Speaking of politics and the internet, it's worth highlighting that the remaining SWP opposition, which has been under deep cover since the revolting spectacle of the special conference, has 'come out' with a new blog. The Fault Lines has some quite telling posts, and for those who have followed this story and have an interest in the future of the British Left, it is essential reading. The IS Network has written an 'official' response, and Network member Jules Alford has written very well on the subject here.
I have never been motivated enough to write anything detailed about the political valences of 'the internet', despite plenty of goading, and despite having 'debated' the subject in a slightly off-the-cuff manner on a couple of occasions. To be honest, I found the whole idea incredibly boring. What was there to say that wasn't obvious? I know this is philistinism.
Prior to leaving the SWP, the subject suddenly became much more important, and I co-authored a piece for the 'Internal Bulletin' before the party's 'special conference'. The piece was informed by some of the usual academic readings, but eschewed the scholastic debates (Castells vs Morozov; slacktivism vs creative autonomy; etc) and language in favour of a practical argument intended to explain why political parties - to the extent that they ever could - would no longer be able to maintain a culture of secrecy, even if such was desirable. Of course, there could be a degree of confidentiality in restricted circumstances, all depending on the good will and political discipline of those involved - but secrecy, the idea that one's discussions take place outside of the scrutiny of either members or the public, is over. One practical consequence of this, as far as the IS Network is concerned, is that we make a point of keeping records of our 'internal' discussions and publishing the minutes on the website - something that was unthinkable in the SWP.
Here, as a starting point for discussion, I want to spell out some more general arguments about politics and the internet which have, in their totality, clear practical consequences. I make no claim to originality in any of this.
I. 'The internet', as such, doesn't exist. This is a cultural commonplace. Comical attempts to represent 'the internet' as a 'thing' might involve depicting it as a giant broadband hub device (as in South Park, where a shortage of 'internet' was solved by pulling the giant plug out and putting it in again) or a normal sized one (as in The IT Crowd, in which Jen is gulled into thinking that the small blinking box she holds is 'the internet'), but the joke is very clear: 'the internet' isn't a tangible 'thing'. But when it comes to analysis, the temptation is always to take the object of analysis for granted, to become entranced by it. A great deal of cyber-idealism derives, in my opinion, from 'forgetting' that what is called 'the internet' is a set of processes and relations; that the tangible effects which appear to confirm its existence are the various results of these processes. And that cyber-idealism is shared even - especially - by morose critics of cyber-utopianism such as Morozov who maintain a strict online-offline dichotomy. If 'the internet' doesn't exist as such, neither does a strict demarcation between 'the internet' and 'not the internet'.
II. These processes and relations are all inflected by the specific materiality of Web 2.0 - that is, its specific technological bases and protocols, and its evolving systems of signification, of encoding and decoding. Beyond this simple fact, their base of commonality is quite narrow. For instance, the relation between a sole Twitter user, those whom she follows, and those who follow her, is qualitatively quite different to the relationship between a corporate Twitter user, its follows and followers. The processes, the habits of posting, tagging, re-tweeting and so on, are remarkably different in each case. This is because the technology is articulated on existing social (economic, political, ideological) relations. It modifies these relations, and I will be particularly concerned with its effect on ideological relations, but it cannot substitute for them or resolve their antagonisms or 'contradictions'. To believe otherwise is to succumb to technological fetishism.
III. One consequence of this is obviously that there are pronounced inequalities in access to and use of the internet, whether in terms of bandwidth, or the languages permitted in the dominant websites, or the political controls operating on it. The vast majority of Twitter accounts are followed by less than a 100 people, and a relatively tiny proportion of tweeters makes up for the greatest volume of tweets. Celebrities, companies, governments, PR firms, news and media outfits, and so on, all make up the vast bulk of social media traffic. James Curran et al have demonstrated this consequence with ample rigour -
albeit at times slightly overzealous in their prosecution of internet
utopianism - and I feel no need to go into detail here. It may be said that because the internet favours networked relations, it therefore favours more more horizontal, flexible and decentred types of organisation. While the business-minded (cf., capitalist scum) would point out that this reinforces similar tendencies in the organisation of industries, some activists have claimed that it echoes the increasingly rhizomatic, non-centralised forms of political action that characterise social movements. But networks do not necessarily mean 'no hierarchies', particularly when they are articulated on profound political, ideological and economic hierarchies. What is true is that it is incredibly difficult simply to exclude certain ideas or agents outright. Whereas a person can go through her whole life without ever being a guest on BBC Newsnight, it's increasingly implausible that she will never have a post re-tweeted or shared by far more people than she knows. The main benefit of social media for political activists is to help break through the ideological monopoly of the ideological-state apparatuses.
