Posted by: simonsteachingblog | December 15, 2010

It could be you

Writing in the late 1990s, Mike Neary and Graham Taylor discussed what they saw as a fundamental shift in the UK from a social and cultural structure significantly informed by what they termed the ‘law of insurance’ to a structure informed by what they called the ‘law of the lottery’ (Mike Neary and Graham Taylor, ‘From the Law of Insurance to the Law of Lottery: An Exploration of the Changing Composition of the British State’, Capital and Class, 65, Summer 1998). Within their thinking the ‘law of insurance’ defines a commitment on the part of the state and much of the citizenry to the idea that the former has a responsibility to the latter in terms of providing health and welfare, especially when citizens fall on hard times. This ‘insurance’ is understood as a counter to the instabilities of the capitalist market system. In contrast to this the ‘law of the lottery’ defines a different understanding of what society is that replaces commitments to ‘insurance’ with the understanding that people should, or will inevitably be subject to the vicissitudes of market. The ‘law of the lottery’ decrees that people should not expect a social safety net. This signals the end of what Alan Sinfield has termed ‘welfare-capitalism’ established in the UK after the Second World War. As he observes, welfare-capitalism ‘promised all the people a stake in society, an adequate share of its resources as of right – a job, a pension or social security, a roof over their head, healthcare, education.’ As he continues, this augmentation of the capitalist economy with a welfare system was an ‘attempt to ameliorate and preserve capitalism, by protecting against and compensating for its disadvantages.’ (Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics – Queer Readings, Routledge, 1994)

The increasing prominence of the ‘law of the lottery’ as an aspect of Neo-Liberalism meant not only the end of the post-war social dream of a fairer society within an overarching capitalist context, but the also end of the fear of dramatic, even revolutionary social change that had led the state to develop the welfare system in the first place. The organised working class and other opponents of the dominance of society by business have been massively weakened and capitalism no longer has to wear an even remotely friendly face, except when addressing citizens as consumers. Since the 1970s successive governments have enforced practices of retrenchment that have cut back the welfare system and privatised public institutions. This has involved the shrinkage and colonisation by business of certain elements of the state. Alongside this reduction of the socially supportive role of the state, the general state emphasis upon the overarching role of the market within society has led to increasing social inequality and a reduction of already limited democratic accountability. This lack of democracy was brought into dramatic symbolic relief for me on Thursday 9 December when I entered Parliament Square as an anti-education-cuts demonstrator to find my way to parliament blocked by what I can only describe as a military style fortification. Here my supposed representatives were quite literally inaccessible, but in reality the ordinary relationship between the electorate and the elected is not really that different. Moreover the role of the police as a political force in controlling the anti-cuts demonstrations, masked by the discourse of ‘law and order’, might point to an increasing reflex on the part of an unrepresentative government to seek to use force to avoid an adjustment of the current relationship between the represented and their representatives. David Cameron’s declaration that those demonstrators who confronted the police in Parliament Square with physically expressed anger over the cuts and the absence of a proper public voice will ‘feel the full force of the law’ should not come as a surprise.

During the era of the state retrenchment of welfare, social and political hegemony has been maintained through the enhancement of two entwined discourses. The first discourse constructs the individual subject as competitive and self-interested; a subject who has a responsibility to look after only him or herself and to expect nothing from others. Consequently it is deemed illegitimate for people to expect the state, as a collective embodiment of society to have a responsibility towards them. This discourse is exemplified by Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ The second discourse involves the naturalisation of the market as the authentic arena of human agency in which only the fittest and, more importantly, the luckiest will prevail. Society, modelled on this understanding of the market, becomes a space of risk and chance. Thus Neary and Taylor comment, ‘[t]here is an increasing risk of redundancy or of not being adequately cared for when one is ill, but this is legitimised through a state-sponsored discourse of risk and chance.’ The current government is extending the Neo-Liberal project of marketisation under the guise of economic necessity. But it should be stressed that this rhetoric of necessity only works – is only logically unchallengeable – when framed by a world-view informed by the ‘law of the lottery’ and its attendant ideological forms. The cuts are legitimised by this world-view and in turn this world-view is extended through the cuts. The government is not only making the cuts themselves, but at the same time is attempting to deal a deathblow to the ‘law of insurance’.

One of the things that Neary and Taylor discuss in their article is the National Lottery, established in the UK in 1994, which for them stands as a cultural manifestation of the ‘law of the lottery’ and the increasing acceptance within British society that people have to expect life to be a matter of chance. The promotional imagery used for the National Lottery at the time depicted the lit window of an ordinary terraced house in which can be seen a person raising their arms in celebration.

UK National Lottery promotional material, mid-1990s

In the night sky above a hand constituted by hundreds of little points of light has materialised, its pointing finger directed at the person in the window. Beneath the image is presented the Lottery slogan: ‘It could be you’. What the combined image and slogan emphasise is the possibility that the purchaser of a lottery ticket might win a fortune, while at the same time downplaying the actual remoteness of this possibility. What the image also suggests is that the possibility of winning the lottery is not a matter of worldly circumstances, but of something unworldly; it is something that results from fortune, or even divine intervention. Indeed, the National Lottery image was criticised in the mid-1990s by religious people for suggesting that the lottery had something to do with divine will. Here success is the result of something beyond human control. The crossed fingers of the National Lottery logo also suggests that winning is just a matter of luck.

