A PRECARIOUS ELECTION
By Paul Coleman
An energised Labour leader – Jeremy Corbyn – grins from ear to ear.
He watches his self-styled ‘strong and stable’ opponent’s bottom lip quiver. Theresa May, a weakened Conservative and Unionist party leader, wobbles on fashion statement high heels. The beginning of the end of May looks nigh in June – even as devoutly self-deluded she tries to totter on in self-denial, her denuded power propped up by a tiny cadre of hard-right Ulster Unionists who oppose abortion and deny climate change. As for a ‘hard Brexit’, don’t bet any hard-earned cash on it coming to fruition.
As for Corbyn’s enemies – a zombie haunt of neo-liberal New Labourites – they shuffle inside TV studios to register astonishment at how a Corbyn-led Labour has secured parliamentary seats in parts of Britain it was thought Labour could never reach. Zombies don’t tend to do generosity but even they drool grudging praise onto Corbyn and his band for diminishing May and her coven.
Yet, leaving aside the Westminster village melodrama and longer-term Brexit implications, is Britain experiencing a wider and deeper political rupture?
A neo-liberal political economy and culture has vice-tightly gripped Britain’s political economy for over 40 years. Capital – liberated by Thatcher and allowed to roam free by Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, Clegg, Cable and May – remains dominant over labour, over working people. But does the 2017 election mean capital’s grip is loosening? Is a younger generation, boosted by many first time voters, pushing Britain’s political economy – the relationship between the contending forces of capital and labour – towards one of those rare, rupturing paradigm shifts, of the kind we saw in 1979 and 1945?
Rewind to election eve – Wednesday night (7 June). Jeremy Corbyn addresses a clamorous rally of Labour supporters inside the Union Chapel in the heart of his Islington North constituency. Corbyn foresees that the British people will continue to demand massive ongoing investment in public services, including health and education. The Labour leader claims these demands now form a new ‘centre ground’ in British politics. In holding this view, Corbyn stands open to an accusation of being a hopeless optimist. Britain remains a very small ‘c’ conservative country – and wheels out the big ‘C’ Conservative on election night, as 318 seats won in 2017 still proves. On the other hand, Corbyn might be well placed to sense a new paradigm in the offing; after all, Corbyn has represented Islington North as a member of Parliament for over 34 years, eagerly watching for a new political paradigm like an astronomer seeking out a solar event.
For instance, does the election of 262 Labour MPs represent a reawakening of the paradigm ‘spirit of ‘45’? Over 330,000 British people were killed during World War II. A weary war-ravaged population vote overwhelmingly in 1945 for a Labour government led by Clement Atlee and Aneurin Bevan. People born in poverty-stricken Victorian London, who waded through the deathly mud of the First World War and then suffered the harsh depression of the 1920s and 30s, demand ‘we’ve won this second war, now let’s win a peace.’ Their vote ushers in the establishment of the National Health Service – and the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy and of public services and utilities.
That post-war settlement, albeit flawed and involving only a relatively modest redistribution of wealth, enables working people to make economic gains. The settlement also establishes an enduring consensus for new social rights, so people can enjoy secure jobs, homes, health and education.
After decades of war, economic depression and brutal inhumanity, capital is forced in 1945 to cede significant ground to labour. A paradigm shift, if ever there was one.
That consensus holds throughout the 1950s and 60s until the growing forces of corporate international capital – financial, industrial and mineral – seek to widen their opportunities to accumulate surpluses. Those growing forces foster Britain’s next paradigm shift – the triumph of early neo-liberalism in the brand form of Thatcherism in 1979. ‘Children of the free market’, born in the late 1950s and 60s, are persuaded to elect a leader of an imported American neo-liberal cult that will dynastically stretch beyond Thatcher to Major, to the good cop, bad cop social Thatcherism of Blair, Brown, Cameron/Osborne and of May.
The children of the free market begin their indulgence in a lifetime of conspicuous baby-booming and consumption, driven by cheap credit, bubbled by mortgaged bricks and mortar. They endorse Thatcher’s unleashing of neo-liberalism’s attack dogs privatisation, financialisation, marketisation and globalisation – on Britain’s political economy. These neo-liberal dogs successfully transfer wealth from the public to the private spheres, facilitating capital accumulation for a newly ennobled global élite. The consensus for publicly funded public services, engendered by that now largely forgotten spirit of ‘45, lies shredded and almost wholly devoured. Inequality widens. Scapegoats – black people, migrants, Muslims, the disabled, the scrounger, the benefit cheat – are fear-mongered and smear-mongered into mass popular consciousness.
In many ways, capital drives labour back to the 1920s and 30s – and a politically licenced, lightly regulated and unfettered global financialised greed, much of it derived from derivatives shaped in the City of London and at Canary Wharf, pushes Britain and the rest of the world blindly forwards towards a financial and economic abyss.
The new paradigm shatters its postwar predecessor.
The new paradigm needs to smother the public consciousness – just as the 19th century plantation economy class needed to pervade an ideology of racism to justify the slavery that underpinned its vast profits. Similarly, the beneficiaries and functionaries of late 20th century neo-liberalism need to feed people with a quasi-religious doctrine celebrating the virtuous free market. This doctrine, garbed as ‘common sense’, ‘natural’ and ‘self-evident’, daily drips that competing individuals in a free market always conjure general outcomes far more beneficial than any alternative notion of a society based on co-operation and public provision.
The idea that power, profit and privilege are the only possible foundations for a society secures a sufficient level of hegemony in many people’s colonised minds. Whole sections of British society – including many working people rendered superfluous by deindustrialisation – materially and imaginatively buy into this view of the world, regurgitating it as a cynical yet truer reflection of human nature.
