A Special Kind of Wealth

Zoe Williams, Get it Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics

Hutchinson, 368pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780091959012

reviewed by Elliot Murphy

With the recent election of a new Tory majority government, it is timely to consider Guardian columnist Zoe Williams’s urgent assessment of the central problems of British politics. Get it Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics reverses the common Tory mantra of ‘individual responsibility’ by insisting that if someone is in full employment and suffers from a lack of food and warmth, then the fault lies not with them, but with the structure of their utilities provider and food supply. She also exposes the paradox of attempting to solve numerous collective problems through purely individualistic solutions.

Williams defines the post-2008 austerity drive as ‘all brainstem and no frontal lobe,’ exploring the common ties of the Conservative party such as the urge to sell off public assets to private capital. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, sold off water, trains, oil, gas, steel, the National Grid, housing, airports and some bus routes. Not to be outdone, Cameron’s coalition government spent £82 billion from 2010 to 2015 on outsourcing duties to the private sector – double the amount spent by the previous government. This book is admittedly light on facts, but Williams asks all the right questions, and she asks them for the right reasons: ‘[W]hat is the point of growth, if the fruits of it are only delivered to the top, and living standards are still falling?’ Financial businesses are indeed ‘wealth creators’, Williams notes, but creators of a special kind of wealth for a very special social strata. She rejects the label of ‘unsustainable’ when applied to social security and healthcare, again through asking ‘unsustainable for whom?’ The state should be ‘there to protect us from predators’; in other words, to protect us from corporate power.

Get it Together also touches on the social destruction caused by markets dominated by low productivity and low wage-paying corporations, with average wages having dropped 4% since 2010. Williams rightly attributes the housing crisis not simply to the apathy of the baby-boomers, but also to systematic wage decreases, state failure and corporate ‘greed’ (though corporations have a legal obligation to pursue profit, so ‘greed’ is a bit misleading – they are institutionally designed not to consider the needs of working people). Williams's overview of the disasters of the housing market is both comprehensive and timely; as Thomas Piketty points out in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Londoners may soon be paying rent to the emir of Qatar. A 2012 Joseph Rowntree Foundation study estimated that by 2020 home ownership among 18-35-year-olds will have diminished to 12%, down from 35% in 1997. Williams introduces a Marxist critique of the housing crisis and discusses economic externalities with a readability often lacking in more scholarly accounts.

Williams also discusses how consumerism used to have fundamentally social motives, allowing people to attain historically unprecedented levels of communication and socialisation. Today this social urge is answered with another individualistic solution: private, not socialised, consumption. We are encouraged to shop frivolously, rather than build the infrastructure to create the conditions in which genuine creativity flourishes – ‘constructing tangible things that make life better for everyone’, as Williams puts it. In this regard, she notes the immense democratic and educational potential of Citizen Schools, run as co-operatives and which gear students towards self-fulfilment and not just GCSE certificates.

In a country in which 1.4 million are working zero-hour contracts (including inside Buckingham Palace), Williams’s forays into corporate exploitation, unionism and private equity’s fondness for cutting wages and lowering working conditions are judicious and instructive. She briefly explores the possibility, in an environment of zero-hour contracts, of online (and anonymous) unions, as well as ‘pop-up’ unions which are temporary and centred on a single issue, campaigning and disbanding upon achieving their goal. Most of the book, however, is dedicated to language games, deconstructing terms of propaganda and qualifying others. If the left is to win over dissatisfied Ukip voters and non-voters, discussions of the impersonal and descriptive term ‘inequality’, while fruitful, need to be complemented by investigations into ‘poverty’ and other emotionally potent and evocative terms. What is needed is a challenging of the tenacious circular logic of the neoliberal value system, which typically takes the form, as Williams puts it, ‘How do I know I’m superior? Well, look at all my wealth. How did I come about my wealth? Well, dur, with my superiority.’

As Williams’s views imply, progressive voices also need to learn from the right. Unlike the left, the Tories don’t need to sit in stuffy rooms arguing about Trotskyism and annotating ‘Yes, very true’ in the margin of some book on Hegel. The right preach individualism yet are organised and relatively cohesive, while the left preach collectivism and yet are everywhere factionalised and in disarray. Williams concludes with a serious and intelligent call for collective action on a number of fronts, from demonstrations to joining the New Economics Foundation and Positive Money. She notes of consumer boycotts – the abstaining from visiting Starbucks or using Amazon – that ‘individual acts will always be inconsequential.’ After all, Starbucks ‘still seems to be doing fine.' If we are interested in actually making an impact on these companies, it’s no good just refusing to do business with them: if in March 2003 I was against the planned invasion of Iraq, it was plainly not sufficient for me simply to refuse to join the army. Acting collectively against Starbucks, Amazon et al. is the minimal moral and tactical requirement to effect change.

Given the dire situation in Westminster, Williams’s sharp and focused assessment of the major problems facing Britain is timely and urgent. As Norman Finkelstein once wrote, politics is not about personal goals and visions and ideologies, but is rather about what the public is willing to accept, and the need to tap into the scope and range of such acceptance. The left consequently needs to abandon debating the ‘most radical’ stance to adopt; indeed, the radical thing to do right now is not to declare strictly communist, horizontalist or anarchist principles (sound as they may be), but rather to fight for a modern reformism, which takes a rare and special kind of radicalism to appreciate as paramount. The left should, in brief, be radical in critique but reformist in tactic, something which Get it Together succeeds in admirably.
Elliot Murphy is a graduate neurolinguistics student at the Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College London. He is the author of Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature.