04 May, 2007

What Today's Generation Won't Get From Global Capitalism

Wifie often says that she and I have lived through a Golden Age. In case you didn't notice, she's referring to the period from about the end of World War 2 to the end of the 1970s. This was a time - in Europe at least - during which the Welfare State was built and flourished. In the UK, where we lived during the Golden Age, there was free education for everyone - including university education - and it was first class at all levels. There was free health-care for everyone - no-one need pay for GPs, medicines, dentists, hospitals, X-rays, blood tests, spectacles, or specialist consultants - all of this also first class. There was generous support for the unemployed, for pensioners and for invalids. Town councils built huge numbers of low-rent, good-quality houses and ran excellent bus services. The State owned all the infrastructure - gas, electricity, telephones, the roads, water, and the railways - and it was pretty well-run and affordable. There was even a decent legal aid system so that not only rich people had access to the law.

Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Well, it really did happen. Although my father was a docker and earned a miserably low wage, my family lived in a comfortable, new, three-bedroomed house. I went to decent, well-equipped schools. When I went to university, my fees were paid and I was given a grant on which to live. I did a degree and studied for a PhD at the State's expense. Without the Welfare State, I would have grown up in a slum and finished school at 16. It was an amazing act of social welfare, for which I will always be grateful. In my very large family, the generation before me were almost all casual labourers with a handful of semi-skilled labourers. In my generation, a few of us rose to 'professional' status. In the generation after me, university education is the norm and a crop of lawyers, scientists and engineers is expected. It would not have happened without the Welfare State and the way even people without money were treated as valuable human beings.

But that kind of caring society could not survive the forces of capitalism. Slowly, at first, and then with increasing speed and ferocity, the former elite reasserted itself and clawed back its privileges. A real class war was fought in the Reagan and Thatcher years, and the poor people lost. (Maggie Thatcher became Prime Minister on 4th May 1979 by the way – 28 years ago today.) Since then, the social reforms that were made in the '40s, '50s and '60s have steadily been dismantled, paving the way for today's global capitalism and laissez-faire economics. The Welfare State hasn't quite gone. Some vestiges still remain. Healthcare isn't free now but people are still protected from it's full cost. The same is true for education, although standards in the state-run sector are dropping all the time. Legal aid has almost gone, though, and not much of our infrastructure is in government hands anymore. Bus and train services have been whittled away, and power, telecoms and water supplies are unreliable and increasingly costly.

The fact that I can now afford private health care for myself and my immediate family is offset by the fact that most people cannot. The fact that I own my own home is offset by the fact that there is almost no low-cost rental property for those who need it. The fact that I have a car is offset by the fact that there is no bus or train service within 15 km of where I live. The only reason that I, a poor boy from a poor family, now have the money to look after myself and my family, is that the housing, healthcare and education I got when I needed it, were provided by the State. Without them, people like me in the current generation won't be able to raise themselves out of poverty.

Wifie's right: it was a Golden Age. And I'm surprised that more people don't want it back.

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