How Can the Left Win?

Until recently, the Left in most advanced capitalist societies was in a state of serious disorientation — thrown into this state by the very capitalist crisis that one would have expected to put the ruling class on the defensive.  The effects of this disorientation are only now beginning to fade, and the strategic difficulties remain.  Nor is there any guarantee of success in the future even as social struggles against ”austerity” measures take off.  Struggles alone do not automatically conduce to successes for the Left, and their victory can only be assured by political practices.

The thrust of this article, focusing on the UK, will be that the Right has so far had the initiative because it has successfully piloted a series of ideological articulations that speak to a certain neoliberal ”common sense” and thus plausibly explain and offer solutions to the crisis.  These articulations mediate between popular discontent (manifested in loathing of the bankers, distrust of the parliamentary process, and fear of penury) and ruling class imperatives.  This strategy is obviously not limited to the Right: the Democrats in the US and social democratic parties in Europe perform a classically ”transformist” role, absorbing the elements of dissatisfaction among subaltern groups, expunging their oppositional content, and incorporating them into a politics of the pro-capitalist centre.  Nonetheless, it is the Right that has played the dominant role in securing the ”austerity” narrative, tailed by the center and center-left.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  In organic crises, the forces best equipped to adapt and re-deploy are those of the ruling class and its allied parties.

For the Left to win, it needs to find adequate modes of political organization and an appropriate series of ideological mediations that explain the crisis, mobilize points of discontent and maintain the unity of the anti-austerity alliance.  This should not be seen as opposed to “industrial” struggles; rather, it will have a formative, organizing role in the economic class struggle, ensuring that localized conflicts are generalized (rather than isolated in a way that allows them to be picked off one by one by the ruling class), and giving the working class a chance to move into a ”hegemonic” moment in which it both leads and incorporates the interests and perspectives of allied groups.  In none of the advanced capitalist states are revolutionary groups currently in a position to challenge for leadership of the working class — far from it — but they should be ready to take the initiative in alliance with sections of the social democratic left, as well as the left-of-social-democratic left.

I. The Right.

The Right’s response to the 2008 slump was fast and effective. They first participated in an enormous leveraging of the state, through the unprecedented bailout of financial institutions, then took every opportunity to explain that the problem was one of over-spending and indebtedness. It wasn’t just the banks who had been too gluttonous. That old bogey, the socialist state, bore responsibility for burdening the British people with larcenous rates of taxation, in order to fund a useless and intrusive welfare state that left people miserable and dysfunctional. It’s important to recognize how well-timed and well-pitched this was.

Prior to 2008, the Tories could not have made this argument and anticipated making any headway with it. Instead, their strategy was to match Labour’s spending totals and conduct a war of position over the priorities within that accepted framework. But in a sequence notably punctuated by the quasi-comical (underwhelming, on its own terms) parliamentary ”expenses” scandal, the Right engaged in a series of maneuvres which blamed Labour “over-spending” for the deficit – “over-spending” which, until then, they were committed to continuing. And they were given credence by a majority of the British people for a period of time.

There was something very Thatcherite in the manner in which the Right sought to mobilize a certain residual culture of masochism behind austerity – you have over-indulged and must now repent. They operated on a series of connotative linkages, eg, between household and state expenditure, in which the private fear that one has borrowed more than one can afford to pay back is bonded to the ideologeme which holds that the state is always inefficient, always over-spending, necessarily unproductive, and always in need of perpetual downsizing. This is the petit-bourgeois manner of thinking, universalized – the nation imagined as a corner shop that has to balance its books and keep an eye out for thieves. Of course, no recipient of state largesse is more inefficient, and less productive, than the “benefit scroungers.” Tory propaganda duly worked on this theme, and Osborne swung the axe heavily in the direction of the welfare lifeline. Polls tended to find that people approved of this aspect of the cuts agenda.

Why did the Right embark on this project so quickly?  The center-left argues that the politics of “austerity” are purely “ideological” — in that they misrecognize the economic realities — and that their rightist opponents are expediting draconian cuts irresponsibly, in spite of their impact on the system.  Yet, having spent so long managing neoliberal capitalism, and unable to think the alternatives, they more or less follow the lead of the Right, offering merely an attenuated version of the same goals.  The radical left has focused on two alternative explanations: (1) the distributive contents of “austerity,” which will see wealth concentrated more narrowly among the dominant financial bourgeoisie; (2) the systemic impact, in which the freeing up of public resources for private investment, the reduction of wage bills and lower taxes on profits and investments, is expected to produce a new wave of capitalist dynamism.

