This past week I listened to the series of talks given by Michael Goldfarb for Radio 3’s nightly The Essay, in which Goldfarb made the case for the dramatic events of autumn 1973 as a historical turning point. He made a convincing case in a series that reflected upon the way in which personal history intertwines with the broader history of a time, suggesting that for the generation to which he (and I) belong, and for much of the world, the events of autumn 1973 would go on to determine the unfolding pattern of the next 40 years, and the shape of the world in which we live now.
Goldfarb (by trade a historian and journalist) suggested that all of us, whether historians or not, crave a simple narrative of events, chains of causation that are obvious to all. But, he argued, sometimes it can be a complex aggregation of events that topples old structures of governance and assumptions of how society works – without clearly offering indicators of the direction in which government or society are heading. Such was the significance of events that had their origin in October 1974, but whose import only became apparent bit by bit – a pattern that can be a lot more difficult for historians to handle.
Michael Goldfarb is a journalist and broadcaster who has written for The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post and reported for public radio on conflicts from Northern Ireland to Bosnia and Iraq. He recently created a media sensation when he wrote about London’s housing crisis for the New York Times, an article reproduced a couple of Sundays ago in the Observer.
Last week his essays for Radio 3 (available for another year on iPlayer) were excellent, developing over five episodes his theory that autumn 1973 was a turning point for western society and the Middle East – though it perhaps didn’t appear so at the time. Goldfarb examined the overthrow of Allende in Chile, a dramatic stage in the Watergate crisis when it looked as if Nixon was about to overthrow the American constitution, and – most convincingly for his case – the Yom Kippur war, the Opec oil embargo and dramatic rise in world oil prices, and the spiralling inflation that resulted.
Goldfarb spoke as much about the personal as the political: of how, when he heard the news of Allende’s overthrow on September 11, 1973 he was living in London, not long out of university, getting by on occasional text-editing jobs and feeling no strong urge to do more. How, just over a month later, he heard the news of the Yom Kippur invasion Los Angeles, having crossed an ocean with an ease which, he said, is a ‘comment on the economics of the time’: cheap oil (petrol was 36c a gallon) and plentiful work (the unemployment rate was 4.6%) meant wages were rising ahead of inflation. A few weeks of work in London had bought his flight; in those days, a few weeks work ‘was a stake to the next city, the next relationship’.
This personal note struck a chord with me: in 1973, after three years working part-time as a college teacher, I decided finally it was time to look for a full-time job. In those days, and with sixties social attitudes, there had seemed no rush: jobs were there a-plenty, no need to worry. I felt no need for much money beyond what a full student grant had provided: rents were low back then, especially in Liverpool 8, and a lifestyle based on acquisition of consumer goods was still some way off.
Hardman Radio: one of the first Liverpool buses to be painted entirely as an advertisement.
Nevertheless, with the proceeds of my first month’s pay, we bought our first ‘real’ stereo system – Thorens deck, Technics amp and huge Kef Cadenza speakers – from Hardman Radio on Dale Street. Getting it home, hooking up the cables and then lowering the stylus to hear the opening heartbeat of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, released earlier that year, remains an indelible memory.
Childwall College: now the home of Hollyoaks.
I’ve still got my P60 from April 1974; it records that in that tax year I earned the fabulous sum of £1299.21 and paid £155.85 in tax. I taught British Constitution O-level to Post Office telegram boys (now there’s a lost profession!), police cadets and fire service apprentices at Childwall College of Further Education, then one of eight FE colleges in Liverpool – all controlled, as were all the schools and the Polytechnic, by Liverpool City Council. The building where I taught is now the headquarters of Phil Redmond’s Lime Pictures where Channel 4′s Hollyoaks is produced.
Something else about that first P60 of mine chimed with Michael Goldfarb’s view as we will see shortly: I paid £67.27 that year in Teachers Superannuation contributions. At 25, I hadn’t a thought in my head about retirement, but decades later I would be deeply grateful for the generous pension accrued from working in the public sector in the era before austerity.
Summer of ’73: on Skye, long hair and loons.
Goldfarb spoke of how most of us, as we live out our personal histories against the backdrop of the times, may only fleetingly glimpse their true meaning. That autumn I was listening to the Allman Brothers’ Brothers and Sisters, and Little Feat’s Dixie Chicken, meanwhile guitar-wielding Hugh, a Londoner, had arrived in Liverpool to teach alongside Rita and a motley collection of refugees from the sixties at Mabel Fletcher Technical College.
Mabel Fletcher College in 1972.