IV. 'Social media' as such is not a novelty; the authentically popular presses of the last century were social media. The types of social media made available by Web 2.0 are not totally sui generis. When theorists such as Castells celebrate the 'creative autonomy' facilitated by social media, they are not completely wrong; but they are mistaken to the extent that they think this is a totally original feature of the internet. Nor is the novelty in the use of electronic data interchange; before social media, there was texting, and before texting there was telexing and faxing. What is distinctive about social media in this respect is: i) the scale of user-generated content, allowing for the ideological monopoly of the existing ideological-state apparatuses to be challenged at certain decisive points; b) the scale at which it has accelerated communications, such that the spread of information is unpredictable, and almost impossible to stop; c) and the fact that its celerity is bound up with a networked form wherein obstacles such as censorship (or privacy) can generally be routed around.
V. Technology is not socially neutral. One of the more naive types of social criticism is expressed in the idea that a technology is indifferent to its social uses: you can use a hammer to bash in someone's head, or nail up a picture, it doesn't care which. The reality is that certain technologies do incline toward certain social arrangements more than others. Nuclear power tends to support more hierarchical, secretive structures. If anything, social media tends to encourage the opposite: a panopticon effect. It is easier now for state secrets to be exposed, but also easier for surveillance to be implemented. It's not simply that one can be spied on by the state or by one's employers - think of Azhar Ahmed, the famous #twitterjoketrial, the people locked up for things they said during the riots. It is that there are consequences for political subjectivities. A bit crudely, Morozov has claimed that people sign petitions or share activist material online simply to impress their friends. The kernel of truth in that is that whatever you say has to be gauged not just for an intimate audience of friends and family, who know and understand your attitudes and affective dispositions, but for potentially the whole of the internet. Getting it right, projecting the correct image, and receiving the appropriate feedback, becomes extremely important: why else would you stay up all night because "someone is wrong on the internet"? Lasch's worries about capitalism engendering a collective retreat to narcissistic fantasy now look sweetly naive. But aside from that, the tendencies toward ideological conformity at certain crucial moments, the coercive power of ideology, is reinforced by this. Think about the horrors of social media during the England riots in 2011, think of the 'spontaneous' outpouring of support for the police and the tidal wave of racist authoritarianism, as people outbid each other to come up with the thickest thing to say, drawing on the dominant ideologies that they had imbibed from the ideological-state apparatuses over the years.
VI. The major impact of social media on agents is not the sharpening or modification of existing tendencies toward individualisation, but rather the sharpening and modification of tendencies toward the destruction of the individual. The individual on social media is not the self-sufficient ground of its communicative structure, but rather a contingent assembly of networked nodes, projects, etc. The algorithms of searches, trending topics, and the logic of 'sharing', 'retweeting', 'hashtags', and so on - leaving aside the paid for advertising promotions of certain companies - supports an 'emergent order', wherein the real 'brain' of communication is not the individual with her 'creative autonomy', but rather the medium itself. As Mirowski points out in his new book, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste, this tends to give it an elective affinity with neoliberalism, which re-defines the human in a similar way. It is not 'networked individualism', but the fragmentation of individuals into several networked nodes, that is taking place.
VII. It follows from this that the idea of a dramatic increase in 'creative autonomy', pivoted on the autonomous individual as the ground of communicative activity, is in need of serious qualification. Because the emergent order of social media, that hive mind, is clearly structured by the materiality of Web 2.0 and the social relations on which it is articulated. How successfully a node can project its message depends on how well it masters the protocols of these social media, how much resources it is able to dispose of in doing so, and how much access to the traditional ideological-state apparatuses it has. Further, the process of what Castells calls 'mass self-communication', as opposed to simple one-way 'mass communication', is similarly dependent: the forms of representation, ideological interpellations and subjectivities that form the basis for 'mass self-communication' are produced within the existing ideological-state apparatuses, and whatever counter-hegemonic apparatuses exist. Not only that but the commodification of the internet and the acceleration of monopoly tendencies within it ensures that the last thing people are is ultimately autonomous: the business model tends to be selling audiences (eyeball attention, personal information) to governments and advertisers, and with user-generated content the users' labour is directly harnessed to the profitability of the providers. The autonomy and creativity that people enjoy here is only relative to the completely passive position of television viewers.
These points should hopefully underline a few practical consequences: that the internet and social media in particular offers unprecedented opportunities for marginal groups that exploit it effectively (and I would say 'early', but...); that it renders absolute secrecy increasingly obsolete; that it disrupts the monopoly of the dominant ideology, but also reinforces it at critical junctures; that it cannot substitute for a radical infrastructure, for counter-hegemonic apparatuses; that the 'autonomy' it affords is only relative and highly insecure, and therefore one needs a 'back-up' in case it fails or is withdrawn.
As I say, this was intended as some starting points for political discussion, especially among IS Network members, but it's also my late entry into a wider discussion that has been going on for some time.
I spoke at the Subversive Festival in Zagrebon Friday. I think the video will go online at some point, but because I spoke too fast I promised to post the transcript of what I said online. I also append my notes from what the other speakers - Haris Golemis, FrancineMestrum, and Waltraud Fritz Klackl - said.
