Jeremy Seabrook

In the mid-to-late twentieth century, with the passing of the era of industrial manufacture in Britain, the ‘social change’ which accompanied it became an object of fascination to the intellectual classes. The 1950s and the coming of affluence, saw a flowering of popular sociology, a variety of explanations of what was happening to the people of Britain (and elsewhere) with the beginning of ‘de-industrialisation’ and the transition to a service economy. Ruling elites were also anxious to monitor the social consequences of such profound economic change: for although the transformation took place at a time of rising prosperity, there were apprehensions about the kind of upheavals that might follow the dismantling of heavy industry.

Much of the debate was fed by works from the USA C. Wright Mills’ White Collar: The American Middle Class in 1951; JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society in 1958; Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers in 1959. These coincided in Britain with the publication of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), Young and Wilmott’s Family and Kinship in East London (1957) Michael Young’s Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), and Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society (1958). In 1963, E.P.Thompson’s powerful work, The Making of the English Working Class appeared. He asserted that the working class was self-consciously involved in its own creation; it is a sad historic irony that his book was published at the moment when that class, in its industrial incarnation, was on the verge of extinction, apparently unaware of its impending fate.

All these works asked questions about the nature of change. All dealt, in one way or another, with the epochal shift in sensibility that occurred with the change in the employment structure and the enhanced well-being which accompanied it. In the early 1960s, Timothy Raison, a Conservative MP of considerable vision, founded New Society, a magazine which reflected the themes of much popular speculation and observation of the time. New Society sought to ‘mirror, analyse and understand’ society with a similarly dispassionate approach to that which its sister publication, New Scientist, (founded five years earlier) had brought to scientific questions. New Society would forswear exhortation and moralism in the interests of discovering something about the changes through which we were passing.

New Society lasted for just over a quarter of a century, 1962 until 1988 – the transformative age of a period of what might be called peaceable convulsion. At the beginning, there was uncertainty whether the decay of manufacturing and the exhaustion of the labour movement could be negotiated without violence, mass protest or social dislocation. New Society provided continuous reports and observations on these issues from communities and individuals. Would people accept without protest the dramatic dismantling of the whole reason for existence of industrial towns and cities, and their reconstruction in the image of an economy in which consumption, administration, finance, education and health care became major employers of the people of Britain?

These anxieties should be understood in the wider context of the situation after World War Two. The ‘values’ of Europe had been sharply called into question by Nazism, which had sprung from the heart of what liked to think of itself, not merely as one civilisation, but as Civilisation itself; while the war that left Europe in ruins, the subsequent spread of Communism and the dissolution of the European empires, created a global environment of troubling insecurity. In a world fraught with such external menace, who knew what disturbances might not be preparing themselves within?

They were stressful times; driven, just as the early industrial era had been, by coercion (no one ever consulted the people about the abolition of industry, any more than their opinion had been sought at its inception); but the time was sweetened – unlike in the 1820s and 30s – by a constant increase in income, rising living standards and expectations of a majority of the people. The question was whether the ‘progressive’ aspects of the age – improved health care, a rising percentage of young people going to university, constantly increasing disposable income – would compensate for the destruction of jobs, the degradation of labour and the dramatic reduction in the number of ‘manual’ workers – a proportion of the workforce that declined from about 70 per cent in 1945 to 50 per cent in the 1970s. By the early 21st century, the service sector accounted for 75 per cent of employment.

There were certainly moments when instability threatened – the miners’ strike of 1974, during which Edward Heath called an election asking the question Who Governs Britain?; the so-called ‘winter of discontent’, the public service strikes of 1978/9; the riots in Brixton and elsewhere in 1982, the ‘poll tax’ disorder of 1990. But there were also moments of public elation – the ‘You Never Had It So Good’ election of 1959 (after the third successive Conservative victory, even the Daily Mirror was already – prematurely, then, as it turned out) asking whether the Labour Party had not, perhaps, fulfilled its historic function), the sense of youthful carnival of the 1960s, the euphoria of the early Blair years after 1997. By that time, it seemed, serious social dislocation had been successfully avoided; and although disturbances occurred in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in 2001, and despite a moment of rioting and looting in August 2011, the disruption created by these events was small.

