All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows’

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows’

Photographs of anonymous female workers iron works Tredegar 1860s

Photographs of anonymous female workers at Tredegar iron works in the 1860s

From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and
its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.
– Alexis De Tocqueville on Manchester, 1835

The 1851 census revealed the full extent of the social and economic revolution that had swept through Britain in the previous half century.  Now, over half of the workforce were employed in manufacturing, mining and construction, while less than a quarter worked the land. The textile industry alone employed well over a million men and women. The number of factories, mines, metal-working complexes, mills and workshops had all multiplied, while technological innovations had vastly increased the number of machines and their capabilities. The economic and social consequences of industrial development were felt throughout the British Isles; the British had become ‘a manufacturing people’. Though these developments had not happened overnight, the most momentous had taken place within living memory. By the 1850s commentators were already describing this momentous shift as an ‘industrial revolution’.

In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air at Manchester Art Gallery, artist Jeremy Deller curates a personal journey through the Industrial Revolution, exploring its impact on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today.  The exhibition is a sprawling, quirky, surprising and hugely stimulating mix of words and images, songs and video taking in along the way: Adrian Street, a young man expected to follow his Welsh mining forebears down the pit, but who rejected that destiny to become a flamboyant androgynous international wrestler; James Sharples, a 19th century blacksmith and self-taught painter from Blackburn; Tony Iommi, the guitarist with Black Sabbath who lost his fingertips in an industrial accident; Francis Crawshay, the industrialist who commissioned portraits of his employees at his Cyfarthfa Ironworks which are probably the only oil paintings of early 19th century workers – and plenty more besides.

'Factory Children', 1814. Havell, Robert

‘Factory Children’, 1814 by Robert Havell

'The Collier', 1814. Havell, Robert

‘The Collier’, 1814 by Robert Havell

Entering the gallery, I was intrigued about what I would find.  I knew Jeremy Deller as a Turner-prize winning artist with radical left politics who had created (if that’s the word) the disturbing installation Baghdad, 5 March 2007 that now greets visitors to Imperial War Museum North.  Not long before my visit to Manchester my friend Frank had brought back from Venice for me a copy of English Magic, the souvenir booklet that accompanied Deller’s exhibition in the British Pavilion at this year’s Biennale. English Magic is haunted by the spirit of William Morris and his critique of industrialism’s impoverishment of the spirit:

We sit starving, amidst our gold
– William Morris, The Socialist Ideal (1891)

At the heart of the exhibition was a huge mural depicting William Morris rising from the Venetian lagoon and hurling aside the megayacht belonging to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

2013 Venice Biennale, Jeremy Deller's “We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold

2013 Venice Biennale: Jeremy Deller’s ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’

Now, in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Deller investigates what remains of the industrial revolution in the present, touching on aspects such as our relationship to technology and the regimentation of time. Introducing the exhibition he states:

The society we have inherited, our towns and cities, the social formations, cultural traditions, class divisions, inequalities of wealth and opportunity – all derive ultimately from the Industrial Revolution.

The exhibition is, in many ways, complementary to Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings, the book compiled first published in 1985 and the inspiration in 2012 behind Danny Boyle’s electrifying Opening Ceremony for the London Olympic Games.  Jennings’s book shares the same approach to its subject as Deller’s exhibition: gathering material from a vast array of sources to present an enthralling narrative that slowly reveals how industrialisation has shaped Britain’s national consciousness.

‘All that is solid melts into air’ is a phrase lifted from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto: it was their way of expressing capitalism’s need to constantly invent and re-invent products in order to satisfy desires superfluous to human need – so what is made one day may be disposed of in the next. Older, less materialistic ways of living and the traditions and values associated with them had to be displaced so that the forces of capitalism could be unleashed.  Deller sees the phrase, too, as ‘a metaphor for how we have gone from an industrial to a service and entertainment economy’:

Within a 20 or 30 year [period] the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations [and] there is this trauma, the inversion of order. The earth is on fire [and] there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you …. It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing.

Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far ….

Deller’s words express what lies at the heart of the exhibition: first there is the euphoric experience of radical social and economic change. Then there is the belated shock and dismay at what the revolution had brought in train:  pollution of the environment, the growth of hellish towns, the transformation of peasants into workers shackled to machines.

John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom  and Gomorrah, 1852

The exhibition is divided into six sections. The first, ‘The Industrial Sublime’, shows how contemporary artists were drawn to the terrifying beauty of the new industries.  A terrifying beauty:  around the time that John Martin painted The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the British parliament commissioned reports into living conditions in the new industrial towns.The investigators returned with devastating evidence of degradation and poverty.  Photographers (wielding the latest technology) brought back from the industrial wastelands of Wales photos of labouring women swathed in filthy rags, staring numbly into the camera.

