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From the NS archive: A new look at Britain

23 September 1957: How Labour could make a wealthier society a better society too.

By Arnold Rogow

In 1957, an Anglophile American, Arnold Rogow, revisited Britain and found a society busy modelling itself around American consumerism. “People’s Capitalism”, as he termed it, was one of new material well-being and consumer spending. There were political consequences, Rogow believed: “Conditioned by advertising to define their lives solely in terms of material splendour, getting ahead and ‘togetherness’, [Labour voters], too, are apt to eschew ideology, socialism, radicalism, politics itself.” But the new realities handed the Labour Party an opportunity. If it could take on the issues caused by rising living standards then moral improvement could be forged from material improvement.

The café on Southampton dock was my introduction to England after an absence of six years. The newspapers and cigarette packages scattered about were English, and the tea was modest in taste and cool in temper. But the serving counter was all wrong. Stretched across it, from one end to the other, was a row of Pepsi-Cola bottles, each of them nestled in an advertising placard.

These bottles, of course, were not merely a reflection of the sailors’ cosmopolitan tastes. They were a significant symbol of an England that is being profoundly affected not only by the American way, but by developments similar to those which have shaped America herself. Along with rock ‘n’ roll, supermarkets, the TV shows that originate in New York, and the other direct imports, there are the lifestyles that develop in a mass society which emphasises consumption and higher living standards.

The mass society is a precondition for Americanisation, but all mass societies produce their own peculiar institutions and habits which, while they remind one of America, are not American-inspired. The vulgarisation and the triviality of much of the London press, for example, or the rise of commercial television, can hardly be blamed upon the US, while Butlin holiday camps, which have no clear American counterpart, are a purely British response to the loneliness and isolation of modern life. The emergent British mass society is in essentials no more than ten years behind its American counterpart, and perhaps less, on the assumption of a sustained prosperity.

The New Deal laid the basis in America for the “People’s Capitalism” (eg mass consumption, welfare capitalism) which reached maturity in the Truman-Eisenhower era, and the Labour government ten years after the New Deal set the stage for the British-style People’s Capitalism which is maturing in the Macmillan-Gaitskell era. For while People’s Capitalism is heavily subsidised by the state – indeed, it is impossible to imagine this kind of society without state intervention – such subsidies do not affect its underlying character as private enterprise capitalism. State subsidy, however, does substantially alter the social aspect of capitalism, in that it minimises risk and failure, promotes efficiency, distributes opportunity more equitably and, most important of all, makes possible full employment and mass consumption.

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I see no present reason to believe that People’s Capitalism and its accompanying culture will develop very differently in Britain. The rearguard actions of the old social order are better organised in Britain, to be sure, but they are rearguard actions without much prospect of success. The establishment, the rugged individualists in British industry, the unreconstructed Tories, the angry young men who write the novels and plays, and the public school graduates cannot long delay the rapid development of the new society.

The impact of this change upon British politics is to me, an American, particularly striking – and familiar. Both political parties are in the process of discovering that the spirit of People’s Capitalism is hostile not only to radical and conservative extremes in politics, but to politics altogether. To begin with, political and economic realities force both parties to accept the need for state intervention and subsidy, and with this acceptance the economic issue content of politics is sharply reduced. The popular sense of economic well-being, arising from full employment; the transformation of the proletariat, through automation and better working conditions, into a leisure class; the widespread permeation of middle-class living standards and values – all of these developments are forcing the parties to abandon class and interest politics, and to substitute for such politics special, and in the historical context, lesser concerns.

[see also: The ghosts of Mark Fisher]

Hence the rising political interest displayed by both parties in the problems of the aged, the consumers, the suburbanites, the motorists and commuters. The difficulty is that these problems do not lend themselves readily to party differences or voter enthusiasm. Judging by the propaganda of the two major parties, the traditional ties to the upper class and the lower class are receding in the face of a shared concern for the middle-class Fitzjoneses and those who are trying to keep up with the Fitzjoneses.

But while the Fitzjoneses and would-be Fitzjoneses will not tolerate the older kind of politics, they are not much more interested in the newer type. Their image of themselves as consumers or suburbanites is not essentially a political image; this is a fact, I suggest, from which the Liberals are currently deriving some benefit. The voter whose political image of himself is fading, or confused, or non-existent, is very likely to vote, if he votes at all, for a party whose political image is also fading, confused, or non-existent.

The Conservative and Liberal parties, however, are less vulnerable than the Labour Party to the political condition of the new society. For Labour Party members, like their Conservative and Liberal counterparts, are equally caught up in the social situation and conditioning of People’s Capitalism. As incomes rise they, too, become more allergic to taxes and government spending. As status improves they, too, begin to absorb the point of view of those higher up. As hire-purchase extends they, too, become more anxious about political and other changes, at least in the ensuing 24 months-in-which-to-pay.

Conditioned by advertising to define their lives solely in terms of material splendour, getting ahead and “togetherness”, they, too, are apt to eschew ideology, socialism, radicalism, politics itself. Given the present drift, and assuming neither depression nor war, it is possible to argue that the new thinking within the Labour Party will necessarily confine itself to superannuation schemes, road-building schemes, up-to-date gas-and-water socialism.

But if People’s Capitalism has disposed of the major social evils of laissez-faire, it has engendered newer evils which, so far as I know, have not received much attention from any political party in Britain or, for that matter, in the US. One of these evils, for example, is the evil – and I use the term advisedly – of leisure. For the first time in history the mass of the people enjoys, or will shortly enjoy, sufficient time and money for the pursuit of leisure. Yet there is reason to believe that the coming 60-hour leisure week will raise problems more serious than those of the earlier 60-hour work week.

[see also: The politics of everyday life: leisure]

The work week, whatever else it was, was a week of planned activity and, occasionally, of creative activity, which engaged the individual during most of his waking hours. The leisure week, on the other hand, is so far unplanned, and for most people non-creative. Gadgetry, hobbies, attending the movies and watching television are often engaged in compulsively, and this suggests that they function less as meaningful activities than as attempts to escape boredom. The old socialist dream of a leisure devoted to love, culture and humanity, far from being behind the Labour Party, is still ahead of it.

There is the related problem of the meaning of culture in a mass society; this seems to me a particularly urgent problem in Britain. If the mass society is basically hostile or indifferent to the Third Programme, modern art and “high-brow” culture in general, there is grave danger that the democratisation of class will carry with it a democratisation, or vulgarisation, of culture in the direction of “low-brow” tastes. But this is not inevitable, provided that every effort is made to inculcate a sense of cultural values not merely in the public schools but in all the schools and institutions that serve the mass of citizens. The socialisation of cultural values is, again, ahead of the Labour Party rather than behind it.

One could, in fact, list a series of problems arising from the new society in which the Labour Party, at the moment, seems little interested. The role of advertising in the promotion of certain incentives and goals, and the question of its social control; the internal structure of industry and the extent of workers’ participation in management; the degree to which the expense account has quietly achieved a regressive redistribution of “Fair Shares”; the significance for economics and social psychology of the rise of hire-purchase; the relations, including political relations, between British and American industry – the determination of policy in all of these areas, far from having been settled in the past, is still in the future.

The whole promise of socialism is, indeed, still ahead of the Labour Party, and perhaps farther ahead than it was in 1951, or even in 1945. For British socialism always promised more than full employment, or better housing, or equal access to the flickering images on a screen in a darkened room. It promised not merely a new society but a better society, and not merely a new man but a better man. Clearly the new society and the new men have arrived. There may yet be time for the Labour Party to make something better of both of them.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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