Capitalism, Conservative Party, Crisis, Culture, Ideology, Labour Party, Media, Neo-liberalism, UK

Dousing the fires: Part Three

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.

JC as OBK 1

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.

occupy1.jpg

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,

Joel

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.

Capitalism, Crisis, Culture, Democracy, Ideology, Labour Party, Left-wing politics, Love, Marxism, Neo-liberalism, Philosophy, Politics and economics, Socialism, transformation, UK

Dousing the fires: On the crisis of hegemony, the forthcoming war of manoeuvre, and how only love can win this war – Part One: introduction and understanding ‘hegemony’

Dear readers,

If you prefer to listen to this blogpost, you can do so right here…

Part One: Introduction and understanding ‘hegemony’

The world is ablaze!! In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Portugal, Pakistan, London, fires burn, destroying lives and fuelling the fires of righteous rage spreading across our entire planet.

The fire that burned down the high rise Grenfell Tower in West London two weeks ago killed dozens (hundreds?) of (overwhelming Muslim and non-white, immigrant) working class people. All people with love in their hearts feel grief and, yes, a burning anger.

In the glare of these fires, why would anyone call for social theory?! Why the hell should we think about theorising about the state of the world when we are called by the most excruciating anguish to act in it right now?! It sounds crazy, but I want to argue that we need theory right now to make sense of our situation so that we can act in the most effective ways. When I say that I want to talk about Italian political philosopher and activist Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony I fear I can almost see readers’ eyes rolling back in their heads, but, please, trust me, stick around. It matters. It matters so profoundly. I’ll try my best to convince you why and how.

Gramsci

In this series of articles, I will first set out Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and why understanding hegemony is vital to any process of personal journey towards, and collective struggle for, real freedom. Basically, I will argue that ruling groups cannot maintain power through violence alone, so the construction of a dominant culture, a dominant understand of ‘common sense’, and a naturalisation of an arbitrary, artificial, and unjust social order is required. In short, the construction of a hegemonic ideology is essential. Over the last thirty years, this ideology has been neo-liberalism. A hegemonic ideology requires underlying social and economic stability to be credible. An economic crisis gradually weakens its foundations. This is what has happened here and all around the world. Because of the 2008 crisis and continued falls in living standards, very few believe in the core mantras of neo-liberalism anymore – ‘free’ markets, privatisation, pure self-interest, financial markets, austerity. Neo-liberalism as functioning ideology is dead. This means that ruling groups have to rule ever more through violence – physical, yes, but also communicative, that is, the politics of hate and fear. It also means that there is an opening at last for a politics of hope – both ideological and material. That is, there is a space for groups to present a hopeful vision of and for humanity and a concrete programme of action to achieve it. This is what has happened recently with Labour’s resurgence in the recent election. This has transformed the ideological landscape, our collective understanding of ‘common sense’.

thatcherTINA

In the second article, I take us on a whistle-stop tour of the nature of the economic, social, and political crises affecting the UK right now. This establishes the foundations and context for the current hegemonic crisis.

In the third article, I offer evidence for both why neo-liberalism is clearly dead (as hegemonic ideology) and for this recent dramatic shift leftwards in in the ideological landscape.

In the fourth article, I take a bold step and offer a prediction of what will happen in the UK within the next 12-24 months. Usually, the optimism of my will trumps the pessimism of my intellect, but here, perhaps for the first time, my pessimistic (realistic) intellect wins out. I predict a very scary scenario in which the Tory government falls and a progressive government (Labour majority or coalition) is elected. That’s not the scary bit! The new government then faces the collective wrath of the state and capitalist factions (army, police, financiers, corporations, political class, and media) who do their utmost to bring down the government and the movements behind it. What I describe is the emergence of a real ‘war of manoeuvre’ in which opposing social forces take their struggle beyond the cultural terrain into direct economic and even physical confrontation. That’s the scary bit!

In the fifth and final article, I will set out a four-fold framework for winning this war through the democratisation of power and the empowerment of democracy. This framework is underpinned by the principles of radicalism and love. By radicalism, I mean a governmental strategy and policy approach that addresses the root causes of crisis and injustice and makes no reformist compromise to social forces systemically opposing our ambitions. It is people and planet against capital. There can be no compromise and history’s battlefield is littered with the corpses of failed revolutions sold out by reformism. By love, I mean a micro-political commitment, that is, a commitment in each of our local communities, families, workplaces, and our hearts to a democratic culture of love – non-judgment, non-violence, empathy, listening, dialogue, and, wherever possible, consensus.

These failed democratic revolutions were also cut down by bureaucratic statism. However, the first component of the framework is a temporary state socialism. I advocate a temporary and necessary state socialism to defend against and expropriate the forces of capital; to sustain the people in the midst of crisis; and to begin and support a far greater democratisation of political and economic power. This democratisation of political and economic power, the second component of the framework, must take the forms of municipalism and co-operativism. Municipalism means establishing local control of councils and neighbourhood assemblies for communities to control and run local resources. Co-operativism entails the democratisation of companies through worker takeovers and conversions to worker-run co-operatives. The third component of the framework requires the continued post-election mobilisation and organisation of citizens on community, regional, and national levels to defend the election victory and to push the government, lured by reformism or cowed by crisis, towards radicalism and democratisation. The fourth and final component entails the vital micro-politics of democratisation – the democratisation of our culture and our very selves through collective learning. Ultimately, only water can overcome fire; only love and hope can overcome hate and fear.

I conclude with a call to all of us to get informed, to get ‘shock-proof’ (as Naomi Klein puts it), to get involved locally and nationally, and to open ourselves to love.

Hegemony

What is Gramsci’s theory of hegemony? In order to secure stable rule, ruling groups use the cultural institutions of society (media, education, civil society) to create if not active, but at least passive consent around the status quo. You might not like the society you’re in, but, through your constant exposure to the papers, TV, films, schooling, etc, you come to accept the ‘reality’ you see as normal, inevitable, and even natural. Stable rule through passive consent requires the production of an ideology so profound that you don’t even know it’s there. It’s ‘hidden in plain view’. One central way of thinking about what hegemony produces is our collective ‘common sense’ – that which becomes so ingrained in us as to be instinctive and unconscious.

The hegemonic ideologies of neo-liberal capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and more, then, are constructed through cultural institutions and disseminated through the countless words and images we see. Indeed, we reproduce hegemony ourselves through our own language, signs, mannerisms, clothes, bodies each day.

Hegemony is never totally stable because there is always resistance. However, one thing that capitalism has been amazing at is colonising and co-opting this resistance and invariably commodifying it. A potential social threat ultimately becomes simultaneously a point of social catharsis and a money-making opportunity. Think, for example, of the punk movement of the 1970s and 1980s or rap/hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hegemony is a vital, I would say, fundamental, social theory because it helps us to see how we (our supposed freedom, our ideology, our subjectivity, our very selves) are produced. Indeed, crucially, hegemony is not just a cultural theory; it is a political economic theory because it shows not just how we as pliant citizens, but also productive workers and desirous consumers (not to mention stereotypical gendered and racialised roles) are produced. In short, we need to understand hegemony – the conditions of our mental enslavement – if we then want to pursue and struggle for our genuine freedom. We also need to recognise that all the institutions of society are battlegrounds in a social war and that this war is going on not just out there in society, but in here – in our family homes, in our kitchens, our bedrooms, our hearts, our minds, our souls.

Hegemony and crisis

An emphasis on the material foundations of cultural hegemony is crucial because this emphasis then sheds light on the conditions that either help to concretise or destabilise hegemonic orders. However partial and jaundiced the ‘reality’ that is constructed through the media, there has to be some correspondence to the reality we actually experience for the foundations of a hegemonic order to stand strong. It is in periods, then, of profound and prolonged social and economic crisis (crises of capital) that the widespread passive social consent for a hegemonic order begins to collapse as the perception gap between these mediated and experienced realities grows. Consequently, as, for reasons spelled out eloquently by David Harvey here, crisis is inevitable in capitalism, so are corresponding crises in the underlying/overarching hegemonic order.

Image result for cultural hegemony

We are living in such a period of material (ecological and socio-economic) and hegemonic (ideological) crisis. The ‘Great Recession’ triggered by the 2008 Financial Crisis is almost a decade old and living standards in post-industrial Western societies continue to decline as inequality continues to grow. In the second of this series of five articles, then, I will lead us on a brief overview of the situation here in the UK by way of example to capture the depth of the economic, social, and political crisis we face. We can then move on to look for evidence of hegemonic crisis too. That’s the focus of the third article.

Thank you so much for reading.

Solidarity and love,

Joel

Democracy, Elections, Labour Party, Left-wing politics, Neo-liberalism, Radical democracy, Socialism, UK

To UK readers – A vote for Labour is a vote for yourself, for ourselves

Dear friends,

I’m sorry I haven’t been blogging in recent months. It’s been a combination of a bit of a crisis of confidence (which I’m over) and a lifestyle change that’s seen me move away from my desk for a few months. I’m actually working as a tour guide for a bit here in Oxford, before I move with my family to Bristol in late July. It’s been fun!