I have to say, parenthetically, that the city went mental for the festival. The tourist board and local hotels were in on it, there were banners across main streets in the centre, there was a raft of institutional and media sponsorship - even, dare I say it, corporate sponsorship. There were some big names, Oliver Stone, Zizek, Tsipras, etc - but mostly people were there for the high minded leftist debate. Given how long the festival went on for, and given the easy distractions of the cafe culture - cafes with big outdoor awnings everywhere - it was remarkable that it was sustained.
Most of the below will be familiar to regular readers.
I think the title of this talk, The Rise of a
New Left, is clearly to some extent projection of a desired outcome; of course,
there are elements of a New Left visible.
Not just the indignados and occupiers, but also the radical left
challengers: Syriza, the Portugese Left Bloc, Die Linke, the Scandinavian
Red-Green alliances, Front de gauche, maybe some elements of the Pirate
Still, we have to begin by acknowledging that
we are speaking from the waste ground of a world-historic defeat that is, even
at this moment, being inflicted on us. I say this right off because there is too much
invested in the abstract idea of resistance - look at the beautiful sparks of
resistance, if only we have more resistance, then the problems can be
solved. Of course, there has been
resistance, social movements, strike waves, quite remarkable events - the Arab
Spring, the Occupy movement, student rebellions, riots, near-insurgency levels
of strikes and protests in Greece. Yet,
one outstanding fact is that not one serious defeat has been inflicted on
austerity, not one.
And the neoliberalism which we all hoped was
going to experience an emaciating crisis when the credit crunch struck in 2007,
and especially when the idols of Wall St from Lehman Brothers to Bear Sterns
started to crumble, lives and thrives.
Far from being weakened, it has adapted and come back more coherent in
its objectives, more daring, and more successful.
Of course, the current success of the
ruling classes is no surety of their future success. Our present predicament is no guarantee of
ongoing failure. But we have to drop the
consolatory notions - that the fight hasn't really begun yet, wait until next
year, you'll see. We have been waiting
five years for a win. Syriza is the
closest we have seen, a point I'll return to.
Or, we hear that however weak we are, the ruling class is also weak. In
some respects they are. Ideologically,
the traditional parliamentary parties are weak, and the traditional sources of
authority are diminishing. The dominant
conservative and social democratic forces are degenerating. But the ruling class's control over markets,
their colonisation of all the major state apparatuses, their command of the
dominant institutions, the dominant media, the academic and ideological
mainstream, and so on, stands in stark contrast to the Left's paucity of
infrastructure, its lack of institutional
advantage, its disarray, its dumbfounded attempts at analysis, the disorganised
state of the working class underpinning it, the morbid symptoms arising from
the secular decline of social democracy and the trade unions.
tendency to enthuse about various substitutions - social media will make up for
our lack of an infrastructure, forgetting that its 'individuating', commodifying
tendencies pose as many problems as are solved by the creative autonomy
facilitated by social media; or, we suppose that a new class of degraded
subjects, the urban poor in the US, the graduates with no future in the Middle
East and Europe, or relatedly the 'precariat', will make up for the
degeneration of the organised working class; or, as mentioned above, the
weakness of our opponents will make up for our weakness and give us a more
level playing field. I think all of this is dangerously complacent and
I don't think the answer to this crisis is
simply to bet on more 'resistance' 'kicking off'. It isn't kicking off everywhere There's a real problem here. We should expect as materialists that a
crisis of capitalism would also be a crisis of the Left. Insofar as we have built up our patterns of
self-reproduction in the existing spaces of capitalism - say in student
politics, the public sector, manufacturing workers, etc - a crisis necessarily
threatens to erode the bases for our ongoing existence. We have to find a new way to develop if we
are even to continue to exist.
Eventually, this crisis is going to be resolved in some way - probably
to the massive disadvantage of workers and the Left. The pieces of the kaleidoscope will fall into
place, as it were. What is then left is
quite plausibly what we will have to work with for a generation or so. So what we do now, counts for a lot. And we have found ourselves torn between
inertia and hyper-activism, the latter often covering up for the former, while
basically getting nowhere. This is not
to say that none of what we have done is worthwhile - it is to say that we have
been impeded by old catechisms and fetishes that prevent us from seeing what is
I won't focus here on why neoliberalism has
proved far more resilient than any of us expected. On this, I recommend three books: The Making of
Global Capitalism by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin; In and Out of Crisis, by Greg Albo, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch; and Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To
Waste, by Philip Mirowski. Rather, I
want to look past the Left's strategic perplexity for a second, and try to find
the seeds of a possible solution in what we've been doing for the last five
I think three types of strategic orientation
for the Left have emerged in the folds of this crisis. The first is that signified by the
autonomist-inflected democratic movement of the indignados, Occupy and so
on. This is based fundamentally on the
idea of claiming a visible space - the idea of protest as communication - then
using it to organise a form of communal democracy - the idea of protest as
prefiguration - and then letting it become a launch pad for other forms of
direct action - the idea of protest as disruption. I think this was enormously fruitful, but it
has run into the problem that visible spaces are not necessarily the
strategically most important spaces to control and, anyway, the authorities
didn't take that long to figure out ways to smash our protests up. Our disruptive capacities, and our resilient
capacities, turned out to be too weak in this case. The second is a more traditional strike-led
approach, in which it is hoped that through the exertion of working class
muscle in the public sector, the rank and file will gain in confidence and
their militancy will encourage other workers to start organising. This is not so new, and it relies on the idea
that there is a rank and file or a vanguard waiting to fulfil such a role. Nonetheless, I see this strike-led approach
as containing a necessary part of a viable strategy.