The trouble with the latter is that no one on the Left believes that there is a new wave of capitalist dynamism coming, which leaves us in a similar position to the center-left, arguing that the cuts are “ideological.”  As for the former, it would be no good transferring wealth to financial elites in the City of London if the result was that the long-term ability of capital to appropriate surplus labor was inhibited as a result.  Surely, this would be controversial and destabilizing within any ruling bloc — manufacturers, non-financial services, and small businesses would surely resist.  Unless, of course, they believe that these measures will restore capitalist dynamism, in which case we’re back to “ideology.”  This is not say that neither of these explanations holds true — both are important aspects of the truth.  It is to say that they are by themselves inadequate.

The question can only be answered at the level of politics.  A crucial component of the explanation for austerity must be precisely the manner in which it hands the Right, and the ruling class, the initiative in political class struggles.  When the recession struck, the neoliberal discourses securing consent for ruling class strategies, centered on the idea of the self-sufficient market, were immediately in crisis.  To preempt leftist mobilization in favor of interventionist, social democratic strategies favorable to the working class, business and finance swiftly coordinated a set of responses highlighting state profligacy as a cause of the crisis.  As these interests are condensed within the Conservative leadership, it fell to David Cameron to amplify these responses.  Focusing on the deficit, which he blamed on Labour over-spending, he reversed the Tories’ previous position in favour of matching Labour’s spending total.  Instead, the Conservatives would settle the nation’s accounts and restore its credibility with financial markets as a precondition for resumed prosperity.  It was both a defensive and aggressive manoeuvre.  If the Left called for stimulus, the right had a seemingly compelling answer: there is no money.  If the Left called for job creation, the right responded: state-led growth is what brought us here, we need a private sector recovery for prosperity to be sustainable.  Not only was the political sphere inoculated against serious abridgments of ruling class property, but a pretext for a further, unprecedented transfer of wealth to the ruling class had been established.

This is an unstable solution for the ruling class.  Everyone from Marxists to Keynesian economists to the IMF agree that premature fiscal retrenchment will inhibit recovery.  Moreover, the risk that social unrest will destabilize the power blocs in neoliberal states and permit advances for the Left is far from negligible.  Yet for this reason, the ruling class is likely to keep its options open.  The temporary “Keynesian” measures adopted by capitalist states after the credit crunch showed that short-term stimulus by way of emergency management is well within their repertoire.  They can always fall back on temporary intervention, provided it doesn’t happen in a way that benefits the Left.

II. The Left.

Until late 2010’s student protests, the Left was beset on all sides by a pervading dysphoria and utter perplexity. We know the script after all. The capitalist system goes into an unprecedented global crisis, every stable coordinate of the political-ideological universe is unsettled, governments start borrowing and spending like crazy to stave off a complete collapse, suddenly the bastardized Keynesianism of “old Labour” is back in vogue. In such circumstances, the Right should be on the back-foot and class struggles should take off. And by “class struggles,” I don’t simply mean strikes and factory occupations. It is in the nature of capitalism to multiply sites of antagonism, and in each of these class will be present in different ways, whether it’s over healthcare, supermarket chains, women’s oppression, immigrant labour, the media, or war. Notably, the struggles that did emerge, in Vestas, Visteon, the Lindsey oil workers dispute, the Tower Hamlets lecturers’ strike, etc., cannot be reduced to simple labour-management disputes over jobs, pay and conditions. Rather, each contained a pronounced “political” element – the environment, pensions, education, immigration, etc.

Given an organic crisis in capitalism, a crisis in productive relations that could not be localized, but necessarily radiated to every political and ideological relation embedded in the system, the Left should have been aggressively making advances on multiple fronts. The Left should have been taking territory and hostages, leaving opponents reeling. But this is not what happened, barring the few flare-ups which I mentioned. And then there is the case of the Lindsey oil refinery in north-east England, where strikers demanded that employers stop hiring overseas workers and assign “British jobs for British workers.”  This had the dispiriting result of thousands of workers marching for “foreigners out!”, and showed that such struggles as did take off did not have to benefit the Left.