Anyway, here we are on the eve of another general election. I just want to make one main point – that a vote for Labour is really a vote of confidence in yourself, in ourselves, in society, in hope. I’ll explain what I mean in a second, but, first, this statement comes with a massive caveat: if you are in a constituency where Labour cannot win, but another party other than the Conservatives can then DON’T VOTE LABOUR. PLEASE don’t increase the Tory candidate’s chances by voting Labour. Instead, please vote Liberal Democrat, Green, Plaid, SNP, Sinn Fein, etc. In an imperfect system, we have imperfect choices. We have to vote tactically. I’ll be voting Liberal Democrat in my marginal seat of Oxford West & Abingdon.

Right, that said, check out these two party political broadcast videos…

When I watched the Labour video with my wife the other evening on Channel 4, we were both in tears. As a socialist, I couldn’t believe someone on my TV was saying that we, the workers, produce the wealth in this country and that we are taking it for sharing it among all! The key point I want to make, though, is simply the starkness of difference between the two.

The Tory video is asking us to place our faith in the hands of one person, one party. It’s a tiresome, worn out testament to authority, to charisma(!), to centralised power, to political passivity, to broken promises, to a bankrupt party and political system. In stark contrast, the Labour video is a call to place our faith in our OWN HANDS. There’s a lot of criticism about the backward-looking social democracy of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics. Some of that might be valid. However, a central, crystal clear message of Corbyn’s discourse right from the start of his leadership campaign has been this radical democratic mantra.

In Bertold Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo, one of Galileo’s students feels distraught and betrayed when he finds out that Galileo has recanted his theory to the Catholic Church to save his life. ‘Woe is the land with no heroes’, he cries. Galileo’s reply is profound: ‘Woe is the land that has need for heroes.’ We don’t need strong and stable leaders, we don’t need charismatic leaders. We need faith in ourselves!

Representative democracy is already dying. This is the beginning of the era of an increasing grassroots, communitarian, participatory politics – a real democratic politics. Labour’s video captures the power, energy, and relentless hope of this transition. It’s the struggle between what Paul Mason calls hierarchy versus network that network will ultimately prevail in.

Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who’s read these blogs will know I’m no Labour Party member or voter. And there are many things to criticise about Labour, particularly as a bureaucratic institution. However, it’s also Corbyn who has been pushing hardest to democratise this institution.

So, please, vote tomorrow and vote, where possible, for Labour. And know that a vote for Labour is a vote for yourself, for ourselves, for us.

Whatever happens tomorrow, the tide has already turned. Neoliberalism as a functioning ideology is dead. It was proven dead when Teresa May dedicated her inaugural leadership speech not to the magic and justice of the market, but to those struggling to get by and those suffering from social injustice!! What has been put in its stead are empty words like these on economic opportunity, investment, and social justice and the hatemongering of nationalism. But, the whole spectrum has been shifted leftward by Corbyn’s election. Even UKIP are economic Keynesians now.
Corbyn’s campaign has shown that, surprise surprise, you can run on a social democratic manifesto and do alright in this country. The economically unthinkable and unsayable has become orthodoxy, if not yet policy – nationalisation, rent control, energy market caps, tax rises.

The goal now, whatever the result, is to keep the momentum going, keep the movements growing, keep the alternatives developing, and keep pushing at local, regional, and national levels demands and ideas far more radical than even the Greens promote.

Yours in hope,

Joel

 

Capitalism, Ideology, liberalism, Neo-liberalism

Let’s call time on Liberalism! We need to talk about Capital

Dear friends,

I wish each and every one of you a very happy and healthy new year! I’m sorry I haven’t been blogging recently. My last post explains why, but I hope to be back into the swing of blogging again now, covering the big issues of 2017 and sharing my continued personal journeys into the world of mysticism, meditation, and consciousness.

This post is a response and antidote to recent articles by liberal commentators on The Guardian about the state of liberalism. I sent it to the paper itself, but, unsurprisingly, got no response.

As usual, if you prefer, you can listen to this blogpost below.

Thanks for reading and my warmest wishes to you all,

Joel

 

 

Let’s call time on liberalism! We need to talk about capital

In The Guardian’s Opinion pages, something big is up with ‘liberalism’. David Boyle insists it’s ‘alive and well’, but Kenan Malik says it’s ‘in trouble’ and Gary Younge sees liberals ‘in retreat’. Despite the proliferating paragraphs, pinning down a definition of liberalism is hard-going. Liberalism is apparently ‘Hydra-headed’ and ‘full of contradictions’. Some distinguish ‘economic’ from ‘socio-cultural’ liberalism. Most fundamental seems to be a commitment to the individual’s rights and freedoms. All commentators position their liberalism against the universally loathed ‘neo-version’ – ‘neo-liberalism’.

Such ambiguity isn’t just characteristic of liberalism, it expresses its essential political function – the act of depoliticisation. By ‘depoliticisation’ I mean two related things. First, the establishment of supposedly separate spheres of human existence – economy, society, politics, culture, nature – and, second, the ethical and analytical focus on the individual that obscures the systemic, structural nature of power. Identifying these flawed and myopic ontological foundations helps us understand why the copy produced by The Guardian’s defenders of liberalism sheds far more heat than light. When even that small amount of light proves insufficient, we can always count on them for a periodic rehash of the ‘excessive complexity’ argument.

Is it really just all too complex? What if we adopted a different definition of liberalism instead, seeing it simply as the ideology of capital? Capital I will define here as money deployed in a process of necessarily endless accumulation. This endless accumulation drives capital ever further and deeper into previously sacred realms of our ecology, our society, and our very selves. It was and remains the violent transformation of commonly shared and sustained resources into private property that defines and enables capital accumulation.

This definition of liberalism as ideology of capital reveals the foundation of these ‘contradictions’. Liberalism is and always has been, above all, in the service of private property. As Domenico Losurdo so persuasively shows, the European forefathers of liberalism’s supposedly universal individual rights and freedoms were also champions and, as property owners, direct beneficiaries of colonialism and slavery abroad and wage-slavery at home. Can we dismiss their contradictions as mere products of their time? Not when so many of their peers stood against these brutalities and not when this contradiction is maintained to the present day in the form of interventionism in the name of freedom abroad and the defence of capitalism, be it ‘free-market’ or social democratic, at home.

A key element of any hegemonic ideology is to make what is artificial, contingent, and temporary seem natural, stable, and permanent. With their wooly, reformist critiques, the Guardian’s liberals historically perform this function just as crucially as neo-liberals in the pages of the FT or Telegraph. Yet, the current crisis has exposed both the fragility of this set-up and the vacuity of liberal thought. Nowhere in these articles on liberalism, I posit, can we find a clear, persuasive analysis of what the hell is going on and, consequently, a proposal for action. Even the most self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ here, Kenan Malik, offers nothing but the vaguest of conclusions.

To his credit, Malik recognises the sharpening tensions between liberalism and democracy, identifying how liberal governance regimes are being constructed beyond democratic control. But, by not naming ‘capital’ – and the very real, material relations it expresses – Malik can offer neither diagnosis nor remedy. Putting liberal governance structures beyond democratic control in lay speak simply means trying to pursue policies aimed at maintaining and reviving corporate profits while imposing vast social and environmental costs with no fear of political reprisals. Just think how the ‘Troika’ of the ECB, European Commission, and IMF has crushed the supposedly democratic, sovereign state of Greece.

Malik insists that ‘democracy is not just about placing a cross on a ballot power’, but is ‘fundamentally about the contestation of power’. Indeed. Yet, the problem is that Malik, like all good liberals, has no realistic understanding of the nature and forms of power. So, while he rightly calls for a ‘new politics of solidarity’, he can offer no solidaristic vision. Why? Because his analysis is devoid of any materialism, i.e. the actual relations of production, consumption, exchange, and, above all, ownership in society. So, in my remaining two hundred words, I will offer a definition of power, of crisis, and of what we must do.

Power is always relational. It flows through the relationships we have with each other. In turn, social and natural relations express multiple, intersecting structures that make up our complete life system – the ‘web of life’, as Jason Moore puts it. These intersecting structures can and must be named. They include patriarchy, racism, colonialism, heteronormativity, ableism, ageism, and class. These structures construct and enforce binaries and divisions that maintain the painful illusion of separation: from our ecology, from each other, from ourselves. Here, I am emphasising the class relations of capitalism. We are experiencing the terminal collapse of capital as life – human and non-human – reaches the limits of its ability to meet capital’s extractive and exploitative demands. The threat of ‘permanent collapse’, as George Monbiot, has put it here, is real. The only solution lies in a transformation of relations of ownership as equally radical as the one that capital has driven: this time, from a regime of private property to one of collective trusteeship – a recommoning. This process is already well under way.

Neo-liberalism was new liberalism. Its ascendancy to dominance cannot be explained by remaining in the realm of ideas, as David Boyle insists, but by recognising how it met the urgent material needs of capital in the 1970s. The growing crisis has left capital increasingly unable to use neo-liberalism to legitimate its increasingly violent accumulative strategies. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, we can’t solve our problems with the ideology that caused them. Liberalism – capital’s ideology – cannot solve the crisis of capital. We need to substitute the talk of rights and freedoms for the language of justice, and the cult of the individual not with the veneration of the worker, but with the defence and promotion of life in all its beautiful forms. I’m calling time on liberalism! We need to talk about capital.

