Tuesday, August 23, 2011


This is the second part of my attempt to summarise a book that my great-grandfather Robert Ratcliffe wrote called A history of the working class movement in Ipswich. The first part covered the nineteenth century, up until the mid-1880s, when the first Trades Council was formed in Ipswich. This post goes into more detail about the successes and failures of the Trades Council and takes us into the early years of the last century.

What is most striking is how many failures the organised working class had to endure during the last quarter of that century. The formation of the Trades Council was a great success, as it brought together disparate groups of agricultural and urban workers. But the Trades Council was only a means to an end, and for decades it seemed to achieve little in getting working people represented on public bodies. If there is a political point here, it’s that the political relations and institutions which were taken for granted in the twentieth century were by no means inevitable a few decades earlier. Indeed, the men of the left who lived in Ipswich in the 1880s and 1890s must have wondered if their labours would ever bear fruit; and reading Bob Ratcliffe’s book now, we might almost wonder the same thing.


30/8/84. Meeting at the Saracen’s Head pub to form the Trades Council (TC).


First meeting of the Trades Council – first time unskilled workers had organised en masse. Dockers’ Union members could only join if accepted by other members. David Ault, president, was assaulted by stevedores [who loaded and unloaded the ships] at one meeting. They claimed he wanted to do away with them; he said the Union was interested in preventing sub-contracting.

The Ipswich Dockers’ Union was the first to have its own banner.

David Ault died aged 32. Hundreds attended his funeral on a wet day, and the banner was carried at the head of the funeral procession. Described as “nothing but a Docker, a man of good spirit, honest in all his dealings and thorough in all his ways, who possessed a power to raise the class he was so proud to lead and had faith in the people among whom he laboured.” He lived at 362 Spring Road.

Also in 1885, Mr Castledene fought St Clement’s ward (a slum district) for the TC. Fought on a ticket of improving conditions for workers who were paying high rates. Came last.

15/12/1885. Formation of Ipswich Debating Society, inspired by a letter in the local press. 1886 – became the Ipswich Parliament and met regularly but soon dissolved.


Ipswich Election Petition. Local MP Jesse Collins (a Liberal) had fought for land reform and free secular elementary education for all, and was unpopular with religious groups who lodged a petition. Later MP in Birmingham, but split from the Liberals over Home Rule.

26/8/1886. “[There] opened up in Ipswich a Labour Bureau, the first of its kind in the country. During the first seven months, employment was found for 235 out of a total of more than 500 applicants for jobs.” The bureau sometimes supported strike breaking, sending men to corners of England to fill in – seen as a divisive body.


Mrs Annie Besant, the noted Socialist agitator, addressed a large public meeting in the Cooperative Hall on Wednesday 10 March 1887. She dealt at some length on the aims and objects of Socialism, and on the evil effects of private ownership of land. Mr Manning Prentice of Stowmarket presided; Mr George Hines and Mr H. Bailey moved and seconded a vote of thanks.”


London dock strike – a milestone in the creation of unions for unskilled workers, including Bargemen’s and Dockers’ Unions. In Ipswich, many of these became affiliated to the TC. Many were Radicals and used the TC for party-political ends.

Effects of ’89 Dock Strike in Ipswich. Dispute between the Gas Company and the workers: “the rate was 5½ d per ton ... a week later the men came out on strike for an advance of ¼d per ton ... the manager listened to the men’s statements and decided to meet the men halfway ... by offering them one eighth of a penny increase.” The men refused and fought scab labour. 20 December – meeting of the Dock Labourers Union in Princes St, addressed by Mr Tom Mann (“now famous for his work in connection with the London Dock Strike”) and “he appealed to the men not to be content until they had the ‘tanner’ [a rate of sixpence an hour] as they had in London.”


Formation of Eastern Counties Labour Federation (ECLF). Manifesto: eight-hour day; demolition of all insanitary dwellings; submission of all labour disputes to arbitration; prevention of overseas wars; support other Trades Unions. 7,000 men joined in the first year. Within 18 months it had 200 branches, 10,000 members, £487 income and £329 expenditure. Demonstrated to Suffolk workers that they were underpaid and enjoyed poor conditions compared to workers in other counties. In October 1890, the ECLF successfully represented a member in Otley who had been underpaid by a farmer. Several other successful cases in this vein. Fractious relationship with other Unions. Despite having at one point more than 20,000 members, it folded in 1895.

