Dousing the fires: On the crisis of hegemony, the forthcoming war of manoeuvre, and how only love can win this war
Part Two: The UK’s economic, social, and political crises
As usual, if you prefer to listen to the blogpost, you can do so below here.
In the first article of this five-part series, I set out my overall argument and presented a brief summary of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and how economic crisis (a crisis of capital) destabilises hegemonic orders. In part three, I will offer evidence to show how we’re in deep in a hegemonic crisis and how the ideological landscape has been dragged dramatically leftwards in recent months and weeks. However, first, I need to demonstrate the depth of the economic, social, and political crises provoking this ideological, hegemonic crisis. This is what I do in this second article.
Let’s start with the UK economy. Here, I’ll rely on the outstanding Marxist economist Michael Roberts’ analysis and data. This will be a whistle-stop tour. UK growth rates are stagnant. While unemployment is at very low levels, real wages are falling and inflation is at four year highs. Indeed, as Michael Roberts reports, ‘British households have suffered the longest stagnation in real incomes in the last 166 years!’ Precarious labour and low-income self-employment are on the rise and worker productivity increases are stagnant.
Retail sales are now falling and even the housing market looks like it has finally peaked, with transaction volumes beginning to tumble. This is hugely problematic because it has largely been continued consumer spending and house price inflation keeping things afloat. With wages falling, consumption has been increasingly sustained by debt (credit cards, payday and personal loans) and with UK private debt to GDP ratios near historic highs and savings rates at historic lows, the wheels look ready to come off again. Despite the slump in the pound, the UK’s trade deficit continues to widen.
The key underlying indicator of the health of a capitalist economy from a Marxist perspective – the profit rate – has shown some improvement in recent years. However, this, according to Roberts, is concentrated among large tech and finance firms who have shored up profits through share buybacks. Profits are set to fall as the outcomes of persistently low investment levels take effect through 2017.
In short, Michael Roberts forecasts that the UK economy is about to ‘enter a period of stagnation at best’ and, with similar patterns elsewhere, ‘there is every likelihood of a new global recession in the next year or two’. So, nine years on, with literally trillions spent on bank bailouts (in 2008) and virtually free money for banks, corporations, and rich people through quantitative easing (printing money) and asset inflation (house and stock market bubbles) and billions taken from the hands, mouths, and stomachs of the poorest and most vulnerable (austerity), and we’re still neck deep in the shit…and sinking. And this is how we sink…
As for the depth of the social crisis, let’s start with our schools. According to the National Association of Head Teachers, 18% of schools are in deficit and 71% are only balancing their books by making more cuts to equipment and, increasingly, to staff teaching hours and positions. The National Audit Office says that schools will have to find another £3billion in savings in the next five years to cover the government’s funding shortfall.
As for our health, the NHS is, according to the British Medical Association, at breaking point. It reports ‘bed occupancy at record highs, social care on the brink of collapse, and patients unable to reliably access general practice’. NHS trusts across the country are reporting record deficits. The government had to pump in £1.8billion in emergency payments last year just to keep many afloat. It is surely a matter of time before the first declares insolvency. Last year, junior doctors conducted a series of strikes primarily not over pay and conditions, but the safety of the system. With Brexit looming, the NHS now also faces a recruitment crisis. Recently, a 96% fall in overseas applications for nursing positions was reported!
‘One in four adults experiences at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any given year…Mental health problems represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK. The cost to the economy is estimated at £105 billion a year – roughly the cost of the entire NHS.’
The political economy of mental illness is stark.
‘People with mental health problems are also often overrepresented in high-turnover, low- pay and often part-time or temporary work. Common mental health problems are over twice as high among people who are homeless compared with the general population, and psychosis is up to 15 times as high. Children living in poor housing have increased chances of experiencing stress, anxiety and depression.’
Relatedly, sufferers of mental illness are disproportionately ‘people in marginalised group…including black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, disabled people, and people who have had contact with the criminal justice system, among others. BAME households are more likely to live in poorer or over-crowded conditions, increasing the risks of developing mental health problems.