The third, which has posed serious dilemmas
for us, is the strategy of building radical left parties to occupy the terrain
vacated by a declining social democracy.
The dilemmas are familiar - how far does one end up moving to the Right
in order to be elected? Once elected, what will one have to do to maintain a
functional government? How much pressure
from the dominant forces both inside and outside the state apparatuses can one
withstand? Already, we have seen Tsipras
move to the Right on a number of issues, and attempting to placate
Washington. The Dutch Socialist Party
moved sharply to the Right before the last election and did very poorly anyway. And of course we should remember the debacle
of Rifondazione, collaborating with a centre-left government and implementing
both neoliberal policies and imperialist policies, then diving into historical
oblivion at the next election.
But just because these are dilemmas doesn't
mean we can avoid posing the question - the question of alliances, political
representation and governmental power (not the same thing as state power). It was once possible to say that between the
old reformist parties and the far left, there was nothing. This period, marked by the long-term
decomposition of once dominant social democratic parties, is quite different. A
typical feature of emerging radical left parties and coalitions is the
involvement of a left breakaway from the old reformist parties, as well as a
realignment of some of the Communist parties associated with them. There is a
structural gap between what such forces represent on the ground and what they
can project in elections, which makes any success extremely fragile.
Nonetheless, today there are quite serious forces between us and social
democracy. And in the circumstances, this is no bad thing
Syriza, the Greek radical left party, was the
first radical left party to get within reach of taking power, but it is
unlikely to be the last. For, unlike in
previous crises, this process is marked by the long-term decomposition of once
dominant social democratic parties. This
is one reason why a consistent feature of the New Left parties is the
involvement of a left breakaway from the old centre-left parties. Amid the breakdown of the old, there has been
a profusion of the new: red-green alliances, pirate parties, neo-communist
parties, and anticapitalist coalitions.
They strive toward unity, recognising their fragmentation as a weakness. Often this plea for unity is pivoted on the
question of governmental power. Syriza
won mass support in Greece on a slogan calling for a united Left government to
block austerity measures. That same
demand is likely to resonate in other situations, where austerity combines with
However, as I've said, there is also a
profound fragility about this. Syriza’s
basis in Greek society, for example, has hitherto been relatively shallow. Yet it is now potentially a government in
waiting. The anticapitalists around
Olivier Besancenot in France, whether in the form of the Ligue communist
revolutionaire (LCR) or the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA), represented a
groupuscule in terms of their real social weight, but could muster up to 10% in
parliamentary elections - before, of course, being out-manoeuvred and overtaken
by the Front de gauche (FG).
I actually think this is not limited to the
electoral terrain, it is a feature of the conjuncture. When you think about how very small and
unrepresentative groups can suddenly project disproportionate influence in
situations like student movements or occupations, it is clear that this is
because the breakdown of the old hegemonic forces of the Left has not yet
resulted in any clear successor. This is
partly a problem though, of course, the unpredictability presents opportunities
Well, I think if we want to see a New Left
emerging from this, we need to change the relationship between these strategic
First of all, we need to
recognise the limits of a strike-led strategy based on public sector
workers. These groups of workers are too
narrow for the most part, and their conditions of work too atypical, for them
to transcend the 'economic-corporate' moment by themselves and become the
vanguard of a counter-hegemonic movement.
Their strikes, while important, are going to be largely defensive. Given what neoliberalism has wrought, we have
to stop identifying the working class with its organised minority, and start
think about strategies for organising the unorganised workers, and that
includes confronting the problem of precarity.
Second, we need to go beyond the
utopian moment of Occupy, and think about how we can deploy its principles of
communicative, prefigurative and disruptive power. So, for example, one might ask, is there a
way that we can introduce these principles into a new labour movement, one
based on the ideas of social movement unionism?
Third, we need to see think of these radical left formations not as
better, upgraded versions of the old social democratic left. One problem with social democracy was that
it always tended to rely on a degree of political passivity in its base. It would support a limited degree of
'economic' action by trade unionists, but political action had to be strictly
channelled through the controlled, top-down structures of social
democracy. And there would certainly be
a temptation for any radical left formation, particularly once in office, to
try to use any social depth or influence that it attained to try to politically
control its supporters in order to allow it to translate its ideas into the
language of state policy, which would mean all sorts of compromises and
betrayals. These formations should not
be captivated by electoralism, nor should elections be conflated with politics
as such. Rather, we need to develop
parties with a much broader repertoire of political actions - including the
sorts of actions that would not be good for an electoral strategy, but which
can be said to enhance the wider objectives of the movement.
