Like most socialists, I follow the Sard, who said that he didn't like to throw stones in the dark. That is to say, he always needed some opposition to stimulate his thinking about situations, philosophical problems, historical controversies, or political methods. A few recent arguments with people who are wrong, prompted a few thoughts-in-progress about how to analyse the conjuncture.
I. The primacy of politics. This doesn't refer specifically to the Leninist thesis of the primacy of politics which has a general application; rather it refers to the dominant level at which the major social antagonisms are going to be fought over and resolved in one class or another's favour in the coming years. But in what sense? One perspective I have encountered is that the weakness of the trade unions is such that if there is going to be an upsurge it is going to happen first through a general political radicalisation, and only thereafter produce a revival of working class organisation. I don't think such sequential schemas really respect the actual pattern of struggles. Look at the relationship between the anti-war movement over Gaza, the student occupations and uprising over fees, the germinal feminist revival, and the very large but bureaucracy-led trade union protests and struggles. I think what you find is not a sequence of 'first politics, then economics', but rather the unpredictable outbreaks of struggles on various levels of the social formation consistent with a system going through organic crisis, each having a reciprocal effect on the others. The sense in which politics is dominant is that it forms the edifice within which economic and ideological struggles take place, securing their unity and coordination, determining their tempo and efficacy.
Of course it's always true that in the last analysis politics is decisive. But it's not true that in every conjuncture political struggles are dominant. The dominance of politics today derives from the centrality of 'austerity politics' as a spatio-temporal fix for capitalism's woes, conducted through the state and centred on the neoliberal reorganisation of the public sector and welfare state. Mervyn King recently argued that in the short run it would necessary to restrain spending cuts, but in the long run there had to be a drastic rebalancing of the economy away from consumption and towards investment - in other words, put as much of the country's wealth as possible in the hands of the rich and hope they will put it into circulation as capital. This could only be achieved through state action, which has to be mediated through the political parties and their relationship to social classes. Therefore, politics predominates.
II. The crisis of authority. I have referred to an organic crisis. According to Gramsci, a crisis of capitalism becomes an organic crisis when it affects the state and its hegemonic apparatuses. And that is exactly what has happened. One of the significant insights of the state theorist Claus Offe was that this tendency for capitalist crises to become political crises is built in to advanced capitalism insofar as it has developed an expanded political administrative apparatus to cope with the dysfunctions of production and protect its legitimacy. As soon as there is a serious crisis, not just a recession but something that puts into question whether the system can reproduce itself, it is more likely to radiate into the state and from there into every aspect of production, politics, and ideology, etc., reached directly or indirectly by the state. This is just a tendency, not an inevitability - but for reasons mentioned above, the crisis has certainly reached the state. The question is how far advanced this process is.
The British capitalist state has always been one of the more stable of its type. Unlike continental rivals, it has not suffered revolution, invasion, occupation or defeat to a militarily superior rival for centuries. Its colonial losses were, it is true, considerable. And that loss of global power and prestige has been a source of constant axe-grinding on the right, the prism through which Northern Ireland, the Falklands and even Europe have been perceived. But the adaptation was managed without disrupting the continuity of the state. This matters. It also matters that the British state is still, for all its losses, a leading imperialist state with considerable global advantages, aloof from the eurozone while enjoying the benefits of EU membership. This confers a degree of independence of action not available to, say, Greece or Spain. This government can, if it wants to, increase spending to temporarily dampen a crisis. It can nationalise a company if it is too important to leave it to the market. It can bring forward infrastructure investments. It can even selectively increase benefits, or make certain tax concessions. As of now, the government and the Bank of England prefers to print money to stimulate lending, which has certain distributive consequences, but basically it has a range of options. The state also has a system of violence that, despite acute breakdowns, has effectively reinforced consent throughout its long duration.