In retrospect, the decline of industrial society was accomplished without excessive violence, certainly nothing like that which had attended its establishment almost two centuries before. But even in the 1960s, it was far from certain that the threat from a Soviet Union, which had yet to demonstrate clearly the emptiness of its appeal not only to the world, but equally, to its own people, was only a figment of Western paranoia. In 1956, at a reception in Poland, Krushchev had said the Soviet Union would be present at the funeral of the West; and when Sputnik was launched in 1957, it was not obvious that their technology was inferior to that of the West.

The interest in ‘society’ in the fifties and sixties was understandable, since the world that was to come had not yet fully defined itself. The question was, would the transition (to whatever it was) be achieved without social trauma, and would wealth and power be jeopardised by the dissolution of industrial life?

All this generated an extensive literature of investigative journalism, reports from every part of Britain and on all classes of people, and how they were responding to a changing world. My own contributions to New Society – for which I wrote regularly throughout its brief life under the inspired editorship of Paul Barker – dealt with the decline of manual labour, the fading of the Welsh chapels, life on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow, mercenary soldiers who went to fight against the liberation movement in Angola, a comparison between migrants of the same family from Jamaica to New York and London, elderly women who spent the winter in hotels in Bournemouth, redundant steel workers in Scunthorpe, racists in Lancashire. This was only a fragment of the insights provided in New Society by such writers as Angela Carter, John Berger, R.D. Laing, Eric Hobsbawm, Peter Hall, Barbara Wootton, Colin McInnes, Ann Oakley, Mary Douglas, Peter Wilmott and Michael Young.

The transition to what was – tendentiously – referred to as ‘post-industrial’ society was also eased in Britain by the existence of certain institutions which offered a sense of continuity and reassurance. The National Health Service, which continued to treat the neglected injuries of industry, had not yet been called upon to address the misfortunes of consumerism – alcohol and drug-dependency, tobacco-related illnesses, road accidents, obesity, self-harm, and the other incontinences of affluence. The expansion of higher education and new career opportunities were powerful agents of conciliation to social change. The BBC was adapting its class-bound paternalism – a Light Programme (for the people), Home Service (for the middle class) and Third Programme (for intellectuals) – and transforming itself into the extraordinarily rich and diverse organisation with world-wide reach that it was to become. Cohorts of social workers were engaged to assist the laggards of plenty to adapt to the modern world. It was not difficult for ‘progressive’ people to find much to admire in advances which served to dispel sombre memories of war, want and insecurity.

By the late eighties, the miners’ strike over, and in the twilight years of Thatcher, the adjustment to altered circumstances was more or less complete. To find an equivalent internal transformation in Britain, we would have to look back to the great exodus from rural life into manufacturing industry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when a new kind of human being – the industrial worker – was born. What we had lived through by the end of the 1980s was his (and he was predominantly male) death-throes.

Once manufacturing had been reduced to a vestigial economic activity, and the ‘new’ services had absorbed the great majority of the working population, curiosity about the growth and development of society dwindled. The ruling classes had once expressed constant anxiety over the mutinous and menacing population which industrial life had conjured into existence, and had sustained constant inquiry into the state and conditions of the labouring classes and the poor (groups that increasingly overlap once more); they were bound to keep a close watch on what would happen when mills, mines and forges had fallen silent, and the workers ejected into the re-worked landscapes of capitalism, where parkland replaced slag-heaps and stands of rowan and silver birch occupied places where louring mills and sooty terraces had been, and where palaces of merchandise now beckoned a liberated people into their other-worldly streets of jasper and gold.

