “living” on the basic supplementary benefit, a disability allowance or £70 a week with three children to feed and clothe. For the majority of British workers, whose annual incomes would not buy a decent new car for a member of the parasite class, existence is some way short of living.
“Cleanliness and godliness”
It’s easy to be clean when there are servants to do it for you. But what hypocrisy it is for a class which pollutes the air we breathe with its industrial waste, because it is presently cheaper to have a dirty urban environment than a clean one, to deliver lectures about cleanliness. What is “clean” about war, which throws grown men into the filth of bloody combat so that the perfumed gentlemen of leisure can expand their economic power? Thatcher may have clean fingernails, but she has blood on her hands.
Capitalism teaches its wage slaves to respect others: teachers, experts, leaders, generals. priests, politicians — even invisible gods. The self-respecting slave is a rebel; he or she will be branded by Thatcher and her cronies as subversive, wreckers and revolutionaries. Capitalism demands deference, because only those willing to remain on their knees can be deceived into believing that the ruling class is mighty.
“Give a hand to your neighbour”
Is that why armies and weapons of mass destruction are pointed at our global neighbours? The politics of international militarism has nothing to do with loving thy neighbour and everything to do with the competitive jungle of the profit system where all who are not part of “the group” must be seen as economic rivals.
“Tremendous pride in your country”
All very well for those who have a country; but having means possession, and most workers in Britain own about as much of “our country” as they do of any other: none at all. Why be proud of mansions that you have built, but cannot afford to live in; cars you have made, but cannot afford to drive; newspapers you have printed, but have no control over; food you have manufactured but cannot afford to buy? As Marx and Engels wrote, when accused of desiring to abolish countries and nationality: “The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got” (The Communist Manifesto). Workers are taught to have “tremendous pride in your country” because, without a massive campaign of patriotic indoctrination, men and women would recognise their common interests.
The London Standard's front page headline about Thatcher’s LBC interview stated “THE GOOD OLD DAYS". The days in question were those between 1837 and 1902: Victorian Britain. It was an age in which there was a consolidation of power by the ever-confident industrial capitalist class; an age of massive economic development; an age when the British ruling class had an Empire and the City of London was seen, in more than one sense, as the Capital city of the world. Historical distortion has created more than a few myths about those “good old days”. There was little crime, we are told; everyone knew their place and the masters looked after the employees well; public charity provided for people's needs, for the Christian rich could not allow the poor to suffer without aid; morals were good and pure, and thoughts of sex were neatly repressed until god had given the legally sanctified green light. Let Thatcher continue the fairy story:
Many of the good things, the improvements that were made, were made voluntarily in those times. For example, people built hospitals, there were voluntary hospitals. Many of the Church schools were built during that time. You don't hear so much about those things these days, but they were good values and they led to tremendous improvements in the standard of living.These “eternal . . . perennial values” are the ones Thatcher holds dear. Let us examine them not as professed ideals, but within the context of their practical, historical implementation and in the light of what we know about history. The "good old days” of Victorian capitalism were days of unrestrained ruling class oppression and widespread working class deprivation. This "golden age" of the capitalists, which was a bleak nightmare for the workers, is recent enough for there to be abundant evidence of what Victorian values meant.
Giving testimony before a Royal Commission on the condition of workers in Manchester in the late 1830s, Dr. Hawkins stated that
I believe that most travellers are struck by the lowness of stature, the leanness and the paleness which present themselves so commonly to the eye at Manchester, and above all, among the factory classes . . .Class exploitation was not discriminatory on the basis of sex, as may be seen from the Factory Inspector's Report of 1844:
Among the female operatives there are some women who, for many weeks in succession, except for a few days, are employed from 6 a.m. till midnight, with less than two hours for meals, so that on five days of the week they have only six hours left out of twenty-four. for going to and from their homes and resting in bed.Indeed, far from preserving the institutions of the family, K.A.Gerlach has written that working conditions in Lancashire "often caused husbands to take over the duties of the household, and wife and children were the breadwinners at the factory”.