Nonetheless, the concept of a 'crisis of authority' is a good criterion of historical analysis against which to measure the stability of the British state. What does a crisis of authority look like? One would ordinarily look for the withdrawal of consent on the part of the masses, the mobilization of large subaltern classes against the ruling class, and the detachment of social classes from their representative parties. Some of these tendencies are visible in the UK today. There is, first of all, no doubt about the de-alignment of social classes from their representative parties. This is a secular tendency that is becoming acute due to the successful rollback of representative democracy by means of neoliberal policy. (Chapter One of The Meaning of David Cameron outlines some of this.) Second, in some complex ways, consent is being eroded. Certainly, over the long term there has developed a nebulous and politically polyvalent sense of dissatisfaction with authorities, with officialdom, with the main parties, and with parliament itself. This doesn't by itself amount to antisystemic feeling, nor is it proof of political radicalisation. And not all institutions suffer from this general decline in respect. Trust in the police is resilient, despite constant disclosures of corruption, racism, brutality and murders. On the immediate questions of austerity and related policies, the balance of popular opinion is against the government - but not on all planks of its agenda, and not necessarily on the worst planks of its agenda. It is true that any presumed 'consensus' is very fragile, but the support for punitive welfare policies has been quite high. The current state of the Labour party is substantially responsible for this. Moreover, the way in which the state can mobilise consent against the enemy of the month (just recently, they used the face of Abu Hamza to conceal the crimes against Babar Ahmed and Talha Ahsan, and it worked a treat) does not indicate that its legitimating resources are running dry. This is related to the question of state violence which I'll return to.
Finally, what is the state of popular mobilisation? In and of itself, it is impressive - student occupations and 'riots', Tory HQ smashed up, coordinated strikes in the public sector, mass marches encompassing the breadth and depth of the organised working class and its periphery, even a 1980s-style youth uprising against the police. Yet these are notable for a) being episodic and apt to lose momentum very quickly, and b) being totally unequal to the problem, to the scale of the ruling class mobilisation and its goals. The credit crunch came just as the British social movements were abating, the left was entering a vicious downswing, and the Tories were pulling themselves back together as a fit team to replace the bruised, tired, shat-on-looking New Labour cabinet. The popular movements since the winter of 2010-11 have really been playing catch-up, and not actually catching up thus far.
Greece: that is a full-blown crisis of authority. If the British state does reach that condition, it will be catalysed by outbreaks of social struggles which are not visible today, and not possible to predict.
III. Violence and consent. It is a mistake to think that a turn toward greater violence on the part of the state is a sign of weakness, that it signifies a crisis of consent and thus an erosion of the civil society basis of the state. Violence and consent are not separate, opposed quantities; violence is one of the main ways in which consent is secured. Take an example. The British police, like no other police force, has embraced the tactic of kettling. It works in three ways. First, it is managed violence: it creates moving frontiers where a confrontation with angry crowds can happen within a predictable range of circumstances, with police able to concentrate their forces at certain points when necessary and according to the geographical terrain already incorporated into the kettling plan. Second, it is biopower: it acts on the fact that people have biological needs and tendencies, that they need to excrete, that they become cold and tired, that they have caloric requirements which, unsatisfied, leave them physically weak and vulnerable. Third, it is ideology. The very act of 'kettling' people communicates that they are dangerous criminals, if not bestiary. It also creates the scenario in which this point can be 'proved'. Notwithstanding the problems it has had in the courts, this has been one of the most effective means of shutting down protest movements threatening to gain momentum.
In this tactic, coercion and consent, violence and ideology, are combined. The 'rule of law' is the dominant form of the dominant ideology, the main area in which consent is organised; and it is precisely through violence that it is materialised. Thus, it isn't that the state turns to violence when consent has been exhausted, but rather that it must reorganise violence in the constitution of social categories (race, culture, nationality, citizenship, criminality, subversion, entitlement, rights, etc), to found consent on a new basis. It is therefore mistaken to see violence as 'making up for' a lack of consent, as a factor merely held 'in reserve' for when consent erodes. Recall Gramsci's metaphor: "State = political society + civil society, in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion". This quite an interesting topography. Rather than the core of the state consisting of repressive institutions, special bodies of armed men, etc., which is protected by the outward layers of civil society, the repressive institutions form an integument shaping and protecting the flesh of the body politic. One way to read this is to relate it to the concept of hegemonic practices in which the dominant classes attempt to organise a cross-class coalition in support of the historic goals they have set themselves. It would be mistaken to see hegemony as a state actually achieved for most of the time; it is best to see it as a tendency guiding the organisation of class domination in a capitalist democracy. When some form of potentially hegemonic coalition is achieved, there is always an excluded remnant of classes and class fractions that aren’t incorporated. In a genuinely hegemonic situation, the excluded remnant is an easily policed and suppressed minority; most of the time, it is actually a majority that must somehow be disorganised, stratified and divided. The role of violence in this situation would be prove the implausibility of resistance to both the dominant bloc, whose unity is thereby secured, and to the excluded, whose acquiescence is thereby gained.
