03 November 2014


The appearance and success of what are called “neoliberal” ideas and policies, mainly during the 1980s but with effects that are still very much with us, exists as a challenge to the neoreactionary observation of the leftward drift, or ratchet.

Cthulu always swims left, Moldbug told us, and Jim explained the “holier-than-Jesus” positive-feedback loop in more detail.

What was Cthulu doing when welfare states were rolled back, government operations privatised, and controls on trade removed from (mainly) 1980-1987? Once awoken, he is not supposed to stop for a bit of a lie down and a nap.

It’s not hard to come up with an answer, which I’ve given before on the occasion of Lady Thatcher’s funeral: The loss of influence of concrete (as opposed to theoretical Marxist) working-class interests was caused by the advent of automated manufacturing, which removed the need to concentrate an army of workers in a large factory where they had economic and potentially paramilitary power. This piece by Paul Graham expresses a related view, which was that there was a bubble economy in manufacturing post-war, in which the benefit of rapid growth outweighed cost-efficiency.

The problem is, you can come up with any daft theory about society, and it’s generally “not hard to come up with an answer” to the blatant falsifications of it that occur in reality. Can we define the exceptions to the “leftward drift” theory—the epicycles—in a way that makes it useful for prediction, not just post-hoc sloganeering?

For instance, can neoliberalism be separated as obviously distinct from the normal mechanisms of ideological change? Not as easily as you might think. I have said that it was an “event” rather than a trend, but it still took the best part of a decade. The acceptance of gay marriage, for example, was no less sudden, yet that is attributed to ideological business as usual.

Nor is my claim that neoliberalism was a response to technological change undisputed. It was certainly presented as an ideological development: Thatcher (allegedly) banged The Constitution of Liberty on the table and said, “this is what we believe.” I spent twenty years aligned with the neoliberal ideological movement; I can hardly now claim it didn’t exist.

All I can really see is to insist on the connection of neoliberalism with the technologically-driven end of mass-labour based manufacturing. That would mean, for instance, that I can predict that neoliberal ideas and policies would have made no headway anywhere that old-style manufacturing was still running profitably. Not also I am talking about concrete technology, not “social technology”, which, while a useful concept, is still a bit to vague to effectively restrict the scope of exceptions to leftward drift.

One final thought: I have already attributed the other major rightward movement in history—the appearance of absolute monarchy—to technological change. That’s cropped up a few times for instance in Recap of the Fall of Monarchism


A Nonny Mouse said...
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A Nonny Mouse said...
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A Nonny Mouse said...

Curiously, Hayek’s Road to Serfdom was equally popular with Winston Churchill when it came out in 1944, the Conservative Party wasting precious paper resources to print copies of it as part of their campaign to be re-elected in 1945.

I say curiously because the nature of the British Constitution at the time of Churchill—the Norman Conquest, the Monarchy, the Anglican Settlement in England (but not Scotland), the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the House of Lords, the order of issuing of writs of summons to bishops, the places at New College Oxford reserved for pupils of Winchester College, —was clearly not based on reason or any ideology that could be defended by even the most erudite Middle European Professor. It just was. If you perceived yourself the beneficiary of this farrago of inequalities and quaint absurdities, then you would continue voting Conservative. I suppose that Serfdom was appreciated for its attack on the things that Conservatives opposed, rather than its endorsement of the things they stood for.

The function of a Conservative movement is to (re-)assume power and then act in the interest of vested interests. In the course of doing so, it may invoke some form of ideology, but it will never allow that ideology to come between it and the interests of its leader, its party and its wealthy supporters. Ideologies are for students.

Mrs Thatcher, when she slammed Constitution on the desk was not serious. I doubt that she had ever read it all the way through. Possibly it had a shiny cover and she could see herself reflected in it. That was what she believed in.

Libertarianism holds that by encouraging a Darwinian level playing field, inefficient enterprises will be superseded by efficient ones, and everyone will be better off. However this never happens: Central Government steps in on behalf of the too big to fail. One is also under pressure to save failing enterprises of the local variety, which are being snapped up by fiendishly cunning foreign firms, whom one suspects are being surreptitiously subsidised by their own country’s government. So you start off with Libertarianism and end up with Conservatism.

This works for some. In the days when I was a member of the Patients’ Society of Jokers, the only one of the many members who stood for parliament (including http://www.southwarknews.co.uk/00,news,19303,440,00.htm, a rather surprising candidacy) who was actually successful in their endeavours was a libertarian lady who reinvented herself as a Conservative: I imagine she abandoned any pretence to libertarianism, as she certainly gave up on the Society of Jokers. It would be an interesting topic for a PhD to trace how much she retained, and how much she betrayed her Libertarian ideology, in the course of her political career.

As for the Libertarian Party, it is variously recorded as having split and petered out, or turned into an annual dining society at the Man-li hung, or become a document in the Grand’s lectern. Where money is involved there is no room for ideology.

Oliver Cromwell said...

Then please consider the following counter-arguments:

1. Automation is nothing new; indeed those factories only existed because of automation. So if the argument is that automation is what creates masses of people working together, why didn't the problem get worse with increasing automation? The UK is more urbanised today than it was in 1970.

2. If the argument is the opposite - that automation creates dependence on a handful of people who produce actual vital goods and can use that dependence as a power for evil - then why didn't it get worse as automation increased? Thatcher built nuclear power stations because nuclear workers don't go on strike, unlike coal workers. Why is that? Because they're less skilled and easier to replace than coal workers? Because the consequences of them striking are less?!

My suggestion is that the shift was primarily cultural. You replaced people who had a vendetta with management and were organised to pursue that vendetta, with people who would just name their price in salary and benefits and then show up for work every day. This proceeded by boil-off at both the top and the bottom: the least conformist people were boiled off into permanent unemployment (usually classed as disabled with a nebulous but unfalsifiable condition), while the most organised and intelligent people who were for whatever reason still part of the working class were encouraged to socially promote rather than continue identifying with and fighting for their loser friends from the old town ("aspiration").

Both those groups got what they wanted. The fraction of the working class that was neither so shiftless as to accept permanent dependency nor actually useful enough to join the middle class has remained in the same place but lost the power and social cohesion it once enjoyed. Unluckier still, the gentry leftists in the Labour Party don't care because they can just replace those people with immigrants, who have no [current] expectation of social power in the United Kingdom. Hence UKIP wins four million votes.