This is the point at which, traditionally, one warns against “vulgar economism” and “workerism.”  And indeed, any temptation to see industrial struggles as the “real” base where everything will be settled is mistaken.  As Stathis Kouvelakis points out, it is at the level of politics that “that the contradictions of the economy are concentrated and that their ultimate resolution is decided.”  And “economism” does continue to have some impact on those influenced by traditional Labourist and social democratic politics, (recall that Gramsci’s critique of “economism” was aimed at the reformist trade union leadership), as demonstrated by the calls to return to “bread and butter” class politics, as if the cultural and political struggles of the Left have had nothing to do with class.  Yet, a more prevalent error today is that of the “new social movements,” the illusion that leftist politics can be conducted without any orientation toward class.  This has been accentuated where trade union bureaucracies have cooperated with social democratic governments engaging in cuts.  The Spanish revolt, concentrated in the occupation of Puerta del Sol, saw youths and non-aligned leftists refuse early serenades from the trade union movement precisely because of the latter’s links to the ruling Socialists and their acquiescence in cuts.

Still, it’s hard to see how the Left, considering its currently depleted, scattered state, could have done much about the level of class struggle. It was forced into a positional struggle, an ideological battle, in which the “common sense” of neoliberalism initially prevailed over the competing “common sense” of social democracy.

III. The War of Position.

While we anticipate major social struggles continuing over the next few years, with no certainty of avoiding catastrophe much less of attaining victory, the “war of position” will continue to be as important as outright combat. Indeed, ideological, parliamentary and cultural struggles do a great deal to prepare the preconditions for more militant forms of combat such as the withdrawal of labor, factory and university occupations, and other disruptive actions. Here, the Right has long understood something that the Left will do well to remember. Whatever the plane of crisis, whatever the axis of struggle, the issue can always be put another way.

The crisis of capitalism became a crisis of over-spending, just as the crisis of poverty became a crisis of social dysfunction, and a crisis of authority in the British state became a crisis of “multiculturalism.” The Right didn’t win all the arguments in 2008-9 – far from it. If the washout of the recent right-wing “Rally Against Debt” is any guide, and it was plugged in the media far more than it deserved to be, there is hardly any enthusiasm for the latest assault on welfare and public services. But the Right doesn’t have to win all the arguments, or generate enthusiasm. Its near monopoly of the popular and broadsheet press, along with the complicity of the center-left, allowed it to operate on genuinely popular assumptions, absorb elements of popular discontent and polarize them to the Right.

The majority do want to keep some sort of well-funded public sector, don’t favor privatization in the NHS, support state education, and blame the bankers for the recession. But distrust of the state (for some good reasons – the Tories focused a lot of their fire on New Labour authoritarianism and centralisation) is also widespread, as is discontent with how money is spent (again, for some good reasons – think of the PFI boondoggles). Anti-immigrant sentiment is at an all-time high, disdain for beggars and benefit recipients is widespread, and support for redistributive politics after thirteen years of New Labour in office is now a minority pursuit. Meanwhile, local councils are often encountered as some of the most inept, obstinate, and coldly indifferent bureaucracies in the country. So, with a near Pravda-esque capitalist realism propagated through the state and capitalist media — one is struck by how often it is still taken as “obvious” that some cuts have to be made somewhere — it only remained for the Tories and their allies to furnish the popular imagination with endless examples of alleged “waste,” incompetence, and fraud. Local councils spending your money on Muslim-only toilets, benefit fraud, illegal immigration, “health tourism,” etc. But things don’t have to be this way.

IV. Winning.

A minimum precondition for the Left to win is that it can provide a plausible explanation for the crisis and, on the basis of that, a persuasive set of solutions that are neither captive to the logic of neoliberalism — as are the solutions offered by the center-left, focused on modified austerity and a slightly tougher regulatory regime to curtail financial “excesses” — nor improbably maximalist.  Kouvelakis describes the impotence of “propagandistic attitudes” simply denouncing capitalism, in contrast to the careful “mediations through which the dominant classes are responding to the crisis.”  But the Left requires its own “mediations,” a set of reasonable demands which act on popular attitudes, provide a creditable response to the crisis, and attack weak links in the ideological articulations of the ruling class.

While the Left, and particularly the Marxist left, is better placed to explain the capitalist crisis than its opponents, its answers have left something to be desired on this front.  Left-wing campaigns have focused on reminding people that they hate the rich, really resent them and their power and arrogance; that they don’t trust the Tories; that they like having free healthcare and schools; that the despised bankers caused the crisis, and not ordinary people; that mass unemployment is a social ill for which they will suffer; that they’re against the wars for which there is endless government money; and that if they think the state is inefficient, they have already tried the private capitalism of Enron, Worldcom and Lehman Brothers.

