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Capitalism, Culture and Decline in Britain

(November 1993)

From Militant International Review, No. 54, November–December 1993, p. 32.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Capitalism, Culture and Decline in Britain, 1750–1990
by W.D. Rubinstein
Published by Routledge, 1993, £25 hb

In our economic analysis of world capitalism, Militant has explained the reasons for the massive economic boom from roughly 1950–1975 and how the system has since moved to periodic slumps and booms. Within the general crisis of world capitalism, however, there are special features of the crisis of British capitalism, which has witnessed the massive decline of Britain as an industrial nation.

The recent book by W.D. Rubinstein, an Australian academic, is a contribution to this debate on the decline of British capitalism. However I cannot conclude that he has helped us understand the process any more clearly.

Rubinstein devotes the largest part of his work to a string attack on what he calls ‘the cultural critique’. This argument traces the massive growth of British industry post-1760 leading to the establishment of Britain by 1850 as ‘the workshop of the world’. But this period of industrial hegemony was short-lived. After 1870 came the economic decline of Britain, a process that has continued to the present day. The ‘cultural critique’ advanced by a number of economic historians attributes Britain’s economic decline to an ‘anti-business’ and ‘anti-industrial’ culture among people in power in Britain.

Rather than seriously examine the actual historical relationship between the development of capitalist economy and the institutions of the state (government, law, the education system, civil servants, police, the army etc.) Rubinstein attacks supporters of the ‘cultural critique’ with the argument that Britain was never really an industrial nation and therefore has not suffered a process of industrial decline.

In nearly all of his arguments he is wrong. For example, a British Conservative writing in 1826, quoted in Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going?, argues:

“The prospects which are now opening to England almost exceed the boundaries of thought, and can be measured by no standard found in history ... The manufacturing industry of England may be fairly computed as four times greater than that of all other continents taken collectively, and sixteen such continents as Europe could not manufacture as much cotton as England does.”

So much for Rubinstein’s claim that Britain was not the workshop of the world.

Rubinstein’s arguments range from the unusual to the questionable to the downright ridiculous. Thus having produced statistical data on Britain’s industrial decline, he claims that it is not really a question of the rapid decline of British capitalism rather than the rapid growth of German and US capitalism! In defending the decision of the British ruling class to invest in services rather than manufacturing industry, Rubinstein shows that more people use Heathrow airport than any other airport in the world. Finally, he attacks those who maintain the superiority of manufacturing over a service economy in the following terms:

“It is difficult to believe that there is not some underlying sexual undertone to the preference for manufacturing rather than services”!

Rubinstein fails to draw a distinction between making money and creating wealth. The British ruling class has been very skilful in the former, but have shown little facility for the latter. Early in the lifetime of the present Tory government, for example, the very minimal exchange controls introduced by the previous Labour government were lifted. Since then billions of pounds that could have been invested in manufacturing industry has flowed abroad. This has made the ruling class richer as has their colossal investment in banking and insurance. But British manufacturing continues its remorseless downward march.

These actions graphically indicate the absolute decline of British capitalism, and the ruling class’s pessimism for the future. Ironically they have less faith in the future of capitalism than have the leadership of the Labour Party. But despite considerable scholarship and research, this vital point is lost on Rubinstein. Those looking for an introduction to the complex but vital questions raised in this book are better advised to start with Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going?, which retains today all the vitality and relevance as when it was first published.

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