An Affluent Society?
Jul 27, 2019Posted by on
This week on Facebook: I was born on May 21 1939; lived through the WWII, saw my dad come home from it, soon to be sent to Palestine, which he talked about a lot less than WWII. I joined the RAF in 1956 and left as a civilian in 1969, from 1969 to 1995 working mostly in the civil service. I classified myself on social media as belonging to the ‘fortunate generation’, in that I never experienced a real war and did experience what is called the economic growth of the post war years. I also experienced the economic decline that I first began to notice in the 1970’s and which (due to various reasons) has continued ever since.
With time of my hands I am now of the opinion that post WWII the UK experienced not only an economic decline but also a social decline. Any notion of economic growth was based on philosophy of having an Empire, however, when world hegemony slipped away due to the rise of freedom movements, it was practically the end of British Empire. Notions of economic growth continued to exist amongst those who experienced the hedonistic lifestyle that became associate with affluence¹.
There is very little (if anything) that those living in an affluent society are prepared to forgo and very little realisation of a public administration’s reliance for funding is dependant on fiscal policy. It would seem that even the most ardent environmentalists are not prepared to give up their affluence to save the world. A social welfare programme is now an integral fiscal policy of most developed countries, with the ever increasing fiscal demands made by it consuming a greater percentage of economic growth.
The “affluent society” was still emerging from rationing and inclined to go overboard in its eagerness for “mod cons”. (1)
Such thinking drew on the New Left’s critique on affluence: rising prosperity was not itself a problem, so long as workers did not become slaves to ‘false’ wants and the culture of ‘display’. (2)
But affluence was eroding the old bastions of segregation and the young couples of a new generation expected to spend far more time together. (3)
But as the economy accelerated, mass culture was suddenly inundated with images of affluence. (4)
Hedonistic, egalitarian, culturally rich and, above all, optimistic, the 1990s were the greatest decade of the past 50 years, says Alex Proud. (5)
That society as it is commonly know today began to change following WWII, it was probably Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven remarking that There is no such thing as society that prompted the media frenzy that continues today. Yet society did change quite dramatically during the Thatcher era, the consequences of which formed that society now lived in².
The UK’s concept of the USA, its people and its politics — prior to the advent of social media — came from Hollywood and its very politically biased views. Written before the article included above on the USA, ‘The Common People’ (4), Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith gets at the heart of what economic security means in The Affluent Society³.
1. The birth of the affluent society: Class snobbery, while ubiquitous, was also treacherous territory. Writing to Dick Crossman, the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell expressed his private concern about the bumptiousness displayed by their younger colleagues Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland: “We, as middle-class Socialists, have got to have a profound humility . . . Now that’s all right for us in the upper middle class, but Tony and Roy are not upper, and I sometimes think they don’t have a proper humility to ordinary working people.” The whiff of Wykehamist noblesse oblige here may be comical, but Crosland already envisaged the destruction of the grammar schools, which in the late 1950s were providing ladders for the lads from the new council estates to climb, while Jenkins’s attitude to his Welsh compatriots is summed up by Nye Bevan’s response to the comment that Jenkins was lazy: “Lazy? Lazy? How can a boy from Abersychan who acquired an accent like that be lazy?”
2. I’ve been working like a dog — revisiting a 1960s study of the working class: “Unless workers presented themselves as aspiring Hyacinth Buckets, with her la-di-da airs and graces, they were unlikely to be labelled bourgeois – and for reasons that probably have more to do with gender than class, there were very few Hyacinth Buckets among Luton’s factory workers in the early 1960s. But there were plenty of men who found redemption in home life even if, being interviewed by Cambridge academics, few chose to give it the sexualised twist of Lennon’s lyrics – ‘But when I get home to you I find the things that you do/Will make me feel alright’.”
3. The Seventies — The decade when men stopped being men: It was a sentiment shared by many in the Seventies, as the role of women changed. This was an era epitomised by Germaine Greer’s seminal feminist work The Female Eunuch (1970) and by counter-cultural women’s magazine Spare Rib (1973). But when we look back at the flood of women into the workplace and the rise of feminism in this period, what we often forget is that this social upheaval had enormous implications for men, too. The days when a husband could confidently expect automatic deference and respect from his wife were over. Men were suddenly being challenged — everywhere.
4. Common People — Class And The 80s: Blotchy and imperfect of a reflection of us as it may be, mass media mirrors our desires. And as the Baby Boomers sloughed disco duds and snipped locks of graying hippie hair, they wanted to know, once more, who they were and what they were becoming. They couldn’t just become their parents. The Boomers were nothing like their mothers and fathers. They had had the Pill; they had seen men walk on the moon; there had been Watergate and oil cartels and Vietnam. So much had happened to them. So much had changed. And then there was this other peculiar thing happening to them. All of a sudden, not all, but many Baby Boomers — especially the brainier, college-educated ones who hadn’t gone off to Vietnam or scorched their brains with angel dust and laboratory acid — were getting rich. How could you possibly integrate all of this knowledge into a normal, upwardly mobile lifestyle? They didn’t know what to do. So someone had to tell them.
5. Why the Nineties were just as good as the Sixties: It wasn’t just about hedonism, though. There was genuine optimism in the air. The Eastern Bloc had crumbled and the good guys had won. This meant a sudden influx of exciting, exotic new people. I briefly acquired a Russian supermodel girlfriend. That a supermodel would date me, however briefly, makes me realise just how grim the former Soviet Union must have been. But it also points to a nice thing about Nineties London. It was strangely egalitarian. We didn’t yet have a city where the super-rich had turned the best bits into a socially cleansed VIP section. You went to bars and clubs and pubs and you met genuinely famous people. I lose count of the number celebrities and movers and shakers (Ollie Reed stands out for some reason) I bumped into, usually half cut, in the Nineties. It was a bit like being a drunk Forrest Gump.
Referenced Articles Books & Definitions:
- A bold text subscript above and preceding a title below (¹·²·³), refers to a book, pdf, podcast, video, slide show and a download url that is usually free.
- Brackets containing a number e.g. (1) reference a particular included article (1-5).
- A link (url), which usually includes the title, are to an included source.
- The intended context of words, idioms, phrases, have their links in italics.
- A long read url* (when used below) is followed by a superscript asterisk.
- Occasionally Open University (OU) free courses are cited.
- JSTOR lets you set up a free account allowing you to have 6 (interchangeable) books stored that you can read online.
¹Affluent Society? Britain’s Postwar Golden Age Revisited (url/book review): Understanding that the politics of affluence could dilute the class-based political language and policies of Labour and the Democrats, the Conservative and Republican parties encouraged growth and the facade of boom that led to re-election. And in a comparative approach to affluence and national identity, Richard Weight provides an insightful account of how stereotypes of Johnny Foreigner — the deferential but calculating Germans, the sadistic yet resourceful Japanese and the confident if rather naive Americans — were intrinsic to the familiar feeling in Britain of having won the war but lost the peace.
²How did the 80s change us? (urls): The 1980s was the most controversial decade in modern British history. It was the decade of the Falklands War and the miners’ strike, the expansion of the City, the great council-house sell-off and the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher.
³The Affluent Society (url/download): With customary clarity, eloquence, and humour, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith gets at the heart of what economic security means in The Affluent Society. Warning against individual and societal complacence about economic inequity, he offers an economic model for investing in public wealth that challenges “conventional wisdom” (a phrase he coined that has since entered our vernacular) about the long-term value of a production-based economy and the true nature of poverty. Both politically divisive and remarkably prescient, The Affluent Society is as relevant today on the question of wealth in America as it was in 1958.