John Martin’s painting tells us much about the anxieties of the Victorian age – as the exhibition commentary explains, Martin painted the work in 1852, when the reality of what we were doing our environment, our towns and to the labourers condemned to spend their working lives in mines and factories was beginning to sink in. As Deller puts it:

Within a 20 or 30 year [period] the Industrial Revolution just happens – there are no regulations [and] there is this trauma, the inversion of order. The earth is on fire [and] there are these hellish scenes on your doorstop. But it’s producing money for you …. It’s impressive but it’s frightening at the same time – you read accounts of people from France going to Manchester in the 1860s and they cannot believe what they are seeing.  Then there is this moment, which I find interesting, when people take stock of what has happened and realise that they have probably let things happen too quickly and things have gone too far.

But Martin was also occupied with schemes for the improvement of London, and published various pamphlets and plans dealing with the metropolitan water supply, sewerage, dock and railway systems. There’s an 1828 lithograph print here of his Plan of Hyde Park, Green Park and St. James’s, Showing the Proposed Canal, Together with Insets Depicting Views in the Parks after the Improvement has been Completed. Martin’s schemes were considered outlandish by public and Parliament alike, yet his plans in 1854 for a London Sewage and Marine company proved to be a visionary foundation for later engineers assigned to prevent any recurrence of London’s famous Great Stink of 1858.

A Kiln for Burning Coke, near Maidstone, Kent 1799 Aquatint and hand

A kiln for burning coke near Maidstone, Kent aquatint print, 1799

The lithograph A Kiln for Burning Coke, near Maidstone, Kent makes an interesting comparison with the widescreen allegorical terror of John Martin’s Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The contrast between gently glowing, tree-framed kiln and Martin’s vision of urban cataclysm mirrors the way in which industry moved from experimentation in rural backwaters into the urban hell of the new industrial towns. This mass migration of labour  meant that, by 1851, for the first time, more people lived in Britain’s cities than in the countryside and their exponentially-growing populations, coupled with increases in poverty, disease and vice gave pious Victorians good grounds for truly believing in Martin’s vision of an impending biblical apocalypse.

Philip James de Loutherbourg and William Pickett Iron Works, Colebrookdale, 1805

Philip James de Loutherbourg and William Pickett, Iron Works, Colebrookdale, 1805

The book Romantic and Picturesque Scenery of England and Wales has been left opened at a beautiful, hand-coloured engraving, Iron Works, Colebrook Dale. It’s a large format folio book, published in 1805 by William Pickett, a traveller’s guide to Great Britain that includes romantic images of industrial edifices alongside those of castles, caves and lakes. The iron works in Colebrook Dale have all the appearance of a classical ruin, fire exiting from chimneys more than a little reminiscent of classical columns bereft of their capitals.

Newman & Co, Penrhyn Slate Quarries, near Bangor, Wales, 1842

Penryhn slate quarries, Bangor, Wales, lithograph 1842

Early 19th century artists were often compelled to express their sense of awe at the scale of the new industrial enterprises.  In the image of Penrhyn Slate Quarries, near Bangor in 1842, the human figures are dwarfed by the scale of the quarry. ‘To me this is like the Welsh Grand Canyon has been produced by these slate miners,’ says Deller. ‘There was an element to the industrial revolution of great beauty and of change and people being quite impressed by it’.

salt mine, cheshire, coloured aquatint,1814

A salt mine, Cheshire, coloured aquatint, 1814

Black country

The Black Country, engraving by G Greatbach, 1869

These images are punctuated by several album covers, including those of Slade, Happy Mondays and Brian Ferry, accompanied by each band leader’s family tree printed directly onto the gallery wall, stretching back to the origins of the Industrial Revolution.Deller’s intention is to mark the decline of British heavy industry and the turning of young, working-class people (whose ancestors commonly found work in factories or mills) to popular music as a form of self-expression and sometimes employment, by forming bands such as Judas Priest, Slade and Black Sabbath.

Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington

Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington, 2012, digital C-print by Dean Shaw

Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi is the subject of Dean Shaw’s photo Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath, Donnington (found in the ‘Health and Safety will be the Death of Me’ section at the end of the exhibition).  Iommi lost his fingertips in an industrial accident in a Birmingham sheet metal factory in the 1960s before he joined Black Sabbath. This accident is credited with helping to create the distinctive Black Sabbath sound, as Iommi had to learn how to play the guitar differently from everyone else and modify its strings and tuning to suit.

