Friday, 2 September 2011

Neo-Victorianism, nostalgia or revisionism

During his McTaggart lecture Google chairman Eric Schmidt joined
the growing number of people who openly romanticise the Victorian Era.
In recent years it has become a regular feature of British life to hear vague Neo-Victorian sentiments from political and economic leaders. Several prominent Conservatives have called for a return to "Victorian values", their nauseating education minister Michael Gove went as far as to claim that "I don't think there has been a better time in our history". During the annual McTaggart lecture in August 2011 the American chairman of Google advised the UK to "look back to glory days of Victorian era" during his devastating critique of contemporary British educational standards.

You would hope that in romanticising the Victorian era these people are not pining for the return of child labour, unregulated, dangerous and polluting industries, low pay, horrible working conditions, a class system built on foundations of economic discrimination, racism, sexism and homophobia. An era of disgusting and poorly sanitised slums for the masses with pockets of staggering wealth for the economic elite with a political system that disenfranchised women and all but a tiny minority of landed gentlemen.

Thanks to numerous television programmes, on the subject many people are
aware of the magnificent engineering achievements of the Victorian era,
including Brunel's magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge.
I hope what inspires people to idealise Victorian standards and values are the magnificent engineering achievements of the age, the "protestant work ethic" that powered so many world leading industries, the philanthropism of the Victorian super-rich, the pioneering introduction of many fundamental social reforms, the grandiose buildings and the national pride at being empire builders and world leaders in so many fields of human endeavour.

In my opinion this much romanticised "Great British" age stretches far beyond the lengthy reign of Queen Victoria, after all it would be absurd to think that an epoch could begin and end with the rule of one woman. To take a modern example, no matter how much they try to disguise it these days with their talk of the "big society" and "social mobility", Thatcherism is still at the heart of modern Conservative party policy more than two decades after the great witch herself was deposed.

In my opinion the beginning of the most progressive period in British history can be traced back much further than the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837. There are a number of credible origins for the narrative of this enterprising and pioneering spirit, the elimination of Catholic heterodoxy in the mid sixteenth century is one plausible starting point however I'm going to fast forward to the birth of the industrial revolution and the development of modern capitalism.

Many of the pioneering capitalist enterprises were brought about under states of overt state oppression. Followers of nonconformist religions were tolerated by the Church of England based elite, but they were barred from the establishment, barred from attending university and from working in legal professions, they were barred from sitting as MPs, prevented from trading in Corporation towns and regularly imprisoned for refusing to pay tithes to the establishment church.

Followers of many of these dissident faiths found their access to the traditional sources of wealth blocked by the state, so as persecuted minorities have done throughout the ages, they turned to their resourcefulness and their sense of community to create their own wealth. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) were amongst these early industrial pioneers, playing important roles in the development and financing of nascent technologies such as the iron casting process and steam powered factories and transportation, technologies that went on to become fundamental components of the industrial revolution.

The Quakers and many of the other non-conformist religions insisted upon conducting their business in an ethically motivated manner, meaning that they became the leading social reformers of the age. Their convictions led them to provide decent housing and less exploitative working conditions for their employees as well as pioneering the provision of workers' welfare such as education, healthcare and pensions for the communities they founded to populate their factories.

It was in the mid 19th Century that the establishment finally began to practice serious religious toleration, the English universities finally began admitting Quakers and John Dalton became the first Quaker MP in 1830. Eventually the huge social benefit of the non-conformist welfare schemes became undeniable to the socio-political elite who gradually began to use the state to provide social welfare instead of leaving it up to the personal disposition of the factory owners. One of the great pioneering social reforms enacted by government was the 1870 Universal Education Act, which came into force against a background of working class enlightenment through the provision of public libraries and countless literary and philosophical societies.

The work of pioneering social reformers like Robert Owen helped
make the Victorian era great, modern day reactionaries tend to consider
the whole topic of strategic social reform with contempt.
Religious conviction was by no means the only inspiration for social reform, the great Robert Owen of the unincorporated town of Manchester honed his egalitarian ideals alongside religious non-conformists such as the great Quaker scientist John Dalton and the Congregationalist minister Joseph Whitworth at the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, he shared egalitarian ideals with the non-conformists and used Quaker businessmen such as William Allen to fund his early business ventures but despite all of this he remained a vocal critic of organised religion until his unexpected conversion to spititualism shortly before his death.

Idealistic factory towns like Robert Owen's New Lanark factory (the site of the first infant school in Britain), the Congregationalist mill at Saltaire, Bradford and the Quaker chocolate village at Bournville, Birmingham became places of pilgrimage for the social reformers and philanthropists of their day. Visitors included royal families, intellectuals, politicians and businessmen from around the globe, who realised the virtues of compassionate capitalism and set about instigating social reform in their own nations.