“At this period there were no such things as Labour Exchanges. The unemployed had to seek work as best they could and there was no income for those who were out of work.”

Also at this time, employers often formed scab unions and would share alternate labour when there was a dispute.

TC contested Bridge ward in 1890. Mr Medcalf came last in a poorly organised campaign. “Those who took part in the selection of the candidate and worked during the contest informed me that, as their meeting-place was on licensed premises, it was considered unlawful to publicly nominate a candidate within the building, so after the candidate had been selected they came outside into the street and publicly nominated him there under the street lamp.” The Labour and Wages paper said of the result: “He had not been ‘fiddled by the Tories’ nor ‘dished by the Whigs’; he had simply been neglected by his own class. The working man will do better next time. Their neglect is not due to badness of heart but from want of thought, and they will do better as they grow wiser. He recommends more work and less brawling next time.” Medcalf died of syncope while working shortly afterwards.


An independent Labour candidate, Mr Joseph Robinson, stood in St Margaret’s ward, came second and was thereby elected as the first working man on the Town Council. Proposal to form a party independent of Liberals and Tories, but nothing came of it for some time.


24/9/1892. Mass Trade Union demo “in a meadow below Oak Hill and Stoke Rectory grounds”. The demo met at St Margaret’s Green and marched with banners, including one from Stratford indicating “that the Great Eastern men asked to be paid for Sunday duty”. Another, from the Battersea Branch of the Navvy Bricklayers Labourers Union, “represented a Nemesis over taking sundry evils.”

At another meeting in 1892 a fight broke out between Mr Fred Woodyard, Treasurer of the Ipswich Dockers Union, and Mr Ike Ward, organising secretary of the General Railway Workers Union. “Mr Ward was described as a two months bird of paradise” whilst Mr Woodyard was defined as “a man who had set himself up as a divinity when in fact he was nothing but a false God – a brazen-faced Nebuchadnezzar who must be beaten down from the sight of all men.” A report from the TUC – the main item on the agenda – was never discussed.


The great national coal dispute. Keir Hardie, following the Trades Union Congress in Bradford, got together with others and formed the Independent Labour Party. Ipswich branch met at Neptune Inn, Fore St; set up a tailor’s shop also selling socialist literature and Co-op Wholesale Society products in Falcon St. This ran into financial difficulties and closed, and the Ipswich ILP branch folded. But before this in 1894, the ILP defended Joe Robinson’s Council seat in St Margaret’s. St Clement’s ward was also contested. Both lost badly.

Nevertheless, successes for the Postmen’s Federation; the boot and show dispute; the formation of the Ipswich branch of the Operative Plasterers Union; also branches in Ipswich, Felixstowe, Colchester and Thetford of the Operative Stonemasons Union.


Purchase by the public of Christchurch Park, supported by Cllr Robinson and other members of the TC.


An appeal was sent to working men which read: “Ipswich, with its 60,000 inhabitants, is a long way behind ... as, with the exception of the School Board, the working men are not directly represented on any public body.” Trades Council Committee proposed a subscription of 1d per month to fund a well-organised campaign. But lack of forthcoming funds and interest meant they had to forgo contesting Bridge Ward in 1897.


Two significant disputes around foreign labour substitution. First, the Captain of a boat carrying beans from Cyprus refused to pay his crew, then refused to employ local labour to empty the boat, bribing the crew to do it in order to get their wages; they refused and unsuccessfully tried to issue a court summons against the Captain. Meanwhile, the Labour Bureau (see above) provided scab labour to unload the boat, and therefore the crew were out-of-pocket. Second, Messrs Brown and Hooper had employed English silk-weavers from Spitalfields and, having gained much knowledge, dismissed them and employed much cheaper German labour.


Labour contest St Clement’s ward, with Page again as the candidate. Came last.