In 1987, Margaret Thatcher declared in an interview: ‘There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and their families.’ This was widely derided at the time, but, prescient as ever, the scorn it evoked was in direct proportion to its accuracy: and although she was certainly prone to certain fantasies, this observation was far from being one of them. It seemed that society and economy had merged, and the resulting entity naturalised. Society was virtually suffocated by the market, as affluence appeared to have reached all but a small minority of the people, and the abolition of poverty and insecurity was in sight. In this benign environment (another key term of the age), people were able to lead their lives in a freedom unhindered by limitations brought about by squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease – the ‘giant evils’ which the Beveridge report identified in the document that founded the welfare state.

It is significant that at this time (1988), New Society was absorbed by the political weekly, New Statesman, where its logo remained for a few years before being dropped completely – a fitting fate for a preoccupation become apparently archaic by the end of the Thatcher years. Society had not, of course, been abolished; but it had gone underground, retreated, as it were, no longer intervening so conspicuously in the lives of a majority in the form of deprivation and want. In a world where the rich got much richer as the poor became a little less poor, growing inequality was masked; and amid general improvement, overwhelmed by the promises of the market, social antagonisms were muted. The study of society, accordingly, withdrew to the academic departments of universities on the one hand, and to instant journalistic discoveries on the other – where it appeared in stories of gentrification, yuppies, the existence of an ‘underclass’, consumerism and glass ceilings.

‘Society’ made, as it were, one farewell political appearance under Cameron, with his espousal of ‘the big society.’ This was a public relations response to what some still regarded as Thatcher’s solecism; and it was supposed to indicate the host of volunteers, philanthropists and charitable neighbours who would fill the gap created by welfare cuts proposed by the 2010 Coalition. The big society sank without trace, unlamented and misunderstood both by its ghostly actors and its shadowy beneficiaries; and society continued to recede under the inexorable march of the market.

The choices this offered meant, for most people, an emancipation, which no social policy could equal. As the market dilated and the State scarcely contracted, the occlusion of society accelerated. With rising income, it seemed a world came into being, in which our relationships, loves and jealousies, our torments and passions took place in a neutral space: society, weightless, no longer impeded our well-being. Only faint traces of social pressure remained, and these were easily remedied – anyone born on the wrong side of the tracks only had to cross the line and the world would be theirs. And the sky was the limit. We could become the creatures of our desires and fantasies: wish hard enough for something, long with sufficient intensity, and dreams would come true. Social hope withered; indeed, was the object of the greatest privatisation of all, as a multitude of individual hopes ousted all collective antecedents; infinite possibilities accompanied economic expansion. Those who failed to take advantage of all the available opportunities did so only because they were morally deficient. We were, as it were, transported into capitalism’s realm of freedom, where all adventitious social characteristics fell away and we were face to face with the theatre of individual existence.

According to this happy ideology, nothing impedes the free trajectory of our lives: we are born, we grow, we love, we succeed or fail, achieve celebrity, wealth, possessions, whatever we have set our hearts upon, and we die, leaving a smaller or greater legacy to those who come after. In other words, we now live in life, not in society. This withdrawal of obvious social determinants from our experience also accounts, to some degree, for the popular detachment from politics. Thatcher’s declaration, originally despised as the utterance of a provincial bigot, turned out to have been prophecy.

If inequalities remain (indeed even if they are aggravated), these are only a reflection of ‘natural’ characteristics, a result of an inescapable and irremediable ‘human nature’. Everything in this altered décor, has become lucid and transparent; the complications of class and social structure dissolved in the wholesome acid of merit and reward, the deserving and undeserving; while good and evil have been re-cast, so these moral qualities more or less correspond to rich and poor. We are only a step away from the God who made both high and lowly and ordered their estate; except that there is no need to bring deities into such beautifully simple and humane arrangements.

