Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Morbid Symptoms

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

A quote from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks: he applied it to Italy in the 1930s. I think it sheds some light on our situation today.

“Ideology” is a dirty word in mainstream politics. Loosely defined it is a collection of ideas. More precisely it is a particular point of view. Our society is dominated by class; it is a large determining factor in ideology. That’s not the beginning, middle and end, of course. There are a number of ways people are defined, by race, gender, sexuality… and so on. The point is these are the building blocs of ideology.

Ideology became dirtied for one half of mainstream politics between 1983 and 1992. A progressive series of defeats for the left and the unions in Britain were compounded by illusions in Actually Existing Socialism in the east. The collection of ideas around the Labour Party were seen to have failed. Senior Labour members took this lesson on board and adjusted. What mattered from now on was not “ideology” but “best practice”… what “works”.

What happened was the Labour Party could no longer build the alliance it thought it needed for its project, based around elections and the British state. It went off to build a wider coalition to the right of its considered natural constituency. Based on the theory of triangulation, its leaders considered traditional supporters would have nowhere else to go and so follow them. As far as they wouldn’t follow the party to the right, the leaders came up with some interesting (and deeply ideological) justifications for what they were doing. All sorts of things became “socialist”, from PFI to the Iraq war to (in one case) copyright law etc, etc...

But, after having proven themselves capable of running a neo-liberal government the Labour Party has found itself in a quandary. Neo-liberalism is a busted flush as far as the public goes. This is the case right across the world. Politicians have to build movements of consent for their policies. But, with the public so opposed to public policy this is a bit difficult. Wherever you look, in the eyes of politicians, the people have become an obstacle to get over, be it their organised refusal to work or their organised refusal to vote for certain treaties, or just their unwillingness to dignify the whole process with their vote, they keep throwing a spanner in the works.

The government is in a difficult position, so is the opposition. The Tory party’s natural ground is on the right. It pioneered neo-liberalism in Britain, and to some extent the world. It cannot build an alliance on an open neo-liberal platform. It has to head left. The Tories paint themselves green, they defend tax breaks for the poor, talk up ‘civil liberties’, they make eyes at the co-operative movement (such as it is), and so on.

Collections of ideas, points of view, have become muddled or abandoned altogether. In this situation politics becomes unstable. It is difficult for Labour to hold a hard right agenda and vice versa for the Tories. It's difficult to orient yourself when left-Labour MPs vote for internment while hard-right Tories make it a resignation matter.

Take one example, a recent poll commissioned by Unison, a union whose leadership has invested a great deal in supporting the Labour Party. It finds, due to the current government’s performance, a small majority of traditional Labour supporters are less likely to vote Labour at the next election.

On the breakdown of issues, generally speaking things are as they tend to be; with the exception of education, where the Tories fare slightly better (Note the baseline here: between 18-24% of people cannot say which party has the best policy on any issue). The Tories do well on civil liberties issues, indicating Labour is generally seen as authoritarian, enough that the Tories own authoritarian tendencies get overlooked.

With the Labour supporters considering switching at the next election the Tories figures improve sharply. They beat the Labour Party on everything except housing. They even tie on public sector pay, such has been the effect of the government’s pay deals.

Perhaps this means a shift to the right, but scroll down further. There is rising support for the proposition that public need should come before private profit.

“In principle, public services should be run by government or local authorities, rather than by private companies”: in 2000, 27% strongly agree, 2001 45% strongly agree and 2008 50% strongly agree. Taken with the people ‘tending’ to agree (29%) that makes just shy of 4/5ths of the population agreeing with the notion. Pretty much the same percentage agrees people providing public services should be employed by government or local authorities.

Add to that a near majority (49%) who regard health, welfare and education as the most important issues and there you have it, Labour supporters breaking with Labour regarding naturally left-wing issues as important and so giving their support to a right-wing party. Take that on board with all the relevant discussions about the neo-liberalism, the new imperialism and so on, you have a recipe for unstable politics. Neither the Labour Party nor the Tories will build long-term coalitions, at least not based on this snapshot. Neo-liberalism has no popular basis anymore but no large-scale, organised alternative has arisen. Without tectonic change we will have stalemate.

Gramsci's morbid symptoms rear up as populist movements (say, the movement against NHS cuts), breakaway or rebel parties such as UKIP or Respect (RIP). Be it new left or new right, they are only partial solutions to the crisis, defensive reactions rather than positive movements. The symptoms generally manifest themselves as disengagement from mainstream politics, cynicism, the rise of technocracy and corruption.

If we have trouble orienting ourselves then we need to keep open the debate about the times we are living through, where our society is headed. Considering the gap between needs and means, the solution to the crisis and the means we have at our disposal at this moment, a re-examination of the united front might be of order (I am aware this is an openended proposition).

This decade has been called an age of mass movements. Although revolutionaries have a different perspective (self-activity is liberating, movements of people are infectious and cause generalisation) the basic pact of the movement was to try to shift public opinion from underneath power, deny it democratic legitimacy and thus undermine ruling class movements (such as the drive to war in Iraq). The effect of 30 years of neo-liberalism/neo-conservatism has been to hollow out democracy. It is a deadletter, an appendix to the modern ruling class.

So future movements of people will have to have much more direct, painful economic effect. Who wouldn't agree with that, especially when there's a potentially devastating economic crisis that could mean fight or die for millions across the world? The fight against the pay freeze means a lot to trade unionists, especially in the public sector. How can we make it meaningful for the other 3/4 of the workforce not in unions?