One aspect of the complex political and ideological mix that was Thatcherism was its attempt to re-found consent on a new populist right basis, incorporating sections of the skilled working class alongside the petty bourgeoisie and big business in a new dominant bloc. Rather than 'from cradle to grave' provision, the traditional state philosophy of Labourism, 'the discipline of the market' became the new basis of consent. If the new regime was more violent, this was not to 'make up for' a lack of consent, though the regime was narrower in its social basis and had of necessity to disorganise a much wider coalition, but rather because the new regime had to simultaneously demolish the bases for militant leftist politics in order to viable, and construct a new form of consent based on penalising the poor.
The purpose here is not to deny that the ruling class is weak and fractious, and the social basis of the dominant bloc narrowing dangerously from its point of view. That is evident in the pathologies already mentioned, the degeneration of the main capitalist parties, the decline of legitimate institutions, and so on. Rather, it is to say that an escalation of violence is not in itself indicative of weakness. So long as the state’s violence is actually efficacious in securing consent, and disorganising the popular classes, and as long as it can be coupled with selective material incentives which are in themselves perfectly compatible with an overall increase in the rate of exploitation and a long-term material loss for most of the population, then it need not be. And the reason why it has become necessary to Defend the Right to Protest is that this violence is proving extremely efficient in the short run.
IV. The disorganisation of the popular classes. Thus far, there has been no general unity on the immediate goals, tactics or politics of an anti-cuts movement, nor has a viable compromise between the rival perspectives been possible. One result of this is that there is a vacuum in which fragmented groups and platforms are capable, at certain junctures, of projecting influence well beyond their real size and social depth. We have seen this with UK Uncut and, in a different way, Right to Work; we saw it with various small, radical, student and education groups during the student riots; arguably, a similar type of dynamic was visible in last summer's riots. (In localised situations, even smaller formations can acquire a significant role: eg, the campaign against the closure of Chase Farm hospital is now most visibly conducted by an infinitessimal sect, due mainly to the seeming collapse of the Save Chase Farm group since Nick de Bois was elected.) The result of the vacuum is that adventurism and stunts acquire an exaggerated importance - not that I'm remotely snobbish about these things, but they can only advance us so far, and they tend to dissipate as quickly as they take off. This state of affairs is a register of failure, to be sure, but it's not just a failure of initiative and leadership on the part of the radical Left. It's a measure of the disorientation and demoralisation of the most advanced, radical workers during the New Labour era, and particularly in the wake of the worst global crisis since the Great Depression.
In contrast to most continental equivalents, where there has been a left breakaway from the major social democratic formations fusing with Communists and the far left, resulting in some degree of electoral realignment, the political opposition to the Tories is hegemonised by the Labour Party in England and to an extent in Wales. This is all very fragile. George Galloway's breakthrough in Bradford was not a miracle; it reflected a wider volatility, a willingness to suddenly, sharply swing behind alternative reformisms where they appear to be viable - the SNP in Scotland, Caroline Lucas in Brighton, Galloway in Bradford, possibly Plaid Cymru in Wales, and it may well have been Kate Hudson or Salma Yaqoob next. There is nothing inevitable or secure about Labour's electoral and political dominance in the working class, or the absence of an alternative. The lamentable performance of Johann Lamont in Scotland seems to ensure that Labour will not recover there for some time, if it does.
