There is a considerable movement at the moment, involving people such as Stephen Pinker and others, who maintain that essentially things are getting better as we begin to solve many of the central problems that have bedevilled human society for centuries. They argue that we are living longer, that the gap between the richest and the poorest, seen in global terms, is shrinking rather than expanding and that there are fewer wars than there have been in the past. There is some merit in these arguments and it is incontrovertibly true that things are getting better in basic terms in the advanced West. Even in the developing world there are some signs of improvement, particularly in Africa as China moves in. However there is one major factor that they tend to ignore, or rather they do not ignore it, but they certainly tend to downplay it. I refer of course to the ecological question and the future of the planet. What is important to recognise, however, is that the ecological question cannot be separated from the social one of the patterns of the distribution of wealth in class society.
Capitalism has always survived through externalising its central contradictions. Post-war capitalism during what the French call the 30 glorious years from 1945 to 1975 was based on bringing what were external costs in the interwar period back in-house. The social state is essentially the re-domestication of externalised capitalist cost. The most prominent example of this is, of course, health provision. The European model, under pressure of a sizeable and politically active and unionised industrial working class, promised social provision “from cradle to grave”. It is this model that is breaking down even while what it provided – take the NHS as the prime example – is held in extremely high political regard. It is increasingly clear that the “glorious thirty” were the exception to the rule and that we are now witnessing a re-wilding of society. This leaves us with the absurd position of a Conservative Party having to defend what is essentially a socialist system of social provision in which each gives to the best of their ability and receives according to their needs – except of course it is possible to avoid taxes the richer you are. The Conservative Party’s true face is shown not with regard to the NHS but to Brexit.
However, it is a highly complicated relationship which exposes the internal divisions within the party itself. On the one hand it is made up of Osbornite free marketeers who are fundamentally opposed to the NHS but see no opportunity to undermine it in present political circumstances, but who are at the same time in favour of staying in the EU because of the expanded market access it gives them. What these elements of conservatism have in common with the populist xenophobia of Farage and Ukip is that they are all essentially deregulators. Osborne believes it is possible to carry the deregulatory impetus into the EU and turn it into a mere free trade area, Farage thinks that it would be easier to deregulate outside of the EU. The only difference between them is a tactical one.
What we have seen in Europe since 1975 has been the re-wilding of the economic landscape and the re-exporting of social problems in terms of both internal class dynamics and external production priorities. Social costs are increasingly born by those who can least afford them at home and the environmental costs of increased production are largely borne by the developing world.
It is for this reason that Pinker et al. are able to argue that the world is generally getting better, but that is because they are part of the middle class in the advanced capitalist world that is the protected minority ( and I include myself in that group). What Trump, Brexit and the ecological crisis show is that you can only go on externalising your problems for so long before they come back and bite you on the arse.