Taking Back Control

Old ways of thinking about mass democratic politics won't cut it in today's globalized, atomized society.

The most striking aspect of socialist responses to the EU referendum is the political left’s separation from the working class. Most socialist reactions can largely be characterized in terms of either disdain for the result or else the attempt to recast voters’ motives in terms more suiting the Left’s own sensibilities.

In this sense the referendum also highlighted a broader decline in the ideas of social progress central to the labor movement since its emergence two hundred years ago. There is malaise and discontent, but rather less a sense of empowerment or even rebellion.

The decline of the idea of organizing labor for progressive social change is connected to shifts in the working class’s place in developed Western societies. Globalization, financialization, and the opening up of a vast workforce in ex-socialist countries have combined radically to reduce the strategic power of the working class in states like the United Kingdom.

Not only is capital less dependent on the labor of specific groups of workers — with the effect that unions or strike action have ever less bearing on capital accumulation, outside of a few logistics or transport sectors — but declining nation-states are less able to protect populations from the general flows of the world economy.

The huge Leave vote in the very poorest parts of England is one indirect reflection of this shift. The demand to “take back control” reflects not only antipathy toward immigration (very real though that is, for cultural as well as economic reasons) but also a sense of national decline and the weakening of what were once the levers of popular-democratic sovereignty. In a loose sense this vote thus reflects a broader cry for “democracy” or “control” also expressed in such radically different phenomena around Europe as Syriza, Podemos, Italy’s Five Star Movement, the National Front, etc.

The contradiction is that the rising demand for “control” — in Britain centered on opposition to the distant EU bureaucracy — goes hand-in-hand with the historic decline of the nation-state, not least the old European powers now bobbing on the waters of global finance.

Of course, this is far from a decline of nationalism. In fact, these phenomena are probably best understood as a kind of backlash against the decline of the political forms that developed in the twentieth-century west. The replacement of old center-left and right parties by populist movements claiming they will put an end to establishment corruption or restore a dilapidated democracy represents a largely inchoate response to social malaise, lacking in any positive political vision of its own.

This is not to deny that the shift away from traditional parties has taken a broad variety of forms, and has at least some potential to be channeled in different directions. Podemos is not the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Five Star Movement is not Syriza.

These somewhat catchall parties tend to transcend traditional political allegiances, yet also reflect their own ruling classes’ place in the European order, historic questions of national identity, as well as the pressure exerted by social movements in their respective countries. They are also unremarkable for their internal democracy: even those left-wing movements spurred on by the square occupations of 2011 today seem shaped by a logic of passively supporting charismatic leaders more than collective decision-making.

Amid this disarray it is certainly true that the Left has to own the crisis of representation, and not leave it up to the hard right to exploit anti-elite sentiment or the demand for democracy. With the decline of the communities around which the old center-left and right parties were built, or even the lasting cultural attachment to past political identities, the terrain is opened up to competition among new forces.

In the context of such a crisis, one of the most dangerous pressures on the Left is a merely defensive stance, lining up with neoliberalized centrists to block the populist right: a response to our own weakness that also risks perpetuating this latter’s claim to be the true anti-establishment alternative.

Even so, it seems that just as the populist right feeds on mythology rather than practical solutions — witness the surfeit of optimism and national pride over specific economic policies in the pronouncements of Brexit leaders — the Left has also done little to consider what exactly building democracy might look like, beyond a rejection of the institutional status quo.

The complacent naivety of Alexis Tsipras’s referendum stunt twelve months ago was a particularly alarming manifestation of this problem, and yet not the only one. Like Italy’s Five Star Movement our own pro-Brexit left was gleeful about establishment chaos yet short of specific alternatives of its own. Often it seems our project has a surfeit of “tearing down the old world” over building collective empowerment: particularly dangerous in a period of great turmoil.

Indeed, in a context of liberal decline it is far easier for the Right to whip up a blind nativist populism than for we of the Left to organize our own “return to the past.” We are far from the days of muscular unionism when English workers could turn off the lights by shutting down mines or docks, and from the era when Labour governments could build up nationalized manufacturing industries.

The rise of service-sector employment relative to others simply reflects the fact that work not performed face-to-face (e.g. nursing, bar service, personal care) is typically most cheaply and efficiently imported from low-wage economies abroad, unless it is particularly high-skilled. In this sense migration is merely the poorer cousin of the far wider shift in Western economies over recent decades: outsourcing.

The kind of culture that sustained the UK labor movement at its peak fifty years ago stands far from today’s popular expectations or aspirations. The strong unions of decades past effectively relied on a solidarity based on stasis, with capital and labor rooted to specific geographic sites serving as the industrial fulcrums of class struggle.

Communities formed around mines and factories where one generation after another toiled, handing down both workplace skills and traditions of struggle, in turn creating favorable conditions for class identification and solidarity: most signally the “little Moscows” from Rhondda to Turin or Boulogne-Billancourt. Indeed, the devastation of ex-mining towns since the 1980s — on June 23 some of the heaviest Leave outposts — is a tragic example of what happens when such communities are pulled apart.

Yet even beyond capital’s ever-greater ease in displacing such centers of labor, it seems hard to believe we could or would even want to create similar conditions today. Outside of public services, the relatively smaller and more mobile workplaces replacing mining and manufacturing hardly offer a basis for such organization.

