The story the last century - ish
Sometimes we hear people talking about the past and they get a lump in their throat. Remember when it was possible to get a job and you'd be paid half decent money and you could keep it for life? Remember when there was a council house for every poor person? Remember when things got better and better for every generation? [GUTTURAL SWALLOWING SOUNDS]
Well if you lived the main years of your working life in the 1950s and 60s you might remember that. If you got one of the council houses they put up in the massive post-war council house building programme then it would have seemed that way. The 40s were a total write off for obvious reasons - destorying everything and the re-building it - and the 1930s weren't really that different from the 1830s for extreme inequality and poverty. What happened?
In 1917 the Russian Revolution kicked off. It was spreading too, even if other regimes weren't falling the fight was on. The capitalist states were having to relent and allow certain freedoms and benefits to the people to try to stave off revolution. Not much, but things were inching that way.
After the WW2 the soldiers returned home. There was an incredible amount of work to be done, less people around to do it and millions of trained men who had experienced war on the streets. This forced the authorities to give in and enact a huge, unprecedented compromise with working people. They had bargaining power, not because that was any special character of that generation or because they'd read the right theory and organised themselves in the right way but because they were simply in a position to take it.
The gravitational pull of the statist-capitalist system was still pulling everything down towards exploiting people as far as they could possibly take, working them as hard as possible and feeding them as little as possible and then treating them as disposable if they became useless. But there was a significant enough upward thrust to keep the worst of it off and to make some real progress for themselves. ( This is a very similar to the situation found in Europe after the black death in the 14th century, less people, lots of work to do, bargaining power - hence peasants revolts and serfdom gets abolished).
But this wasn't to last. By the 1970s the balance of power tipped back. Partly because the people took the pressure off, it was another generation who had never seen war and didn't struggle for the gains the previous generation had won. In addition new powerful forces of globalisation and mass media were at play.
During the 80s, 90s and the 00s it all began to slip back towards what it had been like in the 1930s again. A slow slide at first, speeding up by the end of the 70s and during the 80s with Thatcher and Regan, speeding up again in the 10s with global recession and austerity. And still going with no predetermined end in sight.
History's big sweep
But an interesting lesson is what it was that drove this story. Starting with the Russian revolution and the pressure this put on capitalist nations to begin to change. This could have become a full revolution or it might have been crushed but WW2 came along and set western governments on a path to see that they had no choice but to compromise with the workers. The workers might have kept pushing, compromise might not have been enough, they might have been emboldened to push for revolution but globalisation boomed and the people's situations became too precarious to fight as effectively as they had done before. Their lives became uncertain and anxiety kept them at home. At the same time new inventions allowed the ruling class to spread propaganda and advertising in a big way further taking the fire out of any movement that would keep the pressure on and things continued to get worse and worse. Not falling backwards from a traditional order where everything was a-okay, falling backwards from a brief shinning peak which was caused by a massive war.
Note the point here.
It wasn't any individual person or group of people promoting an idea or a new way of doing things that caused the changes for better or for worse. It was huge impersonal global forces. The people that took advantage of the forces like those on our side; winning civil rights in America, brining in the NHS in the UK etc. were in the right place at the right time and grabbed their opportunities. Same for the villains: Regan's basic logic wasn't any different from any other member of the ruling class's logic has ever been but he was able to get away with things that none of them had been able to get away with for some time. So he did.
Alexander the Great is remembered for conquering most of the world that his contemporaries knew of at the time, but was he the one that discovered the metal smelting techniques to make the weapons that his soldiers relied upon? Was he the one that centralised political power in Greece in order to make it possible to have a standing army to begin with? Did he cause the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and make it so that there was surplus food around, enough to mean that some people could become full time generals instead of all being hunter-gatherers? No to all. He was someone who took advantages of what the impersonal forces of history had dropped on his plate. He made an impact that others may not have done but he was still just someone who reacted to what was around him, only nudging the overall direction of history, not shaping it all by himself.
People will not be talked out of reacting to the situation around them, acting as their interests seem to dictate, reacting against other forces that they have no control over, taking opportunities that history throws them and suffering when none are to be found. For those of us who want change the only way we'll see it is to cause it by changing the reality of the situation people are working in. By accepting that we are a part of history, not outsiders looking in trying to decide what to do in a vacuum, assert ourselves as much as we possibly can right here and now.
Become a part of the force which people have to react to, not a voice droning on at them. Make opportunities for the people and close them for the ruling class. Concerted action can bring this about, now probably more than ever but it won't be easy. The world is certainly not just one good idea away from changing for the better.