If there is a dividing line between post war optimism about the future and the current prevailing mood of pessimism it probably lies somewhere in the 1970s.
Before that period it was common practice to assume that science, technology and economics would keep taking us forward towards a continually improving future. There were some dark predictions and some gloomy works but programmes like Star Trek were the norm. It was assumed we were going to go boldly. These days the zombie apocalypse is a more reasonable crude characterisation of the public mood. Few expect things to just keep on getting better and a lot of people are very fearful of what is coming next.
This lack of optimism is a touch peculiar because on the level of strict objective measurement of economic wellbeing the current era is as good as it has got. When I travelled to China in the 1980s most of the billion-strong population were living on the poverty line. They had just emerged from mass famine and securing a bowl of rice a day was not taken for granted. I travelled on slow dirty trains and stayed on the waterfront in Shanghai for £3 a night. Across the water, some cranes were working on a building development on a mudflat.
Forty years later there are super modern buildings all across the city, you can get there via several different super high speed rail routes, and most of the people are highly educated, doing interesting jobs, living in swish apartments and earning good money. Similar major increases in income have taken place in large parts of India and across much of the rest of Southeast Asia. There are regions of Africa where a 5% annual improvement of living standards is regarded as poor performance. Billions have been lifted out of poverty.
Industrial decline in Britain
Many people in Britain assume that the decline of our industrial heritage has been caused by a transfer of jobs to those newly affluent parts of the world and their progress has been entirely at our expense. In reality, there is absolutely no need for one person getting richer to make another person poorer. Improvements for others should not have caused economic problems for us. A person who only earns a bowl of rice a day isn’t a very good customer. A software engineer with a passion for playing computer games ought in theory to have provided more custom for British economic products.
What happened in the 1970s to dump large parts of Britain’s industrial heartlands into a period of miserable decline was not the inevitable product of global economic forces that couldn’t be controlled. It was the outcome of implementing a set of economic theories that have resulted in great increases in wealth for a narrow section of society, for a few parts of the country, for those who controlled certain natural resources, for financial industries, legal professions and media moguls.
Those same economic theories brought economic misery to large parts of the north of England, to our inner cities, to most manufacturing industries, and to those who depended on factory jobs. That smashed apart traditional working-class lifestyles and removed job security and social security. In the United States, whole cities such as Detroit transformed at astonishing speeds from being places where a good living could be made to ghost towns where entire neighbourhoods had to be abandoned because the factories went and took the jobs with them.
Bitter resentment about those changes is still a visceral factor in the politics of much of the West. Globalisation is great if you make your money from selling financial derivatives in the City of London, work for an international law firm or design skyscrapers. It has not turned out so well if you live in the back streets of Bradford, have seen your neighbourhood decline and watched many of the most talented of your young people leave town or join a drug gang.
It didn’t have to be that way. The economic theories that provided the basis for the economic success of the 1950s and 1960s were developed by John Maynard Keynes and were all about how to manage national economies so that prosperity was reasonably spread around. Governments genuinely did focus on trying to provide good quality education, housing, health and security for all. The economic theories that have increasingly dominated since the 1970s have been very different. They assume that the state is powerless to achieve anything worthwhile, that every individual must look out for themselves and that markets must determine where economic activity is located.
That hasn’t exactly turned out to be a huge success for a lot of people. Services which used to work well for the benefit of all are now in a state of decay. Concepts like decent social housing being available for all in need are a thing of the past. We even have children who can’t get an NHS dentist when they are screaming with pain from toothache.
This has caused many in the former red wall areas to give in to despair and to focus their anger not on the very wealthy investment bankers who promoted the theories that have done them so much damage but on immigrants, those with ‘woke’ ideas and anyone who thinks technology can move a bit beyond burning fossils.
Restoring optimism with honesty and hard work
In such circumstances when Barack Obama announced that “Yes we can!” or Tony Blair told us “Things can only get better” the offer of hope attracted a lot of votes. When they failed to deliver sufficient progress it became easy for cynical far right propagandists to exploit the disappointment and convince people that backing Brexit or putting America ‘first’ would provide the cure.
It hasn’t. Because it can’t. The ideology of free markets which got us into this mess can’t possibly get us out of it. Relearning the lessons of John Maynard Keynes just might.
It is no longer possible to manage a single national economy without taking full account of the power of global economic forces. It is possible to do a lot better at managing the economy for the benefit of a wider section of society. We can develop new centres of successful technology across the country. It is possible to regear our economy to be ahead of international competition in new economic activities. We can be the first to adopt different ways of doing things. We don’t have to keep sending large amounts of national resources abroad to buy fossil fuels from unpleasant regimes.
On one big point Obama and Blair had it right. It is only possible to counter pessimism with constructive optimism. Their main mistake was that they failed to deliver enough beyond the slogan. They didn’t have a big enough impact on the communities they were supposed to care about.
If we are to restore optimism to the inner cities and beat the cynicism that feeds the far right we have to deliver more than slogans. It is going to take decades of hard work directly connecting with the communities that feel betrayed. That begins with honesty about how hard things are and about the impossibility of achieving enough progress on our own.
It will for example, be extraordinarily difficult for Britain to restore its prosperity if it stays outside of the EU. I very much doubt that political leaders who aren’t brave enough to assert that simple fact are going to be up to the job of restoring faith in the honesty of politicians and their commitment to abandoned communities. If the next government does not display sufficient bravery then it risks ending up in the same position as the Biden administration. Disappointing your supporters leaves the way open for some very unpleasant forces.