After this, Haris Golemis (Nicos Poulantzas Institute, central committee of Syriza) introduced a discussion of Syriza that differed from my approach in a few respects. First of all, he suggested that while the main question in 2009 was why the radical left was not increasing its influence amid a profound capitalist crisis, this was no longer the question at least in parts of Europe - Greece, Spain, Portugal, and France had seen leftist upsurges. Second, he offered an analysis of the reasons for Syriza's growth and success, which wouldn't be familiar to most readers - the destabilisation of the parliamentary system, the erosion of Pasok's base, the social movements influenced by Tahrir Square, social resistance by trade unions and unorganised workers, Syriza's role in the movements, its opposition to a 'government of national unity', its principled call for a government of the left, opposition to the memorandum and support for renegotiating the debt based on substantial debt repudiation and a 'growth clause' similar to that reached with West Germany after WWII. He defended the stance on Europe, which he characterised by referring to the slogan 'not one sacrifice for the euro, but no illusions in the drachma', but acknowledged that Antarsya's call for an exit was supported by a left-wing within Syriza. And he added that despite the problem with relying on charismatic leaders, Tsipras's persona played an important role. He concluded that the success of the radical left in Greece was perhaps due to a series of phenomena as singular as that leading to a meeting of two planets; but if it is replicable, the extra-Greek Left should support Syriza and try to creatively apply some of its lessons. Later he added that he didn't think Tsipras's trip to Washington was necessarily a bad thing: it was just sensible to exploit inter-imperialist rivalries.
Waltraud Fritz Klackl (European Left Party secretariat) commented briefly on the development of the European Left Party, and added a few points on the idea of a 'New Left'. She argued that at the centre of the current struggles was the problem of political
representation. For those looking to build left parties, it was necessary to move beyond the concept
of representation and think along the lines of providing a political space
*including* representation where people who want to meet and take action. She added that it was right to address such a project to the organised minority of workers, and to the 'precariat', but said that it was also necessary to somehow include
the 'excluded' who are turning their backs on any party, left or right - unlike the 'precariat, who may often be well-educated, the 'excluded' are denied
education and services, and are ironically often the ones who are often brought into the
bargain against the Left.It was necessary to offer such people a place where they
can find themselves again: we need to build
alliances around these stratas of society, orwe lose the fight for sure.She added that while the left is rising, it is not adequate and not uniform across Europe. Addressing herself to my comments, she pointed out that it would be wrong to appropriate the social movements for the Left: not all
indignados are on the Left; these movements we cannot claim as such. Regarding
political power, she argued that we must not refuse to take governmental power; it is different now, of course,
because managing the state is not the same as before, because you have fewer
possibilities; the political class has much less before than ever before. But we
need to fight for it because real democracy cannot be split from
power. All very well, she said, for the indignados to experiment with direct democracy, but
this has nothing to do with having power.It is pedagogical. Later, commenting further on the question of representation, she said that she thought people had a right to be passive if they wanted: that people have the right to be at home, and read a book, and rely on representatives to carry out their agenda. She said that she was suspicious of the idea of democracy based exclusively on active participation, as if being an activist should give your voice for weight.
Francine Mestrum (Belgian sociologist, activist) explained that she had never belonged to any of the left parties, and that her frustration with these had to do with the fact that left-wing people begin by interpreting a desire for change as a desire for socialism. And since it is not clear that most people want socialism, and since no one has defined what it is, it makes more sense to focus on what we need to do right now. She argued that our main enemy is not institutions, it
is an ideology, it is neoliberalism, it is capitalism: in that fight, we may
find we have to change institutions, but we do not start off by seeing institutions as the problem.But
if you want to fight an ideology, she added, we need power.How do we get that power?The audience for the Left is not that large in
Europe, so how can we enlarge that audience: what kind of change do
people want now?She explained that beginning with the obvious needs that people had - jobs, healthcare, pensions - she started to work on rethinking the idea of
social protection.Whatever regime you have, people need protection: the Right offers it traditionally in the form of police, and the
military; the Left, traditionally through socioeconomic rights.But then, by posing the question of security, this forces you to think about
changing the mode of production, and the form of democracy.Social protection has to come from the grassroots,
since people have to express what their needs are.If you start from social protection, people's needs, you start to find
yourself forced into transformative agenda. She acknowledged that for a New Left, we need both democracy and power - but we should not forget that we already have power, that we are not powerless, and we should make use of the spaces we have.
The guy from C-Span gets me in to talk about Unhitched, and in the end we get talking about imperialism, communism and, briefly, the crisis in the SWP. (This was two days after I left.) Note: I was recovering from a chest infection, which accounts for the slight croakiness of my voice.
The idea that a middle class protest party of the Right is polling 22% in the UK seems rather improbable. Of course, the poll was commissioned by a right-wing lobby, the Coalition for Marriage, and may have been skewed in all sorts of ways. Even so, the stable polling figure for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is now over ten percent, and the last UKIP was taking this much support was in 2004, before Kilroy-Silk joined in a subtle left-wing entryist plot, posing as a gaffeur and splitting the party. (And let's just remember what Kilroy-Silk looked like at this glittering zenith: see left).