Nonetheless, there is something different about the UK in this respect, which makes realignment a lot harder. First of all, no left-wing opposition developed and split away from New Labour as it implemented neoliberal policies, because the defeat of the Left after 1985 was so severe and sweeping that the Blairite leadership was able to win acquiescence for the main lines of its policies in advance. Even if the concrete realisation of those lines (tuition fees, PFI, etc) produced dissatisfaction, there was no underlying precept on which opposition could be founded. Second, even when an issue (the Iraq war) did arise which could potentially divide the Labour Party, it did not. Only George Galloway split away, because he was forced to rather than because he wanted to. This is partly because the Labour machinery had been so tightly sewn up by the Blairites that an internal opposition was almost impossible to mount; most people left the party rather than fight within it. Faced with this, there was no obvious basis for the small number of left MPs to lead a split-away, even if they were brave enough to do so. The result is that the radical left formation that did emerge, Respect, made much of its small, locally concentrated forces, but was inherently limited compared to its most of its equivalents. The SSP... oy.
The only serious, national resistance to the Tories' programme is coming from the trade unions. It is not being led by the rank and file. Rather, the rank and file pressures the union bureaucracy for action, but remains dependent on the bureaucracy to actually take the initiative. The shop steward movement hardly exists today. It is not just that it is numerical depleted, both in absolute terms and relative to the unionised workforce. It is that the role of stewards has changed dramatically, so that they end up as case workers rather than the people calling 'all out' when an issue arises. So there isn't a basis for a rank and file movement - that would have to be painstakingly constructed in and through struggles. Nor is there a big battalion of militant workers ready to take on the government by itself. No one has the confidence after decades of neoliberal assault and diminishing strength and influence, to risk everything in a big set-piece dispute with the government. This isn’t the 1980s but, alas, everyone still remembers the Miners. The result is that strikes are seen by the union leadership as a bureaucratic manoeuvre to force the government to soften its bargaining stance.
This brings us back to the dominance of politics. The unions, despite their relative historical weakness, have two potential significant strengths. One is that their private sector membership is concentrated in clusters of high value-added parts of the economy. The workers thus covered have considerable strategic power, as they can cut off crucial flows of surplus value very quickly. The second, more significant, is that most of their members are based in the public sector and exercise real political power as a result. It is not just that they can shut down vital processes in the extended reproduction of capital, thus indirectly disrupting the flow of surplus value; they can create a crisis for the state and for the government of the day. Whereas the government can take a certain tactical distance from private sector strikes (‘hope this is resolved expeditiously, both sides need to get round the table’ etc.), it is directly implicated when nurses, teachers, civil servants and rubbish collectors go on strike. This gives the unions the potential, and only the potential, to ascend beyond the ‘economic corporate’ mode of organising. They are historically narrowly based, yet their immediate problems – pension and pay cuts, longer hours, etc. – can be swiftly and logically linked to the problems of other sections of the working and even middle classes. They can create a broad system of alliances by fusing their struggles with those of students, pensioners, communities losing their hospitals and council services, and non-unionised workers suffering low pay and insecure work.
Recently, a motion was passed at the TUC supporting a general strike. In its core, it would be a coordinated public sector strike with some private sector support. But it could attract the wider support of social movements and those directly affected by cuts. I note that while most people won’t support a ‘general strike’ call, according to polls anyway, most Labour voters will. This is very interesting since it suggests that Labour’s voters aren’t necessarily persuaded by the leadership. It suggests that there’s a section of the working class, I would guess including those who are not unionised, who belong to the most precarious, low-paid or unemployed sections of the working class, which is apprised of the seriousness of the situation and ready for a fightback equal to the threat. For this to materialise, the ‘general strike’ call would have to be used as a lever to mobilise not just the rank and file of the unions but the most left-wing workers in general, and those involved in the social movements, while pressuring the union leadership into action. Nothing about that is easy, as there will be strong counter-pressures coming from the Tories, and the press (the recent Hillsborough revelations about the collusion between Conservatives, the police and the media rather make the case for ‘Ideological-State Apparatuses’ in a nutshell). But there is little else that is concrete, in the way of sustained resistance, to organise around.
