Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Pull the Units Down

Despite earlier gripes I'm going to be giving several talks about Uncommon over the next month or so; one at the Architectural Association in London (of all places) on 10th November; one in Oxford as part of their Zero Books Season on 15th November; and another in Zagreb at the Centre for Drama Art on 17th November (no link as yet). There's also a campaign to make 'Cunts are Still Running the World' Xmas number 1. As you can see above it is a cause richly worth supporting.

Talks on other matters, connected to another thing, more of which will be revealed presently: I'll be expounding on post-Soviet squares in Cambridge on 8th November; on the paradoxes of modernism and conservation at the ASCHB on 9th November; on the 'socialist skyscraper' at the Historical Materialism conference on the 11th; and at Pushkin House in London I'll be taking part in a season on Constructivism, laterally connected with the current RA exhibition: one solo talk on Communist Constructivism on 23rd November, and taking part in a debate on the built legacy of the Soviet avant-garde on the 30th.

Some writings: Urban Trawl in Aberdeen; below, in case missed, long ramble about industry; linked to that, long and equally rambling post on the Lloyds Building for The 80s Blog. I've also written a short text for photographer Robin Maddock's book lovingly depicting that most jolie-laide of British cities, Plymouth, God Forgotten Face.

Go and read these instead: the now-regularly blog-updating Agata Pyzik causing a scrap on matters Ostalgic with this superb Frieze piece; the excellent English-language Polish politics/economy blog Beyond the Transition; Jones the Planner on an English city which oddly hasn't completely screwed itself up; Douglas Murphy on Summerland; and the 70s, 80s and 90s blogs are still generating the best online writing around.

Garden Festival as Crystal Palace

Below is the full version of a piece published on Comment is Free a few weeks ago about a book I found in a bookshop in Lee, and thought 'aha! This is the source of the famous Wienerisation! (which any reader of Robin Carmody will be familiar with). It's about a third or so longer and somewhat less zippy.

There's one thing which the leaders of both of the main parties seem to agree. It is expressed in different ways, and with different degrees of sincerity. For Ed Miliband, it's a question of rewarding the 'producers' in industry rather than the 'predators' of finance capitalism; for George Osborne, 'we need to start making things again'. Yet there's no doubt that both the Conservative Party (from 1979 to 1997) and the Labour Party (from 1997 to 2010) presided over a massive decline in industry and 'production'; both of them favoured finance and services over industry and technology. Yet here is an apparent change of heart. What does it mean, this apparent divide between producer and predator, industrialist and speculator, this apparent desire to turn the long-defunct workshop of the world back into a workshop of some sort?

Answers might lie in a book published thirty years ago, one which was once a fixture of British political debate – the historian Martin J Wiener's 1981 polemic English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit. Keith Joseph handed a copy to every member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet. But compare it with the rest of his notorious 'reading list' to the Tory cabinet of the early '80s. Most of that list consisted of the classics of neoliberalism – defences of raw, naked capitalism from the likes of Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman, the books which are often associated with an economic policy that decimated British industry. Wiener's book was different. Not an economic tract as such, it was more of a cultural history, and its apparent influences were largely from the left. A short analysis of English political and literary culture, the centrality it gave to literature evoked Raymond Williams; its insistence on the sheer scale of English industrial primacy showed a close reading of Eric Hobsbawm; and by ascribing industrial decline to England's lack of a full bourgeois revolution, it had much in common with Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson's famous 1960s 'thesis' on English backwardness. In fact, Wiener seldom cited right-wing sources at all.

Wiener claimed that British industrial capitalism reached its zenith in 1851, the year of the Crystal Palace, its protomodernist architecture filled with displays exhibiting British industrial prowess. After that, it came under attack from both left and right – in fact, Weiner argues that the left and right positions were essentially indistinguishable. Whether ostensibly conservative, like the Gothic architect Augustus Welsby Pugin, or Marxist, like William Morris, opinion formers in the second half of the nineteenth century agreed that industry had deformed the United Kingdom, that its cities and its architecture were horrifying, that its factories were infernal, and that it should be replaced with a return to older, preferably medieval certainties. Wiener claims the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings as one of this movement's successes – an unprecedented group that, in his account, fundamentally believed that its own era uniquely had no valuable architectural or aesthetic contribution to make.

