Politics Runs on the Tramlines of Social Structures

An astonishing archive piece in the summer edition of The New Statesman (28th July – 8th August, 2013) in the form of an article written by DH Lawrence in 1928 entitled “A Letter from Germany”. Based on some travels he made in that benighted country as it reeled from the damage of the First World War, and the twin catastrophes of the hyper-inflation of the early 20s (“money becomes insane, and people with it”) and then the start of years of painful austerity (“economy, economy, economy that too becomes an insanity”), these two follies presaging the even greater psychopathology that was to come.

Lawrence’s letter is superhumanly prescient and filled with foreboding; in 1928 he has “something has happened which has not yet eventuated. The old spell of the old world has broken, and the old, bristling, savage spirit has set in” and even darker  “..not that the people are actually planning or plotting or preparing. I don’t believe it for a minute. But something has happened to the human soul, beyond all help…”  To the human soul beyond all help, Lawrence is eloquent and yet, amid his despair he able to sense something beyond the proximate mechanisms (austerity, political hatred, impoverishment) and points us to the underlying  breach and the consequential reversion to an atavism has taken place.

He says “the old flow, the old adherence is ruptured. And a still older flow has set in” and look at this for clairvoyance “…away from the polarity of civilized Christian Europe. This, it seems to me, has already happened. And it is a happening of far more profound import that any actual event. It is the father of the next phase of events.”  And if that isn’t startling brilliant enough then “there is a sense of danger. It is not the people. They don’t seem dangerous. Out of the very air comes a sense of danger, a queer, bristling feeling of uncanny danger”

Of course, part of this is the famous folk memory of trauma which both under girds the bi-partisan commitment to the current German welfare state and the right’s refusal to countenance any inflation risk inherent in monetising the Euro zone debt.   But Lawrence records that the damage wasn’t just to the social condition but to the social structure itself “but it feels as if, virtually, it were gone. The last two years have done it. The hope in peace-and-production is broken.”

The social anthropologist Fiske pointed out in his landmark Structures of Social Life (1991) that we only relate to everyone else in four ways:

1 They are either kin or a lover with whom we are genuinely prepared to share with unselfishly and this leads to Communal Sharing (CS)

2. We do what we are told by charismatic or legal or contracted authority.  We instruct others because of our dominance over them in a social hierarchy.  This is Authority Ranking (AR)

3. They are a friend or colleague or acquaintance or neighbour and we interact with them on an “I scratch your back and you scratch mine basis” this is basis of Equality Matching (EM)

4. Lastly you interact with someone on the basis of a contract.  All market relations are here as well as civil contracts such as between the local Council and the council taxpayers.  This contract he calls MP for market pricing so we have four neat distinctions.

Traditional societies where we lived for 200,000 years are shaped by CS and AR relations, and this illustrates three key points of Fiske’s, firstly, that CS and AR  have deep rich salience in our psychology, stronger then EM and MP which did exist back then but in weaker form ; all four however are deeply cognitively instantiated.  The second point is that there is a tendency to venerate or despise these social structures as they all contain virtues and vices as anyone familiar with the literature on traditional societies will attest, or anyone who has any knowledge of early 21st market relations (MP).  Good and bad, moral purpose, moral turpitude is in each social relation. His third point is that these social structures are the cognitive superstructure on which much modern phenomenon are built – the liberal revolution of the 18th century is Equality Matching (EM) – my vote is the same as yours, the growth of capitalism in our capacity to contract with strangers (MP).  A consequence of this last point politics references the four structures in profound and often wholly unconscious ways, and politics would be richer if this fact was more widely appreciated.

Lawrence’s reference to the “hope in peace-and-production is broken” is an acute perception of the civilising structures of Market Pricing (MP), the contracts which exist between people as economic actors and citizens being destroyed, and in Germany’s  case in the 1920s, in a particularly desperate way, with both the bourgeoisie and the workers in parallel despair.  This destruction of Market Pricing (MP) as a social structure “the move away from western Europe civilisation” (Lawrence) accompanied the discrediting of the democratic system which resides in the cognitive structures as Equality Matching (EM). Democracy was undermined by the consecutive discrediting of the governing forms of monarchism, militarism and then democracy accompanied by hyper-inflation and then incoherent political fragmentation and turmoil.

