Friday, 22 January 2010

Labour's ironic worship of Mammon

Yesterday, I was half-listening to the news, as you do, when I thought I heard something Harriet Harman was reported to have said which struck me as astonishingly revealing.
Today I checked out a couple of news reports in the papers and I think this, from the Telegraph, relates to what I thought I heard (the quote is much longer than the ‘snippet’ I originally picked up):
“Equality is important not just for the individual but also it’s an economic argument. Think about the economies that will thrive and prosper in the future. Do you see those that are hierarchical and hide bound – where everyone knows their place – where you get [on?] on the basis of your connections or because your “face fits”? Far from it. Because that is the opposite of a meritocracy.
“The economies that will thrive in the future are those where everyone can achieve their full potential and where the economy can draw on the abilities of all.”
So what is the ultimate point of giving people a better opportunity in life and a better education? Apparently, It is to feed the maw of the economy.
Now I find this not only a horrifying vision of human life and society, but an astonishing thought from the mouth of a Labour politician. I rather naively thought that the Labour Party regarded the worship of the economy as in some sense inimical to human well-being. Indeed, it was originally called the ‘Labour Party’ (I thought) because there were people — labourers — whose lives were weighed down and diminished by the unending demands of ‘capitalism’.
There was —or did I imagine it —an element of Marxist Utopianism about the labour movement. But that Utopia did not consist of a world where the economy got bigger and bigger, and the contribution of the individual towards it became more and more effective. Rather, the point of the movement was to free the labourer from his labour and to allow people time, space and the necessary personal and intellectual equipment to be something other than a cog in the machine.
Thus, when the Workers’ Educational Association was founded in the early years of the twentieth century (by a keen member of the Church of England) its aims were, not that people would thereby gain the ‘skills’ needed to contribute to the economy but,
... to acquire knowledge which would enable them to decide for themselves what to think about the society in which they lived and worked. (A Brief History of the WEA)
Thus the education ‘workers’ were encouraged to receive was as much in the liberal arts as in the practical sciences. It was certainly not about giving people ‘job skills’. Nor, therefore, could the education it offered be evaluated in terms of its economic ‘usefulness’, unlike the present.
Nevertheless, this could not, I think, be characterized as ‘learning for learning’s sake’. Rather, it stemmed from a particular understanding of education which itself reflected an understanding of being human. It is noteworthy that one of the key patrons of the movement was the future Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who was also an early tutor and who regarded it as one of his most important contributions to society.
Unfortunately, New Labour’s worship of Mammon, and its subservience of our education to our suitability to feed the machine, is all of a piece with the ‘decadence’ of Western society — its declining or falling away from its previous character. Of course, it was never perfect —indeed, far from it. But surely it had a higher view of human life, and therefore a greater potential for human development. By contrast, what Labour’s ‘equality’ policy seems to offer is the equal opportunity for all of us to become Epsilon-minuses of Huxley’s Brave New World —fit for a purpose designated by others, and blissful in our ignorance.
Revd John P Richardson
22 January 2010
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  1. Absolutely - the Epsilon Minus reference is particularly pertinent, and to my mind an inherent consequence of the 'meritocracy' that Harman seems to understand as a Utopian ideal.

    As for the worship of Mammon, I think this is interwoven with the contemporary left's embrace of 'the market' as a means of delivering their social agenda - and this embrace requires a consistent flow of fodder in order to keep it going (and thus uphold the stranglehold of the state). I'm sorry to link, but if you'd be at all interested I've blogged a little on this here -

  2. John, a few days ago you posted a very apposite blog, On the problem of opinions, in which you argued that people comment without reading what has been written and without comprehending the argument. Yet, today you post an item on Harriet Harman which is guilty of exactly the same thing. Harman did not say that the only reason for seeking equality is to serve the economy; she uses the economic argument as part of her wider concern for equality. Read what she says: ‘Equality is important NOT JUST FOR THE INDIVIDUAL but also it’s an economic argument’ in other words not only does equality benefit the individual but it also makes economic sense. This is a necessary argument given the number of people who argue that moves to address inequality, for example the minimum wage, damage the economy. Any sensible advocate of a case marshals all the arguments to support that case and that is what Harman does.

    Here’s another quote from Harman’s speech to the Labour conference in September ‘09 which shows that her argument on equality is much wider: ‘For us, for Labour, equality is not just a slogan – it’s what we are about. It’s a way of life. It’s about our values and how we do our politics. Equality matters to us because its about people’s lives. Its about the right of a disabled person to work on equal terms. Its about the right of a woman who works part-time not to be excluded from the pension scheme. Its about the right not being written off as too old. Equality matters to us. Because it’s a fundamental human right to be treated fairly. And equality matters to us because it’s the only way you can have a united and peaceful society in which everyone feels included.’

    There are three problems with your argument:
    1. You haven’t accurately read what was said in the quote. This is a selective quote from a substantial speech which you have taken from a paper not known to be sympathetic to Ms Harman.
    2. You haven’t considered the wider arguments that Harman has consistently put forward on the subject of equality, including in this speech.
    3. On the back of your interpretation of Harman’s statement you then launch an argument against New Labour. I am not suggesting there aren’t criticisms that can be made regarding New Labour, you could argue that the evidence suggests that they have failed to implement their equality agenda, but trying to extrapolate your argument from Harman’s partial quote just doesn’t stand up.

    As I commented at the beginning, I thought your previous post was a timely reminder about taking care over commenting, however, this post seems to be a good example of what you were criticising.

  3. Actually, I seem to remember it was during "Thatcherism", or at least the 1980s ethos, when education came to be valued purely for the career advantages it might give, and higher education became grant-free. Students were encouraged to "invest" in their future (ie. they were understood to be pursuing a course which would inevitably lead to a high-earning career, like the law, which would give them a return on their investment, and not one like Greek literature studies, which would lead only to the dole queue. Education as a good thing in itself died at that time, and has never recovered (I'm not particularly anti-Thatcher, or a Lefty, I must point out; the 1980s philistinism has been a feature of all governments since, including Nu Lab).

  4. Philip, I came here to say what you have just said, and I find you have beaten me to it. Thank you. The quote nowhere says that economic growth is the point of working for equality. Poor, poor reasoning from someone who prides himself on his analytical technique.

    Frank, Merseyside.

  5. just thought you should check out the without money by daniel suelo..he
    mentions mammmon in his site..its a really good