Ward tries again, under a Lib-Lab banner. This was ridiculed by the Tories, who dismissed them as Home Rulers and claimed that the Liberals had always been in the working man’s pocket. But Grimwade the Liberal won St Clement’s ward and Page came second. Despite this, the two parties would not cooperate in Town Council elections again, preferring not to be compromised.

Conclusion: “There is great satisfaction in observing that at the end of the nineteenth century, the Trades Council was firmly established and a beginning had been made in political activities ... perhaps one of the most important developments arising out of the individual and political struggles in our democracy during those years was the establishment of the Labour movement. In the year 1900 this movement was still very much in its infancy, but it opened up new and hopeful vistas for the future of the working classes in this country.”


We now move to the second book of Ratcliffe’s opus, which coincides with the first days of a new century.

1900/01. New Unions formed, and some disbanded. Trades Council petitioned Parliament to support MPs Norton and Hardie to establish a 48-hour working week and 24 shillings per week minimum wage. Following the Education Act of 1902, schools came under the Local Authority. Mr Whiting became a Trades Council rep on the Education Committee.


Postmen’s Dispute. Wages had stagnated amidst rising costs of living (especially rent), but a request to the Postmaster General for an increase had been turned down. The Trades Council appealed to local MPs to take up their case in Parliament, but the decision stood.


Council Elections. In St Clement’s, Page came last, losing by five votes.


Electric trams replaced horse-drawn trams. Houses were demolished to make way for new lines and 23 new houses were built in Devonshire Road as replacements. Meanwhile, workers protested against terrible working conditions on the trams at the Cornhill in November 1904. At the same time, a depression in the building trade. The Trades Council requested that the Council get local labour to build the Devonshire Road houses, rather than sub-contracting. The Council refused.


Electoral successes. Mixed fortunes in following years.


Ipswich branch of ASLEF formed. Met initially in the old museum rooms; then the Station St Institute, then the EUR hotel, then from 1927 the Loco Club in Rectory Road.

Also in 1906, following national Liberal landslide in 1905, Ipswich branch of the ILP reformed. First meeting place was 22 Norwich Road. “Their agitation took the form of a religious and spiritual nature, and no ILP meeting was complete without the singing of Labour songs.” Also Socialist Sunday schools; open air meetings; “they did much to arouse people’s emotions as well as to draw attention to economics ... Jack London’s books were also in great demand.”

Excerpts from the first annual report of the Ipswich ILP read as follows:

- “having among us a number of the Old Brigade, we are not the result of a new birth, but a resurrection”

- “we shall remember the addresses given by our Chairman and Vice-Chairman, also the evening when we all joined in a general confession of our faith; we each managed to add a few words in reply to the question “why we were Socialist,” and a pleasant evening was spent”

- “we also had an opportunity of witnessing a battle royal between a member of the old school of politics and the new”

- “If one characteristic has shown more than another, it is that the Labour Movement, as we accept it, lives by fighting.”

1906 elections – independent Radical Mr Boast was returned to St Clement’s; ILP candidate came last in Bridge and Westgate wards.

But the movement gained members and the ILP took a room in St Stephen’s Lane rent-free in return for putting it in order. Children were christened there at the “Labour Church”.

Bob Ratcliffe reproduces the 1909 Annual Report in full, but no sooner had I begun copying it out, than the librarians of the Ipswich Records Office announced that it was about to close. That will have to wait for next time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


It occurred to me while reading The Luminous Coast that my ramblings about / over the East coast of England are in danger of becoming parochial. I have written at length (see here, here, here, here, ad infinitum) about a stretch of coast measuring about 25 miles from north to south (that between Dunwich and Felixstowe), but as much as my Suffolk pride may not stand the fact that there is more to the coast than Shingle Street and Orford, it is nevertheless true. There is Norfolk, and North Suffolk and the Shotley Peninsula, and Essex.

So on Friday, I took the day off work and decided to walk along the coast at Tilbury – a little out of my comfort zone since it is neither (a) mid Suffolk nor (b) the inner-London Thames. I began my walk at East Tilbury, or rather the northern section of East Tilbury which is served by the Fenchurch St to Southend railway.