The same process of turning humans into the appendages of machines whose sole function was the production of surplus value, was going on in many parts of Europe in the last century. Villermé, in France, described “the good old days" in terms that reflected the harsh reality rather than idealised memory:
One should see them coming into the town every morning and leaving it every evening. Among them are large numbers of women, pale, starving, walking barefoot through the mud . . . and young children, in greater numbers than the women, just as dirty, just as haggard, covered in rags, which are thick with the oil splashed over them as they toiled by the looms.Children of ten and under were sent down the mines to pick and haul coal. It was on the exploitation and dehumanisation of defenceless children that the economic success of "the good old days" was based. William Cobbett, a capitalist reformer, stated poignantly in the House of Commons that
. . . at one time he had thought that the navy was the great support of England, at another time her maritime commerce, at another her bank. Now it was to be admitted that our great stay and bulwark was to be found in the labour of thirty thousand little girls, or rather, one eighth of that number. Yes, because it was asserted that if those little girls worked two hours a day less our manufacturing superiority would depart from us.On the sweated labour of helpless infants the British capitalists consolidated their unearned privilege. Many of those who are sitting in comfort today do so only because of the wealth inherited from the legalised exploitation of those children.
The Victorian wage slaves passed what parts of "the good old days” were their own in dwellings generally unfit for human habitation. Lord Shaftesbury described Frying Pan Alley in Holborn, London:
In the first house that I turned into there was a single room; the window was very small and the light came in through the door. The young woman there said, "Look there at that great hole; the landlord will not mend it. I have every night to sit and watch, or my husband sits up to watch, because that hole us over a common sewer and the rats come up. twenty at a time, and if we did not watch for them they would eat the baby up.”Irish immigrant workers were usually forced by their poverty to live in even worse conditions than the slums reserved for the native English wage slaves; in his brilliant account of working class life in Victorian Britain, Frederick Engels refers to such housing conditions:
It often happens that a whole Irish family is crowded into one bed; often a heap of filthy straw or quilts of old sacking cover all in an indiscriminate heap, where all alike are degraded by want, stolidity and wretchedness. Often the inspectors found, in a single house, two families in two rooms. All slept in one, and used the other as a kitchen and dining room in common. Often more than one family lived in a single damp cellar, in whose pestilent atmosphere twelve to sixteen persons were crowded together (The Condition of the Working Class in England).Like the housing, “the clothing of the working people, in the majority of eases, is in a very bad condition . . . The Irish have introduced . . . the custom, previously unknown in Britain, of going barefoot. In every manufacturing town there is now to be seen a multitude of people, especially women and children, going about barefoot, and their example is gradually being adopted by the poorer English.” (Engels, pp. 99-100)
Worked like horses, inhabiting slums, clothed in rags, the urban majority in "the good old days" of Thatcherite values could only afford access to food that was cheap, unhealthy and unvaried. Then, as now,
those who sold and produced cheap food had increasingly taken the opportunity to make larger profits by adding other substances. Milk and beer were watered down, boiled potatoes mixed with flour and baked into bread, chestnut or ash leaves added to tea, sand to sugar and so on. Pure cheap food was a rarity in the leading towns by the 1850s because so much was adulterated in ways like these (D.T.J. Arkell, Britain Transformed).Many thousands of workers perished, victims of the so-called free market. In the age of Victorian values, what options were open to those who could not earn a wage or could not keep themselves on the wage they earned? For many workers, begging in the streets was the only chance of an income:
Such a man usually goes about with his family, singing a pleading song in the streets or appealing, in a speech, to the benevolence of the passers-by . . . Or the family takes up its position in a busy street, and without uttering a word, lets the mere sight of its helplessness plead for it (Engels. P-119).And was it from the fat wallets of the Christian ruling class that the destitute beggars received their pennies? After all, Thatcher did say on LBC that "part of the sense of duty was if you were getting on better, you turned yourself to help others." Alas, the Victorian capitalists did not exhibit the benevolent values attributed to them by their admirer; they employed police to kick the beggars off the streets, just as the Indian capitalists do with their beggars today. Dr. Parkinson, the Canon of Manchester in the 1840s, testified that
The poor give one another more than the rich give the poor . . . the total sum which the poor yearly bestow upon one another surpasses that which the rich contribute in the same time (Quoted in Engels, p. 154).Violent crime was widespread in Victorian cities. Thousands of women and teenage girls were compelled by economic hardship to walk the streets and sell their bodies to those rich enough to buy their sexual services. The pretence of universal moral decency did not extend to the lives of the wage slaves. The only values the capitalists required from the working class were the surplus values which were the hallmarks of legalised robbery. Victorian values meant excluding a majority of the population from any claim to human dignity — an exclusion which allowed the rich to have “good old days” while the poor suffered, largely in pathetic silence.