Many of the hard nosed establishment capitalists utilised the advanced production techniques developed by the non-conformist pioneers to undercut them by retaining traditional disgustingly exploitative working and living conditions and refusing to providing community welfare. However the ethically driven social reformers had clearly demonstrated that grotesque exploitation was not a fundamental part of industrialisation and eventually the benefits of employing a healthy, well educated and extremely loyal workforce became indisputable.

The Victorian enlightenment saw huge rises in living standards and literacy, providing a healthy and educated workforce capable of spreading English industrialism and social reform across the globe, most notably through the construction of railway infrastructure and the establishment of English schools. The pioneering social reforms of the Victorian era were followed by the introduction of the state pension in 1909 and cumulated in the post war consensus and the provision universal healthcare with the creation of the NHS in 1946.

Even though the era was famous for it's ethical social reformers and the mass enlightenment of ordinary people, the Victorian age was tainted by huge social problems and commonplace discrimination. Disgusting levels of urban poverty were as fundamental to the great works of Charles Dickens as they were to George Orwell's 1937 sociological investigations into the terrible poverty of the industrial north during the inter-war years, "Road to Wigan Pier" written 100 years after the coronation of Queen Victoria.

The Victorian era was also tainted by brutality and discrimination, corporal punishment in schools was nearly ubiquitous, for much of Queen Victoria's reign people convicted of minor offences were deported to Australia and sodomy was a capital offence. Even after the sodomy law was repealed in 1866 famous intellectuals such as Oscar Wilde were ruthlessly persecuted for their homosexuality. In the late nineteenth Century the newly founded Metropolitan Police employed agent provocateur's and planted evidence to undermine alternative political ideologies such as socialism and anarchism.

The Victorian democratic system was skewed towards the interests of the establishment elite, with only rich landed gentlemen allowed to vote in elections until the 1867 Reform Act, even then all women and huge numbers of working class men were excluded from political participation and the economic elite were compensated with multiple votes in order to maintain their grip on power and influence.

It is not surprising that people are inclined to romanticise the Victorian era for it's world leading industries and pioneering social reforms, despite the appalling living conditions of the masses. It is important to understand what this nation has lost in order that so many of us reminisce so fondly about an era that was so badly tainted by grinding poverty, illiteracy, low life expectancy and huge economic and political inequality. The British Empire has been replaced by neoconservative interventionism and neoliberal economic control, largely done through undemocratic American based institutions. Britain's Industrial power has been destroyed by elitist contempt for all forms of manual labour and establishment fears of an empowered working class. The social reforms that began in the nineteenth Century and cumulated in the post war consensus have been eroded away by 30 unbroken years of the neoliberal slash the state and privatise everything agenda.

The reactionary neoliberals that seem to make up the bulk of the modern day Conservative party could learn a lot from the Tories of the Victorian age. Instead of opposing much needed electoral reform of an anachronistic voting system for their own political benefit, Victorian Tories brought in the 1867 Reform Act which effectively gave the vote to swathes of the working class for the first time. Instead of allowing a parasitic slumlord rentier class to openly exploit the poor, Victorian Tories introduced powers to compel owners of slum dwelling to sell to local councils. Instead of cutting investment to universities and libraries and erecting more financial barriers to higher education, Victorians gave education to the masses through the Universal Education act. Instead of calling for the deregulation of industries for the benefit of corporate interests, several Victorian Tory governments introduced Factories Acts to limit corporate exploitation of the poor. Instead of commodifying justice in order to dissuade ordinary people from seeking legal redress, Victorian Tories introduced the first legislation to compel employers to compensate employees injured on the job.

Given the glee with which some leading Tories have been using "austerity measures" to undermine and destroy social provisions it is easy to imagine reactionary Tories fantasising about a return to the Dickensian levels of inequality. A time where the rich were only constrained by their own morality and there was no social safety net, meaning the truly desperate had to rely on the charity of faith organisations or the philanthropy of the economic elite in order to avoid ending up in the workhouse. The much hyped "Big Society" seems suspiciously like the Victorian reliance on individual charity and philanthropy instead of state intervention to address poverty, low educational standards and injustice. The Tory attacks on social services, the healthcare system and government funding for charitable projects as well as the defunding of universities, libraries and the arts contrast sharply with the many Victorian Era state interventions to improve the conditions of the poor and to raise educational standards.

Modern day Tory policies of opposing electoral reform, slashing investment in scientific research and education, commodifying justice and the undoing of social reforms in the name of "austerity" seem to be the polar opposite of the progressive social and economic policies that created such vast improvements in the living conditions of the masses. This contrast creates the suspicion that the Tory motivation for their calls for a return to "Victorian values" could actually be based on the desire to see the restoration of Dickensian levels of inequality, the renewal of Britain's discriminatory class hierarchy and it's elitist education system and the reawakening of unrestrained capitalism and all of its horrors.