The English city of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Our friends in the north

Tensions abound regarding what products and services are made available to us all, as well as what people must do in order for these things to be made available.

Someone, somewhere must work their body and mind to produce the services and goods we want and need. People must build and maintain homes. People must track and distribute resources to keep account of and direct the complex of human effort. People must pack and transport goods, as well as provide food, healthcare, roads, sanitation, cleaning, radio programmes, make chairs, and so on. We have all these things because we tap into the resources and wealth provided by nature and combine it with human labour. This is fairly basic.

What’s sometimes overlooked is why social and political tensions have regularly arisen within past and current political economic systems that drive and frame these activities. Labour is used to expand wealth that’s available to society, but the worker doesn’t automatically receive that wealth. The distribution of wealth is socially determined by political and economic systems and decisions.

That’s why we can have periods where people are highly productive or work very long hours but still end up struggling for the basics such as adequate housing and heating. At other times, the average working hour can be reduced yet the majority of workers receive a greater share of the wealth that’s produced.

We’re reminded of this exact problem and the inequality of power inherent in our existing system when it comes to who receives what portion of wealth, who makes such decisions, and how decisions are made thanks to a television drama that follows the lives of four individuals in England’s north.

Our Friends in the North is a short television serial that takes the medium very seriously. It narrates a beautifully scripted and performed story of human life embedded in the search for justice and dignity.

The story’s human subjects are working class people faced with a self-serving and mendacious political elite that aggressively maintains an inequality of wealth and power. The well-meaning among the politicians are hemmed in by the system, overwhelmed by the immense power of their opponents, befuddled by scandal, or seduced by the constant draw of corruption. The most ardent opponents can often do little more than, to paraphrase a line from the serial, stick our their tongues at established power.

Working class people fight within their own means, via work stoppages, marches, and acts of simple if ad hoc individual support that are inadequate to resolve systemic oppression but preserve a degree of bare existence above the very base.

There’s no gloss on any of it. Stark realism is the order of this tale.

The story captures a vitally important historical period for the West: the transition from post World War Two liberalism to the neoliberalism introduced under the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as well as by the obfuscated technocratic bureaucracy of the European Union.

The nine-part serial follows the life of four friends from Newcastle over a period of about 30 years. The roles are believable, the acting superb. The protagonists are marked by the history of their time but also carry the weight of ancestry during a period of epochal change.

The narrative structure alone is delightful. One of the protagonist’s fathers subtly serves as general metastructure: a person who believes his life a failure because the politicised movement he was a part of did not bring about the expected improvements in quality of life. This sentiment is itself a dull reverberation of past generations’ failures in the same attempt, and echoes onto the future via the lives of proceeding generations.

The television serial portrays the importance of emancipatory struggle despite material defeat. The fight, finally, is not one of individuals, but of collectives of people over long arcs of history. People that refuse complete submission to a social programme and identity imposed by those who possess immense concentrations of power and wealth. By this difficult task, they enforce at least a meager space for their own aspirations and for the cultivation of struggles yet to come.

The social pressures on show can find their like in the retreat of practiced egalitarian ideologies throughout Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world. We can there also witness some dimension of what may have led to the exasperation and anger surrounding debates on the topic of Brexit.

The serial’s focus on state politics does miss key structural problems, such as the issue of who owns and controls the means of production (deciding who works, how they work, to what purpose, and how the spoils are divided). It’s clear that a small minority of people privately owns the places of work and the capital that flows through the productive process.

It misses the point that this very concentration naturally grows out of and is required by capitalism. After all, there must be capitalists who own and command capital in order to hire workers and put them to work in the making of profitable goods and services.

At least these two questions should have been asked: who do most people work for? and other than politicians with the power of legislation, who must people address in their requests for improved life conditions?

The politicians are themselves often addressing this other group, bringing to bear the power of the state in their negotiations with or demands of capitalists, be they individuals, families, or corporations.

Of course, the capitalists are themselves caught up in the system of capitalism, with its inherent rewards, punishments, possibilities, and limitations.

It’s unfortunate that the otherwise excellent television serial fails to question the form and nature of the existing economic model. This marked absence takes the principles of the underlying system as unchanging, and something that’s modified solely by way of state interference within the given order. In this sense, it lacks imagination and fails to present all pertinent facts.

After all, the political economic order does bind us and also helps to produce the particularities of our lived existence. We should remember that the state is often reacting to something and within a given ideological and material framework. If possible, it would be best to remove the cause of problems rather than limiting oneself to responses to recurring issues.

If the system is predicated on and depends upon a concentration of power and wealth to function, we’re then bound only to limit its grossest forms of inequality while relentlessly being driven by the very same logic and tendency that’s required for the system’s regular functioning.

So, keep this criticism in mind when watching the serial and do enjoy it for what it has to offer.

Our Friends in the North is written by Peter Flannery, and directed by Simon Cellan Jones, Pedr James, and Stuart Urban. It spans the years 1964 to 1995, focusing on the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, with occasional but memorable visits to London.  The BBC serial was instrumental in launching the acting careers of now well known actors such as Danial Craig, Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee and Mark Strong.

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