The future, viewed from 1996

In the late 1990s, I wrote a strange book, never published, which attempted to be a snapshot of many different aspects of British national life at the end of the century, at the end of the millennium. It was not really a book at all: more a collection of fragments and impressions. What follows is one such fragment. I have shortened it, but not otherwise changed it: I do not like rewriting history. For better or worse, this is what I wrote at the time. I should not need to add that it is satirical but, in case there is any doubt, I am saying it.  

Full employment is a thing of the past. We will have to abolish the term itself: its very existence predicates the possibility, makes us feel we have failed. It is a negative influence on the feel-good factor and we can’t be doing with that.

Full employment is an outmoded concept. You can have it if you allow a minority to exploit the majority, but that dreary age has been left far behind. You can have it if the government shells out a lot of money to subsidise jobs, but look where that got us. You can have it if you believe it is sensible to invest in manufacturing industry in Europe, but no one seriously believes that any more. You can possibly have it if you create mobility of labour, but think of all our lovely green-belt land that would be destroyed.

This has been a century of numbers, of actuarial calculations. In 1917 the numbers were on the streets and behind the barricades: if the century had gone a different way, we would now have a lumpen bourgeoisie. But socialism succeeded just enough to make the haves more numerous than the have-nots, and that was its worst failure of all. It is another paradox: a creed built on numbers was defeated by numbers.

Instead we have a downsized lumpenproleteriat. That is the real triumph of capitalism: to have harnessed socialism to reduce the proletariat to manageable proportions. We now have two management tasks for the future. The first is to ensure that the lump impinges on our lives as little as possible. The second is to ensure that it impinges on our consciences even less. Not much use having our lovely leisure-enriched lifestyles if we are going to go around feeling guilty all the time. But no problem here for positive management.

We must make sure that the lump is small. I don’t, of course, mean that it has to be small, merely that it must appear small. The constant redefinition of unemployment has helped with this and creative accounting must have taken hundreds of thousands off the jobless total. Now there is a new series of schemes and wheezes for people to go on that will massage the figures still further. No matter that they will seldom lead to permanent jobs; no matter that most of the participants will rejoin the lump once the scheme or wheeze has ended, because there will be plenty of new compulsory volunteers for plenty of new schemes and wheezes, and a permanent chunk of the lump will be kept off the figures.

What figure will our consciences accept for the official total, would you say? Around the two million mark? Yes, I think so. It sounds a lot, but then we all know someone who knows someone who has had a job vacancy for the last few months and cannot find anyone to fill it, so the problem can’t be that bad. The government’s first task is therefore to keep the official unemployment figure down to the two million mark. It doesn’t matter how they do it and we don’t care. All right, it requires a bit of imagination, but that’s what those overpaid civil servants are there for and in any case the job is a damned sight easier than keeping actual unemployment down to the two million mark.

The next problem is money. This is a big problem. It will be difficult just to pay the two million or so on the official register, let alone the three million or so who won’t be. You and I will not be keen on having our hard-earned dosh taxed and doled out to these spongers. After all, it was a low-tax regime that got those figures down in the first place. No, we would be perfectly happy to pay higher taxes if we thought this would help, but fortunately it won’t.

The lump will have to be poor. Not starvation level, you understand: nothing that is going to be too upsetting to those of us willing to stay up and watch TV social documentaries when they are screened at 3:30 in the morning. But pretty bloody poor all the same. However, if they are poor, they will be bored, and if they are bored they might riot and piss over our neatly-manicured lawns or puke on the Volvo. So we must stop them being bored.

Education can help. Now that we have forgotten the outmoded concept of a liberal education, now that we know better than to think that knowledge and understanding and wisdom have any relevance to modern life, we are already on the right road. Just as we will have middle-class schools with state-of-the-art technology to help middle-class children become successful junk-bond dealers, management consultants, software suppliers, advertising executives and all those other jobs so vital to the long term future of the country, so we will need lump schools that teach children the vocational requirements of their future life: how to play video games, surf the Internet for pornography and get drunk.

The indivisible closeness of government and industry also has a part to play. How clever governments have been on our behalf! In responding to our urging that they desist in interfering with industry, in divesting themselves of virtually all stakes in all industries, they have nevertheless retained complete control over the one thing that matters most for the future: airwaves and frequencies. Most of the vast money-making possibilities of new technology are subject to government contracts. And of course there will have to be some quid pro quos: several million quid, in fact.

The lump will be supplied with new technology free of charge. This is a brilliant wheeze. In exchange for a government licence, the company has to come up with free goodies to keep the lump amused. They are not free of course: the rest of us will pay for them, but that is part of the brilliance. In one stroke, the government will have provided the lump with an endless social bromide, circumvented having to ask the taxpayer to fund it and provided the answer to any pangs of conscience: “we have invested in the future of all the people in our country by ensuring that no one, however poor or underprivileged their background, is denied access to the challenges of new technology”. Oh that’s all right, we’ll say: they could have become just as successful junk-bond dealers or management consultants as ourselves. Not our problem that they chose to scan pornography on the Internet. We did all we could.

But it will become our problem. Being permanently bored, frequently drunk and addicted to hard-core pornography, most of the lump will want to fuck anything that moves. To start with they will fuck each other (and that is another problem, but once the government – with great reluctance, much soul-searching and widely admired sensitivity – has decided to embark on a mass-sterilisation programme, one that can easily be cured), but then they will start trying to fuck the rest of us and we certainly can’t have that.

So we will have to reconsider housing policy. But housing costs money. There are few enough left of those quaint old back-to-back terraces with their outside privies, and those that remain will be acquired by upwardly-mobile young families in the north as they cotton on to the nous of their soft southern cousins. Meanwhile, the decrepit tower blocks of the ’60s are flaking. Lumps of concrete are falling off them. None of the lifts work. The stench of urine in the corridors is worse than being downwind at Chernobyl. Local councils face a huge revenue cost in demolishing these eyesores and a huge capital cost in replacing them.

The answer is simple: give the flats away to their residents. No demolition costs. No replacement costs. And in our munificence, our wonderfully generous sensitivity, we have actually given (yes: given, not sold) the poorer members of our community their own homes.

We will have to barricade the tower blocks of course. A right-wing free-thinker will, in due course, ask why we are spending a fortune erecting security fences round our affluent housing estates, installing surveillance cameras in our designer shopping malls and paying security guards to protect our prosperous personages, when – at a fraction of the cost – we could be fencing the vandals in their own estates, surveying them with cameras and employing security guards to watch them.

So we will do all this, and then some bleeding heart at the BBC will tell us that we have imprisoned our poor.

And then we will be enraged. My God, how we will be enraged. Well, Mr Do-Gooder, we have given (not sold – given) our poor their own properties; we have given them all the educational advantages of information technology; we have given them free home access to computers, the Internet, cable and satellite. We have given them the complete means (apart from a job and money, but we won’t mention that) to attain the same prosperous and sophisticated lifestyles that we enjoy ourselves. And you, Mr Do-Gooder, dare to call that enslavement. Time to end the licence fee.

Twenty years later, the lump is still with us: angrier and even more alienated. Thirteen years of Labour government and seven years of Tory government have failed to come close to addressing the issues, because both parties have been able to win elections without the lump. Hence Jeremy Corbyn; hence Momentum. Part of the explanation for Brexit surely lies here, and part of the explanation for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in America. But only part. Another toxic ingredient has been added to the mix, and that will be the subject of next week’s blog.