Deller tracks Brian Ferry, Shaun Ryder and Noddy Holder through their family’s working history. All three hail from industrial working class backgrounds, and have become famous rock stars in a way that transcends their family lineage.

Noddy Holder was born in 1946 in Walsall and went on to be lead singer in Slade.  His family tree reveals ancestors who were variously:

millwright, shoemaker, boiler cleaner, agricultural labourer, spin filer, washerwoman, curb and chain maker, buckle filer, key stamper, buckle stamper, chainmaker, coalminer, railway carriage cleaner, ironworker, puddler, forgeman, blacksmith

His father was a window cleaner.

The family trees of Bryan Ferry reveals 19th century ancestors that included agricultural labourers, blacksmiths, a cartman, colliery labourers, farm servants and coal miners.  His father was a pit pony handler.

James Sharples, The Forge 1848

James Sharples, The Forge 1848

James Sharples (1825-92) was a self-taught English artist born at Wakefield in Yorkshire. He started work when he was ten years old as a blacksmith’s boy on the foundry floor. During his spare time he learned to read and write. His talent for drawing was discovered when chalking out designs on the foundry floor. He subsequently began to make figure and landscape drawings, and copy lithographs.

Sharples took up painting when he was eighteen. From 1848 Sharples devoted his artistic energies to designing and engraving. He ordered an engraver’s steel plate and made a press and engraving tools for himself. He started the engraving of The Forge in his spare time. It took him ten years.

Sharples was regarded as a prime example of the Victorian middle-class ideal of the self-improved working man, and features in Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, published in 1859.

Rules

Rules to be Observed – Church Street cotton mill, Preston, c 1830

The regime of the new factories is represented in Rules to be Observed – a notice that informed workers in a cotton mill in Preston that to give their notice they must do so on Saturday only, in writing and one month in advance. In  contrast, the ‘Masters have full power to discharge any person employed therein without any previous notice whatsoever’. The same notice states that workers are to be at the factory from 6 in the morning to 7.30 at night, with half an hour allowed for breakfast and one hour for dinner.  The ninth rule notes that ‘Any person taking cotton or waste into the Necessaries shall forfeit 2 shillings, 4 sixpence’ (the ‘Necessaries’ being the toilets, I guess).

Church Street Cotton Mill was the centre of the Preston Lock-Out and Strike of 1853-4, the longest and most expensive industrial conflict in the history of Preston.  In 1853 cotton workers in Lancashire began to demand that a 10-20% cut in their wages made during the 1840s should be restored. The majority of manufacturers agreed to restore half of the cuts, but some refused and 25,000 workers went on strike. The bitter struggle lasted for eight months. Engels thought the revolution would begin in Preston.

The protest was peaceful and the town supported the workers, with a weekly collection made from working people, shopkeepers and the general public. The end came when another depression in trade forced the strikers to give in and go back to work.

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman 2

One of Francis Crawshay’s Workers Portraits, 1835 by WJ Chapman

If I was forced to choose one exhibit from this mighty exhibition, I think it would be the selection that Deller has made from a series of sixteen oil paintings commissioned by Francis Crawshay of the workers at his Cyfarthfa Ironworks.  Crawshay was a progressive industrialist who, when he was managing the Hirwaun Ironworks commissioned sixteen small portraits of his employees that he hung in his office. The subjects included workers as well as managers, all depicted in working dress and with the tools of their trade. It’s a unique group of images of industrial workers, probably painted by W J Chapman, an itinerant artisan artist who worked as a sporting and animal painter.

Carpenter David Williams

WJ Chapman, portrait of carpenter David Williams

mine agent at Hirwaun, John Bryant

WJ Chapman, portrait of mine agent, John Bryant

Quarryman Thomas Francis

WJ Chapman, portrait of quarryman Thomas Francis

tinplate works at Treforest near Pontypridd. This portrait depicts its foreman, John Llewellyn

WJ Chapman, portrait of foreman, John Llewellyn

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman David Davies

 WJ Chapman, portrait of cinder filler David Davies

Francis Crawshay Workers Portraits,1835, WJ Chapman William James

WJ Chapman, portrait of roller William James

W J Chapman (c.1835-40), Thomas Euston, Lodge Keeper

W J Chapman, portrait of Thomas Euston, Lodge Keeper

The images are an astonishing revelation. No other such images of industrial workers of this period are known. Even more unusually, the names and job titles of these workers were recorded.

