Sunday, May 15, 2011

How can the Left win?

I. The Right. The Right's response to the 2008 slump was fast and effective. They first participated in an enormous leveraging of the state, through the unprecedented bail out of financial institutions, then took every opportunity to explain that the problem was one of over-spending and indebtedness. It wasn't just the banks who had been too gluttonous. That old bogey, the socialist state, bore responsibility for burdening the British people with larcenous rates of taxation, in order to fund a useless and intrusive welfare state that left people miserable and dysfunctional. It's important to recognise how well-timed and well-pitched this was.

Prior to 2008, the Tories could not have made this argument and anticipated making any headway with it. Instead, their strategy was to match Labour's spending totals and conduct a war of position over the priorities within that accepted framework. But in a sequence notably punctuated by the quasi-comical (underwhelming, on its own terms) parliamentary 'expenses' scandal, the Right engaged in a series of manouevres which blamed Labour 'over-spending' for the deficit - 'over-spending' which, until then, they were committed to continuing. And they were given credence by a majority of the British people for a period of time. There was something very Thatcherite in the manner in which the Right sought to mobilise a certain residual culture of masochism behind austerity - you have over-indulged and must now repent. They operated on a series of connotative linkages, eg, between household and state expenditure, in which the private fear that one has borrowed more than one can afford to pay back is bonded to the ideologeme which holds that the state is always inefficient, always over-spending, necessarily unproductive, and always in need of perpetual down-sizing. This is the petit-bourgeois manner of thinking, univeralised - the nation imagined as a corner shop that has to balance its books and keep an eye out for thieves. Of course, no recipient of state largesse is more inefficient, and less productive, than the 'benefit scroungers'. Tory propaganda duly worked on this theme, and Osborne swung the axe heavily in the direction of the welfare lifeline. Polls tended to find that people approved of this aspect of the cuts agenda.

II. The Left. Until the student protests, the Left was beset on all sides by a pervading dysphoria and utter perplexity. We know the script after all. The capitalist system goes into an unprecedented global crisis, every stable co-ordinate of the political-ideological universe is unsettled, governments start borrowing and spending like crazy to stave off a complete collapse, suddenly the bastardised Keynesianism of 'old Labour' is back in vogue. In such circumstances, the Right should be on the back-foot and class struggles should take off. And by 'class struggles', I don't simply mean strikes and factory occupations. It is in the nature of capitalism to multiply sites of antagonism, and in each of these class will be present in different ways, whether it's over healthcare, supermarket chains, women's oppression, immigrant labour, the media, or war. Notably, the struggles that did emerge, in Vestas, Visteon, the Lindsey oil workers dispute, the Tower Hamlets lecturers' strike, etc., cannot be reduced to simple labour-management disputes over jobs, pay and conditions. Rather, each contained a pronounced 'political' element - the environment, pensions, education, immigration, etc.

Given an organic crisis in capitalism, a crisis in productive relations that could not be localised, but necessarily radiated to every political and ideological relation embedded in the system, the Left should have been aggressively making advances on multiple fronts. The Left should have been taking territory and hostages, leaving opponents reeling. But this is not what happened, barring the few flare-ups which I mentioned. And the case of Lindsey, which resulted in thousands of workers marching for "foreigners out!", showed that such struggles as did take off did not have to benefit the Left. This is the point at which, traditionally, one warns against 'vulgar economism' and 'workerism', but this is only a real temptation among a few hold-outs of the Left influenced by traditional labourism - recall that Gramsci's critique of 'economism' was aimed at the reformist trade union leadership. The more prevalent error today is to think that Leftist politics can be conducted without any orientation toward class. Still, it's hard to see how the Left, even discounting for its currently depleted, scattered state, could have done much about the level of class struggle. It was forced into a positional struggle, an ideological battle, in which the 'common sense' of neoliberalism initially prevailed over the competing 'common sense' of social democracy.

III. The War of Position. While we anticipate major social struggles continuing over the next few years, with no certainty of avoiding catastrophe much less of attaining victory, the 'war of position' will continue to be as important as outright combat. Indeed, ideological, parliamentary and cultural struggles do a great deal to prepare the pre-conditions for more militant forms of combat such as the withdrawal of labour, factory and university occupations, and other disruptive actions. Here, the Right has long understood something that the Left will do well to remember. Whatever the plane of crisis, whatever the axis of struggle, the issue can always be put another way.