I describe UKIP as a middle class party. I would suggest that this is true of the core of the party membership.
Godrey Bloom MEP's message to his party bosses about the difficulties of
controlling the party membership indicates its class basis very well:
"we have doctors who fancy
themselves as tax experts, painters and decorators who know all about
strategic defence issues, and branch chairmen, retired dentists, who
understand the most intricate political solutions for the nation."
Electorally, however, the party's support appears to be spread evenly across social classes [pdf] at the moment - provided you are prepared to use social grading as a proxy for class. This is indicative of the way that the party has built broad support by conjoining the insecurely affluent lower middle classes with sections of the working class. Though the pundits tend to assume this means UKIP is picking up 'Labour types', I suspect they're victims of the 'ecological fallacy' - that is, just because certain voters come from a certain social class, a certain region and a certain profile that is typical of a type of Labour voter, it is assumed they themselves were Labour. (Connotatively linked to this idea is a whole series of myths about the 'white working class'.) I suspect that UKIP, like the BNP, mainly win over working class Tories rather than ex-Labourites.
What cements the disparate elements of UKIP are the usual thematics: mass immigration is linked with the insecurity, social decay and racial ambiguation of the once 'respectable' working class; the social distress of small businessmen is linked to Eurocrats riding their backs, and scroungers on the welfare teat; the stasis, corruption and high-handedness of parliament is linked with the rule of politically correct Metropolitan elites who impose unpopular, un-commonsensical policies while giving the country away to every sort of foreigner. And so on.
Anyway, as a result of this success, the party has finally attracted some media attention to its more outré elements.
We don't need to linger on these: the usual screenshots of Nazi
salutes, knife-wielding loons, crusader posturing, and Holocaust-denial -
all the staples of right-wing subcultures. If you want a sense of how
the party's heavyweights think, consider one of the party's major recent
gains for UKIP: the defection of Roger Helmer MEP from the Tories.
Helmer has the usual fat compendium of petty prejudices and thick
comments under his belt. Look him up on rape, climate change,
homosexuality, or indeed deploying the armed forces against civilians. No, we shouldn't linger on these examples, not because they are unimportant, but because it induces a terrible smugness. It is simple enough to point and laugh at their 'fruitcakes', but if we're all that smart they shouldn't be polling in the double digits.
However hateful (and actually impracticable, from the capitalist point of view) their agenda is, I think there is an intelligent strategy behind this assortment of kooks. Essentially, I think the UKIP leadership are consciously seeking to provide a milieu in which the fragments of the hard
and far right, maintained in disabling division for a decade despite propitious circumstances, can circulate and congeal around a common agenda. If the party is filled with ex-BNP members and other assorted members of the far right, it can be assumed that this is because they are among the sorts of forces that Farage et al will need to confederate if they are to displace the Cameronite centre. After all, there is absolutely nothing new about UKIP being stuffed with assorted neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers: go back and look at the news reports during their last peak around 2004, and it's the same story. They may not represent the centre of gravity within UKIP, but they are an element of the fragile coalition which the leadership are constructing.
One side effect of this, of course, will probably be to give schismatic and weather-beaten British fascists a space in which to recuperate, in the revitalising ambience of the reactionary petty bourgeoisie. But that is someone else's problem, not UKIP's. So, Farage is prepared to take the heat for the behaviour and affiliations of UKIP members and candidates, selectively sacrificing the more extreme offenders while offering the thinnest of rationalisations for the others. Lately, these rationalisations included the claim that a seig-heiling election candidate was actually imitating a potted plant, and that the disproportionately large numbers of other hair-raisers and arm-raisers was just a product of a lax recruitment policy - some got through the net, nothing more. And Farage is to an extent right to think he can get away with such flimsy, shrugging responses. If all he wants is to mobilise the widest possible coalition of reaction in Britain, he knows that the people he is appealing to don't really care all that much about Nazis: not as much as they care about purging the country of Romanians/Bulgarians/Poles, Muslims/Pakistanis/Asians, strikers/rioters/criminals, etc.
UKIP is not without its allies and outriders within the Conservative Party. Lord Tebbit, the last of the Thatcherite hard men, continually defies the Conservative establishment by urging right-wing voters to back anti-European parties. He did so in 2009, just as the Tories were supposed to be making a comeback, and he's doing so now. His reasoning is simple: he wants to force the party back to the hard Right: on taxes, immigration and Europe, above all. Politicians of the Labour Left would never be so ruthless, hindered as
they are by sentimentality and a certain vulnerability to emotional
blackmail. But Tebbit isn't stupid: he is playing a long game. Even if it costs the Tories in the short run, there is every reason to expect that radicalising the Tory base will bring dividends in the long run. Not only will it pull the whole political field to the Right, but if it has the feel of a real insurgency it might help create the basis for a renewed 'popular' conservatism, helping to slow or even reverse the Tories' secular decline. And if the Tory establishment resists the Rightist lurch, then further decampments from the backbenches, and a larger political realignment, are not impossible.