Just to make sure that we don’t get too sentimental or nostalgic about these lost times there’s a section that Deller has artfully labelled ‘The Shit Old Days’.  It includes a series of photographs of women who worked at Tredegar Ironworks in South Wales, taken by local photographer William Clayton. Unlike Crayshaw’s portraits, the identity of the women is unknown and the elaborate studio backdrops serve to emphasise their class while in many of the photos the women appear drained and dispirited by overwork. This was their purpose, since they were taken to highlight the impact of heavy industry on the domestic life of female labourers.

Iron Workers, Tredegar, Wales, 1865, W Clayton

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 4

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 1

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 2

women workers iron works Tredegar 1860s 3

Photographs of anonymous female workers at an iron works in Tredegar, Wales

Deller says of the images: ‘These are very early photographs of workers. I’d never seen anything like these before. I think we are lucky. By our standards they had appalling lives and those photographs are very powerful.’

Jeremy Deller with Jukebox

Jeremy Deller with Jukebox

Next I encounter a jukebox. It contains a selection of archive recordings, including the working song Down the Pit We Want to Go sung by Roy Palmer, and Drop Valves and Steam Leak on Piston, the sound of a Dee Mill Engine operating in Royton. Music provided relief from the rigours of working class life, and the second section of the exhibition, ‘Broadside Blues’, explores the broadsides, printed copies of popular songs sold in streets and pubs of the new industrial towns which could be purchased cheaply and sung at home or in the pub. The subject matter of these ‘English blues’ ranged from romance to tales of loss, home-sickness and the strange new life among the machines.  Often they were tales of hardship, an example of the latter being being Salford Bastille: ‘God keep all poor people that they may ne’er go, To do penance in Salford Bastille…’.

Stockport Viaduct, England, 1986 John Davies

Stockport Viaduct, 1986 by John Davies

The physical remnants of the Industrial Revolution are still visible in the industrial towns of the north. The striking photograph by John Davies of Stockport Viaduct shows a formidable Victorian structure that is still in use, carrying the main railway line from Manchester to London.

Mondays Salford Quays Ian Tilton

Deller has selected images that reflect a changing landscape, too.  Ian Tilton’s photographs of the Happy Mondays in 1987 picture the band on a photoshoot to promote a new album.  They have been shot alongside the Manchester Ship Canal, and one image shows them outside the new Cannon multiplex cinema at Salford Quays, reflecting the very first signs of the area’s transition to a leisure economy in which old industrial buildings and spaces have been transformed to serve new functions in a post-industrial age.

Effects of Alston Brewery, pencil drawing with red ink, c1805

Effects of Alston Brewery, pencil drawing with red ink, c1805

‘Unlike nowadays, people used to get drunk and then fight in the street’, the caption for this exhibit reads.  It’s a drawing entitled Effects of Alston Brewery and was made in the early 1800s, presumably to promote a temperance drive. ‘I just think it’s funny that someone saw fit to draw this, and I’m glad they did,’ Deller says. ‘It shows that the world hasn’t changed that much, has it? That’s a Friday night anywhere in Britain.’

JW Lowry, Thomas Robinson's power loom factory, Stockport, 1849-1850

JW Lowry, Thomas Robinson’s power loom factory, Stockport, 1849-1850

JW Lowry’s elegant drawing of Thomas Robinson’s power loom factory in Stockport in 1849-1850 is an idealised image of a cotton mill. ‘It’s a beautiful engraving’, says Deller, ‘but the women all look like Greek goddesses. They’re dressed with their hair up and with these dresses… Of course we know the reality would have been somewhat different.’ Deller has deliberately placed this image near to compares it to a 2011 photo by Ben Roberts of an Amazon warehouse (or ‘fulfilment centre’) the size of nine football pitches, with shelves stretching into the distance.

Ben Roberts, from the series Amazon Unpacked, 2011.

Ben Roberts, from the series Amazon Unpacked, 2011.

This section of the exhibition is titled ‘How’s the Enemy?’ and is concerned with the way that the industrial revolution altered conceptions of time and impacted on working class life. Time became an oppressive force in the workplace through the need to maintain a constant work rate over long working hours.  Meanwhile, leisure time shrank, disappointing in its scarcity.

Macclesfield clock

Double-dial Longcase Clock from Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield (c.1810)

Two exhibits separated by 200 years make the point about the management of our time very powerfully.  Sometime around 1810, the managers of Park Green Silk Mill, Macclesfield installed what looks like a grandfather clock but is actually a means to measure their workers’ productivity. The clock has two faces, one that kept time by normal hand-winding, the other by means of attachment to the factory’s rotating water wheel. The time kept by the latter could be compared at a glance by the efficiency-conscious managers to that of the hand-wound clock. Any shortfall had to be made up by the workforce at the end of the day.