 

Capitalism, Crisis, Democracy, Ideology, Labour Party, Left-wing politics, Media, Neo-liberalism, Socialism, UK

On Jeremy Corbyn: let’s end cynicism and embrace (critical) hope

Dear friends,

Feel free to listen to a recording of this blogpost above…

I just want to make three points about Jeremy Corbyn and his re-election. I want to argue the following: (1) Ultimately, we should analyse Corbyn’s role in terms of its significance as part of a growing counter-hegemonic war of manoeuvre against capital – a role that has ensured nothing less, in my view, than the ideological death of neo-liberalism; (2) I am deeply sadden by those espousing socialist views and values who express feelings of cynicism and fear towards Corbyn. I will suggest that we should be able to empathise with such feelings, but will argue that they are misplaced and self-defeating; (3) I will emphasize that we must always remember that we are committed to struggling not for Corbyn, but for socialism. Therefore, our commitment to Corbyn should remain steadfast for as long as he and his team prove principled and, yes, competent leaders. But, based on its achievements so far, I’m convinced that Corbyn’s Labour can win an election.

12_corbynvictory_w

(1) The Corbyn movement’s historical achievement – the death of neo-liberalism

The first thing to say is that surely we are blind if we cannot see what remarkable things have been achieved since Jeremy Corbyn’s initial election. We must not forget that, prior to the summer of 2015, people like Jeremy Corbyn were not just on the political margins; they were beyond the pale! For over three decades, social democrats like Corbyn, let alone socialists, were hardly ever allowed on the TV or radio. For example, after the riots of 2011, the BBC readily gave a platform for the overt racism of people like historian David Starkey and the tough repression of conservatives, but barely allowed social critiques grounded in class and racial analysis. Consequently, socialist ideas were easily ridiculed and their proponents demonised. Everything changed once a group of Labour MPs voted to include Jeremy Corbyn on the Party’s leadership election list – a move most of them only made to give the election a veneer of ideological breadth. The move backfired most spectacularly when Corbyn won the largest leadership victory in UK history, voted in by hundreds of thousands of new members and cheered on by huge crowds nationwide.

But, what explains this remarkable victory? It cannot be understood without recognising the depth of the economic crisis that capital and we are still mired in; the depth of the contempt with which vast swathes of British people hold its morally bankrupt political class; and the corresponding depth of the ongoing ideological crisis whose expression is taking its most concentrated form within the Labour Party. As articulation of ideological crisis, Corbyn’s victory expressed a negative feeling and move – the rejection of neo-liberalism and its proponents. Yet, it also expressed the rebirth of socialist, truly democratic, politics, hopes, and imaginaries in Britain. In short, Corbyn’s victory heralded both the ideological death of neo-liberalism and rebirth of socialism as a legitimate and viable ideology and potential organising function of society.

By ideological death, I refer to an ideology’s ability to perform its central function of legitimating the social order or, to put it in Gramscian terms, securing hegemony. Neo-liberalism cannot do this any longer, i.e. it can no longer secure widespread consent for the status quo. Here are two major pieces of evidence to support this claim. First, while Corbyn’s internal Labour opponents have tried to attack him wherever and whenever possible, their attacks have focused far less on policy and overwhelmingly on personal and strategic grounds. Indeed, Corbyn’s adversary in the recent second leadership election, Owen Smith, conceded pretty much all policy ground to Corbyn, choosing instead to reinvent himself as a radical, critiquing only Corbyn’s leadership and ability to win power. A second piece of evidence comes from Teresa May’s inaugural speech as Prime Minister. If neo-liberalism were still a functioning ideology, May’s speech would have been founded on the usual sanctification of the market, the insistence on its socially just and moral mechanisms, and a call for working people to work harder in order to succeed. Instead, in stunning fashion, May delivered a speech so focused on social injustice that, had Corbyn made it, he would have been savaged as a dangerous socialist. May argued that black people faced discrimination, that women faced discrimination, and that even people working as hard as they possibly can are failing to make ends meet due to low wages and high rents. And, all along, the media rallied around May and even supported ‘Citizen’ Smith in his failed attempt to dethrone Corbyn.

So, if you believe that: the NHS should be properly funded; that rich people and companies should pay tax; that we need to move to a renewable energy-powered society asap; that we need to build loads of social housing and to impose rent controls; that students should not be crippled by debt; that transport and energy should be renationalised and run by and for the people; that people should have far more power in their local communities and municipalities; that the UK state should not spend £200billion on nuclear weapons and prosecute murderous foreign wars; that people should be paid a living wage for their labour; and that workers should have more ownership and control of businesses, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Jeremy Corbyn and the movement that brought him to power. Before any criticism begins, we must all recognise that this list of, frankly, self-evident ideas and policies are once again on our TVs and radios, in our newspapers, in our community and family discussions – in short, back within ideological reality and political possibility – thanks to the Corbyn movement.

The previously impossible and unspeakable has become possible again. I mean, just pause and think for a minute! Jeremy Corbyn! Jeremy Corbyn!…is leader of the Labour Party! WTF! That, for people over a certain age, in itself feels like the world turned upside-down!…

(2) Understanding and transcending fear and cynicism

And so, yes, although the ideological power of the media, think tanks, and education system remains intimidating, there is no longer a stable hegemonic situation. The system cannot be reproduced through active consent and even passive consent is dissipating. Hence, the rise of violence – both physical and, above all, symbolic and semiotic violence – is used in an increasingly desperate attempt to maintain order. In layman’s terms, we’re seeing increasingly violent words and images to attack all identified enemies of the state, the nation, freedom, prosperity, etc.

Faced with the capitalist system’s inability to reproduce itself without increasingly desperate and intensifying monetary interventions, mercenary parasitism, and ecocidal assaults, what is our response? We respond with hope and we respond with fear. Many key recent elections reflect this schism. What saddens me most, but does not surprise me, is that many people who espouse socialist values and views are condemning Corbyn, insisting on his unelectability, and even arguing that his election has destroyed any hope for left-wing politics in the UK. Not only do such views betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the political situation, more significantly, they express a cynical worldview, a subjectivity driven not primarily by love and hope, but by fear. What I would suggest is that this is entirely understandable after more than three decades of T.I.N.A. and the purposive and relentless attacks on our belief in ourselves and each other. We should have empathy with those expressing this cynicism; it resides to some degree in all of us. It expresses both a social and a personal fear – that our dreams are futile, that we are pathetic and powerless. It also expresses a deep conservatism driven by insecurity – if I take a leap of faith and try to change the world and fail, I’ll look naïve and foolish and there may be repercussions, but if I simply denigrate anyone trying to change the world I can appear as a clever ‘realist’ from a safe distance. But, ultimately, living in fear is paralysing, and hope, as Paolo Freire pointed out, is an ontological and spiritual necessity for every human being. Humans are not really beings; they are becomings. Ultimately, a leap of faith needs to be taken – in each other and in oneself.

Gramsci’s famous prescription is to have ‘pessimism of the intellect’ but ‘optimism of the will’. Far too often, I see not even pessimism; I see cynicism, which is a pessimism of both intellect and will. We have to work on ending this together. But, neither is a blind optimism of use either…

(3) Offering active and critical support to Corbyn

While we can readily dismiss criticisms coming from Corbyn’s political and ideological sworn enemies from outside and within his Party, we should not close our ears to potentially sympathetic Labour MPs and others who claim to have experienced Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as incompetent. There are sufficient mitigating factors until now to give him and his team the benefit of the doubt, but there are frustrations among his supporters concerning the audibility and clarity of his strategic message.

JC as OBK 2

A year ago, I wrote an article comparing JC to Obi Wan Kenobi. I suggested that, ultimately, Corbyn’s fate may be similar to Obi Wan’s – he may initiate a counter-hegemonic movement and nurture that movement and new leaders, but he may be destined to give way to new, fresher leadership. The crucial point is that the goals are democracy and justice, not the election of Corbyn’s Labour per se. Consequently, I would suggest that those who want to promote the democratic and socialist cause, whether Labour members or not (I’m not), should offer critical (not cynical!) support to Corbyn and his team, while contributing to: growing the democratic movement, ensuring Corbyn’s team are competent in their communication and strategy, and pressuring them to be even more radical in their proposed policies for transforming our country.

Conclusion: he’s electable, our values and dreams are achievable

Jeremy Corbyn has faced and faced down the combined threat of the oligarchic media and biased BBC and the attacks and coups of the neo-liberal Labour factions. He has emerged with a larger mandate than before. Personally, I now want to see Corbyn not seeking compromise with those factions, but using his strong mandate to push for radical internal democratisation and to articulate a clear strategic and policy agenda beyond. The polls are rigged, as is the electoral system. He faces huge structural challenges and should quickly embrace a strategic cross-party anti-austerity pact with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens, as recently proposed by Caroline Lucas. I’m not worried at all by the polls. When the election is called, because of his historic breakthrough, Corbyn’s Labour will have plenty of time and space to clearly articulate their manifesto.

Our future will be constructed fundamentally on either fear or hope. Corbyn categorically embodies and expresses hope. We have to overcome our fear and support him hopefully and, of course, critically. So, I say to anyone who wants to see a better world, that world needs you to build it, so get out there – talking, learning, working with others, building communities, movements, and parties – and let’s get behind JC so long as we deem, critically not cynically, that he’s the right guy to lead.