Hugh wore platform heels, sang ‘Starman’ and was passionate about Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album with its apocalyptic images of a decadent, decaying future – ‘five years, that’s all we’ve got’ – that now seem more prescient than the sun-kissed American west coast singer-songwriter stuff that was grist to my mill back then:
Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying
I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and TV’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
Atom Heart Mother on the Lakeland fells, 1974
I thought Michael Goldfarb really got to the nub of his case in his last three essays. First, he set things up by exploring the personal meaning, for a secular Jew living in LA, of the October War when Israel fought off invasion by its Arab neighbours, Egypt and Syria. This was a war that wrought fundamental changes in Israeli identity and Arab perceptions that in the long term also changed the world we live in.
Annihilation, Goldfarb said, is an extraordinary word now largely used rhetorically, usually around football – ‘we annihilated them’ – but for Jews,”it’s a word that still conveys its original meaning of the mid-16th century when the term first came into use – ‘to obliterate, reduce to nothing.'” The October war, he said, was 40 years ago:
Precisely 40 years earlier there was no Israel and most of the world’s Jews lived in Europe. Now, in 1973 there were virtually no Jews left in East and Central Europe – the life and culture of the people had been obliterated, annihilated – but Israel exists.
He quoted a New York Times article from the week of the invasion, in which the writer stated,’ there are no more doves left in Israel’:
Historians will refer to this war as a turning point in the Middle East, if only because of this definitive change of mood.
Prescient, indeed: within weeks of the war’s end, Goldfarb observed, five of Israel’s previously fragmented right-wing parties coalesced into a single group – Menachim Begin’s Likud. By 1977 Likud was in power and has ruled Israel for most of the last 40 years.
The Yom Kippur war did not permanently change life for just the combatants, it changed it for all of us. Although that wasn’t clear at the time.
Goldfarb explained how for him this was time of intense self-absorption as his relationship with a woman, with whom he planned to return to London, fell apart. He would not return to London any time soon – that plan was put paid to by the Arab oil embargo and the resultant steep rise in the price of oil that led to inflation metastasising rapidly across the west, with the UK particularly hard hit: ‘No matter how many hours I worked, I could not save enough to get back to London’.
Autumn 1973: motorists queue for petrol as the oil embargo bites.
The impact in Europe, where 40% of energy supplies came from Middle East oil, was enormous. The daily flow of oil was cut by 4 million barrels – applied overnight. On that scale, the embargo even had an impact on the US which relied on the Middle East for only 10% of its oil. In Goldfarb’s words:
A quarter-century long economic era of unprecedented prosperity came undone in a matter of weeks.
By 17 October, the tide had turned decisively against Egypt and Syria, and OPEC decided to use oil price increases as a political weapon against Israel and its allies. Israel refused to withdraw from the territories it had occupied, and the price of oil increased by 70 percent. In December, oil prices were raised another 130 percent, and a total oil embargo was imposed on the United States. Ultimately, the price of oil quadrupled, causing a major energy crisis in the United States and Europe that resulted in price rises, shortages, and rationing. Although the embargo against the United States was later lifted, oil prices never returned to the pre-1973 level. By 1980 the price of crude oil was 10 times than it had been in 1973.
Broke down, but not broke: the road to Yugoslavia, 1974.
Goldfarb is effective in pulling out the numbers that support his case: in the month after the embargo began, consumer prices shot up 0.8%, the highest jump since the start of the Korean War. US airlines raised fares by a colossal 5%. But, it was worse in Britain: at the start of the year in the US, the inflation rate had been 3.5%, by December it had already reached 8.7%, but Britain ended the year with a 9.1% inflation rate. By end of 1974, the respective figures would be 10.8% and 16%. In 1975 inflation in Britain would reach an astonishing 24.24%.
Yet 1975 was the year that Hugh drove Rita and I down to Venice and on to Yugoslavia in his Hillman
Minx Vogue (apologies, Hugh). I don’t recall we ever talked about the cost. Yet we had left behind a country reeling from the economics of the new situation, and deeply divided along class lines.
Venice 1974: no worries.
In Britain, back in 1973, as Goldfarb pointed out, energy was bought and supplied by the state (something that many of us would wish was the case today). Any decisions taken had to be made by the Conservative government led by Edward Heath. Three weeks after the embargo began, the National Union of Mineworkers – which had already tabled demands for wage increases of 22-46% in the summer – pressed its demands. Heath offered 13%, the union rejected it and imposed an overtime ban.