The Taskforce’s report is an indictment of our so-called ‘criminal justice’ system: ‘As many as nine out of ten people in prison have a mental health, drug or alcohol problem. Finally, the Taskforce spells out that mental illness increasingly means a premature death:
‘Suicide is rising, after many years of decline. Suicide rates in England have increased steadily in recent years, peaking at 4,882 deaths in 2014. The rise is most marked amongst middle aged men. Suicide is now the leading cause of death for men aged 15–49.’
And, due to austerity, as need is greatest, provision is ebbing away.
‘In its recent review of crisis care, the Care Quality Commission found that only 14 per cent of adults surveyed felt they were provided with the right response when in crisis, and that only around half of community teams were able to offer an adequate 24/7 crisis service…The number of adult inpatient psychiatric beds reduced by 39 per cent overall in the years between 1998 and 2012.’
Let’s look at two of the most basic areas of human need – food and housing. The number of three-day emergency food supplies given out by Trussell Trust Foodbanks has exploded from 25,899 in 2008-9 to 1.2 million in 2016-17! The reasons given are predominantly due, unsurprisingly, to low incomes and delays or changes to benefits payments. This goes on while an estimated 6 million tonnes of food are wasted each year in this country! Capitalist efficiency there, huh. The number of hospital beds taken up by patients with malnutrition has trebled since the economic crisis and austerity began.
Finally, a brief look at the desperate housing crisis: the highest house prices and highest percentage of incomes spent on rents in Europe; the number of rough sleepers has risen by over 140% since 2010, but the number of ‘hidden homeless’ – people staying with family members or friends – is far higher; whilst over 200,000 houses are empty across the UK.
And now we have the unspeakable, gut-wrenching tragedy of Grenfell Tower. One fridge explodes and a 24-storey block of flats burns down killing scores of men, women, and children. Their only crime was being poor (and non-white and immigrants largely). While residents plead and beg for health and safety concerns to be addressed, £8million is spent on nothing more than a patch up job with cheap, flammable cladding so as not to offend the eyes of the world’s wealthiest who live behind gates nearby. More on this later.
We’ve gone on a whistle-stop tour of broken Britain. Perhaps this final statistic sums it up most powerfully: over a quarter of all children in this country live in poverty! Oh and by the way, Two-thirds (66 per cent) of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one member works.
So, this is the depth of the economic and social crises that provide the context to the unfolding political crisis. An out-of-touch, unelected Conservative Prime Minister calls a snap election. The combination of a cynical, illegal, and shambolic Tory campaign and a well run Labour campaign and genuine social democratic manifesto galvanises working class and young voters to deny the Conservatives a parliamentary majority.
May called the election to shore up a negotiating position on Brexit with the EU that was very weak before the election. She and her Party now have no credibility in Brussels at all. The Grenfell Tower disaster has exposed the corrupt core of the UK political-economic system and has weakened an already teetering government yet further. Her government’s Queen’s Speech (the main new pieces of legislation a new government aims to put through) was shorn of virtually all manifesto social and economic pledges. May now looks to shore up her parliamentary position with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, a party Frankie Boyle described as ‘the political wing of the Old Testament’ and a party and leaders with clear ties to unionist paramilitary terrorist groups. In the meantime, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is so popular in many circles that he’s headlining at Glastonbury!!
The Tory Party is now in a profound, possibly terminal, crisis. I say this advisedly. We are talking about a political party with around just 100,000 members. A similar number of people to that protested outside the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last year! The average age of a Party member is now around 60! If this government falls and a Labour or progressive coalition is elected, electoral reform towards a proportional representative system (in which the number of votes a party gets actually corresponds to seats) may push the Party to the margins. Its resurrection may require a full conversion to fascism.
In this article, I have offered an overview of the profound economic, social, and political crises gripping the UK right now. I have done this in order to set out the underlying material context creating the current ideological crisis. In the next article (the third of five), I will offer evidence for this ideological crisis, this crisis of hegemony, and how the ideological landscape has been dramatically dragged leftwards in the last two years, decisively and transformatively so by our recent general election.
Thank you so much for reading.
Solidarity and love,