Thanks for reading!

Joel

Capitalism, Democracy, Elections, Immigration, Left-wing politics, Neo-liberalism, Radical democracy, Socialism, transformation, UK

Why I burned my EU referendum ballot paper

You can listen to a podcast of this blogpost here. Otherwise, just read on 🙂

 

Dear reader,

Because I’m out of the country on EU referendum polling day, I received my ballot paper early, intending to vote by post. As you may have seen by now, yesterday I burned my EU referendum ballot paper.

burnt ballot paper

The photo shows a burnt ballot paper rather than a burned one. I was a bit inept. I took it outside to burn it and couldn’t destroy it. Turns out it was a serendipitous stroke because I’ve used it a bit more artistically now!

Those of you who have read my blogposts before will know enough about me to know that this was no flippant act of mindless petulance, but a decision and a plan that were the culmination of many weeks of reading and reflection. I have no delusions of grandeur. I didn’t assume anyone would watch it let alone think it would have any significant political effect. I’m not famous or powerful, but I, just like you, am just one person and I wanted to do the best thing I thought I could do with my one vote. All I had was a plan borne from deep reflection and a hope.
I still don’t know if I’m right. Even many of my closest friends think I’m wrong. I just wanted to put an alternative perspective out there. If, in time, I recognise the error of my judgment, I will openly come back and admit that as publicly as I burned my ballot paper.
With that said, I will now offer a list of reasons explaining why I decided to burn my ballot paper and what I sought to achieve by doing so. I’m going to give you two versions of my reasons – a very short version and a longer, more detailed version. If you don’t have the time or inclination, you can just read the short list of reasons. If you can, I ask you to read the longer version in which my arguments are given in far greater detail. The first reason I will give also explains why I didn’t give my reasons for burning the ballot paper immediately after doing it, but instead waited for a couple of days.

 

*****

The short version

Reason No.1: I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus
By burning my ballot paper I wanted to produce a work of art in the sense of producing something that provoked strong emotional responses in others. I wanted to create what Jacques Ranciere calls a ‘dissensus’, which is an act that disrupts the artificial and contingent ‘reality’ imposed each day upon us. I wanted to burn a hole out, to shine a light beyond, this spectacle of a society. This is a scary, brave move for me. I’ve never thought of myself as an artist before. I still don’t.

burning a hole through

Reason No.2: Rejecting the bullshit of both In and Out
The second reason for burning my ballot paper was as an act of protest against the shockingly brutal and cynical political culture I have experienced in this campaign. I’ve expected it from the right-wing Leave, but the poverty and irrationality of the arguments of the centre-left Remainers have shocked me. Their pathetic vision and tactics – a combination of scaremongering cold economism and mythological romantic nationalism could never seduce me and has reminded me of the futility of reformism.

Reason No.3: Liberating myself from an unbearable weight
The third reason is that I wanted to liberate myself from the unbearable and unfair weight on my shoulder foisted above me – a burden manifested as a binary choice between two unpalatable and toxic options. So, in danger of being labelled a cop-out, I’ve decided that I cannot and will not shoulder this burden. I will not drink from either of these poisoned chalices.

Reason No.4: Rejecting nationalism, rejecting anti-politics
I have been dismayed by how so many Remainers who would probably identify as left-wing use the pronoun ‘we’ to talk about the UK. To talk about the ‘we’ of the nation is to accept a myth as the foundation of our politics. And it is the myth that hides the real social war being perpetrated – the class, patriarchal, racist war in which fellow human beings are imprisoned, left homeless, hungry, and even killed every single day. The nation is the myth, the myth created not by the people, but by the ruling elites, to hide the social war. To talk of ‘we’ is to implicitly reject any future possibility of democracy and social justice. To vote in the referendum, for me, is to give implicit support to this myth and to the nation-state – the embodiment of all forms of social injustice – as the foundation of our political system.
We must transcend representation. We are not citizens; we are passive ‘constituents’ in an ‘anti-political’ system. Real politics, democracy, is the politics of citizens. Citizens are people who come together in their own communities to take control and ownership of local resources to decide collectively what to do. This is what we must start to develop. We already have begun.

Reason No.5: Attempting to take history into my own hands
On both sides, the referendum is portrayed as a monumental historical event. Events are very important, but politics is a process of struggle between antagonistic social forces and history is the unfolding of this process. Neither side offers a credible analysis of how this process produced this event. The referendum was caused by a split in the Conservative Party provoked by the rise of UKIP, but the rise of UKIP expresses the anger, fear, and hopelessness felt by millions of people discarded, exploited, and demonised by this economic system. To call all Leave supporters xenophobes and racists; to label them as unthinking fools; to even try to win the argument for Remain on grounds of economistic ‘reason’ is to entirely miss the point. But, social democrats, by ignoring or dismissing the fact of systemic crisis and by embracing the myth of the nation and the possibility of reform, cannot adequately respond.
Whether this country is in the EU or not, its economy must crash and its society must transform itself. This is the bigger picture that the referendum, in all its spectacular bullshittyness, totally obscures. The burning of my ballot paper is a symbolic burning of state politics – the politics of the capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal and racist nation-state. I reject it. It is a system that can and will only lead us to genocide and ecocide. I, and all of us, must take history into our own hands.

So, what is the alternative?
There is no roadmap for change. We make the road by walking. As my historical analysis shows, we first need to know where we’ve come from. But, we do need a sense of direction for the way forward too.
We should bury any minor differences and come together in our communities in dialogue to develop both minimal and maximal programmes for action. The minimal programme would detail what needs to be done immediately to meet the physical needs of everyone in our communities and of nature. The maximal programme would express our utopian vision for the world we ultimately want to create and live in. At its most fundamental, this means the reversal of privatisation of property and the reflourishing of common forms of ownership and management. Democratic dialogue must be the cornerstone of our new politics and society. Only human beings themselves can win their freedom. Whether it’s in or out we have to fight our own battles.
We stand again confronted by a choice between socialism and barbarism. Rather than engaging with this referendum, I believe that people with concerns for eco-social justice should, as Gordon Asher has put it, ‘be focusing our time, energy and resources on building and evolving broad networks of resistance and alternatives in the UK, in Europe, and beyond’. We must be brave; we must reject the status quo of state politics; we must become citizens and we must actively build our democracy and win our justice and freedom for ourselves, our children, our planet.

*****

The longer version

Reason No.1: I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus
What I sought to do by burning my ballot paper was to produce a work of art in the sense that I sought, through my creative labour, to engage other human beings by provoking a strong emotional response within them. I wanted this artistic act to be an act of what the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls ‘dissensus’.
For Ranciere, what we commonly understand as politics is really the ‘consensus’ – a reality that is constantly produced and enforced by the whole gamut of the state apparatus (government, party politics, media, university, school). An act that disrupts this reality and reveals the artificially enforced and contingent nature of the social order it maintains is an act of dissensus. Central to any political moment, to any instance of dissensus, is, as Stephen Corcoran puts it, a ‘particular kind of speech situation’, often short-lived, in which ‘those who are excluded from the political order or included in it in a subordinate way, stand up and speak for themselves’. Rancière describes this speech situation as ‘litigious’ because it ‘refutes the forms of identification and belonging that work to maintain the status quo’.
So, the first reason I want to give for burning my ballot paper is that I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus that expressed my refutation of the forms of identification that the EU referendum imposes upon me and my unwillingness to maintain the status quo/consensus by being a good little voter. I’ll talk about these forms of identification later in reason no.4.
I was also inspired by the ideas of Guy Debord and the ‘Situationists’ who came to the fore in the student movement in Paris of the late 1960s. Debord described our society as the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ in which ‘the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life’. This (near-)totalised commodification of human experience is ‘spectacular’ because our experience of reality is overwhelmingly mediated semiotically via communications systems:

‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation’ (ibid: 132)

Drawing heavily on Marx’s theory of abstracted and alienated relations of labour and commodity production within capitalism, Guy Debord saw ‘separation’ as the ‘alpha and omega of the spectacle’ – a separation institutionalised within ‘the social division of labour, the formation of classes’ that ‘had given rise to a first sacred contemplation, the mythical order with which every power shrouds itself from the beginning’ (ibid: 152).
So, I see the incessant EU referendum media flow as evidence of our society as spectacle. I see how it unites us in division – in this case a strict binary division. And I saw and felt it as an almost absolute force out of which we cannot escape. But, this kind of fatalism is precisely the weakness in Debord’s theory for me. There is a way out, a way beyond. I sought to burn a hole in the spectacle to reveal some light beyond – for myself and, ideally, for others too.

burning a hole through

The reason for delaying giving you my justifications for my act is that I wanted to try to provoke that emotional response in you and I wanted to give you the time to feel that and to respond to it in your own way. I wanted to put that act of dissensus out there into our world and for people to make their own sense (or non-sense) out of it. I didn’t want to try to open up a space merely just to immediately close it straight back down again through explanation.
So, this was an artistic act. That might sound vain, but this is no egotistical act. It’s the opposite. Joseph Beuys said that all human beings are artists. I agree. I’ve never ever thought of myself as an artist before, still don’t. For me, in a polarised environment, this took courage.