As energy supplies dwindled, power cuts began (I remember seeking out candles in the more old-fashioned chandlery stores on Granby street). Soon, the three day week began: ‘wartime austerity measures in peacetime’, as Goldfarb succinctly puts it.
Autumn 1973 was a turning point, Goldfarb insists. It wasn’t an instantaneous change of direction ‘like a train being shunted onto a new track; it was unique, subtle, yet definitive’. He quotes from a piece by Geoffrey Smith in the Times where he wrote: ‘Suddenly some of the most important assumptions that have gone unchallenged for the past quarter of a century and more, no longer look so secure’.
The foundations of the postwar economy, Goldfarb explains, had been swept away. in 1972 western Europe spent a collective $11bn for imported fuel; by end of 1974 it was $50bn. There was no way, he argues, for a society to distribute a rise of that scale rationally. There was no way for wages to keep up with the inflationary pressures of that increase – and they didn’t. But, he insists, it would be wrong to interpret the results of the oil shock simply in ‘spreadsheet terms’: social change, he argues, cannot be understood simply by numbers. What was happening went deep.
Goldfarb refers to an article by Anthony Smith in the New York Times that October that spoke of ‘living on two distinct levels of conciousness’:
We go about our daily business, we talk about politics, about possessions, about travel and food and football, and all the while it becomes harder to avoid the awareness that the ground upon which our society rests is shifting.
Or, in Michael Goldfarb’s words in our present now:
The shifting ground: a progressive era, with government as the honest broker and referee between business and labour was coming to an end. A conservative epoch, with unregulated markets as the ultimate arbiter of all things was beginning. The oil embargo was a category 5 hurricane.
The winter of 197 3/4: power cuts and a three-day week (The Guardian).
This is how Goldfarb tells it: As 1973 ended, the miners went on strike, and the three day week was imposed. Edward Heath called a general election asking, ‘who runs Britain?’ He lost. 18 months later he would be ousted as leader of the Conservative Party and replaced by Margaret Thatcher. When Mrs Thatcher became PM four years later, her second order of business, after weaning the economy from central planning (and causing a deeper recession in the process), was to destroy ‘the enemy within’ – the miners. After his victory in the US Presidential election of 1981, Ronald Reagan set about the same objectives.
Fallout: Margaret Thatcher secures the Conservative party leadership, February 1975.
In his final essay, Michael Goldfarb set out how the great inflation of the 1970s resulted in the progressive ideals of the generation that grew up in the era of postwar prosperity and societal consensus being challenged and swiftly overthrown, ushering in a new era of politics. As one of that generation, who came of age politically in 1968, he saw libertarian ideals commodified in a new era of economics, dedicated to free market principles, privatisation, and rolling back state expenditure and control.
He told how, following the crash of 2008, he had been required to report on growing wealth inequality. He kept coming across study after study demonstrating that wage stagnation for most Americans began in 1973.
Fact: between 1947 and 1973 household income surged 74%; since 1973 has gone up by only 10%.
He discovered that almost all economic studies of the postwar era, no matter what facet of the economy they are dealing with, use 1973 as the dividing line.
Fact: American steel production peaked in 1973.
New cars loaded for rail transport, Detroit, 1973.
Goldfarb provided a powerful illustration of his case with the story of a strike at the Chrysler car plant in Detroit in September 1973. 117,000 workers, members of United Auto Workers Union, working three shifts, seven days a week at the plant. The issue wasn’t pay – that was pretty good already – but overtime and retirement.
The workers wanted to be able to refuse overtime, and to retire after 30 years on the job with full pension and health benefits. Goldfarb continued:
The company’s concern was that if someone started on the assembly line at 18, that meant retirement at 48. A 23-year-old working the line that year, who already had 5 years towards his pension, had a life expectancy of 65. Paying pensions out for more than a decade was something the company management did not want to do.
The workers went on strike for the first time in 23 years. After 9 days, Chrysler’s management caved in. I thought Goldfarb’s observations about this were astute:
How many assumptions about the world are included in those numbers? And how different they are from the world of today. That a person would work for a single employer for 30 years. That unions were strong enough to win disputes. That an American automobile manufacturer would be selling so many cars that it needed to run three shifts a day, seven days a week. That an assembly line worker’s pay, relative to the cost of living, was good enough that he wouldn’t need to work extra hours to make ends meet. That a union, for just one auto manufacturer, would have 117,000 members: in 1973 the total membership of the UAW was close to one and a half million; today, it’s a little over 300,000.
The abandoned Packard automobile factory in Detroit.