This is all very good, but there a deeper set of ideological articulations that need to be shifted.  For example, popular support for public services is weakened if it is tied to an ideology of “prosperity” and “wealth creation,” which denies the public sector any role in value creation.  For the Tories, public spending is purely derivative of the “real” economy.  This conception underlies their constant mantra that if there is to be a recovery it must be led by the private sector.  Moreover, since the 1970s, when public spending seemed to do little but fuel inflation while unemployment continued to rise, the Right has waged a resourceful ideological war to popularize such ideas.  They attacked state spending as a burden on the “sovereign taxpayer,” and a drain on private sector initiative.  Their greatest success was in compelling parties of the center-left to accept their arguments, by defeating the social forces capable of resisting such capitulation.  In the past, governments had more faith in the ability of the state to maintain growth through spending; they had a productive rather than merely parasitic conception of the state.  But bipartisan orthodoxy for almost a generation now has held that ”wealth creation” is something that is carried out solely by dynamic private sector entrepreneurs who must be progressively liberated from the shackles of regulation and taxation — a state of affairs that contributed significantly to our present crisis.  If the Right continues to win this argument, they’ll find it much easier to launch even their most unpopular policies such as cuts and privatization in the NHS and schools.

Now we can state, in slightly more abstract terms, what the strategic aims of the Left ought to be.  First, since it is normal for people to entertain conflicting ideas and ambitions, we should aim to shift the weight of emphasis along the continuum away from reactionary resentment and toward popular and class-based anger. Secondly, we should destabilize the austerity alliance by attacking their weak links, and shaking free some loose elements ripe for re-appropriation. For all that we repeat that the ruling coalition is a Thatcherite one, we also have to constantly bear in mind its historical specificity. It is an unstable government, binding Whigs, Peelites, and High Tories, Thatcherite mods and rockers, Europhiles and Atlanticists, social liberals and reactionaries, have-a-go-heroes and hoodie-huggers, finance capital, producers, the petite-bourgeoisie and the progressive middle class. Attacking the unity of this coalition and dispersing its constituents is a precondition for any meaningful advance. Thirdly, the aim is to re-articulate many of the same elements operated on by the Right into a new majoritarian leftist political mobilization.

UK Uncut is an interesting political intervention in this respect. It can never fulfill the latter two remits, but look at its contribution to the former. There’s been an awful lot of focus on its method of organizing, which may be facing a crisis as it comes under the steamroller of police repression, but far more important is what it has said, the way it has interceded in the ideological field, drawing attention to the underfunding of the state by the rich, the state’s leniency toward the rich, and the fact that cuts are not inevitable or necessary but rather a class-loaded “ideological” project. From a peevish, sectarian perspective, one could write it off as a sort of middle class “people power” movement that will change nothing. But that would be to miss the point entirely. It already has changed what it set out to change: the field of signification. This advance is highly circumscribed, was not achieved by UK Uncut alone, and leaves much work to be accomplished by other forces – but it’s still not to be sniffed at.

The second goal, of shattering the coalition, which the Tories depend on to impose their version of austerity, is not something that one could just assume would happen as a result of the “contradictions” of the coalition. It is something that has to be worked on. The student protests rightly targeted Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems as much as the Tories, turning the renegade Liberal leader (“wolf-eyed replicant”…) into a national hate figure, running the Liberals down in the polls, and ultimately making it difficult for them even to show their faces in public. I cannot understand the approach of those who say that the Tories are the real enemy and that therefore the venom toward the Liberal leadership is a waste of good spleen. It’s because the Tories are the “real enemy” that they have to be isolated, and this coalition broken. As of now, the Tories still don’t have enough support to win an election by themselves. They briefly commanded an electorally viable plurality in the period from 2007 to 2009, but have since 2010 been back to their normal range votes, tending to be somewhere between the low to mid-thirties – this despite the astonishing ineptitude of a Labour leadership that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Every time the Tories come out with some right-wing poison about immigration or “integration,” it places the coalition in danger. The harder they push for the deepest cuts, for privatization, the more the Liberal leadership has to placate its shrivelled “social liberal” conscience. When the Tories hammered the disastrous AV campaign, it consistently put the Liberals on the back foot. Now they have nothing to show for their gambit, a sort of queen’s sacrifice – bar the cuts, and the steadily accumulating ranks of knights, bishops and pawns on the Tories’ side. The only rational thing for the Left to do in such circumstances is to keep hammering away, by every available means, until the coalition splits, or enough Liberals defect to trigger an early election.