Reason No.2: Rejecting the bullshit of both In and Out
The second reason for burning my ballot paper was as an act of protest against the shockingly brutal and cynical political culture I have experienced in this campaign.
I know the right-wing game – the consistent and deliberate lying repeated enough times to turn a lie into a fact; the playing on the fears of angry, scared, and hopeless people. What I wasn’t prepared for was the poverty and irrationality of the arguments of the centre-left social democrat Remainers. What a pathetic vision they have offered. Their arguments have either sought to claim that the EU is a bastion protecting workers’ rights, that only the EU can save us from the Tories or that it’s only thanks to the EU that we haven’t had World War Three. Then there’s the woeful ‘least worst option’ argument – we know the EU is undemocratic, but it’s not as bad as leaving. The more positive reformist argument is better, but wrong, I believe. I’ll explain why later.
The Remain argument has been broadly founded on a simplistic economism framing trade as virtually the object of life itself. This has been complemented by cheap, tacky videos aimed at disarming critical faculties by pressing emotional buttons by conjuring up words and images of romantic nationalism.

I’ve been shocked by how many people I know who would probably consider themselves on the left have bought this sugary bile. I have been told to tolerate some utilitarianism, but, for me, tolerating any utilitarianism means sacrificing reason and democracy. You can’t sacrifice those in their name. What we have learned from history is that in politics the means are the ends.

Reason No.3: Liberating myself from an unbearable weight
The third reason why I decided to burn my ballot paper was because I was sick and tired of the unbearable weight that I felt on my shoulders – a weight that was foisted upon me involuntarily and constantly increased by daily exhortations by Remain supporters about the profound, almost unparalleled, historical significance and possible consequences of the referendum. The nature of this weight is the apparent obligation to choose between two irreconcilable contradictions. I personally cannot reconcile the contradictions and reject having to shoulder that responsibility imposed upon me/us involuntarily. By contradictions, I mean that both options I am offered are hideously bad. Gordon Asher sums up this supposedly democratic choice eloquently:

‘…‘both sides are equally committed to deepening austerity and have collectively driven an agenda several steps to the right of anything emanating from Brussels’ (Hore et al., 2016) – and the nation state (Plan C, 2016). Neither ‘Lexit’ nor a left-wing Remain are likely outcomes…..given the sheer dominance of the traditional forces of international finance on both sides of the mainstream debate, talk of a Lexit or a Left Remain become highly misleading: There will be only a ‘Rexit’ or a right-dominated Remain’ (Murphy, 2016)
If the UK ‘Remains’ under present proposals there will be a further neoliberal intensification… – a deepening and expansion of ‘austerity’; of competition, privatisations, imposition of markets/market like imperatives, and ‘the rule of money’ (Holloway, 2016), alongside a continuation of attendant assaults on what little remains of democratic mechanisms, public services, collective protections and human rights.
If the UK ‘Leaves’ under present proposals, the left will have to contend with capital’s inevitable response exploitative of crisis: hostility of the markets, ratings agencies, corporations and financial institutions – as well as of other governments – due to the threat posed by such an example (Anastasakis, 2016). We have witnessed, most recently in Greece (and they weren’t actually leaving!), the response of the neoliberal system to those who would dare take a different approach (Varoufakis, 2016).’

So, in danger of being labelled a cop-out, I’ve decided that I cannot and will not shoulder this burden. I will not drink from either of these poisoned chalices.

Reason No.4: Rejecting nationalism, rejecting anti-politics
Earlier I wrote about an act of dissensus as a way to refute those ‘forms of identification’ imposed on me/us. There are two forms of identification I want to particularly reject here. The first one is nationalism. I have been dismayed by how so many Remainers who would probably identify as left-wing use the pronoun ‘we’ to talk about the UK. To talk about the ‘we’ of the nation is to accept a myth as the foundation of our politics. And it is the myth that hides the real social war being perpetrated. Each day we the people are being imprisoned, starved, and killed by this war in the UK. I am talking about the class war that renders increasing numbers of us homeless and hungry, some of us even desperate enough to kill ourselves or others, and many more of us depressed, anxious, and stressed. I am talking about a patriarchal war that excludes women from power and opportunity; that, through austerity, punishes women disproportionately; that, through the production of a misogynistic media and culture, objectifies women and creates social conditions in which women are subjected to physical and sexual violence; and that, through a male-dominated criminal justice system, rarely delivers justice. I am talking about a white supremacist war that demonises and criminalises people with darker skin, particularly black and Muslim people, constructing them as the dangerous other, the enemy within our borders and the savage horde beyond.
The nation is the myth, the myth created not by the people, but by the ruling elites, to hide the social war. The nation-state is the institution that perpetuates this myth – with every war and every memorial of every war; on every Queen’s birthday; through the media; through the teaching of history; and through the everyday language and images it uses. To accept this myth, to talk of ‘we’ is to implicitly reject any future possibility of democracy and social justice. This is not to say that peoples might not collectively agree to form as nations, but it will be as nations without the nation-state.
This leads me to the second main refutation of forms of identification – the entire current model of supposedly ‘representative’ politics. First, what we have is not representative. The arguments for this are well rehearsed – a system dominated by middle and upper class white men; an unelected upper chamber; an unfair electoral system; and the whole system dominated by corporate, financial, military interests. Beyond this, however, is my rejection of any model of state politics in which we are reduced to peripheral and part-time players. In state politics, we might be called ‘citizens’, but we are not. We are ‘constituents’ who are given a vote to choose which party we think will give us the best value for our money and who can seek to lobby our representatives to make better fiscal and distributional decisions. Fuck that! This system has no future. Instead, we all have to build a real democracy in which we are citizens. Citizens are people who come together in their own communities to take control and ownership of local resources to decide collectively what to do. This is what we must start to develop. We are already developing the ethos and methods of this direct politics. We now need to take power of our local councils. Clearly, then, I’m not saying we should shun the formal system completely. We need to engage with it to win power to dismantle it. But, this referendum is no such opportunity.

Reason No.5: Attempting to take history into my own hands
I am told that I must vote Remain to stop the racists. For me, this is an ahistorical argument: rather than seeing history as a process, it reduces history exclusively to events. The referendum has become this monolithic EVENT. Events are very important, but politics is a process of struggle between antagonistic social forces and history is the unfolding of this process. Neither side offers a history that clearly explains the process that produced this event.
So, let’s take a longer historical view of the process that got us into a situation in which the political class was forced to hold a referendum and in which it became possible for a majority of voters to choose to leave the EU. It is commonly said that the EU referendum was foisted upon us because of a split within the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party, being a broad alliance of divergent bourgeois interests (financial, commercial, agricultural), has long been divided over its relationship to European supranational institutions. What forced the Tory government’s hand was the rise of a nationalist, explicitly anti-EU party – UKIP.
Do we end our historical analysis there? No? Of course, not. What explains the rise of UKIP? It’s clear – UKIP is fuelled by the anger, fear, and hopelessness felt by millions of working and middle class people. Where do these feelings come from? They are the product of four decades of a political, economic, and cultural attack by the ruling class on our livelihoods, economic security, health, education, culture, and self-esteem. The globalisation of capitalism has meant the deindustrialisation of UK towns and cities. The neo-liberal agenda has meant the decimation and privatisation of social housing, healthcare, education, culture, and justice. Imperialist wars have provided doomed employment and escape for many, but have devastated those societies from which desperate refugees come and have brought home UK soldiers with broken minds, spirits, and bodies. The crisis in capitalist profitability fueled an unprecedented global financialisation that brought the system crashing down in 2008. Eight years later and the next, far bigger crash is only a matter of when not if.
We only have a referendum vote and a vote that Leave might well win because we have a capitalist system that has discarded and demonised millions of people in this country for decades nows. This is where the anger, fear, and hopelessness of so many people comes from. To call them all xenophobes and racists; to label them as unthinking fools; to even try to win the argument for Remain on grounds of economistic ‘reason’ is to entirely miss the point. But, social democrats, by ignoring or dismissing the fact of systemic crisis, cannot adequately respond. And this is why I reject their reformist position. Capitalism is a system of social relations structured in exploitation, oppression, and violence. It cannot be anything but. History shows us that reformers seeking change from within an institution end up themselves being changed instead.
We are at an historical moment of profound crisis expressed as an intensified social war in which the current system cannot reproduce itself any longer. It has reached its material, physical, evolutionary limits. 2008 was the first heart attack. This system has to crash again and soon. The crash will be triggered by an event. The event might be the referendum. I don’t think it will be, but it might be. But even if it is it would be a mistake to somehow blame the crash on Brexit. Brexit is the inevitable consequence of this current terminal neo-liberal phase of capitalism.
This is like watching the slowest but scariest car crash in history (Again! i.e. like being in 1930s and the only way out of that crisis was genocidal war). It’s socialism or barbarism again. And this significant event, Brexit, might just wake some on the left up about the actual nature of the historical situation we’re in.
Whether this country is in the EU or not, its economy must crash and its society must transform itself. This is the bigger picture that the referendum, in all its spectacular bullshittyness, totally obscures. The burning of my ballot paper is a symbolic burning of state politics – the politics of the capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal and racist nation-state. I reject it. It is a system that can and will only lead us to genocide and ecocide. I, and all of you, must take history into my own hands.