Goldfarb asks: What caused the change? His answer: the oil embargo, quadrupling the price of oil, led to the great inflation and economies stagnated. American car manufacturers failed to respond, as foreign rivals did, producing fuel-efficient cars. Production fell, shifts were cut, and unions agreed to previously unimaginable lay-offs.
Society shifted decisively away from an era of progress – that had been heralded by Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, the time of the UAW’s founding – to an era of conservatism. But who, in the autumn of 1973, asks Goldfarb, especially those just out of university (like him and me) realised that they were living through a paradigm shift in the culture: a shift, not just of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but of expectations? We had lived through era of liberation politics – but what price principles in an age of runaway inflation?
The great population shift from Detroit and the other industrial cities was, Goldfarb argued, every bit as devastating as the migration out of the Great Plains during the dust-bowl years of the Great Depression, but with no Steinbeck to document it. Rust belt cities lost 40% of their population. Liverpool experienced the same hollowing out in the 1980s, as just about every significant manufacturing industry closed, and the docks folded.
The demolition of the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, Liverpool.
The New Deal’s social safety net started being hacked at as too expensive. In Washington, 40 years on, in Washington, they are still hacking.
A great accommodation began as left politics was transformed, reflecting the new age of conservative individualism, ‘fragmenting into single issue campaigns that fought for narrow causes that would benefit them alone’. Goldfarb concluded:
I grew up taking part in political demonstrations that changed history. As a journalist I have covered conflicts whose origins are in centuries-old history, and wars that will still be affecting history a century from now. I have also lived long enough to acquire a certain amount of ‘personal history’. My conclusion is that for all the politics and ideologies and massacres, the greatest force driving history is each individual’s realisation that they will only live this one time, and either they seek to change the world or accept it as it is. I had to accept my place in the new world created that autumn.
Another thing about history: its turning points may be fixed, but its outcome can never be established so certainly.
Grangemouth last week: ‘a textbook display of corporate power by Britain’s largest private company’.
So: where are we now, 40 years on? Let’s turn for an answer to Seumas Milne’s opinion piece in today’s Guardian. October 2013 has, Milne argues, been the month when the monopolies, City hedge funds and foreign-owned cartels made it clear that it is they who are calling the shots.
In the past week, a Swiss-based tax exile announced the closure of the Grangemouth petrochemicals plant, a crucial slice of industrial Scotland, after provoking a dispute with his workforce. Threatened with the loss of 800 jobs, they signed up for cuts in real pay and pensions. Naturally, the employer claimed to be losing money (despite having made £1.7bn last year), while the media blamed the union. In fact it was a textbook lockout and display of corporate power by Britain’s largest private company – a strategic and once publicly owned complex supplying 85% of Scotland’s petrol, left to be run on the whim of a billionaire.
Then we have the ‘big six’ cartel, which controls 98% of electricity supply, increasing prices by over 9% – while wholesale prices have risen a mere 1.7% in the past year and profit per ‘customer’ has doubled. The profitable Royal Mail has been privatised, and the country’s most successful rail service, the publicly owned east coast mainline, is about to be sold off. If that wasn’t enough, the Co-operative Bank has fallen prey to US hedge funds.
What is obvious from all of this, argues Milne, is that:
Powerful interests are driving what is by any objective measure a failed 30-year experiment – but which transfers income and wealth from workforce, public and state to the corporate sector. In the case of privatised utilities, that is the extraction of shareholder value on a vast scale from a captive public.
Echoing Goldfarb’s case concerning the transformation of left politics, Milne states:
The existing privatised utilities have failed on all counts.
The case for public ownership of basic utilities and services – including electricity, gas, water and communications infrastructure – is overwhelming. It’s also supported by a large majority of the country’s voters. But it’s taboo in the political mainstream. … Labour’s refusal to commit so far even to bring back rail franchises into public ownership as they come up for renewal – which would cost nothing – shows the problem is political, not practical. Why, you might wonder, is it acceptable to hand basic services to state-owned companies, so long as they’re owned by foreign states? The answer is because it’s a commercial relationship, not one of democratic accountability.
Privatisation is a failed and corrosive model. In Britain, it has combined with a determination to put up any asset up for sale to hollow out the country’s industrial base to disastrous effect. If Britain is to have a sustained recovery, it needs a genuinely mixed economy. The political and corporate elite have run out of excuses.
Oh, sod it: ‘Mrs Coulson, 1973’, by Tom Wood, street photographer active on Merseyside in the 1970s.
- Birth of conservative delusion: the Tea Party and right-wing insanity has its roots in the events of 1973: Michael Goldfarb’s essay on Nixon’s ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ (Salon)