Certainly there is no longer any need for clever people to rack their brains in order to speculate on something called ‘social change’, since life has been brought to such a high degree of perfection that future change no longer needs to be ‘social’ at all. Indeed, the future is known, is laid out before us, in precise extrapolations from everything that already exists. What remains as an element of hopeful change has been transferred to technological innovation – how soon shall ‘we’ have abolished this or that scourge of humanity, when will cancer be overcome, dementia conquered; how quickly will space tourism be an option for vacations, when will robots wait on us and care for elders, how long will it be before constant pleasure can be extracted by electrodes in our brain, and when will life expectancy expand to vouchsafe us virtual immortality? Promises of ‘social’ change or of distributive justice appear pallid and implausible, set against the ‘miracles’ of technology; and have lapsed accordingly.

It was technology which lay at the root of the changed sensibility of rural workers who became the employees of industry. In our time, the evictees of manufacturing industry have also been subjected to no less profound a technological change than that which saw the mechanisation of the making of fabrics, metal goods, machines ceramics, leather and the rest. What is sometimes referred to as ‘the knowledge economy’, information technology, with its attendant revolution in communications and mobility, has contributed to another shift in popular perception of the world. This time, of course, there has been no great physical migration, as when the great rural-urban journeys began in the late eighteenth century; although it could be said that the evacuation of the tight-packed streets and tenements of inner cities and suburban – and exurban – flight represent just such another trajectory. There has been no wholesale departure from industrial life, despite the rhetoric about a society allegedly ‘post-industrial.’ But the economy of knowledge (that curious paradox in a knowledge economy) is governed by the same values as an older labour market. We should speak, perhaps of a ‘post-manufacturing society’, since industrialism has only deepened and extended itself to all areas of economic activity – we hear now of such esoteric undertakings as a beef industry, a music industry, a funeral industry, an entertainment industry, an information industry, a health care industry.

One major consequence of the elaboration of the instruments of communication has been the elevation of peer-relationships over the vertical transmission between the generations which was appropriate to an earlier form of labour. Technology, in a constant state of becoming, updating, changing, modernising, opens up forms of lateral information; whereas the transmission of work-knowledge was from father to son (in heavy industry) and from mother to daughter in the domestic sphere. If there has been as great a qualitative change between manufacturing and information technologies as there was between rural and industrial life, this alternative flow of information between peer-groups, particularly the young, always more alert to change, is perhaps the most significant.

These developments occur in an environment more and more dependent upon industrial life, even if its manufacturing component may have migrated to Dhaka, Ghuanzhou or Jakarta. The market remains the primary determinant of who gets to know – or have or buy – what. The permanently expanding economy and its wrap-around market ensure a continuing occlusion of society: any gaps in the market, through which a better – more sociable? – world might be glimpsed, are instantly plugged by the entrepreneurial spirit. This has apparently swept away all socially determined boundaries, leaving only such limits as the market may impose. Nothing inhibits the self-expression of individuals through disposable income; of which, of course no one can ever get enough. So this has become the source of all striving, our contemporary spiritual search for transcendence; of which blessed condition the first trillionaires on the planet will doubtless soon bring us tidings.

This eclipse of society, ground between state and a market saturated with promises of technological salvation, appears to trample social bounds – and bonds – and to deliver us into the pure sunlight of our own humanity. Such dissidents as remain can be left to fret on the margins of this best of all imaginable worlds. If the verdict of the autopsy on society – death by misadventure at an indeterminate millennial date – has yet to be pronounced, this is, perhaps, because society has not really ceased to exist at all; but is only sleeping; stupefied by the power of a market flooded with all the wonders of permanent technological revolution. Society, effaced, bides its time, awaiting the day when it will assert itself once more, perhaps in savage conflict over injustice and oppression; and will instruct us again in the knowledge, suspended for a brief moment, that the only enduring thing in the world is its mutability.


Jeremy Seabrook is a prolific author, journalist and playwright. His career began writing for New Society shortly after its foundation in 1962 and he continued to contribute until it closed in 1988. He has written over 40 books, most of them concerned with the nature of ‘development’, social and economic justice and the interaction between economy and ecology.

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