There has been much debate recently about the introduction of childcare vouchers by the Coalition. Polly Toynbee’s evisceration of the policy, ruthlessly showing its inconsistencies and the way in which it redistributes wealth from the poorest to the comfortably-off, is an essential read; the row about George Osborne’s description of mothers who stay at home to look after their children as making “a lifestyle choice” will run and run, not least because that phrase – “lifestyle choice” – has become one of British politics’ most disreputable dog-whistles, to sit alongside “hard-working families”.
The debate has set me thinking in a rather different way – back to my own upbringing, in the halcyon days of the 1960s and the 1970s. My father was a skilled craftsman working in a productive industry that has largely disappeared – he earned a good wage, above the national average certainly, but not vastly so. It was enough to buy us as a family a comfortable existence; a nice semi-detached suburban house, a car, holidays (in the UK rather than abroad). And it was a time of optimism – as a bright boy I duly became the first member of my family to go to university, for free, supported by a grant. There were expectations that things would get better, for all of us.
Now, after decades of economic growth, the situation is different. The idea that you could buy a house in the North London suburb where I grew up on one slightly-above average income is now just laughable; for all the talk of growth and prosperity it seems to me obvious that in real terms – in the ability to buy the essentials for an anxiety-free, comfortable life with expectations of progress and improvement in your own and society’s lot – we are far poorer than we were. I remember as a child that walking to the parade of local independent shops – the greengrocer, the fishmonger – was a focus of life; today, car dependency has meant that children are loaded into cars to be dragged around out-of-town shopping centres, to shops that suck profits out of localities and are staffed by subsidised workfare cheap labour. Our fiction, as children, was full of a future in which technology would liberate us from the need for long hours and drudgery. Whatever happened to the belief that growth and technology would give us more time for life?
Nostalgia is a dangerous and ultimately reactionary emotion, but when did the idea that the need for two full-time incomes to maintain an anxious sufficiency was progress – economic or social – take root? I certainly don’t want to defend the Sixties nuclear family and all it stands for, and would want to argue instead that the fall in real incomes, the need to work more and more hours to buy the basics, actually reduced the options for both parents and made family life more difficult and more dysfunctional.
I think the more fundamental questions we need to ask are – where have the benefits of all that economic growth gone? Who has benefitted, and who has lost out? Britain, according to a recent UN report, is the most unequal society in the West and less equal than Ethiopia. Nearly all the benefits of growth in recent decades have been realised in rents (dividends, profits, land values) rather than wages.
It also makes one question whether those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s were living through a uniquely benign time in the history of capitalism, the one period since the Industrial Revolution when, briefly, inequalities did not widen and a consensus was reached which briefly allowed the real living standards of working people to improve in real terms, as a result of a unique combination of circumstances – the increasingly feral economics and politics that has characterised Western industrial nations since the 1970s less as an ideological aberration (as many critics seem to imply) than a return to business as usual. It is a big subject, and needs a far fuller examination of issues like long term trends in equality and wealth distribution in the capitalist era that there is simply not space for here. David Harvey, in his history of Neoliberalism, characterises the 1950s and 1960s as a period in history when the incomes of the wealthy were, thanks to growth, increasing sufficiently quickly for the rising real standards of working people not to be seen as a threat; a combination of crisis and a newly-0emerging intellectual self-confidence on the Right allowed wealth and power to make its move at the end of the 1970s (although the congruence of free-market economics with the more self-centred and personal aspects of the protest movements of the 1960s should not be underestimated).
This is a huge subject (and one to which I intend to return) but I think it provides important context. Sneers about “lifestyle choices” are part of the vocabulary of avoidance – a way of deflecting attention from a economic and social values that have become increasingly mainstream in the West, and are now causing the severest possible economic misery, especially on the European periphery. The reality is that for most people living under austerity capitalism, lifestyle choices in the essentials are disappearing rapidly.