So, this is UKIP: a fragile, fruitcake alliance it may be, but it is one with an intelligible purpose and strategy.
"Obituaries are typically concerned with the accomplishments and worthwhile qualities of the deceased. Thatcher’s achievements are undeniable. She was a “Modern Prince” of the Right, intervening at a moment of crisis and great danger for the Conservative Party, taking control of the elements in flux and recomposing them. She utterly transformed the state, party politics, and the economy, institutionalizing a form of neoliberal statecraft that is almost unassailable from within.
"To describe Thatcher’s accomplishments in this way, though, is already to hint at the problem with the obituary format. Thatcher’s most important achievements were also what made her so vile, and reprehensible. Her energy, her ruthlessness, and her political guile were harnessed to such bigoted, class-supremacist ends, that it is hard to admire them. Reviewing the wreckage of those years, it is difficult not to be transfixed by horror.
"There is also the danger, in focusing on Thatcher’s qualities and successes, of overstating the role of an individual leader. Thatcher’s efforts depended not just on a wide coalition of popular and business interests, with the petty bourgeoisie and “new middle class” as its lynchpin, but on a series of institutional powers – from the popular press to the International Monetary Fund. Her strengths, as often as not, derived from her opponents’ weaknesses, divisions or downright cravenness.
"Yet, there is no denying Thatcher’s leadership qualities. And this obituary will pay close attention to the factors that made Thatcher the most successful politician in the post-war period — in the spirit of learning from the enemy, the better to defeat them in future."
The Right's attempt to construct a moral panic about welfare from the Philpott case has been just a little bit too clumsily and visibly executed to be totally effective. Nevertheless, the manner in which a certain political language is being forged here is instructive.
Set aside the falsifications and 'colour' journalism. These are the elements of the story. Mick Philpott is a man with a history of domestic violence, terrorising and manipulating spouses and progeny. He is a habitually violent individual, a bampot who - when he embarked on a plot that would result in six of his children dying - was on bail for having beaten a man for pulling out in front of him in his car. His accomplices were his wife, Mairead, who left a previous abusive relationship before meeting Philpott, and seems to have been to all purposes a domestic slave; and a mate, Paul Mosley, who - for all the attempts to paint him in the shades of lucifer - appears to be a weak-minded sidekick. Together, they embarked on a plot to set fire to the house with six of Philpott's children in it - not to kill them, but to 'rescue' them, claim the credit, frame his recently departed ex, and win custody. This resulted in the six children being burned to death.
The judge, in the traditional homily, suggested that the actions of this group are 'incomprehensible' to 'right-thinking people' - the conventional mystification, which draws a wholesome screen between the functioning of normal society, and the shockingly aberrant. Actually, the plot itself may be extreme, but the context of domestic servitude, patriarchy, violence, petty criminality, and so on, isn't all that incomprehensible. The newspapers, for their part, have been absorbed by the hedonistic 'lifestyle' of Philpott and his associates since he was first turned into a comical hate figure for requesting a larger council house to accommodate his eleven children back in 2006. What have they dug up? Lots of sex, including 'dogging' and threesomes, drugs, and numerous children. Much of it made up, some of it exaggerated. Oh, and benefits. No one seems to know exactly what benefits the very large Philpott family claimed, but it's assumed that with working tax credits for his two female partners, child benefits and housing benefit, the maximum total sum could have been something like £54,000 per year - by far the larger component coming from tax credits (which is a 'good' benefit which working people get, as opposed to one of the 'bad' benefits that layabouts get). With a family of eleven children and three adults, that would have amounted to less than £4,000 each which seems scandalously low to me.
So far, so familiar. Osborne and the Daily Mail stand accused of drawing a crude connotative connection between the welfare state and the 'lifestyle' thus described. The opportunism is jarring: there is no obvious link between the payment of welfare and the conduct of these people. They are using dead children, or the affect invested in them, as battering rams to topple the remaining pillars of the welfarist consensus. There are real 'issues' here if one wants them: domestic violence and servitude, low wages, the lack of adequate provision for children, etc. But these are only of interest as symptoms of a 'lifestyle', a pathology of the welfare state.
This is the reflex critique, anyway. The problem is, it doesn't supply us with the means to counter the rightist ideological assault on welfare; powerful though it is, it only leaves us with an alternative moralism, and that is a terrain that is heavily pre-structured in favour of the Right. The other problem is that in focusing on the manipulative discursive strategies of the Right, it neglects the reasons why these discourses resonate, with the result that either one overstates the power of these discourses and their presumed authors, or one must borrow an ideological stop-gap from the stock media representations - e.g., they resonate because of a disreputable minority who abuse the system, blah blah blah.
If we stand outside the force-field of our culture for a moment, aloof from its dominant assumptions, some things about it suddenly become very obvious. We are used to the fact that when we talk about welfare, we talk about desert rather than rights; this is so familiar that it hardly makes an impression any more. It is in fact far more of an oddity if someone actually defends the idea that welfare is a right, not a reward for good behaviour. This is the point of reintroducing Victorian ideologies about the 'deserving' vs the 'undeserving' poor - it is a deliberate shift away from a universalistic, rights-based language of welfare of the sort which was commonplace in the post-war era.
