To have or to be? A reflection on the anti-cuts march

As this Saturday was the first in a while that I’ve had to myself, I woke up early and resolved to make a particularly special effort to spend the day doing things that make me happy. One of these is to take a walk in Hyde Park around the Serpentine, maybe with a cup of tea, as my father and I sometimes do when he visits. When I got there, however, I discovered – to my horror – that the park was completely overrun with thousands of trade unionists. After turning down some free socialist literature (and hearing some uninspiring speeches blaming the banks for everything from sour milk to the Spanish Inquisition), to my surprise Ed Miliband appeared, looking, to his credit, pretty sharp and leader-like. So I stuck around.

After his introduction, met with boos and cheers in equal measure, he began to speak – and while his speech was easily the best on offer, trade union gatherings are not exactly known for brilliant, soaring oratory. Mr. Miliband tried to break that mold. He proclaimed that the day’s protesters came “in the tradition of… the suffragettes who fought for votes for women – and won; the civil rights movement in America that fought against racism – and won; the anti-apartheid movement that fought the horror of that system – and won. The cause may be different but… we are standing on the shoulders of those who have marched and struggled for great causes in the past.” The purpose of the day, he declared, was to “preserve, protect and defend the things we value” – those “things” being, specifically: “libraries, the Citizens Advice Bureau, the community centre,” children’s centres, and public sector jobs, “the fabric of our communities.”

Like Icarus, he soared. “This is the big society,” he cried, dropping a line his speechwriter probably thought was pretty clever a couple of days ago – but it fell flat, considering that every speaker for the previous hour had said exactly the same thing, several times, in all their speeches, too. In his concluding remarks, he went for the gusto and quoted Martin Luther King, the rhetorical equivalent of playing the Sarabande from Bach’s fifth cello suite: on paper it looks straightforward enough, but if you’re a complete amateur it will be instantly apparent to anyone within earshot. Which it was. He misquoted King – the line that he attributed to him was actually King paraphrasing someone else – though to his credit, if a rug counted as a primary source document, he would have been spot-on. But never mind that. He was trying to make people feel like they were part of something special and momentous, and get some votes in the process. I’m sure he picked up a few.

Miliband’s speech contained details that we are likely to hear again in the coming months as the budget cut proposals turn to implementation. As themes, however, they are ridiculous. Libraries, children’s centres, and public servants do not form the backbone of British cultural life; nor should they, when the internet freely makes available reams of information to all and the public sector devours half of the gross national product (and since when did free childcare and healthy diet consultations for three-year-olds become a key element of the liberal state?). These things are luxuries, not defining aspects or key commitments, and when we consider that fact, Mr Miliband’s words and the cheers of his audience betray the movement’s purpose and its true motives.

It is not principles or ideas, but ‘things‘ – in Miliband’s own words – that this movement is defending. Material gain, or at least the provision of services (which is really the possession of labour and a right of access to certain common property) is its aim, and freedom – the central pillar of other epic movements from which, with unbridled arrogance, this weekend’s protest falsely claimed its heritage – was nowhere to be seen. Liberty does not enter their calculus. The emphasis, all day, was not upon who they are and what they want to become, but what they possess, what they do not want to lose and what they want to acquire; to have, not to be. Unlike the philosophers whose theories their politics both derive from and pedestrianise, this movement’s members are materialistic (though not materialist) and they have chosen, like so many before them, to try to commandeer the institutions of the state to seize power for the material gain of their class. They might succeed.

If they do, the continuation of class-warfare politics will not help us escape our predicament: if we have any hope of advancing our thinking on the welfare state beyond, as John Gray put it, “a vulgar and unreflective meliorism about the human prospect… combined with a crudely economistic conception of what social improvement consists in”, a new libertarian approach, based around free action, is required. Further expansion of the welfare state has been tried before, and each time it has failed in its objectives; moving back towards a total state will fail again, just as welfare state Britain fails us now.Remember, it slides deeper into debt each day, and continued ignorance of this fact has the potential to place the entire British project in jeopardy. “It is not from this thin gruel we can hope for sustenance”; to make progress we must transcend the polemic of class conflict and replace it with an emphasis on individual freedom and private, voluntary action.

Allow me to explain what I mean. A few hundred years ago, life was hellish by modern standards – no freedom, no middle class, no rights, no books written by Hunter S. Thompson. Illnesses we consider easily treatable killed millions. Progress was agonisingly slow: the development of new technologies was stagnant and large construction projects, such as cathedrals, took centuries to complete.

But we no longer shiver round dying hearths nor read by candlelight. We now stand tall and walk proudly down city streets, bathed in neon all the while, beneath gleaming skyscrapers that tower over us, quietly watching our civilization pass below them. We enjoy civil liberties and freedom to speak our minds, we have begun to cast aside petty prejudices and superstitions in favour of merit, reason and the scientific method; we tamed our countryside with steel and diesel and we communicate with each other at the speed of light. Distances that once took many months to traverse at great personal risk we now cross in mere hours and safely, too. Hunger in the West has been virtually eliminated. Humanity has been liberated, not by the state but by capital, and by innovations of men who acted intending “only [their] own gain, and in this, led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was not part of [their] intention” (you-know-who, 1776).

These are some of the things capital does, given free markets and 300 years.

The production of every commodity – toasters, televisions, telephones, clothing, books, medical equipment, rubber ducks – we use, every scrap of food we eat, every train, every building, every airplane, every automobile, every paved road, every skyscraper, aircraft and web-page, our entire modern world – is a monument to the unstoppable, pervasive and transformational power of free enterprise. It is this vitality, not the tired and discredited model of a bloated centralised state, which will save us from our current predicament. It is our task, at this most critical of junctures, to ensure the state follows the right path. That path is towards minimalism.

Whither the welfare state, then? John Gray put it best when he wrote that “any decent society will do what it can to alleviate the unavoidable misfortunes of human life, to enable and empower its members in coping with them and to ensure that those that cannot be avoided can nevertheless be borne with dignity and consolation”, but we should not endanger everything our forefathers have built for the sake of free childcare, or an unnecessarily large civil service. Ed Miliband told the crowds in Hyde Park: “there is an alternative.” I agree: we’ve tried the welfare state for seventy years, it isn’t working, and it never has. There is an alternative. Let’s try it.