Towards the end of the film ‘Les Miserables’ there is a very moving scene in which the young radical students who rose in revolt against the government are shot by the police. The revolt is doomed to failure as they fail to gain the support of the wider Parisian population and the authorities are easily able to suppress this uprising. This is the popular perception of revolution, that is a futile uprising by the young against the tyranny of the old order one that is easily put down by the authorities. Any history of the 19th century consists of a long list of failed uprising, the Poles in particular participated in number of uprisings against their Russian overlords, all of which ended in its participants being imprisoned or going into exile. However this is a misunderstanding of the nature of revolution, the successful ones usually don’t involve violence and generally take place over a number of years. What I mean by revolution is the shift in people’s attitudes that can be best described as a sea change in their behaviour and attitudes.
Revolution of the Right
Often this type of revolution is initiated by the right, as instanced by the successful revolution by the right against the welfare state. If Britain is taken as an example when the welfare state was introduced it was seen as a bulwark against the twin evils of sickness and unemployment. It was seen as an individual right that the state should provide an income for those unemployed through sickness or bad luck. The political right in Britain never really concealed their dislike of the welfare state principally because they saw it as an injustice, that the rich were expected to pay more tax than the poor to fund welfare programmes. They ceaselessly campaigned against the iniquities of the welfare state. Now they have practically succeeded, welfare payments are now seem as benefits to a group of undesirables the work shy. The emphasis now is on reducing benefits and targeting the claimants with sanctions to force them into work. Only last week the welfare minister announced to general a claim that he would target the disabled forcing more of them to take work, through making it harder to claim benefits and by reducing individual welfare payments. The assumption is that by making life progressively more difficult for them, they will take up employment to avoid the unpleasantness of life on benefit. As one who has worked with disabled people, I can only see this minister as an uncaring monster largely lacking the human traits of empathy and compassion.
Now the philosophies of such as Ayn Rand are the guides to life for the decision makers in society. While it may seem harsh to suggest that a writer who would welcome the death by starvation of hundreds of the useless poor provides the distorting ideological glass through which these people view the world, evidence suggests otherwise. Recently our rulers withdrew the Royal Navy from the task of rescuing refugees adrift in the Mediterranean, on the grounds that by making the journey across the sea safe it would encourage migrants to attempt the crossing. The unspoken assumption was that if some refugees drowned at sea it would discourage the rest from trying to enter Europe. This policy was not questioned by any of the opposition leaders, so demonstrating that the spirit of Ayn Rand flows through our the veins of all our political leaders. Now it is ‘cool’ to be uncaring, as this is regarded as hard nosed realism, as distinct from the naive sensitivity of the political left.
Revolutions of the Left
Unlike revolutions of the right which are initiated at the top of society, revolutions of the left are initiated by those in the middle and lower orders of society. This means that they are inevitably doomed to failure as the top orders of society command the instruments of power. The legal system can be directed against the insurgents. Imprisonment being but one of the means of suppressing such people. Yet such revolutions are not futile even if they end in defeat. They can despite their repeated failures change the nature of society and ultimately achieve their desired ends. This can be demonstrated through a metaphor, these revolutionary movements are as a wave from the sea smashing against a rock, the rock at first repulses the wave leaving it to fall back into the sea, yet the constant pounding sea will eventually destroy the rock. Similarly while the revolutionary movements of the left are initially doomed to failure, they can through insurgencies change society. By revolutionary surges I don’t mean violent revolution, so much as oppositional social movements which constantly rise and fall, but which eventually undermine the existing social structure, which leads to change.
The sea metaphor has further applications. British society at present resembles a placid sea but which under the surface there are currents swirling which can change the nature of the sea. One such current which has surfaced in the insurgency which threatens the Labour party. In the current elections to find a new leader it is the outsider Jeremy Corbyn who seems to have an unassailable lead in the contest. He represents a very different politics to that of the main stream party, a politics well to the left of the current parliamentary consensus. It is quite likely if elected his term as leader will be brief, as the parliamentary party will find means of rejecting a leader they don’t want. However he is representative of a much larger social movement, a left insurgency that rejects the harsh austerity programmes endorsed by the parliamentary party. This current which is sweeping through the party will change it whatever happens in the leadership contest. There are other similar examples of insurgency in Europe such Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. Whether these individual insurgencies succeed or fail, what matters is that the initial process of undermining the unequal social order has begun.
Then there is in the USA the ‘Fast Food Forward’ campaign whose aim is to secure a national minimum wage of $15 an hour, if it succeeds it will transform US society and economy, it is yet another insurgent movement. What these movements have in common is that they form outside the political system, as that system is constructed so as to prevent change, rather than facilitate it. Change of this significance will only take place in response to change from outside the political process. The established political process is dominated by the dogmatists who believe that the existing social and economic order is the the best possible one as it is founded on the universal truth of the free market. Politicians believe their only role is to implement changes to make the market system work more effectively, keep things as they are and if necessary repress those movements campaigning for change.
The economics of change and revolution
Society comprises of competing social groups with conflicting claims on its wealth. Rather than stable social order organised around one universal organising principle that of the free market, it is a kaleidoscope of competing different groups all wanting very different orderings of the social system and its wealth. Society at best is the ring in which these groups compete, but according to rules of the competition. Violence for example as a means of effecting change is ruled out. However if the dominant group refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the competing groups and tries to suppress them, violence will be resorted to as the social order or the rules of co-existence have been destroyed by the dominant social group.
Economics to have any relevance must be a dynamic subject one that can accept change, not a subject that believes that it has found the holy grail of social existence in the free market. It must recognise that the society of today can be very different from that of yesterday and so should accommodate that change. Economics cannot be a subject of universal truths, but one of partial truths, it must establish which of those truths in its current content list can be used in the study of different societies. A modest subject that seeks to find truths in very different economic and social systems, rather than have a universal blue print to which all societies and economic systems must conform.