Isolation and alienation: how social inequality is sustained

David Newman, environmental campaigner and author of Everything is Connected, revisits the famous speech by Scottish trade union activist Jimmy Reid in 1972, and how its message about ways in which social inequality is sustained is still relevant today.

David Newman

Jimmy Reid, a Glaswegian communist trade unionist born into poverty in the Gorbals, was the leader of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in during 1971-72, which campaigned to save the shipyards from closure.

The reason for this piece is to talk about his speech. The speech. One of the greatest speeches of all time, one that when I hear even today, 50 years later, moves me to tears. Jimmy was invited to address Glasgow University to which he had been appointed Rector on 28 April 1972. It had an electrifying impact on many at the time, myself included. It was also the day that the Conservative Government, which Reid fought against, approved the rescue deal for his shipyards.

I will not rewrite the whole speech as it is 13 pages long. On video you can hear part of the speech as well as the two-minute standing ovation he received afterwards, or you can read it all. Please do, it will help you understand our world, 50 years later. 

Here are some of the more memorable opening lines: 

“Let me at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies. It is expressed by those young people who want to opt out of society, by drop-outs, the so-called maladjusted, those who seek to escape permanently from the reality of society through intoxicants and narcotics...

A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.  It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit.  This is how it starts, and, before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat pack. The price is too high.  Or as Christ puts it: ‘What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world to suffer the loss of his soul?’ "

He chose the theme ‘alienation’, from Karl Marx’s theory. He wrote the speech himself and for the first time wore a white tie, the uniform of the establishment. But he spoke the language of the Gorbals, in thick Glaswegian.

His speech was described by the New York Times as one of the most outstanding speeches of the 20th century, reprinting the text in full.  Few other speakers have received this recognition. 

Jimmy Reid comes to mind a lot these days as I ponder our own state of isolation. Little has changed since 1972. Yes, we all became wealthier – but the wealth is relative because the wealthy became disproportionately wealthier, and working people have become more vulnerable and have less stake in our societies. Yes, we participate in a democratic process, but the wealthy manipulate this with their control over the media and the national narrative – so we voted for Brexit to make ourselves poorer because we fell for the speculator’s narrative.  Yes, we applaud the NHS, and at the same time allow the speculators to privatise it, extracting our taxes for their profit.  Yes, we talk about social inclusion, but I remember the 1977 debate about the need to give workers shareholder rights in business. Sounds familiar? Forty-three years later, we are still discussing it. 

We live in a society Jimmy Reid would have no difficulty in recognising ten years after his death in 2010. We do not understand the economic forces that control our lives; we are excluded from the processes of economic decision-making; we have little say in shaping our destinies; millions reject our society and escape through drugs and alcohol. Many have lost their dignity and human spirit as they live in poverty.   

Jimmy Reid would not understand today how the extraordinary, disproportionate and unjustifiable wealth and privilege of the rich relative to their wealth in 1972 has been allowed to happen. The rich got richer at our expense and continue to do so using the mechanisms of alienation and isolation. Karl Marx had sadly predicted that. Living in greater solitary confinement, isolated, is an adjunct and COVID-19 has accelerated the process. Whilst we are all mostly, in real terms, better off than we were in 1972, we are all disproportionately and relatively far worse off compared to the elites that dictate the economic decision-making processes in their favour. 

Why is this relevant now? 

Many of us working in the field of environmental protection see the post-COVID period as a chance to “build back better”, to green the economy, to substitute fossil with renewable energies, to drive electric cars and so on. But this is a narrative that totally misses (and deliberately so) the whole issue Jimmy Reid raised in 1972: our lack of participation in the economic decision-making that determines the outcomes of our society. Just driving around in a Tesla will not change that one iota.  Adding wind turbines to the North Sea does not alter the relationship between working people, capital and politics one bit.  

Indeed, the information-driven economy concentrates that power away from working people even more – the concentration of wealth associated with that is evident and our alienation from the decision-making processes that drive that wealth is greater today than 50 years ago. At least at that time, the investor we related to was likely to be local; today he (or she) sits in California, Bangalore or Beijing. These people have a real interest in determining the outcomes of our economies to their advantage, and this means ensuring we are isolated, alienated and weakened and kept at a great distance from the control room while the politicians these people sponsor ensure we are.

Alienation from our society and economy of millions of our citizens results in violence, drug addiction, poor health, unemployment; building back better cannot ignore these symptoms of a sick country. We live in a nation with millions of poor people, hungry yet obese children and extraordinarily uneducated groups that illustrate the failure of our education system. Today we need not just to build back better, but to build back with greater social inclusion, meaning by this giving working people a greater say over and investment in the enterprises for which they work. This means employee shareholding (yes, we are still discussing 50 years later what the Germans take for granted), places on Boards, limits on media ownership, especially reducing concentrations of media and information power; programmes that invest in and involve communities in deprived areas; food and health education; legalising drugs on the Portugal model to bring addicts back into society and to end the violence associated with trafficking; educating for skills; and redistributing wealth through taxation – including the US model of taxing citizens wherever they live, Monte Carlo or the Channel Islands. 

Greening our economy is not enough to ensure a healthy relationship between the humans living here. We need to tackle isolation and alienation, which, as Jimmy Reid said in 1972, still explains our modern society 50 years later.