Dousing the fires: On the crisis of hegemony, the forthcoming war of manoeuvre, and how only love can win this war
Part Three: The ideological crisis – a crisis of hegemony
As usual, if you prefer to listen to a recording of this blog, you can do so here…
In the previous article (the second of this five-part series), I offered an overview of the profound economic, social, and political crises gripping the UK right now in order to set out the underlying material context provoking the current ideological crisis. In this 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.
The ideological crisis – a crisis of hegemony
We are experiencing a profound ideological crisis. What I mean by this is that the ideology that had served to legitimate, justify, and naturalise the social order since the late 1970s – namely, neo-liberalism – can no longer perform this function. This means that the social ‘war of position’ – the war fought by opposing social forces in mainstream and social media and on the terrain of civil society is now raging. Things that were unthinkable and unsayable become thinkable and sayable. The parameters of common sense are shifting rapidly.
In the daily soap opera of rolling 24-hour news, we can be forgiven for having short memories that prevent us from identifying significant cultural and ideological shifts. But, we don’t have to look back that far to realise how profound the ideological shift that we are experiencing is.
For the past three decades before Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in August 2015, even moderate social democratic voices and views were omitted from our TV screens. Yes, a radical and articulate rage punctuated this hegemonic silence during the Occupy movement in 2011, but such was the ideological and material strength of neo-liberalism at this time that the mainstream media was quite able to sustain it by demonising, infantilising, and ridiculing protestors and their ideas. Nonetheless, a serious blow was dealt to the hegemonic order by Occupy’s powerful slogans and images around inequality in particular and, in Southern European countries gripped by crises, left-wing movements and parties made big breakthroughs.
We can identify a crucial weakening in the hegemonic stability of neo-liberalism in these post-crash years in the way that, globally, official state and transnational discourses around ‘the market’ shifted. Gone were optimistic, utopian claims about the magic of the market’s ‘invisible hand’ or moral declarations about the goodness of greed. In decline also were the suggestions that one just needed to pull one’s socks up and work hard in order to benefit from the market’s benevolence. Such claims became increasingly hard to maintain in the face of growing numbers of benefits claimants already in full-time work. Instead, what we saw was a global shift to a discourse of ‘resilience’. While the resilience discourse expressed the classic neo-liberal traits of individual responsibility and self-reliance, it offered us no positive message. Instead, it basically told us that shit happens, natural disasters, financial crashes, job losses, and indebtedness happen – without exploring why, of course – and that we, as individuals and, now, as communities (‘big society’!, have to be resilient so as to deal with them.
Such a discursive shift reflects a major hegemonic weakening in neo-liberal ideology. In the wake of financial meltdown, austerity, and falling living standards, there was nothing positive left to claim. The core message went from ‘pull your finger out and get rich’ to ‘life’s cruel; deal with it’. In short, resilience = neo-liberalism – hope! This is an ideological journey from utopia to dystopia and dystopia cannot be sustained for long without increasing repression and violence. The shift to resilience signalled the impending death of neo-liberalism as functioning hegemonic ideology.
The key moment that heralded neo-liberalism’s ideological death for me was Teresa May’s inaugural speech as Prime Minister. Gone was even the faintest hint of market triumphalism. Instead, May gave a speech damning the ‘burning injustices of modern Britain. It’s worth quoting her speech here to remind us of the depth of this ideological volte-face from the government that brought us austerity!
‘That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.
If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.
If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.
If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.
If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.
If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.’
You can view the whole, brief speech here.
May’s speech was monumental, but she was never actually going to follow it with action. Consequently, in the absence of any positive message in this prolonged Great Recession, the ruling class doubled down on the hate agenda. If you can’t rule at all through hope, it has to be fear. Brexit, then, (aided by an almost equally negative Remain campaign) can be interpreted through this lens. There is, of course, a huge amount of justified despair and anger among working and middle class communities to exploit, but there is even more hope, pride and love to rekindle. The war of position was far from over. What was required, what was politically and existentially necessary, was a message, a vision of hope.
Common sense transformed
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in August 2015 was monumental. Corbyn’s election smashed through a ‘representative’ democratic system whose major parties had represented none but the interests of capital for decades.1 Instead, Corbyn’s priorities were the welfare of people and planet. Basic social democratic ideas and values, and even some more radical ideas, were back on our TVs and newspapers. Of course, they and those who espoused them were relentlessly ridiculed and demonised by the media. Corbyn was not helped by right-wing and doubting Labour parliamentarians who schemed against him. Sometimes he seemed not to help himself. Yet, an election period in which broadcasting is more tightly scrutinised by the electoral commission ensured Corbyn and Labour a relatively fair access to the electorate. Unsurprisingly, kind-hearted and eminently sensible ideas proposed by a clearly serious, sober, and compassionate man were received first with interest, then with support, and ultimately with excitement by millions of voters. The Labour campaign and manifesto and the ensuing election results have transformed the ideological order in this country. Working class hope was revived and working class anger was to follow.
The Grenfell Tower disaster will have, is having, as great a political and ideological effect on this country as the election. First and foremost, it is the final nail in austerity’s coffin. Austerity is now dead – as ideology if not yet policy. Even that most sacrilegious of notions – tax rises – are back on the Tory agenda!
Consider next a phrase that, in neo-liberalism’s heyday, came to exemplify everything supposedly ridiculous, overbearing, and infuriating about the paternalistic, invasive, and incompetent state: ‘health and safety’. Health and safety was public enemy number two (behind political correctness) for the Daily Mail (and other right-wing papers who relentlessly published myths on this theme) and became the knee-jerk, unthinking lament (Gramscian common sense) of many of its readers. I recall occasionally having to defend the notion to such folk that working people should be able to work in conditions that do not jeopardise their health or safety, conditions they struggled hard to secure. Now, in the wake of Grenfell, ‘health and safety’ is redeemed. Now, suddenly, even the right-wing Metro newspaper is lambasting government ministers for cutting corners on health and safety. I offer this as a concrete example of a radically and rapidly transforming ideological terrain on which our collective understanding and definition of common sense is dramatically shifting leftwards. Something major is going on when even Piers Morgan is savaging government ministers for their policies and responses to this terrible tragedy. Something potentially radical is going on when the expropriation of empty private property held by rich foreign nationals is being proposed by a party leader and supported by major newspapers!
At this point, I want to recap my argument so far. Neo-liberal hegemony is over, undermined gradually by a long-term decline in living standards and opportunities and extreme inequality, weakened by effective social movements and campaigns, and brought to its knees, first, by a positive Labour election campaign and, second, by a horrific man-made disaster. The Tory response has been a confused combination of faux hope – a promise of progressive policies and social justice – and full fear – Brexit, Islamophobia, immigration. A material crisis of capital is playing out also as a political and ideological crisis. The Labour resurgence under Corbyn has shattered the pro-capitalist democratic veneer. A combination of anger and hope is bringing huge numbers into political activity. People are mobilising and organising as groups, as communities, as social movements in really significant numbers, it seems.
In the next article (fourth of five), I will set out my predictions for what will take place in this country within the next two years. I predict the emergence of a full-blown ‘war of manoeuvre’ – the intensification of social warfare from primarily just cultural terrain (ideological warfare – ‘war of position’) to intense economic and even physical warfare.
Thank you so much for reading.
Solidarity and love,
1New Labourites would challenge this assertion. To be fair, they did invest in public services and welfare, but in ways that advanced neo-liberal capitalism, for example, private finance initiatives.