The Economy of Freedom: Consumption and Self-government in Mid Twentieth-Century Britain

Speakers: Eloise Moss, Simeon Koole, Ashley Wilkinson

Chair: Chris Moores

This panel suggests new environments, practices, and sensory registers through which the ‘responsible’ self-governing citizen was defined in modern Britain. In a critical reflection on the work of Patrick Joyce, Nikolas Rose and others, we re-examine the relationship between commercial and political constructions of the moral and enterprising self. In what ways did consumption – whether of hotels, coal, or alcohol – give rise to new concepts about a citizen’s possible self-government and support or subvert the ostensible autonomy of the private sphere in mid twentieth-century Britain? Simeon Koole investigates how the regulation and understanding of illicit touch intersected with the meteorological shift wrought by greater coal consumption (and the attendant fog) in London between 1880 and 1960. Eloise Moss foregrounds the hotel as a consumer commodity at the centre of efforts to define ‘British’ values and behaviours historically, using a case-study analysis of the British Pathé newsreel Lady’s Mail (1946) to demonstrate how encounters between staff and guests mediated an inherently politicized dialogue over the right to privacy. Finally, by interrogating the manuals disseminated by Dale Carnegie and Alcoholics Anonymous Ashley Wilkinson asserts the role of the Self-help industry in propagating Neoliberal ideas of productive and efficient citizenship in postwar Britain. Together, we engage with the theme of ‘Cultures of Democracy’ by thinking critically about the procedures, sites, and discourses through which participatory or ‘responsible’ modes of self-governance, and the construction of selfhood, have supposedly been cultivated. We therefore crucially spotlight the way in which a citizen’s perceptibility to politics and the law was conditioned by new understandings of their own capacity to perceive, itself determined by their economic and sensory relation to the market in mid twentieth-century Britain.

Paper 1 Abstract: Simeon Koole, Magdalen College, University of Oxford

A Moral History of Touch in London Fog

What is the relation between fog, coal smoke, environmental regulation, and illicit touch? This paper examines interactions between the political economy of coal and the illicit tactile economy of bodies in London from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. It traces how the increasing frequency and intensity of smog from the 1880s, its gradual decline and then dramatic return in 1952 shaped conditions of urban visibility and both the geographical and conceptual boundaries of illicit touch.

A parallel reading of prosecutions for illicit touch at Tower Bridge and Lambeth police courts – both sites of typically dense fog concentration – and the records of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society and Meteorological Office provides an entry. At first glance, this appears a task of mapping illicit touch onto spatial and temporal variations in smog, or rehearsing a familiar story of decreasing sensory tolerance of pollution and increasing environmental regulation (Corbin). I argue instead that the changing environmental conditions of visibility and policing – both of fog and the poorly-lit wharves and alleys of east and south London where it concentrated – not only shaped the nature and incidence of illicit touch but also its shifting moral and legislative boundaries; boundaries conditional on individuals’ sensory constitution of themselves as objects in relation to others and therefore, for the law, as legal subjects. For it is the environmentally conditioned, historically specific capacity to sense which structures the constitution of individuals as objects to themselves and of the law, and therefore the boundaries of licit and illicit touch.

This takes seriously Marx’s assertion that it is not only the objective world but the objectivity of an individual to him- or herself and, I argue, their legal relation to others, which is shaped by sensation; sensation itself historically conditioned by transformations in production and consumption, in this case of coal. Linking the histories of fog and illicit touch sheds light on the broader environmental and economic underpinnings of the sensory constitution of the legal subject and its hidden materialization in the 1956 Clean Air Act. It questions the assumption, overwhelming in sensory history, of an a priori physiological capacity to sense which is only culturally mediated rather than also itself being contingent on tactile practices in particular material conditions. These conditions were shaped by the consumption of coal and themselves shaped the individual’s inscription in law as a sensing, and sensible, subject; one who senses and is sensed by police straining through the fog but also one who acts ‘sensibly’ and is perceptible as such in the ‘eyes’ of the law. The consumption of coal and its meteorological effects, then, intersected with understandings of the self-government, governability, and indeed the possible definition of the legal subject.

