by Louis McEvoy
‘We are called upon at the beginning of the twentieth century to decide the question propounded in the Sermon on the Mount, as to whether we will worship God or Mammon. The present day is a Mammon-worshipping age. Socialism proposes to dethrone the brute-god Mammon and to lift humanity into its place.’ So said Keir Hardie to the Commons way back in 1901. It was a noble ambition. But over a century later, this ambition remains unfulfilled.
In modern times, a similarly bearded Labour leader has achieved the remarkable: in transforming Labour into a robustly anti-austerity party, he has successfully shifted the political goalposts on the fiscal front, moving them towards somewhere more in tune with the general public. But Jeremy Corbyn does not go far enough. Our party should not simply abhor the grotesque failure to fairly distribute the fruits of capitalism; it should challenge the very philosophy of individual consumption. More than just offering a radical economic alternative, Labour should aim to fundamentally remake society.
That is not to say we need a more powerful or more centralised state; if anything, it means the opposite. Nor indeed does this necessitate getting rid of capitalism altogether. What it means is recognising that Britain is stuck in an uncertain and unhappy place; while progressive taxation and well-funded public services are an integral part of the fight for a better country, they are not the whole story. It was not only an awareness of stagnating wages and gross inequality that drove the Brexit vote, but a broader feeling that Britain had lost its way. No wonder, in such a period of intense cultural upheaval. Yet solving this is hardly considered.
The conversation around the mental health crisis, for instance, is all too often nothing more than the question of throwing extra money at the problem to achieve parity of esteem; an important aim, but why aren’t we asking why there has been a significant increase in rates of severe mental illness since the 1990s? Why is the only proposed remedy for the obesity epidemic a tax on cheap sugary drinks, as though it has only come about because of said drinks? Why don’t we talk more about the growing sense of loneliness felt across all ages, especially amongst the elderly? Granted, we do hear frequent talk of how generationally polarised we are – only for it to be comfortably boxed away in the sphere of housing. The housing crisis is a serious problem which Labour is committed to fixing, but the divergent social attitudes between different ages groups reveal that this polarisation goes much deeper than property prices. Britain is broken. It has been for a long time. Accordingly, our political conventions have shattered too, and moronic talk of a new centrist party shows that the shell-shocked liberals deserve to stay in their barren wilderness. Only Labour, with its commitment to transforming society into one for the many, can – and must – do something to change this.
First, know your enemy: this is all down to, as Hardie noted, the worship of Mammon; or, in essence, worship of the individual self. When Thatcher and later Cameron poisoned this country with a diet of capitalism on crack cocaine, it was in a frenzied attempt to eradicate social bonds and reduce Britain to an island of atomised, gluttonous consumers. Right to Buy was not just a long-term economic failure, but a moral and social failure too; not for nothing did the Iron Lady proudly associate herself with Gladstone rather than Disraeli. For all that Cameron laughably tried to present himself as a pragmatist, he too gutted public services in slavish tribute to Mammon. Across the Atlantic, the woman who lost to Donald Trump has waxed lyrical about a world of ‘open trade and open borders’ to an affluent audience aspiring to abolish society for the sake of profit.
Their legitimising creed is the creed of the individual, the valorising of an independent sovereign self with no responsibility for others, and no need for old structures like the family, the church and the nation; do what you like, we’re told, so long as it doesn’t harm others (although it inevitably does). As a direct result of this, we witness a decline in public trust, mental and physical health crises, family breakdown, and a sense of hopelessness across generations. Some of these problems are even justified by the ideology responsible – depicted as the rational choices of individuals. This is rubbish.
People don’t want to simply aspire towards money and celebrity; they find something infinitely better in having a solid sense of place and purpose. For all the attempts of the establishment to ground this out of us, the likes of Brexit and Corbyn’s gains in 2017 are markers of our resistance. In keeping with our venerable traditions, Labour should respond by proposing ways to slowly rebuild our country’s collective sense of self.
Corbyn has rightly called for an end to freedom of movement, albeit in the context of it being a necessary corollary of respecting the Brexit vote. We should go further; reducing immigration is both hugely popular and good policy, and part of the fight against a view of the world which prioritises a quick buck over the community. With less capacity to exploit cheap foreign labour, firms will feel pressed to pay British workers a proper wage to live on. One often hears the argument that immigrants are ‘a net benefit to the Treasury’, but this does not account for wage compression; and although some migrants are vital to public services and occasionally set up lucrative businesses here, this group is a talented minority, whose members we would still welcome with open arms. Regardless, the economic sphere isn’t everything – we should recognise the social and cultural failures that have accompanied government’s failures to integrate newcomers. Much of the modern working class consists of migrant labour, but there is no sense of common cultural unity across the entire working class due to language barriers and the isolation of migrant communities. To achieve community cohesion, we must build bridges within communities; reducing the current influx will make this task infinitely easier.
In addition, properly empowering citizens in their workplace would renew a sense of pride. John McDonnell has rightly spoken of the need to support further local cooperatives and mutuals, a priority which should become much more central to Labour’s pitch, and an attitude that ought to be extended to state-run services, considering the excessively centralised nature of the British government. Rather than top-down control by either the state or the CEO, firms and services should be run by their employees; devolving decision-making down to the local and down to the worker would democratise the economy, thereby building a stronger society. Research shows that sharing ownership boosts productivity, but it would also boost dignity, happiness and the sense of a common good.
Indeed, in schools, the aim should not merely be improving social mobility, but also seriously building social responsibility. We should educate and inform pupils so that they gain a robust sense of our country’s history: let’s tell a comprehensive national story from Magna Carta to Chartism, linking this narrative to concrete national values, so that young people will look upon their country with pride and a sense of belonging. Considering that faith schools offer admirable moral values and excellent pastoral care (not to mention being very popular with parents and attaining great exam results), Labour should outright encourage opening many more faith schools for all religions. Children should be taught that they exist together in a community, with duties to one another, rather than being rivals in some vicious rat race.
But one of the most radical ways Labour could develop this much-needed sense of responsibility would be to trial a return to national service, as Macron has proposed in France, and as they have over in progressive Finland. This would not have to be purely military in nature; it could entail any form of civic engagement for young people, fostering a greater feeling of connection between neighbours and different generations within their towns and villages, thereby combatting our present sense of atomisation. It would be patriotic, but a progressive form of patriotism.
These are just a handful of suggestions; there are no easy answers or quick fixes. But we can start by recognising that there is space for a broader critique of British society that extends beyond the iniquities of inequality and poverty. The economic solutions proposed by Labour are insufficient on their own. We should not be individualist consumers, but citizens involved in wider society, helping one another, sharing the same values, and having a tangible stake in the community. We have a moral duty to work towards Keir Hardie’s truly radical vision of dethroning Mammon, and towards that since-lost sense that this country is more than just one interchangeable cell in a global economy, but somewhere with a history, a purpose, a sense of community – in short, a home.