Motorola WT4000

Near to the clock, Deller has installed a Motorola WT400 attached to a mannequin arm.  His purpose is to demonstrate that the target-driven culture of 1810 is still with us, and has even more terrifying power to control. Unlike the clock, this device is used to calculate the productivity and speed of work of an individual worker – and  warns the employee if they are not up to speed. This is the sort of device is worn that workers at Amazon fulfilment centres are required to wear.  In the same room Deller has displayed Ben Roberts’s giant photograph Amazon Fulfilment Centre, Towers Business Park, Rugeley (2013), which powerfully conveys the soulless nature of the Amazon warehouse, its vastness dwarfing the workers.

Here, too, is an exhibit commissioned as an original work by Deller: a banner bearing the text, ‘Hello, Today you have day off’, the words of a text message sent to a worker on a zero-hours contract. Deller says that in retrospect he would have liked to use this message as the overall title for the whole exhibition.

Wrestler Adrian Street and his miner father (1973)

Adrian Street with his father at the pithead of Brynmawr colliery in Wales, 1973

Adrian Street’s life reads like a Dickens novel. Born into a South Wales mining family, he briefly endured the  hardship of the pit before, at the age of 15, he escaped to find fame and fortune in London where he hung around Soho, starting out as a body-builder, before gaining fame and fortune as a wrestler.  He left the mine in 1956 to the jeers of his co-workers.  Then, in 1973, he returned to his village and posed, in the show’s most remarkable image, with miners covered in dirt from the pit. They included his own father, with whom he did not get on. In Deller’s words:

Seventeen years later he returned, prophet-like, to show the coal serfs what the future would look like in a post-industrial entertainment economy.  Whilst William Blake did not have Adrian Street in mind when he wrote Jerusalem, he might have had visions of him.

Street had become famous for his glam-rock style and for teasing his audiences’ perceptions of his sexuality. For Deller, Adrian is a character who transcended his environment through sheer will power and self-belief.  Now 73, he still wrestles.  ‘He is a phenomenon, a one off,’ says Deller, and yet he is also a symbol of people’s own ability to challenge the status quo on a very personal level:

He’s a great cipher for change. The image of him with his father is a metaphor for the changes going on in Britain. [It shows] what Britain was [and] what Britain will be: this shiny, clean, fame-based economy. We were the first country to industrialise and also the first country to de-industrialise. Adrian is like a one-man band, just doing it on his own. He and his dad had a terrible relationship. His dad was a prisoner of war of the Japanese [and] then he came back and went straight down the mines. He had been traumatised and was quite brutal with his son. So this is the image of Adrian returning to show his father, the miners, and Wales ‘this is what I’ve made of myself’. He’s a totally self-made man.

Like rock bands such as Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Happy Mondays and Slade, Adrian Street was the product of  the industrialisation and migration from rural to urban living of the early 19th century, of family trees that feature generations of miners, metal-bashers, millwrights, weavers and servants.

We may have changed in myriad ways, Deller seems to say, but the Industrial Revolution, which transformed Britain before any other country, was a traumatic event that formed and shaped our lives. We live in its shadow still.

Jeremy Deller’s video: So many ways to hurt you, the life and times of Adrian Street (excerpt)

Jeremy Deller’s video: A Prophecy For 1973

Oh dear, Oh Dear, what things you will see
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…

No government laws we shall have, it is true
There will be no Magistrates, no Bobbys in blue
To charge ‘Ten bob and costs’ when a man’s been on the spree
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…

Everyone will be rich, there will be no need to beg
Nor stump up and down with an old wooden leg
If your limbs are blown off with a bullet or breeze
The doctors will replace you new ones with ease
In One thousand nine hundred and seventy three…
Young lovers you’ll see them in dozens and crowds
Courting by moonlight on the top of the clouds…

This video, produced in collaboration with BBC Newsnight, is featured in the exhibition.  Members of the public, including those on zero hours contracts, read accounts of life and work during the industrial revolution, and a pop video is made for a Victorian futuristic broadside, A Prophecy For 1973, illustrated with home movie footage shot in a Butlins holiday camp in 1973, illustrating that the reality of 1973 was somewhat more mundane than the author of the broadside had imagined.

Watch the video (16 minutes) here.

Books

Deller has produced an excellent catalogue to accompany the exhibition which, after Manchester, travels to Nottingham, Coventry and Newcastle.  At the end of the exhibition there was a display of books drawn upon by Deller when gathering material for the show.  They included Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings and All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity by Marshall Berman, first published around 1980, and now regarded as a classic text on the subject of modernity. Berman charts the development of the modern industrial process and explores how development is portrayed in literature and other art forms.