The crisis of capitalism became a crisis of over-spending, just as the crisis of poverty became a crisis of social dysfunction, and a crisis of authority in the British state became a crisis of 'multiculturalism'. The Right didn't win all the arguments in 2008-9 - far from it. If the washout of yesterday's right-wing 'Rally Against Debt' is any guide, and it was plugged in the media far more than it deserved to be, there is hardly any enthusiasm for the latest assault on welfare and public services. But the Right doesn't have to win all the arguments, or generate enthusiasm. Its near monopoly of the popular and broadsheet press, along with the complicity of the centre-left, allowed it to operate on genuinely popular assumptions, absorbe the elements of popular discontent and polarise them to the Right.

The majority do want to keep some sort of well-funded public sector, don't favour privatization in the NHS, support state education, and blame the bankers for the recession. But distrust of the state (for some good reasons - the Tories focused a lot of their fire on New Labour authoritarianism and centralisation) is also widespread, as is discontent with how money is spent (again, for some good reasons - think of the PFI boondoggles). Anti-immigrant sentiment is at an all-time high, disdain for beggars and benefit recipients is widespread, and support for redistributive politics after thirteen years of New Labour in office is now a minority pursuit. Meanwhile, local councils are often encountered as some of the most inept, obstinate, and coldly indifferent bureaucracies in the country. So, with a near Pravda-esque capitalist realism propagated through the state and capitalist media - and one is struck by how often it is still taken as 'obvious' that some cuts have to be made somewhere - it only remained for the Tories and their allies to furnish the popular imagination with endless examples of alleged 'waste', incompetence, and fraud. Local councils spending your money on Muslim-only toilets, benefit fraud, illegal immigration, 'health tourism', etc. But things don't have to be this way.

IV. Winning. Left-wing campaigns have focused on reminding people that they hate the rich, really resent them and their power and arrogance; that they don't trust the Tories; that they like having free healthcare and schools; that the despised bankers caused the crisis, and not ordinary people; that mass unemployment is a social ill for which they will suffer; that they're against the wars for which there is endless government money; and that if they think the state is inefficient, they have already tried the private capitalism of Enron, Worldcom and Lehman Brothers. Since it is normal for people to entertain conflicting ideas and ambitions, the aim is firstly to shift the weight of emphasis along the continuum away from reactionary resentment and toward popular and class-based anger. Secondly, it is to destabilise the austerity alliance by attacking their weak links, and shaking free some loose elements ripe for re-appropriation. For all that we repeat that the ruling coalition is a Thatcherite one, we also have to constantly bear in mind its historical specificity. It is an unstable government, binding Whigs, Peelites, and High Tories, Thatcherite mods and rockers, Europhiles and Atlanticists, social liberals and reactionaries, have-a-go-heroes and hoodie-huggers, finance capital, producers, the petite-bourgeoisie and the progressive middle class. Attacking the unity of this coalition and dispersing its constituents is a precondition for any meaningful advance. Thirdly, the aim is to re-articulate many of the same elements operated on by the right into a new majoritarian leftist political mobilisation.

UK Uncut is an interesting political intervention in this respect. It can never fulfil the latter two remits, but look at its contribution to the former. There's been an awful lot of focus on its method of organising, which may be facing a crisis as it comes under the steamroller of police repression, but far more important is what it has said, the way it has interceded in the ideological field, drawing attention to the underfunding of the state by the rich, the state's leniency toward the rich, and the fact that cuts are not inevitable or necessary but rather a class-loaded 'ideological' project. From a peevish, sectarian perspective, one could write it off as a sort of middle class 'people power' movement that will change sfa. But that would be to miss the point entirely. It already has changed what it set out to change: the field of signification. This advance is highly circumscribed, was not achieved by UK Uncut alone, and leaves much work to be accomplished by other forces - but it's still not to be sniffed at.

The second goal, of shattering the coalition, which the Tories depend on to impose their version of austerity, is not something that one could just assume would happen as a result of the 'contradictions' of the coalition. It is something that has to be worked on. The student protests rightly targeted Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems as much as the Tories, turning the renegade Liberal leader ("wolf-eyed replicant"...) into a national hate figure, running the Liberals down in the polls, and ultimately making it difficult for them even to show their faces in public. I cannot understand the approach of those who say that the Tories are the real enemy and that therefore the venom toward the Liberal leadership is a waste of good spleen. It's because the Tories are the 'real enemy' that they have to be isolated, and this coalition broken. As of now, the Tories still don't have enough support to win an election by themselves. They briefly commanded an electorally viable plurality in the period from 2007 to 2009, but have since 2010 been back to their normal range votes, tending to be somewhere between the low to mid-thirties - this despite the astonishing ineptitude of a Labour leadership that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Every time the Tories come out with some right-wing poison about immigration or 'integration', it places the coalition in danger. The harder they push for the deepest cuts, for privatization, the more the Liberal leadership has to placate its shrivelled 'social liberal' conscience. When the Tories hammered the disastrous AV campaign, it consistently put the Liberals on the back foot. Now they have nothing to show for their gambit, a sort of queen's sacrifice - bar the cuts, and the steadily accumulating ranks of knights, bishops and pawns on the Tories' side. The only rational thing for the Left to do in such circumstances is to keep hammering away, by every available means, until the coalition splits, or enough Liberals defect to trigger an early election.