Examining how political economy and law shape, and shape each other through, the body of the sensing subject therefore suggests a contingency for that subject and for its relation to the state which urges us to rethink narratives of British governmentality predicated on its constancy.

Paper 2 Abstract: Eloise Moss, University of Manchester

Paying for a ‘Private Shadow’: Forging Democracy and Surveillance in the Environs of the Hotel in Modern Britain

Hotels represent nations. Historically, they have facilitated international, interracial, and interpersonal encounters; hosting diplomatic rendezvous and political negotiations as well as holidays and sexual assignations, and securing a vital source of economic and cultural investment through sustaining global networks of visiting and domestic tourism. Yet the hotel space has remained largely unexplored in the historiography of modern Britain, thereby effacing the ways in which these commercial institutions have fundamentally shaped British identities in the very nature of their architecture, interior design, management, clientele, and staff. This paper introduces the hotel space as a fresh point of departure for examining the impact of mass consumption and tourism on everyday lives and on conceptualisations of democracy in Britain. In so doing, it offers a case-study analysis of the British Pathé newsreel Lady’s Maid (1946) depicting a day in the life of a maid at the Savoy hotel in London. An instalment of the hugely popular and enduring Pathé Pictorial cinemagazine series, Lady’s Maid exposed the paid-for intimacy of hotel staff and guests, whose nominal anonymity while resident in the hotel was continually assailed by their physical proximity to those by whom they were ‘served.’ Indeed, despite the accelerating demise of the ‘servant class’ in post-war domestic homes, hotels’ infrastructure of maids, butlers, waiters, and porters appeared to reproduce class-based forms of servile labour that were marketed as an attractive aspect of British heritage and culture. This paper explores how Lady’s Maid sought to navigate these tensions by reframing the hotel as the crucible for a new, more equitable model of post-war class relations. By foregrounding narratives of maids’ professionalism and economic independence, as well as their agency in accessing guests’ bodies and possessions, it refashioned ‘servitude’ as a form of civil contract in which staff were recognised as responsible for maintaining the fragile privacy of guests — and commensurately, the integrity of the relationship between individual, society, business, and state.

Paper 3 Abstract: Ashley Wilkinson, University of Manchester

Self-help in Postwar Britain

If the self is the subject of one’s own experience of phenomena, then the commercial and civic domain of Self-help (disseminated through published advice literature and institutions like Alcoholics Anonymous) offers a reflexive approach to one’s ‘life project’, predicated on an intentional attempt to reconfigure one’s way of thinking, behaving, feeling, being. The rise of the discourses and practices of Self-Help has been identified as a central development after 1945, a key facet of a broader shift in ‘governmentality’ described by Nikolas Rose (Rose; 1999) and others. Historical case studies of the British experience of Self-help have been rare, however. Most work has focused on the USA, usually from sociological or feminist perspectives, with British studies often restricted to the nineteenth century. Frank Furedi has addressed postwar Britain, but covered a more general topic of ‘therapy culture’ (Furedi; 2003).
By analysing political party manifestos and speeches alongside Self-help manuals, e.g. by Dale Carnegie and Alcoholics Anonymous, this paper will argue that the ideas, the language and the practices of Self-help have had a reciprocal relationship with postwar developments in public policy. Self-help ideology and Neoliberalism shared a concept of the individual as an isolated subject or ‘entrepreneurial self’, responsible for themselves and their circumstances, a form of human capital which must sell itself in the marketplace. In this formulation Welfare Statism did harm by rewarding economic unproductivity and cultivating dependency. It will be shown that Self-help has served the function of creating entrepreneurial selves in the cause of Neoliberalism, whereby citizenship is exercised via economic rather than political activity, and is undertaken individually rather than collectively. Furthermore, in viewing the self as an object to be reassembled the subject was simultaneously reconstructed as a commodity to be displayed, as a living advertisement for Self-help and the Neoliberal project.


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