Dead Men Left

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Brass and muck: culture and economy, or, why is Britain crap?

An earlier post here suggested that "left-wing" concerns about the preservation of English culture were misplaced: thin reactionary gruel served up as the finest anti-capitalist broth, by Paul Kingsnorth's in this instance. It was also suggested, in passing, that "English culture" benefitted positively from some aspects of globalisation. For too long, the Left has consented to prioritise "cultural" questions far, far above the economic, with the absurd result that an "anti-capitalist" like Kingsnorth complains of GAP's "American" advertising, ahead of its actual exploitation of its sweated workforce; or, in a similar vein, that prominent liberals could claim cluster bombs would bring liberation, ignoring the US military's role in the economic structures of imperialism. "Culture" here dominates to the extent that a bloody reality is simply wished out of existence. It is my belief that a critical part of rebuilding the Left is the construction of credible economic alternatives to neoliberalism; part of that effort is the reclamation of economic questions from the grip of the cultural.

An older New Left was once faced with such issues. A classic of its kind, Perry Anderson’s 1965 essay, “The Origins of the Present Crisis”, suggested that the inability of Harold Wilson’s government to deal with Britain’s relative economic decline was best understood as the culmination of a long-term malaise within British society. He strongly emphasised the purely cultural factors above the economic to build an historical model for British society over the previous 200 years. In stirring prose, Anderson wrote that in Britain, without a “pure” bourgeois revolution to give the ruling class a bit of backbone, “a supine bourgeoisie produced a subordinate proletariat. It handed on impulse of liberation, no revolutionary values, no universal language.” The "Glorious Revolution" of 1689 was a hopeless fudge, a sticky compromise between the collapsing aristocratic order and modern capitalism. “A comprehensive, coagulated conservatism is the result, covering the whole of society with a thick pall of simultaneous philistinism (towards ideas) and mystagogy (towards institutions), for which England has justly won an international reputation.” The “subordinate proletariat”, failing to create its own hegemonic bloc like a good revolutionary subject played its own miserable role in this sorry tale. Lacking even the gift of an assertive bourgeois culture, crawling back from Chartism in 1848 to lick its wounds in a state of “catatonic withdrawal” , the “separate but subordinate” development of the British working class prevented it creating its own “hegemonic” ideology: “Mature socialist theory was developed in precisely the years of the British proletariat’s amnesia and withdrawal.” Instead, the British labour movement was infected the “deadly germs” of utilitarianism through its intellectual puppet-masters, the Fabians, and onwards to the travails of Wilson: “The present crisis is a general malady of the whole society, infrastructure and superstructure – not a sudden breakdown, but a slow, sickening entropy…”

It is peculiar, perhaps, that as committed a Marxist as Anderson then was should spend so long on the specifically cultural aspects of Britain’s “malady”. The theme is adopted in Martin Wiener’s thorough survey of “English ambivalence towards industry”, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980. It is noticeable that both models implicitly presume a whole series of half-counterfactuals, half-prescriptions: in Wiener’s case, the new English industrial elite should have adopted the “Northern metaphor” when thinking of England (“Pragmatic, empirical, calculating, Puritan, bourgeois, enterprising, adventurous, scientific, serious, and [believing] in struggle.” ); should have espied its dark, Satanic mills and declared in proudly flattened Manchester vowels that where there was muck, there was brass. Instead, it sent its sons to the archaic public schools (a particular villain in Wiener’s drama), its daughters to the altar beside foppish aristocrats, and contented itself with a dream of green and pleasant lands; the “Southern metaphor” triumphant: “romantic, illogical, muddled, divinely lucky, Anglican, aristocratic, traditional, frivolous and [believing] in order and tradition.” Anderson thinks the British/English proletariat should have adopted “mature Marxist theory” to constitute itself as a “hegemonic class” capable of seizing power; instead, its cultural and ideological adaptation to the “philistinism” and “mystagogy” of British culture created it as a “corporative class”, moulded “defensively” to existing society. Both cases seem to presuppose a telos to match their choice of agent: it is the existence of this a priori ideal-type that drives their two narratives; or rather, in the manner of a great tragedy, it is the failure of their actors to match the ideal that creates the historiography.

Both are open, then, to the obvious objection: why should we accept their ideals beforehand? In practice, the twin narratives of decline match each other rather well, both declaring the victory of cultural conservatism sometime in the last half of the nineteenth century (and thus providing us with what is, given the constraints of space, a useful period to study); both relying on an extra-individual rationality to provide descriptive power. It is precisely the lack of means to test the twin hypotheses that make their ideal-types so questionable; without completely following Popper’s denunciations of “historicism”, it is clear that the definitions of culture used here are so all-encompassing as to obviate a role for individual agency. There is an opposite tradition within economic history of attempting to answer historical questions through a methodological reliance on individual rationality, very much in the spirit of the neo-classical model of agency: rational actors optimise their welfare outcomes through the market, or – in a new institutional refinement – institutions that essentially replicate missing markets. Frequently, this approach has enabled old questions to produce fresh and often controversial answers. For all that the first “Great Depression”, the fears of the middle classes of social unrest, the rise of the newly-unified US and German economies prompted talk, by the 1890s, of commercial “invasion” and industrial “defeat”, the contemporary view of Victorian Britain as “sclerotic” and declining may not have been correct.

Donald McCloskey took on just that view through the question posed in his 1970 article “Did Victorian Britain fail?” (Economic History Review, 2:23) The answer is a surprising “no”; it is an argument that would find favour with Dr Pangloss, at least: rational agents behaved in admirably rational fashion, the British economy “not stagnating but growing as rapidly as permitted by the growth of its resources and the effective exploitation of available technology.” Further econometric probing of the available data apparently revealed a Britain optimally ignoring its patrician and dandified culture; in particular, British entrepreneurs acted so as to maximise their outcomes from the opportunities available. Here, Wiener’s implicit counter-factual – that a leaner, fitter Britain was up for grabs but for hidebound British culture – is refuted through a “thin” neo-classical conception of agency. In the neo-classical world, money is neutral in the long-run, monetary variables having no influence on real factors like output, and rate of growth; in the McCloskey world, culture is also neutral. To continue the economic metaphor, the question we appear to be faced with concerns the time-frame over which this “cultural dichotomy” applies. The old-school cultural Keynesians, Anderson and Wiener, suggest over both short and long runs, with little regard to their rational microfoundations. McCloskey, the cultural monetarist, holds otherwise. We appear to be stuck in a dilemma: econometric evidence could doubtless be presented from both sides – McCloskey citing the “random walk” of British economic growth during the nineteenth century, consistent with efficient markets, whilst Anderson and Wiener might wish to point to more recent work on “segmented trends” and “interventions” to support their case - and both could make a strong case, leaving model choice as an a priori decision: either one or the other, but not both.