So what is the alternative?
‘There is no alternative’ is, of course, that infamous Thatcherite mantra that ruled supreme and imprisoned our power and imagination for three decades. When we look at the way more and more areas of politics and policy are being put beyond democratic control into the hands of ex-banker technocrats, we might feel that the ‘TINA’ era continues. The EU is the best example of this kind of ‘post-political’ institution. Nevertheless, the ideology of the supposed free market is no longer hegemonic and those with their hands on the levers of political power can make their moves, but their time is ending and their system is collapsing.
What shocks me is when I hear the TINA line from well-meaning liberal/social democratic types. A neighbour of mine actually said ‘I’m as anti-capitalist as anyone, but show me the roadmap’. As if there was ever a roadmap from feudalism to capitalism! Such notions betray a fundamental ignorance of history. ‘We make the road by walking’, as the Zapatista saying goes. And those of us who are building the new society that is already emerging out of the collapsing architecture of the current system have already begun down that path.
While Karl Marx was rightly adamant that there was no blueprint for the future society, we do need a clear sense of direction and we also need to know where we’ve come from in order to know where we can and should go. This means understanding our history. So, one central task is not to dismiss Leave voters as, as one Facebook ‘friend’ put it, ‘unthinking fools’, but to engage them, listen to them, and try to work with them to reveal an alternative, reasoned history for why they are suffering so much. The second task is to bury any minor differences and come together in dialogue to articulate a minimal and maximal programme of objectives and actions. The minimal programme would express what we believe is needed immediately to satisfy the material needs of everyone and nature in our community right now. The maximal programme would express our utopian vision of the world we ultimately want to create and live in. The next task is to decide on a political action plan for getting these things achieved. Some actions might require action within the system – winning electoral office to democratise power and change laws, for example; Many other actions can be done outside – for example, establishing new co-operative commonly-owned and managed ways of producing and distributing resources, energy, food, money, etc. The foundation must be new radically democratic ways for interacting, learning with, and deciding with each other. Dialogue is the corner stone here.
Both Remain and Leave campaigns are founded instead on an anti-democratic cynical view of human nature. This is clear for Leave, but by Remainers arguing that only the EU can save us from the Tories they betray a similarly cynical lack of belief in themselves and others – in our capacity to act. Only human beings themselves can win their freedom. The crisis has to deepen, the shit has to hit the fan. Whether it’s in or out we have to fight our own battles.

Last week, the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in an act of fascist terrorism. She was, by all accounts, a remarkable, beautiful, and wholly good human being. While I praise many of the stances she took, she was for Remain and within the Labour Party. I am neither of those things. I am a radical socialist. While this is a fundamental difference, it is a difference irrelevant to the far right. Above all, what we must recognise is that before the Nazis and much of the German population killed the Jews, the homosexuals, the Roma, the disabled, and others, they killed the trade unionists, the socialists, the social democrats. It is the murder of socialists, those who stand first and firmest against hatred and for justice, that paves the way for genocide. Once again, we are confronted with a stark choice between socialism and barbarism.

Capitalism, Globalisation, Ideology, Neo-liberalism, Politics and economics

Knowing our left from our right, Part Two: the states-versus-markets red herring

Yesterday, I started this series of posts by saying that, while anything other than overtly racist right-wing parties and movements are described merely as ‘centrist’ or ‘right-wing’, in the UK anything to the left of New Labour is described by the media as ‘hard’, ‘far’, or ‘extreme’ left. I then set out to argue that the left-right divide is important because it expresses fundamental ideological differences which are themselves grounded in the very real material conflicts that structure our society. I then listed ten beliefs which supposedly make me ‘hard left’, but which I think make me a regular sensible, intelligent, caring human being.

Today I’m going to challenge the usual way in which the left-right divide is framed in terms of ‘states versus markets’. But first a very brief word on language…

Starting on the back foot

‘Words make worlds’. It is surely no coincidence that conservative groups and schools of thought – those social forces and theories that seek to justify, legitimate, and, ultimately, preserve the status quo of class, gender, and racial hierarchy – describe themselves as being ‘right’. The shared meaning of ‘right’ as ‘right-wing’ and as factually or morally correct transcends the English language. In other Germanic languages, like German and Dutch, it is synonymous with the word for the state and law too. Conversely, being of the ‘left’ is bound up with literally sinister connotations. ‘Sinister’ is the Latin word for ‘left’ and in many cultures being left-handed was seen as a mark of the devil that required exorcising. So, we on the left in politics start firmly on the back foot. But, best foot forward!

It’s not states versus markets. It’s always states and markets

The traditional, uncritical assertion is that the left-right spectrum plots one’s political position regarding the optimal size and scope of activity of states and markets in some zero-sum relationship. So, here, as it’s usually framed, if you’re a socialist (i.e. so-called ‘hard left’) you think that the state should be the main economic and social actor planning production, taxing progressively, and providing welfarist social protection. In contrast, those in the centre and to the right believe that the limits of human knowledge make the neutral market a far more efficient and socially just mechanism for production, exchange, and distribution and that the state’s role should be limited to low taxation and spending on providing the essential infrastructure, public goods, and the legal and regulatory oversight that markets require to function optimally.

This reductionist definition of politics is flawed in about every way conceivable. We are wont to call those on the right ‘free marketeers’ or even ‘laissez faire’ ‘neo-liberals’, but, in reality, the state and its coercive powers are as necessary to build our supposedly ‘market society’ as any socialist polity. The market is a social institution and markets need to be constructed in society. This also involves politically bulldozing the people, places, and practices that stood there before. The most obvious contemporary example here is what Paul Mason calls the ‘neoliberal privatisation machine’. The usual strategy is for the state to run down a public service through a combination of underfunding, disciplinary bureaucracy, and media denigration. Then the sector can be privatised, but invariably the new ‘free’ market must be artificially and infinitely propped up through various subsidies (subsidized by taxpayers and consumers) and raising the barriers to entry beyond the reach of all but a few preferred companies. Consequently, in all the former public sectors privatised in recent decades we see not flourishing markets, but monopolies and cartels backed by state law, regulation, money, and, when necessary, repression. As Naomi Klein has most ‘shockingly’ revealed, the amount of violence required to extend and enforce the ‘free market’ has been immeasurable. It has involved the direct and indirect deaths of millions. We can safely call it a genocide. Even arch-free-marketeer and imperialist cheerleader Thomas Friedman famously affirmed that ‘the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist – McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps’. The expansion and intensification (penetration into ever more areas of society and ecology) of market ideology and institutions that we have witnessed over the past few decades could not have been remotely achieved without the use of states.

It’s also clear that markets don’t function like they’re supposed to in the economic textbooks. They are systemically prone to failure. Lot’s to be said here, but suffice simply to say ‘Global Financial Crisis!’ and ‘massive state bailout!’…

bank bailout

And yet, for all the talk of markets, it would be far more accurate to argue that we live in a society dominated not by markets, but by huge global corporate organisations. 51 of the largest 100 economic entities are multinational corporations. Many of these ‘MNCs’ are not just economically larger, but have way more power than most nation-states. Furthermore, these organisations function a lot like the stereotypical ‘inefficient’ welfarist, or even evil Stalinist, state they are supposed to oppose: they are rigidly hierarchical and bureaucratic structures running roughshod over individual lives and human rights and ecosystems, and choosing central planning over market mechanisms in production decisions and resource allocations. Think that’s an exaggeration? Explain why up to two-thirds of global trade takes place not between but within firms. Allow me. It’s because capitalism isn’t primarily about markets; it’s about profit. Thus, neo-liberal globalisation isn’t primarily pro-market or anti-statist; it’s about reviving corporate profitability primarily by increasing and expanding capital’s power and freedom and destroying working class power.

The final reason why the states-markets definition of left versus right is overwhelmingly a red herring is because for many, and an increasing number, on the left, the state is as much a symbol of repression as it is for many on the right. It is fair to say that the dominant socialist thought and practice of the 20th Century, be it Leninism, Trotskyism, or even Keynesian social democracy, was focused on the state as dominant economic and political actor and, in the Marxist case, vanguard of revolution. However, this dominance must always be situated in the context, first, of the central Marxian belief that the dissolution of the system would mean the gradual dissolution of the state itself since the state was really only there to enforce a social system of structural oppression and exploitation, and second, of the rich tradition of Anarchist political thought. Anarchists believe in the rights and capacities of all human beings to organise themselves freely and spontaneously with no need for any overarching structure of political compulsion. Anarchist thought is, I believe, growing in influence today, particularly as information and communication technologies enable us to organise virtually and in real life in the ways Anarchists have long imagined.

In short, whether it’s because right-wing supposedly pro-market/anti-statist ideologies and strategies both require high levels of state intervention and coercion and actually invariably create private monopolies and oligopolies or whether it’s because there is a rich radical democratic anti-statism inspiring much left-wing thought and strategy, the states-markets definition of left-right divide is now mostly an anachronism. What definitely confines it to the margins is the reality that the specific conditions of the post-WW2 world that enabled a co-operative rapprochement between labour and capital expressed in the Keynesian state are long gone and are the polar opposite of today’s reality. That said, it’s never really been states versus markets. It’s always been states and markets or even states-markets.

