Saturday, February 4, 2017

Steven Parfitt

Steven Parfitt teaches history at the Universities of Nottingham, Loughborough and Derby, and is an active University and College Union member. His first book is Knights Across the Atlantic: The Knights of Labor in Britain and Ireland.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Parfitt's reply:
Over the Christmas break I’ve been reading two books, both of them non-fiction and both, not by any conscious design, dealing with quite similar subjects. The first is Barry Gustafson’s His Way: A Biography of Robert Muldoon. It’s about one of my native New Zealand’s longest-serving Prime Ministers (1975-1984), Robert Muldoon, who dominated the political lives of my parents. I already knew Muldoon as the man who called an election drunk in 1984 when his slim parliamentary majority seemed in danger. I knew him as a conservative bullyboy who intimidated journalists and other politicians with his quick memory and sharp tongue. This was someone who did not shrink from depicting the Labour Party as dancing Cossacks in thrall to the Soviet Union, or from publicly outing an opposition MP as gay at a time when homosexuality was still illegal.

Gustafson points to another side of Muldoon’s character. He remained a conservative but was also a Keynesian. His commitment to full employment and the welfare state – and to what he called “the ordinary bloke” – is no longer matched by most conservatives, and even by many who claim to be on the left. His ill-fated, alcohol-fuelled decision to call an election in 1984, which he lost, put a Labour Government in power. It might surprise people outside New Zealand to learn that it was Labour, and not the conservative National Party, which launched a wave of deregulation and privatisation even more radical than the reforms led by Reagan or Thatcher.

The end of Muldoon’s premiership meant the end of the old political and economic order that began in 1945 and came undone in the crises of the 1970s. Many New Zealanders, just like many people in other countries, remember those years fondly as a time where jobs were plentiful, wages were high, and inequality remained historically low. That nostalgia lies behind the desire of many people to make their country great or fair or equal again, and to recover what has since been lost. Progressive conclusions can flow from that nostalgia as well as the reactionary ones peddled by Trump and his ilk.

Gustafson’s biography narrates the end of capitalism’s so-called “golden age” in one Antipodean country. My other Christmas-time reading, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, predicts the end of capitalism altogether. Mason argues that capitalism, once so good at adapting to new technology and to new forms of social and political organisation – from textile factories to elected parliaments and nuclear fission – can no longer adapt in the way it once did. Two big trends are breaking down the relationship between work, wages, prices and profit that keeps the whole system together: automation, which removes human labour from the production of things, and our ability to freely reproduce information in the time it takes to press “control C and V” on the keyboard.

The result of all this is that human labour becomes more and more redundant. Those at the top struggle to hold on to what they already have by whatever means are at hand. I haven’t finished the book yet, and haven’t reached the stage where Mason offers alternatives to these trends, but it’s already made me think hard about the possibilities open to us – and the dangers that must arise in the meantime.

Perhaps we are stuck between the end of a golden age and the messy end of our present system. We might be closer in a way to the subject of my own book, the Knights of Labor, separated as we are from them by more than a hundred years. The Knights became the first national movement of American workers in the 1880s. They too looked back to a golden age, sometime between the founding of the United States and the Civil War, when free independent citizens controlled their own labour and their democratic government. They also feared that technological improvements and mass immigration would bring down the most highly-skilled worker to the wages of the lowest. I hardly need draw any more parallels between then and now.

Their response was a movement of nearly a million Americans, male and female, white and black (though not Asian!), and even the beginnings of an international movement. Can we do this again? My Christmas-time reading, unfortunately, does not answer that question.
Learn more about Knights Across the Atlantic at the Liverpool University Press website.

My Book, The Movie: Knights Across the Atlantic.

--Marshal Zeringue