East Tilbury used to be a small village, dotted with weather-boarded cottages and a traditional village pub, perched on the river where Coalhouse Fort stands. But in 1933, it grew northwards when the Bata shoe empire arrived from Czechoslovakia and chose the South Essex as its British base.

Tomas Bata had started the company in Zlin in 1894. Inspired by the Victorian industrialists, his business plan was to set up factory communities overseas (Vikram Seth lived in a Bata community in India and described it in A suitable boy). In effect, these were garden cities, but they differed from Letchworth and Bourneville in one important respect: Bata was a devout advocate of Modernism.

When he died in an airplane crash in 1932, his half-brother Jan-Antonin took up the reins and built one of these garden cities in East Tilbury. At the centre of the new settlement, a functionalist factory, hotel and administrative building were erected, along with flat-roofed houses for the workers, plotted along a grid pattern which adhered strictly to Ebenezer Howard’s formula.

The Bataville in East Tilbury appears, from reports we read, to have been a uniquely corporate benign dictatorship. Loyalty to the company was paramount, and the Bata empire’s techniques were positively Fordist. But John Tusa, whose father was the general manager of the East Tilbury factory, describes it rather wistfully, even if much of its mystique was a bit eerie:

Looked at from today’s harsh, market-driven methods, the Bata enterprise was incredibly paternalistic. Nobody acts like that nowadays, building model estates, looking after workers for a lifetime of service. The Bata estate contained a Bata school, Bata technical college, Bata hotel and restaurant, Bata cinema, Bata swimming pool, tennis court, Bata farm, butcher, grocer, Bata shoe shop, doctor and a Bata garage [...] Everybody regarded both the objective setting, the performance measurement, the league tables and the bonuses as part of the Bata system. It was tough; it was paternalistic. And it certainly assumed that a good deal of private life was enmeshed into company life.

Across the world, at one time or another, Bata produced shoes for Nazi soldiers, Soviet bloc citizens and Western consumers. Today, its obsessive approach to targets as ends in themselves seems rather modern; Bataville in East Tilbury, meanwhile, feels rather tired. The cinema is now a Co-op; the Bauhaus houses are mostly pebble-dashed and stand apologetically next to their more traditionally English neighbours; the factory is completely deserted (though much of the land still belongs to Bata).

I walk down through old East Tilbury (past cottages with cheesily evocative names like Shangri-la, Mariner’s Cottage and Alpha, and one which has been christened “Council House”) to Coalhouse Fort, built in the 1860s as a defence against the French. It was never used for this purpose, of course, but in the Second World War it contained equipment which tested whether the magnetic field of British steel hulled ships were effectively neutralised to deter attacks from magnetic mines. In the 60s, it was leased to Bata for storage.

I sat by the moat among families of picnickers and ate my sandwiches, then walked towards the old radar tower by the river, which is still marked on maps as a water tower, a hangover from the extreme secrecy that surrounded radar during the war. As I approached the water, I saw something extraordinary: a bench, commemorating the life of Harry, “a very special boy – 28.02.1997 – 29.08.2003”. There is nothing to explain who Harry was, where he came from, or what his connection was to this barren stretch of shoreline. Teddies and stones and pot-plants surround this shrine, and a framed card to “a little angel.” It is incredibly poignant, not least because it appears to be tended by complete strangers, people like me who pass this spot and add something. “It is an ancient desire,” writes Jules Pretty, “this wish to leave something of ourselves on the land to mark someone’s passing. But something has changed. Once the berth in the graveyard was booked. Now there is no such certainty. This disconnection from future place is something of a novelty.”

I turn westwards towards the huge power station at Tilbury. I think this is the closest I have been to the Thames without being on a boat. I can almost feel the water lapping at my feet, and when I reach the site of the old rubbish tip, I can hear pieces of old pottery tinkle under the tide. In the nineteenth century, when the old cemeteries of the City were excavated, human remains were dumped here, and it is not unusual to find a hip joint or a fibula on the beach. (Rather wonderfully, this Flickr user found the remains of an old Nestle advert – full version here – but I could only see some nice old bits of plate and what looked like Jagermeister bottles.)

