Friday, 8 December 1989


Paul Anderson, review  of Playing With Trains by Stephen Poliakoff (RSC), Tribune, 8 December 1989

Stephen Poliakoff has a theory about why Britain is in such an economic mess: we're good at inventing but bad at exploiting the commercial potential of our inventions.

This is a lament that has recurred in British politics since the end of the last century — since the beginning of Britain's decline as an imperial power, in fact — but to see Playing With Trains you would think that Poliakoff was the first to think of it. The play's didactic enthusiasm is at first refreshing but after a while becomes irritatingly unsubtle and repetitive.

The plot on which Poliakoff hangs his big idea is a simple one. Bill Galpin (Michael Pennington) is a single-minded engineer/inventor with two children (Lesley Sharp and Simon Russell Beale). We join them in 1967 as they prepare to move house after Bill has made a small fortune for inventing an automatic record player. From then on, it's rise and fall. Bill first becomes still richer through his inventions, then makes a mark as an outspoken campaigner for industrial and political backing for innovators, then finally is ruined by an unwise libel action.

Bill is no one-dimensional hero, and the domestic angle of his story — progressive estrangement from his offspring as he becomes more and more obsessive provides welcome dramatic relief from his confrontations with bureaucrats and his pubic speeches.
But in the end none of this amounts to much.

Poliakoff dealt with the theme of obsessive genius overlooking domestic commitment far better in his previous play for the RSC, Breaking the Silence (which also had the bonus of an exotic Russian revolutionary setting). And Britain's economic disaster simply doesn't have quite as much to do with frustated innovators as Poliakoff believes.

Friday, 1 December 1989


Paul Anderson, review of New Times by Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (eds) (Lawrence and Wishart, £9.95), Tribune, 1 December 1989

The basic thrust of Marxism Today's "New Times" thesis – you've read the magazine articles and seen the manifesto, now read bits of both in a book – is simple. The organisation of production in the developed west has changed. The era of "Fordism", of production lines in giant factories turning out standardised products, is over. The revolution in information technology means that small-batch production and small factories, with more flexible specialised labour forces, are increasingly the norm.

In line with, and partly as a result of, these changes in production, other things have changed too. The composition of the working class has changed dramatically: it is now split into an affluent core of securely employed, skilled, full-time workers (disproportionately male and white), and a poor periphery (disproportionate female and black), where part-time and casual work and unemployment are the options.

With the decline in the traditional manual working class and the growth in importance of consumption in everyday life, people see themselves less and less as members of social classes, defining themselves increasingly as individual consumers and citizens, or as members of gender, sexual-preference and ethnic groups. Everything from philosophy to television reflects all this. Homogeneity is out. Diversity is in. The left must adapt by jettisoning most of the baggage acquired during the Fordist era – centralisd nationalisation in economic policy, Leninist "democratic centralism", class politics, admiration for "actually existing socialism" in the eastern bloc, and hostility to individualism and consumption.

The first thing to be said about all this is that, for all the claims to novelty, there isn't much that's very original about it. Borrowings from the Frankfurt school, the French post-modernists, liberal pluralist political theory and anarchism sit uneasily together.

And the heart of the argument – all the stuff about changes in the nature of production meaning the end of the Fordist era of the "mass worker" – is a sanitised version of mid-seventies Italian and French neo-Marxist theories of capitalist restructuring.

According to these thinkers, working-class insurgency was forcing capitalists to discover new ways of ensuring their control of production, by splitting up the workforce through decentralisation, replacing key workers with robots, moving production to Third World countries and so on. Our thoroughly post-modern communists remove the engine of class struggle from this rather interesting old jalopy, give the bodywork a quick respray job, and try to pass off the result as a spanking new model.

But this is by the way. What about the validity or otherwise of the "New Times" thesis? It certainly cannot be dismissed out of hand. The developed west has witnessed dramatic changes in the organisation of production in the past decade, and the era of the Fordist assembly line does seem to be coming to an end – at least in North America, Japan and western Europe. Traditional class identities are weaker than hitherto. Nationalisation and Leninism are dead-ends for the left. Many of the essays in this volume are succinct and serious contributions to our understanding of the world in which we live.

Nevertheless, there are weaknesses in the analysis too. First, it exaggerates the extent of "Post-Fordism" in production. In particular, even if the developed west is seeing the end of the Fordist factory, the rest of the world is not. None of the contributors to New Times, with the exception of Mike Rustin (who contributes a critique of the thesis) has anything to say about the new international division of labour.

Worse still, as Paul Hirst points out, the "New Times" thesis is essentially a crudely economic determinist one which exaggerates the impact in the wider world of changes in production.

Both these lines of criticism point to the conclusion that the changes of the past decade are rather less "epochal" than the "New Times" types would have us believe. Which in turn points to the real problem of the "New Times" thesis: its political function. Its central political argument is that Leninism, centralised nationalisation, class politics and admiration for eastern bloc "socialism" are dead-ends because the Fordist era is over.

That is implicitly to argue that all of them were fine and dandy while Fordism ruled the roost. To me, that seems simply to be a way that the dwindling band of Communist Party members can disown everything the party once stood for without ever subjecting its past to criticism. I suppose that's emotionally easier than admitting they were wrong all along, but the intellectual dishonesty is breathtaking.