See also

The burden of dreams

The burden of dreams

In Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, a 19th century rubber-baron obsessively drives an army of poverty-stricken Brazilians to haul a steamboat over a mountain in the Andes in order to grab the land rights to an unclaimed region in the upper reaches of the Amazon where 14 million rubber trees are located.  When it’s done he plans to build an opera house and bring his idol Caruso to perform at its opening.  Les Blank made a documentary – called  The Burden of Dreams – about Herzog’s equally insane determination to complete the film.

Herzog’s  story is a metaphor, of course – of the hubris at the core of capitalism’s insistence that nature can be wrestled into submission, and that the planet is a limitless source of commodities that can be conjured into products that fuel ever-expanding demand and economic growth.

But, I think there’s another burden that we all carry – at least those of us who fear where all this is heading, and who bought a little of what Karl Marx had set out on his stall when we were sifting the market for political certainties in our youth.  It’s this: decade after decade the exploitation, inequalities and injustice persist, yet we continue to dream that change will come.  The madness of global capitalism is a burden, but so, too, is the dream that remains unrequited.

This is all by way of a preamble to drawing attention to three articles that each, in their different ways, examine aspects of the burden.  In an excellent article in the current issue of the London Review of Books, Marx at 193, John Lanchester ponders what Marx would have made of the world today, and makes some interesting observations on what he got right – as well as identifying the ways in which capitalism has evolved that Marx did not foresee.

Lanchester begins by quoting a few choice passages from The Communist Manifesto, which Marx wrote with Engels in 1848, and which have a resounding pertinence to 21st century capitalism:

Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.

Capitalism has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.

Capitalism cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the means of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the capitalist epoch from all earlier ones. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.

In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.

Commercial crises put on trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire capitalist society. In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed.

‘It’s hard not to conclude’,  says Lanchester, ‘that Marx was extraordinarily prescient. He really did have the most astonishing insight into the nature and trajectory and direction of capitalism’.

Lanchester admits to fiddling things a bit:  Marx didn’t use the word ‘capitalism’ in these instances – for an important philosophical reason.  To do so would have implied that capitalism was one of a number of competing possible systems – and Marx didn’t believe that.  He didn’t think it was possible to move past capitalism without a fundamental overturning of the existing social, political and philosophical order.  And, as Lanchester observes, he was right: no alternative has developed. ‘Economics as a discipline has in effect become the study of capitalism’.

But Marx could not have predicted how capitalism would spawn so many different variations on the main theme:

Scandinavian welfare capitalism is very different from the state-controlled capitalism of China, which is in turn almost wholly different from the free-market, sauve-qui-peut [every man for himself] capitalism of the United States, which is again different from the nationalistic and heavily socialised capitalism of France and so on..

But there is something common to all these varieties, a characteristic that Lanchester crisply pins down in one brilliant paragraph:

We have at the moment this monstrous hybrid, state capitalism – a term which used to be a favourite of the Socialist Workers Party in describing the Soviet Union, and which only a few weeks ago was on the cover of the Economist to describe the current economic condition of most of the world. This is a parody of economic order, in which the general public bears all the risks and the financial sector takes all the rewards – an extraordinarily pure form of what used to be called ‘socialism for the rich’. But ‘socialism for the rich’ was supposed to be a joke. The truth is that it is now genuinely the way the global economy is working.

Moreover, Lanchester continues, this system of  ‘socialism for the rich’ has alarming implications for democracy:

The financial system in its current condition poses an existential threat to Western democracy far exceeding any terrorist threat. No democracy has ever been destabilised by terrorism, but if the cashpoints stopped giving out money, it would be an event on a scale that would put the currently constituted democratic states at risk of collapse. And yet governments act as if there is very little they can do about it. They have the legal power to conscript us and send us to war, but they can’t address any fundamentals of the economic order. So it looks very much as if Marx’s omission of the word ‘capitalism’, because he foresaw no alternative within the existing social order, was an instance of his crystal ball functioning with particularly high resolution.

The third and fourth sentences there seem hugely pertinent on the morning that The Guardian leads with the story that in the last three years Amazon has sold UK citizens more than £7.6bn-worth of goods without attracting any corporation tax on the profits.  As The Guardian observes, those sales have all been taken from high street stores in the UK:  in Marx’s language, just one example of the ‘constant revolutionising of production’ and the process by which ‘old-established national industries … are daily being destroyed’.