In fact, if you look at the way in which the welfare state has developed, it is very clear that it is not universal, and that it is not concretely experienced as a right in many cases. The most obvious example is the benefits systems itself. Recipients of Jobseeker's Allowance know very well they are not the bearers of rights, but intruders who should be chased out of the Jobcentre Plus as rapidly as the bureaucratic machinery will allow: "Why are you here, and how can we encourage you to fuck off as rapidly as possible?" This is conveyed to them in every way, from the interrogative 'appointments' to the demand for proof of seeking work, to the referrals to useless training sessions, and so on. Similar pressures have been applied to the recipients of Disability Living Allowance. Means-testing has eroded universality in other benefits, with the presumably intended effect of deterring many claims. There is no need to say how and why the benefits system came to function as if it were a vast machine that would work perfectly well if it weren't for all the claimants - it's sufficient to note that it is not experienced as a right, but as an alm to be begged for, a petty resource to be struggled for, or lied for if need be.
However, it goes well beyond this. In every public service there have long been geographical and social maps of privilege and exclusion, frontlines of competitive struggle over resources. Take schools. Even before all the mania of league tables and 'naming and shaming' 'failing schools', there were these hierarchies and little informal ivy leagues - middle class parents already knew how to adjust their future home buying habits according to catchment area, to get a decent C of E school for example. The so-called 'postcode lottery' in the NHS is much the same, particularly when it is governed by internal markets - to say nothing of how things will be now that the effective dismantling of the NHS has begun. Local council provision has always been structured along class lines and segregated by race, tendencies accentuated by the centralised suppression of local budgets and the quango-isation of local administration in the neoliberal era. Moreover, with ever larger areas of provision rationed by pricing (rather than the traditional method of queueing), there is no question of 'rights' in those areas.
Labour's role in this is quite important, since it is supposed to be the main author and defender of the welfare state, and its constituents are its major beneficiaries and supporters. What were at first retreats from a social democratic consensus have long since become thorough evacuations. New Labour, for example, did not merely grudgingly accept the involvement of private capital in the public sector; it avidly sought to build capital, and market-like structures, and pricing for services, into the fabric of the public sector. It did not simply acquiesce in a reactionary narrative about scrounging welfare queens. It started by cutting benefits for single mothers not to woo the Murdoch press, but as part of a consistent outlook that saw the benefit as one that fostered dependency. As I recall, Blair won plaudits from the Observer for his 'feminist' stance in trying to 'empower' women by coercing them to join the labour market. It was actually a New Labour government that first embraced the idea of 'workfare' in the UK, on the assumption that, far from accessing their rights, claimants of welfare were becoming dependent on freebies that they should be forced to earn.
And it is in the texture of this experience, in the spaces evacuated and reconfigured by neoliberal praxis, that the claims of the Right have achieved some resonance among people who are not in other respects right-wing. All right-wing axe-grinding to one side, there is a very real seam of experience of state provision as a competitive struggle for resources won from an oppressive, intrusive and often serially incompetent and inhuman agencies.
In that context, it may be correct to speak of welfare rights, it may indeed be essential to do so, but it just does not resonate with people's experiences of the whole system. There is very little, even in the best of the welfare state, that has led people to expect anything other than a vicious, competitive struggle for scarce resources and services in which most people lose, most of the time. This must of necessity generate tremendous social resentment: every little bit that anyone else gets is suspect; it has to be interrogated, the beneficiary's worthiness tested. If there's the slightest suspicion of a character flaw, never mind a huge 'dodgy-as-fuck' neon sign that hovers over a vicious wife-beater who inadvertently burns his children to death, the most convenient assumption is that something went wrong with the system - there's a scam somewhere, or political correctness has gone mad, etc. Eventually, there is a point at which a number of people - again I'm speaking of a section of people who are not natural Tories - start to ask whether the business of paying taxes into a costly, inefficient, oppressive system is even worth it, and whether it wouldn't just be more sensible to 'treat people as adults' (meaning, as rational consumers) and let them buy whatever healthcare, pension or 'safety net' provision they choose.
It may seem odd to place so much emphasis on neoliberal subject-formation in an era when neoliberal ideology is in serious crisis. It may seem over-stated when there are millions of people who defiantly refuse to think like this. But this is the point: 1) there is a crisis, but what is being offered as a remedy is its deepening and radicalisation, and this is most popular where it activates a language of social resentment; 2) the catalyst for the acceptance of this language is the practical experiences of millions which, paradoxically, are in many respects the product of earlier waves of neoliberalism, as well as the traditional failings of state bureaucracies; and 3) if we are to defend the welfare state in this context, we cannot simply adopt a defensive strategy (which is another problem with moralism) - to conserve it, one would have to propose a sweeping reform of the whole ensemble of institutions we call the 'welfare state', and really seek to create a system of universal, free and equal provision of services and benefits as a matter of right.