The BBC’s rediscovery of the 1970s poses a question: why has this recession not produced the sense of crisis we had in the 70s?
I ask because the numbers tell us that the economy is doing worse than it did in the 70s. Between its cyclical peak in 1973 and 1979, real GDP grew by 9.2% and real household incomes by 10.3%. With GDP in 2011 2.8% below 2007’s peak, it’s quite possible that the six years from 2007 to 2013 will see no growth at all, and it‘s vanishingly unlikely that household incomes will match the 1973-79 rate.
However, in the 1970s there was a sense of decline and even apocalypse; there was widespread talk of a crisis of democracy (pdf) and of Britain being ungovernable. So, why is there no such talk now?
From the point of view of the capitalist class, the answer is simple. The 70s crisis was not so much a crisis of GDP growth as a crisis of profits. By contrast, profit rates in this recession have held up much better than they did in the 70s. When people asked in the 1970s “is Britain governable?” what they really meant was: “is the working class controllable?”
In this sense, what is in one way a parallel between now and the 70s is also a difference. Both eras brought into doubt a dominant economic paradigm - Keynesian social democracy is the 70s and neoliberalism now. However, because neoliberalism serves the interests of capitalists in a way that Keynesianism (by the 70s) did not, there’s less of a rush among the ruling elite to look for an alternative.
But this merely raises the question. Why - given that its living standards are falling now in a way they did not in the 70s - is the working class so quiescent compared to then?
The issue here is not just political but cultural. Whereas the 70s and 80s gave us powerful images of anger and despair - punk, Joy Division, Boys from the Blackstuff - we now have, well, what?
The reason for this might be benign. Average real wages are much higher now than then, so - contrary to fears that falling off the hedonic treadmill would be painful - a squeeze on incomes hurts less. Also, unemployment hurts a family less if one partner stays in work than it does if the breadwinner loses his job.
But there might be another reason. The working class now is more atomized. I don’t just mean in the physical sense of no longer working in huge easily unionized and militized workplaces. I mean in the ideological sense. People no longer look to collective or political ways of advancing their interests but instead to individual advancement. The 2010s version of Arthur Scargill is Simon Cowell.
Which brings me to a paradox. Although our objective economic condition brings neoliberalism into question, the political and cultural response to it shows that the individualistic rejection of collectivism is still thriving.