In a lengthy article, Lanchester probes which features of contemporary global capitalism fit Marx’s predictions, and which he might have been staggered to observe, could he be here today.  One passage certainly staggered me: I did not know that Foxconn, the company that manufactures, amongst a multitude of gizmos, Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad, has a huge factory (one among many) that employs 230,000 people.  Think of that: 230,000 people.  That’s more than half the population of Liverpool!

Marx foresaw the development of a proletariat who did most of the world’s work and a bourgeoisie who in effect owned the fruits of their labour.Lanchester puts this into a 21st century context:

The fact of the proletariat being in the developing world, in effect shoved out of sight of the Western bourgeoisie, does nothing to disprove that picture – an ‘external proletariat’, it’s sometimes called. Take as a case study of this process the world’s most valuable company, which at the moment is Apple. Apple’s last quarter was the most profitable of any company in history: it made $13 billion in profits on $46 billion in sales. Its bestselling products are made at factories owned by the Chinese company Foxconn. (Foxconn makes the Amazon Kindle, the Microsoft Xbox, the Sony PS3, and hundreds of other products with other companies’ names on the front – it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that it makes every electronic device in the world.) The company’s starting pay is $2 an hour, the workers live in dormitories of six or eight beds for which they are charged rent of $16 a month, their factory in Chengdu, where the iPad is made, runs 24 hours a day, employs 120,000 people – think about that, a factory the size of Exeter – and isn’t even Foxconn’s biggest plant: that’s in Shenzhen and employs 230,000 people, who work 12 hours a day, six days a week.

So far so good as far as Marxist prediction goes.  But, as Lanchester wryly observes:

…there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat. There’s nothing even close. The proletariat is queuing to get into Foxconn, not to organise strikes there…

Lanchester suggests that this is because in the modern world our selves are far more fragmented than Marx’s class analysis allowed for:

Marx … talked about people, indeed classes, as being divided into workers and owners of the means of production, and he made some allowance for the fact that we are ‘bearers’ of these roles, different aspects of which might be in play at different times, with the result that a proletarian may find himself competing against other proletarians even though their class interests are aligned. The fact is that in the modern world our selves are far more fragmented and contradictory than that. Many workers have pensions invested in companies whose route to profit lies in cutting to a minimum the number of workers they employ; one of the things that led to the credit crunch was pension funds’ search for higher stable returns to pay the pension liabilities of future generations of retiring workers, so that in very many cases we had a situation in which people lost their jobs because of losses incurred in the attempt to provide future security for the same workers.

Lanchester concludes by noting that there was one fundamental thing –  critical in terms of the crisis facing the planet today – which Marx got wrong.  His philosophy was predicated on the belief that the resources of the natural world were there to be exploited by man – whether organised under capitalism or communism:

What Marx doesn’t allow for is the fact that nature’s resources are finite. He knows that there is no such thing as nature unshaped by our assumptions, but he doesn’t share our contemporary awareness that nature can run out. This is the kind of thing which is sometimes called ironic, but is closer to tragedy, and at its heart is the fact that the productive, expansionist, resource-consuming power of capitalism is so great that it is not sustainable at a planetary level. The whole world wants to have a First World bourgeois lifestyle, and the whole world can see what that looks like by glancing at a television set, but the world can’t have it, because we will burn through its resources before we get there. Capitalism’s greatest crisis is upon us, and it is predicated on the unavoidable fact that nature is finite.

Will capitalism succeed in evolving into some new form that deflects the seemingly inevitable crisis of global warming, or do we need some entirely different social and economic order?  The irony for Lanchester is that this new order might be quite like the one Marx imagined, even if  the route to reaching it is not what he predicted.

When Marx said that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction he wasn’t talking about climate change or resource wars. If we feel a natural gloom and despondency at the prospect of the difficulties ahead, we should also take comfort in the fact of our imaginative adaptability and the ingenuity which has brought us so far so fast – so far, so fast, that we now need to slow down, and don’t quite know how. As Marx wrote, towards the end of the first volume of Capital, ‘man is distinguished from all other animals by the limitless and flexible nature of his needs.’ Limitless needs we see all around us and they’ve brought us to where we are, but we’re going to have to work on the flexible part.

