Consider the washing machine. For much of human history, laundry could take an entire day's honest toil for one household alone. Textiles would have to be soaked, scrubbed, wrung, beaten and rinsed, all by hand. Countless trips back and forth to the local pump were needed. Then everything had to be dried and ironed. It should go without saying that this work was done entirely by women, and working-class women at that; for their own families, for middle and upper-class employers or, more commonly, both.
With the dawn of industrialism, the laundry process steadily mechanised and innovation drew the drudgery out of this most mundane of household tasks until, by 2010, 96% of British households had a washing machine. What was once backbreaking labour had become a minor chore.
What got me thinking about washing machines? A novelist, oddly enough. The Guardian's “Comment is free” site recently featured a contribution from award-winning author Joan Brady. I found the piece muddled in a number of ways, but one paragraph stood out:
"I lived in Totnes for 30 years, and Totnes outdid itself. Three quarters of its population protested against Costa: Totnes already has more than 40 independent coffee shops... [But] Costa isn't bothered. It hasn't bothered with the populations of other protesting towns either. Here's a corporate giant flouting the fully expressed will of local people. And for what? To boost a profit margin that'll go to build more coffee shops in Russia and Egypt - Costa's largest is in Dubai - at the expense of UK shopkeepers."
In Brady’s eyes Costa Coffee is a malevolent entity because it sells coffee to people without first conducting a plebiscite, then uses the money to build more coffee shops. Some of these coffee shops may even be in foreign countries, which is apparently very sinister for some unspecified reason.
Is Costa forcing local residents to stop patronising independent outlets? No? Then that's just the free market at work, and here's the nub of the matter, because the left has a problem of which Brady's article is only one manifestation. That problem is not, as it was in the 1980s and '90s, a sentimental attachment to socialist dogma. The trauma of four successive election defeats finally empowered the modernising forces within Labour, under Tony Blair, and made the party embrace capitalism. So far, so good.
But the embrace was reluctant. The left accepted New Labour's newfound market socialism (best expressed by Peter Mandelson famously being “intensely relaxed” about the accumulation of wealth), but only as a last resort, a tacit admission that nothing else had worked. This ambivalence betrays itself in the widespread attitude towards Blair himself. Where Conservatives continue to lionise their last leader to win three elections - sometimes to a self-parodic degree - many, perhaps most, Labourites regard their most successful leader ever with an air of sheepishness (“ah yes, that time when we were in power for over a decade. A grisly business”) or worse.
It can also be seen in the leadership of Ed Miliband, who is managing to seem both increasingly confident and increasingly flailing. In lieu of an actual agenda, what passes for his big idea is the “producers vs. predators” theme introduced in his 2011 conference speech. As a former New Labour minister, Miliband can hardly renounce free markets - “ I want to save capitalism from itself”, he said in a recent interview - but, well, gosh... wouldn't it be nicer if capitalism was... nicer? A straightforward, Blairesque embrace of free enterprise is out of the question; it has to be couched in righteous equivocations to meet the approval of the party faithful.
Anecdotally, I can report any number of dispiriting conversations with fellow Labour voters in which they tut over the opening of a new supermarket or the ubiquity of corporate sponsorship. Beneath it all is the terrible knowledge that they have thoroughly lost the majority of the country. When the average voter looks at Tesco, they do not see a sinister corporate megalith, raping and pillaging their way of life. Rather they see that keeping their family fed and clothed is now that much cheaper and easier. Moreover, they don't believe this because they've been brainwashed into false consciousness by consumerist propaganda. They believe it because it's true, which brings me back to the washing machine.
This single invention liberated countless millions from needless drudgery. Now take a look around you. When I do, I can see an electric light, a Dyson vacuum cleaner, a laptop computer, a blow-heater and a mobile phone. In all likelihood, you are also surrounded by a similar array of man-made objects. Each one represents the endpoint of a long process of winnowing, pruning and perfecting, driven entirely by the market. Even where government investment can get an idea off the ground, it still takes the forces of supply and demand to drive prices down and put once-miraculous developments within anyone's grasp. Taken cumulatively, the fruits of capitalism have produced an improvement in quality of life that was once unimaginable.
This essential truth does not oblige those of us on the left to become uncritical free market fundamentalists. On the contrary: for all its genius, capitalism will continue by its very nature to have victims and losers, and they aren't going to get any sympathy from the right (as the current government makes abundantly clear). Labour can and should be proud of the welfare state it did so much to bring into being. But we are obliged to recognise the facts. Namely that, for most voters, especially Labour's core vote, the market is not a cold tyrant or a cruel exploiter. It is a liberator, perhaps the greatest in history.
There are still many hard years ahead for British workers, and only a strong private-sector recovery will bring them to an end. Any self-respecting party of the working class needs to make that their primary goal and truly embrace the market instead of tolerating it.