Seasoned walkers of coastal paths, especially those with an industrial past or present, get nervous when they are among scenery which is stirring or cute, because it usually signifies that menace is just around the corner. The path from the ceramic beach-cum-boneyard became vague the nearer I got the power station, and I soon found myself hemmed in between a high concrete seawall and an evil-looking structure like two cranes balanced on a ship’s hull.

The wall zigzagged, so that I had the bewildered sensation of not quite knowing which direction I was walking in, and that somebody was lurking behind every corner, ready to attack. But while my pace increased, I couldn’t help but stop every few minutes to look at the graffiti. Most of it looked at least twenty years old, and had been painted on rather than sprayed. Its themes seemed to be Mods (pro), the Miners Strike (anti), the Tories (also anti) and this logo (a Pink Floyd reference?):

Exhausted by the Thames at Tilbury, I turned inland, walking along the busy Fort Road, ducking into hedges to avoid lorries bound for Tilbury Docks. Eventually, having found a side-road, I walked up the quiet side-road to West Tilbury and across the fields back to East Tilbury station. With your back to the twin chimneys of Tilbury power station, the scene is almost bucolic (though not quite – for all the chirruping birds and country pubs, one cannot avoid noticing the groups of migrant workers picking potatoes and sugar-beet from the fields). But what does the future hold for this community, whose roots lie so far back in English history?

Thurrock is a key part of the Thames Gateway plan. East Thurrock (the area around Shell Haven) has been bought by Dubai Ports and will become one of the UK’s major container ports. Meanwhile, the Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation aims to build 18,500 homes in the borough, and it is believed that 26,000 jobs will be created. In a part of the world this seeped in history and so removed in the public imagination from London, it is easy to slip into melancholy and fear that the essence of the area will be swept away by mass construction. But, as with so many settlements next to a river or sea, Tilbury seems not to have an essence as such, and certainly no eternal kernel. How its inhabitants will adapt to the development (and vice versa) is anybody’s guess, but it is certain that in ten years time it will look very different. And yet, just as water continually flows from the source out to sea but the Thames remains the Thames, so Tilbury will remain Tilbury. It will still wave across the river to Gravesend. It will still, I suspect, be a strange place, its beaches scattered with bottles and benches and bones, and no amount of new housing or container shipments will alter that.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Saturday, August 13, 2011


One newspaper report in respect of the riots which has gone largely unnoticed is this one from the Times:

"the whole of South London was panic-stricken by the report that a large body of unemployed rioters were on their way to the Borough and Newington Causeway from New Cross and Deptford, smashing shops on their way. Shops were boarded up and extra police sent down the Old Kent Road."

In fact, the article is from 1886. That riot has parallels with last week's. Against a backdrop of global recession and rising unemployment, the anger and hopelessness that had been bubbling up for years erupted. In 1886, "
masses of the poor devils of the East End who vegetate in the borderland between working class and Lumpenproletariat" (in Engels' words) met the leaders of the revolutionary Social Democratic Federation who high-handedly tried to channel their energies into something political. But the "roughs and 'Arrys" were having none of it: "on the road [from Trafalgar Square to Pall Mall] the roughs took matters into their own hands, smashed club windows and shop fronts, plundered first wine stores and bakers' shops, and then some jewellers' shops also, so that in Hyde Park our revolutionary swells had to preach "le calme et la modération"!

Engels was scathing of the revolutionaries - "
literary and political adventurers" he called them - but he was one of the many writers at that time who saw that indistinct violence was an inevitable consequence of the dreadful living conditions in East London. "The distress," he wrote in a letter to August Bebel in February 1886, "especially in the East End of the city, is appalling. The exceptionally hard winter, since January, added to the boundless indifference of the possessing classes, produced a considerable movement among the unemployed masses."

concern was shared by many bourgeois commentators and politicians. Around this time, Lord Salisbury set up a Royal Commission to investigate the issue of housing for the working classes. The Commission itself was an extraordinarily motley crew made up of Tory and Liberal politicians, the Archbishop of Westminster and Bishop of Bedford, a Trade Union leader and the Prince of Wales (subsequently Edward VII). One of the Liberal politicians was Jesse Collings, who has a connection with Ipswich politics (on which, more soon).