Thanks, again, for reading. Click here for the link to the next post where I explore the issues of social justice and human freedom.

Joel

Capitalism, Culture, Democracy, Education/learning, Ideology, Marxism, Media, Neo-liberalism, Radical democracy, UK

What does this Sun/Women’s Own email really show us? And what can we do about it?

Dear reader,

It’s been an interesting 24 hours since my friend Kate Evans (@iamkateevans) showed me an email by a contributing editor to The Sun newspaper and Women’s Own magazine asking charities for a very particular request…

Embedded image permalink

I subsequently posted this email and a few observations on Agent of History here…

Since then, Kate’s been inundated with tweets and retweets, has been interviewed for an article in The Independent, and I’ve had over 20,000 views (and counting) of my original post. Even Russell Brand retweeted it, which is great! I should try to strike while the iron’s hot and offer a very brief analysis of what I think the significance of this email really is and what we can do about it. If you don’t have the time right now to read the entire post, feel free to just read the bits in bold to get the jist of my argument…

What does this Sun/Woman’s Own email really show us?

(1) Nothing we didn’t know or at least suspect!

I suspect that, in our heart of hearts, it shows us nothing that we didn’t know already. Alternatively and, perhaps more accurately, put, I suspect it just confirms our worst fears: that a large part of the ‘news’ we read in our ‘news’papers each day is actually stories prefabricated by journalists following edicts from editors and, indeed, in turn from newspaper/TV station owners and senior political figures on high. These stories clearly seek to construct a world in which the poorest, least educated, most deprived, and vulnerable people are the feckless, greedy, lazy, stupid architects of their own pathetic downfall! Homelessness, unemployment, obesity, disability, illiteracy, ill health, relationship breakdown, addiction, poverty are portrayed as conditions suffered by individuals and caused by individuals. Since these people are to blame for their own sorry states, it follows that any resources that allow them to sustain their shameful lifestyles should be stopped. The welfare system is reframed as a ‘benefits’ gravy train full of dependent passive passengers that has to be stopped if these passengers are ever to regain their independence and walk again.

daily mail benefitsAn all too common example of the daily attack on working class people

(2) Poverty is political!

I don’t want here to get into a detailed discussion about the political economy of poverty. Suffice to say here that poverty is a structural necessity in capitalism since it ensures that there is an ‘industrial reserve army’ always there to cow individual workers into accepting wage-slavery; that wages remain low enough to maintain profitability; that workers are alienated from each other in competition over jobs needed to avoid destitution; and that workers are way too preoccupied in the daily struggle for sustenance and survival to question and organise to challenge the system. It is a key weapon in the class war used to divide and rule. Poverty is not fundamentally a personal, cultural, or economic problem. Poverty is political!

Levels and forms of poverty differ, of course, according to the contextual and shifting economic conditions of capital accumulation, balance of political power between capital and labour, and control over the means of cultural production. The way that poverty was defined and described in the media in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s in the UK and elsewhere was, I suspect and believe, mostly very different. I see a key moment as the neo-liberal (Thatcherite) counter-revolution of the late 1970s. Since then, I believe a central ideological objective of the ruling class – one achieved with remarkable success – has been precisely to reframe social problems such as poverty, mental and physical ill health, crime, and homelessness as individual failings. We see this institutionalisation of individualism and what’s often called the ‘responsibilisation’ agenda embedded now throughout not just the media, but the education, health, public policy, and even charity sectors.

Two years ago, I tried (unsuccessfully) to run a political economy learning group at a leading national homeless charity. There, I was struck there about how any structural analysis of homelessness, poverty or mental illness was silenced in favour of a total focus on the individual – skilling up, jobseeking, boosting confidence, correcting personal failings, etc. I’m not saying don’t do these things. I’m emphasizing the political success of the responsibilisation agenda. This is ‘hegemonic’ power in practice!

What’s ‘hegemony’?

By ‘hegemonic power‘, I refer to (post-!)Marxist political theories of power shaped, in particular, by Antonio Gramsci in an Italian fascist prison in the 1930s and 1940s and by Argentine and French philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe from the 1980s. Here, it is language and signs/images that form the weapons, the cultural field that constitutes the battlefield, of politics (for Laclau & Mouffe, not just class politics but the politics of gender, race, sexuality, disability and all other structural forms of power and oppression).

Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci

Laclau

Ernesto Laclau

MouffeChantal Mouffe

What this email shows us, then, is how the hegemony not just of capital, but of patriarchy is constructed and maintained. It isn’t a coincidence that the email’s author is looking for a woman. I suspect this is for various cultural reasons, primarily because of the obscene objectification of the female body – a central mechanism of patriarchal power.

An image taken from today’s homepage (!) of The Sun newspaper

I want to make two further short, key points about this email and hegemonic politics.

(3) Avoid culturalism!

First, I don’t believe that politics is, therefore, just a ‘war of words’. Capital is a social relation between those who own and control the means of production and those who must sell their labour-power to survive. Therefore, economic conditions have a huge effect on cultural conditions. The reason why the email’s author is looking specifically for ex-fatty-scroungers is because his newspaper’s editor and owner and even the government too are needing to construct a particular ‘truth’ that excludes any consideration of current economic crisis (of capital’s inability to restart its engines and provide society-wide opportunity) and sets the working class against each other through the manipulation of our baser, negative instincts.

(4) Power ≠ Violence!

Second, when we read emails like this it is totally understandable to experience feelings of anger, but also passivity, powerlessness, and hopelessness. A perfectly rational and understandable response to this would be: ‘So, the media lies to us, fills us with hate for our fellow suffering brothers and sisters, and is run by powerful people seeking to maintain their power! What the hell can I do about it!?’

Allow me to offer an alternative reading. I see the desperation in this email as suggestive of declining and increasingly fragile hegemonic power. This email is an act of violence, symbolic violence, done to the particular poor individual they find to do their bidding, but also to poor working class people, especially women, in general. We must not, however, confuse violence with power. I remember reading Hannah Arendt who first showed me how power and violence are actually opposites! Power is always legitimacy conferred by people in some direct or indirect way. Violence is what you use when that legitimacy has gone. You can’t rule by violence alone for long.

ArendtHannah Arendt

The email shines a light into the desperation of a ruling class whose legitimacy to rule has been gradually revoked by us. We see this collective revocation in the slow retreat from formal political engagement over recent decades. The most stable regime of hegemony is founded on rule by active consent of the people, i.e. when we believe that those who rule rule in our interests. Hegemony is rendered less stable when that consent becomes passive. It’s then a case of needing to naturalise an artificial and contingent social order. In this case, the primary hegemonic task is then to make capitalism seem as natural as the air we breathe. Hence, the power and necessity of the infamous ‘TINA” (There Is No Alternative) doctrine. We are told that the world we experience is the only world there can be.

thatcherTINA

The end of TINA

The TINA Doctrine reigned supreme for around 25 years. It can probably be dated to around the late 1980s when Thatcherism and Reaganism consolidated in the UK and US (i.e. working class power was mostly destroyed), when the IMF and World Bank brought Structural Adjustment (hardcore austerity!) to the Third World, when the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc collapsed removing any ideological alternative, and when, consequently, the world was opened up for capitalist globalisation. It was destabilised by the rise of left-wing Latin American governments, and it took probably a mortal blow in the 2008 financial crisis, but it’s only been more recently in the patent inability of capitalism to revive and the concomitant creation and growth of alternative social movements, parties, and grassroots co-operative endeavours that we can see that the era of TINA hegemony is over; that the neoliberal project is on the rocks; that the discursive field of politics is thrown wide open again; and that another world is possible once more. Hence, for example, the panic over and demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing frontrunner of the Labour Party leadership campaign.

In short, this email shows us:

  1. How the media spectacle and, moreover, our opinions, beliefs, even our very identities are constructed;
  2. How it really helps to think about politics in terms of hegemony – language as weapon, culture as battlefield;
  3. How economic conditions are a fundamental force in shaping hegemonic politics;
  4. How the current conditions of economic crisis and collective reimagining have forced the 25(ish) year-long closure achieved by the neo-liberal counter-revolution wide open again;
  5. How, therefore, rather than interpreting this email in any disempowering way, we should recognise the media’s current daily campaign of symbolic violence that this email represents and recent panics over emergent social democratic/socialist forces as actually revealing the frailty and desperation of the ruling class.

So, what should we do about it?!

There are lots of things we can do. What you do is up to you, of course, but I would suggest that there is no innocent bystander and that acting brings such an inexpressible sense of empowerment and hope. So…

  1. Don’t buy these papers any more. However…
  2. Do check them out online. First, it’s crucial to know your enemy and to see the strategies, the discourses, the frames they are using. Second, it helps to develop our critical skills of reading and analysis;
  3. Spread the word online! Share your own findings and your own analyses. Don’t just take my word for it!
  4. Don’t be scared of theory! Theory literally means ‘to see’ (theoria), I believe. Read and use theory (political-economic, socioloigical, cultural, etc) to see the world in deeper, richer ways. Use and develop your own theories to understand the world you experience – by yourself and with others;
  5. Let’s talk and listen. If we accept a language-focused theory of politics, we don’t have to accept the eternal violence imbued in ideas of words as weapons and culture as battlefield. We can try to actively create new radical democratic forms of communication and society right now by coming together with others and exploring what it takes to use words as tools to rebuild, words as bridges to unite. This involves listening as much as talking, particularly listening to those who have been systematically and systemically silenced for too long (like 35+ impoverished women!) We can explore art and culture not as a battlefield, but as a way to express our individual and collective humanity.

