A couple of weeks ago Gordon Brown gave a heavily covered speech on social mobility. For once the media didn’t round on him and tear him to pieces – principally because he was doing what the commentariat had been telling him to do for weeks. This was Brown being Brown. Maybe speeches like this wouldn’t be enough to turn things around for him, but at last he was acting on his convictions, telling us what he really thought, trying to show us why he had sought the premiership with such singleness of purpose. The speech was all about the need to build a society in which no talent would be wasted and no child left behind because of the disadvantages of their background.
I have considerable but inchoate misgivings about this politics of social mobility which I have written about here before, but I want to develop a new objection here. Brown strikes a very positive tone in talking about all this. In his speeches about social mobility there is nothing of the gloomy Calvinist preacher misanthropically bloviating about human fallibility and unimprovability. Man’s trajectory for Brown is upward: Enlightenment Progress, not the Fall. In fact, we are collectively poised before a vista of munificent opportunity. Or as he put it in his hammer-and-nails English, we can look forward to the prospect of ‘as fast an expansion of occupational change as we have seen in our history.’
The next twenty years can be both unprecedentedly good and a sort of historical recapitulation of the post-war zenith of social mobility at a higher pitch of intensity. 6 million in unskilled jobs today could become 500,000 in 2020. And all this because we have been thrown into a new world – the world of the globalised economy. The speed of change, the threat to existing ways of doing things, threatens some; but not Brown. He understands the challenge of globalisation, but he understands even more keenly that globalisation is an irresistible exhortation to self-improvement. It is our response to this global economic challenge – through our unequalled commitment to education and skills – that will lead Britain into an epoch of social advance in which no one (well, only a paltry 500,000 people) will be left behind:
‘[W]hile the post-45 wave of social mobility came from changes wrought by the opening up of our national economy, the new wave of social mobility comes from changes that are wrought by opening up the whole global economy.’
Thinking in terms of the national economy is now outmoded, practically Victorian. The market is terrestrial now; risk has been run through the global multiplier, but so has opportunity. Borders are fences behind which timid people hide; they are artificial limits on growth and prosperity. The stakes have suddenly got very high, but that’s a good thing because it will create the right sort of incentives which will make us do whatever needs to be done to win:
‘So instead of opportunities limited by the old sheltered national economy that needed a certain number of people for particular jobs, there will be potentially unlimited opportunities for the forward march of social mobility, opened up by the changes in the wider global economy.’
I can’t understand why I am the only one to react adversely to the sentiments underlying that statement. Brown is exhorting Britain’s talented poor, those whose talents have previously been wasted, to climb to prosperity and higher status on the back of the poor of the developing world. Brown implies that somehow he has dissolved the zero-sum game of social mobility, that under this new dispensation the ugly scrapping for status will come to an end. But he hasn’t done that at all. The fight for the higher place, the fight to consign others to the lower place hasn’t been abolished; it’s been swept under the carpet, its losers exported to the Third World where they will be little seen and even less thought about. There is a terribly ugly side to Brown’s great leap forward. He has built a sort of self-celebratory moral edifice on top of a substructure of globally structured exploitation. If Brown were to succeed in realising his 2020 vision, the gains in Britain would all have been realised at the cost of solidifying the existing structure of capitalist relations between privileged developed countries and exploited developing ones.
This seems to me nakedly colonialist. According to Brown by fighting harder, meaner and nastier than its opponents in the arena of global capitalism Britain can bring home more of the world’s skilled jobs, as if they were a sort of plunder belonging to the more successful armies of capitalist competition. As a way of conceptualising the world, and of operating in it, this seems to be the colonialist exploitation of the weak and the defenceless. And yet all of this masquerades under moralising talk of uplift and extending opportunities and harnessing previously squandered talents. I think this twoness in Brown’s vision is captured very clearly in the following quotation:
‘raising social mobility in our country is a national crusade to which everyone can join and play their part.’
Note the democratic note, the inclusiveness: this is a collective endeavour in which we can all engage. But mark also that this is a national crusade. The media picked up the phrase but placed all of their emphasis on the wrong word. This isn’t just to be a quasi-religious campaign and struggle encompassing all of the people and energies of the country: it is to be a national crusade. This is Britain fighting for Britain, out for anything it can get, heedless of collateral damage and of the moral confusions of its position.
I don’t want to indignantly abandon the argument there as if the issue will self-evidently clear itself up after we have gotten this far. Once one has admitted that the next great wave of British social mobility will be won in a zero-sum game played against the people of the same developing countries which we once held as colonies, the matter is not settled. One first has to think deeply about what a state is for, who it has responsibilities too and how one might reconcile the responsibilities which it has to different groups.
A British person might be worth more to me than an Indian; I am deeply ambivalent about it, but if that is what Brown thinks I want to hear him say it. And I want to hear how he thinks that what he is advocating differs from colonialism or what he thinks is so morally edifying about this Darwinian struggle between nations for limited resources. Globalisation just seems to have expanded the size of the realm within which we have to deal with the moral quandaries that capitalism throws up, whilst exponentially expanding the potential spoils if we can find some way to dissolve or suppress those quandaries. Why is Gordon Brown so unreservedly enthusiastic about this development? Where is his ambivalence?