The third goal, that of re-articulating the elements of popular discontent into a majoritarian leftist response to austerity, has proved more difficult. Let’s not deny what has been achieved. The turnout for the big TUC rally was amazing, as deep as it was broad, truly representative of the British labor movement and its periphery – and what a powerful movement that could be if it decided to move all as one. There are real pressures for mass, coordinated strike action coming from below in every trade union. This hasn’t turned into independent, rank and file initiative in most cases. Largely, the direction remains in the hands of the bureaucracy. But the pressure is there, and is contributing to the build-up for a mass strike on 30th June.

However, the attempt to build a national political campaign against cuts with similar social depth is taking time. Actually, there are several competing vehicles, and not one of them is adequate on its own; not one capable of extending beyond its party basis and periphery. While each broadly has the same analysis of the cuts, they all operate in different ways, relate to different constituencies, and address a different aspect of the same problem. Such fragmentation almost guarantees that these vehicles will remain confined to the extant Left, and probably the far Left at that, unable to harness wider forces. This isn’t to play the sad old finger-wagging game of simply denouncing “divisions on the Left,” wryly referencing Life of Brian for the boreteenth time, as if anyone is actually in favor of such divisions. Sometimes, these divisions are necessary, or have a legitimate basis, or are unavoidable; sometimes they aren’t. There’s no way, at any rate, to simply override these. So, somehow, the different groups have to find the appropriate level at which they can engage in unified action, in order to coordinate publicity and solidarity campaigns, locally and nationally. One could envision, for example, a multiplicity of possible structures (more or less centralized, or federal, depending on the degree of agreement between the factions involved, and the degree of democracy each mode of organising permits) to which different campaign groups could agree to affiliate for a fee, and which would seek the funding and support of the trade unions, etc.. The alternative is to allow the political direction of the anti-cuts movement to be fixed somewhere between a Labour leadership that actually argues for (slower, less savage) cuts, and a trade union leadership some of whose big battalions have resigned themselves to doing the bare minimum to oppose cuts.

Of course, it isn’t just about merging the vessels of the extant left into a single flotilla, at least not for its own sake. It is only worth doing if it increases the combined efficacy of the forces involved. But the point is to coordinate ideological and cultural counterpoints to the politics of austerity, a task which seems to require a pooling of resources and combination of forces. As and when struggles emerge, unpredictably as they will, the aim is that they will not emerge in a socio-symbolic field cultivated exclusively by the Right, so that they merely appear as law and order problem, but in one where their actions are intelligible as logical and worthy responses to a widely apprehended injustice. This will be particularly important as, increasingly, we’re forced to operate in the space between purely impotent civil society protest and illegal and potentially dangerous adventurism. The state hasn’t been able to operate through cooptation and consent since the 1960s, and has thus tended increasingly toward the authoritarian end of the spectrum of rule. The criminalization and suppression of protest, however peaceful and formally within the law, is consonant with that. The police will need to continually justify their mode of highly repressive policing without being seen as the armed wing of a particular government, which would be a threat to their legitimacy. Thus, they have to turn a growing number of protests into heavily fortified battlegrounds, with their opponents pre-designated as violent criminals.

The propaganda battle is, of course, partly dependent on class struggles taking off. That is why some of the propaganda stunts are themselves miniature “actions,” forms of deliberate disruption. But there can always be simultaneous work going on to reinforce the principles of articulation, the political logics by which diverse contestations are brought into a coherent whole. Opportunities for parliamentary mobilization may come into this, although recent election results in the UK seem to have indicated that in most cases it’s close to useless for left-of-Labour forces to stand their own candidates. But there will be other elections, where it is more plausible to stand: student and trade union bodies, local councils, etc. Certainly, legal battles will be important, as the recent verdict over the G20 protests, supporting demonstrators’ claims of unjust police treatment, demonstrates. Anti-fascist and anti-racist work will be important, as a desperate Tory party is apt to shore up support by attacking minorities. All of this can be done best if it is done with a constant focus on shifting the balance of common sense away from the neoliberal pole, and in the process transforming the contents of mainstream social democratic thinking in a leftist direction.