How might we relate this discussion of the National Lottery image to the idea of the ‘law of the lottery’? To answer this question it is necessary to invert the significance of the promotional image and focus not on the idea of winning, but on losing. If this image can be taken as somehow symbolic of the ‘law of the lottery’ it might be in terms of a sense that if it is fortune, or some other unworldly force that decides those who win in the game of life, then it is the same forces that decide upon those who will lose out, upon, that is, those who will not win the lottery, will not become rich, by whatever means, and in fact will quite possibly lose their jobs and their homes, not be educated properly, or given adequate health care. Thus the image seems to remove the ups and downs of life in British society from their social and political context, and from any sense of social responsibility for those who are not doing well in the current social order: both success and hardship are defined as a matter of the lottery. In this context where the life of the individual and of the wider society is understood to be subject to chance and where all good things come from taking risks that can equally lead to misfortune, people should not expect to be supported by the state when they fall down. In the true lottery there can be no safety net.

Of course the National Lottery image disguises the concrete social structures that not only make it more likely that some people will do well and continue to do well, but also makes it likely that some people will have a hard time. At the current juncture people in the UK will not only be suffering economic hardship because of the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of the economy, but also because of ideologically driven governmental decisions that will result in job losses and cut backs in all sorts of social provision. These political decisions are explained in terms of necessity, but they are also framed by the ethos of the lottery that places responsibility for what will be the calamitous effects of the cuts beyond the actions of actual people. For those committed to Neo-Liberal ideas this naturalisation of the market allows them to have their cake and eat it, for it enables them to argue that the market is the true basis for social organisation and that welfare structures are a kind of unnatural aberration, but also because the market is naturally structured by risk and chance, nobody can be held responsible for its negative effects. This also enables the proponents of Neo-Liberal doctrine to obfuscate the alternative welfare system for business, the financial sector and the rich that takes the form of public subsidies for the privatisation of public assets and the greasing of foreign business deals, financial bailouts using colossal amounts of public money, and the turning of a blind-eye to the egregious evasion of corporate taxes.

Let me now turn to another image from a different era. It is a political cartoon from December 1942 that depicts a smiling and winking British soldier holding a beer mug in his outstretched right hand. Behind him there are explosions, other British soldiers and a tank as well as planes in the sky.

Beveridge cartoon, 1942

The beer mug itself takes the form of a portrait of Lord Beveridge and the foamy beer on top is labelled with the words ‘Social Security’.  The soldier declares: ‘Here’s to a brave new world!’ The cartoon obviously refers to the famous ‘Beveridge Report’, officially entitled ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’, that Lord Beveridge oversaw and which argued for the setting up of the Welfare State and the National Health Service to counter what he identified as the five ‘evils’ of society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness (meaning unemployment), and disease. What interests me about this image in contrast to the National Lottery motif is the way that it is configured to present an aspiratory movement upwards from the bottom of the picture instead of downwards from on high. This is a movement that is represented as being wholly human-made. The soldier is not just an individual but a representative of the national will that has cohered with the acumen of Beveridge in a desire for a better world after the inevitable defeat of fascism. The image represents this national will as wholly male and is related to the problematical construction of welfare in the post-war settlement on the basis of the idea of the male family breadwinner. Nevertheless, it symbolises the prospect of a society in which social initiative moves from the bottom up, with the desires of the people motivating and supporting the decisions of politicians. These decisions provide citizens with what they want and need, and represent a relationship that seems to involve proper cooperation and representation. The people – represented by the male citizenry at arms – have sacrificed and defeated the enemy and now they deserve better than they have gotten before. Idealised as this image is, it represents a sense that policy depends on human motivation and action. In contrast to the National Lottery image that suggests that social developments are essentially out of human hands, the cartoon suggests that with the right political will a better and fairer society can be created. The National Lottery image is premised upon the idea that in the end the inequalities of the capitalist system are just the luck of the draw within an economic context that with the best will in the world has an uncontrollable logic of its own. Whereas the image of the soldier and Beveridge suggests in mildly utopian terms that the society you choose to have is the society you will end up with. British governments since the late 1970s, to differing degrees, have simply chosen to prioritise market considerations over the welfare of the people they are meant to represent.

I now want to finish this post with a discussion of a final image that also deals with the subject of fortune. In part this image is attractive to me because it allows me to stray into the realm of traditional art historical iconography with reference to E. H. Gombrich’s article ‘Magic, Myth and Metaphor’  (in his The Uses of Images, Phaidon, 1999), but also because it allows me to consider the National Lottery slogan ‘It could be you’ in a different way. The image I am considering is of the mythical ‘Wheel of Fortune’ that has been part of political iconography since at least the twelfth century and has been used, in Gombrich’s words, for the ‘visualization of the ups and downs of fate’. In this particular picture Fortuna the goddess of fortune turns the wheel around which is depicted the progress of a particular individual who rises to become a king at the top of the wheel, but then descends, losing his crown and finally falling down.

The wheel of fortune

Thus the image depicts how people can rise to great political heights, but equally can fall down, suggesting, as Gombrich notes, that ‘those who ride too high will come to grief.’ My reading of the National Lottery slogan in relation to its accompanying image is that ‘It could be you’ can refer both to winning and losing. We might apply the duality of this slogan to the Wheel of Fortune. Thus ‘It could be you’ suggests the possibility of political fortune, rising to the heights of political status, but also, as the progress of the wheel in the picture attests, that those who are singled out for success can also fall down and that this falling is also a kind of choosing. If we relate this image to the current situation in the UK regarding the re-strengthening of Neo-Liberal politics through the cuts agenda then it is not fortune that might lay the mighty low, but their arrogance and misjudgement of a situation that might lead them to unleash public anger on a scale unseen for a very long time. The cutting back of welfare in an era when the market has been proved to be highly unstable means that the pointing finger of fortune could single out many for misfortune, yet this finger, if I am permitted to sustain this metaphor, might also point at the powerful. The message for the likes of Cameron and Clegg is therefore, perhaps, ‘watch out it could be you’.

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