Moreover, with the extension of individual autonomy in so many other spheres of life (from sexual liberation to geographic mobility or even the possibility of permanently refashioning one’s identity online) such a class identity rooted in family, community, and the multi-generational workplace is vanishing. This was, indeed, an identity politics, and today it has been outpaced by a much wider array of more fragmentary, personalized, and — as they say — intersectional ones.

Indeed, at a more general level we can say that automation and outsourcing are reducing the space of “routine” jobs in advanced Western economies, in favor of ones based on communication and information. Immaterial labor is the wave of the future, its radical disconnect from the old working-class communities indirectly but nonetheless clearly reflected in the referendum divide between “left behind” areas and liberal metropolitan centers.

Yet the rising industries are constitutively precarious and ephemeral, with the rise of freelancing and the online distribution of piecework such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Not only have the specific historic bases of trade union and labor organization died away, but they have been replaced with employment sectors lacking any similar rootedness.

The million or more working in call centers are not about to set up brass bands: not just because this relatively young workforce don’t like the old tunes, but because their lack of identification with their job as a “career” weakens the purpose of workplace-based organization.

In this context, the Left has to think about how it can control and push back the power of capital in the age of globalization, without resorting to the utopian-restorationist idea of returning to the kind of economy England had in the 1960s or 1970s. In a sense the increasing interest in universal basic income (UBI) is a response to this same demand, aspiring to impose a decent minimum floor for living standards unbound from any connection to seeking employment. Certainly whatever the difficulties of its practical implementation, we can understand the desire for stability this represents, as against the simple abandonment of the workless to poverty.

However, I would like to propose a variation on this measure, more fully responding to the challenge of outsourcing and the gap between work prospects and the personal autonomy we now enjoy in so many areas of our lives. At the same time, this is also an orientation that draws on some of the original aims of the labor movement.

For since its origins the Left has stood not only for better wages, shorter hours, or more stable working conditions, or still less for mere “anger” against particular institutions or politicians, but also what might loosely be called “self-improvement”: centrally including the movement for working-class self-education. A basic income allows for survival; education is the key to fully realizing one’s human, creative capacities.

From the nineteenth century self-improvement was among the key ideals and focuses of labor organization, the desire for democratic power going hand-in-hand with the “downtrodden” seeking to raise their sights to the world around them. Faced with either no formal education system or one narrowly oriented to producing obedient industrial workers, the early trade union movement and socialist parties were a wellspring of evening classes, reading groups, and cultural associations, allowing even those of the humblest backgrounds to master science and knowledge and speak down to their social “betters.”

This was nothing less than the realization of the unfulfilled ideals of the Enlightenment. If limited by the ideological biases and shortcomings of the organizations concerned, it was nonetheless a powerful force for social mobility and working-class pride.

Such activities were particularly famously promoted by two of the great mass parties influenced by Marxism, namely the pre–World War I German Social Democrats (SPD), and the post–1945 Italian Communist Party (PCI). Both excluded from governmental office, these parties unable to take state power instead built up civil society institutions of their own, islands of working-class power outside of the state.

Reformist parties able to reach power (including the SPD themselves in the 1920s, after the advent of universal suffrage and an egalitarian voting system) did also maintain such internal structures, though as these parties merged into the state they tended instead to focus on expanding school education.

What we as a society have largely lost is the ideal that education is not a period at the start of one’s life followed by decades of work, but an ongoing process of self-improvement or self-discovery. Yet it is senseless to have an education system premised on teenagers gambling on their future life prospects and then committing to a five-decade career — particularly in an economic situation where the shifts in the knowledges relevant to the economy (or even to culture in the broadest sense) operate far more rapidly than human lifetimes. The model of primary and secondary education is suited to the low-skilled routine work of the turn of the twentieth century, not ones where the control and manipulation of information is king.

This poses two distinct tasks for the Left, both of which respond to the crisis of democracy and the increasing atomization of our society, and point a way ahead beyond a merely populist rallying of discontent.

Firstly, the creation and development of projects of working-class political education. While of course their literal form will not be the same as the old mass parties, and could certainly improve on the SPD or PCI’s level of critical inquiry or openness, this is essential to overcoming the current passive, atomized, and electoralist atmosphere of even the best left-populist parties like Syriza and Podemos. “Spontaneist” processes or enthusiasm for fiery leaders are poor alternatives to building an informed activist base, for the same reasons as social media has atomized more than genuinely democratized political discourse.

Secondly, to make demands on the state focused on the right to free adult education, and the provision of the time and means for its fulfillment. This could be something like a universal basic income but also integrating fully paid time away from either working or job-hunting, and extended across all age categories.

The prevalence of the forty-hour week being in any case mainly a cultural legacy of factory production (times in which it was more economically efficient to aggregate large numbers of workers all day in the same place) working time could be radically reduced as we reorient to a higher-skilled and lower-work economy.

Faced with the power of globalized capital and the decline of community attachment, workplace organization is declining as a means of working-class power. People feel ever less control over their lives, and the demand for self-determination — filtered through the prisms of nationalism and reactionary nostalgia — is overwhelming liberal politics, ever less able to guarantee people gradual growth or improvement from one generation to the next.

In this context a politics focused on greater educational rights and greater free time is a way of restoring personal dignity, creating a broader basis for democratic decision-making, and pushing back the atomization of our society.