Of course, a Murdochesque mass media, celebrity culture and an anti-intellectual societal trait ensure many people fail to join the dots and see how this ‘free market’ credo requires war, military interventions, enforced structural adjustment, and massive public subsidies and bailouts. But any focused view of Britain’s political economy amongst many working people is blurred further by an indulgent fizz of golf, rugby and wishful lottery balls – and by encouraging people to pontificate about the world from the bottom of a glass. In these multifarious and nefarious ways, capital uses all its wily tricks to pull the wool over labour’s eyes.
But the people cannot be distracted by the real and very present danger to their lives posed by the ‘credit crunch’ of 2007. The nigh-catastrophic banking and financial meltdown of 2008-09 terrifies people who lose their jobs and worry about their savings, pensions and security and dignity in older age. Driven by the propaganda of fear, people fearfully vote for another form of neo-liberalism, disguised as Cameron’s caring capitalism.
Later, in 2015, New Labour’s neo-liberal post-Blair rump offers little as an alternative in the form of Miliband’s weak diluted social democracy. Osbornomic austerity bites hard into Britain’s political economy but Brexit bites back as the angry gnaw of the neglected deindustrialised people; a swathe of society deprived of their traditional economic role and who now struggle through life in ways beyond the comprehension of politicians and a commentariat cosily ensconced in the Westminster village and its warm media blister.
Brexit forces Cameron to impale his career. Gove slices Johnson in a night of long neo-liberal knives. May high heels forth chanting her ‘strong and stable’ mantra – and so we reach where we are now on 9 June. Hung. With a noose of uncertainty around our necks.
But, if Corbyn is serious in his new paradigm of ‘hope’ observation, a new generation of young people has begun to think and to vote in accordance with a desire to live in a society more at peace with itself, characterised by massive investment in public services. They hope this election shows that Reaganite and Thatcherite neo-liberalism – and its New Labour derivative – has failed to kill the spirit of ‘45. They believe that reports of the death of that postwar consensus are premature, despite the daily funeral reports in the Murdochian media and despite Labour’s failure to win a majority in this election.
If Corbyn is right about what the election actually means, many people do realise that bank profits are privatised. They realise that the high risks that City of London financial institutions place on the real economy are socialised – and lead to massive bailouts that underpin austerity and cut public services – cuts that render many lives miserable.
They also understand and resent that the economy totters – like a high horse May on high heels – on the spread of personalised debt rather than on genuinely, productively created and manufactured goods and services. If Corbyn is right, significantly increasing numbers of people have begun to change their past views of the world – and to realise that the ‘free market’ has always relied variously on debt, dispossession, displacement, indenture, wage slavery, actual slavery and serfdom.
Are the children and grandchildren of the ‘children of the free market’ bringing about the beginning of the end of their forebears’ era of casual, credit-fuelled consumerism and ‘I’m alright Jack’ conscienceless hedonism?
Judging what this election means beyond Westminster pie-throwing now becomes like a never-ending loop play of Johnny Nash’s song, ‘There Are More Question Than Answers’. Is the public imagination changing? Is nostalgia for Thatcherism waning? Are people rejecting Blairism and Social Thatcherism? Do they see that trying to mitigate, like Miliband, the worst excesses of neo-liberal free market individualism is a Sisyphusian strategy doomed to failure?
Will the City of London continue to function unhindered as the gushing geyser of global corporate neo-liberalism?
Will industries, businesses and agricultural concerns discarded by neo-liberalism shift their allegiance from the party of capital and land to the party of organised labour?
Will the new paradigm halt and reverse the political recruitment of New Labour functionaries to the neo-liberal consensus? Is the era of New Labour councillors selling public land and council estates to global real estate developers – whilst sipping champagne at property fairs in Cannes – finally coming to an end?
Rather than politically fight the central government that cut their local council budgets, these councillors willingly joined the corporate bankers and developers, the global-reaching ‘game-changers’. They voluntarily signed up to become members of a ‘subaltern archipelago’ of folk who make money through ‘finesse’ – architects, consultants, marketing executives, lawyers, accountants, tax avoidance experts, and art-washing creatives – a cluster seeking profit, privilege, status and ostentatious social clambering wealth, who remain ‘professionally’ impervious to the impact of their ‘work’ on people on average and lower incomes. They balm any semblance of morality and guilt with ostentatiously advertised charitable giving, preaching passive corporate and social responsibility whilst pursing active corporate wealth and expansion – all the time lacking a true understanding of, or a hooted care about, how other less fortunate people are affected by their precious ‘work’.
Is this the beginning of the end for that band of merry privileged folk who brazenly insist ‘we’re all in this together’?
Are we done with the neo-liberal paradigm?
Is this a temporary eclipse? Or the permanent eradication of social Thatcherite Blairism? Are we seeing the end of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ and the beginning of ‘things will never be the same again’?
Londoners live in a city of conspicuous wealth enjoyed by a tiny minority network of uber-high net worth individuals. We all live in a world occupied by a glitterati whose private jet-carried lifestyle of cinstant acquisition is overshadowed by a world of shattering inequality, famine, nuclear obliteration, war, civil war, terrorism, rising seas, melting ice caps, declining biodiversity and airborne toxins.
From that wider grand-scheme-of-things perspective, one unexpectedly hung parliament seems small – and to see that as something potentially momentous, you have to subscribe to a Corbynesque view that mighty oak paradigms from little acorns do grow. Subscribe to that view, and you interpret May’s quivering stiff upper lip as her instinctive fear of the real paradigm changes beginning to take shape.
And you’ll also see why Jeremy Corbyn – whilst shy of a working majority – affords himself a wry smile.
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