At the same time another totalitarianism destroyed Equality Matching (EM) and Market Pricing (MP) social structures as matter of principle and earnest policy. Attempting to return the people to the “idyll” of Communal Sharing (CS) required the world’s greatest ever structure of Authority Ranking (AR): the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and it millions of security staff.  The two great totalitarianisms of the 20th century, Fascism and Communism used the same two social structures Communal Sharing (CS) and Authority Ranking (AR) but in different ways with the Nazis (national socialists) conceiving of the commune as the nation for which sacrifice is required and the communists required sacrifice for the workers collective, usually, as it happened, by the workers.

These social structures as outlined by Fiske remain the tramlines on which all our politics run, they are seen at their most stark at the extremes but the undertow of CS  as an ideal is still the cognitive bedrock of most democratic left politics but made sensible by the equal commitment to EM and a grudging acceptance of MP.  Modern Conservatives reference and venerate MP social relations as a moral basis for politics which is strengthened by a commitment to EM and a weak reference to CS.  When Mrs Thatcher said that there is no such thing as society she was, with her customary aggression and disagreeableness, besetting the social structure of CS which she felt compared badly with the moral probity inherent in contract or Market Pricing social structures.  For Thatcher MP is “represented in the ideology of absolute freedom of rational choice, together with the sanctity of voluntarily negotiated contracts or promises “, that’s morality, CS, for her simply wasn’t at the (moral) races.

The entire political landscape is composed of references to these Fiskian social structures.  The difference between New Labour and old Labour?  New Labour references CS, EM and MP whereas traditional social democracy references CS and EM.  Both repudiate AR.  UKIP doesn’t, UKIP is CS and AR and some EM but is weak on MP.  Although if you want a left which does reference AR you can still go to Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela with CS and AR, no EM and little or no MP.  What of the CDU/CSU in modern Germany – strong EM, CS and weak MP, so weak in that a minor party the Free Democrats colonises that space on the right with its sole dedication to MP.  Parties which colonise only one social structure tend to be weak.  The UK Liberal Party venerated EM above all but when it merged with the SDP its political appeal widen by adding CS and some MP. The French Communist Party only references CS and hides the AR requirement that is required to deliver strong CS in an industrial country.  When the German SPD in power operated labour market reform in the early 2000s to the enduring benefit of all, it lost out on the left to Lafontaine’s new Party repudiating MP and re-referencing CS and EM strongly.

The new Labour government lost millions of votes to Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats as it attacked the New Labour MP policies (recall that MP ought to be called contract) of welfare and public sector reform as well as its pro-market bias.  In government, in part as a consequence of this MP repudiation, the Liberal Democrats now pick up and run with MP policies whereas Labour in opposition demands “one nation” and a good society (CS) and doing politics differently (EM).

Fiskian social structures are the emotional tracks upon which the trains of politics run shaping all discourse and the selection of individual policies.  Take the critical issue of European wide austerity as promulgated by the dominant right wing governments in Europe.  Why do Conservatives believe that debt is worse than recession? What is going on emotionally when debt is thought to be worse than economic decline?  Could it be that they are using the wrong social structure?  Debt is a problem (and it is a real problem) of contract and sits within the MP structure but if you conceptualise debt as a problem in CS then it is an excess of obligation.  In the 200 millennia when people lived in CS there was no economic growth but there was obligation to kith and kin, and a certain amount of this was necessary but an excess of this is dangerous and deceitful. It was morally wrong then and reputation diminishing  to take on obligations that you cannot fulfil.  Conservatives are applying CS thinking to an MP problem. Remember that when you hear the head of the ECB talking.

Using the wrong social structure reference can confuse and confound at the level of policy: take the UK welfare debate with both pro and anti-reformers both positioning themselves as the champions of fairness.  For the coalition the Household Benefits Cap is about fairness as proportionality, it is simply unfair that some households receive from the State more than many others in work do.  But this concept of fairness is rooted in the social structure of Equality Matching however, opponents of the Household Benefit Cap insist that needs are needs and they should be met.  Here welfare reform opponents are referencing the Communal Sharing social structure.  The political tower of Babel gets higher and higher upon the ignorance of emotional attachment to referenced social structures.

The miracle of Lawrence’s German letter prescience is that he saw beyond the proximate causes to the ultimate cause sensing the loss of MP and EM in German society and the reversion to earlier models.  Famously, in that moment when “ the soul went beyond all help” – the accession of Hitler to power in 1933, in the last free parliamentary session the leader of the leader of the Social Democrats, Otto Wels said “At this historic hour, we the German Social Democrats pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and Socialism… You can take our lives and our freedom, but you cannot take our honour. We are defenceless but not honourless”  But it was too late EM and MP had died ten years earlier.

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