Out of the Royal Commission came the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1885, which gave landlords a statutory responsibility to ensure sanitary housing, and gave Local Authorities the power to demolish unhealthy slums. One of the first Local Authorities to assert this power was the London County Council. The Friars Mount slum in Bethnal Green had become notorious when Arthur Morrison used it as a barely fictionalised backdrop to A child of Jago. The LCC began demolition of the slum in 1893, and by 1900 they had completed the building of the world's first ever social housing programme: the Boundary Estate round Arnold Circus. The rubble from the slums was famously used to build the bandstand in the middle of the estate.

Yet equally famously, of the 5,000 new flats, only 11 were occupied by evicted slum dwellers. The rest were moved on to other slums in Dalston and Hackney. It took a World War nearly twenty years later for slum-clearance and the construction of good Council housing nationwide to become a statutory duty for Local Authorities.

It is difficult to predict such a progressive outcome to rise from the ashes of last week's riots. One cannot see David Cameron asking one of his cabinet ministers to chair a Royal Commission; one cannot see it comprising backbench MPs, Rowan Williams, Dave Prentice or Prince Charles; and one cannot see it seriously trying to find anything out about the working class experience. The government sees little to be gained from launching an enquiry. It would rather turn a blind eye to the causes, although its blundering attempts to appear tough have made it look ridiculous and has earned opprobrium from the police.

Whereas Salisbury and his colleagues knew that reform was necessary to revive British trade, politicians today can see no way out of the neoliberal hole. They see Britain's position in the world and its social fabric going to hell in a handbasket, but they can do nothing about it, only trot out the same tired cliches about personal responsibility, call in the LAPD and pitch up in Clapham waving a broom. But as this excellent piece at the University for Strategic Optimism points out,

"Art and brooms isn’t going to fix this particular problem however, only the radical redistribution of wealth and a society not defined around the individual accumulation of property is going to do that. It’s not 1940, the destruction of the urban fabric is not wrought by foreign bombs, but by kids from the broom-brigade’s own neighbourhoods. They can pretend to pick up a few bits of litter for the cameras, but that is a fact that can not be wiped away so easily."

Monday, August 08, 2011


It is the easiest thing in the world to say that the rioting and looting which is spreading across London and beyond is mindless, or to blame certain demographic groups (poor, black young men). But as these two pieces argue, what we are seeing are not mindless acts. They have a cause, and while they do not have an explicitly political object, there is a political edge to them.

Coincidentally, on the tube into work this morning (from Stockwell rather than Brixton), I was reading the chapter on violence from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The spirit level, which highlights the unmistakable link between inequality and a range of social ills. Of all the behaviours which Wilkinson and Pickett link to inequality, violence is the clearest. If you plot a number of developed countries on a graph with income inequality on the x axis and homicides or assaults or other violent acts on the y acts, there is a crystal-clear correlation.

They quote the psychiatrist James Gilligan, who has researched and written widely on the causes of violence:

In his books Violence and Preventing Violence, he argues that acts of violence are ‘attempts to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation – a feeling that is painful, and can even be intolerable and overwhelming – and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride'.

They also quote evolutionary psychologists, who have demonstrated through statistical analysis that “young men have strong incentives to achieve and maintain as high a social status as they can,” to show why such acts are overwhelmingly committed by men. But the point here is that our preconditioned impulse to achieve a higher status is amplified in more unequal societies. A review of 33 analyses of inequality and violent crime carried out in 1993 found that all but one showed a positive correlation.

Wilkinson and Pickett also point to a study carried out in Chicago in the 1940s which disproves the idea that violence is committed more by certain ethnic groups:

In Chicago, neighbourhoods are often identified with a particular ethnic group. So a neighbourhood which might once have been an enclave of Irish immigrants and their descendants later become a Polish community, and later still a Latino neighbourhood. What the Chicago school sociologists drew attention to was the persistent effect of deprivation and poverty in poor neighbourhoods – on whoever lived there.

They conclude that “shame and humiliation become more sensitive issues in more hierarchical societies: status becomes more important, status competition increases and more people are deprived of access to markers of status and social success.”

