Fixing Bush's legacy

Whoever wins the White House they have a huge task to try to rebuild the US reputation abroad. Here

Having recently returned to planet earth from a ten day stop-over in Washington, it would appear as though Barack Obama is on the cusp of being a shoo-in not just for the Democratic nomination but for the presidency as well.

That's unless Hillary does something dramatic, Senator McCain manages to make a party that couldn’t beat a paper bag electable, as someone said. Or some act of god should befall us all.

Major caveats admittedly, but none have stifled a new game in Washington, which is to treat President Obama as a given, and to start to plan for life under him.

This game is most entertainingly played in foreign policy discussions – where the consensus would broadly seem to be that while Presidents Hillary Clinton or McCain would both provide a much needed change of set dressing from the reviled George W, Obama could offer the breath of fresh air that could revitalize America’s image of itself as the “shining beacon on the hill” and further persuade the rest of us to believe this to be the case as well. Naturally, this is a consensus that is seen more from the Democratic perspective than on the Republican side, but even they privately admit that it will be tough to overcome the Obama zeitgeist.

Republicans have not of course given up, and one Republican friend harangued me about the personality cult developing around the senator from Illinois, citing the recent Frank Shepard Fairey - he of the Obey Giant fame) - poster campaign that openly evokes totalitarian propaganda. On the more controversial end of the scale, prominent academic Edward Luttwak attracted a storm with an article about the candidate’s Muslim heritage in the New York Times that ran under the title “President Apostate?”

From a foreign policy perspective, however, it seems to hard to deny the potential that, if elected, Obama will offer the opportunity for the US to reach out across the world and to actually find partners willing to work with them. (This FT story shows the impact he is able to have without any apparent effort in the world’s most populous Muslim country).

This is not to say that the world will suddenly be inverted, but more that such a clean break with the aggressive Manichean rhetoric of the Bush administration can only offer positive potential.

Some may query the sagacity of openly agreeing to meet with dictators without preconditions, but one cannot deny that offering some potential forum for discussion seems preferable to the many foreign quagmires that the Bush administration has let the United States sink in to. And the potential face-lift that President Barack Hussein Obama will offer his country in the Muslim world is hard to calculate.

However, young and excessively optimistic presidents have had a tendency to be pushed around by their tougher national security types in-house, but also by opportunistic foreign leaders. The most prominent historical example is John F Kennedy who was pushed by domestic actors into the ill-judged Bay of Pigs debacle, and who was then tested by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recognising this comparison and his oft cited weak national security credentials, Senator Obama has taken some pretty hard lines on the stump, most prominently stating that “if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [Pakistan's] President Musharraf won’t act, we will”. His opponents leapt on this, immediately accusing him an even deeper naiveté in being willing to bomb an ally and sovereign state (amusingly, in private conversation, most in Washington would agree that this would of course be the American reaction to such a situation).

One Democrat academic put it to me in a most mischievous manner when he stated that what Obama would need early on is a “small war.” A short, sharp and constrained conflict with high popularity ratings at home could immediately strengthen an Obama administration both at home and abroad – think Ronald Reagan and the American invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, or the revitalising impact the Falklands had upon Margaret Thatcher’s fortunes.

None of this, however, detracts from another key element which might let down the potential that Obama offers – and that is a hand to reach back. While the senator would undoubtedly offer an outstretched hand, he will need the world, and particularly Europe, to reach back. Nowhere is Obamamania more pronounced than in Europe, but at the same time, there is scant evidence that Europeans have begun to think through what exactly they are going to do if the rhetoric in the White House changes sharply.

America’s prestige and power have undoubtedly been tarnished, and it will take some work to bring their lustre back, but in the meantime, very real problems exist in the world that it will take both sides to fix. Afghanistan cannot simply limp on – if we really think it is a just war, then resources must match intentions.

And while it is easy to avoid dealing with Iraq at all at the moment it's not a situation that will simply resolve itself.

As German academic Guido Steinberg has put it in Der Spiegel , “the next US government will demand greater support from Germany on the international stage” – a statement which is equally applicable across Europe.

There is a crucial need for leaders and citizens the world to start to think through what they are willing to contribute to fix Bush's terrible legacy. If Obama is elected, high expectations will only be met if he gets tangible international support.

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain