Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Who Are These People?

The unreliability of the electorate is a theme of contemporary politics. This extends beyond electoral promiscuity, such as Scots deserting Labour for the SNP, to their reluctance to even vote, which is now the chief concern of the Remain camp in the EU referendum. The conventional wisdom is that this disenchantment is a result of the economic and social strains that have affected developed nations over the last eight years, exacerbated by sleaze and hypocrisy. The political centre has been forced to pursue unpopular but necessary policies like austerity, which has turned many off politics and provided an opportunity for populists promising ponies on both the left and right. A more sophisticated take is that it isn't a new phenomenon but the result of secular changes since the 1980s, fuelled by globalisation and technology, which have led to growing inequality and job polarisation. These have produced a hollowing of the middle class and greater working class consciousness, and so greater disillusion with parties that claim to represent middle class aspiration.

These views are complementary but one emphasises emotion, the other consciousness. The first sees the electorate as skittish and even devious in acknowledging its preferences. The failure of the polls to accurately predict the 2015 UK General Election result has led to efforts to improve accuracy, but centred on working out how much people are lying about their intentions. The second sees the electorate as consciously (if crudely) materialist and thus driven by immediate circumstance. For example, much of the "understanding" that centrists have urged for xenophobic voters assumes that this particular constituency has grown in recent years, a product of EU enlargement since 2004 and various refugee crises, and is thus driven by a false perception of the impact of immigration on wages and public services rather than longstanding bigotry.

I suspect electorates across the world are no more volatile or unreliable today than they have ever been. Consider the US primaries. Donald Trump has succeeded not by mobilising an insurgency but by giving mainstream Republicans their head. He has simply replaced the dog-whistle with a loudspeaker. He hasn't given voice to a hitherto unrepresented bloc of the white working class but to the same reactionary middle class that has always been the bedrock of the party. Hillary Clinton has succeeded by keeping mainstream Democrats onside as Bernie Sanders has brought more independents into the party's tent, including previously disillusioned working class voters and the younger cohorts first mobilised by Obama. Assuming she doesn't alienate them by trying to triangulate too much towards the right during the general election, she has the makings of a substantial majority. There is no revolution here.

While the emotional perspective looks dubious, the idea that there has been a growth in political consciousness is more credible. If the 80s and 90s narrowed political allegiance to a mix of tribal loyalty and selfish calculation, the last decade and a half has seen a revival of the idea of politics as a way of addressing collective action problems, from housebuilding to climate change. Austerity may be bad policy, but it deals in the language of collective responsibility rather than individual ambition. The revival of public ethics, which crystallised around Iraq in 2003, has shifted politics back from "what works" to "what is right". While centrist politicians remain committed to extending the freedom of the market to more areas of life (the reports of neoliberalism's death are exaggerated), voters are increasingly insistent on limits to the market and the re-establishment of popular sovereignty. This can obviously take both progressive and reactionary turns, but the common thread is the growth of class consciousness, whether manifested through the flag of St George or self-identification as a "socialist".

This has been greeted ambivalently by parts of the left (and not just those committed to the primacy of identity politics), because pessimism of the intellect leads to the belief that the working class is no longer able to fulfill a progressive role and that we must therefore embrace more utopian, usually techno-futurist, solutions. David Graeber is typical of those who see irony and perversion in modern class consciousness: "... the historical defeat and humiliation of the British working classes is now the island’s primary export product. By organizing the entire economy around the resultant housing bubble, the Tories have ensured that the bulk of the British population is aware, at least on some tacit level, that it is precisely the global appeal of the English class system, up to and including the contemptuous sneer of the Oxbridge graduates in Parliament chuckling over the impending removal of housing benefits, that is also keeping affordable track shoes, beer, and consumer electronics flowing into the country". The superstructure is all.

In contrast, centrists like Ben Jackson emphasise the base: "Those on the hard left fail to follow their materialist analysis to its logical conclusion: that social conditions make a quest for a more socialist Britain very, very difficult ... The 1945 Labour government worked with the grain of the industrial economy revived by wartime production, inherited from total war an exceptionally wide range of economic controls, faced little challenge from a war-ravaged City of London, and derived its social legitimacy from a large, popular trade union movement and ultimately a numerically dominant industrial working class. ... No matter how adroit Labour's positioning today, the party lacks a comparable set of structural advantages for any socialist economic reform programme". This is addressed less to the Labour leadership than to the young who voted for Jeremy Corbyn. They are suffering from a false consciousness in which they identify with a post-industrial working class that has become reactionary.

