I am no fan, by any stretch of the imagination, of the capitalist society. In its current advanced format, it utterly dominates without us even realising it (interesting video by Zizek yesterday on this subject by the way). In its Victorian form, it dominated still, only the social ills it causes were that much closer to home. These days, the inevitable poverty, inequality and slavery of a system that encourages dirt-cheap TVs and disposable clothing outsources its negativity to a country the far side of the world. 100, 150 years ago, the slums were on our own doorsteps and in our own city centres.
I find it very interesting tracing the development of a landscape through time, the spread/sprawl of houses, the rise and fall of industry, communications networks and so on. But our landscape today is the product of a particular system, a set of values centred on economic liberty and private property, more so than topography. The few buildings remaining in the Black Country from the early Victorian era or before reflect the wealthy and privileged, like Lord Dudley’s Himley Hall, not the poor or oppressed. More examples of working class housing remain from later in the century but even then only the better examples: those that housed the poorer elements of society were shoddy, filthy and offensive to Victorians, Edwardians and the post-WW2 society, and were swept away in varying ways and with varying effects. The inter-war sprawls reflect the shock of the Great War, but also changes in society and economy – as in other parts of the world, these were unsteady times. It also demonstrates a trend towards deindustrialisation on the old model, and many a homeowner of a 1930s house in Netherton or Bilston will be aware that they sit on top of some very old mineworkings that ceased to be profitable.
The municipal building after WW2 represents a new phase of capitalism, the social-democratic consensus. Initially that meant building by the state, moving for the first time away from the accepted ideal of privately-built, privately-owned communities. Without wishing to sound too much like David Harvey though, the imperative of capital alongside the political requirement to build more and more homes led to diminished standards, higher high-rises and a whole bunch of social problems that I am completely convinced would not have recurred if Bevan’s original standards of density and community had been followed. Whatever may have happened, Thatcher put the final nail in that particular coffin through Right To Buy, signalling a new phase of neoliberal capitalism, the utter stripping back of state involvement and the free reign of the markets. So, with today’s massive housing shortages, you can see how successful that’s been.
Anyway, my point was, I don’t think capitalist society is a complete success. But I raise this point in light of yesterday’s post about a local firm, and a kind comment from Kirkpatrick’s in Walsall, another local, traditional, family-led firm dating from 1855. It’s difficult to demand the downfall of capitalist society when faced with businesses competing not on the basis of cutting corners and screwing the rest, but on ethical production of goods they take pride in. If this was the real face of capitalism, rather than Rana Plaza or the redistribution of wealth from poor to rich in the wake of the financial crisis, then I’d be a much happier citizen, I think.