V. Petty Caesarism. The consensual basis for the British capitalist state has been narrowed over the long-term by the hollowing out of parliamentary representation inaugurated by neoliberalism, combined with the sharpening of social antagonisms, above all class antagonisms. While social movements of one kind or another have become a more frequent feature of the landscape, there is a crisis in party-political organisation. The Tories and Labour have been undergoing a long-term decline, and now the Liberals are likely to be reduced to a small rump (even if the exaggerated interest of media and activists during their spell in government persuades them otherwise). The dominant political parties are poorly rooted in the population, and lack popular trust. Alongside party membership, voting levels have declined, particularly among the working class. One effect of this during the crisis has been the manifestation of petty caesarist tendencies. If, as Gramsci said, all coalitions are a first step in caesarism, the imposition of a Tory-Liberal coalition by civil service initiative is a typically British ruling class version of the type.
The decline and fragmentation of the traditional Right is an important, under-examined part of this situation. The Conservative vote has gone through a long, spasmodic period of degeneration since the late 1960s, punctuated by the collapse in 1974, the partial resurgence under Thatcher, the crisis at the tail end of Thatcherism deferred under Major and returning with a vengeance after 1992. This reflects not just a decline in traditional right-wing values, but the erosion by attrition of the social basis for even ‘secular’ Conservatism. Moreover, several crisis points have arisen to threaten the traditional ‘British’ basis of Conservatism – the weakening of the Union, and the integration into Europe. The Tories are badly placed to handle these crises, and the result alongside a sharp decline in the Tory vote is a fragmentation of the right. UKIP is ascendant not just as the Thatcherite pressure group that it once resembled, its ‘Save the Pound’ stickers defacing Westminster lamp posts, but as potentially a serious challenger to the Conservatives based on significant sections of the Tory middle class and medium-sized capital.
One outstanding fact about the British situation is that while racism remains at a historically high level, a result (as I have argued) of extensive state intervention to racialise social conflicts, the government would struggle far more than the last Labour government to use this advantage to re-organise its legitimacy in the crisis context. In principle, racist paternalism would be one way to organise material incentives in a controlled way that reinforces the neoliberal accumulation regime and the attack on the welfare state. Yet the Tories under Cameron are too hesitant and vacillating after years of being exiled as ‘the nasty party’, to really actualise such a strategy. Another striking fact is that the far right, despite their surge over the last decade, never gained a foothold in the UK in the way that fascists in other European societies did. Undeniably after Barking, Tower Hamlets and Walthamstow, the limit on the growth of the far right is primarily due to the successful model of antifascist action aimed at mobilising broad fronts to prevent and disrupt the local implantation of fascism. The existence of other right-wing fragments ready to absorb Tory defectors is also plausibly a factor, although the past decade has shown us that it is quite possible for fascist and hard right parties to gain support concurrently. But the effect of the current incapacity of the Right, coupled with the disorganisation of the popular classes, is precisely to reinforce the tendency toward petty caesarism. The coalition government is an unstable combination, but it allows the leaderships of both coalition parties a degree of autonomy from their active base. It renders acute the chronic insulation of parliament from the popular classes.
The final factor heightening caesarist tendencies is the division and uncertainty of the bourgeoisie proper. They are not united by what to do about Europe, or about whether now is the time to start making the cuts, or about how deep they should be. There is undoubtedly a significant section of bourgeois opinion that is gravitating toward Labour’s preferred solution of bringing forward spending now, and implementing the cuts later, in a way that is less egregiously offensive to working class interests. In this situation, the apparatuses of the state itself – the higher civil service, the Bank of England, etc. – acquire an elevated role, and the parties of government enter a kind of coalition with them.
Caesarism emerges because the contending classes have reached a stalemate. What I referred to as ‘petty caesarism’, then, is just the expression of this tendency in a muted form: not exactly a total stalemate but certainly a state of disarray; polarisation but each side hesitating to enter the fray wholeheartedly; both sides almost running on empty. One morbid symptom of this tendency is the emergence of rival hybrid forms of politics – ‘Red Toryism’, ‘Blue Labourism’ – in an attempt to short-circuit political polarisation and reconstitute the relationship between party and class. When people say ‘no one voted for this, how do they think they can get away with it’, the answer is clear: caesarism in this case is a symptom of mutual weakness. Yes, the ruling class is in crisis, yes it is divided and hesitant, yes it lacks political legitimacy; but as of now, its opponents are not in a better state.