Just some ideas for you! The particular choices you make, the particular forms these choices are articulated in are up to you. They are an expression of your particular, and our collective, humanity. They are the integral elements of the process of humanisation we seek to explore and develop.

These are my personal thoughts. Feel free to challenge and correct me. I am totally open to rethinking and revising my understandings.

Thanks for reading

Joel

P.S. If someone can teach me how to align three photos together on one line in WordPress and why WordPress doesn’t seem to recognise the lines I try to put between paragraphs and sections I’d be extremely grateful! This technical fault or, more likely, my technical ignorance is really annoying me! Thanks!

Capitalism, Democracy, Ideology, Marxism, Neo-liberalism, Politics and economics, UK

The Pint’s Half-Full! On knowledge, freedom, and unravelling hegemony, Part Two: Unravelling Hegemony

From the psychology of pint-buying to a political theory of hegemony

In the previous post, my curious discovery that I couldn’t say with certainty why I acted the way I did regarding buying drinks in pubs led me to question the nature and limits of knowledge and how that relates to our freedom. I suggested that anyone claiming absolute knowledge is demonstrating a politically, socially, economically, and ecologically dangerous hubris. I also equally suggested that those who claim that nothing is knowable are condemning us to political paralysis and acceptance of an unjust status quo. Thus, I argued that we can learn loads about our world and our selves and that we then have to use this knowledge to act in the world. This ongoing process of learning and acting is called a ‘praxis’ and that praxis is the only true way toward individual and collective freedom.

In this post, I want to build on these conclusions by bringing in another insight from my recognition of the limits of my self-understanding. I want to do this in order to share a theory of politics that, I believe, sheds a huge amount of light on what’s going on in the world today. This insight is this: If I do not fully know why I do what I do then how could I possibly judge others for their actions?

This insight generates two important conclusions. First, it highlights the sheer dehumanising toxicity of our contemporary model of doing politics. The practice of adversarial, conflictual party politics is one of daily accusation, besmirching, and scaremongering, a practice that unsurprisingly has led to ever increasing levels of public cynicism and disengagement from what we widely understand as ‘politics’.

PMQs

Furthermore, one primary objective of our political, economic, and cultural leaders is to divide us by seeding fear, mistrust, and even hatred among us. They do it very well.

daily mail benefits

Fundamental to all this malignant political practice is the issue of judgment – judgments handed down by politicians and the media and the invitation to judge people and social groups we know very little about. This is a politics of negativity, of cynicism, of shame, of bitterness, of vengeance, guilt, and many other terrible emotions. This is an anti-democratic politics because it relies on a silencing – those to be judged must be marginalised and silenced in order to be most effectively demonised – and on a labelling – making those silenced wear identity labels not of their own choosing. It’s what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu powerfully called ‘symbolic violence’. Those who have ‘symbolic power’ – the power to make meaning in the world – wreak a symbolic violence on those they judge, silence, and label. This violence is invariably linked to very material, physical consequences too.

The antithesis and antidote to this is, of course, a truly democratic politics – a politics of dialogue, of empathy, of faith, of inclusion. An organisation I work with, My Life My Choice – an organisation run for and by people with learning disabilities – has a really powerful slogan relating to this: ‘Nothing about us without us!’

The second conclusion to be drawn is perhaps the most nuanced, but politically the most significant. If we recognise that we are never fully rational or self-aware, that we are ‘social individuals’, and that we are all constantly changing then we surely cannot accept a theory of politics that offers a narrow, fixed definition of what a human being or what society is. If we look back at ourselves ten years ago and see a very different person who would have defined themselves and the world very differently, how can we subscribe to a theory of politics that can’t accommodate this messy reality of personal and collective complexity and change? This is, I think, the argument that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe make in their very influential book ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. They criticise what they call the essentialism of most Marxist theory that posits human beings, first and foremost, as workers in an exploitative economic system and explores the most effective ways to analyse and overcome this system. Though Laclau and Mouffe (like myself) remain Marxists and socialists, they argue that human beings are many varied and changing things; that the struggles we face are not exclusively economic; and, crucially, that these struggles are not secondary to the class struggle. Unfortunately, we could too easily have a socialist society that remained patriarchal, homophobic, racist, disabilist, etc, i.e. fundamentally unjust and undemocratic.

Laclau and Mouffe’s central thesis is that politics is primarily a struggle fought over and with words and images. So, yes, while the fact that everything and everyone is changing means there can be no absolute, eternal truth, and that the world is full of torrential flows of words and images, it is clear that people and societies are stable enough for powerful groups to achieve a long-term closure by imposing a relatively fixed definition of key political issues and practices like ‘society’, ‘economy’, ‘work’, ‘money’, ‘value’, ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘family’, ‘sex’, ‘common sense’, ‘tradition’, ‘nation’, etc, etc. This ‘semiotic’ closure is a closure of our individual and collective hearts and minds and, consequently, a closure of what can be politically imagined, hoped for, and created. So, what this term ‘hegemony’ means is a political dominance that a social group achieves when they are able to dominate the production of meaning in a society and they are able to dominate it to such an extent as to make the contingent and political seem natural and inevitable. That’s real power!

The unravelling of neo-liberal hegemony

What light can this theory of politics shed on contemporary events? A great deal, I believe. For over three decades, we have experienced the paralysing and economically, socially, and ecologically destructive hegemony of neo-liberalism. What I understand neo-liberalism to be is a reactionary political project, beginning in the 1970s, first to reassert and then to extend and intensify capitalist social relations and the hegemony of capital worldwide. Thus we see not just more and more areas of human life ‘commodified’, i.e. turned into areas of profit-making exchange, we see the logic of the market penetrate ever deeper into all our psyches and relationships. Though an extreme free-market ideology fronts it, if the interests and needs of capital diverge from free-market dogma, it is dispensed with. That’s why it’s best, I believe, to think of neo-liberalism as a material political project and not just as an ideology. The hegemony of neo-liberalism is best summarised in the term ‘There Is No Alternative’, otherwise known as the ‘TINA doctrine’, credited to Margaret Thatcher.

thatcherTINA

What I believe we are now seeing is the accelerated unravelling of the TINA doctrine, of neo-liberal hegemony. This post-neo-liberal (post-capitalist perhaps) era began, fittingly, where neo-liberalism itself first broke through – in South America – where we have seen the rise of many powerful left wing governments and social movements. We now have Syriza, a left wing party/social movement, in power in Greece, and powerful parties and social movements like Podemos in Spain and Left Bloc in Portugal are rapidly emerging across Europe, primarily in Southern Europe. And then suddenly, in perhaps the unlikeliest of places, we have a socialist, Jeremy Corbyn MP, catapulted into the media limelight as clear frontrunner in the leadership election of the British Labour Party.

Regardless of whether Corbyn wins or not, this seems a development of immense significance. In the negative politics of judgment and fear upon which neo-liberal hegemony depends, it has been easy to demonise the ideas and the people of the left because they are rarely seen or heard. By being obliged to give considerable airtime to these same ideas and their proponents, the TV channels, despite their best efforts, can’t help revealing that these ideas are far from ‘loony’ or ‘evil’, but are eminently sensible and morally appealing, and that those proposing them are not crazed fools, but sober, intelligent, likeable, and (unlike most politicians these days) principled people. Suddenly, the unthinkable becomes thinkable, the unimaginable becomes imaginable. Suddenly, the closed is reopened. Suddenly, hegemony is destabilised. The reaction is both shocking and unsurprising. We have seen pathetic levels of fury, vitriol, name-calling, scaremongering not just from the right wing press, but even from those self-appointed left wing patrician guardians of our morality. Now I know why The Guardian is so called!

One final thing to emphasise here is that I believe that this crisis of hegemony is directly related to a material crisis of capitalism. Capital’s inability to revive itself, to generate decent lives for now most people not just in poor countries but in rich ones too, its generation of extreme inequality and global ecological destruction make the articulation of alternatives possible and, of course, acutely necessary.

The overall conclusion to draw is not so much that ‘times they are a-changing’, but that we who desire to create a new just and free society out of the old finally can now see new, exciting opportunities to pursue. For those in their 50s or older, it has been a long wait! But it is up to us to seize, create, and take those opportunities. At moments of crisis like these, in conditions of civic illiteracy, the fascist Sirens call out. This time around, we cannot hold religiously and dogmatically to any essentialist truth. We need to use theory, for sure. But we need to apply those theories flexibly and contextually, and we need to create movements that combine the power of our collective organisation, imaginations, and energy with the flexible autonomy for individuals and separate groups to pursue their own struggles and dreams. This is the lesson that scholar/activists like Laclau and Mouffe offer us and, I think, this lesson is reflected in the new more horizontal, networked forms of organisation we see emerging throughout the world right now.

Phew! All that from an initial thought about buying pints in pubs! I’ll drink to that! Cheers!