As F.A. Hayek wrote in his "History and Politics" (reprinted here), "there is scarcely a political ideal or concept which does not involve opinions about a whole series of past events, and there are few historical memories which do not serve as a symbol of some political aim." Our understanding of history drives our political views. The historian is thus an intellectual of great influence on political behavior. And yet, wrote Hayek, "it is only at several removes that the picture which he provides becomes general property; it is via the novel and the newspaper, the cinema, and the political speeches, and ultimately the school and common talk, that the ordinary person acquires his conceptions of history."
Sometimes this conception of history is based upon myths that prove to be hard to die. Motion pictures are thus a very interesting "signalling device" of the prevailing political prejudices.
It is unusual that a movie comes out with the clearly declared aim to establish a certain view of history - but it might happen. It just happened with Ken Loach's new documentary, "The spirit of 45".
This is an interesting movie that would deeply irritate most of the readers of this blog (or, at least, has deeply irritated me). Loach tries to elicit a nostalgic longing for the British postwar Welfare State. The film, as Philip French has aptly summarized it on the Guardian, "suggests that Britain was united behind a socialist government determined to make root-and-branch changes to our national institutions, that it succeeded in this aim, and then (the film's big leap forward) a vindictive Margaret Thatcher suddenly appeared in 1979 to dismantle the great achievement."
Loach's political history is rather childish: his is truly a black-and-white movie, in which the good is only on one side, and the evil on the other. The director's aim seem to be openly directed towards contemporary British politics: his commitment to socialism supposedly will help the new leadership of the Labour party, which sounds more like Neil Kinnock than like Tony Blair.
However, I think the movie offers a rationale for the welfare state that is quite revealing. Loach does not build his support for interventionist policies on the fact that life is up to a certain extent a lottery, and thus we need a certain amount of redistribution to compensate that sad reality. He uses a rhetoric of exploitation, and sees the working classes condemned to be exploited unless the government intervenes extensively in the economy. Contrary to many social-democrats, who more or less grudgingly accept the market economy as the goose that lays golden eggs which should be redistributed to the benefit of society at large, he doesn't believe you can have strong welfare provision without state ownership and a command and control economy.
He portrays Clement Attlee as sort of a democratically-elected Lenin, a revolutionary who made apparent that, if the state could organize factors of production in wartime, so it could in peacetime. Loach isn't bothered by the idea that organizing factors of production to fulfill the innumerable needs of people that live and work in a peaceful society is a bit different than collecting and mobilizing resource for the war effort.
Perhaps Loach's movie signals the way in which people in anti-capitalist movements like Occupy Wall Street are trying to conciliate their revolutionary talk with "conservative" policy proposals that aim to preserve the status quo of the welfare state. One can't but note that "The Spirit of '45" enumerates the successes of the welfare state, basically by quoting its founding documents. No attention is given to its effects - including the economic stagnation in Britain that allowed Mrs Thatcher to win successive elections. Such an approach is certainly well-conceived, provided you want to keep historical myths alive.