The third goal, that of re-articulating the elements of popular discontent into a majoritarian leftist response to austerity, has proved more difficult. Let's not deny what has been achieved. The turnout for the big TUC rally was amazing, as deep as it was broad, truly representative of the British labour movement and its periphery - and what a powerful movement that could be if it decided to move all as one. There are real pressures for mass, coordinated strike action coming from below in every trade union. This hasn't turned into independent, rank and file initiative in most cases. Largely, the direction remains in the hands of the bureaucracy. But the pressure is there, and is contributing to the build-up for a mass strike on 30th June. But the attempt to build a national political campaign against cuts with similar social depth is taking time. Actually, there are several competing vehicles, and not one of them is adequate on its own; not one capable of extending beyond its party basis and periphery. While each broadly has the same analysis of the cuts, they all operate in different ways, relate to different constituencies, and address a different aspect of the same problem. Such parcellization almost guarantees that these vehicles will remain confined to the extant left, unable to harness wider forces. This isn't to play the sad old finger-wagging game of simply denouncing 'divisions on the Left', wryly referencing 'Life of Brian' for the boreteenth time, as if anyone is actually in favour of such divisions. Sometimes, these divisions are necessary, or have a legitimate basis, or are unavoidable; sometimes they aren't. There's no way, at any rate, to simply over-ride these. So, somehow, the different groups have to find the appropriate level at which they can engage in unified action, in order to coordinate publicity and solidarity campaigns, locally and nationally. One could envision, for example, a multiplicity of possible structures (more or less centralised, or federal, depending on the degree of agreement between the factions involved, and the degree of democracy each mode of organising permits) to which different campaign groups could agree to affiliate for a fee, and which would seek the funding and support of the trade unions, etc.. The alternative is to allow the political direction of the anti-cuts movement to be fixed somewhere between a Labour leadership that actually argues for (slower, less savage) cuts, and a trade union leadership some of whose big battalions have resigned themselves to doing the bare minimum to oppose cuts.

Of course, it isn't just about merging the vessels of the extant left into a single flotilla, at least not for its own sake. It is only worth doing if it increases the combined efficacy of the forces involved. But the point is to coordinate ideological and cultural counterpoints to the politics of austerity, which task seems to require a pooling of resources and combination of forces. As and when struggles emerge, unpredictably as they will, the aim is that they will not emerge in a socio-symbolic field cultivated exclusively by the Right, so that they merely appear as law and order problem, but in one where their actions are intelligible as logical and worthy responses to a widely apprehended injustice. This will be particularly important as, increasingly, we're forced to operate in the space between purely impotent civil society protest and illegal and potentially dangerous adventurism. The state hasn't been able to operate through cooptation and consent since the 1960s, and has thus tended increasingly toward the authoritarian end of the spectrum of rule. The criminalisation and suppression of protest, however peaceful and formally within the law, is consonant with that. The police will need to continually justify their mode of highly repressive policing without being seen as the armed wing of a particular government, which would be a threat to their legitimacy. Thus, they have to turn a growing number of protests into heavily fortified battlegrounds, with their opponents pre-designated as violent criminals. The propaganda battle is, of course, partly dependent on class struggles taking off. That is why some of the propaganda stunts are themselves miniature 'actions', forms of deliberate disruption. But even as they do, there can always be simultaneous work going on to reinforce the principles of articulation, the political logics by which diverse contestations are brought into a coherent whole. Opportunities for parliamentary mobilisation may come into this, although recent election results seem to have indicated that in most cases it's close to useless for left-of-Labour forces to stand their own candidates. But there will be other elections, where it is more plausible to stand: student and trade union bodies, local councils, etc. Certainly, legal battles will be important, as the recent G20 verdict demonstrates. Anti-fascist and anti-racist work will be important, as a desperate Tory party is apt to shore up support by attacking minorities. All of this can be done best if it is done with a constant focus on shifting the balance of common sense away from the neoliberal pole, and in the process transforming the contents of mainstream social democratic thinking in a leftist direction.