Rethinking the 1970s

To make the case for an alternative future to neoliberalism, we have to change the way we tell the story of our past.

Ben Little
4 October 2013

We need to re-think our image of the 1970s/wikimedia

You don't have to dig very far into the discourse of "there is no alternative" before you come upon the cry of "but that will take us back to the 1970s". Ed Miliband curbs the excesses of the electricity markets and the Mail says: "shares in leading energy firms dropped by up to five per cent today as the markets reacted to Labour’s 1970s-style plan to freeze power bills." When Labour's relationship with the unions is under spotlight, Harry Mount in the Telegraph rants how trade union leadership live in an: "isolated Life on Mars world".

This trend was exemplified by Dominic Sandbrook's anti-Miliband polemic last week in which he claimed that the policies announced at Labour conference would take us back to the "shabby, downbeat world of the mid-1970s" - and that Ed could only be contemplating them because he was "too young to remember properly the three day week". Never mind that Sandbrook himself was born in 1974 - having established his expertise on the era through a number of books and a four-part documentary series aired on the BBC, he speaks with authority when he says that "most older voters remember those years... with a shudder"

The 1970s remains the left's bugbear. It's mere invocation proof positive that any solution to a problem that doesn't put the market and the selfish individual at its centre is doomed to repeat the mistakes of history.

But the political economy of neoliberalism has failed. The banking crisis of 2008 proved that. Culturally disfiguring inequality does the same. Even in China with its booming markets and rapid growth, the talk is of empty apartment blocks and a grossly uneven distribution of wealth that produces a winners/losers two tier economy. Each country in sway to neoliberal doctrine will have to have its own reckoning with how it settled upon such an unfair system of domination by the richest. Here, it's not a collective belief in Thatcherism that binds us now, stopping us from calling time on the greed of transnational capital, it's the story that the only alternative to more of the same is to go back to the 1970s.

And that's supposed to be a disaster. For those of us that weren't born then, the tales we're told are of three-day working weeks, brownouts, a crisis of industrial relations leading to uncollected rubbish, stagflation, rumours of a military coup, flared trousers and so on. But it was also a period of greater levels of equality, free higher education and mostly full employment. There was a vibrant counter-cultural scene which emerged from the 1960s into what have now become rich intellectual traditions, for instance ecologism into green politics and the equality movements of race, gender and sexuality. This was on top of a buoyant and widely accepted politics of class.

But referring to the success of identity or environmental politics wouldn't quell the ire of the likes of the Daily Mail - that the seventies were a decade where "small c" conservative politics were in retreat reinforces their oppositional position further. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the decade became so loathed on the right. Instead what we have been presented with is a simple picture of economic failure: inflation, mass unemployment and a breakdown in public services. These things might have been pretty bad, but the 80s that followed saw unemployment treble, devastated half the country and were the beginning of such rapid growth in inequality that the wealthiest simply floated away from the rest of society becoming today's weightless millionaires of transnational capital.

As one commentator has put it: 'the dominant narrative is that the 70s recession was awful, while the 80s recessions were necessary. I think this is down to one key fact: the 70s recession hit the rich and the middle class, whereas in the 80s it was the poor who got screwed'. That's pretty much been the way ever since - yet we're still trapped in this notion that the 1970s were a nightmare, when in fact what happened was that the rich were getting squeezed and global shifts - the formation of the OPEC cartel key amongst them - caused huge shocks to the world economy.

A global perspective is where the There Is No Alternative narrative breaks down. Other countries responded to the global economic crisis of the 1970s very differently from the UK from '79 onwards. Japan and Germany retained strong industrial policies, Scandinavian countries remained broadly on a socialist path, France continued to place faith in a strong state and so on. In the meantime, while the US also implemented a programme of financial and corporate deregulation and assaulted the collective rights of unions, the rapid deindustrialisation that took place in the UK was not replicated in the US. Instead Reagan continued an extensive system of state subsidies and Keynesian style industrial stimulus, simply funnelled through an expanded military rather than through wages and civilian infrastructure. The UK, of course, instead subsidised the collapse in employment and concomitant increase in welfare costs through revenues from North Sea oil.

So for those of us who weren't there, there are two things we should think more deeply on. The first is that there were alternatives which were serious, credible and could have been more effective than Thatcherism in delivering a broad-based, sustainable prosperity. The second is that many of the effects of the crisis are things which, far from being disastrous, after three decades of neoliberalism seem not just desirable but essential.

On the alternatives then. In the 1970s, the Governments of both right and left attempted a sort of German style Social Contract where unions would limit their wage increases to help manage inflation (particularly important, as in 1973, when oil prices go through the roof). The unions played along for a little while, but then busted all negotiations and demanded massive increases, going on strike if demands weren't met. Some in the unions thought they had capitalism on its knees and that with the Labour movement dictating the terms it was only a matter of time before government would collapse and a new era of Socialism would be ushered in.

If Union leadership had foreseen the scale of defeat that was coming, it would be nice to think they would've approached the matter differently. One activist told me recently that such "Social Contracts" simply expand the floor of the cage, but in that vein I'd respond that it's much easier to escape from an open prison (with much less suffering) than end up in our metaphorical Alcatraz. If we had managed to get a co-ordinated pay policy going in the 1970s we might have found ourselves closer to a German or Swedish economic model than the neoliberal one we now have. Indeed Ireland adopted such a scheme in the 1980s and the impact of global crises aside, it was an important part of the prosperity there for many years.

I'm not claiming that a social contract is some sort of panacea or utopia, but it was a completely and demonstrably viable alternative to Thatcherism in the 1970s. There were other ideas for ways forward too, on the left in terms of municipal socialism and from the ecological movements, both of which still have plenty to tell us.

Moreover, if we think about the form the various crises that shook the 1970s took, we can perhaps reflect differently on our present moment. As the New Economics Foundation campaigns for a 21 hour working week to alleviate the myriad stresses of workaholic neoliberal life and the pressure that puts on family and care, it might be wise to revisit the infamous "3-day working week" of 1974 that brought down Heath's government. Why was it so disastrous? How did people live and what did they do with the extra time? Likewise, the experience of rapid price rises and the impact on consumption should help those in the green movement and beyond who recognise that unless we find ways to be in this world that don't require ever increasing amounts of resources, we risk making the planet very difficult to inhabit for our children and their children. Finally, with house prices through the roof and rents increasingly meaning that few can afford to live alone into their thirties, let along start families, much can be gleaned from the squatting and commune cultures that flourished in the 1970s. How people organised themselves collectively, how they ran their domestic spaces (particularly after important feminist interventions), how they shared and understood common property: this speaks to the life experiences of many of us born after the decade had ended.

In short, we shouldn't be afraid of the 1970s. We shouldn't allow it to be used as a bugbear to dismiss opposition to neoliberalism and we shouldn't cede control of this crucial era in our past to Conservative historians such as Sandbrook whose political visions are so at odds with our own. We should learn from it.

Based on conversations with Guy Shrubsole, Deborah Grayson and Sally Davison

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