Fall of the Soviet Union? Who cares?

23 Sep

Even for New Labour, Ed Balls was dismal yesterday. “Please like us, City. Please don’t duff us up too much, Mr Murdoch. We’ll act responsibly, we promise! We’ll start by cutting child benefits.”

In one of many conversations following my referendum posts, Andy commented that “the Soviet Union helped to make the welfare state a practical imperative for the post-WW2 social contract”. It’s a truth lost on most in the west.

The USSR, and the mini replicas imposed top-down in Eastern Europe after 1945, were vile. Nobody could want to live there unless they happened to live in those parts of the capitalist world – a mere ninety percent of it – where living standards and political freedoms were and for the most part remain worse. But the USSR’s very existence and post-war expansion spooked the successful capitalist economies of the west into conceding publicly funded welfare programmes, lest their own workers be tempted.

It’s a funny thing but history students – tory, liberal or parliamentary socialist – have no problem seeing how the spectre of the French Revolution scared Britain’s ruling class into the big concessions of the next few decades: Corn Law repeal … electoral reform … factory acts … But try getting them to see that the spectre of communism, even in the degenerate forms of Eastern Europe, had a similar effect on the postwar order in Western Europe.

And now? With no credible opposition or alternative model in sight, why would free market capital tolerate education and health care in the public domain? Fat profits can be made by taking them back into private provision. Little need these days for the big, head-on battles of the Thatcher era. In Britain and elsewhere a simple algorithm has been perfected in recent years. One, under­fund services. Two, blame practitioners for the inevitable consequences. Three, (temporarily) champion the “consumer” of said services while, four, upholding privatisation as saviour.

The idea that the sixth richest nation on the planet can’t afford first class and publicly funded welfare is no more true today than it was in the nineteen thirties. What drives the cringeworthy deference of Mr Balls and Co is not sober recognition of what “we” can afford, but what capital feels like conceding. Which, with the business case for human decency vanishingly small, is very little indeed.

Oh, did I mention zero hours contracts, insecurity for the many and low wages subsidised by the tax payer?

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