If Jackson seeks to cast a radical political programme as anomalous, Paul Mason seeks to re-embed a radical consciousness as the naturally occurring condition of the working class in an economy marked by high employment and good incomes. For him, the long-term unemployment of the 1980s destroyed a "culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid ... We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story ... Without solidarity and knowledge, we are just scum, is the lesson trade unionism and social democracy taught the working-class kids of the 1960s". The truth is somewhere in between. 1945 was certainly unusual, but that doesn't mean a "socialist economic reform programme" is impossible, while the values and aspirations of the working class in the 60s and 70s were not that far removed from the middle class (Mason's lament better describes the 50s), which is one reason for the turn to the right in 1979.

What Graeber, Jackson and Mason share is a tendency to see the working class as broken beyond repair, but they over-emphasise political defeat relative to the simple operation of time. The working class of the social democratic era has largely retired. Today's working class is made up of different people, but they have one thing in common with previous generations and that's their consciousness relative to age. The culture of "unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid" was always enforced by twenty and thirty-somethings, not by the old, even if the latter carried titular authority. The young marrieds were the shock troops of organised labour and the most contemptuous of scabbing, just as they would be the shock troops of Thatcherism and the most contemptuous of the poor. More class conscious than school-leavers and more assertive than the old, the revolutionary class is always defined by its age and its consciousness is a product of both its material condition and its political aspiration.

The twenty years from the general election of 1983 to the Iraq invasion of 2003 were good for this age cohort, even if prosperity depended on growing household debt and dual incomes. But the next generation had it rougher, not just because of stagnant wages and housing under-supply but because the prospect of significant political change was all but ruled-out by the first New Labour government (turnout between the 1997 and 2001 general elections fell by 12%). As Corey Robin observes in a US context, "For the last 40 years, we’ve been preparing for this generation without a future. We’ve weaned and fed them on the idea that life doesn’t get better, that there are no plans to be made, no futures to be had. So that when that reality actually hits, when they inherit the world they’ve now inherited, they’ve been readied for the nothing that lies ahead. There’s no shock of recognition, no violent recoil from the new. There’s just this slow descent into systemic immobility and unreliability".

But this very immobility and unreliability paradoxically creates the conditions for change: what Graeber refers to as "despair fatigue". As Robin notes, "Strangely, this is the generation that is now making the Bernie Sanders moment. Which, whatever else it may be, is a bid on the promise that the future can be better. Radically better. For the millennials, this is not a promise born from any economic experience. It is a purely political promise, distilled from the last decade and a half of failed protest against neoliberalism and austerity, and some strange phantom of socialism conjured from who knows where". It's possible that this may peter-out in the same way that the Occupy movement did, but it's also possible that the turn from self-righteous activism towards party politics heralds a progressive shift in the electorate. Ironically, this is precisely what the neoliberal establishment is hoping for, albeit as a temporary enthusiasm sufficient to secure the UK's continued membership of the European Union and Hillary Clinton's election in the US. It is the establishment's fear that it may not be able to control this turn that explains the trope of unreliability.


  1. '"The 1945 Labour government worked with the grain of the industrial economy revived by wartime production, inherited from total war an exceptionally wide range of economic controls, faced little challenge from a war-ravaged City of London, and derived its social legitimacy from a large, popular trade union movement and ultimately a numerically dominant industrial working class. ... No matter how adroit Labour's positioning today, the party lacks a comparable set of structural advantages for any socialist economic reform programme".'

    Blimey, and there was me thinking that an enormous debt accumulated during six years of war, plus the vast expense of maintaining an massive empire as well as occupying a third of Germany, might not have been a great prospect for a social democratic reform programme. Given that most of his 'structural advantages' were also present after World War One, why did that not lead to corresponding political success and social reform?

    1. Quite. Jackson also fails to appreciate the degree to which the expectations of 1945 were conditioned by the 30s, a point that Ken Loach's "Spirit of '45" film brought out well. I'd build on that and suggest that the foundations for a possible Labour victory in 2020 were laid in the 00s - i.e. the reaction to Blair as much as the financial crash.

    2. You're in a very upbeat mood today. Optimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment1 June 2016 at 17:08

    I tend to think the growing apathy is just that apathy. Not a positive but a negative. I think it is a cultural shift, probably to do with a period of brainwashing where ‘politics’ is seen as boring, no time for that I have Angry birds to deal with!

    I think the slight decline of the major parties is more of a cultural shift as people no longer strongly identify with parties that represent class. So I think it is a lowering of class consciousness that explains contemporary reality and not an increasing class consciousness. So political parties are more of a consumer choice these days. Or that is part of a development.

    I know optimism of the will is supposed to be optimism of the intellect but I see optimism as bordering on cretinism. It has an almost Pavlovian over reaction to the smallest affairs. Though if Corbyn wins in 2020 I may rethink or more likely I will end up hugely underwhelmed or dispirited when he fails to deliver his mildly reformist agenda!