This horrified reaction to industry, and most of all to the industrial city, affected middle class taste (and Wiener has it that working class taste invariably followed suit) – the ideal was now the country cottage, and if it couldn't be in the country itself, then the rural could be simulated on the city's outskirts, as in the garden suburbs of Bedford Park or Hampstead, followed by the 'by-pass Tudor' of the early 20th century. The real England, insisted commentators of left, right and centre, was the country, despite the fact that since the middle of the 19th century, for the first time anywhere, a majority lived in cities. One of Weiner's sharpest anecdotes concerns a book of poetry about 'England' distributed to soldiers during the First World War. Not one poem even mentioned the industrial cities where those who fought had overwhelmingly come from. By the '20s, competing political leaders posed as country gents, whether the Tory Stanley Baldwin, marketed rather incredibly as a well-to-do farmer, or Labour's Ramsay MacDonald, who presented himself as a simple man of the dales.

This sounds far from a Tory argument. Britain's industrial and urban reality was ignored or lambasted in favour of an imaginary, depopulated countryside, and its industrial might and technological innovation suffered accordingly – what could the Conservative Party possibly find to its taste in this? That becomes clear in the third of Wiener's points. British capitalism, he argues, had become fatally ashamed of capitalism itself. It was embarrassed by the muck, mess and noise of industry, negligent of the great northern cities where that was largely based, and embarrassed at being seen to be 'money-grubbing'. Wiener, like many a leftwinger, argued that this came from the English middle class' love affair with its betters, the usually fulfilled desire of every factory owner to become a country gent, a rentier rather than producer. But he also suggested it came from a misplaced philanthropy, and a pussyfooting discomfort with making a profit from making stuff. In the form of the City of London's finance capitalism it had even found a way to make money out of money itself.

Now the book starts to sound like the Tory Party we know today. British capitalism, it argues, needs to rediscover the free market, the profit motive and the 'gospel of getting-on' that it had once disdained. Wiener's adversaries here become now-familiar Thatcherite punchbags – the BBC, for instance, an institution of paternalist arrogance which haughtily refused to give the public the money-generating entertainment it really wanted; or the Universities, devoted to the lefty talking shop of the 'social sciences' rather than robustly useful applied science. Enter David Willetts. English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit divided the Tory Party between those who welcomed this new swaggering capitalism – heirs to 19th century Manchester Liberalism – and those who really were Conservatives, who were horrified by this scorn for the country, old England, conservation and preservation. The Tory Party still tries to balance these two impulses, rather ineptly - Grant Shapps praises garden cities and Philip Hammond raises the speed limit, Cameron advocates concreting over the green belt and Gove slates modernist architecture.

Yet there's a reason why nobody reads this book anymore - because Wiener's central thesis was so resoundingly disproved. He predicts that in bringing back 'market discipline', Thatcher will rejuvenate British industry and the 'northern' values it inculcated – instead, the industrial centres of Tyneside, Clydeside and Teeside, South Wales and the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and the West Riding all faced a cataclysm on such a scale that most have still not recovered. Wiener might have praised cities and industry, but the former usually voted Labour, and the latter entailed strong trade unions. Neither point was to endear them to the new, swaggering capitalism. The cities were even further emasculated; their organs of local government defeated and destroyed, their base of coal, steel, shipbuilding and textiles downsized or simply wiped off the map. How did this happen? Perhaps because of that politer way of making money – the City. Wiener scornfully quotes one Rolls-Royce executive in the 1970s who tells him that he is in the motor industry for pleasure, not for profit; if he just wanted to make money, he says, he'd be in the City. And from Spinningfields in Manchester to Canary Wharf in London, former industrial sites now house the trading floors of banks that had to be bailed out like the lame duck industries of the '70s. And where industry really did transform rather than disappear, it took on new, hidden forms – the exurban business park or the container port, all safely away near the green belt, enabling the fantasy of old England to continue unobstructed.

The book faced a common fate for those who try to separate out finance and industrial capitalism, as if they could be prised apart. Britain is more obsessed than ever with an imaginary rural arcadia which bears less and less resemblance to the places where we actually live, but the profit motive has been strengthened in the process, not limited. It seems amazing at this distance to imagine anyone could have thought otherwise – a counterfactual Thatcherism which revived industrial Britain, with Heseltine's Garden Festivals as the new Crystal Palaces. But what is especially bizarre about the current orthodoxy – from which none of the main parties are exempt – is that Wiener's attack on all but 'useful' moneymaking activities is continued, without the concrete industrial products or technological advances that there was once to show for it. There is a counter-theory, which has it that neither speculators nor small businesses are the real 'wealth creators', but rather the masses who have nothing to sell but their labour. Their voice wasn't heard in Wiener's book, and it isn't heard in the current political debate.