This is precisely what we see happening today. The UK is becoming an increasingly unequal place, and for many people the idea of social mobility is a joke. In areas of poverty – which all of the blighted areas so far are – people are trapped, economically and geographically. This is not to justify acts of violence, but merely to explain them (a distinction which is lost on many of the lecturing statements we see from officials).

As Professor John Pitts from the Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime has said today, “many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future. Those things that normally constrain people are not there. Much of this was opportunism but in the middle of it there is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose.” Until this is recognised and acted upon by politicians, their self-important dressings-down will mean nothing.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


The flood of 1953 cannot be, and was not, blamed on anybody. It was the result of natural forces, and in its immediate aftermath, the public and government rallied round to prevent further floods, fixing sea walls and flood defences by lugging huge quantities of sand to patch things up.

By contrast, when Tewkesbury and other areas of the Midlands and Western England were hit by floods in 2007, there were clearly people and policies to blame – water companies for not bothering to think about a back-up plan for its main Gloucestershire waterworks (which were on a flood plain), and the wholesale privatisation of utilities. And, again by contrast to 1953, the public was impotent to respond.

We see this in all walks of life. When a private company screws something up, the government is blamed for surrendering its powers over to the private sector. We saw it in the recent care home scandals – CQC was blamed for not regulating Winterbourne View vigorously enough, and the government was blamed for allowing Southern Care to operate on such flimsy financial foundations.

As Mark Fisher says in his book Capitalist Realism, “it has to be recognised that focus on government, like the focus on immoral individuals, is an act of deflection.” As a body politic, we seem to need a big state to blame when things go wrong, but we refuse to face up to the realities of the market system. Indeed, however much things go wrong, our faith in the efficiencies of the market seems to hold up pretty well. This is a contradiction we find it difficult to resolve, perhaps because “at the level of the political unconscious, it is impossible to accept that there are no overall controllers.” The essential of government today is to fill the symbolic hole created by the submission of public services to the market.

Fisher’s chapter on this phenomenon – entitled ‘There’s no central exchange’ – is perhaps the best summation of life in late capitalist society that I have read. He draws on Kafka, who he says “is poorly understood as exclusively a writer on totalitarianism; a decentralised, market Stalinist bureaucracy is far more Kafkaesque than one in which there is central authority.”

He compares K’s encounter with the telephone exchange in The Castle to our own experience of call centres: “the boredom and frustration punctuated by cheerily piped PR ... the building rage that must remain impotent because it can have no legitimate object, since – as is very quickly clear to the caller – there is no-one who knows, and no-one who could do anything if they could.”

We search and search for an explanation, for somebody who can solve our problem (and when, on the odd occasion, we get through to somebody who can actually help us, we raise them to the level of a saint). But this is almost always a wild goose chase – nobody can help us, because our problems are irrelevant to the corporations who provide us with a service. “The supreme genius of Kafka,” writes Fisher, “was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there – it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility.”

Neoliberal theory would say: ok, if you’re unsatisfied with the service you’re getting, why not change provider? You’re probably not the only one, and if enough people reject an efficient company, that company will go under, to be replaced by a more capable outfit. We do not quite see it like this, because despite all the propaganda that is thrown at us, we still like to see ourselves as citizens rather than consumers. To which neoliberal theory would also say: well, that’s your fault for not taking responsibility.

“Taking responsibility” is today’s buzzphrase. We must look within ourselves and play our own individual part in making the world a better place. When things go wrong, it is always because individuals have failed to do this. This applies to us as consumer-citizens, and equally to bureaucrats and corporate players. “For this reason,” says Fisher, it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Zizek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself.” To an extent, we have seen this happening in the News Corporation crisis, although there one really does get the sense of a “shadowy, centreless impersonality proper to corporate conspiracy.”

The notion of individual responsibility is also one that beleaguers well-meaning public servants who believe that they are immune to external influences and can, by sheer force of ethics, make a difference. “It is here that structure is palpable – you can practically see it taking people over, hear its deadened / deadening judgments speaking through them.” I agree – and I speak as a middle-ranking, well-meaning, public-sector bureaucrat.