While Lanchester’s view is a widescreen one, Aditya Chakrabortty, in Why do bankers get to decide who pays for the mess Europe is in?, in The Guardian, zooms in on part of the detail.  In a revealing piece, he describes how Charles Dallara and Josef Ackermann, two of the most senior bankers in the world, have played a key role in the euro negotiations that imposed strict terms on Greece to avoid default.  ,

Chakrabortty’s article reveals the hidden power that subverts democracy.  Dallara served in the Treasury under Ronald Reagan, before moving on to Wall Street, while Ackermann is chief executive of Deutsche Bank. But their presence at the negotiations was as representatives of the International Institute for Finance.  Chakrabortty continues:

The IIF is a lobby group for 450 of the biggest banks in the world, with members including Barclays, RBS and Lloyds. Dallara and Ackermann and their colleagues were present throughout those euro summits, and enjoyed rare and astounding access to European heads of state and other policy-makers. EU and IMF officials consulted the bankers on how much Greece should pay, Europe’s commissioner for economic affairs Olli Rehn shared conference calls with them. […]

Across Greece, there were massive, repeated protests about the enormous spending cuts that citizens would suffer by paying off Goldman Sachs and the rest. And there was a growing movement in Greece and Portugal and France, among other countries, questioning the legitimacy of some of these loans.

None of these voters, none of these opinions got even a fraction of the consideration, let alone the face time, that was extended to Dallara and Ackermann. …These were summits settling how much misery would be imposed on the Greek people – and no trade unions or civil society groups got a say in them. “The only key players in those meetings were European governments and the bankers,

Chakrabortty’s conclusion is devastating:

So the bankers whose excesses helped land Europe in this mess then get to sit round the big EU table, like any other government, and decide who should pay for it. And the answer, unsurprisingly, is: not them. The bigger question is: why finance has been granted such power? In a forthcoming paper entitled Deep Stall, the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change gives one compelling reason: because so many countries across Europe are, through both their public and private sectors, so dependent on financiers in other countries for credit….The tale of the IIF and how it got such a powerful say on the fate of ordinary Greeks is really a chapter in a much bigger story of how governments across the western world got swallowed up by their finance industries.

Finally, James Meek, in a polemic entitled Human Revenue Stream posted on the London Review of Books blog makes some pertinent points about whose interests are really served by the increasing pace of privatisation of public services:

The privatisations are joining up. First it was gas. Then telecoms, oil, electricity, public housing, water, the railways, the airports. There are moves afoot to obliterate the concept of the council house; NHS hospitals are to be privately run, built and managed; now David Cameron wants to get private companies and foreign governments to ‘invest’ in Britain’s roads. What does it all mean? The episodic character of privatisation – one sector being sold, then a pause, then another – has hidden a meta-privatisation that’s passed the halfway point. The essential public good that Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now Cameron sell is not power stations, or trains, or hospitals. It’s the public itself. It’s us.

What Meek means by that last statement is that the commodity that makes utilities such as water and roads and airports valuable to an investor, is that we have no choice but to use them:

We have no choice but to pay the price the tollkeepers charge. We are a human revenue stream; we are being made tenants in our own land, defined by the string of private fees we pay to exist here.

This process is not obvious because the supposed benefits of privatisation are sold in a ‘hypnotically familiar’ way.

First, the denigration of the existing service, as if a universally accepted truth is being voiced: the schools/hospitals/roads are crumbling/failing/ second-class. Then, the rejection of government responsibility: we’ve no money/bureaucrats are incompetent. Finally, the solution: private investment.

So investment comes, and ‘things get shinier’; old sewers and power stations are replaced.  If these private companies weren’t doing it, surely we’d need to pay higher taxes instead? Meek puts his finger on something that should be obvious:

The truth is that we already do pay higher taxes. They just aren’t called taxes. Our water supply system is being upgraded because of a huge water tax increase. But it isn’t called that. It’s called ‘the water bill’. Water bills have gone up by nearly twice as much as inflation since privatisation. We pay a rail tax: it’s called ‘fare increases’. We pay an energy tax in the form of higher electricity bills, and so on.

And so global capitalism continues on its path of unrestrained growth, draining down the planet’s finite resources, whilst at the same time hollowing out public service and democratic processes.  Meanwhile people struggle onwards bearing the burden of their dreams.

I stood upon the platform
And waited for the train
The first stop was redemption
And the whistle called my name

I stood among the faithful
And raised my banner high
I held my breath with wonder
In the cold October night

They showed me on the TV
Above the ivy and the brick
My face glowed with salvation
But the light was playing tricks

And in the tomb like silence
I walked with my head down
Another broken spirit
In a broken-hearted town

God help us all
God help us all
God help us all
God help us all, we’re sufferin’
God help us all, we’re lost
God help us all, we’re wanderin’
With no future and no hope
God help us all, we’re sick
Of cryin’ all these tears
God help us all
‘Cause we are all that we feared

– ‘God help us all’, Tom Morello