Victorian values meant that if workers needed medical attention, education, disability or old-age support, or any other basic social services, they had only three ways of obtaining them. The first was by paying — which most workers could not do. Many a Victorian parent had to watch their children die of illnesses that could be cured simply because they were too poor to pay the market price for health care. Secondly, they could depend on “self-help” schemes, which ultimately amounted to a system of welfare where the less poor wage slaves subsidised the poorer ones. In the nineteenth century, trade union Friendly Societies helped to redistribute wealth within the working class. But workers' subsidies could only aid a fraction of the destitute in Victorian Britain. When Margaret Thatcher proposes “self-help” she is saying that workers' destitution should be a problem to be solved voluntarily by workers taking charitable collections. Perhaps she forgets that the class which she represents are the biggest recipients of charity in the history of humanity: the profits of labour don't add up to pennies, but to many billions of pounds.
The third option for the Victorian worker was to appeal to the exploiting class for charity. Some conscience-stricken capitalists did offer a fraction of their money to the poor, either through benevolent trusts or the Church. “Giving to the poor" was not such a generous act; after all, they were only throwing back crumbs from the cake which the workers had made. Providing charitable services to "educate” workers and keep them fit had a very useful economic purpose: by teaching skills to young wage slaves and ensuring that the wealth producing class was in a good state of repair the capitalists were investing in their own increased profits. Literate and numerate wage slaves produced more profits than ignorant ones; the fitter they are, the more you can work them; the better their housing the more rest they will get and the more efficiently they will work the next day; the more consumption goods they can be presented with the more incentive there will be to work hard. Furthermore, charitable crumb-throwing helped to defuse the threat of political discontent. The workers who benefited from the charity of their bosses were taught to be eternally grateful. The exploiters felt that they were living morally; the exploited were taught to admire such morality.
What is striking about Victorian Britain is not how different it was from now, but how similar it is. It is true that some of the worst features of working class poverty then are less widespread in Britain today, although they still prevail throughout much of the world, often in worse forms than those which existed in Victorian Britain. On a world capitalist basis, poverty is as great now as it was in the 1880s, and in many ways it is worse. But even in the more “affluent” areas of world capitalism workers are still deprived, are still often compelled to beg and steal and sell their bodies, are still forced to seek charity. Since the passing of the Victorian period the capitalist class has tended to organise public charity or "welfare" via its executive committee, the state. The social services which are now provided by the state are partly in existence because their absence would lead to working class political discontent but, principally, the function of the “welfare state” is to ensure the smooth flow of capitalist production. The Labour Party and other legislative reform bodies exist to convince the capitalists that it is in their interest to pay more tax into the state in order to redistribute poverty. The only grounds on which the reformists are able to justify increased state welfare expenditure is by equating "humane” policies with profitability. Frequently such an equation cannot be made, and that is why governments — including Labour governments, professedly committed to helping the poor — often cut back on state welfare spending, leading to tragic social consequences which are all too evident at present.
In supporting state-administered capitalism, the Left is not being particularly radical; it is certainly not working for socialism. The statists are simply responding to the old Victorian values of nineteenth century capitalism with new policies for running the same iniquitous system. The welfare state has been, and inevitably will be, totally unable to eradicate the poverty and inequality which is inherent in the profit system.
Neither Victorian values nor state "welfare" can make a system of exploitation run in a way that will be pleasant for the exploited majority. Margaret Thatcher, the mouthpiece of conservatism who cannot get to sleep at night without dreaming of “the good old days" when the old and unemployed were confined to workhouses, employees worked like horses and obeyed like slaves, and the rich need only pay to keep the paupers at the request of their consciences rather than the Inland Revenue, is the dreamer of a class which has lived on beyond the appropriate time for its death. Thatcher's vision is one of naked self-interest for the ruling class. Socialists will not waste our time criticising this vision on moral grounds: we urge the workers of the world to apply the principle of naked self- interest to themselves, as a class. There were no "good old days" for our class; for the wage slaves, the good times are yet to come. Only when the wages system has been abolished, along with the pernicious values on which it rests, will men. women and children be able to value one another as part of a united human family in which equality and freedom are the principles of social existence.