Economic development throughout the 20th century was pre-empted by a labour movement that ensured democratic benefits such as safe working conditions and free health care and forced some 'trickle-down' to the majority of the populace. At the beginning of the 20th century the very existence of the capitalist model was in doubt as workers protested en-masse about lack of rights, poor working conditions and unfair remuneration, often these protests used violent means suggesting the breakdown of society in general. Fast forward to the 1960's - 80's beyond the creation and expansion of the welfare state. It seemed the battle had been won, conditions were improving, there was a solid and thriving middle class, social mobility was at its highest ever level - everyone had rights. However, in a seemingly directionless fashion the labour movement continued to push for reform and as they did many suspected an undercurrent that favoured the Soviet Communist model.
Many believed that the industrial actions of Trade Unions threatened the long term prosperity of the UK economy and thus something had to change. Maggie Thatcher and the Tories at the end of this era defeated this movement by defeating the idea of collectivism, she offered individuals more acting alone than they could hope to achieve working in concert. As is the nature of survival of the fittest, those who were able to accpet did so - rightly or wrongly. Unintentionally perhaps? Divide and conquer became an option for the owners of capital and has since spilled into the public sector as well - the traditional bastion of collective bargaining.Many will say that Thatcher and her colleagues saved this country. If you agree that the only model of communism is a totalitarian one then they are correct to say that this danger was averted. However, in all of the back slapping and continued stretching for greater economic efficientcy we have seen, something has been missed. We have forgotten what it is that our economy is designed to do in the first place.
In those early days of the 1900's the majority in the country took back the political and economic agenda and attempted to make it serve the needs of the average person rather than their typically politically dominant priveledged contemporaries. Over the last 30 years we have seen the opposite happen, greater wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, the same few in whose control lie the machinary of political, social and legislative change. Is it then a surprise that we stand to lose the services that our forefathers fought to guarantee us? NHS, care for all, basic living standards and free education? One by one these things are being turned over (public assets sold below market value) to the private sector in the name of greater economic efficiency. It seems we have all been so desperate to have more that we have forgotten why.
In Britain we work the longest hours in Europe, we also have the highest number of people on long-term medication for depression in Europe. Last year CEO's recieved an average pay increase of 49% - during a period of negative growth where profits were universally down - their employees recieved an average wage increase of 2.2% while their public sector counter-parts were subject to pay-freezes. In good times pay increases are capped with inflation but it seems we are not guaranteed this when times are harder.We are told that the country is in recession and sacrifices have to be made and in the hilarious parlance of the dominat coalition partner "we're in this together".
Unemployment is at its highest level since the early 1990's, inflation is rising rendering even private sector pay increases irrelevant for most and economic growth has ground to a stand-still, and yet we continue to reward our already rich captains of industry to an outrageous and improving level - CEO's of the largest banks which lit the blue touch paper for this crisis recieve as much as £25m per year in complex packages that even the shareholders do not seem to understand. Why? What exactly is it that they are doing to merit such reward? As a society, we can see growing evidence that all is not well. Breakdown in social cohesion, rise in multi-generational long-term unemployment, riots and the occupy movements to name but a few. These things force us to cast our minds back to the 1970's and perhaps given the economic context even to those early days of the 20th century.
Having moved once toward greater collectivism in the name of greater social justice, and once toward greater individualism in the name of greater economic efficiency. Regardless of your personal political allegiances it seems clear that the economy is not working for most people and in our fluid capitalist system change will certainly come, so the question is which way will we go now?